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 “UK reports another 691 Covid deaths – as it happened” was written by Jessica Murray (now) Matthew WeaverAlexandra Topping and Helen Sullivan (earlier), for theguardian.com on Tuesday 22nd December 2020 23.59 UTC

11.59pm GMT

We are closing this live blog now, but you can stay up to date with the latest on our new global blog, which you can find below.

Updated at 12.02am GMT

11.40pm GMT

Tesco has introduced buying limits on items including toilet roll, eggs, rice, soap and handwash. Customers at the supermarket are now limited to one item per person of toilet roll, and up to three products of eggs, rice, soap and handwash.

It is understood the extra limits are pre-emptive measures to help smooth demand in the coming weeks, rather than a reaction to shortages or a change in buying behaviour. They are on top of a three-item limit on essential items such as flour, dried pasta and anti-bacterial wipes which has been in place for several months.

On Monday supermarkets and wholesalers warned of shortages of lettuce, broccoli and citrus fruit around Christmas as thousands of lorries were stranded in Kent after France closed its borders to the UK.

“If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year,” a Sainsbury’s spokesperson said.

Tesco previously introduced a buying cap on toilet roll in November in anticipation of a repeat of the panic buying that took place in March, and has encouraged customers to “shop as normal”, saying it had plenty of food up to 25 December.

11.23pm GMT

UK transport secretary Grant Shapps said it could take until Christmas for congestion to be relieved near ports.

Speaking to the media, Shapps said:

We have managed to get all those tests to Kent, enough for all the vehicles which will want to return before Christmas, so that won’t be an issue.

Obviously there’s a physical issue of providing the test, getting the results. A negative test allows you to leave.

But all of that requires operationalising and that can’t happen in an instant, so this will take two or three days for things to be cleared.

11.08pm GMT

Summary

Here’s a quick recap of the latest coronavirus developments from across the globe over the last few hours:

  • Britain to begin mass testing truck drivers as France reopens border. A mass Covid-19 testing programme for lorry drivers is to get under way to alleviate congestion at British ports following an agreement to reopen the border between France and the UK. The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said lateral flow tests, which take about 30 minutes, could be used to test those able to cross the French border.
  • Relatives of Italian Covid victims to file lawsuit against leading politicians. Relatives of coronavirus victims in Italy are taking legal action against the prime minister, health minister and the president of the Lombardy region for alleged criminal negligence over their handling of the pandemic.
  • Biden will seek new Covid-19 relief package next year and says “darkest days” are ahead. US president-elect Joe Biden said his administration will put forward another Covid-19 relief package next year, including a new round of stimulus payments. “Here is the simple truth: our darkest days in the battle against Covid are ahead of us, not behind us,” he said.
  • South Africa struggles to contain second Covid wave with new variant. South Africa is struggling to contain a second wave of Covid-19 infections which appears to be driven by a new and more infectious variant of the disease, similar to that in the UK.
  • NHS leaders raise concerns over pace of Covid vaccine rollout. NHS leaders in England have raised concerns about the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, with more than half of hospital trusts and two-thirds of GPs yet to receive supplies amid growing alarm over the new fast-spreading variant.
  • Covid could shorten US life expectancy by up to three years, experts say. The US could see a decline of two to three years in life expectancy in 2020 due to the coronavirus, the steepest drop since the second world war and with Covid-19 poised to become the third-leading cause of death in America.
  • California records half a million Covid cases in two weeks. The state could be facing a once-unthinkable scenario of nearly 100,000 hospitalisations within a month, overwhelming emergency rooms across the state.
  • Weekly Covid-19 cases hit record fuelled by Americas. Weekly Covid-19 cases rose by the highest amount since the pandemic began, the World Health Organization said, with the Americas accounting for half of them.
  • Nicola Sturgeon apologises for breaching Covid rules. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has apologised after she breached Covid rules by taking off her face mask at a funeral wake.
  • AstraZeneca says its vaccine should be effective against new coronavirus variant. British drugmaker AstraZeneca told Reuters its Covid-19 vaccine should be effective against the new coronavirus variant, adding studies were underway to fully probe the impact of the mutation.

Updated at 11.25pm GMT

10.54pm GMT

Nicola Sturgeon apologises for breaching Covid rules

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has apologised after she breached Covid rules by taking off her face mask at a funeral wake.

A photograph published in the Scottish Sun showed the first minister chatting to three women in a bar while standing at a distance but without wearing a mask.

Under Scottish government coronavirus rules, customers in hospitality venues must wear a face covering except when seated and must wear one when moving around.

Sturgeon was attending a funeral wake for a Scottish government civil servant. She said:

Last Friday, while attending a funeral wake, I had my mask off briefly. This was a stupid mistake and I’m really sorry.

I talk every day about the importance of masks, so I’m not going to offer any excuses.

I was in the wrong, I’m kicking myself, and I’m sorry.

Updated at 11.17pm GMT

10.46pm GMT

NHS leaders raise concerns over pace of Covid vaccine rollout

NHS leaders in England have raised concerns about the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, with more than half of hospital trusts and two-thirds of GPs yet to receive supplies amid growing alarm over the new fast-spreading variant.

Dr Richard Vautrey, the chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, urged the government to speed up delivery of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in order to save lives. Experts also demanded greater transparency from ministers on how many doses are available.

Vautrey said:

We need millions of doses to be made available as soon as possible – urgently – because it’s the number one priority for GP practices, our patients and the nation, especially given the new mutant strain.

GPs who haven’t got it yet are frustrated because they want to be getting on and vaccinating their patients as well. Their frustration is understandable. They want to protect their patients, especially their vulnerable patients, as quickly as possible.

Hospital bosses in England are also dismayed that, a fortnight after Margaret Keenan from Coventry became the first person to have the jab on 8 December, more than half of the country’s 135 NHS acute hospital trusts have still not received their first supplies. So far 57 (42%) of them have had a delivery and been able to start vaccination, the Guardian understands.

10.42pm GMT

Sydney residents will learn on Wednesday whether Covid-19 restrictions will be eased ahead of the Christmas holidays and if the northern seaside suburbs can come out of a lockdown after a fresh virus cluster was detected there last week.

About a quarter of a million residents in Australia’s largest city have been asked to stay home for five days from Saturday as authorities rushed to contain the cluster, which had grown to 90 cases as of Tuesday.

Residents in the affected areas were asked to go outside only for one of four essential reasons – grocery shopping, work, emergency medical treatment or visiting an isolated relative.

Current restrictions are due to expire at midnight on Wednesday.

New South Wales (NSW), of which Sydney is the capital, reported on Tuesday its lowest rise in new local coronavirus cases in almost a week after record testing numbers, stoking optimism the cluster has been contained.

NSW authorities have added dozens of venues across the city linked to the cluster and urged Sydney’s 5 million residents to remain vigilant.

Australia has reported just over 28,200 coronavirus cases and 908 deaths since the pandemic began.

10.31pm GMT

A mass testing programme for HGV drivers will get under way to alleviate congestion at ports after an agreement was reached to reopen the border between France and the UK, the Department for Transport said.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said:

I am pleased that we have made this important progress with our French counterparts this evening.

This protocol will see the French border reopen to those travelling for urgent reasons, provided they have a certified negative Covid test.

We continue to urge hauliers not to travel to Kent until further notice as we work to alleviate congestion at ports.

The protocol agreed with the French government will be reviewed on 31 December but could run until 6 January, the DfT said.

All lorry drivers, irrespective of nationality, will require a lateral flow test, which can provide results in about 30 minutes.

The French government will also carry out sample testing on incoming freight to the UK, the DfT said.

Shapps said lateral flow tests could be used to test those able to cross the French border.

Speaking to BBC News, he said: “Any passengers going to France – and at the moment I’m afraid that’s mostly French citizens returning and one or two other exceptions – will need a lateral flow, or a PCR test, but a test within the 72-hour period before they go to France.

“Of course, anyone coming this way – and again we’re not encouraging anybody to travel right now – will need to follow our rules which are self-isolation for 10 days or a test to release after five days.”

Updated at 10.45pm GMT

10.09pm GMT

Brazil’s health ministry expects to have at least 150m doses of vaccines against Covid-19 available in the first half of 2021, with a third or more coming from a Chinese company despite the president’s early scepticism.

Arnaldo Medeiros, a health ministry official, also told a congressional hearing on Tuesday that an initial deal to acquire 46m doses of vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech could soon be expanded to 100m.

The Sao Paulo state government’s Butantan Institute is expected to present data from its late-stage trial of the Sinovac vaccine, CoronaVac, on Wednesday, which has already begun rolling off its fill-and-finish production line.

President Jair Bolsonaro had snubbed that vaccine, citing doubts about its “origin” and trading barbs with Sao Paulo governor João Doria, a political rival.

But the health ministry has been eager to secure supplies as the global rush for vaccines heats up.

The federal government’s Fiocruz biomedical centre is also expected to begin fill-and-finish of the AstraZeneca vaccine in coming months, delivering the first shots on 8 February. The ministry expects 104m doses by June, officials said.

Separately, the ministry is in talks with Pfizer to receive 8m doses of the vaccine it developed with Germany’s BioNTech in the first half of 2021.

No Covid-19 vaccine has been approved yet for use in Brazil. The Pfizer/BioNTech shot has been authorised in several countries, including the US, the UK and Canada.

Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly played down the severity of the pandemic, has said he will not take any vaccine, stoking broader scepticism toward the shots among Brazilians. Brazil’s public health authorities, however, have said they will use any vaccine approved by regulators.

On Tuesday Brazil registered 55,202 new cases of coronavirus, bringing the total to 7,318,821. Deaths rose by 968 to 188,259.

Updated at 10.32pm GMT

10.05pm GMT

Peru is poised to surpass 1 million confirmed cases of coronavirus as concerns about a potential second wave of infections begin to grow in the hard-hit Andean nation.

The country had logged 998,475 cases as of Monday, and 37,173 deaths.

The daily tally of new cases in Peru has fallen sharply in recent months, from a peak of 10,000 cases per day at the end of August to about 1,000 new infections on Monday.

But many in Peru fear the country’s ailing healthcare system and overcrowded hospitals would struggle to revive amid another rise in cases. That concern has prompted authorities to implement restrictions around the year-end holidays to ward off a second outbreak.

“Right now we are not experiencing a second wave, but we are taking these measures to be [vigilant],” the health minister, Pilar Mazzetti, said.

Peru is lagging behind some of its neighbours in efforts to ensure vaccines for its citizens.

The country has signed a preliminary agreement with Pfizer to buy 9.9m doses of its vaccine, and has inked a deal with the Covax Facility, an alliance led by the World Health Organization, to acquire another 13.2m doses.

But the government of president Francisco Sagasti said last week it did not know when the first doses would be arriving, nor how many would be included in the first shipment.

Latin American regional neighbours Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have each exceeded 1 million cases of the virus.

Updated at 10.35pm GMT

10.02pm GMT

Weekly Covid-19 cases hit record fuelled by Americas

Weekly Covid-19 cases rose by the highest amount since the pandemic began, the World Health Organization said late on Tuesday, with the Americas accounting for half of them.

The data shows a continuation of the trend for rising cases this month as vaccination rollouts begin in some countries.

New cases rose by 6%, or by 4.6 million, in the week to 20 December, the WHO said in its weekly epidemiological update. New deaths rose by 4%, or about 79,000, in the same period.

The US reported 1.6 million new cases of the respiratory disease, the highest number of new cases for any single country in the world, followed by Brazil, which reported the next-highest. The weekly US increase was 14%.

Europe accounted for the highest number of new deaths, over 36,000, which was nearly half of the weekly global total.

The WHO regional chief said earlier that a meeting was planned on Wednesday to discuss a new, more infectious variant of the virus that has emerged in Britain.

Updated at 10.24pm GMT

9.45pm GMT

Eurotunnel said only pre-booked passengers who had already tested negative for Covid-19 should go to its terminal, as France reopens its borders to travellers from the UK.

“From 23:00hrs on 22/12/2020, to travel to France passengers will need:

  • A negative result from a Covid-19 test accepted by the French government
  • Taken in the last 72 hours
  • An email or SMS certificate issued by the testing facility.

“Please ensure you meet the French government’s criteria before travelling to our terminal.

“There is no Covid-19 testing facility at Eurotunnel. Go to our website to book or amend tickets. Please do not arrive without a booking as we are fully booked.”

9.21pm GMT

Late on Monday night, Congress approved a 0bn stimulus package which will deliver financial aid to millions of families and businesses facing economic distress from coronavirus pandemic.

Though far smaller than a bill lawmakers passed at the outset of the pandemic, earlier this year, the measure is one the largest pieces of legislation in US history.

Tucked into the hulking 5,593-page bill, however, are a range of initiatives and obscure provisions that appear to have little to do with fortifying a fragile economy or keeping the government open, including new Smithsonian museums, support for the Dalai Lama and the right to reproduce Smokey Bear.

9.17pm GMT

Biden will seek new Covid-19 relief package next year and says “darkest days” are ahead

US president-elect Joe Biden said his administration will put forward another Covid-19 relief package next year, including a new round of stimulus payments.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Biden said a 0bn relief package passed by Congress this week was a “first step” but the government will have to do more.

“Here is the simple truth: Our darkest days in the battle against Covid are ahead of us, not behind us,” he said.

Updated at 9.23pm GMT

8.28pm GMT

AstraZeneca says its vaccine should be effective against new coronavirus variant

British drugmaker AstraZeneca told Reuters its Covid-19 vaccine should be effective against the new coronavirus variant, adding studies were underway to fully probe the impact of the mutation.

“AZD1222 (AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate) contains the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike protein, and the changes to the genetic code seen in this new viral strain do not appear to change the structure of the spike protein,” an AstraZeneca representative said.

Drugmakers are scrambling to test their Covid-19 vaccines against the new fast-spreading variant of the virus that is spreading in Britain, the latest challenge in the breakneck race to curb the pandemic.

“Through vaccination with AZD1222, the body’s immune system is trained to recognise many different parts of the spike protein, so that it can eliminate the virus if it is later exposed,” the AstraZeneca representative added.

The mutation, known as the B.1.1.7 lineage, may be up to 70% more infectious and more of a concern for children. It has sown chaos in Britain, prompting a wave of travel bans that are disrupting trade with Europe.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford shot is considered vital for lower-income countries and those in hot climates because it is cheaper, easier to transport and can be stored for long periods at normal refrigerator temperatures.

Data from AstraZeneca’s late-stage trials in the UK and Brazil released earlier this month showed the vaccine had efficacy of 62% for trial participants given two full doses, but 90% for a smaller sub-group given a half, then a full dose.

Reuters reported late on Tuesday that India is likely to approve AstraZeneca’s vaccine for emergency use by next week.

Updated at 9.36pm GMT

8.06pm GMT

California has recorded a half-million coronavirus cases in the past two weeks, overwhelming emergency rooms across the state.

The state could be facing a once-unthinkable scenario of nearly 100,000 hospitalisations within a month, the governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.

Newsom, himself quarantined for the second time in two months, said a state projection model shows previously unfathomable hospitalisation numbers. He is likely to extend his stay-at-home order for much of the state next week.

Dr Mark Ghaly, California’s health secretary, said it is feared entire areas of the state may run out of room even in their makeshift “surge” capacity units “by the end of the month and early in January”.

In response, the state is updating its planning guide for how hospitals would ration care if people cannot receive the treatment they need, Ghaly said. “Our goal is to make sure those plans are in place, but work hard to make sure no one has to put them into place anywhere in California,” he said.

8.01pm GMT

Covid could shorten US life expectancy by up to three years, experts say

The US could see a decline of two to three years in life expectancy in 2020 due to the coronavirus, the steepest drop since the second world war and with Covid-19 poised to become the third-leading cause of death in America, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In 2019, life expectancy hit 78.8 years, up 0.1 from 2018, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. The increase stemmed from decreased death rates in heart disease and cancer, the leading and second-leading causes of death in the US. Drug overdose deaths increased after dropping in 2018 but suicides declined for the first time in 14 years.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, 190,519 new cases in the US on Monday saw the Covid-19 caseload pass 18m. By Tuesday morning, there had been 319,466 deaths, 1,696 of them on the day before.

For comparison, in 2019 around 659,000 people died of heart disease in America, and around 600,000 from cancer. The third-leading cause of death, accidents, killed around 173,000.

7.55pm GMT

A Sikh humanitarian organisation has been delivering hundreds of hot meals to lorry drivers stuck in Kent due to the French travel ban designed to stop the spread of a new strain of coronavirus.

Volunteers from Khalsa Aid received an escort from Kent Police as they drove from Gravesend to the M20 to provide 800 meals to the stranded truckers.

In footage shared on social media, Khalsa Aid founder Ravinder Singh revealed the Coast Guard and Highway Agency also helped them to distribute their cargo.

“The Khalsa volunteers have been out all day and we’re thankful for the Gravesend Sikh temple, gurdwara, for assisting in making this meal – 800 meals and we’ve got much more to do,” said Singh, speaking from the M20.

7.35pm GMT

Britain to begin testing truck drivers to reopen France border

British transport secretary Grant Shapps said stranded truck drivers would begin receiving Covid tests on Wednesday that, if negative, would allow them to return home to France.

“We’ll be making sure that tomorrow we’re out there, providing tests,” Shapps said, but he cautioned the process would take time. “This will take two or three days for things to be cleared.”

Updated at 7.46pm GMT

7.34pm GMT

Malawi has announced it will seal its land borders for 14 days after a new surge in coronavirus cases, almost three months since most preventative measures were ditched and life had returned to normal.

Making the announcement in the capital Lilongwe, information minister Gospel Kazako also confirmed one of the Covid taskforce members, minister of labour Ken Kandodo, had been admitted to hospital with the virus.

Only those bringing essentials like fuel and drugs will be allowed to come into the country, and football matches and other public gatherings have been restricted to no more than 100 people. More restrictions might be introduced soon, he said.

Malawi’s total number of infections now stands at 6,248, with 187 deaths.

Updated at 7.35pm GMT

7.22pm GMT

Canada is introducing extra measures to screen people who have spent time in Britain to check for a fast-spreading mutated Covid-19 variant, public safety minister Bill Blair has said.

Separately, health officials said they had seen no sign yet of the variant, which has emerged in Britain and prompted many countries to introduce travel bans.

Although Ottawa imposed a 72-hour block on flights from Britain on Sunday, Blair said more steps were needed to handle people who had been in the country and then flown to Canada via Europe or the US.

Visitors to Britain during the previous two weeks prior to arrival in Canada will be referred to health officials for additional assessments, screening and questions. They will also have to go into quarantine for 14 days.

“We believe (these measures) are among the strongest in the world,” Blair said, adding those who lied about having not been in Britain could face imprisonment and big fines.

Fewer than 2% of coronavirus cases in Canada have been linked to international travel, Blair said.

A second wave of coronavirus is sweeping across Canada and authorities have only just begun to inoculate the population using Pfizer’s vaccine. Health minister Patty Hajdu said a decision on whether to approve Moderna’s vaccine should come very soon but gave no details.

Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, on Monday announced a partial shutdown of some businesses starting 26 December and banned most indoor gatherings.

Cases continue to rise steadily and chief public health officer Theresa Tam said she was particularly worried about the increasing number of people being hospitalised at a time when health care workers are exhausted.

“It’s going to be much more difficult for us to manage in the next few months,” she said.

7.08pm GMT

Tunisia will ban all events including celebrations for the new year and extend its night curfew until 15 January to help combat the spread of coronavirus, the health minister has said.

The government imposed the night curfew in October and banned travel between regions in the North African country.

On Monday, Tunisia said it had recorded a total of 121,718 coronavirus infections, including 4,199 deaths.

Tunisian authorities said they had ordered vaccines from US drugmaker Pfizer.

7.07pm GMT

France has reported 11,795 new confirmed Covid-19 cases, up from 5,797 on Monday and nearly unchanged from 11,532 last Tuesday, and taking the total to 2.49 million cases.

On Mondays, the number of cases usually drops because of weekend reporting lags.

French authorities also registered 802 new coronavirus deaths over the past 24 hours, including 381 hospital deaths, compared with 351 on Monday.

They reported 421 deaths in retirement homes over the past four days.

Total deaths from the respiratory pandemic now stand at 61,702.

The number of people in intensive care with Covid-19 in France fell again by 18 to 2,728, while the number hospitalised with the virus fell by 269 to 24,964.

7.04pm GMT

Hi everyone, this is Jessica Murray, I’ll be taking over the blog for the next few hours – any suggestions, story tips or personal experiences you would like to share, please send them my way.

Email: jessica.murray@theguardian.com
Twitter: @journojess

6.56pm GMT

French and EU citizens will again be allowed to enter France from Britain from midnight on Tuesday provided they have a negative Covid test that is less than 72 hours old, the French prime minister’s office has confirmed.

British citizens or citizens from third countries who have residence in France or the European Union can also enter the country or transit through it from Britain as long as they have a negative Covid test, the prime minister’s office said in a statement, according to Reuters.

UK citizens or people from third countries with legitimate professional or other reasons for travelling from Britain will also be allowed into France, provided they test negative.

The government listed several categories of people to whom this would be applicable, including those in transit for less than 24 hours in international zones, diplomats and their families, health workers, airline staff and bus or train operators.

The new rules will be in place until 6 January, unless reviewed following bilateral UK-France or EU-wide talks.

6.40pm GMT

France to reopen border tomorrow for those who test negative

France is prepared to reopen its borders to travellers from the UK from tomorrow morning, the BBC’s Europe Editor Katya Adler reports citing the French transport minister.

The minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, confirmed that planes, trains and ships could begin arriving again in the country from midnight.

But he said people returning to France must have tested negative for Covid-19 in the last 72 hours.

The Daily Mirror has more.

Updated at 6.59pm GMT

6.32pm GMT

Summary

Here’s a reminder of the latest developments:

  • Almost 3,000 lorry drivers stranded in Kent are waiting for an announcement from France about plans to reopen its borders to UK traffic. “A solution is being worked on and will be announced during the course of the day,” a French government source said.
  • Lorry drivers stranded at Manston airport in Kent have been sounding their horns in apparent protest at the delays and conditions. Kent county council insists that food and toilet facilities are being provided for drivers.
  • The UK has recorded another 36,804 cases of the virus and announced 691 deaths. The number of deaths is the highest announced in a 24-hour period since early May. Covid-19 case rates are now above 1,000 cases per 100,000 people in 12 local areas of the UK, the latest data shows.
  • The US’s top disease expert, Anthony Fauci, has had a shot of the vaccine and says he hopes this will encourage millions of other Americans to do the same. He said the jab should be “a symbol to the rest of the country that I feel extreme confidence of the safety and efficacy of this vaccine”.
  • Nicola Sturgeon has warned MSPs that she may have to introduce full lockdown measures across Scotland in the coming days. She said tough restrictions were urgently needed to suppress the new strain of coronavirus that she revealed was likely present in 14% of Scottish cases according to the latest available data.
  • Italy, which exceeded the UK last week as the European country with the highest Covid death toll, has reported a further 628 coronavirus-related deaths. Its daily tally of new infections increased to 13,318 from 10,872 on Monday.
  • Hospitals in the Netherlands have said they will postpone all non-critical care in the coming weeks in order to deal with the rapid rise in Covid patients. Infections in the country jumped 42% to 83,240 in the last week, the National Institute for Public Health said.
  • 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 certain. Uğur Şahin told a press conference that his team had been working on trying to find out whether the vaccine worked on the UK variant or whether it would be necessary to adapt it.
  • 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.
  • The US government is reported to have decided against screening passengers traveling from the United Kingdom. Germany has extended its ban on UK travellers until 6 January, while China has closed its visa service in London.

6.16pm GMT

More than 200 temporary loos promised for Kent

Kent county council says portable toilets have been installed at 1km intervals along the stretch of the M20 where more than 600 drivers are parked.

A further 150 loos are available at Manston airport where 2,220 lorries are parked. Another 70 loos will be installed on Wednesday.

Campaigners warned last month that post Brexit lorry queues threatened to transform Kent into the “toilet of England” without better facilities for drivers.

Updated at 6.26pm GMT

6.01pm GMT

Belgium has detected four cases of the new variant sweeping the UK, health officials have told AFP.

The four cases were uncovered at the start of the month in the country’s northern Flemish regions that border the Netherlands, said Jan Eyckmans, spokesman for Belgium’s health minister.

A spokesman for the national virus crisis centre said the figure was conservative and that other infections by the strain could have gone undetected as Belgium screens for new mutations far less than Britain does.

“It’s not much, but it is not impossible that there are more,” Yves Van Laethem said.

Van Laethem warned that the decision to close borders could have come too late.

“Isn’t the enemy already among us? I don’t know, but it’s not impossible,” he said. “This closure was perhaps already too late since they started finding cases of this English strain in September.”

5.53pm GMT

Here’s video of Anthony Fauci getting his vaccine:

5.31pm GMT

Hundreds of truck drivers stuck in a lorry park near Dover have been left without water and the only toilet has been blocked, PA reports citing a fellow driver delivering supplies to them.

More than 1,500 lorries are backed up in Kent, while the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel remain closed to traffic leaving the country, with drivers facing a third night sleeping in their cabs.

Freight unable to make the crossing to France have been told to go to Manston Airport, near Ramsgate, which is now being used as a lorry park.

Laszlo Baliga, 51, from London, who is a truck driver himself, spent Tuesday delivering food and water to those lined up in the disused airfield.

He began taking supplies after Hungarian drivers stranded in the lorry park posted on Facebook asking for help, with one driver telling him the only toilet on the site had been blocked.

“No water and no toilet now – there is one toilet, but it is now blocked,” Baliga told the PA.

He and friends have so far spent more than 500 on food and water for drivers at the site.

Delivering bottles of water Baliga said:

This is our third time, we have got ready-to-eat sausages, bread, tomatoes, lettuce, coffee. Basic foods for now for the drivers. When we see Hungarian drivers coming in we say stop, and the drivers take things in to the other side to give to everybody.”

We like to help because this is a difficult time.

5.23pm GMT

Covid-19 case rates are now above 1,000 cases per 100,000 people in 12 local areas of the UK, the latest data shows, PA reports.

Three of the areas are in Wales: Merthyr Tydfil, where the rate is currently 1,336.1 – the highest anywhere in the UK; Bridgend, where the rate is 1,145.9; and Blaenau Gwent, where the rate is 1,002.0.

The other nine areas are in England: Thurrock (1,257.3), Havering (1,190.9), Epping Forest (1,146.6), Brentwood (1,095.8), Basildon (1,080.1), Medway (1,054.4), Rochford (1,041.6), Redbridge (1,040.6) and Castle Point (1,011.3).

All figures are based on data published on Tuesday afternoon and are for the seven days to 18 December. Data on new cases for 19-22 December is incomplete and therefore not included.

Updated at 5.27pm GMT

5.07pm GMT

Roger Gough, the leader of Kent county council, has told the BBC that almost 3,000 lorries are being held in Kent, including 2,220 at Manston.

5.00pm GMT

Here’s video of Nicola Sturgeon announcing likely tougher restrictions in Scotland.

4.53pm GMT

The US government does not intend to impose screenings for passengers travelling from Britain after the emergence of a highly infectious new coronavirus variant there, Reuters reports citing people briefed on the decision.

A White House coronavirus taskforce discussed requiring negative pre-flight tests after a meeting on Monday, but the government has decided not to take any action for the time being, the people said.

Updated at 5.02pm GMT

4.49pm GMT

Lorry drivers protest at Manston

Lorry drivers stranded at Manston airport in Kent have been sounding their horns in apparent protest at the delays and conditions.

Updated at 5.51pm GMT

4.46pm GMT

Italy, which exceeded the UK last week as the European country with the highest Covid death toll, has reported a further 628 coronavirus-related deaths.

Its daily tally of new infections increased to 13,318 from 10,872 on Monday, Reuters reports.

The first western country hit by the virus, Italy has seen 69,842 Covid fatalities since its outbreak emerged in February.

Patients in hospital with Covid-19 stood at 24,948 on Tuesday, down by 197 from the day before. There were 201 new admissions to intensive care units, compared with 161 on Monday.

Updated at 5.00pm GMT

4.29pm GMT

Guy Verhofstadt MEP, the former chief Brexit representative for the European parliament, says the scenes in Kent are a reminder of “what leaving the EU really means”.

4.18pm GMT

UK announces 691 new Covid deaths

The UK has recorded another 36,804 cases of the virus and announced 691 deaths. The number of deaths is the highest announced in a 24-hour period since early May.

Updated at 4.56pm GMT

4.14pm GMT

Here’s more helicopter footage of thousands of lorries parked on the M20 in Kent.

4.06pm GMT

Fauci gets his shot

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, receives his first dose of the new Moderna vaccine at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, US
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, receives his first dose of the new Moderna vaccine at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, US
Photograph: Reuters

Anthony Fauci has had his jab and says he hopes this will encourage millions of other Americans to do the same.

He said the shot should be “a symbol to the rest of the country that I feel extreme confidence of the safety and efficacy of this vaccine”.

Fauci gestures after receiving his first dose of the vaccine
Fauci gestures after receiving his first dose of the vaccine
Photograph: Reuters

Updated at 4.28pm GMT

3.57pm GMT

Turkish long-haul truck drivers sit down to breakfast at a truck stop off the M20 motorway
Turkish long-haul truck drivers sit down to breakfast at a truck stop off the M20 motorway
Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The Road Haulage Association has warned of long delays if testing is introduced as a condition of travel to France.

Its chief executive, Richard Burnett, said: “There are many serious implications to this latest situation, even lateral flow Covid testing will have a massive impact on the supply chain.”

He also highlighted the appalling conditions the drivers are facing:

Right now, HGV drivers caught up in this mess have limited access to toilet and washing facilities – the majority have none. Denying them even the most basic facilities is not only putting their health at risk, it’s exacerbating the very situation that it was supposed to prevent.

For example, what will happen to those drivers who test positive? They will be unfit to drive but where will they go? They will be unable to quarantine with their families in Europe and what will happen to their vehicles? Who will be responsible for the deep cleaning of their cabs? And for those carrying return loads, what will happen to their cargo? This is going to be an extremely expensive exercise.

Updated at 4.28pm GMT

3.50pm GMT

Japan has joined more than 40 countries in banning travellers from the UK in response to the new strain of the virus.

The Japanese government has temporarily suspended entry from the United Kingdom from the 24 December, NHK reports.

3.38pm GMT

And there are miles of lorries parked on the M20 to Dover.

Updated at 3.42pm GMT

3.33pm GMT

Here’s the view from the roof of one of the thousands of lorries parked in Manston airport in Kent.

3.26pm GMT

Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, has warned of problems with the supply of fresh produce in the UK after Boxing Day unless the travel ban is lifted.

Speaking to MPs, he said:

The real issue we face is what happens in the next day or so. If we do not see the empty trucks, which have already delivered warehouses and stores, getting back over the channel, they will not be able to pick up the next consignment of fresh fruit, vegetables, salad vegetables, all the food we do not grow in the country at this time of year.

What we’ve been told by members is that unless those trucks can start travelling again and go back to Spain and Portugal and other parts of Europe, we will problems with fresh produce from 27 December.

What we need is for those trucks to move in the next 24 hours if we are to avoid seeing problems on our shelves.

Updated at 4.11pm GMT

3.19pm GMT

People who fail to get a vaccine could be banned from using public transport in France, according to a draft law that has sparked angry protests from opposition politicians, AFP reports.

Prime Minister Jean Castex on Monday got his cabinet’s backing for a bill that is designed to provide a legal framework for dealing with health crises, including the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the text, which will now be submitted to parliament, a negative Covid test or proof of a “preventative treatment, including the administration of a vaccine”, could be required for people to be granted “access to transport or to some locations, as well as certain activities”.

According to opinion polls, 55% of French people say they will not get a Covid shot, one of the highest rates in the European Union.

The government’s vaccination campaign is to start on Sunday.

President Emmanuel Macron has promised that coronavirus vaccinations, though strongly recommended, will not be mandatory.

But opposition politicians condemned the draft law, with Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, calling it an “essentially totalitarian” measure.

“In a backhanded way, this bill does not aim to make vaccinations mandatory, but will prevent anybody who doesn’t comply from having a social life,” she said.

Guillaume Peltier, the deputy leader of the centre-right LR party, said it was “inconceivable” that the government should be allowed to “get all the power to suspend our freedoms without parliamentary control.”

Centrist senator Nathalie Goulet said the draft was “an attack on public freedoms”, while the far-left deputy Alexis Corbière said “we could a least have a collective discussion if the idea is to limit our public liberties.”

Updated at 4.02pm GMT

3.16pm GMT

Hospitals in the Netherlands have said they will postpone all non-critical care in the coming weeks in order to deal with the rapid rise in Covid patients, Reuters reports.

Coronavirus infections in the country jumped 42% to 83,240 in the last week, the National Institute for Public Health said, following a string of record daily increases.

The Dutch government early last week imposed a tough five-week lockdown, closing all schools and non-essential stores, in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.

The health ministry on Tuesday said all Dutch hospitals would postpone non-critical care for an indefinite period of time, while the number of available intensive care beds in the country would be increased to 1,450.

The ministry said it had so far found two Dutch patients infected with a virulent variant of the coronavirus first discovered in Britain, which has prompted much of the world to cut off travel ties with the UK.

One of the patients had not recently been to Britain, the health minister, Hugo de Jonge, told national news agency ANP.

Updated at 3.27pm GMT

3.03pm GMT

“We are giving it the final push”, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michael Barnier has told reporters in Brussels. He also said the talks are at a “crucial moment”.

2.47pm GMT

Sturgeon warns of possible lockdown

Nicola Sturgeon has warned MSPs that she may have to introduce full lockdown measures across Scotland in the coming days.

She said tough restrictions were urgently needed to suppress the new strain of coronavirus that she revealed was likely present in 14% of Scottish cases according to the latest available data.

Level 4 – the strictest of Scotland’s five tier system of Covid controls and which all of mainland Scotland will enter from Boxing Day – will now include:

  • Guidance to stay as local as possible and stay at home as much as possible, which may be put into law in the coming days.
  • Closure of homeware and garden centres.
  • The “strong advice” remains not to meet indoors at all on Christmas Day.

Sturgeon said:

To be blunt with parliament and the public, the current level 4 restrictions are not as stringent as the March lockdown. However, it seems that we are facing a virus that spreads much faster now than in March, so we need to consider whether the current level 4 restrictions will be sufficient to suppress it.

For the Conservatives, Ruth Davidson raised concerns of working parents over the delayed return of schools and nurseries, with online learning starting for most pupils on 11 January and the intention of a return to the classroom from 18 January.

Sturgeon said in her statement that “we will require to keep this under review”, and told Davidson that scientists were still trying to understand the nature of the new strain, including whether it was more easily transmitted to young people.

Sturgeon’s frustration was apparent when the Labour leader, Richard Leonard, criticised the Scottish government for apparently abandoning the 5-tiers framework. She insisted that the levels approach had not been ditched – “What we have done is not stand there clinging to it when there is a train coming down the track that is going to run us over.”

Updated at 3.09pm GMT

2.43pm GMT

Freight lorries cannot cross by sea or through the Eurotunnel and the Port of Dover has closed to outbound traffic
Freight lorries cannot cross by sea or through the Eurotunnel and the Port of Dover has closed to outbound traffic
Photograph: James Veysey/REX/Shutterstock

Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, has told MPs that he believes at least 4,000 trucks could be impacted by the French travel ban, PA reports.

Speaking to the business, energy and industrial strategy select committee, he said:

I don’t think the number of trucks in the queue or other areas is the relevant number,.

We reckon about 4,000 on their way to Dover at various points. Anyone seeing this all happening in the run-up would have parked somewhere else, somewhere more congenial and in a better state. I think the number of trucks that needs to be clearer as this unwinds will be more than 4,000.

Wright added that UK exports would also be impacted by the current difficulties at the port of Dover.

There are dozens of lorries there with product that is going off. There is a huge hit here to Scottish seafood.

The government was well aware of the power of the announcement it made on Saturday and Chris Whitty went out of his way to rightly scare people over the impact.

Everyone would have rightly known that everyone in Europe would have reacted this way, and in fact we felt similarly with Danish mink were infected. The consequence of this is the chaos we’ve seen over the past 24 hours. It’s incumbent on the government to come forward to compensate those who have lost out due because of that failure of authority.

Updated at 3.07pm GMT

2.25pm GMT

Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease expert, has confirmed 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 “overreaction”. 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 was 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.

Updated at 3.01pm GMT

2.15pm GMT

A further 405 people have died in English hospitals 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 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

Updated at 2.40pm GMT

2.08pm GMT

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:

2.05pm GMT

Covid cases in Scotland have risen by 1,316 in the last 24 hours and a further43 people have died, the Scottish government has announced.

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

Updated at 2.36pm GMT

1.59pm GMT

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.

1.56pm GMT

Ireland to shut restaurants, pubs serving food and some shops from Christmas Eve

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.

Updated at 2.29pm GMT

1.50pm GMT

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

1.41pm GMT

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

1.34pm GMT

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.

1.17pm GMT

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:

1.15pm GMT

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:

1.00pm GMT

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.

12.53pm GMT

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.

12.44pm GMT

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

12.39pm GMT

Summary

Here’s a round up of the latest developments:


12.28pm GMT

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.

12.21pm GMT

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.”

11.55am GMT

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.

11.48am GMT

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.

11.40am GMT

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:

11.27am GMT

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 at 11.31am GMT

11.16am GMT

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.

11.11am GMT

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.

10.58am GMT

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.

10.24am GMT

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 at 11.35am GMT

10.12am GMT

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 at 10.18am GMT

10.09am GMT

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 at 10.19am GMT

10.04am GMT

‘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 at 10.05am GMT

9.43am GMT

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 at 9.55am GMT

9.17am GMT

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 at 9.56am GMT

9.01am GMT

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 at 9.57am GMT

8.55am GMT

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 at 9.57am GMT

8.52am GMT

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 at 8.53am GMT

8.39am GMT

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 at 8.54am GMT

8.25am GMT

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 at 8.54am GMT

8.10am GMT

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 at 8.55am GMT

7.51am GMT

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 at 8.04am GMT

7.30am GMT

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 at 7.30am GMT

7.22am GMT

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 at 8.05am GMT

7.08am GMT

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 at 7.13am GMT

6.55am GMT

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 at 7.13am GMT

6.52am GMT

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 0bn 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 at 7.15am GMT

6.10am GMT

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.

6.05am GMT

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.

5.59am GMT

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.

5.55am GMT

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.

5.45am GMT

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.

5.43am GMT

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.

5.33am GMT

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:

5.18am GMT

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 at 5.21am GMT

4.55am GMT

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.

4.48am GMT

US Congress passes 0bn Covid-19 aid bill after months of gridlock

After months of Washington gridlock, Congress has passed a 0bn 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:

4.26am GMT

More on the US aid bill now, from Reuters:

At 5,593 pages, the wide-ranging bill that also spends .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 0bn for coronavirus relief, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, adding that more than 0bn 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 4bn 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 .75 billion from Washington, with 0m of that targeted at vaccinations in minority and high-risk populations.

4.17am GMT

US Congress passes coronavirus aid bill

The US Congress on Monday approved an 2 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 0 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.

4.14am GMT

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

Read the full article here (at once!):

4.00am GMT

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.

3.42am GMT

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.

3.28am GMT

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:

3.10am GMT

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.

2.57am GMT

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

2.45am GMT

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.

2.18am GMT

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.

2.15am GMT

House passes coronavirus aid package

The US House of Representatives passed an 2 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 .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 0 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.”

2.09am GMT

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.

1.52am GMT

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.

1.38am GMT

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:

1.31am GMT

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:

1.21am GMT

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:

12.56am GMT

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.

12.43am GMT

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:

12.13am GMT

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:

12.08am GMT

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.

11.54pm GMT

Here is the video of Biden being vaccinated:

11.47pm GMT

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:

11.39pm GMT

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:

11.32pm GMT

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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