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Covid omicron news – live: Cases of new variant leap again, as Sajid Javid rules out mandatory vaccines

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  • Sajid Javid
    British politician (born 1969)
  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019

A further 249 omicron cases have been reported in the UK – a leap nearly double that of the previous day which brings the total number of infections of the new coronavirus variant identified to 807.

It came as the health secretary Sajid Javid – who warned the actual number of cases was likely closer to 10,000, and could rise to one million by Christmas – ruled out introducing mandatory vaccines for the general public, calling the move ethically wrong and impractical just hours after Boris Johnson said the idea should be considered.

“We need to have a national conversation about ways in which we deal with this pandemic,” the prime minister said on Wednesday night. “I don’t think we can keep going indefinitely with non-pharmaceutical interventions.”

In a Downing Street briefing, Mr Johnson announced a move to plan B restrictions for England, which include work-from-home guidance, mask rules and Covid passports, in an effort to contain the omicron variant.

Meanwhile, Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla suggested that a fourth dose of coronavirus vaccine might be needed for better protection against the omicron variant, as initial studies have shown that it could undermine antibody protection with two doses.

Read More

What is plan B and when will Covid restrictions come into force?

Will there be another lockdown before Christmas as omicron cases rise?

Omicron symptoms: What to look out for as doctor says Covid variant may not fit ‘clinical picture’ of delta

Key Points

  • Javid rules out mandatory vaccines as ethically wrong and impractical

  • ‘Plan B’ restrictions to be enforced in England

  • Pfizer CEO predicts a fourth shot might be needed in light of Omicron variant

  • US omicron cases appear mostly ‘mild’, says CDC chief

  • True number of UK omicron cases ‘likely to be 10,000,’ says Javid

20:22 , Andy Gregory

That’s us wrapping up the liveblog for this evening, thanks for following here.

My colleagues will be back with more rolling news updates tomorrow, and in the meantime you can find The Independent’s latest coverage of the pandemic here.

Or else keep scrolling to read the day’s events as we reported them.

Good Morning!

05:20 , Stuti Mishra

Welcome to The Independent’s live blog covering the Covid-19 pandemic for Thursday 9 December.

Pfizer CEO predicts a fourth shot might be needed in light of Omicron variant

05:38 , Stuti Mishra

The CEO of Pfizer Inc has said that a fourth vaccine dose may be needed for better protection against the omicron Covid-19 variant, as initial studies show that it could undermine antibody protection with two doses.Albert Bourla said the company was waiting to see real world data to determine whether additional doses will be required specifically for omicron.“When we see real-world data, [we] will determine if omicron is well covered by the third dose and for how long. And the second point, I think we will need a fourth dose,” Mr Bourla told CNBC, adding that the data could be expected in the next two weeks.

ICYMI: ‘Plan B’ restrictions to be enforced in England

05:51 , Stuti Mishra

Boris Johnson has announced the government will implement its “plan B” for England with the introduction of Covid passports for large venues and guidance for the public to work from home from Monday.

The prime minister’s decision to ramp up restrictions — after a meeting of the government’s Covid operations committee — comes in response to concerns over the transmissibility of the omicron variant and spread around the world.

He also announced the mandatory wearing of face masks will be extended to cinemas and theatres after they were reintroduced a fortnight ago for public transport and shops, but exemptions will be included for eating, drinking and exercising.

However, in a move that risked sparking confusion with work from home guidance, Mr Johnson reiterated his previous stance that Christmas parties should not be cancelled and urged everyone to “exercise due caution”, including testing before such events.

Ashley Cowburn, our political correspondent explains the new rules:

Working from home back and Covid passports needed for big events, PM announces

Pakistan finds first case of omicron

06:00 , Stuti Mishra

Pakistan has detected its first case of the omicron variant, authorities said on Thursday.

A spokesperson for the southern province of Sindh told Reuters news agency that the infection was found in an unvaccinated patient undergoing treatment at a private hospital in Pakistan's most populous city of Karachi.

The patient had travelled abroad. Officials refused to disclose the location but confirmed that contact tracing was underway.

US omicron cases appear mostly ‘mild’, says CDC chief

06:24 , Stuti Mishra

More than 40 people in the US have been found to be infected with the omicront variant so far, and more than three-quarters of them had been vaccinated, the chief of the CDC said on Wednesday.

But she said nearly all of them were only mildly ill.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the data is very limited and the agency is working on a more detailed analysis of what the new mutant form of the coronavirus might hold for the US.

But “the disease is mild” in almost all of the cases seen so far, she said, with reported symptoms mainly cough, congestion and fatigue. One person was hospitalised, but no deaths have been reported, CDC officials said.

CDC chief: US omicron cases appear mostly mild so far

Should fines be issued to those who are not vaccinated against Covid? Tell us in our poll

06:45 , Stuti Mishra

UK citizens are not legally required to have a vaccine unless they work in a health or care setting.

But should those who are putting other people at risk by refusing to get inoculated face fines as some countries have proposed?

Tell us your thoughts by voting in the poll in the article below:

Poll: Should fines be issued to those not vaccinated against Covid?

ICYMI: True number of UK omicron cases ‘likely to be 10,000,’ says Javid

06:57 , Stuti Mishra

Health secretary Sajid Javid told MPs there were already 568 confirmed cases - but that the real number was “probably closer to 10,000”.

And he raised the prospect of more people having to go to hospital and “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS.

The new omicron variant of coronavirus is significantly more transmissible than delta - and more than a million people could be infected with it by the end of the month on its current spread, the health secretary warned.

Jane Dalton reports:

True omicron tally ‘likely to be 10,000 and may hit million by year end’

Full story: Pfizer CEO predicts a fourth shot might be needed in light of omicron variant

07:26 , Jon Sharman

The CEO of Pfizer Inc has said that a fourth dose of coronavirus vaccine might be needed for better protection against the omicron variant, as initial studies have shown that it could undermine antibody protection with two doses.

Albert Bourla said the company was waiting to see real-world data to determine whether additional doses would be required specifically for omicron, writes Stuti Mishra.

“When we see real-world data, [we] will determine if the omicron is well covered by the third dose and for how long. And the second point, I think we will need a fourth dose,” Mr Bourla said on CNBC’s Squawk Box, adding that the data could be expected in the next two weeks.

Pfizer CEO predicts a fourth shot might be needed in light of omicron variant

UK will not introduce mandatory vaccination, Javid says

07:38 , Jon Sharman

Sajid Javid has ruled out mandatory vaccinations for the general population, saying such a plan would be ethically wrong and impractical.

He told Sky News: “I think ethically its wrong, but also at a very practical level it just wouldn’t work.”

The health secretary also reiterated fears that Britain could see 1 million omicron cases by Christmas, according to modelling data.

"I hope that most people will understand that by taking some decisive action now, we can potentially avoid action later," he said.

Asked if tougher measures could be imposed in January, Javid said: "No. I hope not."

Government adviser urges Christmas caution

08:01 , Jon Sharman

A government adviser has urged people to be safe and responsible at Christmas, while admitting it is important to let people see each other.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group, said it is "very important" to allow people to be together in a "safe way".

Asked if he would suggest caution about Christmas parties, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's a really difficult one because I do think we do need to be responsible, of course.

"We do need to be aware of the fact that this variant has not gone away, and so we have to take that into account.

"But of course we do need to think about people's mental health and wellbeing as well.

"We had a really, really tough year last year around Christmas, and I think it's actually very important that we allow people to be together but to be together in a safe way."

Full story: Sajid Javid dismisses mandatory vaccination for public as ‘ethically wrong’

08:20 , Jon Sharman

Sajid Javid has dismissed the prospect of mandatory vaccination for the public as ethically wrong and impractical, saying: “I’ve got no interest”.

The health secretary’s comments come just hours after Boris Johnson introduced new restrictions in an attempt to control the spread of the omicron variant, urging the public to work from home and introducing Covid passports, writes Ashley Cowburn.

Sajid Javid dismisses mandatory vaccination for public as ‘ethically wrong’

People sticking to Covid guidance despite suffering, expert says

08:39 , Jon Sharman

Britons are sticking to Covid rules despite the fatigue and suffering they have caused, an expert has said.

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, praised the general public by saying that "despite the fact that people are tired and despite the fact that people are having a hard time or suffering, genuinely suffering psychologically and economically and with their health, still, by and large, the levels of adherence are very high indeed”.

He told BBC Breakfast: "And people have been following the science. The government hasn't always been doing so.

"What you see when you look at public attitudes, and when you look at public behaviour, is it tracks the state of the pandemic.

"So, when there are more infections and when there is a problem, people, number one, are more likely to adhere, and number two, are likely to be ahead of the government in calling for action to be taken.

"Now, of course, in a national crisis, you want the government centre stage, leading and guiding us through the crisis, and the problem is there is a loss of trust in the government."

No one is above Covid rules, Javid says

08:47 , Jon Sharman

Sajid Javid has been grilled on why Britons should obey coronavirus rules when evidence suggests the people making them do not do so, and even attempt to cover up their wrongdoing.

The health secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It couldn't be more important that it is clear at all times that these rules, whatever they are, whether it was back then or the rules we talked about in parliament yesterday, they apply equally to everyone – no-one is exempt, no-one is above the rules, above the law on this.”

What are the plan B rules and when do they come into force?

09:06 , Jon Sharman

Boris Johnson has announced that plan B measures will be in force in England from next week to limit the spread of the omicron Covid variant, write Joe Sommerlad and Lamiat Sabin.

At a Downing Street press conference, the prime minister warned it is clear the new strain is “growing much faster” than the delta variant.

Cases of omicron could be doubling every two or three days, he said as he announced new rules to slow its spread.

What are the plan B rules and when do they come into force?

Opposition unimpressed by attempts to clear PM of wrongdoing on Christmas parties

09:11 , Jon Sharman

Labour’s Jess Phillips has reacted with derision to attempts to shift responsibility for the Christmas party scandal away from the top of Downing Street.

Metropolitan Police will not investigate 10 Downing Street Christmas party

09:30 , Jon Sharman

#icymi

The Metropolitan Police has said it will not investigate allegations that Covid-19 restrictions were broken at a party at 10 Downing Street on 18 December 2020, writes Andrew Woodcock.

In a statement, Scotland Yard said the decision was taken on the basis of the “absence of evidence” that rules were broken and in line with Met policy not to investigate historical allegations of breaches of Covid regulations.

Met Police will not investigate 10 Downing Street Christmas party

Get regular updates with our newsletters

09:37 , Jon Sharman

To keep up to speed with the latest developments from the world of health and science as the pandemic continues sign up to our weekly Health Check email for free.

And if you want to keep your finger on the pulse in terms of the latest breaking news from across the world sign up for our free breaking news alerts that land directly into your inbox.

Click here to find out how to sign up.

Businesses and unions warn of ‘catastrophic’ impact of new Covid restrictions without more state help

09:49 , Jon Sharman

Covid plan B measures will cause job losses over Christmas unless the government provides more financial support, Boris Johnson has been warned.

Business groups and unions demanded ministers reintroduce state help including the furlough scheme to help mitigate the financial impact of new public health measures, including mandatory coverings and an order to work from home where possible, writes Ben Chapman.

The hospitality industry trade body warned of "catastrophic" results unless ministers bring in further help for the sector, including full business rates relief, grants, rent protection and an extension of the reduction to VAT.

Businesses warn of ‘catastrophic’ impact of new Covid restrictions without state help

‘I was upset by that video’: Health Secretary talks about Downing Street clip

09:59 , Jon Sharman

NHS waiting lists hit all-time high of six million patients in England

10:09 , Jon Sharman

The number of people waiting for an operation in the NHS has hit an all time high as 6m people wait for treatment, while the number of patients waiting more than a year has risen from 300,566 in September to 312,665 in October, writes Rebecca Thomas.

The NHS has also recorded the highest number of people waiting more than 12 hours in A&E since data collections began, with 7,059 people delayed in October. This is seven times higher than the numbers recorded in October 2020.

NHS waiting lists hit all-time high of six million patients

Denmark clamps down as omicron spreads

10:30 , Jon Sharman

Danish school pupils up to 16 years old must study remotely for the last few days before their Christmas holiday, the government has said.

Minister have also ordered nightclubs, bars and restaurants to close at midnight as part of efforts to counter a surge in Covid-19 cases.

The prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, also banned concerts where audiences have more than 50 people standing and required restaurant patrons to wear face masks when they are not seated.

She further recommended Wednesday that people work from home.

The measures apply as of Friday and are set to last for four weeks. The virtual teaching starts on 15 December, five days before term ends.

Ms Frederiksen said omicron’s spread was expected to "mean more infected, more sick and thus potentially more hospitalised patients".

Pakistan detects its first case of the omicron variant

10:49 , Jon Sharman

Pakistan has detected its first case of the Covid omicron variant that has now spread to almost 60 countries, writes Stuti Mishra.

Authorities on Thursday announced that the first case had been found in Pakistan’s most populous city of Karachi in a resident who was undergoing treatment at a private hospital.

Pakistan detects its first case of the Omicron variant of coronavirus

Downing Street investigation will now look at second November gathering in No 10

11:08 , Jon Sharman

The investigation into a Christmas party held in Downing Street on will be widened to examine reports of a separate gathering held in No 10 in November and a festive event at the Department for Education, writes Ashley Cowburn.

It comes after Boris Johnson announced the probe in response to a leaked video showing government officials joking about a festive party in No 10 during a mock press conference in December last year during severe Covid restrictions.

Downing Street investigation will now look at second November gathering in No 10

Raab and Shapps self-isolating after contact with Covid-19

11:12 , Jon Sharman

Dominic Raab and Grant Shapps are self-isolating after meeting with Australia’s deputy prime minister, who has tested positive for coronavirus.

The justice and transport secretaries met Barnaby Joyce in London earlier this week.

Mr Joyce, who is fully vaccinated, said he was experiencing mild symptoms.

Opinion: Rishi Sunak needs to bring back furlough – businesses are crying out for help

11:33 , Jon Sharman

So, Rishi Sunak, what’s your plan B? Because you and the Treasury sure as hell need one.

Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re on the way towards another lockdown. Or perhaps a lockdown lite, writes James Moore.

Omicron is spreading and even if its symptoms are less severe than Delta (possible but not proven) and vaccinations plus boosters are still effective at staving off severe illness and death (here’s hoping), a lot of people are still going to end up in hospital, and more measures to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed are going to be necessary.

Rishi Sunak needs to bring back furlough | James Moore

Plan B to be voted on by MPs on Tuesday

11:38 , Jon Sharman

Jacob Rees-Mogg has told MPs they will get a chance to debate and then vote on the new coronavirus rules next Tuesday.

The Commons leader also confirmed parliament would rise for its Christmas recess on 16 December, two days after that debate.

NHS app crashes for five hours, causing Covid Pass chaos

11:58 , Jon Sharman

The NHS app and website experienced another major outage yesterday, causing chaos for travellers trying to access their Covid Pass vaccination records, writes Lucy Thackray.

Users trying to access their NHS passes online last night encountered an error message: “There are currently issues with accessing the Covid Pass on the NHS App and website. We are investigating the issue and will update as soon as we can.”

NHS app crashes for five hours, causing Covid Pass chaos

No return to virtual parliament despite public being told to work from home

12:08 , Jon Sharman

Jacob Rees-Mogg has rejected a possible return to a virtual parliament , despite the general public being encouraged to work from home.

SNP Commons leader Pete Wishart said proxy voting and video links had enabled the Commons to function during lockdown.

He added: "After the loss of public trust we now have an opportunity to lead by example and do exactly what the prime minister says, so will he take the prime minister's calling seriously? For the sake of the people that work in here, for the sake of the people we serve, will he now turn back on the virtual parliament?"

Mr Rees-Mogg replied: "Of course we should be here working. What the government has said in its guidance is that you should not go into work if you don't need to.

"Parliament does not work properly with people absent, and it is very disappointing that the opposition is so lily-livered about holding the government to account that it wants to go back home early. That's not how democracy should work."

New ways to get a booster jab

12:37 , Jane Dalton

If you are eligible for a vaccine booster jab, you no longer have to wait for the NHS to contact you to make an appointment online. Joe Sommerlad explains how the omicron variant has injected new urgency into the drive for top-ups and how to get a third vaccine.

When can I get a third Covid jab and who is eligible?

School and college inspections cancelled

12:57 , Jane Dalton

Ofsted inspections will not go ahead in the final week of term to ensure schools and colleges in England can plan for omicron contingency measures.

In an email, the Department for Education (DfE) has said inspectors will visit early-years settings, schools and colleges next week only if there are safeguarding concerns.

School leaders’ union the NAHT has been calling for the suspension of inspections to be extended further amid continuing Covid-19 disruption to education.

Last month, the DfE told secondary schools in England to test pupils on-site in January to help reduce transmission.

No 10 parties claims ‘damaging health message in Northern Ireland’

13:10 , Jane Dalton

Northern Ireland’s leaders have said the controversy over Downing Street’s alleged rule-breaking party has damaged the public health message in the province. First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill both expressed concern.

Meanwhile, Stormont officials are planning for potentially further restrictions that may be needed when, as expected, the omicron variant becomes dominant in Northern Ireland early next year:

Stormont officials scenario-planning for potential new year Covid restrictions

Hospital admissions and deaths could be high without plan B, warns No 10

13:33 , Jane Dalton

Downing Street warned there could be “severe” consequences - meaning hospital admissions and deaths - if the plan B measures were not implemented.

Asked whether Tory rebels would be putting lives at risk by opposing the restrictions, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We think these are the right measures which will slow the growth. I’m not going to comment on decisions or motivations when MPs are voting, that wouldn’t be for me.

“But I simply would make the point that we do know, and the advice that we have received, is without action - given the incredibly fast growth rate of this variant - the consequences, in terms of hospitalisations and deaths, could be severe.

“Given we know that boosters do provide a level of protection - and potentially a significant level of protection - it is only responsible to provide that extra time to get more people protected.”

Shoppers could sing their way out of wearing a face mask under new rules

13:59 , Thomas Kingsley

Shoppers would be allowed to remove their face coverings in supermarkets if they walked around the store singing, according to new coronavirus rules.

Under Plan B, which was enacted by the Prime Minister on Wednesday, face coverings will become compulsory in most public indoor venues from Friday, including cinemas, theatres and places of worship, but not gyms, bars or restaurants.

Masks are already required on public transport and in shops.

Boris Johnson on Wednesday that there was an exemption for singing. This was mainly seen as being applicable to places of worship where a mask should be worn during the service but could be removed to sing carols or hymns.

But officials confirmed on Thursday this would also be applicable to other indoor settings.

Asked whether a shopper could therefore remove their mask in Tesco if they were singing, it was confirmed that would be within the rules as would removing the mask to sing in a theatre.

Covid booster jab: When can I get a third vaccine and who is eligible?

14:15 , Thomas Kingsley

The new omicron Covid variant is spreading across the UK and has prompted Boris Johnson to bring in “plan B” for restrictions to curb the spread.

As a result, members of the public are being urged to get their third vaccine jab to boost immunity as a matter of urgency.

It had been hoped that the booster alone would be enough to fend off the virus this winter but the emergence of the new variant, thought to be more transmissible than its dominant delta predecessor, has forced the government’s hand in rolling out restrictions.

Our reporter, Joe Sommerlad, has the full story below:

When can I get a third Covid jab and who is eligible?

Pubs could increase pints by 10p due to new restrictions, industry boss says

14:30 , Thomas Kingsley

Pints of beer could be 10p more expensive due to new restrictions, City Pub Group said.

Clive Watson, the group’s chairman, said the cost of a pint was already on course to rise by about 25p as a result of higher costs, including energy and wage bills, but that weaker than expected trading over the key Christmas period would lead to further hikes.

“From about 10 days ago, office parties started to get cancelled, particularly those office parties which were being funded by companies, so typically parties for 40 to 50 people,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“After yesterday’s announcement, that has again accelerated, so we’ve seen … a meaningful drop off in those types of bookings,” Watson said.

City Pub Group, has about 50 pubs in market towns and cities worldwide.

Restaurants ‘desperately need support’ to survive new restrictions, hospitality boss says

14:45 , Thomas Kingsley

Commenting on today’s announcement by the Prime Minister, UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls, said:

“While the government clearly acknowledges that hospitality is safe and can continue to host celebrations in the lead up to Christmas, the measures announced today will significantly impact consumer confidence and be particularly devastating to city and town centre venues.

“As such, they risk devastating the hospitality sector amid its most important time of the year. We therefore desperately need support if we are to survive this latest set of restrictions and urge the government to stand behind our industry. That means full business rates relief, grants, rent protection and extended VAT reductions. Anything less would prove catastrophic.”

UK Omicron Update

15:00 , Thomas Kingsley

The latest information on the omicron variant from the UK Health and Security Agency has revealed that an additional 249 cases of the new omicron variant .

This brings the total to of people infected with the omicron variant.

Police have disrupted seven ‘late stage’ terror attacks since the start of the pandemic

15:15 , Thomas Kingsley

Police have disrupted seven “late-stage” terror attacks since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest figures take the total number of foiled terrorism plots in the last four years to 32, Counter Terrorism Policing (CTP) said.

It comes as senior police officers warned the public “not to let their guard slip during the festive period.”

Since March 2017, there have been 18 disrupted plots related to Islamist extremism, 12 linked to extreme right-wing terrorism and two to left, anarchist or "single issue terrorism".

Covid-19 cases in parts of England highest level this year

15:35 , Thomas Kingsley

Covid-19 case rates in London, eastern England and the south-east have climbed to their highest level since the start of the year, new figures show.

A total of 648.5 new cases per 100,000 people were recorded in the south-east in the week to 5 December, the highest rate for the region since the week to 3 January.

Eastern England is at 552.4 cases per 100,000, the highest since the week to 10 January 10, while London's rate stands at 461.1, the highest since the week ending 17 January.

The south-east has recorded the highest regional rate in England in the three most recent weeks, suggesting it is one of the main areas of the UK driving the current spike in cases.

The figures, from the Health Security Agency, show rates are rising in all regions along with most age groups.

ICYMI: Covid antibody treatment effective against omicron variant, developer says

15:55 , Thomas Kingsley

A Covid antibody treatment is effective against the omicron variant and its wide-ranging mutations, new data has confirmed.

The drug was tested against a synthesised version of the variant and analysis shows it stood up against all 37 of the mutations located in omicron’s spike protein.

The treatment, called sotrovimab and developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), uses antibodies to target the variant’s spike protein and prevent it from gaining entry to the body’s cells.

Our science correspondent, Sam Lovett, has the full report:

Covid antibody treatment effective against omicron variant, developer says

Nicola Sturgeon urges Boris Johnson to pause intellectual property rights for vaccines

16:44 , Andy Gregory

Nicola Sturgeon has written to Downing Street, urging the PM to support temporarily waiving intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines, in a move she said would boost the number given out in poorer countries.

“The waiver would facilitate critical access to patents, technology and know-how to enable the expansion of vaccine manufacturing and distribution in developing countries. Vaccines have not been allocated evenly – at December 2021, only 6.2 per cent of people in low income countries had received at least one dose,” Scotland’s first minister said.

“By waiving patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines, countries will be able to make full use of the manufacturing capacity that is available globally.

“Ensuring equitable access to vaccine supplies is essential to ensuring as many people as possible are protected, as quickly as possible. The exceptional circumstances presented by the Covid-19 pandemic call for all available measures to be used in order to end this crisis.”

It would be ‘hard to justify’ removing mask to sing in supermarket under new rules, No 10 says

16:57 , Andy Gregory

After it emerged that under Boris Johnson’s plan B rules, blanket exemptions from wearing a mask while singing in places of worship would also technically apply in supermarkets, Downing Street has said it would be “hard to justify” shoppers having a “reasonable excuse” to remove their masks to do so.

The prime minister's official spokesman said: “We were absolutely clear there is a reasonable excuse required for someone who is seeking to do that.

“Whilst it wouldn't be for me to say, I think it would be hard to justify. These rules are set to be balanced and proportionate, we've seen how the public are responsible ... and we're confident they will continue to be so.

“It might be for the police to decide what is appropriate, as has been the case throughout the pandemic." shoppers could be exempt from wearing masks in a supermarket if they are singing.”

Public Health Scotland urges people to defer Christmas parties

17:13 , Andy Gregory

Public Health Scotland has urged people to defer their Christmas parties, in light of a number of outbreaks, particularly those caused by the omicron variant, being linked to such events.

“There is much that we still need to learn about omicron, but early evidence suggests that this new Covid variant is much more transmissible. The impact of this transmissibility has been seen in recent weeks, with a number of Omicron outbreaks linked to parties,” said Dr Nick Phin, the agency’s director of public health science and medical director.

“We still need to learn more about the severity of disease caused by Omicron and the effectiveness of vaccines, but there are important things that we can do to help protect ourselves and our families now. To help minimise the further spread of Covid-19, and Omicron in particular, I would strongly urge people to defer their Christmas parties to another time.

“I appreciate that everyone is keen to celebrate this festive season, particularly after the pressures of the last twenty months, but by postponing some plans we can all do our bit to protect ourselves and our loved ones.”

Michael Gove is third minister isolating after contact with Australian deputy PM

17:38 , Andy Gregory

Three Cabinet ministers, including Boris Johnson's second-in-command Dominic Raab, have entered self-isolation after coming into contact with Australia's deputy prime minister, who has tested positive for coronavirus.

It was reported earlier today that Mr Raab, who is the justice secretary as well as being deputy prime minister, and transport secretary Grant Shapps both entered isolation having met Barnaby Joyce in London on Monday.

A spokesperson has now confirmed that Michael Gove has also taken the measure after meeting with Mr Joyce this week.

Mr Joyce, who is fully vaccinated, said in a Facebook post on Thursday that he had been experiencing mild symptoms and decided to get tested.

Covid cases rise week-on-week in more than 8 in 10 local authorities, analysis suggests

17:52 , Andy Gregory

Coronavirus cases have risen week-on-week in 312 of the UK’s 377 local authority areas, according the most recent analysis of official figures.

In the seven days to Sunday, infection rates fell in just 17 per cent of council areas compared to the previous week.

Torridge in Devon continued to have the highest rate in the UK, with 632 new cases reported last week – the equivalent of 919 per 100,000 people.

This is down from 1,062.3 in the seven days to November 28.

Reigate and Banstead in Surrey has the second highest rate, up from 668 to 909, with 1,358 new cases.

South Northamptonshire has the third highest rate, up from 617 to 876, with 837 new cases.

New Covid cases exceed 50,000 for fourth time in past week

18:12 , Andy Gregory

The number of new daily coronavirus cases has exceeded 50,000 for the fourth time in the past seven days, with a further 50,867 lab-confirmed cases reported today.

The government said a further 148 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus.

Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have now been 171,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

People could remove masks to sing their way round supermarkets under new Covid rules

18:26 , Andy Gregory

My colleague Adam Forrest has more details on the bizarre quirk of the government’s new coronavirus rules, by which an exemption for mask-wearing while singing in places of worship also extends to less obvious settings for a tuneful outburst – such as supermarkets.

Asked whether a shopper could remove their mask in Tesco to sing, it was confirmed it would be within the rules – though officials stressed there needed to be a “reasonable excuse”.

People could remove masks to sing in supermarkets under new rules

Six omicron cases now discovered in Ireland

18:41 , Andy Gregory

A total of six cases of the new omicron variant have now been confirmed in Ireland, the country’s Department of Health has said.

“A number of other probable cases are under investigation,” Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said, and was reported as referring to forecasts that omicron could become the dominant variant in Europe by the start of January.

The first omicron infection in Ireland was identified on 1 December, the Irish Times reports.

It comes as a further 4,022 cases of Covid-19 are confirmed in Ireland. As of Thursday, there were 530 people in hospitals with the virus, with 115 patients in intensive care units.

Civil servants should ‘get off their Pelotons’ and back into the office when safe to do so, Tory peer says

19:00 , Andy Gregory

Civil servants should get off their Pelotons and return to the office as soon as the threat from omicron has been evaluated and the “new normal” returns, a Tory former Cabinet minister has said.

During a debate in the House of Lords on the funding of Transport for London, whose finances have taken a large hit during the pandemic, Lord Patten said he hoped the government would “adopt an attitude or even a policy of creative courage where they can, in order, without any cost at all, to bring passengers back into central London and into outer London”.

John Major’s former education secretary added: “One way I think of doing that is to bring civil servants back to their offices again, just as soon as possible. That's for the good of the nation, the good of London and the good of the civil servants themselves.

“Back into their expensive and now too often white elephant office blocks. Back to actually seeing their colleagues, talking to their colleagues at the coffee point, helping and encouraging new joiners. All these things are critically important.

“And to parody that old saying, ‘get on your bike’, I think it's rather a case of ‘get off your Pelotons’ at home and get back into the office in the cause of a better civil service.”

Delta variant drives 15% increase in US hospitalisations in just two weeks

19:19 , Andy Gregory

As researchers scramble to better understand the recently emerged omicron coronavirus variant, the delta variant has continued to hammer the United States, resulting in tens of thousands of hospitalisations.

According to a New York Times analysis, the US is averaging about 121,300 coronavirus cases daily, which is a 27 per cent increase over two weeks ago. Deaths have also increased by 12 per cent, with an average of 1,275 fatalities each day.

The majority of the infected have been and remain people who have rejected the available coronavirus vaccines. The continued onslaught of patients has burned out healthcare workers and has resulted in some hospitals turning away patients due to lack of beds.

My colleague Graig Graziosi reports from America:

Delta variant drives 15% increase in hospitalisations in just two weeks

Front pages likely to stoke unease on Tory benches over plan B measures

19:41 , Andy Gregory

Unease on the Tory benches about the government’s move to plan B measures will have been amplified by a series of hostile front pages on usually supportive newspapers this morning.

The Sun mocked up Boris Johnson as the Grinch, while the Daily Mail contrasted the announcement of Plan B with the Downing Street Christmas party, saying: “One rule for them, new rules for the rest of us.”

The Daily Telegraph, which former aide Dominic Cummings claims Mr Johnson still regards as his “real boss”, carried the headline, “Don't go to work, but do go to parties” – a reference to the PM’s suggestion last night that festive bashes should still go ahead this year despite the call to stay away from offices.

Working from home guidance: How long will we be away from offices?

19:59 , Andy Gregory

Perhaps the most significant new measure in the plan B measures for many people in England is the return of the order to work from home, which comes into effect, where possible, from this coming Monday.

Experts on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies had been calling for the measure since at least last week while others have been recommending it since as long ago as October.

My colleague Joe Sommerlad looks at how long the guidance is likely to remain in place for:

How long will we have to work from home?

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