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Covid Omicron news: Government ‘not telling people to cancel things’ as officials apologise over party

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Rishi Sunak has insisted the government was “not telling people to cancel things” and was “not closing down businesses”, a day after the public were urged to prioritise social gathering in a bid to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

The chancellor said: “But what we are saying is that there are easy and effective things that we can all do to protect ourselves, for example wearing masks, ensuring good ventilation and – most importantly, right now – going and getting your booster because that is the best protection we have.”

The Department for Transport (DfT) has apologised after it emerged staff had a party the day London was put into Tier 3 restrictions last December.

The Daily Mirror reported senior civil servants were “boozing and dancing” at the event on 16 December. Officials insisted it was a “low-key” gathering where social distancing was observed, and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was not involved.

Key Points

  • Omicron R rate between 3 and 5 amid rapid infections spread

  • LFTs unavailable to order online for fourth consecutive day

  • ‘Think carefully’ before Christmas socialising, says PM

  • Queen cancels Christmas lunch

  • Hospitality leaders demand urgent financial support amid mass cancellation fears

  • Boris Johnson ‘joined party in No 10’ during first lockdown

  • UK sets new record with highest daily case total since pandemic began

PM encourages people to get booster jabs

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:14 , Rory Sullivan

The prime minister has reminded the public that from tomorrow people will no longer need to wait at vaccine centres for 15 minutes after their jabs.

He added that 12 to 15-year-olds will be able to book their second jab appointments from Monday.

Records will be ‘broken a lot’ in coming weeks, says Whitty

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:16 , Rory Sullivan

It’s now Chris Whitty’s turn to speak.

England’s chief medical officer said that we should realise that Covid “records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks”.

His comment comes a few hours after the country recorded 78,610 daily infections, the highest ever figure.

Chris Whitty (PA Wire)
Chris Whitty (PA Wire)

Most Covid hospitalisations will be from omicron variant, says chief medical officer

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:20 , Rory Sullivan

Chris Whitty has said he expects most hospitalisations in the UK to soon be from omicron variant cases.

Despite the general protection offered by vaccines, some vaccinated people will need to be hospitalised, the country’s chief medical officer added.

“But their risk is much reduced,” he said.

‘Be patient’ with healthcare staff, says NHS director

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:27 , Rory Sullivan

NHS director Dr Nikki Kanani has just finished speaking at the press conference.

She urged the public to book their booster appointments and to volunteer for the NHS if possible.

Dr Kanani also asked people to “be patient” with NHS workers. “They are doing everything to protect you as soon as possible,” she said.

Watch: Whitty says more Covid records will be broken

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:29 , Rory Sullivan

Here’s a clip of Chris Whitty speaking several minutes ago:

PM insists further restrictions not needed

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:34 , Rory Sullivan

The BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg has just asked the prime minister whether stronger measures are needed now that coronavirus infections are at an all-time high.

“I think this is the right approach,” Boris Johnson replied, employing a boxing analogy to suggest the government was offering a “right and left” against the omicron variant.

He added that more information about the variant was required.

Whitty warns against claims omicron causes ‘milder’ illness

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:36 , Adam Forrest

Prof Chris Whitty warned against premature claims that the disease from omicron is milder than previous variants based on data from South Africa.

“There is more immunity in South Africa than there was during the last wave…Therefore the fact that there is a lower hospitalisation rate is unsurprising,” said the chief medical officer.

“It doesn’t mean there isn’t some degree of slightly milder disease. But I just think there is a danger that people have over-interpreted this to say, ‘This is not a problem and what are we worrying about’. I want to be clear – I’m afraid this is going to be a problem.”

‘Substantial’ number of hospitalisations to hit NHS soon, warns Whitty

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:46 , Rory Sullivan

A “substantial” number of hospitalisations are inevitable after Christmas, the country’s chief medical officer has said.

“That’s a reasonably nailed-on prospect, I’m afraid,” Chris Whitty told reporters in Downing Street.

He also said that the omicron variant was “moving at an absolutely phenomenal pace”.

Shielding ‘not an area we want to go down’, says chief medical officer

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:49 , Rory Sullivan

It is hoped that the clinically vulnerable will not have to shield in the current Covid wave, Chris Whitty has said.

“Shielding came with some very serious downsides for the people involved in the shielding, including loneliness and mental health issues, practical problems,” he said.

“It’s not an area we want to go down if there’s any way of avoiding doing so.”

Vulnerable people are entitled to four doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Covid infection rates rise in 60 of UK local areas, latest figures show

Wednesday 15 December 2021 17:58 , Rory Sullivan

Stepping away from the press conference momentarily...

Coronavirus rates rose in 60 per cent of the UK’s 377 local areas in the week up to 11 December, the latest data shows.

South Northamptonshire has the highest rate in the country, with an average of 917.4 cases per 100,000 people.

‘Think carefully’ before Christmas socialising, says PM

Wednesday 15 December 2021 18:00 , Jon Stone

Boris Johnson has urged people to cut back on Christmas partying and “think carefully” before going out during the festive season, as omicron cases hit record levels

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon the prime minister urged people to get booster jabs but suggested they might want to avoid unnecessary social gatherings.

But he declined to impose any new formal restrictions, despite a record number of new cases and warnings of a spike in hospitalisations to come.

Think carefully before Christmas socialising, Boris Johnson says

UK battling two epidemics, warns WHO special envoy

Wednesday 15 December 2021 18:16 , Jon Stone

Speaking after the press conference, Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on Covid-19, has said the UK is simultaneously fighting two epidemics.

He told Sky News: “This is a very serious situation indeed. The rise that you’re seeing in the UK today is just the beginning of an extraordinary acceleration.

“There are two epidemics going on delta and omicron, and it is an emergency situation for the British health service. It will get extremely serious within the next two weeks, perhaps quicker.”

“I have never been more concerned than I am tonight, not just about the UK but about the world,” he added.

Watch: PM and Whitty urge Christmas caution

Wednesday 15 December 2021 18:25 , Rory Sullivan

France records highest daily Covid case average in 13 months

Wednesday 15 December 2021 18:35 , Rory Sullivan

It is not just the UK that is being pummelled by the spread of the omicron variant.

Across the Channel, France recorded 65,713 new daily cases on Wednesday, according to health ministry data.

This brings the country’s average rate of infections above 50,000 for the first time since November last year.

PM accuses editor of ‘mischaracterising’ No 10 Xmas parties

Wednesday 15 December 2021 18:50 , Lamiat Sabin

PM Boris Johnson told a journalist who asked him about the Downing Street parties held last Christmas that he has been “completely mischaracterising” the controversial events.

ITV News political editor Robert Peston asked Mr Johnson and his medical advisers during the government’s Covid press conference about how they felt about reports and photos of parties held at No 10 and Conservative HQ at a time when London was under Tier 2 restrictions.

Mr Peston also asked Mr Johnson if he would welcome a police investigation into the gatherings that were held when Londoners from separate households were generally not allowed to mix to limit the spread of Covid.

Mr Johnson said: “I just say to you, Robert, that I think you completely mischaracterise the events in this place.”

Full story here from Adam Forrest

Boris Johnson accuses Robert Peston of ‘mischaracterising’ No 10 Christmas parties

England’s poorest to be ‘hardest hit again’ as booster uptake lags

Wednesday 15 December 2021 19:15 , Lamiat Sabin

The most deprived areas in England are trailing behind wealthier areas in the rates of people getting their Covid booster jab.

Just 20.2 per cent of people (about 1.1 million of the population) that live in the most deprived areas have received a third dose, compared to 37.8 per cent in the least deprived areas.

Colin Angus, a senior research fellow and health inequalities modeller at the University of Sheffield, said: “The most deprived groups had suffered so badly in early waves that they potentially had an advantage in terms of greater natural immunity.

“Throughout this pandemic the most deprived groups have suffered the most through a combination of many factors, including being more likely to have a public-facing job where you can’t work from home, living in more crowded conditions and being less financially able to take time of work to isolate”

Mr Angus added that, as these factors remain, the most deprived will “be the hardest hit again” by the pandemic, especially with the more-infectious omicron has taken hold as the dominant variant in the UK.

Samuel Lovett has more on this exclusive story

England’s poorest to be ‘hardest hit again’ as booster uptake lags amid omicron surge

Ireland likely to introduce tougher restrictions in coming days, says Varadkar

Wednesday 15 December 2021 19:36 , Rory Sullivan

Irish public health officials are likely to request stronger coronavirus restrictions, Leo Varadkar has said.

The Tanaiste’s comments come ahead of a National Public Health Emergency team (Nphet) meeting tomorrow about omicron.

The deputy prime minister added that new policies could include limitations on social mixing and overseas travel.

“I would expect on Thursday that there will be some more recommendations around the management of close contacts, some recommendations designed to decrease the amount of social mixing, and recommendations around international travel,” he said.

“If it is the case restrictions are required to protect life and public health, then that’s what we will do.”

Football fans should prioritise booster appointments over matches, says health leader

Wednesday 15 December 2021 20:00 , Rory Sullivan

Football fans should prioritise getting booster jabs over watching matches this weekend, a NHS England chief has said.

Dr Nikki Kanani, primary care director at NHS England, gave the recommendation during a Downing Street brief on Wednesday night.

“This is our chance to make choices for each other and for our NHS, so my advice would be if you’re going to go to a stadium at the weekend, make it one where you can get your vaccine or help out to give a vaccine, rather than going to watch a match,” she said.

The government had earlier announced that football stadiums like Wembley and Stamford Bridge would be used as vaccination centres in the coming days.

NHS can’t be used as a vaccine service every few months, warns jab chief

Wednesday 15 December 2021 20:20 , Rory Sullivan

The head of the country’s immunisation programme has warned that the NHS cannot become a vaccination every few months.

“I have fed back to the Department of Health yesterday that I think realistically we don’t have the capacity to do anything else new over the next two-and-a-half weeks,” Emily Lawson added.

My colleague Rebecca Thomas has this exclusive:

NHS cannot be used as vaccination service every few months

Britons urged to cut socialising to save Christmas

Wednesday 15 December 2021 21:50 , Rory Sullivan

The prime minister and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty have urged people to cut back on socialising if they want to have a proper family Christmas Day.

“I really think people should be prioritising those things - and only those things - that really matter to them,” Mr Whitty said.

Our political editor Andrew Woodcock reports:

Britons told to cut down on socialising now to save Christmas

South Africa posts record Covid cases

03:46 , Stuti Mishra

South Africa has reported its highest daily tally of new coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic amid rapid spread of the omicron variant.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases reported 26,976 new infections, surpassing a peak of 26,485 new cases in early July during a third wave driven by the delta variant.

The highly mutated omicron strain was first detected in South Africa last month and sparked global panic over fears that it is more contagious than other variants.

New Zealand detects first omicron case

04:01 , Stuti Mishra

New Zealand has detected its first case of the omicron variant, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said on Thursday.

The case was found in a traveller who flew in from Germany, via Dubai, to Christchurch and is under isolation. The person was also double vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine.

“This person was tested on day one. The positive test result on day two was recorded,” Mr Bloomfield said.

Everyone in contact with the person is getting tested, he said, adding that another positive case found in a traveller from the same flight was found to be of the delta variant.

Indonesia reports first case of omicron variant

04:20 , Stuti Mishra

Indonesia has identified its first case of the omicron coronavirus variant, the country’s health minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said on Thursday.

The case was detected on Wednesday evening and was an employee at the Wisma Atlet hospital in Jakarta.

Malaysia says all UK arrivals will have to test everyday during quarantine

04:34 , Stuti Mishra

Malaysia will now require all travellers arriving from the UK to go through self testing every day for the period of quarantine, citing the rapid community spread of the omicron variant.

The results of the rapid antigen tests will need to be reported to the government portal.

The new rules will come into effect from Friday 17 December.

South Korea reimposes Covid restrictions amid record cases

05:21 , Stuti Mishra

South Korea says it will reimpose social distancing rules from early January amid rising Covid infections and hospitalisations, weeks after easing them under the “living with Covid-19” policy.

The new rules, coming into force from 2 January, will limit gatherings to four people and only fully vaccinated people can take part. Public places such as restaurants and cafes will have to shut by 9pm.

People who aren’t vaccinated will only be allowed to dine alone, or use takeout or delivery services.

"We're making all-out efforts to overcome the pressing crisis by expanding our medical capacity and vaccination campaign, but we need time," prime minister Kim Boo-kyum told an intra-agency meeting.

"We can go beyond this crisis only by beating down the current spread as soon as possible through strong social distancing."

The measures are adopted as South Korea reports a spike in Covid infections, with 7,622 cases in the last 24 hours following a record increase of 7,850 a day before.

While 80 per cent of South Korea’s population is fully vaccinated, the high number of serious cases recently has put a strain on hospitals as most cases centre around Seoul and nearby metropolitan areas.

Japan approves Moderna jab for boosters

05:45 , Stuti Mishra

Japan on Thursday approved Moderna Inc’s Covid-19 vaccine to add to those included in its booster shots programme amid rising cases of the omicron variant.

The move comes after a recommendation from the country’s health minister to use the mRNA vaccine as a booster for those aged 18 or older.

Japan is already administering Pfizer as a booster shot.

The country began to inoculate its population with a third dose this month as it has reported 32 cases of the new omicron variant so far.

ICYMI: ‘Think carefully’ before Christmas socialising, says Boris Johnson

06:00 , Stuti Mishra

Boris Johnson has urged people to cut back on Christmas partying and “think carefully” before going out during the festive season, as omicron cases hit record levels

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon the prime minister urged people to get booster jabs but suggested they might want to avoid unnecessary social gatherings.

But he declined to impose any new formal restrictions, despite a record number of new cases and warnings of a spike in hospitalisations to come.

Our policy correspondent Jon Stone has the full story:

Think carefully before Christmas socialising, Boris Johnson says

Hong Kong researchers urge third Covid shot after new omicron study

06:35 , Stuti Mishra

Researchers in Hong Kong say a third jab is necessary for protection against the omicron variant as study shows insufficient antibodies were generated by the Sinovac and BioNTech jabs.

The research conducted by the microbiology department of the University of Hong Kong was the first published preliminary data on the impact of Sinovac’s vaccine against the omicron variant of coronavirus.

None of the serum of the 25 Coronavac vaccine recipients contained detectable antibodies that neutralised the new variant, according to the preprint study that has been accepted for publication in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the researchers said.

Just 20 per cent to 24 per cent of BioNTech vaccine recipients had detectable neutralising antibodies against omicron, the study found.

"The public is advised to get a third dose of the vaccine as soon as possible while waiting for the next generation of a more matched vaccine," the researchers said in a news release.

Earlier, WHO said the omicron variant is spreading faster than its predecessors and coronavirus vaccines could be less effective at preventing cases. The American CDC also said that early data indicated that the omicron variant is more transmissible than delta.

Current Covid boosters are enough to fight the omicron variant, says Fauci

06:50 , Stuti Mishra

Dr Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, has encouraged Americans to have faith in already existing vaccines to combat the new omicron variant, dismissing the need for variant-specific jabs, writes Tom Fenton.

“Our booster vaccine regimens work against omicron. At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster,” Dr Fauci said on Wednesday.

His press briefing comments come after Pfizer’s recent announcement that it had already started work on a modified vaccine that should be even more effective in combatting the new variant.

Read more:

Fauci says 'no need for a variant-specific booster' as omicron wave looms

Third dose of Moderna required for protection against omicron, two doses insufficient

07:10 , Stuti Mishra

An early research paper released on Wednesday showed the standard two doses of Moderna Inc’s Covid-19 vaccine were insufficiently effective at neutralising the omicron variant.

The preliminary research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, analysed blood samples from 30 participants who were administered both doses of the Moderna jab.

It found that antibodies generated from the standard doses were at least 50 times less effective at neutralising the omicron variant.

However, an additional 17 people in the study were given a Moderna booster, which increased the antibodies in their blood, boosting protection significantly.

Earlier, a study conducted in South Africa also indicated that two doses of Pfizer failed to provide sufficient protection.

Government ‘not intending’ to introduce more restrictions before Christmas, says health minister

07:31 , Rory Sullivan

The British government is “not intending” to bring in more restrictions before Christmas, a health minister has said.

Gillian Keegan added that the prime minister “won’t hesitate” to recall parliament if extra measures are necessary.

The Tory MP also said that the government’s booster target was “very ambitious” but could be met.

“Yes, I think the one thing I’m confident about...is they can meet big targets, the infrastructure’s there, the logistics are there, obviously the Army’s coming in to help, masses of volunteers are coming in to help,” she told Sky News.

Hamilton shows in US and UK close due to Covid

07:47 , Rory Sullivan

Productions of Hamilton - a highly successful musical - closed on both sides of the Atlantic yesterday due to Covid-19.

Last night’s London show was cancelled because of “Covid-enforced absences”, while the Broadway version did not run because of “breakthrough Covid-19 cases”.

“On behalf of everyone at Hamilton, we apologise for the disappointment and for any inconvenience this may cause,” the West End production wrote.

The closures come amid the international spread of the omicron variant, with the UK recording a record 78,610 cases on Wednesday.

‘Make your own decisions’ on socialising, says minister

07:58 , Rory Sullivan

A minister has told people to “make your own decisions” on socialising in the run-up to Christmas.

Gillian Keegan made the comment the morning after the country’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty suggested the public should reduce their social engagements.

“Take sensible precautions if you’re going to make a decision to go out,” Ms Keegan told Times Radio.

“Take a lateral flow test, wear a mask, try to go to ventilated places. Try to mix with people you already know.”

Government must ‘hammer out deal to help hospitality’, urges Labour

08:12 , Rory Sullivan

The government must help the hospitality sector amid Christmas cancellations caused by Covid-19, Labour has said.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said ministers must offer businesses more help.

“But, as I say, I do think the Chancellor and the Business Secretary need to get business leaders around the table with trade union leaders to hammer out a deal to help hospitality because, you know, they really need us right now,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

Hospitality leaders demand urgent financial support

08:35 , Rory Sullivan

#icymi

Leaders in the hospitality sector have demanded urgent financial support after the prime minister warned people to “think carefully” before socialising.

The plea comes amid concerns off mass booking cancellations in the run-up to Christmas, the industry’s busiest time of year.

“It is quite staggering that despite the obvious implications of the government’s rhetoric we haven’t heard a squeak out of HM Treasury,” Michael Kill, the head of Night Time Industries Association, said.

Our business correspondent Ben Chapman has all the details:

Firms slam Sunak for no support during ‘pseudo-lockdown’ while he is ‘in California’

Daily UK cases will soon exceed testing capacity, says Sage member

08:54 , Rory Sullivan

A member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has warned that the number of daily cases will soon exceed the UK’s testing ability.

Professor Andrew Hayward told BBC One: “I think at the moment we have the ability to test about 600,000 tests a day, and we’re soon going to exceed that number just in cases alone, so counting the cases is going to become hard.”

The epidemiologist also implied on Thursday morning that the omicron variant would put a huge strain on the health service.

“If you think about getting a year’s worth of rain over a month, then you’re going to get flooding and potentially severe flooding no matter how much you’ve shored up your defences,” he told BBC Breakfast.

BREAKING: France bans non-essential UK travel

08:57 , Helen Coffey

France is to ban all UK tourists from Saturday 18 December.

Only “essential” trips will be permitted under new measures, even for travellers who are fully vaccinated.

Read more here:

France to ban non-essential UK travel as Covid omicron cases surge

Hauliers to be exempt from French travel ban

09:09 , Rory Sullivan

Hauliers will not be subject to France’s upcoming ban on travellers arriving from Britain, the transport secretary has said.

“To confirm I have liaised with my French counterpart...and hauliers will remain exempt,” Grant Shapps tweeted on Thursday morning.

Sunak should help hospitality sector ‘weather storm’, says Reeves

09:23 , Rory Sullivan

Ministers have not done enough to help business owners and workers after the introduction of Plan B coronavirus measures, Labour has said.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds wrote to the government saying it must help the hospitality sector “to weather this storm”.

“Businesses face a perfect storm of cancelled bookings, rising costs and staff shortages,” they wrote.

Labour has criticised the chancellor Rishi Sunak for going on a trip to California at such a vital time for the British economy.

British hospitals hit by severe staffing shortages, warns senior doctor

09:41 , Rory Sullivan

British hospitals have been hit by staffing shortages amid a spike in infections, a senior doctor has said.

The problem is particularly acute in London, according to Katherine Henderson, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.

She said up to 10 per cent of the workforce were unavailable due to Covid-19.

“Even if we are not seeing a big rise in hospitalisations yet, we are already seeing the effect on not having the staff to run shifts properly and safely. So we are worried about patient harm coming about because we just don’t have the staff,” she told the BBC.

Ferry companies criticise France’s decision to ban UK travel

09:59 , Rory Sullivan

It is not just the hospitality sector that is despondent about the financial repercussions of the omicron wave.

After France announced a ban on non-essential travel from Britain, a spokesperson for Brittany Ferries said: “These new measures are a hammer blow to our Christmas season.

“In the context of an omicron variant that is passing through the French population as it is in the UK, further border controls seem as unnecessary as they are unwelcome,” they added.

Omicron symptoms: What to look out for

10:14 , Rory Sullivan

#icymi

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar and Celine Wadhera have this important round-up of the most common symptoms of the omicron variant:

Omicron symptoms: What to look out for from new Covid variant

A&E delays increase, latest data shows

10:24 , Rory Sullivan

As the NHS contends with the spread of the omicron variant, its services will be stretched.

The latest data shows that more than 8,000 patients in England waited more than hour to enter A&E from ambulances in the week to 12 December.

The total of 8,401 delays marked a slight increase form the 8,211 seen the previous week.

Watch: Chris Whitty appears before MPs

10:30 , Rory Sullivan

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty has urged people to cut socialising as omicron causes the largest wave of infections so far.

This morning, he is discussing Covid-19 with MPs on the Commons health and social committee.

Watch the session live here:

Cut socialising where possible, says Whitty

10:37 , Rory Sullivan

Chris Whitty has reiterated his message from last night about reducing socialising where possible.

The country’s chief medical officer told MPs on Thursday morning that doing so would drive down the risk of people catching the virus.

Referring to Christmas, he said: “People want to protect the time that’s most important to them.”

He added that infections rates “are going to continue to go up”, the day after the UK recorded its highest daily number of infections.

Poland detects first omicron case

10:43 , Rory Sullivan

Poland has identified its first omicron infection, a deputy health minister has said.

Waldemar Kraska said the case had been detected in the city of Katowice.

The country has reported almost 4 million cases and more than 90,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

‘Possible’ omicron could cause record hospitalisations, warns Whitty

10:56 , Rory Sullivan

It is “possible” that the omicron variant could cause a record number of daily hospitalisations, Chris Whitty has said.

The most Covid-19 patients taken to hospital in a single day was the 4,583 people admitted on 12 January.

UK to have reliable data on omicron in coming weeks, says leading health official

11:01 , Rory Sullivan

The UK could have reliable data on the omicron variant shortly after Christmas, a leading health official has said.

Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, told the health and social care committee: “I think the earliest that we will have reliable data is the week between Christmas and New Year and probably early January.”

15 omicron patients in UK hospitals

11:18 , Rory Sullivan

A total of 15 people are currently in hospital with the omicron variant, but the real number is thought to be much higher, health officials have said.

Dr Susan Hopkins, of the UK Health Security Agency, confirmed the number, with England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty adding: “But the real number will be much bigger than that. That is simply the number who are proven, just to be clear.”

No ‘lockdown by stealth’, PM insists

11:31 , Rory Sullivan

Boris Johnson has denied that a lockdown has been imposed by “stealth”.

The prime minister told reporters on Thursday morning that the situation now was “very different” from 12 months ago because of the vaccine programme.

“So if you want to do something, if you want to go to an event or a party, then the sensible thing to do, if that’s a priority, the sensible thing to do is to get a test and to make sure that you’re being cautious,” he said.

“But we’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted.”

Watch: Whitty says doubling rate of omicron will slow down

11:41 , Rory Sullivan

England’s chief medical officer has said the doubling rate of the omicron variant will drop if precautions are taken.

Watch his comments on the subject here:

Queen cancels Christmas lunch

12:12 , Jane Dalton

The Queen has cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch on Tuesday as a precaution to prevent the spread of Covid. Her extended family, including her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and cousins had been due to go. Kate Ng reports:

Queen’s Christmas lunch cancelled due to Covid fears

Omicron set to dominate in Scotland, warns Sturgeon

12:19 , Jane Dalton

Omicron is likely to be the dominant strain of coronavirus in Scotland from tomorrow, Nicola Sturgeon has warned.

She said 5,951 coronavirus cases were reported on Wednesday, 45.4% of which were likely to be Omicron.

The first minister said she was “profoundly concerned” by the challenge posed by the variant which is “running faster than even the fastest rollout of vaccines”.

Whitty denies lockdowns caused cancer care problem

12:31 , Jane Dalton

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the idea that locking down the country caused problems with cancer care was a “complete inversion of reality”.

Asked about concerns Covid-19 was being prioritised over other serious issues, he told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee: “I think this is sometimes said by people who have no understanding of health at all. But I don’t think it’s said by anyone who’s serious, if I’m honest. And when they say it it’s usually because they want to make a political point.

“The reality is - and if you ask any doctor working in any part of the system they will say this - that what is threatening our ability to do cancer, what is threatening our ability to do all these things, is the fact that so much of the NHS effort, so many of the beds are having to be put over to Covid and that we’re having to work in a less efficient way because Covid is there.

“Finding a way to manage Covid in a way that minimises the impact on everything else is absolutely central to what we’re trying to do.

“In a sense, I completely agree there are multiple other things in addition to Covid. If we don’t crack Covid at the points when (we’ve) got big waves, as we have now, we do huge damage elsewhere.

“And the idea that the lockdowns caused the problems with things like cancer is a complete inversion of reality.

“If we had not had the lockdowns, the whole system would have been in deep, deep trouble and the impact on things like heart attacks and strokes, and all the other things people must still come forward for when they have them, would have been even worse than it was.”

Omicron R rate between 3 and 5 amid rapid infections spread

12:43 , Jane Dalton

The R rate of omicron in the UK is between 3 and 5 - meaning every person infected with the variant is passing it on to between three and five others, according to Susan Hopkins, the UK Health Security Agency’s chief medical adviser.

Omicron is doubling in cases every two days, Prof Whitty has said.

The current R value of delta is estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.2.

Dr Hopkins said the earliest experts would have reliable data was the week between Christmas and new year and early January.

LFTs unavailable to order online for fourth consecutive day

13:00 , Rory Sullivan

There is a shortage of rapid lateral flow tests for the fourth consecutive day, amid increased demands for testing due to the spread of the omicron variant.

Speaking on Thursday, the prime minister’s spokesperson said: “We received orders for 649,000 lateral flow tests yesterday alone, which are being dispatched. Capacity is increasing significantly.”

‘Stay at home more than normal’, Sturgeon urges

13:17 , Rory Sullivan

Scotland’s first minister has urged the country to “stay at home” while laying out the severity of the threat posed by the omicron variant.

“For now, please stay at home much more than you normally would, and as much as is feasible,” Nicola Sturgeon said on Thursday.

The SNP leader added: “We must not sleepwalk into an emergency that for both health and business will be much greater as a result of inaction than it will be if we act firmly and strongly now,”

My colleague Adam Forrest has this report:

Nicola Sturgeon tells Scots to ‘stay at home’

PM denies lockdown ‘by stealth'

13:36 , Rory Sullivan

As mentioned earlier, Boris Johnson has strenuously denied the suggestion he has introduced a lockdown “by stealth”.

Jon Stone has more details about his rebuttal:

Boris Johnson denies introducing ‘lockdown by stealth’

UK omicron wave to peak ‘quite fast’, Whitty predicts

13:56 , Rory Sullivan

Chis Whitty, the country’s chief medical officer, has said the UK’s omicron wave could peak quicker than other variants.

“It will probably peak really quite fast and my anticipation is it may come down faster than previous peaks, but I wouldn’t want to say that for sure,” he told MPs earlier today.

Omicron wave sweeping the UK will ‘peak quite fast’ – Chris Whitty

Further Covid restrictions likely in Denmark

14:14 , Rory Sullivan

Denmark’s prime minister has said she may need to implement new coronavirus measures to halt the country’s third wave.

Mette Frederiksen’s warning came after Denmark recorded 9,999 new daily infections, the highest yet.

“Infection rates are unfortunately as expected very, very high,” Mette Frederiksen said on Instagram. “I have no doubt that new initiatives will be needed to break the chains of infection,” she wrote.

Booster jabs on the rise

14:30 , Rory Sullivan

A total of 745,183 boosters were administered in the UK, an increase of more than 330,000 on the previous Wednesday.

The rise in jabs comes amid spiralling coronavirus cases caused by the omicron variant.

Here’s the i’s Hugo Gye with a neat summary:

Watch: Boris Johnson heckled on visit to vaccine centre

14:45 , Rory Sullivan

The prime minister was heckled on a visit to a vaccine centre in Kent earlier today.

“Shame on you, Boris Johnson,” a man shouted.

UK’s ‘first Omicron victim’ was unvaccinated, says stepson

15:03 , Rory Sullivan

The stepson of a man who is thought to be the country’s “first Omicron victim” has said his relative had not had a vaccine.

“Had he been vaccinated, he would probably still be here,” he told LBC.

Pregnant women are vulnerable and should be prioritised for vaccines, says JCVI

15:25 , Rory Sullivan

Pregnant women should be seen as clinically vulnerable and be given vaccines immediately, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has said.

The announcement comes after data shows that the severity of Covid-19 illness among pregnant women appears to be worsening.

In the first wave, 7.9 per cent of pregnant women who were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 went into intensive care. This number grew to 16 per cent in the third wave.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the JCVI, said: “There is no evidence to suggest that Covid-19 vaccines used in pregnancy increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirths, congenital abnormalities or birth complications.

“Having a UK-approved Covid-19 vaccine is safer than having Covid-19 itself.

“Women who are pregnant are strongly encouraged to have a first, second or booster vaccine dose as appropriate in order to better protect yourself and your baby from any serious consequences from Covid-19.”

EU regulator gives green light to Pfizer antiviral Covid pill

15:43 , Rory Sullivan

EU member states are permitted to use Paxlovid - Pfizer’s antiviral coronavirus pill - before a full review of the drug is completed, the bloc’s drug regulator has said.

“The agency’s€™ advice can now be used to support national recommendations on the possible use of the medicine before marketing authorisation,” the European Medicines Agency said in a statement.

Covid rates in London and east England at 11-month high

15:58 , Rory Sullivan

Coronavirus infection rates in London and eastern England are at their highest levels since early January, the latest data shows.

While London had 702.8 cases per 100,000 people in the seven days to 12 December, eastern England had a rate of 616.5 per 100,00, its highest since 10 January.

Boris Johnson ‘joined party in No 10’ during first lockdown

16:07 , Tom Batchelor

Boris Johnson joined Downing Street officials for a party at No 10 during the first Covid lockdown – with the prime minister telling one attendee they deserved a drink for “beating back” the virus, The Independent has been told.

It is understood that about 20 civil servants and advisers gathered on 15 May last year for celebratory drinks inside Number 10 and its garden.

At the time, people from different households were restricted to one-on-one meetings outdoors, with gatherings indoors strictly forbidden.

Here is the exclusive story:

Exclusive: Boris Johnson ‘joined party in No 10’ during first lockdown

UK sets new record with highest daily case total since pandemic began

16:15 , Tom Batchelor

The UK recorded a further 88,376 cases of coronavirus on Wednesday, government figures show, making it the worst day for infections since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The figure sets a new record after 78,610 infections were reported on Wednesday – the second highest number of cases yet seen in a single 24-hour period.

Read the breaking story here:

UK records highest daily Covid case total since pandemic began

Downing Street insists PCR testing system can cope with omicron

16:30 , Tom Batchelor

After the latest weekly NHS Test and Trace figures showed just 60.4 per cent in-person PCR test results in England were received within 24 hours - far below the 100 per cent target - Downing Street was asked whether the system could cope in the face of the omicron wave (reports PA).

A Number 10 spokesman said: “With the number of cases of Covid rising there is obviously more demand for PCR tests.”

Downing Street insisted there is “sufficient PCR capacity for those with symptoms” but slots available at test sites would increase by 100,000 per day and additional lab capacity for up to 150,000 tests was also being secured.

“We will continue to try to turn around those tests and get the results back to people as quickly as possible,” the spokesman said.

Lateral flow tests unavailable to order online for fourth day in a row

16:44 , Tom Batchelor

Lateral flow tests are still unavailable to order from the government’s website – marking the fourth consecutive day the devices have been largely out of stock in the UK.

The shortfall comes amid surging cases of the omicron variant, as well as official guidance changing this week from instructing contacts of people with coronavirus to isolate at home to instead perform daily self-testing.

Here is the story.

Theatre industry demands help amid omicron cancellations

16:57 , Tom Batchelor

The theatre industry is demanding more support for entertainment workers affected by omicron cancellations.

The London productions of hit musicals Hamilton and The Lion King were the latest to announce further cancellations due to “ongoing Covid-enforced absences” in light of rising cases of the coronavirus variant.

Equity, a trade union for performing arts workers, has written to Chancellor Rishi Sunak demanding financial support for people affected.

The letter said: “In recent days and weeks, we have seen a range of productions cancelled temporarily, such as the Lion King, Ocean At The End Of The Lane, Tina: The Musical, Moulin Rouge, Life Of Pi, The Rhythmics, and Hex.

“There is a significant risk that with coronavirus cases rising, this will lead to closure and thousands of our members will lose a significant proportion of their income.”

More than 100,000 planned operations could be cancelled this winter, study claims

17:14 , Tom Batchelor

More than 100,000 planned operations could be cancelled in England this winter amid surging omicron cases, a new study claims.

Using computer modelling, researchers predict 22,147 procedures could be cancelled each week across December, January and February if Covid hospital admissions reach the same levels as April 2020.

That would mean a decrease of just over a third - 33.9 per cent - from pre-pandemic levels.

If that rises from a point seen in the first half of October 2021 at around 14,348 each week, a total of 100,273 operations could be cancelled, the study predicts.

Led by researchers at the University of Birmingham, the research team used NHS England data from September 2020 to July 2021 to develop their model.

Southwest Airlines CEO claims ‘masks don’t add much’ protection on flights

17:29 , Tom Batchelor

The CEO of Southwest Airlines has been condemned by a former surgeon general after telling a congressional committee that face masks “don’t add much” additional protection for passengers onboard a flight.

Gary Kelly, the CEO of the Texas-based airline, said on Wednesday that masks “don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin,” citing the air filtering mechanism on board Southwest planes.

Jerome Adams, a former US surgeon general, rebuked the comments. “It was irresponsible,” Mr Adams said in a CNN interview. “These folks are making record money right now because of these mask mandates. I was disgusted when I heard that.”

Here is the story:

Southwest CEO claims ‘masks don’t add much’ protection on flights

Sunak to end US trip early amid business pressure

17:44 , Tom Batchelor

Rishi Sunak has announced he will return early from his trip to California to hold more talks with business chiefs in response to the omicron crisis.

The chancellor was criticised for being out of the country while many businesses faced hug uncertainty over the impact of the new variant.

But Mr Sunak said: “This government has done whatever it takes at every stage to support lives and livelihoods throughout this pandemic - and of course we will continue to do so.

“We understand that this is a concerning time for businesses. Myself and my wider team met with business representatives earlier today, listened to their concerns and will continue to work with industry leaders over the coming days.

“To keep safeguarding our economic recovery and the lives and livelihoods of the British people our priority is now to make sure everyone has the opportunity to get boosted now.”

John Rentoul: Once again, it’s one rule for us and another rule for them

17:59 , Tom Batchelor

The most damaging perception of the government throughout the pandemic is that it passed laws that it didn’t abide by itself, writes John Rentoul.

That was why the flight of Dominic Cummings to Durham during the first lockdown last year convulsed the nation, a nation making great sacrifices for the sake of each other.

Here is his full voices piece:

Once again, it’s one rule for us and another rule for them | John Rentoul

Lambeth has highest Covid case rates in country

18:14 , Tom Batchelor

Lambeth in London has the highest Covid rate in the UK, with 3,098 new cases in the seven days to 12 December - the equivalent of 962.7 per 100,000 people.

This is up from 509.6 in the seven days to 5 December

South Northamptonshire has the second highest rate, up from 876.5 to 931.0, with 889 new cases.

Southwark in London has the third highest rate, up from 478.7 to 929.6, with 2,975 new cases.

NHS staff sickness already ‘worse than ever’ with situation set to worsen

18:29 , Tom Batchelor

NHS staff sickness levels are already “higher than they ever have been” healthcare leaders have warned, as the latest data shows thousands are already off sick with Covid.

The government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned MPs on Thursday the NHS was facing significant staff shortages over the next month and that this would come during a time when hospitalisations due to Covid may peak.

However, hospital trust leaders have warned they are already experiencing acute staff shortages due to sickness which are only going get worse in the fourth wave.

Here is the story:

NHS staff sickness levels already ‘worse than ever’

Breaking: Met to investigate Tory party HQ Covid rule breach

18:36 , Tom Batchelor

The Metropolitan Police will make contact with two people who attended a gathering at the Conservative Party HQ in London on 14 December 2020 in relation to alleged breaches of coronavirus regulations.

The Met said it was aware of a gathering at an address in Matthew Parker Street in London.

In a statement, the force said: “Officers will be making contact with two people who attended in relation to alleged breaches of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations.”

The Met also said it is looking into staff gatherings at No 10 Downing Street and the Department for Education in November and December 2020 and is in contact with the Cabinet Office, but will not commence an investigation at this time.

The statement said: “If any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence it will be passed to the Met for further consideration.

“The Met has received a significant amount of material in relation to the allegations reported in the media. All the material has been considered by detectives in detail and it does not provide evidence of a breach of the Health Protection Regulations, but restates allegations made in the media.

“In line with our policy where we do not normally investigate breaches of these regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place, unless there is evidence from the Cabinet Office or other evidence comes to light, the Met will not at this time commence an investigation.”

It added: “In line with the Met’s policy, officers do not normally investigate breaches of Coronavirus Regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place. However, if significant evidence suggesting a breach of the regulations becomes available, officers may review and consider it.”

Five UK areas with biggest week-on-week rises all in London

18:44 , Tom Batchelor

The five UK areas with the biggest week-on-week rises are all in London, latest government figures show.

They are as follows:

  • Lambeth (up from 509.6 to 962.7) - the highest case rate in the country

  • Southwark (478.7 to 929.6)

  • Hackney & City of London (411.5 to 855.8)

  • Islington (427.2 to 818.6)

  • Wandsworth (558.0 to 914.1)

London hospitalisations on the rise, figures show

18:53 , Tom Batchelor

Perhaps unsurprisingly when the latest case data is taken into account, new figures published by the government show hospitalisations in London are also on the rise.

The number of people in hospital in the capital has risen 26 per cent in a week.

The dashboard showed 1,460 patients with Covid were in hospital in the capital on 16 December, an increase of 297 people from 1,163 a week earlier.

And there were 199 hospital admissions with Covid in London on 14 December, up 34 per cent from 148 a week earlier.

The perks and perils of at-home Covid testing

19:05 , Tom Batchelor

The spread of the Omicron variant, which is racing through the population at a staggering speed, has brought renewed focus to the value and reliability of the at-home lateral flow test (LFT).

These rapid testing devices were initially viewed with caution by some scientists, who were concerned that the LFTs simply weren’t effective enough in detecting infections.

But as more data has accumulated over the past year, the consensus around the devices has shifted and become far more positive.

Here is the story:

‘A test from yesterday is not enough’: The perks and perils of lateral flow testing

Pregnant women should be regarded as clinical risk group, says JCVI

19:16 , Tom Batchelor

Pregnant women should be regarded as a clinical risk group for Covid-19 and be given vaccines quickly, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has said.

The expert team advising the government said there was “growing evidence showing that women who are pregnant are at increased risk of serious consequences from Covid-19”.

New data has been published showing that 34 women have died in the UK after acquiring Covid while pregnant.

Four newborn babies have also died where medics said the reason was Covid-19.

No 10 ‘party with Boris Johnson’ during first lockdown branded disgusting by bereaved families

19:32 , Tom Batchelor

A Downing Street gathering held during the first lockdown last May has been branded “disgusting” by families who lost loved ones to Covid.

Boris Johnson joined staff at a reception described by a source as “a party” on 15 May and told one attendee they deserved a drink for “beating back” the virus, The Independent has been told.

Hannah Brady, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said she remembered 15 May last year “very well” because she was visiting the hospital where her father was ill with Covid. He died the following day.

The campaigner said the latest claim of a party inside No 10 “makes me sick to my stomach”, adding: “It’s disgusting.”

Here is the story:

No 10 ‘party’ during first lockdown ‘disgusting’, say bereaved families

Sunak defiant in face of criticism over US trip

19:44 , Tom Batchelor

Rishi Sunak has brushed off criticism for taking a trip to the US at a pivotal moment in the Covid pandemic, saying it was a “difficult time” for the hospitality industry but that support had already been made available to struggling firms.

“I appreciate that it is a difficult time for the hospitality industry, that’s why I was on the phone earlier today with various industry leaders from the hospitality space,” he told broadcasters in the US.

The “good news” was that support measures already existed for the sector, Mr Sunak said, highlighting business rates relief, a reduced rate of VAT and around £250m of public money available through local authorities.

“My immediate priority is to make sure that money gets to those businesses as quickly as possible,” he said.

Watch: UK’s ‘first Omicron victim’ thought vaccine was ‘conspiracy’

19:51 , Sam Hancock

Northern Ireland demands additional funding in face of Omicron

20:05 , Sam Hancock

Stormont’s finance minister has written to the Treasury calling for additional funding and for the furlough scheme to be reinstated to deal with the increased challenges presented by Omicron in Northern Ireland.

It comes after it was announced last night the country would receive another £75m.

However, Conor Murphy said £50m of that figure “is not new money” and was “already factored into our plans, meaning that the announcement provides £2m of additional funding”.

“This funding also comes with the caveat that some of it may need to be repaid,” he told reporters.

Explaining why NI felt they needed more cash, he added: “The emergence of the new Omicron variant has significantly affected the economy, with pressures being felt most acutely in the hospitality sector in the run-up to Christmas.

“I have stressed to the Treasury that the Executive needs to be able to respond quickly and flexibly to the emerging public health position. Having to wait to see what England’s response is in order to know what level of financial support is available here is an untenable position.”

Omicron symptoms to look out for

20:16 , Sam Hancock

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, if you got a sniffle and a headache, you might dismiss it as an ordinary cold and carry on as normal, even if you felt a little rough around the edges. But during cold and flu season, how can you be sure it’s a cold and not Covid?

The common cold is caused by a different strain of virus to Covid-19. But with the rapidly-spreading omicron variant of Covid-19 often causing mild symptoms, such as stuffy nose, sore head and sore throat, it is very hard to tell the difference without testing.

Professor Tim Spector, from Britain’s Covid Zoe app, said omicron “is probably more, much more similar to the mild variants we’re seeing in people who have been vaccinated with delta than anything else”.

But what are the main symptoms to watch out for? Alisha Rahaman Sarkar and Celine Wadhera take a look.

Omicron symptoms: What to look out for from new Covid variant

Shapps apologies after staff ‘drank and danced’ at lockdown party

20:38 , Sam Hancock

The Department for Transport has apologised after admitting that staff working for cabinet minister Grant Shapps held a Christmas party while strict Covid curbs were still in place last year.

Government staff were “boozing and dancing” at an event in Whitehall on 16 December, according to The Mirror – the same day London was moved into tier 3 restrictions.

Mr Shapps’ spokesman said the transport secretary did not attend and had “absolutely no idea” the festive gathering was taking place at the departmental office, where staff reportedly drank alcohol, danced and ate takeaway food on the day tier 3 curbs banned all mixing indoors with anyone outside of your household or support bubble.

Adam Forrest has the full report:

Grant Shapps’ department admits staff held party during lockdown curbs

Watch: Tory MP says Whitty’s call to cut socialising will ‘ruin’ firms

20:47 , Sam Hancock

Sunak: ‘We’re not telling people to cancel things'

21:12 , Tom Batchelor

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has insisted the government was “not telling people to cancel things” and was “not closing down businesses”.

He said: “But what we are saying is that there are easy and effective things that we can all do to protect ourselves, for example wearing masks, ensuring good ventilation and – most importantly, right now – going and getting your booster because that is the best protection we have.”

UKHospitality boss asks for help after £2bn trade lost

21:35 , Tom Batchelor

UKHospitality boss Kate Nicholls has made a plea for business rates relief and VAT discounts to be extended, warning that the sector has been knocked harder than expected by the new restrictions.

Ms Nicholls said hospitality sales have already plunged by more than a third over the past 10 days with £2bn of trade already lost in December.

Ms Nicholls said: “Christmas trade is always crucial for the hospitality industry, making up as much as a quarter of the year’s profit for many businesses.

“Last year, Christmas was cancelled and so much rested on this December period for businesses already staggering under a burden of debt incurred from the pandemic and facing rising costs across the board.

“If operators are unable to trade profitably over the next month, many will simply not survive - and those that do make it through face a return to 20 per cent VAT in April.

“The government must step in now and provide measures that support the businesses and jobs in the sector - by committing to keeping VAT at 12.5 per cent suspending business rates payments for the first quarter of 2022 and reinstating recovery grants.”

Nightclubs in Wales to close after Boxing Day in response to Omicron

22:16 , Tom Batchelor

Nightclubs in Wales are to close from 27 December in the wake of the fast-spreading omicron Covid variant.

Other restrictions, including social distancing in offices, are also being introduced after Boxing Day as officials brace for a surge in cases, which is already being seen over the border in England.

Here is the story:

Nightclubs in Wales to close after Boxing Day in response to Omicron

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