A record 1.7 million people in the UK tested positive for Covid in the past week, data released on Christmas Eve showed - plunging most of them into isolation on Christmas Day.
The number, for the week ending December 19, is the highest weekly number recorded, said the ONS. London was the epicentre of cases, with around one in 20 testing positive, the highest of any region.
The survey found that one in 35 people in England were likely to have had Covid that week, up from one in 45 people the previous week.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged all adults to get their booster jab as ministers bank on the campaign to ward off the impact of the Omicron wave.
A study released by the UK Health Security Agency on Thursday evening suggested Omicron cases in the UK have a lower risk of hospitalisation than Delta cases.
But ministers warn that its sheer transmissibility could still overwhelm the NHS. New restrictions have been ruled out before Christmas Day on Saturday, but have not been ruled out before the New Year.
Chief Scientific Adviser: ‘Sage doesn’t spread gloom'
06:52 , Josh Salisbury
Good morning and welcome to the Evening Standard’s live coverage of the latest coronavirus updates.
The Government's chief scientific adviser has defended the "the unenviable task" of epidemiological modellers during the Omicron outbreak- this morning as he said it was not their job to "spread gloom".
Sir Patrick Vallance said it was not the responsibility of Sage "to take a particular policy stance or to either spread gloom or give Panglossian optimism".
It comes amid criticism of Sage’s modelling from some quarters, including from some Tory MPs, as unnecessarily pessimistic.
Sir Patrick said in a piece for the Times newspaper that those participating in the debate "need to consider all the data in the round, not only those parts that fit an argument while ignoring the rest".
"That is not science, even though it might sometimes make an entertaining read," he said.
NHS to offer booster jabs on Christmas Day
07:24 , Josh Salisbury
People will be able to get a Covid booster on Christmas Day, NHS England has announced in what is being dubbed a ‘jingle jab’ campaign.
The rollout will carry on during Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, with around 200,000 appointments for a third dose still available across the country over the festive period.
The health service said the campaign will see NHS staff and volunteers administer doses at scores of local vaccination sites including town halls and local pharmacies.
Booking in advance is advised, but there are set to be walk-ins throughout the country, including in Croydon, Eastbourne, Hartlepool and Dewsbury.
Experts have warned that while a first or second dose can help, only boosters provide the maximum level of protection against Omicron.
"This Christmas, before sitting down to your dinner with your family, I would encourage anyone not already boosted to come forward, book an appointment and get the gift of a jab," Dr Emily Lawson, head of the NHS Covid vaccination programme said.
UK overtakes Israel in booster jabs race
07:40 , Josh Salisbury
The UK’s booster vaccine rollout has overtaken Israel’s, often thought to be a world-leader in jabs roll-out.
Britain now has the second-highest take-up of booster jabs in the world, after Chile, with 45 per cent of the population having received three jabs.
Although Israel was the first country to widely distribute three jabs of the Covid vaccine during the summer, its rollout has plateaued in recent weeks. The country is now looking to give out a fourth jab to the over-60s to tackle Omicron.
The UK’s programme has accelerated in recent weeks, with this past week being a record-breaking week for boosters.
The UK has triple-vaccinated 45.2 per cent of its total population, while Israel has given boosters to 44.9 per cent of the population. In Chile, 52.7 per cent of people have had a third jab.
Nurses ‘in despair’ over Covid staff shortages
08:26 , Josh Salisbury
Nurses are exhausted and regularly working 14 hour days with a depleted workforce, a nursing boss has warned.
RCN chief executive Pat Cullen told BBC Breakfast that nurses faced a worse Christmas than last year as Omicron causes a wave of staff shortages.
“Those staff that are isolating are actually quite sick, and the reason for that being their resources are so low, going off sick because of the shifts they’ve been working, some working 14-hour days,” she told BBC breakfast.
“We talked to a nurse yesterday who described her colleagues and her staff as on the 13th day on a 12-hour shift.
“So if you get ill on the back of that, inevitably your own internal personal resources are pretty low.
“The despair that nurses are facing and the fear and the sheer struggle they’re facing every day will continue over the Christmas period, because this Christmas, of course, will not be normal. It will be similar to last year, if not worse, is what they’re telling us.”
New restrictions could depend on Omicron’s wider impact, says Harries
08:55 , Josh Salisbury
UK Health Security Agency chief Jenny Harries suggested the Government could consider whether new restrictions are needed in England based on the wider impact of the Omicron wave rather than just the severity of the illness.
New data published on Thursday suggested that those with Omicron are much less likely to be hospitalised than those with Delta.
Asked whether the Government will have the information by Monday to make key decisions, Dr Harries told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Ministers will look at all of the data that we have available - and that isn't simply what the epidemiology is saying, it's how it's impacting society.
"So, for example, we have very high rates of individuals off sick - we know that particularly in London, around one in 35 have currently got Omicron.
"Now that's having an impact on the workforce. So these are not simply about hospitalisation rates."
She added that ministers are being kept updated on a daily basis and that will continue throughout the Christmas period.
"I don't think we do know yet that this is going to be a significantly less serious disease for the population - the older population - that we are normally most concerned about in relation to serious disease and death."
Fourth Covid vaccine will ‘probably’ be needed, says senior Scottish clinician
10:04 , Josh Salisbury
A fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine will “probably” be needed over the next few years, Scotland’s national clinical director has said.
The UK government aims for all adults in the country to have been offered a third booster jab by the end of the year.
But Professor Jason Leitch has said there may be a need for at least some fourth doses to be administered.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme on Friday, Professor Leitch said: “It would seem that we will probably need some kind of timed booster or next dose over the next few years.
“We don’t know that for sure - it may be that we just offer that to the vulnerable, those who are maybe a bit older.”
The immunity of some in the booster programme, will be monitored, Professor Leitch said, with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) then advising whether another dose is required.
Thousands of festive holidays cancelled over Covid travel rules
10:57 , Josh Salisbury
Thousands of holidays during the festive period have been cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions imposed by destinations.
Winter sports operator Crystal Ski has axed its trips to Austria departing on December 27 after the country announced UK residents would have to quarantine for 10 days from Saturday.
The rule applies unless fully vaccinated including a booster dose, and with proof of a negative PCR.
Affected customers are being offered a full refund within 14 days, and an incentive to rebook.
Cruise line MSC Cruises has cancelled four sailings from the UK by its ship MSC Magnifica due to pandemic restrictions across Europe.
Meanwhile, Ryanair has reduced its planned January capacity by a third.
Read our full story on how holiday-makers have been affected here.
South Africa scraps isolation and testing rules for people without symptoms
11:04 , Josh Salisbury
South Africans without symptoms of COVID-19 will no longer need to isolate or test if they have been in contact with a positive case, the government announced on Friday.
The country said the strategy was a shift from containment measures towards mitigation.
South Africa was among the first countries to identify Omicron.
Asymptomatic individuals who have been in contact with a case of COVID-19 no longer had to isolate.
However, they are being recommended to monitor for symptoms for 5-7 days and avoid attending large gatherings.
Only those people who developed symptoms needed to get tested, the statement continued, adding that those with mild symptoms should isolate for eight days and severe cases for 10 days.
All quarantine in facilities outside the home would be stopped, it continued, while contact tracing efforts would also be scrapped aside from in specific scenarios such as cluster outbreaks.
The move was "based on advice from our scientists that it is not really having an impact anymore", deputy health minister Sibongiseni Dhlomo told local broadcaster SABC, adding it did not replace existing guidance on things like social distancing and mask wearing.
Construction workers among least likely to have had third jab - ONS
11:31 , Josh Salisbury
Construction, building and transport workers are among those least likely to have received a booster or third dose of a Covid vaccine, figures suggest.
An estimated 39.8% of employees in skilled construction and building trades in England have had an extra dose, along with 42.6% of plant and machine operatives and 43.9% of transport and mobile machine drivers and operatives.
The new ONS figures, published on Friday, suggest that people in what are classed as “elementary trades and related occupations” - such as packers, bottlers, industrial cleaning or farm and forestry workers - have the lowest take-up at 37.0%.
This is followed by skilled construction and building trades at 39.8%, the ONS said.
These occupations also had the highest proportion of people that had not received a first jab, at 14.5% and 12.0% respectively, the ONS added.
Occupations with the highest take-up were health professionals at 75.3%, health and social care associate professionals at 58.7%, and those working in secretarial and related jobs at 58.4%.
The figures are based on vaccinations delivered up to December 12 for adults in England aged 40 to 64, before Boris Johnson announced the new target of offering boosters to all adults who want one by the end of the month.
1.7 million people in UK had Covid in past week, data reveals
12:12 , Josh Salisbury
An estimated 1.7 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending December 19, the highest number recorded, said the ONS.
The survey, covering the week December 13-19, found that one in 35 people in England were likely to have had Covid that week, up from one in 45 people the previous week.
In London, around 1 in 20 people had COVID-19 during that week, the highest of any region in the country.
Burnley vs Everton is latest Boxing Day game to be called off by Premier League
13:14 , Sami Quadri
The Premier League clash has been postponed due to the number of coronavirus cases in the Everton squad.
Everton had an initial request to postpone the game rejected on Thursday despite boss Rafael Benitez claiming he only had nine fit outfield players.
The Premier League said it had taken the “regrettable” decision to postpone the game following a meeting of its Board on Friday morning.
It said in a statement: “The Board reviewed the club’s request today to postpone the match following further injuries to their squad.
“They concluded that the club will not be able to fulfil their fixture this weekend as a result of an insufficient number of players available to play due to Covid-19 cases and injuries.”
‘Jab cabs’ should ferry unvaccinated to get Covid shots, Lib Dems say
13:22 , Sami Quadri
Free taxis should be available to ferry people who have not yet had a Covid-19 vaccination to their local clinic, the Liberal Democrats said.
The party’s plans include establishing a “vaccine tracing” service to track down people who have so far proved unwilling to receive a jab.
They would then receive a call from the NHS and be offered an appointment slot, with help to get there if required.
For those unable to afford or access public transport, that could mean free “jab cabs” to their nearest vaccination centre.
A similar approach is already being used in some parts of the country, including Manchester, but the Lib Dems want it to be a national policy.
More than 600,000 boosters and third jabs on Thursday
14:23 , Josh Salisbury
A total of 605,561 booster and third doses of Covid-19 vaccine were recorded in the UK on Thursday, new figures show.
This is the lowest daily figure since December 13. However, a slight downturn over the Christmas period was expected..
Nearly 32.3 million booster and third doses have now been delivered in the UK, with more than 5.9 million in the past seven days.
The figures have been published by the UK’s four health agencies.
The NHS aims to continue jabbing over the festive period, with slots being available on Christmas Day in what has been dubbed a ‘jingle jabs’ campaign.
‘Deeply concerning’ data reveals lower booster uptake in some communities
14:57 , Josh Salisbury
People from Pakistani, Caribbean and African backgrounds have the lowest rates for receiving a booster or third dose of Covid-19 vaccine, according to new data.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures suggest that the lowest third dose and booster take-up among people aged 50 and over in England was in the Pakistani (42.2%), black Caribbean (44.4%) and black African (45.4%) groups.
More than a quarter of people of black Caribbean ethnicity are estimated to not have received a first Covid vaccine dose up to December 12.
This is the highest proportion of all ethnic groups, said the ONS.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair at the British Medical Association, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: "This is deeply worrying because in many ways I fear a repetition of what happened in the first wave, where... we saw this rather alarming and disturbing disparity in illness and deaths amongst ethnic minorities from Covid.
"What we know now of course is that the patients, people who are becoming seriously ill, who are being hospitalised, are those who have not been vaccinated and those who have not had their boosters.”
Central London footfall ‘rapidly dropped by Christmas Eve’
15:24 , Josh Salisbury
Footfall in central London has dropped more rapidly than elsewhere in the country over the last week amid London’s sky-high Covid cases.
Footfall was nearly a third lower on the morning of Christmas Eve than it was a week earlier, new data from Springboard show.
Outside London, visits to city centres dropped by 10%, the figures show.
Overall retail footfall increased by nearly 14% however, helped by a strong showing in market towns, retail parks and shopping centres.
“The increased activity in retail parks today will in part be due to trips for food and grocery products as the majority of retail parks have a food store,” Springboard said, as it revealed retail footfall was up by 23.6% compared to last week.
“However, since the start of Covid, retail parks has consistently been more resilient in retaining shoppers as they are large open spaces, with large stores which make shoppers feel safer and less nervous.”
Breaking: More than 122,000 daily cases recorded
16:10 , Elly Blake
The UK has recorded 122,186 daily cases, setting a new record for the third consecutive day.
This is the highest number of daily cases seen since the start of the pandemic when testing was made available.
Read more here.
Omicron cases rise by 23,719 on Christmas Eve
16:19 , Elly Blake
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said there had been 23,719 additional confirmed cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 reported across the UK.
This brings the total confirmed cases of the variant in the UK to 114,625.
#OmicronVariant latest information
23,719 additional confirmed cases of the #Omicron variant of COVID-19 have been reported across the UK.
Confirmed Omicron cases in the UK now total 114,625. pic.twitter.com/X4Kz1v3sPx
— UK Health Security Agency (@UKHSA) December 24, 2021
The number of deaths in England of people with the Omicron variant has risen to 29, according to the UKHSA.
Hospital admissions in England for people with confirmed or suspected Omicron rose to 366.
London Covid hospital admissions up 92 per cent
16:38 , Elly Blake
A total of 386 Covid hospital admissions were recorded in London on December 22, new NHS England figures show.
That is up 92 per cent week-on-week and the highest number for a single day since February 1.
London’s admissions during the second wave peaked at 977 on January 6.
Across England, 1,246 admissions were recorded on December 22, up 55 per cent week-on-week and the highest number for a single day since February 16.
The second-wave peak was 4,134 admissions on January 12.
UK Covid hospital admissions are rising week-on-week
17:13 , Elly Blake
There were 1,171 Covid-19 hospital admissions in the UK on December 20, Government figures show.
This is up 30 per cent week-on-week and the highest number since February 19.
During the second wave of coronavirus, UK admissions peaked at 4,583 on January 12.
A total of 8,240 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 as of December 22 – up 8 per cent week-on-week and the highest number since November 16.
The second-wave peak was 39,254 on January 18.
Boxing Day booster reminders to be sent out
18:23 , Elly Blake
Millions of text messages will be sent on Sunday urging people to get a booster - or third - COVID vaccination.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “We are texting this Boxing Day for all eligible adults to get boosted now.
“It has never been as important to get protected with the booster, so whether it is in between turkey sandwiches or before the Boxing Day fixtures, whatever your traditions make the booster a part of them this year.
“Millions of vaccine slots are available through the festive calendar so if you’re not boosted and you get this text, take up the offer and get vaccinated.”
Pope holds Christmas Eve Mass without a face mask
20:24 , Elly Blake
A maskless Pope Francis has celebrated Christmas Eve Mass at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Around 2,000 people who congregated were asked to were face coverings.
Francis is believed to have received a third booster vaccine.
A rise in cases of Covid-19 in Italy has led to a new vaccine mandate at the Vatican, covering all staff except those who have recovered from coronavirus.
That’s the end of our Covid reporting this evening
21:12 , Elly Blake
That’s all for now.
Join us again for more live Covid-19 updates.