Coronavirus latest news: No 10 insists there are 'no plans' to make Covid vaccines mandatory

·35-min read
Coronavirus latest news: No 10 insists there are 'no plans' to make Covid vaccines mandatory - REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Coronavirus latest news: No 10 insists there are 'no plans' to make Covid vaccines mandatory - REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

The Government has "no plans" to make coronavirus vaccines mandatory, Downing Street has insisted, after German leaders backed a move to restrict the freedoms of people who choose not to get a shot.

On Thursday Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would bar unvaccinated people from cultural and recreational venues, as well as non-essential shops, in an effort to tackle a fourth wave of the virus sweeping through the country.

The German parliament will also consider a general vaccine mandate which, if passed, could come into force as soon as February next year. Countries across Europe, including Austria and Greece, have also tightened restrictions for the unvaccinated.

But asked if vaccines could ever be made mandatory in the UK, a spokesman for the Prime Minister told reporters: "We've set out our policy on this and we've said it's not something that we would look to introduce.

"You're aware of the changes we made in terms of social care settings and for NHS workers, given the importance of protecting the most vulnerable in our society. But there's no plans above and beyond that in that regard."

04:05 PM

Today in brief

We're closing the coronavirus liveblog for now, but here's a look back at today's key developments:

  • Omicron cases have risen across the UK, with the first infection detected in Wales and the number in Scotland rising to 29 - with some cases linked to a Steps concert. Nicola Sturgeon has warned a significant rise in omicron is expected.

  • Government scientists have warned that the variant would likely be capable of causing a new wave of coronavirus infections that could be even bigger than previous waves.

  • But partygoers have been urged to "keep calm and carry on" with their Christmas festivities, despite scientists raising the alarm about the risks associated with gathering for social events. And Government has "no plans" to make coronavirus vaccines mandatory, Downing Street has insisted.

  • It comes as a number of countries have introduced new domestic restrictions, including Switzerland and Belgium, as Covid continues to surge across Europe.

  • Debates about where it came from are also ongoing. Botswana has said four European diplomats who travelled to the country and subsequently tested positive for the omicron variant of Covid-19 are to blame for the spread, while scientists in Malawi have said its presence on the UK's red list is unscientific as case rates in the country are low.

  • In vaccine news, booster jabs produce long-lasting T-cells that are likely to work against all current and future coronavirus variants - including omicron - according to a new study published in The Lancet.

  • And a bizarre story to end: An Italian man who wanted a coronavirus vaccine certificate without actually having the jab tried to game the system by presenting health workers with a fake arm.

Scroll down for more of today's developments.

03:50 PM

UK 'cannot exclude' possibility omicron will cause a larger wave than ever

The omicron variant would likely be capable of causing a new wave of coronavirus infections that could be even bigger than previous waves, Government scientists have warned.

The extraordinary meeting of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) subgroup on Sars-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.529 concluded that, if introduced into the UK, the variant would be able to initiate a new wave of infections.

A note of the meeting on November 25, was released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Friday.

In it the scientists conclude: "We cannot exclude that this wave would be of a magnitude similar, or even larger, than previous waves."

They continue: "Although data on disease severity associated with B.1.1.529 are not yet available, a large wave of infections will be accompanied by a wave of severe cases and the subgroup cannot rule out that this may be sufficient to overwhelm NHS capacity."

According to the scientists, it is highly likely that omicron is a "fit" virus that is undergoing extensive community transmission in South Africa, and possibly elsewhere. But they say there is currently insufficient data to make any comments on disease severity associated with the variant.

03:40 PM

European diplomats to blame for omicron spread, says Botswana

Botswana has said four European diplomats who travelled to the country and subsequently tested positive for the omicron variant of Covid-19 are to blame for the spread.

"The diplomats came from a number of countries ... and they passed through a number of countries to get to Botswana," said President Mokgweetsi Masisi said.

He declined to disclose their nationalities, only saying "some had been to Europe and some had been elsewhere". Asked if some had come from Europe into Botswana, he replied "indeed".

Mr Masisi also called for a reversal of travel bans imposed on southern African countries, calling the move "unnecessary" and "irresponsible".

Omicron was first detected in South Africa on November 25, followed by Botswana a day later, and has led a number of countries to reimpose travel restrictions.

03:27 PM

Omicron reaches Wales

The first case of the omicron variant has been confirmed in Wales, in the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board area.

The infection is linked to international travel, the Welsh Government said, adding that t is "prepared to respond rapidly to emerging variants of concern and intensive investigations and robust public health action are being taken to slow any spread".

The public has been urged to follow steps "which keep us safe", with the Government calling for people to take up the offer of a vaccine.

It comes after Scotland announced the number of omicron infections had increased from 13 to 29, while 29 have also been discovered in England.

Here's a look at where the highly mutated virus has been detected worldwide:

03:23 PM

Slovakia's Covid-19 case record inflated by system glitch

Slovakia reported 15,278 new Covid-19 cases today, the highest number in a single day since the pandemic broke out, but the Health Ministry has said a technical issue inflated the number.

"The reason for today's high number of positive test results is additional data, which did not pass from laboratories to the information system on Nov. 30," the ministry said.

The ministry did not specify the actual number of cases detected on Thursday.

The country of 5.5 million has 3,404 people hospitalised with the illness, including 630 in intensive care. It is struggling to to contain a surge in cases and has one of the European Union's lowest rates of vaccination uptake.

03:16 PM

Belgium tightens virus rules again as hospitals under strain

Belgium must tighten its coronavirus restrictions another notch as the latest surge in cases weighs heavily on health services and deprives people with other life-threatening diseases like cancer of necessary treatment, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has announced.

Kindergartens and primary schools will now close for the holiday season a week early, on December 20, and children must wear masks from the age of six. The government capped attendance at indoor events at 200 people.

"There are too many people who are not getting the treatment they need in hospital, so it is important to act quickly," De Croo told reporters, noting that 40 per cent of Belgium's intensive care beds are currently filled by Covid-19 patients. "It's a situation that cannot be tolerated."

It's the third week in a row that De Croo's government has tightened restrictions. There had been speculation that closing times of 8pm were in the works, but the Cabinet decided against it, for now.

According to the latest pandemic figures, the nation of 11 million appears to have reached a plateau.

On a weekly average, 17,862 new daily cases were reported, a rise of six per cent over the previous week. Hospital admissions rose four per cent. More than 3,700 people are hospitalised with the virus, 821 of them in intensive care.

02:59 PM

Pandemic in pictures

Prague, Czech Republic:

Healthcare workers from the Prague Ambulance Service transport a Covid-19 patient to Prague as hospitals in South Moravia region are on the brink of full capacity - MARTIN DIVISEK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 
Healthcare workers from the Prague Ambulance Service transport a Covid-19 patient to Prague as hospitals in South Moravia region are on the brink of full capacity - MARTIN DIVISEK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

London, UK:

A man receives a dose of the Pfizer Covid shot at a vaccination site at the Westfield shopping centre - EUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A man receives a dose of the Pfizer Covid shot at a vaccination site at the Westfield shopping centre - EUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Bangalore, India:

A health official conducts a Covid-19 coronavirus screening of a passenger at a railway station, as omicron is detected in the state of Karnataka - MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images
A health official conducts a Covid-19 coronavirus screening of a passenger at a railway station, as omicron is detected in the state of Karnataka - MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images

02:44 PM

Air passengers from South Africa have Covid-19 despite vaccination, Dutch say

Dutch health authorities have said that a significant number of passengers on flights from South Africa over the past week have tested positive for Covid-19 on arrival despite having been vaccinated and testing negative before departure.

"It shows that the virus is spreading easily and that is worrying," said Bert van de Velden, director of the regional health authority for Kennemerland, which includes Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

It comes after a preliminary study suggested that the risk of reinfection from the omicron variant is three times higher than for the delta and beta strains of Covid.

A large-scale South African study of nearly three million people infected with Covid, published on the Medrxiv website, said the risk of infection had been stable during previous waves of the virus but this risk increased three-fold between October and November when the omicron variant was thought to have first emerged.

Jennifer Rigby, Anne Gulland and Joe Pinkstone have more details on that story here.

02:28 PM

Scotland: Omicron cases jump to 29 with 'significant' surge anticipated

The number of omicron cases in Scotland has risen from 13 to 29, Nicola Sturgeon has announced, with cases linked to several events including a Steps concert.

The First Minister added that it expected cases of the omicron variant to rise significantly in upcoming days, as there was now community transmission of the strain.

"The number of Omicron cases now being reported in Scotland is rising, and cases are no longer all linked to a single event, but to several different sources including a Steps concert at the Hydro on 22 November," Ms Sturgeon said.

"This confirms our view that there is now community transmission of this variant within Scotland. Given the nature of transmission we would expect to see cases rise - perhaps significantly - in the days ahead.

"However, health protection teams are continuing work through contact tracing, isolation and testing to slow the spread as far as possible while we learn more about the new variant’s impact. Ministers are also keeping the situation under daily review."

02:24 PM

England's R number has fallen slightly, estimates suggest

A quick update on the latest Covid numbers: The estimated range of England's Covid-19 weekly reproduction, "R" number is between 0.9 and 1.1, lower than last week, the UK Health Security Agency said on Friday.

An R number between 0.9 and 1.1 means that for every 10 people infected, they will on average infect between 9 and 11 other people. Last week R was estimated between 1.0 and 1.1.

The daily growth of infections was estimated between -1 per cent and +1, compared -1 per cent and +2 per cent the previous week.

Here's where cases and deaths stand ahead of the usual 4pm update:

02:13 PM

Fears India facing new wave as Covid spikes in wastewater samples

The southern Indian city of Bengaluru could be on the cusp of a new Covid-19 wave after a sudden spike of the virus in its wastewater, while early evidence suggests the omicron variant was spreading in India in early November.

On Thursday evening the Indian authorities confirmed the first two cases of omicron in the country in Bengaluru, also known as Bangalore. The city is home to approximately 14 million people.

The first case was in a 66-year-old South African man who tested positive on arrival in Bengaluru from South Africa, where omicron was first detected, on November 20. He has since recovered from the virus and left India.

However, the second confirmed case is in a 46-year-old doctor in Bengaluru who was fully vaccinated and had no travel history.

Meanwhile, wastewater sampling in the Shanthala Nagar neighbourhood in central Bengaluru has shown a dramatic uptick in Covid-19 RNA - the genetic material of a virus - since mid November.

Joe Wallen has more details on this story here.

01:58 PM

Watch: Omicron variant coincides with Covid surge across Africa, warns WHO

01:43 PM

Swiss tighten Covid-19 restrictions as cases rise

Switzerland has announced stronger anti-Covid-19 measures, as its government battles to contain a surge in coronavirus infections and the arrival of the omicron variant in the country.

The country will expand the requirement to wear masks and produce a certificate to prove a person is vaccinated or has recovered from the virus, the government said.

Masks will have to be worn indoors wherever a certificate obligation applies, it said.

It also reinforced its message for people to work from home, while allowing events and venues to restrict entry only to people who are vaccinated or recovered.

The measures will go into effect on Monday, December 6 and be effective until January 24.

"The Federal Council currently assesses the situation as very critical," the government said in a statement. "The emergence of the Omicron variant also poses new challenges for pandemic response."

01:24 PM

Number 10 'wouldn't inform' reporters about potential Christmas parties

Christmas parties are a big topic today (see 9:52am). But any staff parties held at Downing Street in the run-up to Christmas would be "private events" that would not be publicly announced, No 10 has said.

Asked if there was going to be a No 10 Christmas party, the Prime Minister's spokesman said: "The Prime Minister... has said that there will continue to be festive events in the run-up to Christmas.

"You'll have seen earlier this week the Prime Minister do the switching on of the No 10 Christmas tree lights, as well as another event the day before, that'll continue in the run-up to Christmas."

Pressed on whether this meant there would be a No 10 staff Christmas party, he said: "We would obviously inform you of any events closer to the time. I don't have any details of any of those sort of events now, but as I say there'll continue to be festive events in the run-up to Christmas."

Asked if he would therefore inform reporters if there were plans for a No 10 Christmas party for staff, he clarified: "Obviously, events that happen in No 10 that are private events, we wouldn't inform you."

He added: "We obviously wouldn't set out details of private functions in No 10, but as I say there will be festive events in the run-up to Christmas."

01:12 PM

WHO: New variant very transmissible - but don't panic yet

The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, has said the new variant omicron is very transmissible but that people should not panic about it.

Swaminathan said during an interview at the Reuters Next conference that the right response was to be prepared and cautious and not to panic in face of the new variant.

"How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation to a year ago," Swaminathan said.

The emergence of the new variant was unwelcome, she said, but added that the world was much better prepared given the development of vaccines since the start of the pandemic.

Much remains unknown about Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries. Parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of infections of the Delta variant.

"We need to wait, lets hope it's milder ... but it's too early to conclude about the variant as a whole," Swaminathan said.

01:01 PM

'Irrational and indiscriminate' to include Malawi on UK's red list

It is "irrational and indiscriminate" to include Malawi on the UK's red list, scientists have told the Telegraph, as the country is reporting fewer than five cases of Covid-19 a day.

Stephen Gordon and Henry Mwandumba, directors of the Malawi Liverpool Wellcome Trust Programme of Clinical Tropical Research at a hospital in Blantyre, said data shows there is "no detectable omicron variant in Malawi".

"Unlike the UK (>40,000 cases per day), Malawi is currently minimally affected by COVID (<5 cases per day) with the wards empty," they told the Telegraph.

"It is therefore disappointing that British clinical personnel, recently returned from helping to set up Malawi’s first stroke unit, are incarcerated in UK quarantine hotels. Doctors and nurses needed in both the UK and Malawi should not be penalised by irrational and indiscriminate quarantine guidelines.

"Further, Malawians seeking higher education in the UK should not be banned from entry by policies lacking credible data support."

They added that the presence of Malawi on the UK's red list, a decision taken last weekend amid concerns that omicron has spread from South Africa to the small country, is undermining trust between the two nations.

12:48 PM

Vaccines will likely need to be modified to protect against omicron, WHO warns

Pharmaceutical companies should gear up for the "likelihood" of needing to adjust their vaccines to tackle the omicron variant, the World Health Organization has warned.

Speaking at briefing in Geneva Christian Lindmeier, a WHO spokesperson, said the UN health agency is still studying the transmissibility and severity of the highly mutated new variant.

But he urged vaccine-makers to prepare for a scenario where omicron undermines the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines.

"It is very recommendable that vaccine manufacturers already start planning ahead and plan for the likelihood for having to adjust the existing vaccine," he said. "That's good not just to wait until the final alarm bell rings."

12:27 PM

One in 60 people estimated to have Covid-19, says ONS

The latest estimates from the ONS survey suggest that just over one million (1,087,000) people in the UK would test positive for coronavirus in the week ending 27 November, up from 1,035,000 last week.

This figure equates to roughly 1.7 per cent of the population – or one in 60 people in the latest week.

The ONS added that the trends for estimated Covid-19 infections continued to increase in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, but were uncertain in Wales.

In England, one in 60 are estimated to be testing positive for coronavirus, it's one in 45 in Wales, one in 45 in Northern Ireland and one in 65 in Scotland.

The statistics agency goes into more detail in this Twitter thread:

12:03 PM

South Africa sees spike in child infections, doctors say

Doctors in South Africa have said there has been a spike in hospitalisations among young children after Omicron swept through the country but stressed it was early to know if they were particularly susceptible.

In the week since South Africa alerted the world of the new Covid variant, infections have spread faster than in the country's three previous waves.

The first cluster of cases centred around university students, and then spread quickly among young people who seem to have spread it to older people.

But scientists and health officials said they had seen increasing hospital admissions in children under five, along with higher positivity rates among children aged 10-14.

Wassila Jassat, from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said: "We've seen quite a sharp increase across all age groups, particularly in the under fives," referring to hospitalisations.

"The incidence in those under fives is now second-highest, and second only to the incidence in those over 60," she told a news conference.

Scientists cited several possible reasons. One is that children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines in South Africa. Doctors have reported anecdotally that both children and parents testing positive have not been vaccinated, she said.

11:51 AM

Watch Merkel backs compulsory jabs as Germany agrees de facto lockdown for unvaccinated

11:39 AM

Risk of reinfection with omicron three times higher than previous variants, study finds

The risk of reinfection from the omicron variant is three times higher than for the delta and beta strains of Covid, a preliminary study has shown.

A large-scale South African study of nearly three million people infected with Covid, published on the Medrxiv website, said the risk of infection had been stable during previous waves of the virus but this risk increased three-fold between October and November when the omicron variant was thought to have first emerged.

“The timing of these changes strongly suggests that they are driven by the emergence of the omicron variant,” the paper said.

The authors concluded: “Evidence suggests that the omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection.”

Jennifer Rigby and Anne Gulland have more details here.

11:26 AM

Vaccine makers should plan to adjust Covid-19 jabs, says WHO

Makers of Covid-19 vaccines should gear up for the "likelihood" of needing to adjust their products to protect against the Omicron variant, the World Health Organization's spokesperson said on Friday.

Christian Lindmeier, speaking at a UN briefing in Geneva, said the agency was still studying the transmissibility and severity of the new variant, first reported in Southern Africa.

"It is very recommendable that vaccine manufacturers already start planning ahead and plan for the likelihood for having to adjust the existing vaccine," he said. "That's good not just to wait until the final alarm bell rings."

11:18 AM

Italian tries to dodge Covid jab - by using a fake arm

A Italian man who wanted a coronavirus vaccine certificate without actually having the jab tried to play the system by presenting health workers with a fake arm.

Despite the realistic skin colour, nobody was fooled by the silicone limb, and the man - in his 50s - was reported to local police following the incident on Thursday night in Biella, northwest Italy.

"The case borders on the ridiculous, if it were not for the fact we are talking about a gesture of enormous gravity," the head of the Piedmont regional government, Albert Cirio, said in a statement on Facebook.

He said such an act was "unacceptable faced with the sacrifice that our entire community has paid during the pandemic, in terms of human lives, the social and economic cost."

The fake arm incident comes ahead of a tightening of the rules Monday in Italy for people who have not yet been vaccinated against Covid-19.

Since August, a "Green Pass" showing proof of vaccination, recent recovery from coronavirus or a negative test has been required for indoor dining in restaurants, to visit museums, cinemas, theatres and attend sporting events.

But from December 6, these activities will be restricted to holders of a "Super Green Pass", which is only available to those who have been vaccinated or recently had Covid-19.

11:07 AM

Vietnam's daily coronavirus case rate hits record high

Vietnam's daily count of new Covid-19 cases hit a record high this week, although it has not yet detected any sign of the omicron variant, Nicola Smith reports.

A new daily record of 14,508 infections was reported on Wednesday and a seven-day rolling average of 13,830 new cases, higher than the peak of the last wave of infections in September.

The Southeast Asian nation is considering whether to suspend all flights from Africa and no longer issue visas for some African nations, with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh ordering the authorities to bolster border defences and closely check arrivals from countries with omicron cases. Vietnam also plans to speed up vaccinations and start giving booster shots this month.

Here's a graphical look at the current situation:

10:52 AM

Vatican's EU ambassador dies of coronavirus

The Vatican's ambassador to the European Union has died of Covid-19, Nick Squires reports.

Archbishop Aldo Giordano was the apostolic nuncio to Brussels - the Vatican's term for an ambassador. The 67-year-old diplomat died on Thursday in Leuven, Belgium, where he had been in hospital with the coronavirus.

"In the past few weeks, his condition rapidly deteriorated and he had to be treated in the intensive care unit," Vatican News, the Holy See's official news outlet, said on Friday.

The archbishop was a former apostolic nuncio to Venezuela, where he served for eight years. He was appointed to the EU position in May this year.

10:41 AM

One in 100 infected with Covid in Germany, health minister says

Germany's health minister has said that more than one per cent of the population is currently infected with the coronavirus, and he called on citizens to get vaccinated if they haven't done so yet.

The country confirmed 74,352 new daily Covid-19 cases and 390 additional deaths, figures published by the federal disease control agency showed. According to the Robert Koch Institute's calculations, some 925,800 people in Germany are considered actively infected with the virus.

Health Minister Jens Spahn noted that the number of unvaccinated residents who are infected and seriously ill is much higher than their share of the overall population.

"If all German adults were vaccinated, we wouldn't be in this difficult situation," he told reporters in Berlin.

About 68.8 per cent of people in Germany are fully vaccinated, while the government has set a minimum target of 75 per cent. For the first time since the summer, more than one million doses were administered on a single day Wednesday. Here's a look at the trajectory of the outbreak there:

10:25 AM

The next pandemic could come from a backstreet laboratory, warn peers

Backstreet laboratories around the world are capable of creating a biohazard that could spark a pandemic as deadly as Covid-19, members of the House of Lords have warned.

In a new report on extreme risks facing the country, the peers warned of the growing threat of cyber-crime, bioterrorism, solar flares and climate change, and called for greater preparedness.

Writing in The Telegraph, Lord Arbuthnot, chairman of the House of Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, said: “We don’t know exactly how the Covid-19 pandemic began. However, the biotechnology needed to replicate the devastation caused by the coronavirus is disseminated around the world.”

Sarah Knapton has more on this story here.

10:12 AM

Hospital admissions on the rise in England

Hospitalisations have started to rise again after 26 consecutive days of dropping admissions, the latest data shows. Here's a quick breakdown from the editor of the Health Service Journal:

10:03 AM

Omicron variant spreading in Spain but government rules out compulsory vaccination

Spain has registered five confirmed cases of the omicron variant, with Thursday bringing news of the first instance of community transmission of the strain, James Badcock reports.

Three omicron cases have been detected in Madrid, including a patient who “has no recent experience of travel or any close contact with a person who has been in a country where the variant has been detected,” according to the regional government. The patient was described as a 62-year-old man who had previously been vaccinated with AstraZeneca. He has mild symptoms, which he first noted on Monday.

The other cases of omicron are spread between the Madrid region and Catalonia, with two probable instances pending confirmation in the Balearic Islands.

Infections in Spain are rising sharply once more, with the seven-day cumulative transmission rate reaching 132 cases per 100,000 inhabitants after more than a month in double figures. But Health Minister Carolina Darías had ruled out making vaccination obligatory.

“I understand that countries with low levels of vaccination are considering it and even that [European Commission] President Von der Leyen is opening the debate, but they have to understand that the situation in our country is completely different,” Ms Darías said, pointing to almost 90 per cent of the target population having been fully vaccinated.

Here's a look at the trajectory of the country's outbreak:

09:52 AM

Oslo Christmas party turns into a super-spreading event

At least 17 people who came down with Covid-19 after a Christmas party gathering over 100 guests in Oslo last week are suspected of having the Omicron variant, city officials announced today.

"So far 60 people have tested positive (for Covid) with PCR tests, and four with antigen tests. Seventeen are probably Omicron, but that has yet to be confirmed. So far, one case is confirmed to be Omicron after sequencing," the city of Oslo said in a statement.

Between 100 and 120 people - all of whom were vaccinated, and one of whom had recently travelled to southern Africa - had gathered last Friday for a Christmas party organised by their employer.

But this the Conservative Party chairman, Oliver Dowden, urged partygoes in Britain to "keep calm and carry on" with their Christmas festivities, despite scientists raising the alarm about the risks associated with gathering for social events (see 8:44am).

09:40 AM

Pandemic in pictures

Berlin, Germany:

Dancers from the Berlin State Ballet wear face masks as they perform during a dress rehearsal of Don Quixote - REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Dancers from the Berlin State Ballet wear face masks as they perform during a dress rehearsal of Don Quixote - REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Moscow, Russia:

State employees disinfect the Leningradsky railway station in Moscow - Kommersant Photo Agency/Shutterstock&#xa0;
State employees disinfect the Leningradsky railway station in Moscow - Kommersant Photo Agency/Shutterstock

Mumbai, India:

A passenger gets his temperature checked during a Covid-19 coronavirus screening after arriving at a railway platform on a long distance train - Punit PARANJPE / AFP
A passenger gets his temperature checked during a Covid-19 coronavirus screening after arriving at a railway platform on a long distance train - Punit PARANJPE / AFP

09:30 AM

India says the impact of omicron will be blunted by vaccination and prior infections

India expects the Omicron variant of coronavirus to cause less severe disease, the health ministry said today, thanks to vaccinations and high prior exposure to the Delta variant that infected nearly 70 per cent of the population by July.

Junior doctors protested to demand that staff numbers be beefed up, warning of a disastrous situation if the new variant overwhelmed health care facilities, although nearly half of India's 944 million adults have been fully vaccinated.

As many as 84 per cent have received at least one dose, with more than 125 million people due for a second by the end of November, as the government pushes more to get inoculated in the face of Omicron.

"Given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to Delta variant ... the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low," the ministry said in a statement. "However, scientific evidence is still evolving."

Both of India's first two Omicron patients, reported on Thursday, showed mild symptoms, the ministry added. But concern over the prospect of a third wave of infections has grown after the variant was found in the southern state of Karnataka, in one person with no recent travel history.

09:19 AM

One in four care home residents yet to receive Covid booster vaccine

More than one quarter of care home residents have not yet received a booster shot, despite government pledges that all would be offered a jab by the beginning of November.

Latest figures from NHS England show that just 72 per cent of care homes residents have been given a booster, even though they are among the most at risk.

Charities said they were concerned that younger age groups who were now eligible for the jab were taking priority over care homes.

Last month, the booster rollout was extended to the over-40s. This week, the Government announced that all over-18s would receive a third dose.

Sarah Knapton and Bill Gardner have more details on this story here.

09:11 AM

South Korea expands vaccine passport scheme as hospitals stretched

South Korea said it would expand its vaccine passport requirements on Friday as the number of critically ill patients hit yet another record high of 738, straining the health system, Nicola Smith reports.

The country is also preparing to limit private gatherings to six in the capital and eight in other regions amid growing concerns over the new omicron variant.

Officials are investigating a suspected omicron cluster outbreak at a church. However, churches will not feature on a list of venues that will ban the unvaccinated from entering.

After one week, the vaccine pass system will be enforced at most public facilities including gyms, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, cinemas, museums and libraries.

09:02 AM

Morning briefing

Just joining us? Here's a look at the key coronavirus developments overnight:

  • South Africa is being hit by a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections driven by the omicron variant which has been detected in seven of the country's nine provinces, the Health Minister Joe Phaahla has warned.

  • Meanwhile Australia, despite restrictions on international visitors, has become the latest country to report community transmission of Omicron, a day after the coronavirus variant was found locally in five states in the United States.

  • Closer to home, the French government's top scientific advisor has said omicron could become the country's dominant strain by the end of January, as the number of cases identified in the country rises to nine. Yesterday the ECDC warned that the variant could be responsible for half of Europe's cases within a few months.

  • It comes as America announces that new rules requiring international air travellers arriving in the United States to obtain a negative Covid-19 test within one day of travel will take effect Monday.

  • In vaccine news, booster jabs produce long-lasting T-cells that are likely to work against all current and future coronavirus variants - including omicron - according to a new study published in The Lancet.

  • And finally, for now, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said this morning that people should "keep calm and carry on" with their Christmas plans.

08:52 AM

Omicron reaches Malaysia and Singapore

Malaysia has detected its first case of the Omicron variant in a student who had arrived from South Africa via Singapore on November 19, Nicola Smith reports.

The 19-year-old was fully vaccinated and had already undergone a ten-day quarantine before the variant was detected in a backdated genomic test of all positive cases from Kuala Lumpur International airport between November 11 and 28 after news of Omicron broke.

The student along with eight close contacts will undergo further testing, Khairy Jamaluddin, the health minister told a briefing.

Neighbouring Singapore confirmed two imported cases on Thursday, but Mr Khairy said the newly opened Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme between the two countries would continue.

The cases come as Dr Takeshi Kasai, head of the WHO in the western Pacific, warned countries to brace for a surge in infections, and said travel restrictions could only ever "buy time" (see 8:27am).

08:44 AM

'Keep calm and carry on' with Christmas plans, Conservatives say

In a round of morning broadcast interviews, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said people should "keep calm and carry on" with their Christmas plans.

"The message to people, I think, is fairly straightforward - which is keep calm, carry on with your Christmas plans," Mr Dowden told Sky News.

"I understand that people have concerns around the new variant. That's why the Government has taken the sort of measures that we've already outlined ... we think those are sufficient at this stage and, beyond that, people should continue with their plans as intended."

Mr Dowden added that he currently has no intention of cancelling the Conservatives' Christmas party.

But the senior Tory was also quizzed on a festive gathering that has raised eyebrows, after Boris Johnson was accused of breaking lockdown rules by hosting a Downing Street Christmas party last year (details here).

Asked if he had spoken to people who may have information about the nature of the reported event, Mr Dowden told BBC Breakfast: "I have not been having conversations about what may or may not have happened over a year ago. My focus has not been on having conversations about what may or may not have happened over a year ago in Downing Street.

"I have, however, been assured by what the Prime Minister has said, which is that the rules at all times were obeyed in Downing Street," he said.

Comment: The Downing Street party is the dream 'them and us' narrative for Labour to seize – pity they won't manage it

08:34 AM

Booster vaccines create T-cells that protect against all Covid variants – including omicron

In the latest vaccine news, a new study has found that booster jabs produce long-lasting T-cells that are likely to work against all current and future coronavirus variants, including omicron.

Data from the government-funded Covboost trial has been published in The Lancet and reveals how effective different vaccines are as boosters when it comes to enhancing levels of T-cells and antibodies.

It found that six vaccines — Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Janssen, Moderna, CureVac and Novavax — gave a significant immune boost, irrespective of what vaccine a person received for the first two doses.

Pfizer and Moderna were found to be the most effective and people who received two doses of AstraZeneca saw their antibody levels soar 32-fold after Moderna, the most effective jab, and 24.5-fold for Pfizer.

These two jabs also gave the most dramatic increase for those who originally got two doses of Pfizer, increasing antibody levels 12 and nine-fold for Moderna and Pfizer, respectively.

Joe Pinkstone explains the science in more detail here.

08:27 AM

Omicron's spread is 'likely wider than reported', WHO warns

The geographic distribution of the highly mutated omicron variant is “likely already wider than currently reported”, a regional director of the World Health Organization has warned.

In a briefing to journalists Dr Takeshi Kasai, head of the WHO in the western Pacific, warned countries to brace for a surge in infections. So far four countries and regions in the Western Pacific - Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea - have reported cases, by Dr Kasai said new infections are “increasing daily”.

He added that measures including border restrictions will “buy time”, but will not halt the variant's arrival. Instead, he urged governments to boost healthcare capacity and fully vaccinate their people to prepare.

"Border control can delay the virus coming in and buy time. But every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases," Kasai said. "The positive news in all of this is that none of the information we have currently about omicron suggests we need to change the directions of our response."

08:21 AM

Japan reports first omicron clusters as cases rise to 13

Health authorities in Japan have reported a cluster of seven infections of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, with all seven people arriving aboard a flight from Peru late last month, Julian Ryall reports.

The new cases bring the total number of omicron infections in the central Japan prefectures of Aichi and Mie to 13. The first person to be identified as positive for the virus, a man in his 30s, was permitted to enter the country on November 27 as he had no symptoms but later developed a high temperature and sore throat.

The first case in Tokyo was confirmed on November 28 and involves a Namibian diplomat who arrived in the country with his family.

With concern growing about the omicron strain gaining a foothold in Japan, the government is expected to announce that it will reduce the time required between a second vaccination and the booster shot from eight months at present to six months.

Here's a look at the trajectory of the pandemic in Japan:

08:17 AM

United States to tighten restrictions on international travellers from Monday

International air travellers arriving in the United States will need to obtain a negative coronavirus test within 24 hours of travelling, under new rules taking effect on Monday.

Under current rules, vaccinated international air travelers can present a negative test result obtained within three days of their day of departure. Unvaccinated travelers currently must get a negative Covid-19 test within one day of departure.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky's order says the agency "must take quick and targeted action to help curtail the introduction and spread of the Omicron variant into the United States."

The CDC said beginning Monday "all air travelers, regardless of citizenship or vaccination status, will be required to show a negative pre-departure COVID-19 viral test taken the day before they board their flight to the United States."

The tighter testing timeline "provides an added degree of public health protection as scientists continue to assess the Omicron variant," the White House said in a factsheet released Thursday.

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