Covid live: Sweden scraps almost all restrictions and testing despite pleas from scientists; Spain’s King Felipe tests positive

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Covid live: Sweden scraps almost all restrictions and testing despite pleas from scientists; Spain’s King Felipe tests positive” was written by Lucy Campbell (now); Miranda Bryant and Martin Farrer (earlier), for theguardian.com on Wednesday 9th February 2022 18.06 UTC

Summary

Here is a quick recap of some of the main developments from today so far:

  • The Metropolitan police is going to review its decision not to include the Christmas quiz in Downing Street on 15 December 2020 in its partygate investigation in the light of the new prosecco picture. The Met issued a statement saying: “MPS previously assessed this event and determined that on the basis of the evidence available at that time, it did not meet the threshold for criminal investigation. That assessment is now being reviewed.” The image published by the Daily Mirror shows Boris Johnson with two members of staff, including his deputy principal private secretary, Stuart Glassborow, at the event on 15 December, which No 10 has said was a virtual quiz. At the time the photo was taken, London was under tier 2 restrictions, which banned social mixing between households. The government had explicitly told people they must not meet for Christmas parties. Story here.
  • Sweden scrapped almost all of its few pandemic restrictions and stopped most testing for Covid, even as the pressure on the healthcare systems remained high and some scientists begged for more patience in fighting the disease. “As we know this pandemic, I would say it’s over,” minister of health Lena Hallengren told Dagens Nyheter. “It’s not over, but as we know it in terms of quick changes and restrictions it is,” she said, adding that Covid would no longer be classified as a danger to society. As of Wednesday, bars and restaurants will be allowed to stay open after 11pm again, and with no limits on the number of guests. Attendance limits for larger indoor venues were also lifted, as was the use of vaccine passes. Swedish hospitals were still feeling the strain, however, with around 2,200 people with Covid requiring hospital care, about the same as during the third wave in the spring of 2021. As free testing was reduced earlier this month and effectively stopped from Wednesday, no one knows the exact number of cases. More here.
  • Boris Johnson plans to abolish the last domestic Covid restrictions in England, including the requirement for people with the virus to self-isolate, in less than two weeks, a month earlier than initially proposed, he announced. While guidance will remain in place for people to stay at home, as they would if they had flu, there will be no legal requirement backed up with fines of up to £10,000. Unions urged measures to improve sick pay and ensure people were not forced to work, warning about the potential of “a green light for bosses to cut corners”, while school leaders said there had been no prior discussion of the change. Ministers would publish new guidance, Downing Street said after Johnson’s announcement, adding it was possible some travel restrictions could remain such as passenger locator forms and quarantine for non-vaccinated people. Covid tests will remain free for now. Story here and explanation of the changes here.
  • Spain’s King Felipe tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday after displaying mild symptoms overnight and will remain in isolation for seven days, the Royal Palace said in a statement. “His Majesty’s general state of health is good and he will keep up his institutional activities from his residence,” it said, adding that Queen Letizia and their daughter Princess Sofía showed no symptoms.
  • Japan is set to extend Covid restrictions in Tokyo and 12 prefectures by three weeks as the Omicron variant continued to spread. Japan has been breaking daily records for coronavirus cases and deaths amid a surge in infections driven by Omicron.It will add one more prefecture to the list of regions facing quasi-emergency measures, including restrictions on the business hours of eateries, Fumio Kishida told reporters. The central government will create about 1,000 temporary medical facilities treating patients with coronavirus, together with Tokyo and Osaka regional governments, he added. More here.
  • Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II has tested positive for coronavirus and is showing mild symptoms, the royal court said in a statement. The 81-year-old monarch received a third dose of the vaccine in November, the court said. She cancelled her planned winter holiday in Norway which should have started on Wednesday, and is isolating in a wing of the Amalienborg Palace in the heart of Copenhagen, in line with current health recommendations.

The Metropolitan police has said that it is going to review its decision not to include the Christmas quiz in Downing Street on 15 December 2020 in its partygate investigation in the light of the new prosecco picture. It has just issued a statement saying:

The MPS previously assessed this event and determined that on the basis of the evidence available at that time, it did not meet the threshold for criminal investigation. That assessment is now being reviewed.

That means that the party of the event published by the Daily Mirror this afternoon was not considered by the Sue Gray inquiry. Gray passed all her evidence on to the police, who used it to decide which events seemed to involve a serious breach of the rules.

This is potentially a worrying development for No 10. Dame Cressida Dick, the Met commissioner, told the London assembly recently that the threshold for criminal investigation in after the fact lockdown rule cases was particularly high; she said the Met would only consider cases that seemed to involve the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of the rules, and where those involved appeared to have no “reasonable defence”.

You can follow all of Andy’s coverage here:

Sweden scraps almost all restrictions and testing despite pleas from scientists

Sweden scrapped almost all of its few pandemic restrictions on Wednesday and stopped most testing for Covid-19, even as the pressure on the healthcare systems remained high and some scientists begged for more patience in fighting the disease, Reuters reports.

Sweden’s government, which throughout the pandemic has opted against lockdowns in favour of a voluntary approach, announced last week it would scrap the remaining restrictions – effectively declaring the pandemic over – as vaccines and the Omicron variant have cushioned the number of severe cases and deaths.

“As we know this pandemic, I would say it’s over,” minister of health Lena Hallengren told Dagens Nyheter. “It’s not over, but as we know it in terms of quick changes and restrictions it is,” she said, adding that Covid would no longer be classified as a danger to society.

As of Wednesday, bars and restaurants will be allowed to stay open after 11pm again, and with no limits on the number of guests. Attendance limits for larger indoor venues were also lifted, as was the use of vaccine passes.

Swedish hospitals were still feeling the strain, however, with around 2,200 people with Covid requiring hospital care, about the same as during the third wave in the spring of 2021.

As free testing was reduced earlier this month and effectively stopped from Wednesday, no one knows the exact number of cases.

“We should have a little more patience, wait at least a couple of more weeks. And we are wealthy enough to keep testing,” Fredrik Elgh, professor of virology at Umea University and one of the staunchest critics of Sweden’s no-lockdown policy, told Reuters. “The disease is still a huge strain on society,” he said.

Sweden’s health agency said this week that large-scale testing was too expensive in relation to the benefits. Sweden spent around 500 million Swedish crowns ($55 million) per week on testing for the first five weeks of this year and around 24 billion crowns since the start of the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Sweden registered 114 new deaths where the deceased was infected with the virus. In total, 16,182 people have died either of the virus or while infected. The number of deaths per capita is much higher than among Nordic neighbours but lower than in most European countries.

All remaining domestic Covid legal restrictions in England are likely to be scrapped later this month, Boris Johnson has announced.

Here my colleague Peter Walker explains what we know – and what is yet to be set out: What will happen after Covid rules are scrapped in England?

Palestinian authorities have ramped up Covid testing and vaccinations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and have warned that public indifference to calls for mask-wearing and social distancing is hampering efforts to fight the pandemic, Reuters reports.

The Palestinian Authority health ministry registered more than 64,000 active cases of Covid on Wednesday, in what officials described as an unprecedented daily increase due to the Omicron variant.

“Three weeks ago we were recording up to 300 infections daily, but in the last few days we crossed the 11,000 mark,” said Mahdi Rashed, director of health services in Ramallah. “It’s clear this is a result of the Omicron variant spreading.”

Rashed cautioned that the real number of infections is likely higher, because many people are not getting tested, and he blamed the rise on peoples’ “recklessness and indifference” by not adhering to health safety rules.

The Palestinian health minister Mai al-Kaila warned that governmental hospitals in the West Bank were at full capacity on Saturday. In the past week alone, the number of people who were seriously ill more than doubled in Gaza and nearly doubled in the West Bank.

Across Gaza and the West Bank, masking is mandatory inside public offices and government employees are required to get vaccinated, officials said.

But Ahmed Al-Atrash, a 28-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, where he runs a clothing stand, said public apathy had set in. “No one cares about corona,” he told Reuters. “No one stresses about it. They do not care, and this has become a normal thing among Palestinians.”

Palestinian authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza have opened more testing sites, approved rapid tests and are urging people to get vaccinated.

Of the 3.1 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, 60% are fully vaccinated, while the rate for Gaza’s 2.3 million population stands at 43%, according to health officials. The death toll in the West Bank and Gaza from the virus has reached nearly 5,000.

In August 2020, the Guardian spoke to workers in the live music industry who had their livelihoods destroyed by Covid. How are they faring in 2022?

Michael Hann reports: ‘We all need a plan B now’: the dicey world of live music after Covid

Here is our story on Boris Johnson’s plans to abolish the last domestic Covid restrictions in England, including the requirement for people with the virus to self-isolate, in less than two weeks, a month earlier than initially proposed.

While guidance will remain in place for people to stay at home, as they would if they had flu, there will be no legal requirement backed up with fines of up to £10,000.

Unions urged measures to improve sick pay and ensure people were not forced to work, warning about the potential of “a green light for bosses to cut corners”, while school leaders said there had been no prior discussion of the change.

Ministers would publish new guidance, Downing Street said after Johnson’s announcement, adding it was possible some travel restrictions could remain such as passenger locator forms and quarantine for non-vaccinated people. Covid tests will remain free for now.

Full story: Boris Johnson plans to lift England’s last Covid rules a month early

Only five hospitals in Afghanistan still offer Covid treatment, with 33 others having been forced to close in recent months for lack of doctors, medicines and even heating, the Associated Press reports.

It comes as the economically devastated nation is hit by a steep rise in the number of reported coronavirus cases.

At Kabul’s only Covid treatment hospital, staff can only heat the building at night because of lack of fuel, even as winter temperatures drop below freezing during the day. Patients are bundled under heavy blankets. Its director, Dr Mohammed Gul Liwal, said they need everything, from oxygen to medicine supplies.

The facility, the Afghan Japan Communicable Disease Hospital, has 100 beds. The Covid-19 ward is almost always full as the virus rages. Before late January, the hospital was getting one or two new coronavirus patients a day. In the past two weeks, 10 to 12 new patients have been admitted daily, Liwal said.

“The situation is worsening day by day,” said Liwal. Since the Taliban takeover of the country six months ago, hospital employees have received only one month’s salary, in December.

Afghanistan’s healthcare system, which survived for nearly two decades almost entirely on international donor funding, has been devastated since the Taliban returned to power in mid-August, amid the chaotic end to the 20-year US-led intervention. Afghanistan’s economy crashed after nearly $10bn in assets abroad were frozen and financial aid to the government was largely halted.

The health system’s collapse has only worsened the humanitarian crisis in the country. Roughly 90% of the population has fallen below the poverty level, and with families barely able to afford food, at least a million children are threatened with starvation.

The Omicron variant is hitting Afghanistan hard, Liwal said, but he admits it is just a guess because the country is still waiting for kits that test specifically for the variant. They were supposed to arrive before the end of last month, said public health ministry spokesman Dr Javid Hazhir. The World Health Organization now says Afghanistan will get the kits by the end of February.

Between 30 January and 5 February, public labs in Afghanistan tested 8,496 samples, of which nearly half, were positive for Covid-19. Those numbers translate into a 47. 4% positivity rate, the WHO said.

As of Tuesday, WHO recorded 7,442 deaths and close to 167,000 infections in the country since the start of the pandemic almost two years ago. In the absence of large-scale testing, these relatively low figures are believed to be a result of extreme under-reporting.

Meanwhile, the new Taliban administration says it is trying to push vaccines on a sceptical population that often sees them as dangerous.

With 3.2m vaccine doses in stock, Hazhir said the administration has launched a campaign through mosques, clerics and mobile vaccine clinics to get more people vaccinated. Barely 27% of Afghanistan’s 38 million people have been vaccinated, most with the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Getting Afghans to follow even a minimum of safety protocols, like mask-wearing and social distancing, has been near impossible, Liwal said. For many struggling to feed their families, Covid ranks low on their list of fears, he said, despite the public health ministry running awareness campaigns about the value of masks and social distancing.

A patient with Covid sits on a bed in the intensive care unit of the Afghan Japan Communicable Disease Hospital, in Kabul.
A patient with Covid sits on a bed in the intensive care unit of the Afghan Japan Communicable Disease hospital, in Kabul. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP

Even in the Afghan Japan hospital, where signs warn people that mask wearing is mandatory, most people in the dimly lit halls were without masks. In the intensive care unit, where half of the 10 patients in the ward were on ventilators, doctors and attendants wore only surgical masks and gowns for protection as they moved from bed to bed.

The head of the unit, Dr Naeemullah, said he needs more ventilators and, even more urgently, he needs doctors trained on using ventilators. He is overstretched and rarely paid, but feels duty-bound to serve his patients. Liwal said several doctors have left Afghanistan.

Most of the hospital’s 200 employees come to work regularly despite months without pay.

In December, a US-based charity affiliated with Johns Hopkins University provided two months funding, which gave the hospital staff their December salary and a promise of another paycheck in January. The public health ministry is now in negotiations with WHO to take over the cost of running the hospital through June, said Liwal.

Liwal said other Kabul hospitals used to be able to take some patients, but now no longer have the resources. With a lack of funds and staff leaving, 33 facilities offering Covid-19 treatment nationwide have shut down, he said.

The Afghan Japan hospital’s only microbiologist, Dr Faridullah Qazizada, earned less than $1,000 a month before the Taliban took power. He has received only one month’s salary since August, he said. He says his equipment and facilities are barely adequate.

“The whole health system has been destroyed,” he said.

Updated

The United Arab Emirates will gradually lift Covid restrictions as the number of infections and hospitalisations has gone down, the state news agency WAM reported on Wednesday.

Venues will be allowed to function at maximum capacity by mid-February, it said, citing the National Emergency Crisis Management Authority.

The UAE, which has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, reported on Wednesday 1,538 new coronavirus infections and four deaths in the past 24 hours, according to WAM.

The total numbers of Covid-related cases and deaths recorded in the country are respectively 862,514 and 2,273, it said.

Updated

Despite the success of Covid jabs, there is huge – and understandable – mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry, writes Laura Spinney.

An extract reads:

It is true social media has done us a disservice and our social contract was fraying before Covid came along. But it’s also true that, if anti-vaxxers and their enablers are ready to stop at nothing in pursuit of fat profits, they have an excellent role model in big pharma. If governments, industry and physicians acknowledge this needs to change, at long last, then this crisis won’t have gone to waste.

You can read the full piece is here: Yes, vaccines are lifesavers – but big pharma still needs to get its house in order

Police have been urged to investigate another party in Downing Street after a new photograph apparently showed Boris Johnson at a Christmas quiz in December 2020, with an open bottle of champagne and staff wearing Santa hats and tinsel.

The image published by the Daily Mirror shows the prime minister with three members of staff at the event on 15 December, which No 10 has said was a virtual quiz.

Asked at prime minister’s questions if the Met police should add this to the events they are investigating, Johnson said the allegation was “completely in error”.

At the time the photo was taken, London was under tier 2 restrictions, which banned social mixing between households. The government had explicitly told people they must not meet for Christmas parties.

Johnson was challenged about the image at prime minister’s questions by the Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, who said:

It looks a lot like one of the Christmas parties he told us never happened.

Citing the case of a constituent who was unable to have family visit her in hospital when she was being treated for a tumour, Hamilton asked if Johnson would refer the event to police for investigation.

Johnson replied only by expressing his sympathy for the constituent, saying: “I understand very much her feelings. But in what he has said just, I am afraid, he is completely in error.”

Asked again in PMQs about the photo, Johnson replied: “That’s precisely the point. That event already has been submitted for investigation.”

The Met police are examining potential law-breaking at 12 gatherings in Downing Street, three of which Boris Johnson is known to have attended. A fourth event, in his Downing Street flat, is also under investigation and the prime minister has declined to say whether he was in attendance.

But the event on 15 December, which was a virtual quiz for staff, was not among those gatherings referred to the Met police and Johnson insinuated they had already seen the evidence before making the decision.

The police said they had been handed more than 300 photographs of events in Downing Street and 500 pages of evidence. A full report from the Cabinet Office official Sue Gray, who was asked to investigate the rule-breaking, is also expected to be released once the police work is concluded.

The former No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings, now a fierce critic of Johnson, said further pictures would soon come out. “There’s waaaaay better pics than that floating around, incl[uding] in the flat,” he tweeted.

“The pics will come out and the public will think ‘Met [police] lying’, not ‘oh PM innocent after all’. Penny dropping with MPs.”

The new picture came just hours after sources suggested Johnson did not intend to resign if he was given a fixed penalty notice by police, though MPs could trigger a vote of no confidence.

More on this story here: Boris Johnson pictured at Christmas quiz with champagne and tinsel

Spain’s King Felipe tests positive for coronavirus

Spain’s King Felipe tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday after displaying mild symptoms overnight and will remain in isolation for seven days, the Royal Palace said in a statement.

“His Majesty’s general state of health is good and he will keep up his institutional activities from his residence,” it said, adding that Queen Letizia and their daughter Princess Sofía showed no symptoms.

Isolation rules could end by end of month in England, says Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has said the UK government intends to end the last Covid restrictions in England, including isolating requirements, a full month early.

During PMQs, Johnson said that after the half term recess he will announce a strategy for living with Covid. The isolation rules were due to end on 24 March.

He said:

It is my intention to return on the first day after the half term recess to present our strategy for living with Covid.

Provided the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last remaining domestic restrictions, including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive, a full month early.

My colleague Andrew Sparrow has more over on the UK politics live blog:

Updated

Japan to extend Covid curbs in 13 regions by three weeks

The Japanese prime minister said on Wednesday that the government would extend Covid restrictions in Tokyo and 12 prefectures by three weeks as the Omicron variant continued to spread, Reuters reports.

Japan has been breaking daily records for coronavirus cases and deaths amid a surge in infections driven by Omicron.

It will add one more prefecture to the list of regions facing quasi-emergency measures, including restrictions on the business hours of eateries, Fumio Kishida told reporters.

The central government will create about 1,000 temporary medical facilities treating patients with coronavirus, together with Tokyo and Osaka regional governments, he added.

Japan has declared various levels of emergency multiple times during the two-year pandemic. A full state of emergency might involve closures of venues serving alcohol, attendance restrictions at sporting and cultural events, and fines for non-compliant businesses. So-called quasi measures allow regional governors to order curbs on social movement and business hours.

With the country’s borders shut for nearly two years, the lives of students and workers have been disrupted, prompting business leaders to warn about the possible economic impact, particularly amid a tight labour market.

However, Kishida said he would “think about appropriate actions” on what he called the strongest border rules among the G7 nations, but did not signal any immediate easing.

Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II tests positive for Covid

Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II has tested positive for coronavirus and is showing mild symptoms, the royal court said in a statement on Wednesday.

The 81-year-old monarch received a third dose of the vaccine in November, the court said.

She cancelled her planned winter holiday in Norway which should have started on Wednesday, and is isolating in a wing of the Amalienborg Palace in the heart of Copenhagen, in line with current health recommendations.

Despite lifting all domestic Covid restrictions last week, Danish authorities still recommend patients isolate for at least four days.

Updated

New York governor Kathy Hochul will on Wednesday announce the end of the state’s mask mandate for most indoor public places, The New York Times reported, joining several states due to lift face-covering rules as the latest US Covid surge eases.

The Democratic governor intends to let the mask mandate, which has been challenged in court, expire rather than seeking to renew it, the newspaper reported, citing three individuals briefed on the move.

It remains unclear whether Hochul’s administration would renew or drop a separate compulsory masking rule in New York public schools that is due to lapse in two weeks.

Representatives for the governor did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Hochul called the general mask mandate temporary when she imposed it 31 December as the Omicron variant threatened to strain healthcare systems.

Officials in several other Democratic-led states – New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Delaware and Oregon – announced on Monday that they were lifting mask mandates for schools and other public settings in the coming weeks.

In all those instances, authorities cited the receding Omicron wave of Covid infections, hospitalisations and deaths that began sweeping the United States during the year-end 2021 holiday season.

But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director, Dr Rochelle Walensky, told Reuters on Tuesday that with cases still high nationwide, “now is not the moment” to drop mask mandates in schools and other public places.

The relaxation of masking rules signals an inclination by politicians to take pandemic-weary residents off an emergency footing and shift toward treating the virus as part of everyday life.

A New York state judge struck down Hochul’s mask mandate last month, ruling she had overstepped her authority.

But an appeals court judge stayed that decision the next day, keeping it intact while the case remained under judicial review.

Good morning from London. I’m Lucy Campbell, I’ll be bringing you all the latest global developments on the coronavirus pandemic for the next eight hours. Please feel free to get in touch with me as I work if you have a story or tips to share! Your thoughts are always welcome.

Email: lucy.campbell@theguardian.com
Twitter: @lucy_campbell_

Here’s a summary of the latest developments…

  • The prime minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša, has tested positive for Covid. He shared the news on his Twitter account, posting a photo of his antigen self-test and saying his symptoms were mild.
  • Slovakia has reported a new record for daily Covid cases. The health ministry said there were 20,582 new infections yesterday, exceeding previous pandemic records.
  • Hong Kong’s daily Covid cases almost doubled today to a record 1,161 infections. It comes after authorities, who are following a “dynamic zero” strategy as followed by mainland China, brought in its toughest pandemic measures to date.
  • The UK health secretary, Sajid Javid, has accepted Gillian Keegan’s apology and “continues to support her in her role”. Keegan, a health minister, issued an apology after admitting to continuing a visit after receiving a positive Covid test. The MP for Chichester, who said she is isolating at home and feels fine, said she “took precautions” after getting her result, but “with their consent” carried on the meeting.
  • Russia has reported a record 183,103 Covid cases. The government’s coronavirus taskforce also reported 669 deaths from the last 24 hours.
  • Poland may lift Covid restrictions in March if daily infections continue to fall as they are now, the health minister has said. In an interview, published today, Adam Niedzielski told the Fakt tabloid: “If the tempo at which infections are falling remains the same, there is a realistic prospect of lifting restrictions in March.”
  • A senior World Health Organization adviser has said Covid numbers are still “absolutely staggering”. Asked about whether learning to live with coronavirus is dangerous, Dr Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the body’s director general, said: “It’s a very dangerous virus.”
  • Sajid Javid, the UK health secretary, has pledged to recruit 15,000 new health workers by the end of March to tackle the pandemic treatment backlog. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said the NHS planned “to recruit 10,000 more nurses from overseas and 5,000 more healthcare support workers by the end of March” to improve capacity.
  • Hong Kong’s deepening Omicron crisis is leading citizens to accuse its government of holding them hostage as the leadership pursues a controversial “dynamic zero” Covid policy.

That’s it from me for today. Handing over now to Lucy Campbell. Thanks for reading.

Updated

Slovenian PM tests positive for Covid

The prime minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša, has tested positive for Covid, reports AFP.

“For two years we have been successfully avoiding the coronavirus. Yesterday, during a self-test both of my children were positive, I was negative. Today, unfortunately, mine is also + (positive),” the conservative wrote on his Twitter account, posting a photo of his antigen self-test and saying his symptoms were mild.

Janša, who took over the government in March 2020 days after an epidemic was declared, has been accused of mishandling restrictions and the country’s vaccination campaign, leading to a comparatively high mortality rate.

Slovenia has had more than 6,000 Covid deaths and has one of the European Union’s lowest vaccination rates at 57% of the population.

Updated

Andrew Sparrow’s UK politics blog is now up and running. This blog will continue with global Covid news.

Slovakia reports new daily Covid case record

Slovakia has reported a new record for daily Covid cases.

The health ministry said there were 20,582 new infections yesterday, exceeding previous pandemic records.

According to Reuters, the country has administered at least 6.8m vaccine doses so far, or the equivalent to two doses for 62.6% of the population.

More on UK health minister Gillian Keegan (see also 08:16), PA Media cites a quote from November when she was asked about how new Covid rules about face coverings would be enforced.

She then told BBC Radio 4’s Today:

Well, largely due to the good sense of British people who will hopefully listen to the rules, try to protect each other, and do what the right thing is.

That’s largely what … how it’s always been. That’s pretty much what it’s always been, but the police do have powers to enforce.

Updated

Hong Kong daily cases nearly double to 1,161

Hong Kong’s daily Covid cases almost doubled today to a record 1,161 infections (see also 07:02).

It comes after authorities, who are following a “dynamic zero” strategy as followed by mainland China, brought in its toughest pandemic measures to date.

Leader Carrie Lam yesterday implemented a two-person limit on public gatherings and closed churches and hair salons.

Citizens have accused the government of holding them “hostage”.

A Covid testing centre in Hong Kong today.
A Covid testing centre in Hong Kong today. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

Updated

Sajid Javid accepts UK health minister’s apology for continuing a meeting after testing positive for Covid

The UK health secretary, Sajid Javid, has accepted Gillian Keegan’s apology (see also 08:16) and “continues to support her in her role”.

Keegan, a health minister, issued an apology after admitting to continuing a visit after receiving a positive Covid test.

A spokesperson for the health secretary said:

The secretary of state has spoken with the minister who has taken responsibility for her actions and made a full apology.

He accepts her apology and continues to support her in her role.

Updated

The UK health minister, Ed Argar, has said he understands the health secretary Sajid Javid has accepted an apology from his fellow minister Gillian Keegan after she continued a meeting despite getting a positive Covid test (see also 08:16).

He said Keegan had “clearly issued a fulsome apology”, adding that he believed she had apologised to Javid.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain:

I saw that Twitter thread, I think, late last night, I think it was. She’s clearly issued a fulsome apology there, that she did make an error of judgment, she was open about that and she accepted she made an error of judgment.

He added:

I understand – I haven’t spoken to or seen Gillian yesterday or today, so I don’t know first hand – but I understand from her Twitter thread that she set out the circumstances and apologised, and I understand that she has also spoken to and apologised to the secretary of state, who has accepted that apology.

Updated

The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, responding to UK health minister Gillian Keegan’s tweet (see also 08:16 and 08:38):

And the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy:

Updated

More from the UK: The Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has told Sky News that if he were in Gillian Keegan’s position, he would have left the meeting on getting a positive Covid result (see also 08:16).

Updated

Russia reports record daily Covid cases

Russia has reported a record 183,103 Covid cases.

The government’s coronavirus taskforce also reported 669 deaths from the last 24 hours.

A woman at a metro station in Moscow, Russia last week.
A woman at a metro station in Moscow, Russia, last week. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

Updated

UK health minister Gillian Keegan apologises after admitting to continuing a meeting after testing positive for Covid

The UK health minister, Gillian Keegan, has apologised after admitting to continuing a visit after receiving a positive Covid test.

The MP for Chichester, who said she is isolating at home and feels fine, said she “took precautions” after getting her result, but “with their consent” carried on the meeting.

In a series of tweets, she said she should have “immediately ended the meeting and on reflection this was an error of judgment”, adding that she wanted to “be upfront about what happened and to apologise for the mistake I made”.

Updated

Poland may lift Covid restrictions in March, says health minister

Poland may lift Covid restrictions in March if daily infections continue to fall as they are now, the health minister has said.

In an interview, published today, Adam Niedzielski told the Fakt tabloid: “If the tempo at which infections are falling remains the same, there is a realistic prospect of lifting restrictions in March.”

It comes after a wave of Omicron cases led to record infections late last month. Infection numbers have since dropped.

Niedzielski said masks in closed spaces, currently required, could instead be made guidance and that returning to in-person schooling was a priority.

He also said he wanted to reduce the required isolation period for those infected from 10 to seven days.

Polish health minister, Adam Niedzielski, at a press conference in Warsaw in January.
Polish health minister, Adam Niedzielski, at a press conference in Warsaw in January. Photograph: Tomasz Gzell/EPA

Northern Ireland’s health minister, Robin Swann, has said he is still waiting for legal advice removing Covid restrictions, reports the BBC.

Swann has said he wants to remove most or all of the remaining rules, which include face masks and track and trace, and replace them with guidance.

The Northern Ireland executive had planned to review restrictions tomorrow, but the meeting will no longer take place after the resignation of the first minister, the Democratic Unionist party’s Paul Givan.

“Thursday 10 February is the legal review point,” Swann said. “My department must make a review of current regulations that are in place but I haven’t received the legal advice up to date yet. I’ll hopefully have an update on Thursday.”

Updated

Only five hospitals in Afghanistan still offer Covid treatment, reports the Associated Press, after 33 have been forced to close in recent months.

Kathy Gannon reports for AP from Kabul:

Only five hospitals in Afghanistan still offer Covid-19 treatment, with 33 others having been forced to close in recent months for lack of doctors, medicines and even heat. This comes as the economically devastated nation is hit by a steep rise in the number of reported coronavirus cases.

At Kabul’s only Covid-19 treatment hospital, staff can only heat the building at night because of lack of fuel, even as winter temperatures drop below freezing during the day. Patients are bundled under heavy blankets. Its director, Dr Mohammed Gul Liwal, said they need everything from oxygen to medicine supplies.

The facility, called the Afghan Japan Communicable Disease Hospital, has 100 beds. The Covid-19 ward is almost always full as the virus rages. Before late January, the hospital was getting one or two new coronavirus patients a day. In the past two weeks, 10 to 12 new patients have been admitted daily, Liwal said.

“The situation is worsening day by day,” said Liwal, speaking inside a chilly conference room. Since the Taliban takeover almost six months ago, hospital employees have received only one month’s salary, in December.

Afghanistan’s healthcare system, which survived for nearly two decades almost entirely on international donor funding, has been devastated since the Taliban returned to power in August following the chaotic end to the 20-year US-led intervention. Afghanistan’s economy crashed after nearly $10bn in assets abroad were frozen and financial aid to the government was largely halted.

Updated

Covid numbers still ‘absolutely staggering’, says WHO adviser

A senior World Health Organization adviser has said Covid numbers are still “absolutely staggering”.

Asked about whether learning to live with coronavirus is dangerous, Dr Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the body’s director general, said: “It’s a very dangerous virus.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today:

If we look at the situation today – there’s still 2 million reported cases alone, over 5,000 deaths every single day right now.

The numbers are absolutely staggering, and what we’re learning to live with is not just this virus, but what should be an unacceptable burden of disease, an unacceptable number of deaths every single day, especially when there are the tools to stop or at least slow this thing, manage it, control it.

He said protecting the whole world is critical and that $16bn investment is needed to get out of the “acute phase” of the pandemic.

“That sounds like a lot of money, but it is less than what the world is losing every single month right now,” he said.

Updated

UK health secretary pledges to recruit 15,000 new health workers to tackle pandemic backlog

Sajid Javid, the UK health secretary, has pledged to recruit 15,000 new health workers by the end of March to tackle the pandemic treatment backlog.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said the NHS planned “to recruit 10,000 more nurses from overseas and 5,000 more healthcare support workers by the end of March” to improve capacity.

It comes after he told MPs that the waiting list in England, which is already at a record 6 million, will continue growing for another two years.

Eva Corlett reports from the anti-vax protest in Wellington, New Zealand:

“Remove your mask,” a man demands, as I walk through the crowd. When I say I would like to keep it on, he immediately asks if I’m from mainstream media. I reply that I am and he says “don’t twist the truth just because you’re on the government dollars”. He is not the only one demanding I remove the mask.

Hi, I’m looking after the blog for the next few hours. Please get in touch with any tips or suggestions: miranda.bryant@guardian.co.uk

Hongkongers say they’re being ‘held hostage’

Hong Kong’s deepening Omicron crisis (see earlier post) is leading citizens to accuse its government of holding them hostage as the leadership pursues a controversial “dynamic zero” Covid policy.

Our correspondent Helen Davidson reports on a viral Facebook message from “HK Moms” which levels the accusation at city chief executive Carrie Lam:

“You have tried for two years, and failed. When will you stop holding the citizen of this once Asia’s city hostage? When does the goalpost stop moving further and further away every time we get closer? When do we say enough is enough Carrie Lam?”

Strong stuff. Read Helen’s full dispatch here:

Updated

The huge economic impact of the pandemic has found another illustration with the European Union’s $49bn splurge on chipmaking capacity to ease chronic shortages of the vital industrial components.

As she announced the plan to ease dependency on Asian producers, European commission president Ursula von der Leyen said: “Chips are at the centre of the global technological race. They are, of course, also the bedrock of our modern economies.”

Employees at a semiconductor factory in China.
Employees at a semiconductor factory in China. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

It follows Joe Biden’s decision to spend $42bn improving US capability in making chips, which go into everything from cars to dishwashers, and shows how the pandemic has changed the way that the global economy works.

Per Hong, a partner and supply chain specialist with the US consultancy Kearney, told me that the disruptions to the global supply chain could go on for months because the Omicron strain was still having a huge impact on all areas of the economy, especially in China.

Hong said: “They are looking at shortened lead times, and moving production nearer consumption. But we are moving from a just in time model to just in case. There are a number of factors at play reshaping the economy, forcing companies to reassess what they’re doing.”

You can read the full story here:

Updated

To Australia, where nurses in New South Wales have voted overwhelmingly to go on strike next Tuesday amid growing anger at staffing levels in the state’s hospitals. More than 97% supported a motion to hold the first statewide strike in almost a decade.

The action will come days after the lifting of the pause on non-elective surgery due to the weeks-long Omicron outbreak in the state. Nurses wanted to see the moratorium extended to ease burdens on “exhausted” staff.

Full story here:

Canada standoff blocks key bridge to US

The standoff pitting truckers and other Covid-related malcontents with the Canadian government has worsened after their protests caused traffic at the busiest border crossing in North America to grind to a halt.

After weeks of protests in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, about vaccine mandates, 23 people were arrested for unlawful demonstrations on Tuesday and many trucks were immobilised, police said.

But despite the crackdown, trucks began blocking the Ambassador Bridge linking the cities of Detroit and Windsor late on Monday. On Tuesday, entry to Canada remained blocked while US-bound traffic slowed to a crawl.

Here’s the full story:

Updated

The World Health organisation has urged rich countries to pay their fair share of the money needed for its plan to conquer Covid-19 in developing countries by contributing $16bn as a matter of urgency.

The World Health Organization said the rapid cash injection into its access to covid tools accelerator (ACT-A) could finish off Covid as a global health emergency this year. The WHO-led plan is aimed at developing, producing, procuring and distributing tools to tackle the pandemic: vaccines, tests, treatments and personal protective equipment.

ACT-A needed $23.4bn for its programme for the year October 2021-September 2022 but only $800m has been raised so far.

Further north in mainland China, organisers of the Beijing Winter Olympics said on Wednesday that a total of five new Covid cases were detected among games-related personnel on Tuesday.

Three of the cases were found among new airport arrivals, Reuters reports. Two others were among those already in the “closed loop” bubble that separates all events personnel from the public, both of whom were classified as either an athlete or team official, the notice said.

Hong Kong outbreak worsening

An elderly man who died in Hong Kong after returning a positive test for Covid-19 could become the city’s first death potentially linked with the virus in five months as it struggles to cope with a worsening outbreak.

It was not clear whether his death would be classified as Hong Kong’s 214th Covid death as preliminary positive cases have to undergo further tests to be classified as positive.

The city is due to report a record of at least 1,160 new infections on Wednesday, according to broadcaster TVB, citing an unidentified source. It has recorded more than 2,600 cases over the past two weeks compared with just two in December.

Hong Kongers queue up for haircuts at a salon before they close later this week under new virus restriction measures.
Hong Kongers queue up for haircuts at a salon before they close later this week under new virus restriction measures. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

The Chinese territory announced stringent new coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday and record new infections as it sticks to a controversial “dynamic zero” strategy employed by mainland China to suppress all coronavirus outbreaks.

Good morning/afternoon/evening wherever you are and welcome to our rolling coverage of developments in the coronavirus pandemic. To kick off, here are some of the main news lines from the past few hours:

  • Traffic has ground to a halt at the busiest border crossing in North America, as Canadian truckers and others angry with vaccine mandates spread their protest beyond Ottawa.
  • Police in New Zealand have arrested several anti-mandate protesters who have set up camp on the lawns of parliament.
  • Organisers of the Beijing Winter Olympics said a total of five new Covid cases were detected among games-related personnel on Tuesday. Three of the cases were found among new airport arrivals.
  • Hong Kong reported its first potential Covid death in five months after an elderly man who returned a positive test died on Tuesday. The global financial hub is expected to report a record of at least 1,160 new infections on Wednesday, broadcaster TVB reported.
  • A global scheme to help poorer nations cope with Covid is “running on fumes” because of a budget shortfall, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and other aid groups.
  • New York governor Kathy Hochul plans to end her state’s mask mandate for most indoor public places on Wednesday, according to the New York Times, joining several states lifting face-covering rules in the weeks ahead as the latest COVID-19 surge loosens its grip.
  • The drugmaker Pfizer made nearly $37bn from its Covid-19 vaccine last year – making it one of the most lucrative products in history – but bringing accusations from campaigners of “pandemic profiteering”. The company forecast another bumper year in 2022, with a big boost coming from its Covid-19 pill Paxlovid.
  • France, Portugal and Greece have relaxed their entry requirements for fully vaccinated travellers, with changes coming into effect in time for half-term.
    Vaccinated tourists travelling to Portugal will no longer need to provide a negative test result to enter, although unvaccinated passengers will.
  • Qantas has seen a surge of booking from people travelling to Australia after the government said the ban on international arrivals would be lifted soon. Australia’s national carrier said bookings doubled on the first day following Monday’s announcement that borders would open on 21 February.

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