Covid news: Booster vaccines extended to all over-18s, after omicron variant lands in UK

Covid news: Booster vaccines extended to all over-18s, after omicron variant lands in UK

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended the coronavirus booster campaign be extended to all over-18s, amid fears about the new omicron variant of coronavirus.

The gap between the second and booster doses of a vaccine should also be cut to three months, experts say. The government is expected to implement the recommendations while the NHS will take responsibility for rolling them out and calling forward younger adults.

It came after leaders in Scotland and Wales demanded Boris Johnson introduce tougher border quarantine rules for travellers visiting the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon said she and Mark Drakeford, her Welsh counterpart, wrote to the prime minister asking him to increase the self-isolation requirement to eight days with two PCR tests. However, this was rejected by Downing Street due to its possible economic impact.

At a press conference, the Scottish first minister said: “There is no doubt that [omicron] presents potentially the most challenging development in the course of the pandemic for quite some time.”

Read More

PCR tests and self-isolation: What are the new rules for travellers?

Omicron symptoms: What to look out for as doctor says new variant completely different to Delta

What does Greek word omicron mean? How the Covid variant names are chosen

Key Points

  • Over-18s offered booster jab as inoculation interval shortened

  • Javid refuses to rule out return to lockdown

  • No 10 rejects Sturgeon and Drakeford’s demand for tighter travel restrictions

  • Two omicron cases found in London, England total now five

  • Six omicron cases in Scotland

  • Secondary school children told to wear masks

  • Japan suspends entry of foreign visitors

  • WHO warns of ‘considerable uncertainties’ as omicron spreads

Exclusive: ‘Shameful’ for UK not to share more jabs and vaccine designs, NGOs and unions warn

Sunday 28 November 2021 09:21 , Chiara Giordano

Wealthy western governments will “prolong” the Covid pandemic if they fail to help other nations boost vaccination rates, an international alliance of NGOs, charities and trade unions has warned.

The latest Covid-19 variant, omicron, which some scientists fear could be more troublesome than the dominant and highly-contagious delta variant, has given fresh focus to the gulf between nations’ vaccination levels.

Our economics editor Anna Isaac and science correspondent Samuel Lovett have more this exclusive report:

‘Shameful’ for UK not to share more jabs and vaccine designs, NGOs and unions warn

Moderna could have booster jab ready to combat Omicron by early 2022

Sunday 28 November 2021 09:33 , Chiara Giordano

Dr Paul Burton, chief medical officer of Moderna, said his team could have a booster jab ready to rollout by early next year.

He told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show the company has been working on a booster jab to combat the Omicron coronavirus variant since Thursday and expects to know about the effectiveness of its current vaccine against the new strain within a couple of weeks.

“If we have to make a brand new vaccine, I think it’s going to be early 2022 before that’s available in large quantities,” he said.

“This is a dangerous-looking virus but I think we have many tools to be able to fight it so I’m optimistic.”

Testing and isolation rules to change from 4am Tuesday

Sunday 28 November 2021 09:42 , Chiara Giordano

According to a message on the passenger locator form section of the government's website, testing and isolation requirements will change for people travelling into the UK from 4am on Tuesday.

The message says: "After 04.00 Tuesday 30 November 2021 lateral flow tests will no longer be accepted and all travellers arriving into UK will be required to book and take Covid-19 PCR tests."

Union raises concerns about enforcement of face masks on public transport

Sunday 28 November 2021 10:10 , Chiara Giordano

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union has raised concerns about enforcement of face masks, which will once again be compulsory on public transport and in shops from Tuesday.

General secretary Mick Lynch said: "We support the wearing of masks but there are major issues about enforcement and it is our members left in the front line with angry passengers who refuse to comply.

"The government must make the resources available to police this reintroduction of masks.

"We also need to end this disjointed approach and get some consistency that avoids the chaos and confusion that is a hallmark of this administration."

Air passengers from South Africa were not tested on arrival into UK and travelled home ‘in normal way’, Sajid Javid admits

Sunday 28 November 2021 10:19 , Chiara Giordano

Health secretary Sajid Javid has admitted air passengers from South Africa were not tested on arrival into the UK on Friday and travelled home “in the normal way” despite fears they could be carrying the Omicron variant.

Our deputy political editor Rob Merrick has the full story:

Passengers from South Africa were not tested on arrival, Sajid Javid admits

‘Matter of hours’ before Omicron variant detected in France, says health minister

Sunday 28 November 2021 10:30 , Chiara Giordano

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is probably already circulating in France, the country’s health minister has said, adding that the government is tightening restrictions to contain its spread.

"There is no identification yet, but it's a matter of hours," Olivier Veran told reporters at a vaccination centre in Paris.

Authorities expected to announce how many Omicron cases found in Netherlands

Sunday 28 November 2021 10:40 , Chiara Giordano

Dutch health authorities are expected to announce how many cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant have been found in the Netherlands later today, after 61 people who flew from South Africa tested positive for coronavirus.

The Netherlands' Institute for Health (RIVM) said it believed the new variant was present in at least some of the positive cases found among some 600 passengers who were tested on arrival from two flights from South Africa on Friday.

A RIVM spokesperson said on Saturday it was "almost certain" it had identified cases of the new variant, but further testing was needed, and the institute will not say how many until it is sure.

Majority of Omicron cases seen by doctors in South Africa have been ‘mild’, says health minister

Sunday 28 November 2021 11:24 , Chiara Giordano

South Africa health minister Joe Phaahla said he had heard anecdotally that the majority of cases of Omicron seen by doctors in his country had been "mild".

Asked on LBC what he knew about how unwell people were who had contracted it, Dr Phaahla said: "It is still too early at this stage.

"Some of what I've read from some of our clinicians has been that thus far they have not witnessed severe illness. Part of it may be because the majority of those who are positive are young people."

He also said a greater proportion of older people were vaccinated, adding: "Also, it may be because it's younger people out of whom only 26 per cent of people are vaccinated."

Further travel restrictions may be necessary, Nicola Sturgeon warns

Sunday 28 November 2021 11:26 , Chiara Giordano

More restrictions on travel may be needed in Scotland to combat the threat posed by the new Omicron variant of coronavirus, Nicola Sturgeon has warned.

The first minister spoke out as new travel restrictions were imposed by the UK government after two cases of the new Covid-19 strain were confirmed in England.

Scotland will also impose the travel restrictions, which will see all passengers arriving in the UK required to take a PCR test and remain in isolation until they receive a negative result.

That will apply to everyone, regardless of their vaccination status.

While no cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in Scotland as yet, Ms Sturgeon warned that further travel restrictions may be necessary.

Explained: How the return of PCR tests and self-isolation for international travel will work

Sunday 28 November 2021 11:45 , Chiara Giordano

From 4am on Tuesday, all international arrivals into the UK will have to take a PCR test either upon entry or within one of the two following days.

The traveller must also self-isolate on arrival until a negative result is received.

Our travel correspondent Simon Calder explains the new rules in full here:

How the return of PCR tests and self-isolation for international travel will work

Not bus drivers’ role to enforce mask wearing, says Unite

Sunday 28 November 2021 11:55 , Chiara Giordano

Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said: "It is not sufficient to announce that face masks will once again become compulsory, this policy has got to be fully enforced in order to protect public health.

"The government's previous inconsistent messaging on face mask wearing is almost certainly going to result in a high degree of non-compliance.

"Unite's advice to bus drivers is clear: it is not their role to enforce mask wearing, their responsibility is to safely drive and operate the bus. The job of enforcing mask wearing is that of the bus operator and the police.

"Unite has consistently warned that the requirement to wear face masks should never have been removed while rates of Covid-19 remained high. It is only the arrival of the new variant which has forced the government to act."

Expert disagrees with claim Omicron variant is milder form of coronavirus

Sunday 28 November 2021 12:10 , Chiara Giordano

Professor Sir Mark Walport, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), has disagreed with claims that the Omicron variant is a milder form of coronavirus.

Speaking to LBC on Sunday, he said: "The number of people is still quite small, and it's a younger population, so there's no reason to think that there's going to be a milder disease."

Thirteen Omicron cases found in Netherlands

Sunday 28 November 2021 12:26 , Chiara Giordano

Thirteen cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant have been found in the Netherlands, Dutch authorities have reported.

It comes after 61 people who flew into the country from South Africa on Friday tested positive for coronavirus.

Israel becomes first country to shut borders completely over fears of Omicron variant

Sunday 28 November 2021 12:45 , Chiara Giordano

Israel has become the first country in the world to shut its borders completely amid fears over the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

Prime minister Naftali Bennett said the ban on foreigners entering the country would last 14 days.

Maroosha Muzaffar has more on this story:

Israel becomes first country to shut borders over fears of new Omicron variant

Adults to be offered booster jab ‘earlier than previously envisaged'

Sunday 28 November 2021 13:00 , Chiara Giordano

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI ), was asked whether under-40s "should expect" to get the booster earlier than previously thought because of the Omicron variant.

When asked if those aged 18-39 should brace for an extension to the booster programme on Radio 4's Broadcasting House, he said: "I think there's a very good, strong argument for raising the antibody level in the whole of the community.

"So, accelerating the booster programme, both by extending the age range and by reducing the interval between the second dose and the booster dose, will be an acceptable strategy."

When pushed on whether people aged 18 and over would be invited to get the booster sooner, he added: "Those adults 18 plus will have an offer of a booster earlier than we had previously envisaged."

Common travel area exemption from new Covid restrictions welcomed

Sunday 28 November 2021 13:15 , Chiara Giordano

The exemption of the common travel area from new Covid-19 restrictions against the Omicron variant has been welcomed.

New tougher measures including PCR testing will be introduced for arrivals to the UK from Tuesday morning.

All contacts with a suspected case of Omicron will have to isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status, amid concerns existing jabs will be less effective against the strain that is believed to spread rapidly.

However, this will not apply to the common travel area (CTA), which covers Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the Channel Islands.

The Irish Department of Health has announced its own measures to mitigate against Omicron, including mandatory home quarantine regardless of vaccine status.

Wealthier countries ‘definitely’ need to ensure more of world is vaccinated, says South Africa health minister

Sunday 28 November 2021 13:30 , Chiara Giordano

South Africa's health minister Joe Phaahla has said wealthier countries "definitely" need to ensure more of the world is vaccinated.

Speaking to LBC, Dr Phaahla said: "Closing borders and stopping travelling between countries, it's not an effective way of managing this. We know at this stage, we've learned over these last 20 months how to live with the virus.

"We've learned how to carry on with some reasonable, not old normality, but new normality of wearing masks, of testing."

Asked if wealthier countries like the UK need to give more vaccine doses to countries in Africa, he said "definitely".

Dr Phaahla said "denying access to those who don't have the financial capacity" creates "a false sense of safety".

Watch: Boris Johnson says he is ‘confident’ this Christmas will be ‘considerably’ better than the last

Sunday 28 November 2021 13:45 , Chiara Giordano

Boris Johnson has said he is “confident” this Christmas will be ‘considerably’ better than the last.

Watch the prime minister’s full remarks here:

Boris Johnson 'confident' this Christmas will be 'considerably better than last'

Expert whose modelling led to first lockdown says all options should be kept on the table

Sunday 28 November 2021 14:00 , Chiara Giordano

The expert whose modelling helped instigate the first lockdown welcomed the new measures to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus but said all options should be kept on the table in case it spreads very rapidly.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said he expects to see "substantially larger numbers" of the Omicron variant in the coming days in the UK.

He told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend programme: "We together with the Netherlands ... we're the two European countries with the largest number of passenger flights to and from South Africa, so it's likely we'll detect quite a lot more cases in the coming days."

He said he backs the new measures announced by the government as "proportionate" to slow the spread of the new variant during the "waiting game" over the next two weeks as scientists analyse its properties.

Netherlands detects 13 cases of omicron from two flights

Sunday 28 November 2021 14:23 , Lamiat Sabin

Thirteen cases of the new Covid variant omicron have been detected in the Netherlands among passengers on two flights from South Africa.

Authorities at Schipol airport in Amsterdam had tested more than 600 passengers from the two flights that had arrived on Friday.

Some 61 cases of Covid in total were found – 13 (more than a fifth) of them the omicron variant, which is feared to be extremely contagious compared to previous variants.

Read the details here

Netherlands detects 13 cases of new Omicron variant from two South Africa flights

Pre-travel testing should be reinstated ‘immediately’, says Labour MP

Sunday 28 November 2021 15:04 , Chiara Giordano

Labour MP Yvette Cooper said the government should reinstate pre-travel tests "immediately" to help identify and contain the spread of the Omicron variant.

She said: "Only reintroducing PCR tests after two days home isn't sufficient as a precautionary approach as it leaves far too many gaps in the system.

"People can still travel on busy planes, wait in busy departure or arrival halls, then travel home on buses, trains or the tube, all without being tested at all.

"We know from previous waves and variants that the virus spreads via other countries and via indirect flights, not just directly from the countries most affected - which is why early testing from all countries is vital.

"Once again, the government seems to be leaving major gaps in the travel testing regime. They have done this too many times before and they mustn't make the same mistakes again. They need to learn from what happened with previous waves and get comprehensive testing in place fast.”

Morocco suspends all incoming air travel

Sunday 28 November 2021 15:31 , Chiara Giordano

Morocco is suspending all incoming air travel from around the world, starting on Monday, for two weeks because of the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

The country’s Foreign Ministry tweeted that the decision was taken to "preserve the achievements realised by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, and to protect the health of citizens". It noted the spread of Omicron in Africa and Europe.

Morocco kept its borders closed for months in 2020 because of the pandemic, fearing that its health system would not be able to manage the surges of patients seen in Europe.

Cardiff Rugby unable to leave South Africa after two positive Covid cases

Sunday 28 November 2021 15:46 , Chiara Giordano

Cardiff Rugby has said the team is unable to leave South Africa after two positive cases of Covid-19, one of which is "suspected to be the new variant omicron".

In a statement, the club said: "The travelling party had hoped to depart Cape Town this afternoon after a charter plane was secured, however PCR tests undertaken last night have returned two positive results.

"As a consequence of one of these results suspected of being omicron, the entire travelling party have returned to their hotel to isolate.

"Cardiff Rugby continue to work with the South African Rugby Union, the Welsh Rugby Union and public health authorities both at home and abroad to decide the next course of action.

"The club are also continuing to work with all relevant authorities to secure the travelling party's return to Wales when safe and appropriate.

"Everybody concerned in this highly challenging situation would like to thank their families, friends, colleagues and the wider rugby family for their many messages of concern and well wishes."

Third UK case of omicron variant confirmed

Sunday 28 November 2021 16:04 , Chiara Giordano

A third case of the omicron Covid-19 variant has been confirmed in the UK, in a person who visited London but has since left the country, the UK Health Security Agency has said.

Third case of Covid variant detected in UK

Sunday 28 November 2021 16:12 , Chiara Giordano

A third case of the Omicron Covid variant has been confirmed in Britain, the UK Health Security Agency has said.

Tom Batchelor has more on this story here:

Third case of Covid variant omicron detected in UK

Watch: Everything we know so far about new Covid strain

Sunday 28 November 2021 16:45 , Sam Hancock

Christmas 2022 at risk from Covid due to ‘jab hoarding,’ Brown warns

Sunday 28 November 2021 17:37 , Sam Hancock

Next year’s Christmas is at risk from Covid restrictions unless the UK and other rich nations stop hoarding vaccines desperately needed in Africa, Gordon Brown is warning.

The former PM has hit out at Boris Johnson for a false claim that low take-up of jabs – rather than a shortage – is to blame for a lack of protection in countries with the new Omicron variant, writes our deputy political editor Rob Merrick.

In an article for The Independent, Mr Brown calls on Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, the chief medical and scientific officers, to “sit Johnson down” and make him understand “basic medical facts”.

Christmas 2022 at risk from Covid unless UK stops hoarding jabs, Gordon Brown warns

Secondary school children told to wear masks in communal areas

Sunday 28 November 2021 17:57 , Sam Hancock

The Department for Education (DfE) has told children in Year 7 and above that they should wear face coverings in school communal areas – essentially all secondary school pupils.

It comes as part of measures to slow the spread of the omicron Covid variant.

An email update from the department to education and childcare providers said: “Face coverings should be worn in communal areas in all settings by staff, visitors and pupils or students in Year 7 and above, unless they are exempt.

“Pupils or students (in Year 7 or above) should continue to wear face coverings on public and dedicated school transport, unless they are exempt.”

In a statement, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “We are working with education and childcare settings to enhance safety measures where needed, including introducing isolation for 10 days for close contacts of suspected omicron cases.”

Swiss approve Covid restrictions as cases rise

Sunday 28 November 2021 22:17 , Sam Hancock

A vote in Switzerland on Sunday gave the green light to new legislation, which bars unvaccinated people from attending public events and gatherings. People who have recovered from Covid or test negative will can attend such events, alongside those who are vaccinated.

The final count showed 62 per cent of voters supported the measure, which is already in force. The vote on the country’s “Covid-19 law,” which also has unlocked billions of Swiss francs in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic, came as Switzerland — like many other nations in Europe — faces a steep rise in Covid cases.

Switzerland’s government, unlike others, hasn’t responded with new restrictions. Analysts said it didn’t want to stir up more opposition to its anti-Covid-19 policies before they faced Sunday’s test at the ballot box.

Swiss health minister Alain Berset (Wikimedia Commons)
Swiss health minister Alain Berset (Wikimedia Commons)

Health minister Alain Berset said, with the result now in, authorities “still have the necessary instruments to manage the crisis, and we can, if necessary, adjust the instruments to developments”.

“A decision has been made and we must come together now to get through this winter as well as possible,” Mr Berset said. “This is an appeal for unity but also for respect for decisions that have been taken.”

On Tuesday, Swiss health authorities warned of a rising “fifth wave” on infections in the rich Alpine country, where vaccination rates are roughly in line with those in hard-hit neighbours Austria and Germany at about two-thirds of the population.

Japan suspends entry of foreign visitors

04:59 , Namita Singh

Japan will bar the entry of foreign visitors from 30 November, announced prime minister Fumio Kishida on Monday. The country’s citizens returning from a list of specified nations will be allowed to return, but must quarantine themselves in designated facilities.

Stuti Mishra reports:

Japan closes borders to all foreign visitors in response to Omicron Covid variant

G7 health ministers to meet over Omicron

05:36 , Namita Singh

The G7 health ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Monday amid concerns surrounding the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, which was first discovered in southern Africa and has now spread to 13 countries and territories.

The meeting was called by Britain, which currently chairs the G7 and is among the list of countries affected.

Passengers, many wearing face coverings to combat the spread of Covid-19, travel on the London underground in central London on 28 November 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)
Passengers, many wearing face coverings to combat the spread of Covid-19, travel on the London underground in central London on 28 November 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

The Philippines to inoculate 9 million in next three days

05:58 , Namita Singh

The Philippines on Monday launched an ambitious drive that it hopes will vaccinate nine million people against Covid-19 in the next three days.

Though the vaccine drive was not specifically organised because of the spread of the Omicron variant, the government said it would help the country respond to it. “It is better to be prepared for the effects of Omicron,” Carlito Galvez, the country’s vaccination chief, told CNN Philippines on Monday.

Due to a combination of vaccine hesitancy and logistical limitations, only a third of the Philippines’ 110 million population is fully vaccinated. The country administered an average of 829,000 daily shots in November, against the ambitious target of 3 million per day that the government has set for itself.

A medical worker prepares a BioNtech-Pfizer Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine inside a mall in Manila City, on 29 November 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)
A medical worker prepares a BioNtech-Pfizer Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine inside a mall in Manila City, on 29 November 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

Why the WHO skipped two Greek letters to name omicron

06:38 , Namita Singh

The WHO skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet — “Nu” and “Xi” — as it decided to call the new variant emerging from southern Africa omicron.

Explaining the decision, the global health agency said that Nu was too easily confused with “new”, while Xi is a common surname, also shared by China’s president Xi Jinping.

“Two letters were skipped —Nu and Xi — because Nu is too easily confounded with ‘new’ and XI was not used because it is a common surname and WHO best practices for naming new diseases (developed in conjunction with FAO and OIE back in 2015) suggest avoiding ‘causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’,” the WHO said in a statement.

Omicron variant won't impact easing of restrictions in Auckland

07:00 , Namita Singh

The emergence of the omicron variant will not impact New Zealand’s plans to ease restrictions in Auckland, said prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

While the country on Sunday restricted travel from southern African countries following the concerns surrounding the spread of the virus, Ms Ardern said she did not anticipate further restrictions.

Bars, restaurants and gyms in Auckland are scheduled to reopen from Thursday, ending the lockdown observed in the city since August.

Ms Ardern said that the country will continue its contact tracing, isolating infectious people and requiring mask use in some settings, as the impact of the new variant is being studied more.

The country is also switching to a new “traffic light” system, indicating the areas where the outbreaks are putting a pressure on the health system. Under this system, a green designation imposes few restrictions, orange requires more mask wearing and distancing, while red limits gathering sizes.

Auckland and some other parts of the North Island would be placed under the red light, due to outbreaks and lower vaccination rates, said Ms Ardern, while other parts of the country will be placed under orange light.

A client scans in her vaccine passport at Luxe & Duke Hairdressing on 25 November 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand (Getty Images)
A client scans in her vaccine passport at Luxe & Duke Hairdressing on 25 November 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand (Getty Images)

UK to unveil booster jab plan

07:25 , Tom Batchelor

The UK is set to unveil new guidance on speeding up and extending the rollout of booster jabs, a health minister has said, adding he was braced for more cases of the variant of concern Omicron.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has been asked to look at boosters for under-40s as well as reducing the gap between second doses and boosters.

“We’re awaiting that advice. I hope it will come, hopefully later today,” Edward Argar told Sky News, adding he did not know their decision.

“I don’t think it’s been formally delivered but we’d expect that within the coming hours.”

Here is the story:

Covid boosters to be recommended for younger adults ‘within hours’

WHO warns of ‘considerable uncertainties’ as omicron variant spreads

07:47 , Tom Batchelor

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued an alert about the risk of omicron spreading globally.

In a note to its 194 member states, the WHO said there were “considerable uncertainties in the magnitude of immune escape potential of omicron” and that the variant was concerning because of the “potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic”.

The health body said Covid “cases and infections are expected in vaccinated persons, albeit in a small and predictable proportion” and that further research is needed to better understand how omicron fits alongside existing vaccines infection-induced immunity.

Countries are being urged to “ensure mitigation plans are in place” and to adjust international travel measures in a “timely manner”.

The WHO said in a technical brief that the overall global risk related to omicron was "very high", with the likelihood of potential further spread of omicron at the "global level" assessed as "high".

Minister doesn’t expect further tightening of rules before Christmas

08:01 , Tom Batchelor

A government minister has said he does not expect to see any further tightening of Covid rules in the before the festive period.

Edward Argar told Sky News he was “looking forward to a Christmas spent with family and friends”.

He said restrictions expected to come into force on Tuesday, including mask-wearing on public transport and in shops, were “proportionate” and “measured”.

Asked if the government might tighten up the rules even further in the next three weeks, Mr Argar said: “It’s not something I’m anticipating.”

Six omicron cases in Scotland

08:04 , Tom Batchelor

Six cases of the omicron variant have been identified in Scotland, the Scottish government has announced.

Four are said to be in Lanarkshire and a further two in Glasgow.

Here is the story:

Six cases of omicron Covid variant found in Scotland

Government ‘confident' NHS Test and Trace can cope with omicron

08:14 , Tom Batchelor

Elsewhere on the morning media round, Health Minister Edward Argar said he was “confident” that NHS Test and Trace would be able to “scale up and meet the challenge” of the new coronavirus variant.

He told Times Radio: “What we sought to do with Test and Trace was to bring the local knowledge and expertise of local public health teams and combine it with external resource which gave the scalability and the ability to turn up the capacity in Test and Trace. We’re confident that Test and Trace can meet this challenge.

“And just by way of an example, I think 91 per cent of contacts, where they’re given by someone who tests positive at the moment, are being reached and contacted within the appropriate time.

“So it has come a long, long way from when it was first set up. And I’m confident it will be able to scale up and meet the challenge.”

Follow our travel blog for the latest on Covid restrictions affecting trips abroad

08:28 , Tom Batchelor

Japan has joined Israel in banning all foreign arrivals, while the UK is extending its own red list.

With restrictions changing by the hour, keep on top of how the omicron variant is affecting travel with our blog here:

Japan shuts borders over Covid variant fears – follow live

Labour backs stricter mask rules to slow virus spread

08:40 , Tom Batchelor

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner has said people should be wearing face coverings at indoor hospitality venues as a simple way of slowing the spread of the virus.

The new mask requirements only extend to public transport and shops – not theatres, restaurants, pubs and cinemas.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, she said: “We think we should be encouraging people to wear masks when we’re all mixing indoors, as much as possible.

“So we would recommend that people do wear masks when they’re out and about, specially when they’re moving around venues.

“The prime minister unfortunately has undermined those messages in recent weeks, but wearing a mask can be a very protective way of supporting people in stopping the virus being able to spread as quickly.”

Covid booster jabs to be recommended for over-18s ‘within hours’, says minister

08:50 , Tom Batchelor

Portugal sees more than a dozen omicron cases

08:55 , Jon Sharman

Portugal detected 13 cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant on Monday, all related to players and staff at Lisbon football team Belenenses, according to health authorities.

Some of Scotland’s omicron cases were transmitted in the community

09:07 , Jon Sharman

Scotland’s deputy first minister has said “some” of the six new omicron infections in the country were not linked to overseas travel.

John Swinney told Good Morning Scotland: “On some of the cases we are aware that there is no travel history involved.

“So what that tells us is that there must be a degree of community transmission of this particular strain of the virus.”

Vaccines the way to beat new variant, says JCVI

09:14 , Jon Sharman

The deputy head of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has talked up the booster vaccine campaign as the first pillar of Britain’s response to the omicron variant of coronavirus.

Professor Anthony Harnden said there were two potential arms of the fightback.

"Either we raise the immunity in the population or we find a matched vaccine," he told BBC Breakfast.

He added: "And it's going to be quite a while before we can get a matched vaccine so it's sensible to increase the immunity in the population and that will be done by actually encouraging those that are unvaccinated so far to get vaccinated, that is absolutely imperative, but also to make sure that we boost the most vulnerable in order.

"Inevitably everybody will be offered a booster but what we want to do is make sure that it's done in a sensible order so that those that are most vulnerable for this infection can get boosted and their natural immunity levels can go up."

Prof Harnden said the JCVI was looking at reducing the interval between second and booster doses and increasing the age range of who is eligible.

He said it was "really important that we get the immunity levels in the population high" in case the Omicron variant was more transmissible or protection from vaccines was reduced.

Should the government enforce lockdown 4.0? Tell us in our poll

09:33 , Jon Sharman

A new variant of Covid-19 has emerged and is causing concern around the world given its “incredibly high” number of mutations, with fears rife among experts because it is both highly transmissible and effective at evading the human body’s immune response, writes Joe Sommerlad.

First detected in Botswana, beginning to emerge in South Africa and already detected in Europe, B.1.1529 has been named omicron by the World Health Organisation after the next available letter of the Greek alphabet.

Should the government enforce lockdown 4.0? Tell us in our poll

School and KFC restaurant among sites targeted by Essex contact tracers

09:39 , Jon Sharman

Contact tracers in Essex are investigating potential links to a person infected by the omicron variant of coronavirus.

A school and a KFC restaurant in Brentwood are among the locations under scrutiny, according to Dr Michael Gogarty, the county director of public health.

Current vaccines likely effective against omicron, says South African expert

09:52 , Jon Sharman

The current arsenal of coronavirus vaccines will probably be effective at preventing severe disease from the newly identified omicron variant, a top South African infectious disease expert said on Monday.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim added at a news conference that it was too early to say whether omicron led to more severe clinical symptoms than previous variants.

Meanwhile, in the UK, a government adviser warned there was “good cause to be concerned” about the new strain.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told Sky News it “makes sense to try and hold it back” even though it will be “impossible to stop it spreading around the world if it is much more infectious than the Delta variant”.

He said the most important thing people in the UK could do was to have vaccines and take measures such as wearing masks.

Asked if people should be told to wear masks in pubs and restaurants, Prof Walport said: "If you are in a small, poorly ventilated enclosed space, it makes sense to wear a mask. Clearly when you are drinking and eating it's not possible to do that but if you're moving around, then absolutely.

"We know that infection happens in closed spaces indoors and of course, as it gets colder, people are more likely to be indoors and they're less likely to have the windows open.

"So if you're going to wear masks in shops, it makes sense to wear them in other places as well."

Boris Johnson has ‘undermined message’ on masks, says Angela Rayner

10:02 , Jon Sharman

Portuguese football club forced to play at weekend announces country’s first cases of Omicron variant

10:21 , Jon Sharman

More details here relating to our earlier post...

Portugal has detected 13 cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, all involving players and staff members of Lisbon football club Belenenses, after one player recently returned from South Africa, health authority DGS said.

The new variant was found after Belenenses played a Primeira Liga match against Benfica on Saturday.

Football team announces first Portuguese cases of Omicron variant

World needs new pandemic agreements to promote openness, says WHO

10:31 , Jon Sharman

The current manner in which global pandemics are handled promotes secrecy and should be rethought, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a conference on Monday: “Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivises countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores.

“South Africa should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant, not penalised.”

China, where the Covid-19 pandemic originated, has faced criticism for perceived delays in alerting the world and hampering investigations.

No evidence yet of ‘sustained’ transmission of omicron in community, says Sturgeon

10:42 , Jon Sharman

Scotland’s coronavirus situation is “stable”, according to Nicola Sturgeon, but threats have arisen in the form of the omicron variant and colder weather.

The first minister, giving a press conference today, said: “There is still a huge amount we do not know about the variant.”

Echoing the WHO, Ms Sturgeon said much more research was needed to establish the potential dangers of omicron.

She added: “There is no doubt that this presents potentially the most challenging development in the course of the pandemic for quite some time.”

Virus surveillance work has been stepped up in recent days, Ms Sturgeon said.

However, no evidence has yet emerged to suggest “sustained” community transmission of the omicron variant.

Sturgeon advises working from home

10:44 , Jon Sharman

People in Scotland will, from today, be asked to work from home if they can in light of the coronavirus situation, Nicola Sturgeon has said.

Employers should maximise the potential for remote work, the first minister told a press conference.

Sturgeon and Drakeford demand tighter travel restrictions

10:49 , Jon Sharman

Nicola Sturgeon says she and Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, have written to Boris Johnson to demand tougher restrictions on travel to the UK, in light of the omicron variant’s emergence.

The Scottish first minister said she and her Welsh counterpart agreed that travellers visiting the UK should be made to self-isolate for eight days on arrival and take two PCR tests.

For more on the current rules, read on below:

How the return of PCR tests and self-isolation for travel will work

Full story: Scottish and Welsh governments demand Boris Johnson increase number of self-isolation days for travellers

11:14 , Jon Sharman

The Scottish and Welsh government have urged Downing Street to bring in “tougher” travel rules to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 across the UK, writes Adam Forrest.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said she and Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford had written to Boris Johnson to demand a “tightening” of rules so arrivals in UK have to self-isolate for eight days.

The SNP leader and Welsh Labour leader have also requested that arrivals take a PCR test on day eight as well as day two.

Scottish and Welsh governments demand ‘tougher’ travel rules to tackle Omicron

New Covid-19 variant ‘likely’ already in Ireland, says Health Minister

11:33 , Jon Sharman

The Irish health minister has said it is “likely” that the new Omicron variant is already in Ireland.

Stephen Donnelly said on Monday that there are already some suspected cases of the new Covid-19 variant in Ireland.

He said that genome sequencing is currently taking place on the suspect cases.

New Covid-19 variant ‘likely’ already in Ireland, says Health Minister

Couple who escaped Covid quarantine hotel arrested by Dutch police

11:51 , Jon Sharman

A couple were arrested and taken from a plane in the Netherlands after fleeing a quarantine hotel and attempting to leave the country, writes Sravasti Dasgupta.

The couple - a Spanish man aged 30 and a Portuguese woman, 28 - were arrested on a plane bound for Spain, said the police.

Public health authority spokesperson Stefanie van Waardenburg said that one of the members of the couple had tested positive for Covid-19 and was in isolation while the other person was negative but in quarantine.

Couple who escaped Covid quarantine hotel arrested by Dutch police

Omicron update: Children at Essex primary school tested

12:10 , Jon Sharman

Pupils at an Essex primary school are being tested for the new omicron variant of coronavirus after a person was confirmed to have contracted the strain.

Essex County Council said had been taken at Larchwood Primary School in Pilgrims Hatch to prevent the spread of Covid-19, including moving one class to remote learning.

A joint statement from the council and school said: "Following further contact tracing of the known omicron Covid-19 case in Brentwood, it has been confirmed that there is a link to Larchwood Primary School based in Pilgrims Hatch.

"The UK Health and Security Agency, Department of Health and Social Care, Larchwood Primary School and colleagues from Essex County Council and Brentwood Council have worked together to take necessary precautionary action to prevent the spread.

"This includes making specialist testing available for all pupils and school staff and confirming arrangements for remote learning for one class."

They added that the measures were "precautionary".

Masks are being recommended in England’s schools following the detection of several cases of the omicron variant in the UK.

UK government position on mask-wearing ‘proportionate’, Downing Street says

12:25 , Andy Gregory

With no certainty yet that the omicron variant is more transmissible or may impact vaccines, the government’s approach to mask-wearing in public spaces in England is “proportionate”, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman has said.

Asked why ministers had not decided to make masks mandatory in pubs and restaurants, he told reporters: “We believe that this is a measured and proportionate approach based on the evidence that we have so far.

“It appears likely but not certain this variant is more transmissible than previous variants, but we don't have any hard evidence and indeed no one has any hard evidence on its impact on things like hospitalisations and deaths and individuals that are vaccinated.

“So we think that this is the proportionate approach to take in the current circumstances.”

He added that, in terms of stronger mask mandates, “there are particular challenges around hospitality with regards to people eating and drinking”.

Universities get new face mask guidance

12:41 , Andy Gregory

Under new official guidance, university students and staff should wear face masks in communal spaces, including corridors, to help prevent spreading the omicron variant, my colleague Jon Sharman reports.

The Department for Education (DfE) said higher education institutions may also want to consider using face masks in "workshops, laboratories, offices, libraries, teaching rooms and lecture halls" especially where social distancing is difficult to maintain.

Its new guidance says: "We recommend that face coverings should be worn by students, staff and adult visitors when moving around the premises such as in corridors and communal spaces."

The updated advice for universities adds: "We recommend that you consider whether to go ahead with planned international educational visits at this time, recognising the risk of disruption to education resulting from the need to isolate and test on arrival back into the UK."

It says international students travelling from red list countries will be required to quarantine in a managed quarantine hotel on arrival to the UK for 10 days.

‘We’ve got the balance right’: Liz Truss rejects blanket travel bans for UK

12:54 , Andy Gregory

It is important to “keep travel routes open where possible” for the good of the economy, rather than apply blanket bans to all overseas visitors, the foreign secretary Liz Truss has said, following the discovery of the omicron variant in the UK.

Her comments were made at the Foreign Office alongside Yair Lapid, the foreign affairs minister in Israel, which has closed its borders in response to the variant’s discovery. The UK has added travellers from 10 southern African countries to its travel red list.

Ms Truss said: “On the subject of the variant, we have taken very rapid action to first of all put countries on the red list where that is a risk, but also to take domestic precautions. We don't yet have the full information about this new variant but it is right that we take those precautionary measures while we're investigating further.

“And it is important to make sure that we keep travel routes open where possible, particularly to make sure that our economy remains strong, at the same time as taking necessary action. We've got the balance right.”

Police leaders working on guidance for enforcing new Covid rules

13:07 , Andy Gregory

Police leaders are working to get guidance out to officers on how to enforce the new laws once they come into force, The Independent’s home affairs correspondent Lizzie Dearden reports.

The government is using the same legislation, the Health Protection Regulations, that was used to implement lockdowns and varying restrictions since March 2020.

Officers were told to follow a model of enforcement where they explained the law to people suspected of breaches and encouraged them to follow it voluntarily, before giving out fines. Anyone who refuses to pay a fine can be prosecuted, and more than 700 wrongful charges have so far been uncovered from previous versions of the law.

Assistant Chief Constable Owen Weatherill, the national police lead for the coronavirus response, said: “Police forces will continue to enforce coronavirus regulations where it is necessary to do so. We will support transport and retail staff in ensuring people wear face coverings in line with the regulations.

“We will work closely with businesses and will continue to respond to incidents where individuals are violent or abusive towards staff or members of the public.

“Forces will increase officer visibility where possible in high risk and crowded areas, such as towns and shopping centres, and near transport hubs. If officers encounter individuals not wearing a face covering on public transport or in shops, they will engage with them, explain the risks and encourage them to comply with the new rules.”

Downing Street rejects Sturgeon and Drakeford’s calls for tighter travel rules

13:15 , Andy Gregory

Downing Street has rejected the calls from Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford for the self-isolation period for travellers to be extended until the result of a test on day eight after arriving in the UK.

Extending the requirements would have a “detrimental effect” on the travel industry, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said.

“We believe that the approach we’ve taken is the proportionate one to the evidence that we currently have available about this variant,” he said.

“Introducing further isolation requirements and testing requirements would have a detrimental effect on the travel individually industry and indeed those who are planning to go travelling.”

What does Greek word omicron mean? How the Covid variant names are chosen

13:30 , Andy Gregory

With the World Health Organisation’s decision to skip two letters of the Greek alphabet having been leapt on by by political opponents of China, Alisha Rahaman Sarkar has this explainer answering questions around the naming of the new variant:

What does Greek word omicron mean?

Northern Ireland introduces new Covid certification scheme and travel rules

13:40 , Andy Gregory

A new Covid certification scheme – whereby people will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result to enter some venues – will commence in Northern Ireland today, health authorities have announced.

Unlicensed premises such as cafes will be exempt from the rule at this stage. While other premises are expected to comply, there will be a two-week grace period without any enforcement.

All new international arrivals into Northern Ireland will also have to self-isolate for 10 days until they receive a negative PCR test result.

“I recognise that the measures I am announcing today will have consequences for individuals, their families and the local economy,” health minister Robin Swann said.

“However, it is essential that we follow the approach that has been announced for the rest of the United Kingdom in order to reduce the risk of a potentially even greater and more serious wave of infection than we currently face. The position in the Republic of Ireland will also be kept under close observation.

He added: “Until we know more about the characteristics of the new variant it is not acceptable to take the risk with the health of our people, and we need to take action urgently.”

Philippines races to vaccinate nine million people in three days under threat of omicron

13:59 , Jon Sharman

The Philippines has launched an ambitious drive to vaccinate nine million people against Covid-19 in three days, deploying security forces and thousands of volunteers in a programme made urgent by the threats of the omicron variant.

Though the earlier target of 15 million shots was scaled back, nine million would still be a significant number in a archipelago nation where logistics and vaccine hesitancy are hurdles.

The Philippines has been dealing with one of Asia’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks and its vaccine rollout has been slower than many neighbours, with just over a third of its 110 million population inoculated.

Philippines races to vaccinate 9 million people in 3 days under threat of omicron

What are the new face mask rules in the UK?

14:18 , Jon Sharman

Boris Johnson's government has announced that face mask restrictions will be reintroduced in some settings to curb the spread of the new omicron Covid variant, writes Matt Mathers.

Several countries have been added to the UK's travel red list and the vaccine approval body is expected to greenlight extending the Covid booster programme to all adults later on Monday, in a bid to mitigate against the strain, more cases of which have been found in Scotland.

The prime minister and Sajid Javid, the health secretary, have so far ruled out a lockdown but are issuing new guidance on masks.

What are the new face mask rules in the UK?

Poland bans flights to string of African nations

14:35 , Jon Sharman

Poland is to ban flights to seven African countries, extend quarantines for some travellers and further limit numbers allowed into places like restaurants, amid concerns over the new omicron variant of Covid-19.

The new rules will be in effect between 1 and 17 December.

Polish authorities had earlier said the country was approaching the peak of its fourth wave of Covid-19 infections, but the emergence of the omicron variant has muddied the outlook for the course of the pandemic.

Covid pandemic will not be over until ‘vaccine crisis’ is addressed, says WHO

14:54 , Jon Sharman

The omicron variant has demonstrated “just how perilous and precarious our situation is”, global health leaders have said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the emergence of the variant serves a reminder that “Covid-19 is not done with us”.

Addressing a special session of the World Health Assembly, WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that “hard-won gains could vanish in an instant”.

Covid pandemic will not be over until ‘vaccine crisis’ is addressed, says WHO

Covid: Booster vaccine rolled out to all over-18s and gap after second jab cut to three months

15:03 , Jon Sharman

Booster jabs should now be offered to all over-18s, the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations has said.

The JCVI has also said gaps between the second Covid-19 vaccine and booster shots should be reduced from 6 months to three months.

Although JCVI has advised all adults should now have their boosters it has advised the prioritisation of clinically vulnerable and older age groups as was done during the second and first phases of the vaccination programme.

Covid booster vaccine rolled out to all over-18s

Omicron a cause of heightened concern for scientists, says JVT

15:08 , Jon Sharman

The new omicron coronavirus variant is a reason for “heightened” concern for scientists, Jonathan Van Tam has said.

However, England’s deputy chief medical officer warned that fears about omicron should be tempered, for now, by the lack of detailed information about it.

Much research has yet to be done to determine how dangerous it might be, though this is taking place quickly.

“There are far more things we don’t know yet than things we do know,” he told a press briefing.

The number of mutations the new variant has - nearly three dozen - gives experts cause to be concerned about its impact on vaccine effectiveness, Prof Van Tam said.

Data shows boosters increase immune response, says JCVI

15:21 , Jon Sharman

While there are fears that the omicron variant might reduce the effectiveness of vaccines developed to counter the original “wild-type” Covid-19, a booster jab can help, according to the JCVI.

Wei Shen Lim, the body’s coronavirus vaccine chair, said booster jabs broadened people’s immune responses and so provided better protection even if there is a “mismatch” between the new variant and vaccine.

He made the comments as he announced the JCVI was recommending the booster campaign be extended to 18- to -39-year-olds.

Third doses should be given out in priority first to older people and those more at risk of severe disease, he added.

Two new cases of Covid variant found in England

15:32 , Jon Sharman

Two new cases of the Covid-19 variant Omicron have been detected in England, making it a total of five, the UK Health Security Agency has confirmed.

Both new cases have been confirmed from individuals in London, one in Croydon the other in Wandsworth. The UKHSA has said both are linked to travel from South Africa, writes Rebecca Thomas.

Two new cases of Covid variant found in England

Omicron could impact treatment for Covid-19 as well as vaccine, says Javid

15:38 , Jon Sharman

Sajid Javid has warned the omicron variant of coronavirus could impact the effectiveness of the Ronapreve treatment, and there is a “reasonable chance” it will affect vaccines too.

Cases of omicron, which so far total five in England and six in Scotland, are expected to rise, he added.

The health secretary was giving an update to MPs.

MPs will vote on new mask rules

15:40 , Jon Sharman

Sajid Javid has confirmed a motion on approving the government’s new mask mandate has been tabled, and says Jacob Rees-Mogg will give more details to MPs later on.

The rules will be reviewed in three weeks, the health secretary said.

He said: “We won’t keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary.”

Omicron’s emergence a failure of rich countries to share vaccines, says Hunt

16:00 , Jon Sharman

The rise of the omicron variant of Covid-19 is “a symptom of the failure of Western countries to share vaccines around the world”, Jeremy Hunt has said.

The former health secretary told the Commons he backed Sajid Javid’s new measures to “buy time” in the investigation into omicron – which is a source of “known unknowns”.

He added: “Whilst I recognise the enormous contribution the UK has made through Covax, through the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and so on, is it not a moral and practical failure that richer countries have managed to vaccinate 60 per cent of their populations, when for poorer countries it’s just 3 per cent?”

Mr Javid responded: “It is important that all rich countries do everything they can to support vaccines and the donation of vaccines to developing countries.”

He said the UK has so far distributed 20 million of the 100 million doses it promised at Carbis Bay.

The WHO says 11 billion doses are needed to protect the world.

New York mayor issues ‘mask advisory’ as scientists warn of Omicron variant

16:13 , Jon Sharman

New York mayor Bill de Blasio has issued a “mask advisory” for everyone in the city, urging New Yorkers to cover their faces as scientists warn of the new Omicron strain of the coronavirus, writes Nathan Place.

NYC mayor issues ‘mask advisory’ as scientists warn of Omicron variant

Health secretary agrees hospitality shutdown should be avoided

16:22 , Liam James

Theresa Villiers, former environment secretary, asked if the government would avoid shutting down the hospitality sector in the event that restrictions were stepped up.

She said: “Millions of people have their livelihoods depending on this, they're just getting back on their feet.

“Please let us not knock them down again.”

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said: “I agree absolutely.”

16:26 , Liam James

Tory MP Des Swayne says face coverings are “mumbo-jumbo”.

In reply, Sajid Javid said there had been a number of reports from the UK Health Security Agency showing that face coverings were effective.

16:31 , Liam James

Richard Drax, Conservative MP, asked the health secretary to commit to "never, ever" returning to lockdown.

Sajid Javid will only say that “no-one wants to see those kinds of measures”.

SNP calls on Boris Johnson to hold Cobra meeting over omicron

16:40 , Liam James

The SNP has called on Boris Johnson to convene an emergency Cobra meeting to show that he is “on top” of the emerging cases of omicron in the UK.

Richard Thomson, SNP MP for Gordon, asked Sajid Javid, the health secretary, if he would persuade the prime minister to hold a Cobra meeting with all four nations to show people that he is keepng abreast of developments.

Mr Javid replied: “In terms of meetings, and UK nations working together, I think that has been one of the successes of the UK response to this pandemic – the way that nations across the UK have worked together especially on vaccines, on testing, on surveillance and anti-virals – and it shows that we are stronger together.”

Booster vaccine rolled out to all over-18s

16:49 , Liam James

Booster jabs should now be offered to all over-18s, the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI), has said.

The JCVI has also said gaps between the second Covid-19 vaccine and booster shots should be reduced from six months to three months.

Full report from Rebecca Thomas here:

Covid booster vaccine rolled out to all over-18s

Three weeks to wait for more vaccine info on omicron, says health secretary

17:07 , Liam James

More scientific evidence of how Covid vaccines and boosters jabs are able to resist the Omicron variant will be available in three weeks, Sajid Javid has said.

Tory MP Steve Brine asked the health secretary how long it would be until scientists knew more about how the variant hits vaccine efficacy.

Mr Javid said the government had set up a three-week review as it believes that more information will be available by then.

Boris Johnson and two cabinet ministers attended event linked to Covid cases

17:18 , Liam James

Boris Johnson and two cabinet ministers attended a conference in central London last week at which several attendees have since developed Covid infections and been contacted by NHS test and trace, writes Anna Isaac.

Last Monday, the prime minister addressed business leaders and trade experts at think tank the Centre for Policy Studies’ (CPS) Margaret Thatcher Conference on Trade. The majority of attendees and the prime minister did not wear a face mask.

The Independent understands that there are at least five positive Covid cases linked to the event, three of which attended the dinner and one of whom was in close proximity to the prime minister.

Boris Johnson and two cabinet ministers attended event linked to Covid cases

‘No plans’ to close schools early due to omicron, says health secretary

17:30 , Liam James

The health secretary said he was not aware of any plans to close schools early for Christmas break due to concerns over the new variant.

Mr Javid said: “When it comes to the risk to children from Covid in general, it is a lot less, thankfully, than it is to adults.

“With regard to the specific new variant, we just don't know enough about it yet to talk specifically about the potential impact on children.

“There are no plans that I am aware of that would require us to close schools early, I think that would be very detrimental to the education of children.”

Sajid Javid refuses to rule out return to lockdown

17:40 , Liam James

Health secretary Sajid Javid has refused to rule out a new lockdown in England in response to the threat of the omicron variant of Covid-19, writes Andrew Woodcock.

Mr Javid told MPs than no-one wanted to see a return to measures of the sort deployed when the coronavirus first emerged last year.

But he was unable to give a positive response to Tory MP Richard Drax’s plea for a pledge “that he will never ever go back to locking this country down”.

Javid refuses to rule out return to lockdown in response to Omicron variant of Covid

MPs to vote on new restrictions tomorrow

17:54 , Liam James

MPs will debate and vote on new Covid restrictions in England, including face coverings in shops and public transport, on Tuesday.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, confirmed the scheduling in a statement to the House.

The rules will be reviewed in three weeks, by which time the government expects to have more information about the effect of the omicron variant on vaccinated people.

Thousands join virtual queue to book Covid booster vaccine

18:08 , Liam James

Thousands of people have been queueing to register for a Covid booster vaccine on the NHS website after it was revealed that all people aged 18 and over are to be offered a third jab to tackle the spread of the new omicron variant.

There were reports of people waiting in a queue to access the booking page for five minutes or more, with 3,000 held in a virtual line ready to book.

Jeremy Hunt says Omicron is ‘a symptom of the failure of Western countries to share vaccines around the world’

18:22 , Liam James

Latest Covid data

18:40 , Liam James

A further 42,583 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported in the UK on Monday, down from 44,434 last Monday.

A further 35 people had died from the virus by 9am on Monday, according to government data.

Spain reports first case of omicron variant

18:58 , Liam James

Spain has reported its first case of the omicron variant.

The traveller was a 51-year-old who had flown back to Madrid from South Africa, via Amsterdam, said a statement from Madrid’s regional government.

“The patient has light symptoms and is undergoing quarantine,” the statement added.

Omicron ‘not cause for panic', says Biden

19:26 , Liam James

Joe Biden urged Americans not to panic over the omicron variant of Covid-19 and said the US government was working with pharmaceutical companies to make contingency plans if new vaccines were needed.

The president said the country would not go back to lockdowns this winter, but urged people to get vaccinated, get their boosters and wear masks.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden told the press after a meeting with his Covid-19 team.

The US has yet to report a case of the new variant. It is known to be in North America though, with Canada reporting cases yesterday.

Portugal reports 13 cases of omicron variant

19:55 , Liam James

Portugal has detected 13 cases of the omicron variant, all involving players and staff members of Lisbon soccer club Belenenses SAD after one player recently returned from South Africa, health authority DGS said.

Inbound tourism firms ‘skating on thin ice'

20:20 , Liam James

The number of international visitors to the UK is expected to be down 75 per cent in November and December compared with the same period in 2019, refelecting a loss of tourism revenue in the billions.

In a poll of members of tourism association UKInbound, 89 per cent said the number of international arrivals would be lower than 2019 figures.

Joss Croft, boss of UKInbound, said the inbound tourism sector was already struggling but the announcement of new Covid restrictions had sent “shockwaves” through the industry.

“With annual revenues down 93 per cent and international visitors expected to be down 75 per cent during a critical part of the year, Christmas, businesses are skating on thin ice,” he said.

Omicron: Everything we know about the new Covid variant

20:49 , Liam James

We’ve updated our guide on the omicron variant with the latest from today.

There’s about as much as here is to know in there, and we’re keeping it up to date as more is learned about this new variant.

Everything we know about the new ‘omicron’ variant

Closing schools ‘last possible option’, says Zahawi

21:30 , Liam James

Closing schools is the last possible option in the fight against the new omicron variant of coronavirus, the education secretary has said.

Nadhim Zahawi said he does not support the return of “bubbles” in schools – where whole classes or year groups could be sent home after a positive Covid-19 test – as it reduces attendance “significantly”.

His comments came as targeted testing of pupils began in two schools in Essex and Nottinghamshire after cases of the omicron variant were detected in the local areas.

On ITV earlier he was asked if closing schools was the “last possible option”, he said: “Absolutely.”

“Keep schools open: do all the things necessary, like face masks in communal areas... to protect the education in the classroom.

“Face masks are not a panacea... these are all interventions that just help you slow the virus... from accelerating too quickly.”

Wes Streeting made shadow health secretary

22:15 , Liam James

Wes Streeting has been appointed as shadow health secretary just four months after he returned to the Labour frontbench after beating cancer.

In a tweet shortly after the announcement, he said: “Delighted to have been appointed as shadow health and social care secretary.

“This year the NHS saved my life and staff across health and social care are getting us through the worst pandemic in living memory.

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