Covid live news: NZ to begin reopening border this month; Czech Republic to end Covid passes next week


This article titled “Covid live news: NZ to begin reopening border this month; Czech Republic to end Covid passes next week” was written by Jem Bartholomew (now), Elias Visontay and Helen Livingstone (earlier), for on Thursday 3rd February 2022 11.30 UTC

Record number of UK long Covid cases – ONS survey

The number of UK long Covid sufferers has hit a record high of 1.33 million people, an Office for National Statistics survey found, rising from 1.27 million at the start of December.

The figure includes more than 550,000 people who caught Covid a year beforehand, underscoring the long-lingering and often debailitating impact of the virus for some people.

The figures are based on self-reported long Covid – over four weeks of symptoms – from a representative sample of people in private households in the four weeks to 2 January.

Nearly two in three people with long Covid (836,000) said it was adversely affecting the day-to-day activities of 836,000 people – with 244,000 people saying their ability to undertake day-to-day activities has been “limited a lot,” the ONS found.

Common symptoms, the survey found, include:

  • Fatigue (experienced by 50% of those with self-reported long Covid)
  • Shortness of breath (37%)
  • Loss of smell (37%)
  • Loss of taste (28%).
Shoppers wear masks on Oxford Street in London, UK on 27 January. A man wears an n95 and a woman wears a blue medical mask.
Shoppers wear masks on Oxford Street in London, UK on 27 January.
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

In the UK, more information emerges about the waste and fraud scandal over pandemic contracts.

Companies handed a combined £1.3 billion in controversial fast-track Covid contracts with minimal scrutiny also claimed at least £1 million in furlough grants, The Guardian reports.

It comes after Labour’s Keir Starmer attacked prime minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday over “eye-watering waste” – following revelations on Monday the government had spent £8.7 billion on unusable PPE in England.

My colleagues Joseph Smith and Pamela Duncan have the details:

Analysis of the accounts of companies that won lucrative emergency contracts to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS during the height of the pandemic shows 12 also claimed funds to put staff on furlough at taxpayers’ expense.

Many had no prior history of supplying PPE but received huge boosts in revenue after securing deals to supply items ranging from gowns to masks. Overall the scramble to obtain PPE resulted in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spending £9bn on personal protective equipment that was either substandard, defective, past its use-by date or dramatically overpriced.

These furlough claims were legal under the terms of the £70bn job preservation scheme, but the revelations raise questions about the ethics of claiming taxpayer support while reaping windfall gains from lucrative state contracts.

All 12 companies that claimed furlough grants had won PPE contracts via a so-called VIP lane, where approvals were fast-tracked often after a recommendation by ministers and government officials. The government spent £5bn on VIP lane contracts with 47 companies, but its use of the lane was found unlawful by the high court in last month.

Read the full story here.

Sweden to remove Covid curbs next week

Sweden announced it will end Covid restrictions on Wednesday next week, following other European countries such as France, Denmark and the Czech Republic in opening up again.

“It is time to open Sweden again,” said the prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, adding: “The pandemic is not over but has entered a totally new phase.”

Curbs including capacity limits, opening hours, vaccine certificates and masks on public transport will be removed.

Sweden is experiencing a record-breaking Covid wave in terms of infection numbers – with a current seven-day average of about 35,000 cases a day – but this has yet to translate into burdening hospitals. Andersson said 80% of Swedes aged over-50 are triple jabbed.


Poland detected 54,477 positive Covid tests in the past 24 hours, Polskie Radio reports, a 66% climb on the 32,835 new cases reported on Thursday two weeks ago.

That’s near Poland’s peak of more than 57,000 new cases on 27 January. It also takes the total Covid case tally to more than 5m, according to a count by Reuters.

Deaths rose by 307, compared to 316 two weeks ago. The total death toll stands at more than 106,000 people dying from Covid-related causes, the 15th highest worldwide. (Poland has the 38th highest population.)

Public-sector employees have been told to work from home and quarantine periods were cut from 10 to seven days amid the country’s surging Omicron wave.

Infections show no signs of slowing. The health minister, Adam Niedzielski, has said Covid cases could jump by 140,000 a day by mid-February.


The Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, is self-isolating after exposure to Covid.

A member of the populist president’s household staff, who he had contact with last weekend, tested positive. Duterte, 76, has so far tested negative twice, AP reports.

Duterte, who has urged police to start killing drug users, leading to the deaths of as many as 30,000 people according to the international criminal court, has received three vaccine shots and continues to work from quarantine.


Germany’s vaccine panel recommends Novavax shot for over-18s and 2nd boosters for vulnerable

Germany’s expert vaccine panel said on Thursday it would recommend Novavax’s Covid-19 vaccine for over-18s.

The standing committee on vaccination at the Robert Koch Institute (Stiko) recommended the protein-based shot as a first vaccine. (It said a booster should be given with an mRNA vaccine such as Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.)

Stiko also updated its booster shot recommendation, Reuters reports, and now advises vulnerable people and healthcare workers to get a second RNA booster shot.

It follows the European Medicines Agency’s move to recommend granting a conditional marketing authorisation for the Novavax jab to over-18s on 20 December. Two studies found the shot has a roughly 90% efficacy in preventing symptomatic Covid cases.

Novavax also applied for approval from the US Food and Drug Administration on 31 January.


Japan cuts quarantine for Covid family members to seven days

Japan’s health ministry announced a relaxation of rules for family members living with Covid-positive people, shortening quarantine to seven days providing they have no symptoms, the Japan Times reports.

The Times has the details:

Due to a rapid increase in the number of infection cases among children, guardians taking care of infected kids have had to remain isolated for a maximum of 17 days before resuming social activities.

People living with Covid-19 patients are considered close contacts and until now have been asked to stay home for a maximum of 17 days, as the ministry previously required a seven-day wait for family members from the time patients ended their 10-day self-isolation.

Of close contacts, 99.98% developed symptoms within seven days of the symptom onset for the Covid-19 carriers they came in contact with, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

The ministry, therefore, judged it appropriate to shorten the quarantine period for close contacts.

It comes after Japan broke its daily Covid record on Wednesday, with 94,908 cases according to the Times, exceeding the 90,000 mark for the first time. That’s roughly double the 45,997 infections reported on Thursday two weeks ago.

In Tokyo alone, a record 21,576 cases were detected yesterday.

People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk on a street in Tokyo on 2 February.
People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk on a street in Tokyo on 2 February.
Photograph: Koji Sasahara/AP


Russia vaults daily Covid peak again with 155,000 positive tests

Russia continues to break its daily Covid case record as Omicron sends infections spiralling.

A fresh 155,768 positive tests were recorded in the past 24 hours, Reuters reports, vaulting yesterday’s 141,883 cases and representing a 305% increase on the 38,508 cases reported on Thursday two weeks ago.

The country has broken its infections tally almost every day since late January.

But the Kremlin yesterday ruled out a national Covid lockdown. Meanwhile, several cities have imposed their own restrictions at a local level.

“Already today we are not talking about the lockdown, we are not talking about the quarantine, we are not talking about some kind of emergency countermeasures,” Anna Popova, the head of Russia’s public health agency, told state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

A further 667 deaths from Covid-related causes were reported in the past 24 hours, compared to 671 two weeks ago. Russia has the second-highest death toll in the world of more than 700,000 people, behind the US. (Russia has the 9th highest population.)

A man wearing a protective face mask walks on a street in Moscow, Russia, on 2 February.
A man wearing a protective face mask walks on a street in Moscow, Russia, on 2 February.
Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA


Bulgaria detected 9,152 Covid cases in the past 24 hours, state broadcaster BNT reports today, taking the seven-day average to 8,381 infections a day.

The European Union’s least-vaccinated country has experienced surging cases recently – driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant – breaking the daily Covid record with more than 12,000 infections in late-January.

A further 87 people were reported to have died from Covid-related causes, BNT reports, taking the seven-day average to 79 Covid deaths a day.

Bulgaria has the 28th highest Covid death toll globally, with more than 33,000 people dying, compared to only the 107th highest population.


South Korea expands rapid testing after record infections

South Korea expanded its rapid testing policy on Thursday following a record jumps in Covid cases after Lunar New Year holidays.

A further 22,907 infections were reported on Thursday, AP reports, around a five-fold increse in cases since mid-January as Omicron grips the nation.

Since the start of the pandemic the country’s testing regime has relied on lab PCR tests. But now, rapid tests are being expanded, reserving PCRs for higher-risk groups like the over-60s and clinically vulnerable.

AP reports from Seoul:

Long lines snaked around testing stations in the capital Seoul and other major cities, where most people were provided rapid antigen test kits to use under the supervision of health workers, who then approved lab tests for anyone who tested positive.

Some experts have opposed the new policy, saying that rapid tests aren’t sensitive enough to reliably detect omicron infections and raising concerns that transmissions could worsen if people who return false negative tests continue to venture out in public.

But health officials say the country must concentrate lab tests and other crucial medical resources due to the speed of infections driven by omicron. Officials are also expanding at-home treatments and have eased quarantine periods for virus carriers and people who come in close contact with them, citing concerns about major disruptions at workplaces and essential services if large numbers of people are constantly placed under quarantine.

People wear masks in downtown Seoul, South Korea, last month.
People wear masks in downtown Seoul, South Korea, last month.
Photograph: Heo Ran/Reuters


Czech Republic to end Covid passes next week

The Czech Republic will end requirements for a Covid pass – proof of vaccination or recovery – to enter restaraunts and entertainment venues from next week.

It comes despite the country breaking its daily Covid record on Wednesday, with over 57,000 infections, as the Omicron wave sweeps through. But hospitalisations are yet to surge.

Mandatory testing will also end for firms and schools from 18 February. Measures including indoor mask-wearing and capacity limits will remain.

It follows the peeling back of restrictions across Europe in countries like Austria, Italy and France after the winter Covid wave.

The Czech Republic has roughly the 25th highest Covid death toll globally, with around 37,000 deaths from Covid-related causes, compared to the 86th highest population.

Czech Republic’s prime minister Petr Fiala in Prague on 13 January.
Czech Republic’s prime minister Petr Fiala in Prague on 13 January.
Photograph: Petr David Josek/AP

Ukraine breaks daily Covid record with almost 40,000 infections

Ukraine broke its daily Covid record after reporting 39,620 new cases, more than double the 18,821 infections detected on Thursday two weeks ago.

It breaks the previous record of 37,351, from 29 January, as Omicron contnues to batter the country.

A further 210 people were reported to have died from virus-related causes, a 46% jump on the 144 reported two weeks ago.

Ukraine’s death toll rises to 100,809 people, the world’s 16th highest. (Ukraine has the 35th highest population worldwide.)

Ukraine’s minister of health, Viktor Liashko, in December. He wears a blue mask.
Ukraine’s minister of health, Viktor Liashko, in December.
Photograph: Ukrinform/REX/Shutterstock

India reported 172,433 new Covid cases in the past 24 hours, the Times of India reports, a 50% drop on the 347,254 new infections detected on Thursday two weeks ago.

India experienced surging cases last month but there are signs infections have spiked.

Yet as cases fall, deaths are rising. A further 1,008 people were reported to have died from virus-relates causes, a 43% climb on the 703 deaths on Thursday two weeks ago.

That takes India’s virus death toll to 498,983 people, by some counts the fourth-highest worldwide behind the US, Russia and Brazil. (India has the world’s second-highest population.)

This is Jem Bartholomew in London taking charge of the global blog for today. Do get in touch via email or Twitter with tips from around the world.

People walk in a market in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir on 13 January.
People walk in a market in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir on 13 January.
Photograph: Mukhtar Khan/AP

An anti-virus mask that folds up to only cover the nose and can continue to be worn while eating and drinking are on sale in South Korea.

The ‘kosk’, a combination of ‘ko’, the Korean word for nose, and mask, has been released by a company called Atman and sells for 9,800 won ($8.13; £5.99) for a box of 10 on online retailer Coupang.

Meanwhile, three resusable “Copper Antivirus Nose Masks” which only cover the nose at all times are available in different colours for 2,000 won ($1.65; £1.22) from Spar Clone Fabric, also on Coupang. The masks are designed to be worn under a regular mask that covers the mouth, which can be removed when dining out or drinking with other people.

The unusual masks have attracted a lot of attention online. “Are they also selling teapots made from chocolate?” asked one tweeter, while another commented, “Next level stupidity!”.

Still, some studies have suggested that the nose is the easiest route for the coronavirus to enter the body, so wearing a nose mask may not be as ridiculous as it looks.

Professor Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology within Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation in Australia, told Nine News that masks that only cover the nose were a “strange idea’” but would be “better than nothing”. “It probably makes a marginal difference,” she said.

Coronavirus cases in South Korea hit a record 22,907 on Thursday after topping 20,000 for the first time on Wednesday, driven by the spread of the Omicron variant.

Read more:

Germany’s expert panel on vaccine use (STIKO) is preparing to recommend a fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose, the committee’s head, Thomas Mertens, told media group Funke on Thursday, according to Reuters.

“We have data from Israel that shows a fourth dose significantly improves protection from a severe case of illness,” Mertens told Funke. “The STIKO will make the recommendation soon,” he added.

The panel would recommend booster shots only with vaccines that are already available, Mertens added.

On vaccines that have been adapted to work against the Omicron coronavirus variant, STIKO would have to wait for clinical data from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, the media group cited Mertens as saying.

Some countries have already started offering additional booster doses, but a recent study from Israel showed that while a fourth dose of an mRNA vaccine boosted antibodies, the level was not high enough to prevent Omicron infection.

Major airlines, business and travel groups have urged the White House to end Covid-19 pre-departure testing requirements for vaccinated international passengers traveling to the United States.

Airlines for America, the US Chamber of Commerce, International Air Transport Association, Aerospace Industries Association, the U.S. Travel Association and other groups called for change in a letter to White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients.

“Surveys of air passengers indicate that pre-departure testing is a leading factor in the decision not to travel internationally. People simply are unwilling to take the chance that they will be unable to return to the US,” they wrote.

A jet from American Eagle, a regional branch of American Airlines (AA), takes off past other AA aircraft at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.
Airlines for America says international air travel is down 38% on 2019 levels.
Photograph: Chris Helgren/Reuters

The White House declined to comment. Airlines for America, which represents American Airlines, Delta Air Lines Inc, United Airlines Holdings and others said as of last week international air travel was down 38% over 2019 levels.

In December, the Biden administration imposed tougher new rules requiring international air travellers arriving in the United States to obtain a negative Covid-19 test within one day of travel.

Under prior rules, vaccinated international air travelers could present a negative test result obtained within three days of their day of departure.

The White House and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) previously considered but have never imposed testing requirements for Americans to board domestic flights.

The letter noted that more than 74.3 million people have had Covid-19 in the United States, meaning that at least 22% of the population has had the virus.

“Clearly Covid is widespread throughout the US and attempts to control its importation via air travel under today’s circumstances are unlikely to change that fact,” it said.

If any new threatening variants appeared “pre-departure testing could be easily reinstituted,” it added.

The European Union recommended countries remove intra-Europe Covid travel restrictions, the letter noted. Britain will end Covid predeparture testing for vaccinated air travelers to enter the country starting 11 February.

The groups said “travel and aviation’s recovery is dependent on the government taking steps to remove travel restrictions that are no longer justified by current circumstances.”

Hello, Elias Visontay here, bringing you the latest Covid news from around the world. Thanks to Helen Livingstone for taking us through to now.

I’ll start with this update from Reuters citing a Fuji News Network report on Thursday, that Japan is considering a two-week extension of infection controls in 13 regions, including its capital Tokyo, to rein in a record surge of Covid-19 infections.

Officials may decide next week to extend the measures originally set to expire on 13 February, the broadcaster added.

Tokyo raised its coronavirus alert to the highest level on Thursday, after reporting a record 21,576 infections the previous day, when the nationwide tally reached a record 94,815, driven by the infectious Omicron variant.


The government in Tonga has said the total number of positive Covid-19 cases in the island nation now stands at four, down from five originally announced on Wednesday, New Zealand broadcaster RNZ has reported.

Tonga went into lockdown at 6pm on Wednesday after two port workers tested positive for Covid-19. They are thought to have picked up the virus from one of several merchant ships that has delivered aid to Tonga since it was struck by a volcano eruption and subsequent tsunami two weeks ago.

The HMAS Adelaide docked at Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
The HMAS Adelaide docked at Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
Photograph: POIS Christopher Szumlanski/AP

The prime minister, Siaosi Sovaleni, told RNZ Pacific earlier on Thursday that they were investigating the outbreak, and that it was unlikely to have been transmitted from naval boats that had delivered aid to the country.

He said that the two port workers who had contracted Covid-19 had been collecting aid deliveries at Queen Salote Wharf, a separate port of entry from Vuna Wharf, which was used by the HMAS Adelaide, a Royal Australian Navy boat and the only vessel to have reported Covid-19 among its crew.

China has reported 39 confirmed coronavirus cases for 2 February, down from 63 a day earlier, the country’s health authority said according to Reuters.

Of the new confirmed infections, 21 were locally transmitted and the remaining were found among people arriving from overseas, according to a statement by the National Health Commission.

No new fatalities were reported, leaving the death toll unchanged at 4,636. Mainland China had 106,241 confirmed cases as of 2 February.

A fresh wave of Conservative MPs have submitted letters of no confidence in Boris Johnson, breaking cover to criticise the UK prime minister as the fallout from the Downing Street lockdown parties scandal continues to imperil his premiership.

In a sign that Johnson’s position is still under threat despite No 10’s desperate attempts to move on from the crisis, three more MPs publicly called on the prime minister to resign, describing their shock and anger at Johnson’s conduct since the publication of an interim report.

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood was one of three to declare publicly on Wednesday that they had sent letters of no confidence in the prime minister.
Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood was one of three to declare publicly on Wednesday that they had sent letters of no confidence in the prime minister.
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Tobias Ellwood, Anthony Mangnall and Gary Streeter all said they had submitted letters of no confidence on Wednesday, joining four others who have confirmed that tey have done so publicly. The Guardian has been told of one other backbench MP who has privately submitted a letter.

More have called for Johnson to go – but have not formally declared they have written letters.

Several MPs loyal to Johnson said they were convinced there was now a renewed co-ordinated effort to oust Johnson, given the timing of the announcements.

One senior member of the One Nation group of centrist MPs said Johnson’s unabashed attempts at linking Labour leader Keir Starmer with the failure to arrest sex abuser Jimmy Savile had “changed the game” for several colleagues.

Read more here:

New Zealand announces border to reopen

New Zealand has announced it will reopen its border to visitors in stages, starting at the end of February, after its earlier plans to do so were derailed by Omicron.

It will be the first time the country has opened up since prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced its snap closure in the first month of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The country’s borders have been closed, apart from a short-lived travel bubble with Australia, for nearly two years.


“With Omicron’s arrival, we pushed that change in border settings out – to give ourselves the chance to roll out boosters – a chance most other countries never had,” Ardern said in a speech on Thursday.

“With our community better protected we must turn to the importance of reconnection. Families and friends need to reunite. Our businesses need skills to grow. Exporters need to travel to make new connections.”

The border will initially open to vaccinated New Zealand citizens and visa holders coming from Australia, then from the rest of the world, and finally to all other vaccinated visitors.

They will still have to self-isolate at home for 10 days, but will no longer have to pass through the country’s expensive and highly space-limited managed isolation facilities, known as MIQ.


Summary and welcome

Hello and welcome to the Guardian’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with me, Helen Livingstone.

New Zealand has announced it will reopen its border to visitors in stages, after its earlier plans to do so were derailed by Omicron. The country’s borders have been closed, apart from a short-lived travel bubble with Australia, for nearly two years.

Three more Conservative MPs have publicly called on UK prime minister Boris Johnson to resign, describing their shock and anger at his conduct since the publication of an interim report into parties held at Downing Street while the country was under strict lockdown measures.

Here’s what else has been happening over the past 24 hours:

  • Serbia’s state prosecutors on Wednesday rejected suggestions that Novak Djokovic used a fake positive test for Covid-19 to try to enter Australia and compete in the Australian Open.
  • The US army has said soldiers who refuse to get a Covid-19 vaccine will be immediately discharged, maintaining the move is critical to maintain combat readiness.
  • UK Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson has sparked a backlash after arguing on ITV that breaching Covid rules is equivalent to parking on a double-yellow line.
  • Italy will soon announce a timetable to roll back its Covid curbs, prime minister Mario Draghi said today. It comes as the surge in cases fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant started to show signs of slowing.
  • Germany has recorded over 10 million total Covid cases, after detecting 208,498 new infections in the past 24 hours. Ministers said they hope to lift restrictions in March.
  • Police in Ottawa, Canada, have seen signs that guns have been brought into a
    truckers’ protest
    against vaccine mandates that has paralysed the Canadian capital, the police chief said.
  • The chairman of The Ivors Academy has called for “major reform” so musicians are treated with “dignity and respect” amid criticism of Spotify over Covid misinformation on the platform.
  • UK Covid infections have stopped falling, with levels holding steady or climbing, the ONS said. For England one in 20 people had Covid in the week ending 29 January.
  • Russia broke its record Covid tally, with 141,883 new infections over the past 24 hours.
  • In Japan, Tokyo detected a record-breaking 21,576 new cases, topping the previous record of 17,631, as the country battles Omicron.
  • Exposure to a single nasal droplet is sufficient to become infected with Covid-19, according to a landmark trial in which healthy volunteers were intentionally given a dose of the virus. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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