Covid latest news: Omicron transmission ‘eye-wateringly’ high, says expert

·18-min read
Covid latest news: Omicron transmission ‘eye-wateringly’ high, says expert

Transmission of the Omicron variant is “eye-wateringly high”, though there is still uncertainty about its impact on the NHS and wider services, a leading expert has said.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the global charitable foundation Wellcome, said “we’re in the most difficult, most uncertain time, perhaps of the whole pandemic, certainly since March of 2020.”

London’s hospitality and culture bosses are urging the Government to make a clear decision on whether there will be more stringent Covid restrictions in place over Christmas.

The Prime Minister didn’t reveal any new curbs on Monday but pledged to recall parliament if he decides to implement further restrictions, a process that takes 48 hours.

It came as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan warned time was running out and cancelled the capital’s NYE celebration in Trafalgar Square saying: “The safety of Londoners must come first.”

Meanwhile, health secretary Sajid Javid is understood to want to cut the isolation period from 10 days to seven to combat the number of NHS staff off work with Covid.

In other developments

Welcome to the Evening Standard’s coverage of the latest Covid-19 developments on Tuesday December 21

07:25 , Barney Davis

WHO issues Omicron warning before holidays: ‘An event cancelled is better than a life cancelled’

07:26 , Barney Davis

The World Health Organisation has urged people to cancel some of their holiday plans to protect public health as the Omicron variant spreads.

Omicron is spreading faster than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the Covid-19 disease, the world health body warned on Monday.

“With the numbers going up, all health systems are going to be under strain,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Geneva-based journalists, stressing that it would be “unwise” to conclude from early evidence that Omicron was a milder variant that previous ones.

Covid isolation expected to be cut to seven days

07:29 , Barney Davis

The Covid-19 self-isolation period is to be cut to seven days in a move that may save Christmas for thousands and ease NHS staff shortages.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has been pushing for people to no longer have to isolate for ten days if they get negative lateral flow tests on day six and seven.

Jamie Dornan’s father told him he was proud of him ‘every day’ before his Covid death

07:31 , Barney Davis

Jamie Dornan says his father told him he was proud of him every day before his death after contracting coronavirus.

Jim Dornan, a prominent obstetrician and gynaecologist, died during a routine knee operation after testing positive for the virus.

Speaking to The Times, Dornan, 39, said it was “brutal” that his father could not have seen his latest film Belfast, which comes out in January.

“It’s been a brutal aspect of this whole journey. For my dad not to be able to see this movie hurts,” he said.

Donald Trump was booed by some of his supporters as he admitted to having received a COVID-19 booster jab.

07:50 , Barney Davis

In a video shared by Bill O’Reilly’s “No spin news” Twitter account, Mr Trump can be heard discussing the vaccine with the former Fox News host.

Mr O’Reilly says: “Both the President and I are vaxxed.”

He then asks his guest: “Did you get the booster?” to which Mr Trump replies “Yes.”

Members of the audience can immediately be heard jeering in response to the admission.

Mr Trump says: “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” before indicating to Mr O’Reilly that it’s coming from a, “very tiny group over there.”

The Government will “say more” about its discussions with business leaders calling for more Covid financial support later

07:54 , Barney Davis

When asked about measures to help businesses struggling this Christmas due to Covid restrictions, Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay told BBC Breakfast: “The Chancellor was talking to industry leaders about this very issue last night. We will say more about this later today.

“We recognise obviously we are keen to keep businesses open and businesses should continue to plan for the bookings they have.

“We absolutely recognise that through Plan B and the behaviour change there has been an impact on those bookings.”

Have yourself a very cautious Christmas - Minister

08:16 , Barney Davis

People across the UK should have a “cautious” Christmas, according to a Government minister who has changed his own plans.

Steve Barclay told LBC he had downsized the number of family members at his Christmas celebrations this year, with only his in-laws attending.

The Cabinet Office minister said: “We are saying to people that they should continue with Christmas but do so in a cautious way. That is what I will be doing with my own family.

“We can all protect our families and friends by having the booster.”

When asked what a cautious Christmas is, he added: “I think it is thinking about how many people we need to see. Some of my family won’t be coming over at Christmas. My wife’s parents will be joining us but others will not.”

Former SAGE member says public can stop further curbs

08:51 , Barney Davis

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a former member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, has told the Today programme “each of us can do things today that will make the chance of further restrictions lighter”.

He added: “Omicron is spreading unbelievably fast. It is a phenomenal variant transmission.

“There is great uncertainty about what is it going to lead to in terms of pressure on the health system, people going to hospital, particularly people dying, but also what impact is it going to have on the broader society, staff absences, the ability to have functioning other services, so there is great uncertainty.

“My personal view is that I think we can wait at the moment until there are more restrictions formally placed.”

“Infighting” and “jockeying” for the Conservative leadership has taken over from Covid decision-making, Labour has said

09:16 , Barney Davis

Asked by Times Radio whether the Government has provided clarity by saying that decisions on new restrictions will be taken at a later date, Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said this is not the case.

“Most of the read-outs from those meetings and the rumours that have spread since suggest that really this is about disagreement within a group of senior Conservatives, jockeying for position to be the next leader of the Conservative Party rather than actually soberly looking at the evidence both health and economic evidence and taking a decision,” she said.

“We do need a Government right now that is now focused on the national interest, not infighting within the Conservative Party.”

Ms Dodds also said Labour would “follow the evidence” if it was in power, pointing to decision-making by the Welsh Labour Government based on the latest scientific advice.

A total of 173,525 deaths have occurred in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate - ONS

09:50 , Barney Davis

The highest number on a single day was 1,485 on January 19 2021.

During the first wave of the virus, the daily toll peaked at 1,461 on April 8 2020.

All sporting events to go behind closed doors from Boxing Day in Wales

10:36 , Barney Davis

Spectators will be banned from all sports events in Wales from 26 December to try to control the spread of the Omicron Covid variant.

The Welsh government said it will apply to all indoor, outdoor, professional and community sports events.

Economy Minister Vaughan Gething said a £3m Spectator Sports Fund will be available to support clubs and venues.

Sarah Palin says ‘over her dead body’ will she get a vaccine

10:39 , Barney Davis

The one-time vice-president nominee and governer of Alaska was attending the AmericaFest conference where she boasted about her unvaccinated status.

Palin’s comments were part of a discussion on vaccine mandates with organization founder Charlie Kirk.

“I will not do it. I won’t do it, and they better not touch my kids, either,” Palin continued.

“If enough of us, though, rise up and say, ‘No, enough is enough’ — there are more of us than there are of them. You need to all look around and… realize that those around you, as you stiffen your spine, their spines, too, will stiffen. And there is an empowerment in a group like this where you all can feed off each other, and really be strong.”

Rail carnage as people flee capital for Christmas

11:02 , Barney Davis

Rail operators have blamed coronavirus-related staff shortages for widespread cancellations during the Christmas getaway.

A number of firms are running reduced timetables due to workers being off sick or isolating.

CrossCountry said it is “expecting widespread disruption to our services this week”.

It went on: “Please pull your journey forward to sooner rather than later to get to your end destination as early as possible.”

Dozens of trains are being cancelled by the company each day, and many others have fewer carriages than usual.

Cancellations have been made on several of its routes, including Manchester to Bournemouth via Birmingham; Bristol to Paignton, Devon; Cardiff to Nottingham; and Birmingham to Stansted Airport.

Barts hospital warns it may have to cancel operations

11:50 , Barney Davis

Barts Health NHS Trust in London has written to doctors warning it may have to cancel “some or much” of its planned operations in January to cope with the coming Covid surge, caused by the fast-spreading Omicron variant, the BBC understands.

Diane Abbott calls for richest countries to waive vaccine patents to save millions of lives

12:31 , Barney Davis

Rishi Sunak unveils £1bn support package for hospitality and leisure

13:05 , Barney Davis

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a £1 billion emergency support package for hospitality and leisure businesses hit hardest by the pre-Christmas collapse in trade caused by the surge in Omicron.

The package announced consists of:

  • £683million for targeted grants for hospitality and leisure businesses in England. Around 200,000 businesses will be eligible for the grants which will be administered by local authorities and will be available in the coming weeks.

  • £102m for firms outside the hospitality and leisure industries but which might be vital to the supply chains in those sectors. This is on top of £250 million of previously allocated funding.

  • £30m for theatres, orchestras and museums which have been forced to shut down again as people exercise extra caution in the face of the latest rise in Covid cases. This support will run through to March 2022.

  • The return of the Government’s Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme (SSPRS) for companies with fewer than 250 employees. The scheme reimburses firms for the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences, for up to two weeks per employee.

Rishi Sunak unveils £1bn support package for hospitality and leisure

Funding package ‘inadequate’, says music industry

13:32 , Daniel Keane

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said newly-announced support for the culture sector was “far too little” and “borders on the insulting”.

He said: “Businesses are failing, people are losing their livelihoods and the industry is crippled.

“The open/close strategy is crucifying businesses. Every pound of help is much needed. But this package is far too little and borders on the insulting.”

Mark Davyd, founder and chief executive of Music Venue Trust, said: “We will need to see further details on the £30 million package announced to support the cultural sector.

“Our initial response is that this funding seems detached from the reality.

“If correct, it would be inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem - we note that grassroots music venues are not even mentioned in the statement despite DCMS having all the evidence they need that losses in this sector alone will run to £22 million by end of January.”

Exhausted nurses ‘wondering what is coming’ amid Omicron rise

13:47 , Daniel Keane

The coming weeks “paint a very bleak picture” for exhausted nursing staff as Covid infections increase, a union has said.

It comes amid heavy staff shortages in the health service, with absences caused by self-isolation rising 18 per cent from November 29 to December 9.

The picture looks bleaker across London, where cases continue to rise. On December 12, staff absences had risen by 31 per cent from the start of the month to 1,540 from 1,174.

Patricia Marquis, England director at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The next few weeks paint a very bleak picture for nursing staff who are already physically and emotionally exhausted by what has happened throughout the pandemic.

“In many places they are already starting to go off sick themselves with Covid-19, but also mental and physical exhaustion.

“Before the pandemic, there weren’t enough staff to deliver what was needed. Staff are now looking forward thinking ‘Oh my goodness, what is coming?”’

Sweden could see up to 15,000 cases a day

14:06 , Daniel Keane

Sweden could see a more than 15,000 new Covid cases per day in a worst-case scenario in mid-January, a record number, fresh projections from the Health Agency showed on Tuesday.

In previous waves of the pandemic, daily infections have peaked at just over 11,000 cases.

The new model projection factored in the spread of the more contagious Omicron variant.

It assumed the variant is 25 per cent more contagious than the Delta variant and factored in varying degrees of protection offered by vaccines.

Travel companies ‘left out of support package'

14:17 , Daniel Keane

Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, warned that travel companies had been left out of the Government’s new financial support package.

He said: “It is devastating to see that once again business travel and its supply chain have been left out of Government financial support.

“It’s imperative that the arts, hospitality and leisure are given help through the latest wave of the pandemic.

“However, a vital part of the UK economy and the driver behind global Britain is being left in the cold.

“We urgently need the Treasury to correct this oversight and support our industry into 2022.”

Theatre union says Sunak’s pledge comes too slowly

14:29 , Barney Davis

Head of theatre workers union Bectu, Philippa Childs, said the Government’s newly announced support for the sector would arrive too slowly.

She said: “The Culture Recovery Fund is not equipped to deal with the rapid response necessary to alleviate the current Covid crisis for theatres and live events.

“It is focused on buildings not people, is too cumbersome and too slow.

“We need an emergency support package for our members who are facing another Christmas of work cancellations and uncertainty.”

People in Scotland should minimise their socialising at New Year, Nicola Sturgeon has said.

14:43 , Barney Davis

The First Minister urged people to keep their contacts with other households to a minimum.

She told MSPs: “Difficult though it is, please follow this advice over New Year – minimise Hogmanay socialising as much as you can.

“If we all follow the advice to minimise the contact we have outside our own households, we will help limit the spread of infections.

“This is the bedrock of our plan for the immediate period ahead.”

Nadine Dorris praises Sunak’s Covid fund

15:29 , Barney Davis

Responding to the news that £30 million will be made available through the Culture Recovery Fund, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries tweeted: “This is vital support that won’t just help protect our cherished theatres, museums & heritage sites, but the tens of thousands of people who work in them.

“It’s important that we give as much support as we can to creative institutions and ensure that they are still there, standing strong to keep people employed, informed and entertained.”

Breaking: No further Covid restrictions in England before Christmas, PM announces

17:10 , Elly Blake

Boris Johnson has ruled out any new Covid restriction before Christmas.

The Prime Minister said the data on the Omicron variant was not yet clear enough to justify imposing new measures.

In a recorded message to the nation, he said: “I wanted to update you quickly on the latest Covid situation.

“There is no doubt that Omicron continues to surge with a speed unlike anything we’ve seen before.

“The situation remains extremely difficult but I also recognise that people have been waiting to hear whether their Christmas plans are going to be affected.

“But in view of the continuing uncertainty about several things – the severity of Omicron, uncertainty about the hospitalisation rate or the impact of the vaccine rollout or the boosters, we don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify any tougher measures before Christmas.”

Read the full article here.

What are the social distancing rules for your part of the UK?

17:11 , Elly Blake

Different parts of the UK have taken different approaches to social distancing over the Christmas period.

Read more about the rules in your area here.

Welsh government to fine people for not working from home

18:10 , Elly Blake

Workers in Wales who refuse to work at home will be fined from Monday, the Welsh government has said.

It goes further than any previous advice, with staff facing £60 fines if they ignore the guidelines, with companies slapped with a £1,000 penalty for each time it happens.

“Additional measures have been introduced to limit the spread of the virus and protect public health,” a spokesman said.

“Further to our long-standing advice for people to work from home wherever possible, from Monday this will now be a legal requirement to work from home unless there is a reasonable excuse not to.

“We expect employers to take all reasonable steps to facilitate home working and provide employees with the support they need.”

Further Covid measures being introduced in Europe

18:19 , Elly Blake

Germany and Portugal are introducing new restrictions in response to the Omicron variant.

A maximum of 10 vaccinated people will be allowed to attend private gatherings on New Year’s Eve in Germany.

Big events, like football matches, will be spectator-less.

In Portugal, nightclubs and bars will be closed for at least a fortnight from Tuesday, while people will be told to work from home.

Welsh Parliament to be recalled on Wednesday

18:34 , Elly Blake

The Welsh Parliament will be recalled on Wednesday “to consider a matter of urgent public importance”, government officials have confirmed.

First Minister Mark Drakeford will make a virtual statement addressing the Senedd on the Covid-19 pandemic from 1.30pm and ministers will then have the opportunity to ask questions.

It will follow a government media briefing which will be held just after midday to update the country on the Omicron crisis after Cabinet talks were held on Tuesday.

The Senedd has been on winter recess since Monday.

It is planned to sit again in Plenary on Tuesday, January 11 2022.

Ireland reports 5,279 positive infections on Tuesday

18:43 , Elly Blake

There have been a further 5,279 confirmed cases of Covid-19, Ireland’s Department of Health has said.

As of 8am on Tuesday, there were 443 patients in hospitals with the disease, with 102 of those in ICU, down two.

Joe Biden: Vaccinated people can keep Christmas plans

20:20 , Elly Blake

US President Joe Biden is announcing new steps to combat the surge in coronavirus cases, driven by the Omicron variant.


“I want to start by acknowledging how tired, worried, frustrated I know you are,” Biden says. “This will be the first or second Christmas you look across the kitchen and you see an empty chair.”

But this year, the the vaccinated “should be comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays you celebrate as you planned.”

But for the unvaccinated, it’s a different story. The president once again refers to vaccination as a “patriotic duty” and implores Americans to get their jabs.

Without the protection of a vaccine, he says, it will be a long winter ahead.

Cinderella temporarily closes, only to return ‘as soon as wave is licked'

20:48 , Elly Blake

Another theatre show has been hit due to Omicron fears.

Andrew Lloyd Webber says he’s “devastated” after announcing his new musical Cinderella will be cancelled until February.

The show has been postponed until 2022 “to avoid more disruption”.

The West End show will return “as soon as this wave is licked”, the composer says.

Last week, his production of Cinderella was axed due to “Covid-related absences”, alongside London productions of the musicals Hamilton and The Lion King.

That’s all for tonight

21:09 , Elly Blake

That’s the end of our live blog for today.

Join us again tomorrow for more live Covid-19 updates. Good night!

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