Covid live: Norway to tighten restrictions; SA president Ramaphosa has ‘mild symptoms’ after positive test

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Covid live: Norway to tighten restrictions; SA president Ramaphosa has ‘mild symptoms’ after positive test” was written by Rachel Hall (now),Martin Belam and Samantha Lock (earlier), for theguardian.com on Monday 13th December 2021 11.27 UTC

Norway to tighten Covid restrictions

Norway will further tighten its coronavirus restrictions this week in order to limit the spread of the virus, Reuters reports.

Prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre told Norwegian news agency NTB on Monday.

“The situation is serious. The spread of infection is too high and we have to take action to limit this development.”

Norway is setting record highs both in terms of new Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations, partly due to the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Updated

UK booster campaign ramps up

UK vaccination centres have been overwhelmed with demand for the booster vaccination, which is a key tool in the country’s bid to stem a “tidal wave” of Omicron.

The NHS website has crashed under the scale of demand, while long queues have been reported outside vaccinations centres around the country.

On Sunday night, the prime minister Boris Johnson unveiled plans to vaccinate 1 million people per day – higher than any time so far in the campaign – to limit the variant’s rapid spread and avoid reintroducing restrictions that would have onerous implications for society and the economy.

Rachel Hall here taking over from Martin Belam for the rest of the day. Please do get in touch if there’s anything we’ve missed, or if you have any ideas for coverage. You can reach me at rachel.hall@theguardian.com.

The focus on this blog is the biggest global coronavirus stories, but there’s more UK-specific news on our UK Covid blog.

Updated

Today so far

  • Thailand will halve to three months the time between administering a second Covid-19 vaccine shot and a booster, health officials have said, to try to strengthen immunity in anticipation of a local spread of the Omicron variant.
  • South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, 69, tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday, though is showing only mild symptoms, the presidency said.
  • Indonesia will start administering Covid-19 vaccinations for children aged six to 11 on Tuesday.
  • Australia’s most isolated state – Western Australia – will fully reopen its borders on 5 February after almost two years sealed off from Covid and the world. The Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, announced on Monday plans to allow interstate and international travellers to enter the state without quarantine from midnight on 5 February, when the state was expected to hit its 90% fully vaccinated target.
  • Russia says it has detected Omicron in 16 people who returned from South Africa. The Interfax news agency cited deputy prime minister Tatiana Golikova giving the figures. Pakistan has also detected its first confirmed Omicron case.
  • New work from home guidance takes effect in England today, following recently tightened coronavirus guidance. British prime minister Boris Johnson is gambling on an unprecedented ramping up of vaccinations, rolling out 1m booster jabs a day to stem an incoming “tidal wave of Omicron” and avoid imposing further restrictions.
  • New Zealand health authorities are investigating claims that a man received up to 10 Covid-19 vaccination doses in one day on behalf of other people, believed to be skirting tough restrictions on the unvaccinated.

That is it from me, Martin Belam, today. You can look forward to the company of Rachel Hall to take you through the rest of the day’s global Covid news. Andrew Sparrow has our combined UK Covid and politics live blog. I will see you tomorrow.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic the president of one of the largest Native American–run non-profits has warned that health and economic disparities are still seriously affecting Indigenous communities, despite some progress achieved by the Biden administration.

Josh Arce, president of the Partnerships with Native Americans (PWNA), told the Guardian in an interview that challenges affecting Indigenous groups ranged from health inequities such as high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses to inadequate infrastructure such as running water and reliable electricity. Nearly all of these problems were worsened by the pandemic.

“The issues are, by and large, some of the same issues that we’ve been confronted with but they’ve been really highlighted and exacerbated by Covid-19 throughout the past two and a half years,” said Arce, who added that such challenges “really permeate all aspects of Native life and communities”.

For centuries, Indigenous communities in the US have faced challenges in public health, education, infrastructure and other areas, an aftershock of violent colonization and widespread racism.

While the Biden administration has marked some progress, such as the appointment of Native American Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior, an achievement that Arce noted was critical and brought hope to Native communities, Arce warned that more action is needed to ensure more progress for Indigenous communities in the US.

Read more of Gloria Oladipo’s report here: Native American communities lashed by Covid, worsening chronic inequities

Updated

India has reported its lowest tally of active Covid-19 cases in 18 months, but a sharp drop in the use of protective face masks is causing concern after a rise in the number of infections with the Omicron variant.

Many people have been standing or sitting close to each other without masks, or covering only their chins, at big rallies held by political parties in several states before elections. Something similar happened before the Delta variant ravaged India from April.

Cases have come down sharply since then, with an active Covid-19 total of 91,456 as of early Monday, the lowest in 561 days, according to the health ministry.

Krishna N Das and Chandini Monnappa report for Reuters that cases of the Omicron variant though have risen to at least 36 in India, and accounted for 3% of the virus sequences analysed in the country in the past two weeks, with Delta accounting for the rest. Health authorities have been urging people to cover their mouths in public.

“The falling graph of mask use could cost us,” top Indian health official Vinod Kumar Paul told a recent news briefing. “Mask is a universal vaccine, works on every variant.”

Updated

France will be hit by a sixth Covid-19 wave next month due to the emergence of the new, more contagious, Omicron variant of the disease while the country is still in the midst of the current, Delta-fuelled, fifth wave of the pandemic, according to a leading French hospital executive.

“We haven’t said a word on the sixth wave, which is Omicron, which will come later, in January,” Martin Hirsch, head of Paris’s AP-HP hospitals group, Europe’s largest hospital system, told RTL radio according to Reuters.

Updated

Pakistan has confirmed its first case of the Omicron variant, in the country’s most populous city of Karachi, the country’s National Institute of Health (NIH) said on Monday.

“The NIH has been able to confirm … that a recently suspected sample from Karachi is indeed the ‘Omicron variant’,” the NIH said in a Tweet. “This is the first confirmed case but continued surveillance of suspected samples is in place to identify the trends.”

Authorities in the south Asian nation had begun investigating a first suspected case of the Omicron variant of coronavirus last week, a health ministry official told Reuters on Thursday.

After a provincial official in southern Sindh province initially said the variant had been identified in a private hospital patient, the NIH had then said they were still carrying out sequencing to confirm the case was that of Omicron.

Pakistan this month placed travel restrictions on several countries in southern Africa in the wake of the discovery of the variant.

Updated

Andrew Sparrow has launched our UK Covid and politics live blog here, so he will be picking up further UK developments there.

I’ll be continuing here with the latest coronavirus news from around the globe.

Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, urged people to “think carefully” about their social contacts in the run-up to Christmas. PA Media quotes the member of government advisory body the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) told ITV’s Good Morning Britain saying:

At the moment, we’re in a situation where the new variant in effect is coming at us like an express train. We’ve got to do something or else we’re in real danger of overwhelming our society and overwhelming the NHS. And there’s so many things you can do. The first thing, and the most obvious thing, is that if you reduce the number of social contacts you have you limit the spread of the infection.

Now, nobody wants to give up their Christmas parties, and nobody wants to miss out on meeting up with people. It’s a little bit like Christmas dinner – if you have too big a Christmas breakfast, then you spoil your appetite for your Christmas dinner, which is what really counts.

And I think, in the same way, we need to think really seriously about our contacts. How important are they? Do we really need them and is it more important to act carefully now so that the contacts we really want and we really need are still happening?

Updated

We won’t get any official figures on the impact of England’s new “work from home if possible” directive on transport for a few hours yet, but ITV’s London political correspondent Simon Harris has just posted a picture of his very empty commute this morning.

Some follow-up on the latest Omicron concerns in Wales, where Cathy Owen reports for WalesOnline that health minister Eluned Morgan has warned new restrictions might be needed. Owen writes:

Speaking on BBC Politics Wales, Ms Morgan said she expected the numbers in Wales to “change very quickly in a very short space of time”.

Asked whether that advice might change, Ms Morgan said: “I think there will come a point where that may be likely to happen. The last thing we want to do is to impose the kind of restrictions that we saw last Christmas unless we absolutely have to.

We know that last Christmas was really disappointing for so many people. That’s not where we want to be. But we will always act in the best interests of the people of Wales.”

Wales’ coronavirus rules are now being reviewed weekly instead of every three weeks in response to the new variant.

In response to Boris Johnson’s televised statement yesterday, first minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said:

This is a fast-moving form of coronavirus, which has the potential to cause a large wave of infections in Wales. This could lead to large numbers of people needing hospital treatment at a time when our NHS is under significant pressure.

Our best defence continues to be vaccination. Emerging evidence shows the booster dose is vital. We are doing everything we can to accelerate our vaccination programme to increase the number of people who will receive their booster in the coming days and weeks. Older people and those at greatest risk are being prioritised at the moment.

Scotland’s health secretary: ‘inevitable’ further Covid measures will be introduced

Scotland’s health secretary Humza Yousaf has been on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio programme today, and said that it was “inevitable” that first minister Nicola Sturgeon would announce further anti-Covid measures when she addresses the Scottish parliament tomorrow.

Sturgeon has said that following yesterday’s television address by the UK’s prime minister, Scotland would also be expanding its booster programme. The BBC quote her saying:

I can confirm that urgent work is under way to further accelerate roll out of the booster vaccination programme in Scotland. Scotland already has the highest proportion of the over-12 population protected with booster or third doses of all the UK nations.

Now, however, urgent efforts are being made to step up the pace even further with the aim of offering a booster jag appointment to all eligible adults by the end of this year if possible.

Updated

Thailand to expand booster jab programme in anticipation of Omicron

Thailand will halve to three months the time between administering a second Covid-19 vaccine shot and a booster, a health official said on Monday, to try to strengthen immunity in anticipation of a local spread of the Omicron variant.

Reuters report that Thailand has so far detected eight imported cases of the Omicron variant but has yet to see community transmission, according to its health ministry. Omicron has been reported in dozens of countries.

“Because Omicron is now widespread, the booster third shot would help lessen the severity of symptoms and reduce the death rate,” said Taweesin Wisanuyothin, spokesperson for the government’s Covid taskforce.

Taweesin said recipients of a second shot in August or September could get boosters right away at any vaccine centre nationwide. More than 43 million people – or 60% of people in Thailand – have received two doses of a vaccine so far.

The UK’s health secretary Sajid Javid has been across the airwaves this morning. Another couple of key points to emerge over his appearances.

Firstly he has not been willing to rule out any further measures to attempt to curb the predicted spread of the Omicron variant, including closing schools.

He also suggested that non-clinically trained civil servants could be drafted in to helping with the administration at vaccination centres as the government attempts to roll-out booster jabs at an unprecedented rate.

Javid has also defended the planned introduction of vaccine passports, which will be voted on in parliament this week and is due to come into force in England from Wednesday, describing them as a “perfectly reasonable ask”:

The Spectator, meanwhile, is suggesting the the current count of Conservative MPs set to vote against further Covid restrictions is up to 71.

Here’s a reminder of the latest numbers in the UK:

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The chief executive of an acute hospital NHS trust in England talks anonymously to us today about the pressures the service is facing:

The strain on hospitals is very visible and quite visceral – you can see ambulances queueing outside and people sleeping on chairs because you can’t get them into cubicles to be seen because too many sick people are waiting for beds. But what we can’t necessarily see is what’s happening to all the people who are at home getting sicker. That’s a very large, invisible problem.

Many of the people in our hospital are very old and very frail. They don’t necessarily need to be in an acute hospital but they need to be in a bed somewhere, with someone looking after them round the clock. Social care is a massive, massive concern; not being able to get these people who are medically fit to be discharged out and home is what blocks up the “front door”, our A&E.

We’re going great guns at treating people on the waiting list. And this winter we’re doing more than ever to protect that, as well as dealing with all the other pressures we have. We are holding beds for people on the waiting list who are having surgery. But that raises really difficult ethical dilemmas. Do you hold an intensive care bed for someone with an aneurysm that could kill them at any minute, or bring in someone who’s just arrived through A&E and needs surgery? Is there a bed for someone who comes in and needs a thrombectomy, a potentially life-saving operation after a stroke?

You can imagine how some of our staff feel about unvaccinated people with Covid eating into our supply of ICU beds when you’re making these decisions, about whether someone with stage 4 cancer or an aneurysm can have an operation.

Read more here: The secret NHS trust boss – the strain on hospitals is visible and visceral

Western Australia to reopen border on 5 February

Australia’s most isolated state will fully reopen its borders on 5 February after almost two years sealed off from Covid and the world.

The Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, announced on Monday plans to allow interstate and international travellers to enter the state without quarantine from midnight on 5 February, when the state was expected to hit its 90% fully vaccinated target.

But the premier warned that once the state’s hard border was eased, unvaccinated or “high-risk” arrivals will still be required to quarantine for 14 days – unless they are under 12 or exempt on medical grounds.

“I’m confident that this is the right time and the right way to take this important step,” McGowan said.

“West Australians have lived a normal life inside our Covid-free bubble and nearly 2 million people have done the right thing and gotten vaccinated.

The announcement comes on the same day Scott Morrison said that visa-holding skilled workers and students will be allowed into Australia from Wednesday.

Read more of Narelle Towie’s report here: Western Australia to reopen border on 5 February after almost two years sealed off from the world

Updated

The boss of the organisation which represents NHS trusts said pressure on health services is “not sustainable”. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, told Sky News a combination of record highs in 999 calls, the second-highest ever number of emergency department admissions, elective procedure backlogs, the extension of the booster campaign, and social care pressure mean the NHS is “busier than its ever been before.”

He said: “That’s obviously a worry because it’s before the traditional winter peak in January and it’s before any cases really coming into hospitals and we are now starting to do in terms of Omicron cases, so we’re already at beyond full stretch, in our view, before either of those things occur so it’s a worrying time, but as you’d expect everybody on the NHS frontline is doing absolutely the best they can to provide the best possible care.”

He added yesterday’s request from the prime minister for “extraordinary effort” comes as staff are “very, very tired”.

PA Media quote Hopson saying: “I think staff are worried, to be frank, that this level of pressure is going to become normalised and it’s not sustainable.”

He also told Sky News a social care staff shortage and the removal of some beds to control coronavirus infections meant hospitals were trying to operate with 30-35% fewer beds.

He said 11% of beds were occupied by patients who were fit to leave hospital but could not be discharged due to a lack of social care staff, meanwhile hospitals were operating at between 94% and 96% capacity.

He explained how the social care sector could not deliver 1.5m hours of at-home care for patients because workers had left to take jobs in retail, logistics, and hospitality because of better pay and sign-on bonuses, revealing a lack of a “sustainable workforce model” in the NHS and social care.

One line of questioning for UK health secretary Sajid Javid this morning has been the effectveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine. PA Media quote him saying it would be “completely unfair” to suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine was not as good as once thought.

Javid was asked on Sky News: “Is it because AstraZeneca wasn’t as good as we initially thought and actually the booster, either Pfizer or Moderna, is what’s helping?”

He replied: “No, I think that would be completely unfair. AstraZeneca has played a phenomenal role in protecting our country.”

He added: “The difference now is… this variant, and different types of vaccines will react in different ways. But whether it’s AstraZeneca you had for your first two doses or its Pfizer or Moderna, you still need a booster shot to be protected against this new variant.”

There’s been some advice from Ami Jones, an intensive care doctor from Wales on BBC television this morning in the UK to avoid sitting in unventilated rooms with people you don’t know.

Associated Press writer Justin Spike has an interesting piece this morning looking at the difficulty of reporting on Covid in Hungary, and how some people argue that a paucity of official information is playing into low vaccination rates.

Although Hungary has secured vaccine doses from China and Russia in addition to those provided by the European Union, nearly a third of its adults still have not received a single shot. That hesitancy is something immunologist Andras Falus said can be partly attributed to official communications about the pandemic being “extremely poor, inconsistent and totally incapable of maintaining trust.”

“A significant proportion of the population no longer believes when they receive real data, or resign themselves to not paying attention to the data because they feel almost viscerally that it is inconsistent and unreliable,” said Falus, professor emeritus at Semmelweis University in Budapest.

Illes Szurovecz of the Hungarian news website 444.hu says the information released by the conservative government of Viktor Orbán does not provide a clear picture of how the outbreak is developing and that it is opaque and difficult to follow.

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Szurovecz said. “If there was more detailed data, people would be better able to judge how severe the pandemic is and how dangerous the virus is. … Doctors from different parts of the country would be better able to compare their results and care could be improved.”

In lieu of more comprehensive data from official channels, Szurovecz and his colleagues track what few numbers the government releases and create detailed data visualizations on trends in the pandemic. Without that, he said, “it would be virtually impossible to look back in Hungary today and see how the pandemic has gone.”

Lacking official information on how hospitals are faring, many journalists have tried to report from inside Covid wards to get a clearer picture.

But Hungary’s government has barred journalists from entering medical facilities to report on the pandemic, and prohibited medical staff from giving interviews, something journalists say has made it impossible to report on worsening conditions, creating a false picture of the situation’s severity.

Russia says it has detected Omicron in 16 people who returned from South Africa. The Interfax news agency cited deputy prime minister Tatiana Golikova giving the figures this morning.

We know that Russia reported its first two Omicron cases on 6 December. Reuters say that it was not immediately clear if the 16 cases announced this morning included the two reported earlier this month.

The UK government health minister Sajid Javid has defended the government’s work from home if possible advice in England, which comes into effect from today. He said on Sky News:

At the end of the day, as ministers you have to take all this into account, and understand the trade-off. Because when you do take action like here – we’ve asked people to work from home from today – you know, this has a big impact on people’s lives. It’s not just a distraction, it can be really difficult for people to be away from the office, not to have that social interaction, it can impact their life chances, so we wouldn’t take this action lightly at all.

So, based on the advice that we’re getting, but now also on the observed data, we do have two weeks of data where we are seeing this phenomenal growth in infections. It’s already, we estimate, around 40% of infections in London. And so because of this growth rate, and what we now know on the vaccines, that’s why we’ve announced this national mission on the booster programme.

Updated

Sajid Javid: ‘we’ve got to act early’ over growth in Omicron cases

UK health secretary Sajid Javid has said “we’ve got to act early” over the Omicron variant because of the threat of exponential growth, despite a low-level of hospitalisations and no reported deaths in the UK yet involving the new variant. On Sky News, interviewer Kay Burley put several Covid-sceptic points to him, suggesting that reports so far show that people infected with the Omicron variant only suffer from a mild illness. Javid said:

Omicron has only taken hold in the UK in the last three weeks. It’s already growing at a rate of doubling two to three times two every two to three days. It’s doubling and at that rate you will have a million infections by the end of the month.

If I can explain it this way. With Delta, let’s assume that of all the infections around 2% of those people end up in hospital. Omicron, let’s assume it’s half the severity. That’s just half it. If it’s 1% of a much larger number, you still end up in a lot of hospitalisations.

To put those figures into a bit more context, what Javid is saying is that if you have 1m infections with Omicron, and that leads to 1% of people being hospitalised, you would have 10,000 hospital admissions.

Then the number of infections would double again within three days, and you would have another 20,000 people requiring hospitalisation. The peak level of daily hospitalisations in the UK at the previous height of the pandemic in January 2021 was around 4,500.

Javid went on to say:

If the government just sort of stuck its head in the sand and said, ‘Let’s just wait and see what happens. Let’s wait for the deaths to happen’, by then it would be too late. The infection growth rate for the next couple of weeks would have been baked in. The next three or four doubling times would have been baked in, and then you’d have me here rightly saying ‘Why didn’t you act earlier? Have you not learned any of the lessons about this virus? Have you not learned about how to try to protect people from it and take action in advance?’ And you would rightly have been able to ask me this question.

Updated

The first salvo of UK health secretary Sajid Javid’s interview on Sky News has been a restating of the government’s case to expand the booster programme as set out by the prime minister on TV last night. Javid said:

What we now know about Omicron, first of all, is that it is spreading at a phenomenal rate, something that we’ve never seen before. It’s doubling every two to three days in infections. And that means we’re facing a tidal wave. We are once again in a race between the vaccine and the virus. The second thing that we now know for sure is that the vaccines two doses are not enough, but three doses still provide excellent protection against symptomatic infection. And that’s why the booster programme has become more important than ever.

He also made a direct appeal to viewers

We are throwing everything at it, and can I just please say this to your viewers, please play your part. This could not be more important. We need to win this race against this virus. We’ve never seen this kind of growth before. So please do come forward. Protect yourselves, your loved ones, and your community.

Here is a reminder of the latest situation in the UK. Over the last seven days there have been 360,480 new coronavirus cases recorded in the UK. Cases have increased by 11.9% week-on-week.

There have been 834 deaths recorded with 28 days of a positive Covid test in the last week. Deaths have increased by 0.5% week-on-week.

Hospital admissions have increased by 3.7% week-on-week. At the latest count on the UK government’s own dashboard, there were 7,413 people in hospital in total with coronavirus, of whom 900 are in ventilation beds.

Updated

Hello, it’s Martin Belam here in London taking over from Samantha Lock in Sydney. The UK media round is being done by the health secretary, Sajid Javid, this morning. He is up on Sky News first, so I’ll have the key lines from that shortly.

Updated

New work from home guidance takes effect in England today, following recently tightened coronavirus guidance.

British prime minister Boris Johnson made the announcement at a Downing Street press conference last week, saying people must work from home where possible from Monday.

Although the government instruction that people in England should work from home where possible from Monday is advice and not legally mandatory, organisations across the country are switching to home working where possible.

However, some companies have told workers they can continue to come to the office if required for their mental health.

An office worker at his desk during the morning rush hour in the city of London as new work from home guidance takes effect in England today.
An office worker at his desk during the morning rush-hour in the City of London as new work from home guidance takes effect in England today.
Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Updated

Ukraine has just released its daily Covid count.

Another 4,073 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were recorded for Sunday, 12 December.

The country also reported 188 deaths.

Summary

If you’ve just joined us, here is a quick run-down of all the latest Covid developments.

British prime minister Boris Johnson is gambling on an unprecedented ramping up of vaccinations, rolling out 1m booster jabs a day to stem an incoming “tidal wave of Omicron” and avoid imposing further restrictions.

Announcing the booster offensive, Johnson said two doses of vaccine were not enough, but scientists were confident that three would make a huge difference.

The US is approaching the grim milestone of 50m coronavirus cases with a total of 49,921,405 reported since the pandemic began, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. The number of deaths stand at 797,346.

Although infections appeared to be in decline, daily increases have been reported for the past two weeks, with the number of hospitalised Covid patients also rising and up 20%.

States in colder parts of the country are seeing the biggest surge in new infections on a per capita basis, including Vermont, New Hampshire and Michigan.

  • Britain faces a “tidal wave” of the Omicron variant and two vaccine doses will not be enough to contain it, prime minister Boris Johnson warned, as he accelerated the nation’s booster rollout programme.
  • Russia has recorded a cumulative total number of Covid cases that now exceeds 10 million.
  • The European Central Bank’s vice-president Luis de Guindos has tested positive for Covid-19 and is self-isolating, the ECB said.
  • The US is set to reach 800,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
  • Three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine is the “optimal care” but two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine remains the US government’s official definition of fully vaccinated, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said.
  • Australia will shorten the wait time for people to receive a Covid-19 booster following a rise in Omicron cases.
  • More than a dozen Chinese-listed companies have suspended production in coronavirus-hit parts of China’s eastern Zhejiang province.
  • Australians are preparing for quarantine-free travel across most of the country during the Christmas period as the state of Queensland opened its domestic borders to all vaccinated people for the first time in nearly five months.
  • South Korea will test artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition to track Covid-19 cases.
  • South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, 69, tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday, though is showing only mild symptoms, the presidency said.
  • Indonesia will start administering Covid-19 vaccinations for children aged six to 11 on Tuesday, a health ministry official said.
  • New Zealand health authorities are investigating claims that a man received up to 10 Covid-19 vaccination doses in one day on behalf of other people, believed to be skirting tough restrictions on the unvaccinated.

Updated

Some Chinese companies suspend production amid virus outbreak

More than a dozen Chinese-listed companies said they had suspended production in coronavirus-hit parts of China’s eastern Zhejiang province in response to local government’s tightened Covid-19 curbs, Reuters reports. Share prices have also reportedly plunged.

Zhejiang reported a total of 173 locally transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms during the 6-12 December period, official numbers showed on Monday, marking the province’s first domestic cluster outbreak this year. In October, the province reported just one local case.

A slew of companies, including Ningbo Homelink Eco-Itech Co Ltd (301193.SZ), Zhejiang Zhongxin Fluoride Materials Co Ltd (002915.SZ), Zhejiang Jingsheng Mechanical & Electrical Co Ltd (300316.SZ) and Zhejiang Fenglong Electric Co Ltd (002931.SZ), announced the production suspension through exchange filings over the weekend.

Their shares fell sharply in early trading on Monday with some falling more than 7%.

Goods are unloaded at a container terminal of Ningbo Zhoushan Port as more than a dozen Chinese-listed companies said they had suspended production in coronavirus-hit parts of China’s eastern Zhejiang province.
Goods are unloaded at a container terminal of Ningbo Zhoushan Port as more than a dozen Chinese-listed companies said they had suspended production in coronavirus-hit parts of China’s eastern Zhejiang province.
Photograph: Sipa Asia/REX/Shutterstock

India has just released its daily Covid report.

The country reported 7,350 new cases in the last 24 hours with an active caseload of 91,456; the lowest in 561 days.

Another 202 deaths were also reported.

Australia reports rapid Omicron spread

Super-spreader events in NSW and reinfections in Victoria have health authorities worried as Covid-19 infections continue to grow.

Victoria reported 1,290 new cases and two deaths, while New South Wales recorded 536 new cases, amid increasing numbers of the Omicron variant.

Health authorities in NSW are battling to contain several large transmission events, including cases of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant – with 64 cases of the new strain now recorded in the state.

Of the 536 new cases announced in the state on Monday, nine were confirmed to have the Omicron variant, with NSW Health saying “more are expected as results of genomic testing are confirmed”.

Read the full story here.

Germany is reporting an additional 21,743 new daily Covid cases and 116 deaths, according to recently published figures from the Robert Koch Institute.

The numbers are a significant drop from previous days, with 39,585 cases reported on 10 December 45,460 cases on 9 December.

Covid infections have been steadily decreasing in the European nation since new lockdowns were introduced.

People wearing protective face masks walk at a Christmas market at Gendarmenmarkt square, in Berlin, Germany.
People wearing protective face masks walk at a Christmas market at Gendarmenmarkt square, in Berlin, Germany.
Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA

Updated

South Africa has reported an additional 37,875 new coronavirus cases, which includes 19,840 retrospective cases and 18,035 new cases, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

In the past 24 hours a total of 18,035 positive Covid-19 cases and 21 Covid-related deaths were reported.

The total number of fatalities in the country currently stands at 90,137.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday, is currently in self-isolation in Cape Town and has delegated all responsibilities to deputy president David Mabuza for the next week.

Papua New Guinea could be breeding ground for new Covid variants, experts warn

Experts have warned that the next variant of Covid-19 to sweep the world could emerge on Australia’s doorstep, due to incredibly low rates of vaccination rates in Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour, and at its nearest point is just 4km from Australian territory in the Torres Strait. At various points in the pandemic there have been fears that travellers from PNG could bring the virus to Australia.

Adrian Prouse, head of international humanitarian programs at the Australian Red Cross, said:

I’m worried that PNG is the next place where a new variant emerges.”

A health worker prepares to do tests for Covid-19 outside a makeshift clinic in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where less than 5% of the adult population is vaccinated.
A health worker prepares to do tests for Covid-19 outside a makeshift clinic in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where less than 5% of the adult population is vaccinated.
Photograph: Andrew Kutan/AFP/Getty Images

“In PNG less than 5% [of the adult population is vaccinated], in Indonesia, just under one-third. Two countries right on our doorstep with significant challenges in getting vaccines into arms.”

Stefanie Vaccher, an epidemiologist with the Burnet Institute who has been based in PNG since last year, echoed this concern.

“In populations that have low rates of vaccination coverage, there are more opportunities for the virus to spread and mutate. In PNG, where less than 4% of the population are vaccinated, there are a lot of opportunities for the virus to mutate and spread.”

Read the full story here.

Canada will start recognising molecular Covid-19 tests conducted at an accredited lab in South Africa for residents returning home, dropping travel restrictions previously introduced to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant.

Ottawa faced pressure from doctors, stranded passengers and the World Health Organization to reverse requirements that travellers from 10 southern African countries get molecular PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests in a third country before returning to Canada.

Canada has now dropped the need to obtain a pre-departure negative Covid-19 PCR test from a third country, according to a travel advisory issued on Saturday.

The exemption will be in place until 7 January 2022 and will apply to all indirect flights departing from South Africa to Canada, the advisory added.

There is no change to Canada’s ban on all foreign travellers from 10 African countries.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the latest Omicron report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Based on current limited evidence Omicron appears to have a growth advantage over Delta. It is spreading faster than Delta in South Africa where Delta circulation was low, but also appears to spread more quickly than Delta in other countries where the incidence of Delta is high.

Given the current available data, it is likely that Omicron will outpace the Delta variant where community transmission occurs.

While preliminary findings from South Africa suggest it may be less severe than Delta and all cases reported in the EU/EEA to date have been mild or asymptomatic, it remains unclear to what extent Omicron may be inherently less virulent. More data are needed.

There are limited available data, and no peer-reviewed evidence, on vaccine efficacy or effectiveness to date for Omicron. Preliminary evidence suggests a reduction in vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission associated with Omicron.”

Updated

Here’s an interesting story out of New Zealand today.

Health authorities are investigating claims that a man received up to 10 Covid-19 vaccination doses in one day on behalf of other people, believed to be skirting tough restrictions on the unvaccinated.

The Ministry of Health said it was taking the matter seriously. “We are very concerned about this situation and are working with the appropriate agencies,” its Covid-19 vaccination and immunisation spokesperson, Astrid Koornneef, said.

Local news outlets report the man is believed to have visited several immunisation centres and was paid to get the doses. In New Zealand vaccines can either be booked through a website, via a doctor, or people can turn up to walk-in centres. To be administered a vaccine, a person must provide the health care worker with their name, date of birth and physical address, but no further identification is required.

Read the full story from our reporter, Eva Corlett, on the ground in New Zealand.

Updated

US Covid cases surpass 50 million

The United States surpassed 50 million coronavirus cases on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally.

After about two months of declining infections, the United States has reported daily increases for the past two weeks, driven by the more easily transmitted Delta variant.

States in colder parts of the country are seeing the biggest surge in new infections on a per capita basis, including Vermont, New Hampshire and Michigan.

The number of hospitalised Covid patients is rising as well, up 20% since the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of November.

Over the past month, deaths have increased by 4.6%, with the country’s death toll surpassed 800,000.

Nearly half of US states have detected cases of the Omicron variant, but the Delta variant still accounts for 99% of current Covid cases, CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky said.

A mobile vaccination clinic hosted by the Detroit Health Department administers Covid-19 vaccinations.
A mobile vaccination clinic hosted by the Detroit Health Department administers Covid-19 vaccinations.
Photograph: Emily Elconin/Reuters

Updated

Speaking of South Korea, the south Asian country has just released their daily Covid numbers.

A further 5,817 coronavirus cases were recorded over the past 24 hours, with 40 confirmed deaths.

A total of 83.7 % of the eligible population has at least one Covid vaccine and 81.2 % are fully vaccinated, according to ministry of health data.

South Korea to test AI-powered facial recognition to track Covid cases

South Korea will soon roll out a pilot project to use artificial intelligence, facial recognition and thousands of CCTV cameras to track the movement of people infected with the coronavirus, Reuters reports.

The nationally funded project in Bucheon, one of the country’s most densely populated cities on the outskirts of Seoul, is due to become operational in January, a city official told the news agency.

The system uses an AI algorithms and facial recognition technology to analyse footage gathered by more than 10,820 CCTV cameras and track an infected person’s movements, anyone they had close contact with, and whether they were wearing a mask, according to a 110-page business plan from the city submitted to the Ministry of Science and ICT (Information and Communications Technology), and provided to Reuters by a parliamentary lawmaker critical of the project.

The Bucheon official said the system should reduce the strain on overworked tracing teams in a city with a population of more than 800,000 people, and help use the teams more efficiently and accurately. The system can reportedly track up to ten people in five to ten minutes, cutting the time spent on manual work that takes around half an hour to one hour to trace one person.

South Korea already has a high-tech contact tracing system that harvests credit card records, cellphone location data and CCTV footage, among other personal information.

Bucheon mayor Jang Deog-cheon argued that the system would make tracing faster.

“It sometimes takes hours to analyse a single CCTV footage. Using visual recognition technology will enable that analysis in an instant,” he said on Twitter.

The Ministry of Science and ICT said it has no current plans to expand the project to the national level. It said the purpose of the system was to digitise some of the manual labour that contact tracers currently have to carry out.

People wait in line to be tested for coronavirus at an outdoor clinic in Bucheon, South Korea, as the city introduces AI-powered facial recognition to track Covid cases.
People wait in line to be tested for coronavirus at an outdoor clinic in Bucheon, South Korea, as the city introduces AI-powered facial recognition to track Covid cases.
Photograph: YONHAP/EPA

South African president tests positive for Covid

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday, but was showing mild symptoms, the presidency said.

“The President started feeling unwell after leaving the State Memorial Service in honour of former Deputy President FW de Klerk in Cape Town earlier today,” the statement said.

“The President, who is fully vaccinated, is in self-isolation in Cape Town and has delegated all responsibilities to Deputy President David Mabuza for the next week,” it added.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has tested positive for Covid.
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has tested positive for Covid.
Photograph: Reuters

Hello it’s Samantha Lock with you as we go through all the latest coronavirus developments.

The Omicron variant has now spread to 63 countries with faster transmission noted in South Africa and the UK, the World Health Organization has said.

Britain faces a “tidal wave” of the Omicron variant of coronavirus and two vaccine doses will not be enough to contain it, prime minister Boris Johnson has warned, as he accelerated the booster rollout programme, bringing forward a target to give over-18s a booster jab by one month to the end of December.

“No one should be in any doubt: there is a tidal wave of Omicron coming,” he said in a televised address, after the country’s medical advisers raised the Covid Alert Level due to a “rapid increase” in infection from the variant.

“I’m afraid it is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need,” Johnson added.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday and is receiving treatment for mild symptoms, the presidency said.

“The President started feeling unwell after leaving the State Memorial Service in honour of former Deputy President FW de Klerk in Cape Town earlier today,” the statement said.

“The President, who is fully vaccinated, is in self-isolation in Cape Town and has delegated all responsibilities to Deputy President David Mabuza for the next week,” it added.

Here is a snapshot of the latest Covid developments:

  • The WHO says the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the Delta strain and reduces vaccine efficacy but causes less severe symptoms according to early data.
  • British prime minister Boris Johnson launched an “Omicron emergency booster national mission” to protect the NHS and patients, ramping up vaccinations and rolling out 1m booster jabs a day.
  • The UK recorded 48,854 new Covid cases and 52 additional deaths, raising the Covid alert level from 3 to 4.
  • The UK also confirmed an additional 1,239 Omicron cases, marking the biggest daily rise to date with the total number of confirmed cases 3,137.
  • America’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, said that Omicron “clearly has a transmission advantage” over previous Covid strains and stepped up calls for Americans to get booster shots as the new variant spread to at least 25 states.
  • Austria has ended lockdown restrictions for vaccinated people across most of the country, three weeks after it was imposed. However, more than 25,000 demonstrators turned out in several cities to protest against the country’s compulsory vaccination plan, forcing citizens to be jabbed or face fines from February.
  • Vaccinated people who are identified as a contact of somebody who has tested positive for Covid-19 should take an NHS rapid lateral flow test every day for a week, the UK government announced.
  • Russia’s registered Covid cases passed the 10 million mark today, after nearly 30,000 cases were reported in the last 24 hours.
  • Scotland aims to offer booster jabs to all eligible adults by the end of the year.

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