Omicron Covid variant – live: EU to halt flights as first European case reported

·39-min read

The European Union called on Friday for a suspension of air travel connection to places where a new Covid-19 variant has been detected, as the first case of “Nu” was today confirmed in Europe.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was vital for the continent to act “swiftly, decisively and united”, and called for EU citizens to get vaccinated.

She added: “All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clearer understanding about the danger posed by this new variant.”

Meanwhile, Marc Van Ranst, whose laboratory works closely with Belgium‘s public health body Sciensano, said on Twitter that the variant was found in a traveller returning in Belgium from Egypt on November 11.

The person developed the first symptoms on November 22, the virologist said.

Earlier today, Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs the “Nu” variant could be even more transmissible than Delta and that it could pose a “substantial risk to public health”.

Read More

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New Covid variant may evade vaccines and could pose ‘substantial risk to public health,’ Javid warns

New Covid variant: First case confirmed in Europe with Belgium infection

Key Points

  • ‘Nu’ variant named Omicron by WHO

  • ‘Nu variant could be 500% more infectious than Delta’

  • UK bracing itself for omicron variant spread

  • UK records 50,000 new cases – highest in more than a month

  • Financial markets suffer hits due to ‘Nu' variant fears

  • More nations ban travel to and from southern Africa

  • US and Canada restricts arrivals from eight African countries

  • The new Covid variant is likely to end up in Britain - top scientist

  • Vaccines may be less effective against variant, says Javid

Good Morning

04:21 , Stuti Mishra

Welcome to The Independent’s live coverage of everything related to the discovery of a new Covid variant.

What we know so far about B.1.1529 variant?

04:31 , Stuti Mishra

A worrying new variant is driving a spike in infections in South Africa and triggering concerns of increased travel restrictions.

The variant, which descends from the B.1.1 lineage, has an “incredibly high” number of mutations, experts say, with fears that it is highly transmissible and effective at evading the body’s immune response.

B.1.1529 has 32 mutations located in its spike protein. These include E484A, K417N and N440K, which are associated with helping the virus to escape detection from antibodies.

Another mutation, N501Y, which is found in the spike protein, appears to increase the ability of the virus to gain entry to our cells, making it more transmissible.

Here’s everything we know about the B.1.1529 variant:

Everything we know about the B.1.1529 variant

Australia considers closing borders to South Africa

04:54 , Stuti Mishra

Australia is considering closing its borders to travellers from South Africa if heightened risks from the new variant are found.

The government said it was investigating the newly identified variant of Covid-19 and would respond swiftly if the World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies it as a major new variant.

“As we have always been, we are flexible. And if the medical advice is that we need to change that, we won’t hesitate,” Australia Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Sydney. “That is what we have done as a country, whether it has been closing borders, whether it has been ensuring there is quarantine.”

South African scientists are concerned the new variant has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations and could evade the body’s immune response.

On Thursday, Britain added six African countries — South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini — to its Covid travel “red list”.

What scientists are saying about the new variant?

05:25 , Stuti Mishra

Scientsists say the new variant can be a lot more virulent due to its higher mutations and could possibly evade vaccine protection.

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said the variant could be “of real concern” as its 32 mutations in its spike protein could enable it to more easily evade a person’s immune system and spread to more people.

Prof Francois Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology and Director, UCL Genetics Institute, said the variant’s mutations are in “an unusual constellation” that “accummulated apparently in a single burst”.

He said that this indicates it could have evolved during a “chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient”.

Lamiat Sabin reports.

Scientists warn of new Botswana variant of Covid with ‘horrific’ number of mutations

New Zealand says its prepared for new variant

05:39 , Stuti Mishra

New Zeland’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern says the county is well prepared to deal with the new variant, a week after announcing the opening of its borders.

Ms Ardern was asked whether the discovery of B.1.1.529 variant, which is feared to be more virulent and could evade the protection of vaccines, would disrupt the opening time table of the country in an interview with Reuters news agency,

She said the country has “a number of inbuilt measures to act as a layer of protection.”

“We are transitioning into a phase now where we see the vaccine do some heavy lifting, but we are maintaining a level of public health restriction,” Ms Ardern said.

“All of our planning around Covid, we have built into it the possibility of variants in the future,” she said. “That is why we are maintaining levels of public health protections. It’s why we’ve maintained requirements at our border.”

“With all our changes, we constantly monitor what is happening with the pandemic as we go and we’ll continue to do that,” she further said. “It gives us the ability to see the impact of things like waning immunity, to see what happens with public health restrictions.”

Scientists ask for parachuting in extra vaccine supplies

05:55 , Stuti Mishra

Scientists have proposed parachuting in extra vaccine supplies to southern Africa to help prepare the region for an expected rise in cases driven by the new Covid-19 variant.

The variant – called B.1.1.529 – is feared to be highly transmissible and effective at evading the body’s immune response due to its “very unusual constellation” of mutations, 32 of which are located in the virus’s spike protein.

Many virologists have started to sound the alarm over the variant, warning that pre-emptive action needs to be taken as soon as possible, while others have insisted more data and time is needed to determine the threat posed by B.1.1.529.

In response, experts have said early action needs to be taken in case the variant does prove to be as problematic as feared.

Samuel Lovett reports.

Parachute in extra vaccine supplies to target new Covid variant, scientists suggest

Japan to tighten border controls after discovery of new variant

06:15 , Stuti Mishra

The Japanese government has decided to tighten border controls for travellers from six African countries affected by the new Covid variant, according to the Jiji news service.

This includes South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.

The move comes after several countries have said they are considering stronger rules or even closing down of borders for travellers of these countries after the new variant was reported.

Scientists have said the new variant – called B.1.1.529 – could be highly transmissible and possibly manage to evade the body’s immune response due to its “very unusual constellation” of mutations.

Earlier on Thursday, Britain added the six countries to its Covid travel “red list”.

British travel ban seems 'rushed', says South Africa

06:49 , Stuti Mishra

South Africa’s foreign ministry has responded to Britain’s move of adding it to its travel “red list” along with five other countries after a new Covid variant was reported.

Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s foreign minister said in a statement that they will engage with British authorities and ask them to reconsider the decision.

“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” Ms Pandor said.

The statement added that the decision “seems to have been rushed” since the World Health Organisation is yet to advise on the next steps.

The new variant, called B.1.1.529, is stoking fear of new infections as scientists say it could be highly transmissible and effective at evading the body’s immune response due to its “very unusual constellation” of mutations, 32 of which are located in the virus’s spike protein.

After the UK’s announcement, several countries, including Australia and Japan have said they are considering stricter restrictions for travellers from South Africa.

Apart from South Africa, the countries added to the UK’s list are Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.

Singapore to restrict arrivals form South Africa

07:04 , Stuti Mishra

Singapore has decided to restrict arrivals from South Africa and five nearby countries affected by the new variant in order to prevent infections, the country’s health ministry has announced.

All non-Singaporean or non-permanent residents with recent travel history to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe will be denied entry or transit through Singapore, it said on Friday.

This comes after Japan announced similar measures and the UK added the six African countries to its red list, with several other countries, including Australia, considering travel bans.

The new variant was first reported in South Africa, with over 100 cases in the country and more in neighbouring nation Botswana, where fully vaccinated people are among those who have been infected.

Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong - where travellers from parts of southern Africa were isolated in separate rooms.

The strain is feared to be more virulent than Delta and has 50 mutations overall, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone.

Facebook, Instagram and TikTok launch new features encouraging Covid booster jabs

07:19 , Joe Middleton

Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are launching new features to encourage people to get their coronavirus booster jabs.

From Friday, users will be able to update their profiles with frames or stickers to show that they have had their top-up jab or aim to when they become eligible.

It follows on from people previously being able to show they have had their first and second jabs on certain social networking websites and apps.

TikTok also held a “grab a jab” event in London earlier this year.

More than 16 million booster vaccines have now been given across the UK.

People who are aged 40 and above and received their second dose of their vaccine at least six months ago are currently eligible to have their booster.

A new campaign advert is also being launched on Friday, which shows how Covid-19 can build up in enclosed spaces and how to prevent that from happening.

Vaccines minister Maggie Throup said: “Getting your booster is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and your family this winter.

“It is fantastic to see some of the biggest household names further back the phenomenal vaccine rollout, allowing their users to proudly display that they have played their part in helping us build a wall of defence across the country.

“I urge everyone who is eligible - don’t delay, get your vaccine or top-up jab today to protect yourself and your loved ones.”

New Covid variant: Everything we know

07:34 , Joe Middleton

The Independent’s Eleanor Sly has the everything we know so far about the new Covid variant.

Everything we know about the new Covid variant

B.1.1.529 ‘the most significant’ Covid variant so far, says top health official

07:38 , Joe Middleton

The new B.1.1.529 Covid variant is “the most significant” that has been discovered so far, according to a top UK health official.

Officials sounded the alarm on Thursday night over the B.1.1.529 variant, which has the potential to evade immunity built up by vaccination or prior infection.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the new variant identified in South Africa “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective”.

Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says: “This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility.”

Concerns new variant could ‘defeat the vaccine’

08:00 , Joe Middleton

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said there are concerns the new coronavirus variant could “defeat the vaccine”.

Mr Shapps told BBC Breakfast that ministers acted “extremely fast” to ensure a “safety-first approach” to travel changes following an emergency meeting with chief medical officers.

He added: “This is agreed across all of the United Kingdom and we have acted fast, it’s rather like the mink variant from Denmark last year, where we acted very quickly, within hours and we’re then able, once we’ve checked it out, to release things somewhat.

“I hope that’s what this is, a pause rather than going backwards, but we can’t take risks when we see a variant which could well defeat the vaccine, or at least that’s the concern and we need just a bit of time to check that out.”

New variant is ‘complex’, says top health expert

08:12 , Joe Middleton

The new variant is the most “complex” and “worrying” seen, the chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency has said.

Dr Susan Hopkins told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “The first look at it shows it has a variety of different mutations, it’s got 30 different mutations that seem relevant, that’s double what we had in Delta.

“And if you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it’s a highly complex mutation, there’s new ones we haven’t seen before, so we don’t know how they’re going to interact in common.

“So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant and I think we will need to learn a lot more about it before we can say for definite its definitely the most complex variant before.”

She added: “It is the most worrying we’ve seen.”

Red list: What the ban on six Southern African countries means for travellers

08:24 , Joe Middleton

In a repeat of the events of last winter, the UK government has responded to an alert about a new variant of concern by putting a flight ban on South Africa – and adding the country, and five neighbours, to the “red list”.

British and Irish citizens or residents arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe after 4am on Sunday 29 November will be required to book and pay for a UK government-approved hotel quarantine facility for 10 days.

Anyone else who has been in those six countries in the past 10 days will be denied entry to the UK.

The Independent’s Simon Calder has the key questions and answers.

Red list: What the ban on six Southern African countries means for travellers

Covid variant is ‘not doomsday', says top scientist

08:42 , Joe Middleton

The new Covid variant is “not doomsday” as the UK has got better at controlling the virus, a scientist has said.

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “If it spreads more quickly then yes it will get here, the travel ban will delay its arrival but if it spreads more quickly the lesson has surely been from all the variants we’ve seen before that it will get here eventually.

“We shouldn’t despair, vaccines will be effective, so if you haven’t had your vaccine go and get it, be that the booster, the first dose, the second dose.

“Secondly there are new medicines coming along... these will not be affected almost certainly by this mutation.

“We have got much better at controlling the disease in other ways in hospital so it is bad news but it is not doomsday.”

We are taking a ‘safety-first approach’ to the new variant, says Grant Shapps

09:01 , Joe Middleton

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said the Government is taking a “safety-first approach” to the new Covid-19 variant which has emerged in southern Africa.

Ministers are to impose a travel ban on six nations in the region due to rising concerns over the new strain of the virus.

Mr Shapps told Sky News: “It is important to make sure that you do act immediately and in doing so you get to slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country.

“That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome, which involves growing cultures - it takes several weeks to do - so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is.

“It is a safety-first approach. We have done that before with things like the mink variant from Denmark and we were then able to relax it reasonably quickly.”

New Covid variant could ‘defeat the vaccine’, cabinet minister warns

09:17 , Joe Middleton

Boris Johnson’s government and top scientific advisers have concerns that the new Covid variant could “defeat the vaccine”, a cabinet minister has warned.

South Africa is one of six countries which have been added to England’s travel red list after alarm was raised about the B.1.1.529 variant – described as the “worst one we’ve seen so far”.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said ministers wanted to take a “safety first” approach to the variant over fears it may be able to evade the protection of existing vaccines.

Adam Forrest reports.

New Covid variant ‘could well defeat the vaccine’, minister warns

Welsh sides heading back from South Africa amid new coronavirus fears

09:32 , Joe Middleton

Cardiff and the Scarlets are planning to return to Wales at the earliest opportunity after South Africa was added to the UK Government’s travel red list.

The two clubs were set to take part in the United Rugby Championship in South Africa this weekend, with the Scarlets facing the Sharks in Durban on Saturday, and Cardiff playing the Lions in Johannesburg on Sunday.

However, after UK officials warned of a new variant of the virus, both clubs issued short statements overnight stressing they are working on returning to the UK as soon as possible.

Welsh sides heading back from South Africa amid new coronavirus fears

German air force to help transfer Covid intensive care patients

09:42 , Joe Middleton

The German air force is to help transfer intensive care patients as the country sees a record number of daily coronavirus cases.

German news agency dpa reported that a Luftwaffe A310 medevac plane will fly seriously ill patients from the southern town of Memmingen to North Rhine-Westphalia state on Friday afternoon.

Hospitals in southern and eastern regions of Germany have warned they are running out of intensive care beds because of the large number of seriously ill Covid-19 patients.

The country’s disease control agency said 76,414 newly confirmed cases were reported in the past 24 hours.

The Robert Koch Institute said Germany also had 357 deaths from Covid-19, taking the total since the start of the outbreak to 100,476.

Health Secretary set to address MPs on Covid crisis

09:54 , Joe Middleton

Health Secretary Sajid Javid will make a Commons statement on the latest developments in the Covid-19 crisis at 11am on Friday, the House authorities have said.

Ask Covid data expert Tim White anything about the new variant and travel red list

09:59 , Joe Middleton

Tim White, the Covid data analyst who tweets as @TWMCLtd, has trawled through the genomic sequencing records held by Gisaid, the worldwide database, with a focus on variants of concern.

He will be on hand to answer all your latest travel questions around the latest announcement and what might happen to the traffic light system in coming weeks during a live ‘ask me anything’ event being held on this page today (26 November).

Join Tim at 5pm today, 26 November, when he’ll be on hand to answer your travel questions about all the latest rules and restrictions live.

Ask data expert anything about the new Covid variant and the red list

Israel ‘on the verge of a state of emergency’, says PM

10:03 , Joe Middleton

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met health experts on Friday to discuss how best to respond to a new variant of the coronavirus that has been detected in South Africa that he said was more contagious than the Delta strain.

“We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency,” Bennett said, according to a statement from his office. “Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now.”

Israel has reported one case of the new strain in a traveller returning from Malawi.

Israel announced on Thursday it was barring its citizens from travelling to southern Africa and banning the entry of foreigners from the region.

Czech President Zeman returns to hospital after positive Covid-19 test

10:21 , Joe Middleton

Czech President Milos Zeman has been readmitted to hospital after testing positive for Covid-19, just hours after he had been discharged following more than a month’s treatment for an unrelated condition.

Zeman, 77, was released from the Prague military hospital to home care on Thursday morning but an ambulance took him back in the evening after testing positive at the presidential retreat at Lany, west of Prague.

The hospitalisation means Zeman will not for the time being appoint centre-right opposition leader Petr Fiala as prime minister, which had been planned for Friday.

Jan Lopatka reports.

Czech President Zeman returns to hospital after positive Covid-19 test

Experts discuss the UK’s current Covid strategy during live virtual event

10:36 , Joe Middleton

The Independent’s health correspondent Samuel Lovett hosted an expert panel discussion examining the latest details surrounding Covid.

Experts discuss the UK’s current Covid strategy during live virtual event

South Africa set to convene coronavirus council

10:47 , Joe Middleton

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will convene the National Coronavirus Command Council on Sunday, a government statement said, after scientists detected a new Covid-19 variant in the country.

Decisions taken by the council inform the government’s stance on the coronavirus pandemic, including the level of lockdown restrictions.

Prepare for lockdown 4.0 – it’s inevitable

11:00 , Joe Middleton

We can’t control the virus, but we can control how we support each other, writes Victoria Richards.

Opinion: Prepare for lockdown 4.0 – it’s inevitable

Sajid Javid is speaking in the House of Commons

11:02 , Joe Middleton

The Health Secretary has said there are “no detected cases of variant in UK at this time” but that it is of “huge international concern.”

New variant may pose ‘substantial risk to public health’ - Javid

11:06 , Joe Middleton

The Health Secretary said the new variant “may pose substantial risk to public health”.

He said it has a “large number of mutations”, may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines “may be less effective against it”.

New Covid variant may evade vaccines and could pose ‘substantial risk to public health,’ Javid warns

11:12 , Joe Middleton

The new Covid-19 variant detected in southern Africa may be more transmissible than the Delta strain and vaccines “may be less effective against it”, health secretary Sajid Javid has said.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Javid said that the emergence of the Nu variant was of “huge international concern”.

It is “highly likely” that the strain has spread outside the African countries were it is believed to have developed, but no cases have yet been detected in the UK, the health secretary told MPs.

New Covid variant may evade vaccines, Javid warns

‘Very live’ discussions about adding more countries to the red list - Javid

11:27 , Joe Middleton

Sajid Javid said there are “very live” discussions over the prospect of adding further countries to the red list following the emergence of a new variant of the virus which causes Covid-19.

The Health Secretary told MPs: “We are going primarily by where the new variant has been detected at this point, and that’s been confirmed in two countries in southern Africa - South Africa and Botswana.

“We’ve included the four other countries I mentioned earlier in southern Africa as a precaution.”

He added: “We are keeping this under review and there’s very live discussions going on about whether we should and when we might add further countries, and we won’t hesitate to act if we need to do so.”

New Covid variant: How worried should we be?

11:41 , Joe Middleton

Warnings have been loud and clear from the beginning: do not underestimate this virus. Now, after months of relative silence on the genetic frontline, a new enemy appears to have surfaced, writes Samuel Lovett.

New Covid variant: How worried should we be?

Jonathan Ashworth tests positive for Covid

11:50 , Joe Middleton

Vaccines may be less effective against variant, says Javid

12:16 , Jane Dalton

Current vaccines may be less effective against the new Covid variant, Sajid Javid says:

‘Possible’ variant could already be in UK, says expert

12:27 , Jane Dalton

The new variant may already be in the UK although current signs are reassuring, an expert at the Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said.

Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UKHSA, said scientists were very concerned about the new variant found in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

Work is continuing to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role, according to Dr Hopkins.

Asked whether the variant may already be in the UK, she said: “Well, it’s always possible. We have no cases identified whatsoever yet, nothing in our genome sequencing... so overall, I think the situation is reassuring in-country, but of course, people are arriving every day.”

She added that one of the mutations in the variant is very similar to one in Alpha, which means it can be detected quite easily with PCR tests.

Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain how likely it was the variant would come to the UK, Dr Hopkins said: “I think the measures that we take on borders are there to delay, to slow, to allow us to have time to gain more information.

“The fact this virus is resurging on a very immune population (in South Africa) is worrying.

“Clearly vaccines will help, because they will boost the antibody responses and the T cell responses in our body, which will help us fight variants, so global vaccination is a key component of that.

“But also we need to watch and wait and see as these new variants emerge. And I think this shows that we may need new vaccines in the future.”

No 10 urges anyone returning from southern Africa to get PCR test

12:40 , Jane Dalton

Downing Street has urged anyone who has recently returned from one of the six southern African countries placed on the red list not to wait for NHS Test and Trace to contact them before getting tested.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: “Anybody who has arrived from any of these countries in the last 10 days, NHS Test and Trace will be contacting them to ask them to take a PCR test.

“But do not wait to be contacted. People shouldn’t wait to be contacted.

“If you have travelled back from one of the six countries in the past 10 days, they should take a PCR test.”

Flights have been cancelled between the UK and South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

‘Most worrying’ variant has mutations that evade vaccines and raise infectivity

13:04 , Jane Dalton

The chief medical adviser of the Health Security Agency said the new variant had around “30 different mutations that seem relevant - that’s double what we had in Delta (variant)”.

Susan Hopkins told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “If we look at those mutations, there’s mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evade the immune response both from vaccines and from natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility.

“It’s a highly complex mutation, there’s also new ones that we have never seen before.”

She said the variant was the “most worrying” seen by scientists but much was still unknown.

13:14 , Joe Middleton

Israel on ‘verge of state of emergency’ over new coronavirus variant

13:35 , Joe Middleton

Israel is on the “verge of a state of emergency”, the country’s prime minister warned after a worrying new coronavirus variant was detected in at least three people.

The Middle Eastern country on Friday imposed a travel ban covering most of Africa after detecting its first case of the Nu variant, also known as B1.1.529, in a traveller who had returned from Malawi.

Scientists are concerned about the new variant, which could be more contagious than the Delta strain.

Chiara Giordano has the details.

Israel on ‘verge of state of emergency’ over new coronavirus variant

First case confirmed in Europe with Belgium infection

13:40 , Joe Middleton

Belgium has confirmed a case of the new, more transmissible Covid-19 variant, a virologist says.

It’s the first case in Europe of the variant feared to be more resistant to vaccines.

Jane Dalton reports.

First case of new Covid variant confirmed in Europe

14:08 , Joe Middleton

Smokey Robinson: Motown legend urges vaccination after Covid-19 hospitalisation

14:27 , Joe Middleton

Motown legend William “Smokey” Robinson has appealed for fans to get vaccinated against Covid after his own hospitalisation with the virus.

Mr Robinson, who was hospitalised a year ago with Covid, said he was “very happy to share” his own experiences in a recent interview with ET.

It comes ahead of the release of a new film, Miracle in Motor City, in which the Motown legend plays himself.

Gino Spocchia reports.

Smokey Robinson urges vaccination after Covid-19 hospitalisation

It could take weeks to find out if B.1.1.529 variant will evade vaccines - WHO envoy

14:44 , Joe Middleton

Dr David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation special envoy on Covid-19, said it could take weeks to determine whether the B.1.1.529 variant could evade the current vaccines available.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme, Dr Nabarro said it was a “reasonable worry” to have that the new variant, which has been found in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel, could “evade the protection of the vaccines”.

He added: “It is that which really people are worried about and so it is a reasonable worry, and one that everybody needs to investigate.

“But my colleagues who do all this work in the World Health Organisation tell me it takes some weeks to get the answer.

“So we need to be incredibly careful now to do the right thing but to also recognise that it is going to be some weeks before we can say for certain whether our fears have any basis.”

Israel imposes travel ban on most African states

15:00 , Joe Middleton

Israel on Friday imposed a travel ban on most African states, after reporting cases of a new and potentially vaccine-resistant coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett widened a ban on Thursday on the entry of foreigners from seven African countries and travel to them.

“We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency he said, adding that the B.1.1.529 variant had “arrived at a very complicated time”, coinciding with the Hanukkah vacation when children, mostly unvaccinated, are out of school.

Bennett said a few cases had been reported in Israel, including at least person who had already received a vaccine booster shot.

“That doesn’t mean the vaccines are no good (against the new variant). It might mean they are effective to a certain degree,” said Bennett, who met Israeli health experts before the travel edicts were announced.

Under the broader restrictions, all African nations, except those in North Africa, were added to Israel’s “red list” of high-risk countries.

Travellers ‘stuck on plane’ after flight from Johannesburg to Netherlands

15:11 , Joe Middleton

A number of travellers on a flight from Johannesburg are reportedly stuck on a plane at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands.

Stephanie Nolan, a health reporter at the NY Times, said: “So I’m in my 3d hour on a tarmac at Schipol. While my flight from Jo’burg was somewhere over Chad, Europe went into variant panic; by the time we landed, we weren’t allowed off the plane. They won’t even let a catering truck bring us water.”

Brussels recommends suspending all flights between EU and countries with new Covid variant

15:19 , Joe Middleton

The European Union should suspend “all flights” with countries which have declared they have the new Covid variant, European Council president Ursula von der Leyen has said.

Her comments came as alarm grew over the spread of the new variant.

She added that news of the latest Covid variant was “very concerning”.

EU recommends suspending flights to countries with new Covid variant

The new Covid variant is likely to end up in Britain - top scientist

15:41 , Joe Middleton

It is likely that the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 that is spreading in South Africa will end up in Britain, the head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium said on Friday.

“I think buying time is important and it’s worthwhile, because we can find out what we need to know about that particular variant,” Sharon Peacock told reporters, saying that the health service might need to make preparations.

“This is part of important planning and preparation for something that I would guess is likely to be transmitted into the UK at some point, but it buys that time.”

‘Nu’ variant: Fauci says US ‘learning more and more’ about Covid variant as other countries assess travel

16:02 , Joe Middleton

As the world scrambles to head off the threat of a new Covid-19 variant, White House pandemic adviser Dr Anthony Fauci has said that it is too soon to make conclusive judgments about just how serious the virus is.

Asked on CNN whether there was any sign the “Nu variant” is circulating in the US yet, Dr Fauci was agnostic. “Of course anything is possible, we don’t know that. There is no indication that it is right now.”

As he described it, the American scientific community is “learning more and more” about the mutant virus, which is spreading fast in South Africa. Cases of the new variant have so far been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium.

Andrew Naughtie reports.

Fauci says US ‘learning more and more’ about ‘Nu variant’ detected in South Africa

New case toll of 50,000 is highest in more than a month

16:32 , Lamiat Sabin

A further 50,091 cases of Covid have been reported across the UK in the latest 24 hour period.

This is the highest daily figure since 21 October.

A further 160 people have died in the UK within 28 days of testing positive, taking the total to 144,593.

Covid cases soar by 50,000 in highest daily figure in over a month

Covid forces German far-right party to cancel congress

17:00 , Lamiat Sabin

A German far-right party has cancelled its congress for next month because of Covid.

The party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has opposed many of the country’s pandemic restrictions, has cancelled the event due to the surge in coronavirus infections.

Germany has seen record infection rates in recent days and, this week, exceeded 100,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

AfD co-leaders said today that the decision to postpone the meeting had been taken out of “duty of care and responsibility for the members, delegates, but in particular also all AfD staff as well as service personnel.”

Alice Weidel, one of the leaders of AfD’s parliamentary party recently contracted the virus, as did the party’s leader in Thuringia state, Bjoern Hoecke.

Several regional AfD officials have died of Covid.

More nations ban travel to and from southern Africa

17:20 , Lamiat Sabin

A number of countries – including the UK, those in the EU, and Russia – have cancelled flights from southern African nations.

The measures come after a new extremely-contagious Covid variant was first discovered in Botswana.

More countries have now closed their borders to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have joined the ranks of countries cancelling flights from these seven nations.

Israel has banned travel from most of the African continent, except for North Africa.

The United Arab Emirates has announced that all travellers from the seven countries will not be allowed in from Monday.

In Asia – Hong Kong, Japan, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore have also banned or severely restricted travel from the seven nations.

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said today that the travel restrictions were “unjustified”, adding that South Africa was acting with transparency, and that travel bans contravened the norms and standards of the World Health Organisation.

‘Nu variant could be 500% more infectious than Delta’

17:40 , Lamiat Sabin

The new B.1.1.529 variant may be around 500 percent more infectious than the Delta variant, a US epidemiologist has warned.

The startling claim comes after it was found that the variant that first emerged in Botswana has 32 mutations in its spike protein.

The Botswana or “Nu” variant is feared to be able to bypass vaccines and natural immunity, and has been detected in Belgium, South Africa, Hong Kong and Israel.

Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), tweeted that the variant has more than double the number of “bad spike mutations” compared with the highly transmissible Delta variant.

“My god – the new #B11259 [B.1.1.529] variant being possibly ~500% more competitively infectious is the most staggering stat yet,” Dr Feigl-Ding tweeted.

“That spike in #B11259 displacing Delta has now caused shockwaves worldwide. It is really bad. Not only that but the previous #C12 variant also seems to be slowly growing and displacing Delta too in South Africa.”

Financial markets suffer hits due to ‘Nu' variant fears

18:00 , Lamiat Sabin

Around £72 billion has been wiped off the value of the FTSE100 as a result of a new Covid variant that is said to be extremely contagious.

The index of the UK’s 100 largest companies dropped by 3.6 per cent today, its biggest drop since June 2020 – the early days of the pandemic.

Meanwhile the FTSE 250, which includes the next 150 biggest companies, dropped 3.2 per cent, wiping a further £13.5bn off the London stock exchange.

The European Stoxx 600 has closed down almost 3.7 per cent.

Spain’s IBEX fell by 5.0 per cent, France’s CAC index dropped by 4.75 per cent, Germany’s DAX slipped by 4.15 per cent.

The oil price has also plummeted today, by 9 per cent, to a new two-month low.

‘Nu’ variant named omicron by WHO

18:20 , Lamiat Sabin

The ‘Nu’ variant has officially been named omicron by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Omicron is the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet.

In June this year, the WHO announced that it would be using Greek letters as “simple” names for variants.

The variant that first emerged in Botswana, and has spread to Europe with one case in Belgium, is also known as 1.1.529.

It was also known as the Botswana variant, but the WHO has said that calling variants by the places where they are detected “is stigmatising and discriminatory.”

Monaco imposes mask rule for everywhere outside the home

18:40 , Lamiat Sabin

Monaco will be enforcing the wearing of masks everywhere outside people’s homes from tomorrow.

It comes after 102 cases of Covid were reported over the past three days – up from 38 over the preceding four days.

The city state’s government will also be limiting the validity of PCR test results from 72 hours to 24 hours from Monday.

People in Monaco are also being urged to work from home if they can, and will have to show proof of vaccination to go to bars, restaurants, and terraces.

Standing while drinking or eating will be prohibited, the Monaco Daily News reports, as well as school swimming lessons and all contact sports.

Netherlands to be ‘effectively closed between 5pm and 5am’

19:05 , Lamiat Sabin

All businesses – except for essential services such as supermarkets and pharmacies – are to close at 5pm in the Netherlands.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte has announced this evening a curfew in a bid to stop hospitals becoming overwhelmed, while anti-lockdown protesters demonstrated in The Hague.

He told a televised press conference: “From Sunday, the whole of the Netherlands is effectively closed between 5pm and 5am.”

Supermarkets and pharmacies will be able to close from 8pm.

The new restrictions come amid tightening of Covid regulations in the Netherlands, as the delta variant continues to rip through the European continent.

Amateur sports competitions and practices during the evening will also be banned.

Schools will stay open. Essential services by professionals such as medics, notaries, lawyers, and mortgage advisors are also exempt.

Face masks will also have to be worn in venues where Covid passes are required, including all bars, restaurants, cafes, and cinemas.

Mr Rutte also asked that contact be reduced between children and people over the age of 70.

US and Canada restricts arrivals from eight African countries

19:20 , Lamiat Sabin

The US will be restricting the arrivals of people from eight southern African countries from Monday over concerns about the omicron variant of Covid.

An official in the Biden administration said the restrictions will apply to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.

The policy does not ban flights or apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, the official said.

The US only lifted travel restrictions on South Africa on 8 November.

Canada said it would ban the entry of travellers who have passed through southern Africa in the last two weeks.

Other countries – including the UK and those in the EU, Middle East and Asia – have restricted arrivals from seven countries (all except Malawi).

More details from John Bowden here

President Biden introduces new travel ban in response to Omicron Covid variant

Mandatory hotel quarantine could resume in Ireland

19:40 , Lamiat Sabin

Ireland is considering restarting its mandatory hotel quarantine regime after it told residents to avoid non-essential travel to seven southern African countries due to concerns over the omicron variant.

While Ireland has no direct flights to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, it urged all Irish residents there to return as soon as possible and quarantine at home for 10 days upon their arrival.

Health minister Stephen Donnelly told national broadcaster RTE today that he would bring legislation before parliament early next week to enable the hotel quarantine scheme to resume after it was stopped in late September.

He also said: “I’ve had advice from the chief medical officer to say it is something we should consider.”

20:35 , Katy Clifton

Vaccines minister Maggie Throup has urged people to get vaccinated to help avoid restrictions at Christmas as experts grow increasingly concerned over a new coronavirus variant.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? programme that the World Health Organisation recognising it as a variant of concern “makes it even more serious”.

“At the moment we don’t know if it will evade the vaccines that we’ve all been having and if it will be more infectious than the current variant,” she added.

“When it comes to Christmas my message is that the best way we can have that Christmas this year that we didn’t have last year … is to get vaccinated.”

She urged hesitant people to get their first vaccine and others who are eligible to come forward for their boosters.

Hundreds of passengers from SA delayed at Schiphol airport

21:15 , Lamiat Sabin

Around 600 passengers arriving in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa today have been delayed for hours at the airport.

Earlier, the Dutch government was one of many around the world that banned all air travel from countries in southern Africa over fears of the omicron variant that emerged in Botswana.

Dutch health minister Hugo de Jonge said in a statement that passengers already in the air would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival at Schiphol airport.

Passengers on the two KLM flights, from Cape Town and Johannesburg, said they were waiting on the tarmac for hours.

“Vigorous applause because there is a BUS that has come to take us ... somewhere,” tweeted New York Times journalist Stephanie Nolen, a passenger on the flight from Johannesburg.

“Bus to a hall to a huge queue. I can see COVID testers in bright blue PPE far on the distance. Still no snacks for the sad babies,” she added in a second tweet.

She also said that there had been some “escalating hysteria” among passengers because of a lack of food and water while waiting.

The airport said in a statement: “Everything is done carefully and that’s why it took some time. Passengers are provided with food and drinks. They will be tested (for) the coronavirus.”

Should the UK have lockdown 4.0? Let us know in our poll

21:40 , Lamiat Sabin

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

UK bracing itself for omicron variant spread

21:56 , Lamiat Sabin

Whitehall officials have been instructed to start planning future Covid restrictions for if the new omicron variant arrives in the UK.

It comes after one case of the extremely-infectious variant was discovered in Belgium.

The emergence of the virus that was first found in South Africa has led to dozens of countries closing their borders to travellers from seven or eight nations in the south of the African continent.

Some scientists have warned that the “worst” Covid variant so far could already be in the UK.

Samuel Lovett and Anna Isaac give more details in our front page story tomorrow:

UK braces for expected arrival of new Covid variant

22:01 , Lamiat Sabin

That’s it for today’s live coverage of the Covid pandemic. Thank you for following, and good night.

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