Coronavirus live news: ‘Highly likely’ BioNTech vaccine works against new variant; Taiwan confirms first local case since April

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Coronavirus live news: ‘Highly likely’ BioNTech vaccine works against new variant; Taiwan confirms first local case since April” was written by Matthew Weaver (now) Alexandra Topping and Helen Sullivan (earlier), for theguardian.com on Tuesday 22nd December 2020 14.25 UTC

Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease expert, has confirmed that the US is considering testing UK travellers before they are allowed to enter the US.

But he dismissed an outright ban on travel from the UK as an “over reaction”. Asked by BBC News if the US planned to follow more than 40 countries in banning travellers from the UK, Fauci said:

At this point I am not recommending that, I think that might be a bit of an overreaction. However, I certainly respect the other countries in their decisions of what they’re going to do.

I think we should seriously consider the possibility of requiring pre-flight testing before people leave from the UK to the United States. That’s something that’s on the table that I believe needs to be seriously considered rather than an out-and-out now ban on all travel from the UK to the United States.

Speaking 45 minutes before he is due to receive the vaccination, Fauci said he hoped his jab would encourage others. He said:

I want this to be a symbol for the people in the United States to encourage them about the safety and the efficacy of this vaccine, and to get them to be enthusiastic when their time comes to get vaccinated.

A further 405 people have died in English hospital after testing positive for Covid, NHS England has announced. It brings the English hospital death toll to 46,983.

The patients were aged between 26 and 100 years old. The date of death ranged from 2 July to 21 December 2020 with the majority being on or after 18 December.

Here’s a regional breakdown:

East of England – 49

London – 53

Midlands – 82

North East & Yorkshire – 78

North West – 64

South East – 56

South West – 23

Thousands of cases of the more infectious variant of coronavirus have been detected across the UK, according to scientists, who said it had clearly spread beyond areas under the most severe tier 4 restrictions.

The latest genetic surveillance suggests the new strain spread rapidly from Kent and London in late September and reached the south-west, the Midlands and the north of England, although London, the south-east and eastern England remain by far the most affected regions.

“It is certainly not the case that this is just completely geographically constrained in what is the current tier 4 area,” said Dr Jeffrey Barrett, a statistical geneticist working on Covid-19 at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute near Cambridge.

Prof Tom Connor, a consultant bioinformatician at Cardiff University, said genetic sequencing had picked up the new variant, named B117, in north and south Wales in keeping with its spread across the country. “The sequence data shows quite clearly there are cases all around the UK,” he said.

Read more here:

Covid cases in Scotland have risen by 1,316 in the last 24 hours and further 43 people have died, the Scottish government has announced.

In Northern Ireland another 439 people have tested positive and further 16 people have died.

Testing site set for Manston airport

Lorries are parked at Manston International Airport
Lorries are parked at Manston International Airport
Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

The UK government is aiming to set up a covid testing site at Manston Airport in Kent for lorry drivers hoping to head back to France.

Industry sources said the facility, which looks set to be run with help from the military, would use lateral flow tests which give a quick response enabling drivers to travel.

However, there are concerns about what would happen to drivers who test positive, and their trucks.

It’s not clear where accommodation could be found for vehicles and sick drivers who were unable to continue their journey.

It’s also unclear whether the French government would accept the use of lateral flow tests which are seen to be less reliable than the gold-standard PCR test, which is processed in a laboratory.

Ireland will shut restaurants, pubs serving food and some shops from Christmas Eve after health officials warned the country had quickly spiralled into a third wave of infections, Reuters reports.

Prime Minister Micheal Martin said there was no evidence that a new, virulent variant of the virus that has isolated neighbouring Britain had reached Ireland, but the safest way forward was to assume it had.

Ireland has one of the lowest incidence rates in Europe after moving early in October to temporarily shut shops, bars and restaurants. Unlike much of Europe, they have largely been open again during the busy December trading period.

However daily cases were now rising at 10%, Martin said, prompting the government to scrap provisional plans to keep hospitality open until closer to the New Year and move to a modified version of its highest level of restrictions until 12 January.

Martin said:

Unfortunately in the last week we have seen extraordinary growth in the virus. This is the same pattern as we have seen in the United Kingdom and across Europe.

While we do not yet have firm evidence that the new more virulent strain of the Covid virus is in our country, the rate of growth tells me that the safest and most responsible thing to do is to proceed on the assumption that it is already here.

A claim by the transport secretary Grant Shapps on Monday evening that only 170 lorries were held up in Kent is looking increasingly dubious.

Switzerland got its first doses of vaccine on Tuesday, Reuters reports citing health officials.

Switzerland’s drugs regulator authorised use of jabs from Pfizer and partner BioNTech on Saturday in what officials called the world’s first such approval under a standard procedure.

An initial batch of 107,000 doses will go to individual cantons to start inoculating vulnerable people, including those over 75 at first and those with medical conditions.

“In the next seven days the first targeted vaccination programmes can start,” federal health agency official Virginie Masserey told a news conference in Bern.

Unlike a high-profile vaccine rollout in Britain, Swiss officials are keeping the media away from homes for the elderly where the first jabs will take place.

“Switzerland’s Maggie remains unknown,” the Blick tabloid wrote in reference to Margaret Keenan, the 90-year-old British grandmother who this month became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

Margaret Keenan, 90, applauded by staff as she returned to her ward after she became the first person in the United Kingdom to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine at University Hospital, Coventry
Margaret Keenan, 90, applauded by staff as she returned to her ward after she became the first person in the United Kingdom to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine at University Hospital, Coventry
Photograph: Jacob King/PA

EU recommends travel bans should be lifted

The European Commission has recommended that bans on travel from the UK should be lifted. In suggests hauliers should have rapid PCR tests, but should not be required to undergo quarantine while carrying out essential work.

“Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions”, the commission said in a press statement.

It also recommended a coordinated approach to travel and transport measures across the EU.

Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, said:

Given the current uncertainties and in light of the precautionary principle, Member States should take coordinated action to discourage non-essential travel between the UK and the EU. At the same time, blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes. While precautions are needed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus variant, with today’s Recommendation, we therefore ensure that the restrictions are coordinated and provide for the necessary exemptions for citizens and residents returning home and other essential travellers.”

Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, said:

Within the EU, it is crucial that transport workers are exempted from any restrictive measures, as quarantine and testing. We have to continue to maintain the supply chains intact, in line with our Green Lanes Communication.

In the eyes of the world’s media, Britain – a “Plague Island” led by a man who thinks “optimism is a substitute for hard truths and proper management” – is currently getting a good lesson in “what ‘reclaiming sovereignty’ means”.

If never quite explicit, the schadenfreude is palpable as dozens of countries, days before the end of the Brexit transition period and with no trade deal yet agreed, suspend travel from the UK in response to the new, more contagious coronavirus variant.

Much of the blame was on Boris Johnson, who’s U-turn on Christmas had “once more shown the yawning gulf between the prime minister’s airy promises and the real world,” said Germany’s Die Welt.

Read more here:

France to reopen UK border for French and lorry drivers, reports say

France is expected to reopen its border with the UK but only to its own nationals, French residents and professionals such as truck drivers, all of whom will have to provide a recent negative PCR swab test, France’s public broadcaster has reported.

Britons or other non-French nationals with a permanent residence in France will be able to return, but the border is set to remain closed to all other non-French citizens in the UK, France Info said. It was not yet clear how long the measures would be in place.

The new rules are intended to counter the spread of the new, faster-spreading variant of Covid-19 discovered in the UK and are expected to be officially announced this afternoon, France Info said, citing government sources.

It said the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, had spoken by phone on Tuesday morning about measures to ease the chaos at Britain’s ports following France’s decision on Sunday to close its border to all traffic from the UK 48 hours.

Read more here:

Lorry drivers gather at Manston International Airport
Lorry drivers gather at Manston International Airport
Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

A makeshift lorry car park at Manston airport in Kent is starting to fill up as the travel ban to France continues.

A Kent County Council spokesman said the M20 motorway remains closed coastbound from Junction 7 while Operation Stack continues to manage the thousands of lorries.

The Port of Dover and Eurotunnel are closed due to the suspension of accompanied freight and tourist traffic to France.

All freight wanting to use the Port of Dover or Channel Tunnel should now go to Manston Airport via the M2 and A299.

All non-freight traffic will leave the M20 at J7 to join the A20 and follows the yellow circle diversion route. As a result, Operation Stack remains in place on the M20 between J8 and J12 coastbound.

The M20 is currently closed coastbound from M20 J7, whilst Op Stack is changed to Op Brock with the movable barrier and crossovers being put in place.

Wales has reported another sharp rise in cases, with a further 2,761 people testing positive. It takes the total number of confirmed cases in Wales to 128,089.

Public Health Wales also reported another 24 deaths, taking the total in Wales since the start of the pandemic to 3,149.

Wales was put into lockdown on Sunday with its latest seven-day Covid-19 case rate now at 623 cases per 100,000 people and rising, putting increased strain on the country’s health services.

The WHO is to meet to discuss the new variant, its European chief, Hans Kluge has said

“Limiting travel to contain spread is prudent until we have better info. Supply chains for essential goods & essential travel should remain possible,” Kluge tweeted.

The WHO has cautioned against major alarm, saying the variant is a normal part of a pandemic’s evolution and praising Britain for detecting it.

In a statement, it repeated that there was not yet enough information to determine whether the new variant could affect vaccine efficacy

Summary

Here’s a round up of the latest developments:

 

Here’s video of the chief executive of the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech saying is confident its coronavirus vaccine works against the new UK variant, but that further studies are need to be certain.

 

Angus Brown lands a prawn catch from Loch Long in Greenock, Scotland
Angus Brown lands a prawn catch from Loch Long in Greenock, Scotland
Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

It is now “mission impossible” to get millions of pounds worth of Scottish seafood to crucial Spanish food markets tomorrow, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink has warned.

In a late morning update, James Withers said that – “contrary to the upbeat assessment from the prime minister” – the situation is worse and deteriorating for food exporters. He added that any protocol for freight movements agreed today will already be too late for most Christmas orders.

For some of our shellfish exporters, the pre-Christmas sales have now been ruined. It looks like mission impossible to get products to the big markets in Spain which are held tomorrow. That is an irrecoverable loss of income and I fear about this being a fatal blow to some of the smaller businesses after the horrendous year they have already had.

With over £6.5m worth of Scottish salmon unlikely to reach the European market before Christmas, producers are now pushing to salvage the New Year market.

Tavish Scott, chief executive of Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, said:

If negotiations can open the Channel for freight tonight then salmon may still reach markets on Boxing Day for distribution to customers, which would be helpful to meet pre-New Year demand.

As chaos around Dover continues, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has added his voice to those calling for an extension to the Brexit process and will be making the argument in Holyrood later this afternoon.

This puts him on the same side as Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon, but opposed to UK Labour leader Keir Starmer, who yesterday insisted “I don’t want an extension, I want a deal.”

Finance Minister of Slovakia Eduard Heger
Finance Minister of Slovakia Eduard Heger
Photograph: Getty Images

Slovakia’s finance minister, Eduard Heger, has become the latest politician to test positive for Covid, Reuters reports.

He become the sixth Slovak government member infected after Prime Minister Igor Matovic contracted the illness last week.

The finance ministry said Heger would remain in home quarantine. He was not showing symptoms or feeling ill.

Matovic, 47, said last Friday he had tested positive. Four other government members, including the defence minister, have since also tested positive.

Slovakia entered a partial lockdown on Saturday after cases spiked again this month.

Germany has extended its ban to travellers from Britain until 6 January, the health ministry in Berlin has announced, in an attempt to keep a new mutation of the coronavirus at bay.

Planes from South Africa are also banned from flying to Germany, after the discovery of a mutation there.

Plane, ship, train and bus travel are all affected, according to the emergency ruling by the health ministry.

Jens Spahn, the health minister tweeted the ruling on Monday evening. He said the decision was a “cautionary measure” until more is know about the coronavirus mutations which have been reported on in both countries.

On Monday the transport ministry had initially issued a ban on almost all flights from Britain to Germany, until 31 December. A ban on traffic from South Africa was also announced. The extension until January 6, will give authorities more time to investigate the mutations, Spahn said.

It will also put a stop to people coming to Germany to celebrate Christmas and the New Year as after Germans were strongly advised to stay at home.

The German post office announced yesterday that it was no longer accepting parcels destined for the UK as it could not guarantee their passage owing to border controls.

Special permission may be given for flights to Germany to go ahead from the UK, if they are registered with interior ministry authorities three days in advance and pertain to freight transport, repatriation of aircraft, ships, and crew as well as transports of medical personnel or for humanitarian reasons.

Travellers coming to Germany from Britain on Tuesday must produce a negative coronavirus test result immediately on arrival. A test carried out abroad cannot be older than 48 hours, otherwise a new test has to be carried out on arrival in Germany.

Virologist Christian Drosten, Germany’s leading coronavirus specialist, has expressed doubt about Boris Johnson’s claim that the new strain is up to 70% more transmissible.

Boris Johnson and president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, spoke on the phone on Monday in an attempt to reach a last minute Brexit trade deal.

EU member states with the largest fishing fleets are being asked by Von der Leyen’s senior team to rethink their “final offer” after Downing Street made a significant move to break the Brexit deadlock.

France and Denmark are understood to be the most cautious about making a counter-proposal, budging from their current demand that their vessels lose only 25% by value of the fish they catch in British waters.

The European commission president spoke by telephone to Boris Johnson on Monday night to discuss a way forward, with Von der Leyen said by EU sources to be determined to find a landing zone for a deal.

Behind-the-scenes discussions were ongoing on Tuesday morning between the commission president’s most senior aides and the EU capitals most affected by the changes to fishing arrangements brought by Brexit.

Read more here:

China has suspended its visa application service in London, the Chinese embassy in the UK has announced.

In a statement on its website it said:

In accordance with the relevant pandemic prevention advice, the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre in London will suspend its operation from December 22nd, 2020 till further notice.

Meanwhile, India which suspended flights from the UK, has said the new strain of the virus has not yet been detected in India.

V.K. Paul, a senior Covid adviser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, told Reuters the new virus strain would have no impact on vaccines being developed in India.

India has suspended all flights from Britain starting on Wednesday until the end of the year.

And Hungary has become the latest country to ban air passenger planes from Britain.

The suspension will last until 8 February.

Updated

The UK’s transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has reminded lorry drivers that a French travel ban remains in place in Dover.

France is expected to announce a possible solution in the next few hours.

More than 50 EasyJet passengers from Manchester will have to spend Christmas in quarantine in a hotel in Limassol, the Cyprus Mail reports.

Under a Cyprus government decree all travellers arriving from Britain will be taken to quarantine hotels for a seven-day period.

The ministry clarified that the only exception to this rule applies to people under the age of 18, who have the option to either self-isolate at home or at the hotel.

At least two of the 54 passengers will be allowed to self-isolate at home.

Vaccine scientist: virus will be with us for 10 years

More from our Kate Connelly at the BioNTech presser in Germany:

Uğur Şahin, the CEO of BioNTech, the German biotechnology company behind the first Covid 19 vaccine, was asked at a press briefing when he believed the world might be able to return to normal, following the roll out of vaccine programmes.

Şahin said:

We need a new definition of ‘normal’. The virus will stay with us for the next 10 years. We need to get used to the fact there’ll be more outbreaks.

However, a ‘new normal’ would mean not having to go into lockdown, businesses not having to close, and hospitalisations not being as commonplace. “That can happen by the end of the summer,” he said.

He said the vaccine would not change lives quickly. He said:

This winter we will not have an impact on the infection numbers. But we must have an impact so that next winter can be the new normal.

The company said it was “scouting every location” to expand its production of the vaccine as much as possible, to boost what it called the “scarcity of the vaccine”.

It said its capacity by the end of 2021 was for 1.3 billion doses.

Sierk Poetting, BioNTech’s Chief Financial Officer said:

We are trying to optimise our production capacities.

Şahin also sounded a note of caution around the often quoted figure of 60 to 70 per cent being the necessary proportion of the population which will need to be vaccinated in order for so-called herd immunity to be reached.

If the virus becomes more efficient…we might need a higher uptake of the vaccine for life to return to normal.

Özlem Türeci, his partner, and the Chief Medical Officer of the company, told the briefing that BioNTech was involved in a dedicated programme to look at whether ‘sub groups’ such as pregnant women, younger children and immune compromised individuals could be vaccinated. She said:

There is a dedicated programme with several studies planned over the next few months… which will look into the subgroups. It is being planned with the regulatory authorities.

Asked when it may be known whether the vaccine is effective in stopping the spread of the disease, Türeci said data collection was “ongoing”. She said:

We are testing the vaccinees we have (already) immunized.

Results on transmission were expected in February at the latest, she said.
As to how long people could expect to remain immune after vaccination, Türeci said they needed time to pass so they could follow up on the vaccinees.

She said the company so far has data for three months past the second dose, “and we see stability of the anti-body response in particular”. Depending on how the efficacy appeared over time, she said, they would decide “whether boosters are needed (and) at what intervals they are needed.”

She said it was not recommended to reduce the time between the two vaccine doses to less three weeks. Şahin said the company was also working on whether it could reduce the extreme temperature at which the vaccine needs to be kept. He said:

We will update at the end of January on this. We are confident we can come up with more relaxed conditions and stability, but we are waiting for the results.

Soldiers to drive ambulances in Wales to help deal with ‘extreme pressure’

Soldiers from the British Army will again partner up with ambulance teams in Wales to help deal with the “extreme pressure” on their service during the coronavirus pandemic, PA reports.

The Welsh Ambulance Service said more than 90 soldiers will be re-enlisted to drive its vehicles from Wednesday to support teams responding to emergency callouts.

Wales was put into lockdown on Sunday with its latest seven-day Covid-19 case rate now at 623 cases per 100,000 people and rising, putting increased strain on the country’s health services.

Soldiers previously answered the call to back up ambulance teams in April during he first wave of the virus as part of the Ministry of Defence’s 20,000-strong Covid Response Force, set up to put service personnel and reservists on standby to support public services in response to the pandemic.

Although unable to travel under blue lights to emergencies, their duties will include driving ambulances, lifting and handling patients and assisting paramedics with non-clinical tasks, allowing teams to split up and spread their resources across their fleet.

Among the members of the armed forces linking up with ambulance teams will be soldiers from 9 Regiment Royal Logistics Corps, who have been undergoing training for deployment at their headquarters in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

On Tuesday, the ambulance service’s chief executive Jason Killens said:

The extreme pressure on our ambulance service in the last couple of weeks has been well documented, and it’s why we’ve taken the decision to re-enlist the military, who did a superb job of assisting us earlier in the year.

Winter is our busiest period, and with the second wave of a global pandemic also to contend with, this is about bolstering our capacity as far we can and putting us in the best possible position to provide a safe service to the people of Wales.

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart said:

With coronavirus case rates at high levels in many areas of Wales, it’s welcome and reassuring that our armed forces will help our ambulance and NHS services during what is set to be a very busy winter period.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the military has stepped up to support health services across Wales with the distribution of PPE (personal protective equipment), construction of a temporary hospital in Cardiff, assisting community testing in the South Wales valleys and will help roll out community vaccine in the coming months.

The use of the armed forces to help with this vital work demonstrates the UK Government’s commitment to meet the needs of the whole of the United Kingdom as we continue to tackle the pandemic.

Minister of the armed forces, James Heappey, added:

The whole of the United Kingdom must pull together if we are to overcome coronavirus and get back to the way of life we know and value.

Our armed forces will do this again in Wales by joining the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust for the second time this year.

Ninety four military personnel, including medics and drivers, will support the ambulance service as they care for the most vulnerable during these challenging times.

Updated

UK has now recorded more than 84,000 deaths involving Covid-19

More than 84,000 deaths involving Covid-19 have now occurred in the UK, new figures show.

This from PA:

A total of 81,416 deaths have so far been registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, according to the latest reports from the UK’s statistics agencies.

This includes 73,730 deaths in England and Wales up to December 11 (and registered up to December 19), which were confirmed by the ONS on Tuesday.

Since these statistics were compiled, a further 2,421 deaths are known to have occurred in England, plus 85 in Scotland, 193 in Wales and 83 in Northern Ireland, according to additional data published on the Government’s coronavirus dashboard.

Together, these totals mean that so far 84,198 deaths involving Covid-19 have taken place in the UK.

Three regions of England recorded a week-on-week increase in the number of registered Covid-19 deaths, the ONS said.

In south-east England, 294 deaths were registered in the week to December 11, up from 250 in the previous week and the highest number since the week ending May 22.

Eastern England had 201 Covid-19 deaths registered in the week to December 11, up from 182 and the highest since the week to May 29.

In the East Midlands 334 Covid-19 deaths were registered in the week to December 11. This is up from 323 in the previous week, but below 361 recorded in the week to November 27.

Updated

Our colleague Kate Connolly in Berlin is listening to a bioNTech press conference as we speak and brings us more detail. This is the latest from her:

The chief executive of the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech has said he is confident its coronavirus vaccine works against the new UK variant, but that further studies are need to be completely sure.

Uğur Şahin told a press conference that his team had been working on trying to find out whether the vaccine works on the UK variant and whether it would be necessary to adapt it. Results would be known within two weeks, he said.

“We don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” Şahin said a day after the vaccine was approved for use in the European Union. “But scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants.”

Şahin said that the proteins on the UK variant are 99% the same as on the prevailing strains, and therefore BioNTech has “scientific confidence” that its vaccine will be effective. “We believe there is no reason to be concerned or worried.”

Should the vaccine need to be adjusted for the new variant, the company could do so in about six weeks, said Şahin, though regulators might have to approve the changes before the shots can be used.

BioNTech’s vaccine, developed together with U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer, is authorised for use in more than 45 countries including Britain, the United States and the EU.

The variant, detected mainly in London and the south-east of England in recent weeks, has sparked concern worldwide because of signs that it may spread more easily. While there is no indication it causes more serious illness, numerous countries in Europe and beyond have restricted travel from the UK as a result.

Addressing the current chaos at the borders. BioNTech’s chief business and commercial officer, Sean Marrett, said he did not anticipate problems in getting supplies of the vaccine to the UK. “There are not just routes through the Channel Tunnel,” he said.

Reuters contributed to this report

Updated

‘Highly likely’ BioNTech vaccine works against mutant coronavirus strain

Returning to the news that BioNTech has said it was “highly likely” that its vaccine against the coronavirus works against the mutated strain detected in Britain,

Today the co-founder said even if it didn’t work, the vaccine could be adapted in six weeks.

BioNTech’s CEO Uğur Şahin (read our Berlin correspondent’s full interview with him here), said:

Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant.

In principle the beauty of the messenger technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation – we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks.

Sahin said the variant detected in Britain has nine mutations, rather than just one as is usually common.

Nevertheless, he voiced confidence that the vaccine developed with Pfizer would be efficient because it “contains more than 1,000 amino acids, and only nine of them have changed, so that means 99 percent of the protein is still the same”.

He said tests are being run on the variant, with results expected in two weeks. He added:

We have scientific confidence that the vaccine might protect but we will only know it if the experiment is done… we will publish the data as soon as possible.

Updated

A total of 2,756 deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending 11 December mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This is down from 2,835 deaths in the week to 4 December – a fall of 3% – the second week a in row that the number of deaths has decreased.

Nearly a quarter (22.4%) of all deaths registered in England and Wales in the week to 11 December mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate.

Updated

We are hearing from increasingly worried Britons who are abroad and trying to get back to the UK. This from reader Chris:

Having a nightmare at the moment with BA, trying to get back from Amsterdam to the UK for Christmas, my flight on 23rd to LHR was cancelled but they seem to have put another one on tomorrow … but warn against taking it? They are a total nightmare and I am stuck between wanting to return home and not spend Christmas alone or having the stress of travelling and not knowing if I can return to the Netherlands! Advice for expats coming home is just so unclear!!!

Here is the current advice from the UK government:

International travel to or from a tier 4 area

If you are in Tier 4, you should not be travelling abroad unless it is permitted. In addition, you should consider the public health advice in the country you are visiting.

If you live outside a tier 4 area you may still transit into or through a tier 4 area to travel abroad if you need to, but you should carefully consider whether you need to do so. In addition, you should follow the public health advice in the country you’re visiting.

If you do need to travel overseas from a tier 4 area (and are legally permitted to do so, for example, because it is for work), even if you are returning to a place you’ve visited before, you should look at the rules in place at your destination and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) travel advice.

UK residents currently abroad do not need to return home immediately. However, you should check with your airline or travel operator on arrangements for returning.

Updated

Taiwan has reported its first local coronavirus transmission since 12 April, blaming a foreign pilot for ending 253 virus-free days.

Health authorities said a woman in her thirties had tested positive after having contact with the pilot, a New Zealander working for a Taiwanese airline who was confirmed to have been infected on Sunday having flown flights to the US.

The health minister, Chen Shih-chung, said the pilot had failed to “truthfully declare” his contacts and activities to authorities once he had been confirmed as a carrier.

Full story here:

Updated

The German biotechnology company BioNTech has said it can make a vaccine in six weeks that can combat coronavirus mutations.

More on this as we get it.

Updated

The number of Covid-19 cases in the World Health Organization Western Pacific area has passed 1m.

Covid-19 confirmed cases and deaths reported by countries and areas in the @WHO Western Pacific Region over the past 24 hours.

Updated

More from the UK home secretary, Priti Patel.

This from my colleague Josh Halliday:

The home secretary, Priti Patel, confirmed on Tuesday that the government was discussing plans to test all lorry drivers taking goods across the Channel to bring an end to the disruption at the ports.

She told BBC Breakfast:

Testing of some sort is part of the discussions that the transport secretary is having with his counterpart in France right now.

Getting those tests up and running can happen pretty quickly but in terms of the details of that, that is something that both the transport secretary and his counterpart will be discussing right now so I don’t want to speculate in terms of the nature of the testing and how soon that can be up and running.

Patel was pressed about the transport secretary Grant Shapps’ claim in a Downing Street press conference that there were only about 170 lorries waiting to cross the Channel on Monday night, only to be later contradicted by Highways England, which said there were about 900.

Patel said there were currently 650 lorries on the M20 and a further 873 at the contraflow site at Manston airfield.

She said the number of lorries stuck in Kent would “fluctuate”, adding:

So, for example, there would have been many hauliers yesterday dropping off their goods in other parts of the country and then going back down to Dover. Of course the No 1 message has been to avoid Dover.

Patel also told BBC Radio 4 Today that the government has been “consistently ahead of the curve” this year, which has provoked a, well, mixed response.

Updated

In Spain, the number of nights in hotels booked by tourists fell 84% in November from the same month a year ago as coronavirus restrictions prevented many from travelling, data from the INE national statistics office show today.

The November data showed a slight deterioration from the 83% drop recorded in October.

Updated

The UK home secretary, Priti Patel, has been doing the interview rounds this morning, and on Sky News she said said the government was “working to get a resolution” as talks continued with France on reopening full trade and transport across the Channel.

She said:

We speak to our colleagues in France constantly on a range of issues and that work has been under way over the last 24 hours and will continue today.

We’re working to get a resolution, I think that’s really important to put this into context. It’s in both our interests, both countries to ensure that we have flow and of course there are European hauliers right now who want to be going home and quite frankly it’s in both our interests to carry on those discussions and negotiations and we will see what materialises today.

Asked about the number of lorries parked up in Kent, she said:

I think it’s important to recognise the figures fluctuate. So for example there would have been many hauliers yesterday dropping off their goods in other parts of the country and then going back down to Dover. Of course, the No 1 message has been to avoid Dover. The other point to say is that of course we have our contraflow measures in place right now. It was Operation Stack, it’s now Operation Brock.

On testing at the ports, she said:

We’re considering everything and rightly so … I think at the end of the day we have to do everything we can to stop the spread of this virus, so we’re in discussions as I said with our French counterparts, Grant Shapps (transport secretary) is having those discussions and we will find a resolution and these suggestions are absolutely part of the discussion.

With debate that the UK may be heading to a full lockdown in the new year, Patel was asked whether “tier 4” measures would be increased. She said:

As this virus changes, grows, the government takes proactive measures, we’ve seen that … It is inevitable as people travel and of course we’re urging people not to travel for the sake of everybody’s health, we have to take strong measures and we’re doing that. We’re constantly reviewing these measures as well.

Of course, if the virus continues to spread then we will take stronger measures, because at the end of the day our objective is to save lives and to keep people safe, but right now it’s not for me to pre-empt any change because obviously there’ll be a natural review mechanism in two weeks’ time.

Updated

Five people arriving in India from Britain have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, a government official has said on Tuesday, but it was not clear if they had a highly infectious new strain of the virus.

From Reuters:

India has the second-highest number of infections in the world after the US, with its tally rising past 10m on the weekend. More than 146,000 people have died of Covid-19 in India.

The aviation ministry on Monday announced the suspension of all flights from Britain from Wednesday until the end of the month, and made it mandatory for all passengers arriving before the ban comes into force to be tested for the virus.

Five of the 266 passengers and crew who arrived in New Delhi on a flight from Britain late on Monday had tested positive for the coronavirus but it was unclear if they had the new strain, said government official Awanish Kumar, who is helping coordinate testing at New Delhi airport.

The discovery of the new strain, just months before vaccines are expected to be widely available, sowed new panic in a pandemic that has killed about 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 67,000 in Britain.

At least two other flights from Britain have landed in India since the announcement of the flight ban, one in Mumbai and the other in the northern city of Amritsar.

Test results from the 240 people who arrived late on Monday in Amritsar were due on Tuesday afternoon, government official Deepak Bhatia told Reuters.

Updated

I’m Lexy Topping and I’ll be keeping you up to date on the latest Coronavirus news from the UK and around the globe today.

If you want to send me stories or galvanising messages – please do! The chat in the UK is that schools may have to shut again in January, and I‘m not sure I can handle looking that news in the eyes right yet.

If you want to get in touch I’m on alexandra.topping@theguardian.com or I’m @lexytopping on Twitter and my DMs are open.

Updated

Despite the fact that France and England have promised to announce plans for freight travel between the two countries later today, Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, has pointed out that time is running out.

He said the “borders really need to be running pretty much freely from tomorrow to assure us that there won’t be any disruption”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

There is a problem potentially directly after Christmas and that is really in fresh produce, so we’re talking here about things like salad, vegetables, fresh fruit, of which the vast majority come from Europe at this time.

The problem actually is empty lorries, so the empty lorries which are now stuck in Kent, they need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the net (next) consignment of raspberries and strawberries and they need to get back within the next day or so otherwise we will see disruption.

As long as it can be cleared today there’ll be minimal impact for consumers – remember the shops are shut on Christmas Day, which takes one day of buying out of the equation, but those lorries that are stuck in Kent, they do need to get back within the next day.

Updated

The full story on Antarctica now.

Once the only continent not to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Antarctica has reportedly recorded its first cases. The 36 new infections are among people stationed at a Chilean research base and include 26 members of the Chilean army and 10 maintenance workers.

Spanish-language media reported the outbreak at the General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme research base on Monday.

In a statement, the Chilean army said: “Thanks to the timely preventive action … it was possible to relieve said personnel, who, after being subjected to a medical control and the administration of a PCR test … turned out to be positive for Covid-19,” according to Newsweek. It reported that three crew members on a ship providing support to the base have also tested positive since returning from their mission to Antarctica.

The 36 individuals who tested positive have since been evacuated to the city of Punta Arenas in Chile, where they are reported to be under isolation and in good condition:

Updated

That is it from me, Helen Sullivan, for the year.

It has been an honour and a privilege bringing you the latest pandemic news for the last 10 months – thank you to those of you who have reached out with encouragement or updates from where you live. And thank you especially to all of you who read our rolling coverage.

The blog will shut down briefly over Christmas and I’ll be back at the helm in the new year, when I’ll be wearing another hat, too: columnist.

I will be writing what I promise will be an extremely silly and not at all pandemic-related column about animals (and insects, plants and natural phenomena).

The first in the series is below. It is about lemmings.

If you have a creature you would like to recommend let me know on Twitter here.

Updated

Summary

Here are the key global developments from the last few hours:

  • UK freight plans to be released later today. Freight measures agreed by Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron will be announced later on Tuesday, the BBC reports, and will come into effect from Wednesday, according to French Europe Minister Clément Beaune. EU member states will also be meeting again to discuss a co-ordinated response.
  • After months of Washington gridlock, Congress has passed a $900bn pandemic relief package, finally delivering long-sought cash to businesses and individuals as well as resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths. President Donald Trump is soon expected to sign the package into law.
  • Antarctica, once the only continent not to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, has reportedly recorded its first confirmed cases. The 36 new infections are among people stationed at a Chilean research base and include 26 members of the Chilean army and 10 maintenance workers.
  • Taiwan’s government on Tuesday reported its first locally transmitted case of Covid-19 since 12 April. The individual who tested positive for Covid-19 was a friend of a person who had already been confirmed to have been infected with the virus, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told a news conference.
  • The US government is considering requiring that all passengers traveling from the United Kingdom receive a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of departure as a condition of entry, airline and US officials briefed on the matter said Monday.
  • Virgin Atlantic to require negative Covid test. Starting on 24 December, the airline Virgin Atlantic will require proof of a negative coronavirus test for all passengers travelling from London to the US, the company announced.
  • The Vatican has urged Catholics to get vaccinated against coronavirus and said it it “morally acceptable” to take vaccines that use cell lines from aborted foetuses. Cells derived from foetuses aborted decades ago have been used by some researchers working on vaccines against Covid-19.
  • Ontario on Monday announced a province-wide shutdown because of a second wave of Covid-19 in Canada’s most populous province. The lockdown will be put in place for southern Ontario from 26 December until 23 January, but will lift for northern Ontario on 9 January. Ontario has had seven straight days of more than 2,000 cases a day.
  • Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga reiterated on Tuesday that there was no need for the country to enter a national state of emergency, even as health groups declared their own state of emergency for the medical system as coronavirus infection rates continue to rise.
  • South Korea on Tuesday moved to shut down all ski resorts and winter tourist spots in a bid to stop the novel coronavirus spreading as a third wave of the pandemic proves much tougher to contain in the densely populated region of the capital city.
  • Australian state of New South Wales reports 8 new cases. In the Australian state of New South Wales, where residents are on edge as they await health restrictions – or the easing thereof – amid a new outbreak happening just before Christmas, eight new cases today, down from 15 yesterday.
  • Denmark on Monday agreed on a temporary ban on mink breeding. The move by lawmakers retroactively creates the legal basis for its order to cull all mink in the country in November.

Updated

36 cases confirmed in Antarctica – reports

Australia’s ABC news channel reports that 36 Chileans on an army base in Antarctica have tested positive for coronavirus – which means that the continent can no longer claim to be the only one free of the virus.

ABC:

Multiple Spanish-language media outlets are reporting that up to 36 people connected with a Chilean Army base were confirmed positive for the virus on Monday.

The base is located close to the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in West Antarctica – far from Australia’s bases in East Antarctica

The Australian Antarctic Division is seeking to confirm the reports with Chilean authorities.

More now on the new case in Taiwan:

Taiwan’s government on Tuesday reported its first locally transmitted case of Covid-19 since April 12.

The individual who tested positive for Covid-19 was a friend of a person who had already been confirmed to have been infected with the virus, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told a news conference.

More now on the freight plans, via PA media.

Talks with France on reopening full trade and transport across the Channel are ongoing as the Government’s chief scientific adviser said more restrictions may be needed at home because cases of a mutant strain of Covid were now appearing “everywhere”.

Sir Patrick Vallance gave the grim warning after more than 40 countries banned UK flights because of fears regarding the spread of the coronavirus variant.

The chief scientific adviser’s remarks followed London and parts of southern and eastern England being rushed into the new Tier 4 lockdown regime at the weekend after existing Tier 3 measures proved inadequate to control the spread of the more infectious variant.

Sir Patrick indicated a lockdown may be needed in wider areas of England, particularly as Christmas mixing may result in an increased spread of cases.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have already announced new lockdowns from Boxing Day while Wales’ tough restrictions will only be eased for Christmas Day before being reimposed.

UK freight plans to be released later today

Freight measures agreed by Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron will be announced later on Tuesday, the BBC reports, and will come into effect from Wednesday, according to French Europe Minister Clément Beaune.

EU member states will also be meeting again to discuss a co-ordinated response.

Taiwan reports first case since 12 April

The Taiwanese government has announced that a locally transmitted coronavirus case in Taiwan has been confirmed – the first since 12 April, according to Reuters. We’ll have more on this shortly.

Britain’s rail freight industry, while much smaller than the road haulage sector, might play a key role in keeping vital, but stranded goods on the move, AFP reports.

Lorries are stuck in long lines heading to and from the Channel port of Dover on England’s south coast, as companies try to stockpile goods before the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.

The situation has been exacerbated by countries shutting their borders to Britain to contain a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus.

Citing concern over a new covid-19 variant and England’s surge in cases, France temporarily closed its border with the UK late Sunday, halting freight and ferry departures from the port of Dover for 48 hours.
Citing concern over a new covid-19 variant and England’s surge in cases, France temporarily closed its border with the UK late Sunday, halting freight and ferry departures from the port of Dover for 48 hours.
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Freightliner Group, a leading rail company that picks up large containers from UK ports and transports them by train to inland terminals, is waiting in the wings.

The company could be called upon to transport extra produce across Britain should businesses caught up in the Dover queues decide to ferry their goods to other ports.

“What we may start seeing is the impact of goods being moved to other deep seaports around Britain,” Freightliner’s Head of Rail Strategy Peter Graham told AFP.

Its longest trains, which are 775 metres (2,500 feet) long and carry around 60 containers, are currently transporting goods north from the English port of Southampton.

While lockdown restrictions have sharply curtailed Britain’s passenger rail traffic, freight trains are running at around pre-pandemic levels with vital goods such as protective equipment needed by hospitals.

Covid-19 vaccines: why are some people hesitant?

Less than a year since Covid-19 was genetically sequenced, vaccinations against it have begun. Despite being a cause for celebration, the vaccines have been met with some public hesitancy. In the first of a two-part exploration into Covid-19 vaccine scepticism, Nicola Davis speaks to Dr Samantha Vanderslott and Dr Caitjan Gainty about why some people are apprehensive, and how much of a problem vaccine scepticism really is:

2020 is the deadliest year in US history

This is the deadliest year in US history, with deaths expected to top 3 million for the first time — due mainly to the coronavirus pandemic.

Final mortality data for this year will not be available for months, AP reports.

But preliminary numbers suggest that the United States is on track to see more than 3.2 million deaths this year, or at least 400,000 more than in 2019.

US deaths increase most years, so some annual rise in fatalities is expected. But the 2020 numbers amount to a jump of about 15%, and could go higher once all the deaths from this month are counted.

That would mark the largest single-year percentage leap since 1918, when tens of thousands of US soldiers died in the first world war and hundreds of thousands of Americans died in a flu pandemic. Deaths rose 46% that year, compared with 1917.

Covid-19 has killed more than 318,000 Americans and counting. Before it came along, there was reason to be hopeful about US death trends.

The nation’s overall mortality rate fell a bit in 2019, due to reductions in heart disease and cancer deaths. And life expectancy inched up — by several weeks — for the second straight year, according to death certificate data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But life expectancy for 2020 could end up dropping as much as three full years, said Robert Anderson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Updated

Denmark bans mink breeding

Denmark on Monday agreed on a temporary ban on mink breeding, leaving little hope to rebuild the industry, which pioneered the global fur trade.

Reuters: Fearing an escalation of the coronavirus epidemic in the Nordic country, exacerbated by the discovery of a mutated virus strain, the Danish government ordered all mink culled in early November, despite lacking part of the legal basis to do so.

Mink are seen at a farm in Denmark, 6 November 2020.
Mink are seen at a farm in Denmark, 6 November 2020.
Photograph: Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters

The move by lawmakers retroactively creates the legal basis for its order to cull all mink in the country in November.

The government’s order has effectively obliterated Denmark’s mink industry, known for its top-quality mink pelts, with most farmers and industry voices saying the industry will never recover.

Authorities later admitted that the order to cull healthy mink herds had lacked a legal basis.

The move hurled the government into a political storm, as plummeting public trust coincided with resignation calls and a vote of no confidence by opposition parties, culminating in the exit of the agriculture minister.

Parliament has also decided to instigate a probe into the government’s handling of the mink crisis, including the actions of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.

US Congress passes $900bn Covid-19 aid bill after months of gridlock

After months of Washington gridlock, Congress has passed a $900bn pandemic relief package, finally delivering long-sought cash to businesses and individuals as well as resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths.

After days of furious negotiation, both legislative chambers worked deep into the night to pass the massive bill, with the House of Representatives first approving it and the Senate following suit several hours later in bipartisan votes.

Lawmakers had tacked on thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a burst of legislation as Capitol Hill is set to close down for the year:

More on the US aid bill now, from Reuters:

At 5,593 pages, the wide-ranging bill that also spends $1.4tn on an array of federal programs through next September, is likely to be the final major piece of legislation for the 116th Congress that expires on 3 January.

Congress included a measure continuing current levels of government spending for seven days, ensuring no interruption to federal operations.

It has a net cost of roughly $350bn for coronavirus relief, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, adding that more than $500bn in funding comes from unspent money Congress had authorised.

The stimulus package, the first congressionally approved aid since April, comes as the pandemic is accelerating in the United States, infecting more than 214,000 people every day and slowing the economic recovery. More than 317,000 Americans have died.

The legislation also expands a small-business lending program by about $284bn and steers money to schools, airlines, transit systems and vaccine distribution.

The small-business loan and grant program, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, would exclude publicly traded companies from eligibility.

Amid reports that the Trump Organization received past aid, the bill contains disclosure requirements for the president, vice president, heads of Cabinet departments, lawmakers and spouses and prohibits those individuals from receiving loans in the future.

State and local governments, which are struggling to pay for the distribution of newly approved Covid-19 vaccines, would receive $8.75 billion from Washington, with $300m of that targeted at vaccinations in minority and high-risk populations.

US Congress passes coronavirus aid bill

The US Congress on Monday approved an $892 billion coronavirus aid package, throwing a lifeline to the nation’s pandemic-battered economy after months of inaction, while also keeping the federal government funded for another year.

President Donald Trump is soon expected to sign the package into law.

After days of furious negotiation, both legislative chambers worked deep into the night to pass the massive bill, with the House of Representatives first approving it and the Senate following suit several hours later in bipartisan votes.

The virus relief bill includes $600 payments to most Americans as well as additional payments to the millions of people thrown out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as a larger round of benefits is due to expire on Saturday.

But wait, what is this? A much-needed break from pandemic news?

Read the full article here (at once!):

US could require negative Covid-19 tests for passengers from Britain – reports

The US government is considering requiring that all passengers traveling from the United Kingdom receive a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of departure as a condition of entry, airline and US officials briefed on the matter said Monday.

A White House coronavirus task force discussed requiring pre-flight tests after a meeting on Monday regarding the emergence of a highly infectious new coronavirus strain in Britain that prompted dozens of countries to close their borders to Britain.

Airline and US officials said requiring testing for UK arrivals won backing among task force members. The White House has yet to make a final decision on the matter, they said.

Earlier, airlines operating flights from London to John F. Kennedy International Airport voluntarily agreed to a request from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that they only allow passengers who test negative to fly.

The three airlines – British Airways, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic – said they would begin screening passengers on those routes this week.
Major Transatlantic carriers, which have drastically cut flights during the pandemic, have been implementing pilot Covid-19 testing between some US and European cities as a way to create safe “travel corridors” and help reduce quarantines and government restrictions.

Malaysia has signed a deal to procure 6.4 million doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said on Tuesday.

The government is also in final negotiations with China-based manufacturers Sinovac and CanSino as well as Russia’s Gamaleya Institute to procure their vaccines, Muhyiddin said in a televised address.

Malaysia expects to buy enough supplies to cover more than 80% of its population, he said.

Podcast: The new strain of coronavirus that has cancelled Christmas

Guardian health editor Sarah Boseley looks at the fast-spreading Covid variant that has prompted the prime minister to put London, the south east and the east of England into tier 4 and more than 40 countries to ban UK arrivals because of concerns about the spread:

China approved the emergency use of the Covid-19 vaccine in June and has carried out more than one million doses since July. More than 60,000 were vaccinated and went to high-risk regions and countries overseas.

Zheng Zhongwei, director of the Development Center for Medical Science & Technology, reported no severe infections so far.

Zheng Zhongwei.
Zheng Zhongwei.
Photograph: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

China announces a new plan to vaccinate key accounts and prevent imported cases as mutated coronavirus being reported in the UK.

China’s epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan said on December 20 that contaminated packaging of imported cold-chain foods has formed a new pattern of environment-to-human transmission.

Feng Zijian, deputy director of the China CDC, said that from the virus sequences obtained in the country, whether it is imported goods or cold-chain products, viruses obtained from various sources are not mutated.

And the amount of pollution must be relatively large and under a long-term repeated contact to cause the infection.The new vaccine plan will include personnel working near frontline medical and epidemic prevention, border ports, and cold chains.

Virgin Atlantic to require negative Covid test

Starting on December 24, the airline Virgin Atlantic will require proof of a negative coronavirus test for all passengers travelling from London to the US, the company announced.

In a statement, Virgin said:

With the health and safety of our customers and people always our number one priority, we will require all travellers to present evidence of a negative LAMP or PCR Covid-19 test, taken up to 72 hours prior to departure, including on-site at the airport

Guatemala will restrict entry beginning on Wednesday to travellers who have recently visited Britain or South Africa in an effort to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus strain, President Alejandro Giammattei said on Monday.

The new measures will require people who have visited Britain or South Africa within 14 days to quarantine for at least a week upon arrival in Guatemala. Health minister Amelia Flores said the restrictions would initially last two months.

Mainland China recorded 15 new Covid-19 cases on 21 December, Reuters reports, compared with 23 the previous day, and will look to strengthen measures to prevent the arrival of a new strain of the coronavirus, the country’s health authority said.

The National Health Commission said in its daily bulletin that 13 of the new cases were imported. Two cases of local transmission were reported in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Another 17 asymptomatic cases were reported on 21 December, up from 15 the previous day. China does not include asymptomatic patients in its total confirmed case list.

People wearing face masks dance in front of the St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing on 21 December 2020.
People wearing face masks dance in front of the St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing on 21 December 2020.
Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Feng Zijian, deputy director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention told state broadcaster CCTV that no imports of a new coronavirus strain have been discovered, but the agency is closely monitoring its spread globally.

A new highly infectious strain of the virus has been detected in Britain, as well as some other countries.

Feng said the CDC is studying ways to further strengthen prevention to shield against new strains.

Mainland China has now reported an accumulated total of 86,867 coronavirus cases, with 4,634 deaths.

House passes coronavirus aid package

The US House of Representatives passed an $892 billion coronavirus aid package on Monday aimed at throwing a lifeline to the nation’s pandemic-battered economy, clearing the way for Senate approval later in the evening.

Reuters: The House in a pair of bipartisan votes also passed a $1.4tn measure that will keep the US government funded for another year, which will also go to the Senate for consideration.

The relief bill, which would become law if passed by the Senate and signed by President Donald Trump, includes $600 payments to most Americans as well as additional payments to the millions of people thrown out of work during the Covid-19 pandemic, just as a larger round of benefits is due to expire on Saturday.

The White House has said Trump will sign the bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, urged lawmakers to support the virus relief bill even as she complained it did not include the direct aid for state and local governments that Democrats had sought. She said they would try for it again next year after Democratic President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The bill, she said, “doesn’t go all the way but it takes us down the path.”
Republican Representative Hal Rogers, who supported the package, said “it reflects a fair compromise.”

Ontario in Canada announces province-wide shutdown

Ontario on Monday announced a province-wide shutdown because of a second wave of Covid-19 in Canada’s most populous province.

The lockdown will be put in place for southern Ontario from 26 December until Jan. 23, but will lift for northern Ontario on 9 January. Health officials criticised the delay, with one top infectious disease doctor saying it was ridiculous to wait wait until the day after Christmas to shut down.

Ontario has had seven straight days of more than 2,000 cases a day.

Modeling shows that could more than double in January. Health officials earlier said a four- to six-week hard lockdown could significantly stop the spread of Covid-19.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford holds a press conference at Queen’s Park during the Covid-19 pandemic in Toronto on Monday, 21 December 2020.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford holds a press conference at Queen’s Park during the Covid-19 pandemic in Toronto on Monday, 21 December 2020.
Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, had already closed restaurants for indoor dining but schools remained open. All high schools in Ontario will now be closed for in-person learning until 25 January. Elementary schools will be closed until 11 January.

After Covid-19 cases surged in the spring, Canada flattened the epidemic curve with a lockdown. But as in other countries, COVID fatigue set in, restrictions were relaxed and a second wave was unleashed.

South Korea to shut ski resorts and winter tourist spots

South Korea on Tuesday moved to shut down all ski resorts and winter tourist spots in a bid to stop the novel coronavirus spreading as a third wave of the pandemic proves much tougher to contain in the densely populated region of the capital city.

From 24 December to 3 January, the government will close ski facilities and tourist attractions, popular during the year-end season, said Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, speaking during a televised briefing. Gatherings of more than four people will not be permitted, he said, while tighter anti-virus curbs will be imposed on restaurants to tamp down infections.

Ski lifts remain suspended at a ski resort in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province, South Korea, 16 December 2020.
Ski lifts remain suspended at a ski resort in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province, South Korea, 16 December 2020.
Photograph: YONHAP/EPA

The announcement comes after Seoul and surrounding areas banned gatherings of more than four people over the Christmas and New Year holidays with the country recording its highest daily death toll from the coronavirus on Monday.

South Korea reported 869 new coronavirus cases as of Monday midnight, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said on Tuesday, down from the daily record of 1,097 reported over the weekend.

The rash of new cases has shaken a country that has for months been held up as a mitigation success story. The new cases bring the nation’s tally to 51,460 infections, with 722 deaths.

The UK government’s chief scientific adviser has suggested that coronavirus restrictions across the country could be tightened in the coming weeks.

This follows a surge in cases of a new variant of the virus that is thought to be up to 70% more transmissible than the old strain.

“I think it is likely that this will grow in numbers of the variant across the country and I think it’s likely, therefore, that measures will need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced,” Sir Patrick Vallance told a Downing Street press conference:

 

Almost 40,000 retailers in the UK were in “significant financial distress” even before the introduction of tighter restrictions over the weekend forced non-essential shops to shut.

Research by the insolvency specialist Begbies Traynor found that 39,232 retailers – both online and bricks and mortar operations – were experiencing severe financial problems in the three months to 9 December. This was up 11% on the previous three months and 24% higher than the same period a year earlier:

Vatican says coronavirus vaccine “morally acceptable”

The Vatican has urged Catholics to get vaccinated against coronavirus and said it it “morally acceptable” to take vaccines that use cell lines from aborted foetuses.

Cells derived from foetuses aborted decades ago have been used by some researchers working on vaccines against Covid-19.

The Vatican acknowledged that the issue was a cause of concern for some Catholics but said in a note that “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted foetuses in their research and production process”.

The use of such vaccines “does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive”, it said:

Japan’s Prime Minister Suga says there is no need for state of emergency

And back to the news: Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reiterated there was no need for Japan to enter a national state of emergency, even as health groups declared their own state of emergency for the medical system as coronavirus infection rates continue to rise.

Suga said on Monday evening the head of the government’s expert panel on the coronavirus pandemic had told him “we’re not there yet” with regards to calling a state of emergency. Suga was responding during an interview on national television.

Commuters walk toward their working place after dropping off from packed trains at Shinagawa railway station in Tokyo, Japan.
Commuters walk toward their working place after dropping off from packed trains at Shinagawa railway station in Tokyo, Japan.
Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

Suga has been struggling with falling approval ratings, with polls showing the public disapproves of how he has handled the pandemic.
“We need to show the results of our coronavirus countermeasures. I’ll spearhead the effort with a mindset to do everything that must be done,” Suga said.
Japan has seen a rise in new infection rates in recent weeks, with a record 2,154 people hospitalised as of Monday, according to national broadcaster NHK.

A group of national medical associations called their own state of medical emergency on Monday, warning the system was under considerable strain from the pandemic.

And now for a break from pandemic news for an extremely great new column, even if I do say so myself.

Think you know about lemmings? Think again!

A Norwegian lemming looks like a larger, slightly cleverer and much more irate hamster. Their underside fur is biscuit-coloured. On top they wear a mottled calico.

The BBC, in a 2015 documentary episode in which a lemming repeatedly charges a full sized house cat – and then attacks the rock on to which the house cat has leapt in fear – called them “bloodthirsty, hairy berserkers.”

‘The platypuses were glowing’: the secret light of Australia’s marsupialsRead more

“They have been known,” we are told as the screen shows a lemming, surrounded by plum-coloured leaves, baring its rodent teeth and squeak-barking at the camera, “to kill weasels and fight off skua.” (Skua are aggressive, seagull-like birds).

Wait. Aren’t lemmings so meek and stupid that they march en masse to their deaths, throwing themselves off cliffs without a thought?

As it turns out, no: Lemmings “acting like lemmings” is a myth, as Sonia Shah explains in her book, The Next Great Migration. Lemmings do not commit mass suicide by jumping into the sea. When asked to join the death cult, they squeak-bark, “No!”. They refuse the poisoned Kool-Aid:

More than two-thirds of the extra costs facing schools as a result of the coronavirus pandemic will not be covered by the UK government’s support fund, according to a leading education thinktank.

Most schools have had to spend more cash this year in order to operate a “Covid-safe” environment. The government has provided some financial relief through its exceptional costs fund, but research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) suggests that the majority of schools’ additional costs won’t be met by the fund.

The analysis, based on a survey of more than 700 schools in November, suggests that nearly three in five (57%) are using their reserves to cover these extra costs and around half of schools do not expect to have a balanced budget by the end of the year:

Australian state of NSW reports 8 new cases

In the Australian state of New South Wales, where residents are on edge as they await health restrictions – or the easing thereof – amid a new outbreak happening just before Christmas, eight new cases today, down from 15 yesterday.

“Pleasingly we only had eight cases of community transmission,” says premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Seven of them are linked directly to the northern beaches cluster.

“The eighth one being it could actually be an overseas-acquired case. It was a transport nurse, someone who worked in transport in patients in quarantine, a nurse.”

That was from a record number of tests – 44,000. That is also up from yesterday’s previous record tests of 38,000.

Here is the video of Biden being vaccinated:

 

Joe Biden received his first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine on live US television on Monday afternoon, in keeping with public officials’ efforts to show Americans such vaccines are safe.

Shortly after 3.20pm, Biden appeared before cameras at a medical facility. He rolled up his sleeve and said: “I’m ready.” After the jab, Biden thanked scientists and medical workers, saying their efforts were “just amazing”.

He also praised the White House, saying “I think that the administration deserves some credit getting this off the ground” and that the vaccine provides “great hope”.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Biden also said of receiving the vaccine. He said that his wife, Jill Biden, had already received her first dose earlier in the day:

To our US readers, here is how to escape all thoughts of the pandemic and watch tonight’s interplanetary kiss – or the best great conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter in 800 years:

Summary

Hello, my name is Helen Sullivan and welcome to today’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and my last blog for the year after nearly ten months of doing this eight hours a day, every day.

It has been an honour and a privilege.

You can bid me good riddance or wish me a merry Christmas on Twitter @helenrsullivan (but before you start mourning or celebrating: I will be back in earliest January).

As the global death toll passed 1.7m, US president-elect Joe Biden on Monday received his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on live television as part of a growing effort to convince the American public the inoculations are safe.

The president-elect took a dose of Pfizer vaccine at a hospital near his Delaware home, hours after his wife Jill Biden. The injections came the same day that a second vaccine, produced by Moderna, will start arriving in states.

The virus has killed at least 1,700,399 people in less than a year, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Here are the other key developments:

  • Boris Johnson “working with Emmanuel Macron” to resolve border delays. The UK prime minister said he had an “excellent” conversation with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and said he was keen to get the situation at Dover sorted out “in a few hours” if it was possible. Johnson said he and Macron are working to “resolve these issues as fast as possible” so that freight traffic can get moving again.
  • There are no intensive care beds available in densely populated southern California or the state’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, together home to nearly 30 million people, amid a deadly surge of Covid-19, governor GavinNewsom said on Monday.
  • Half a million people have received first dose of vaccine in the UK. More than half a million people in the UK have been vaccinated against Covid-19, Boris Johnson said.
  • Delays at Dover affecting only small amount of freight, says UK PM. Boris Johnson insisted Channel port delays will only affect a small amount of food and medicine shipments coming into the UK. Johnson says the delays only involve “human-handled freight”, which only amounts to about 20% of the goods going to continental Europe.
  • UK supermarkets warn of food shortages if border crisis isn’t resolved soon. British supermarket group Tesco warned on Monday that there may be a shortage of some fruit and vegetables later this week if transport ties are not quickly restored with mainland Europe. The supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s has warned that some products could be missing from UK shelves due to restrictions at ports, but said food for a traditional Christmas lunch is available and already in the country.
  • Sweden one of 40 countries to ban travellers from Britain. Sweden has joined the list of countries, which include France, Israel, and Germany, that will stop allowing in foreign travellers from Britain in a bid to curb the rapid spread of a new strain of the coronavirus, the government said today. Sweden is also barring travellers from Denmark.
  • Europe’s medicines regulator approved the use of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The approval puts Europe on course to start inoculations within a week. EU countries including Germany, France, Austria and Italy have said they plan to start vaccinations from 27 December. Having gained the green light from the EMA, the final step is approval by the European commission, which is expected in the coming days. The commission typically follows the EMA’s advice.

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