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This article titled “Czech Republic scraps mandatory jabs as daily cases hit new high; record cases in Bulgaria – as it happened” was written by Samantha Lock (now); Jem Bartholomew, Lucy Campbelland Martin Belam (earlier), for theguardian.com on Thursday 20th January 2022 01.13 UTC
New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has said restrictions will be tightened if there is a community transmission of Omicron.
Ardern made the remarks during a press conference on Thursday in which she provided an update on the country’s traffic light system.
When Omicron enters the community behind the border, the whole country will move into red within 24 to 48 hours, stuff.co reports.
The prime minister previously told her MPs that Omicron is a “different foe” and will result in case numbers not seen in New Zealand before. However, she added that the variant “is not insurmountable” and long lockdowns should not be needed.
Two new Omicron cases have been reported in Auckland.
Testing in New Zealand for Covid will be free, and rapid antigen tests will be used more widely, Ardern added.
Moving across to Europe, Austria has also recorded a record daily rise in Covid infections with 27,641 cases reported in the past 24 hours, according to data from the Austrian Agency for Health (AGES).
It marks an incident rate of 1,439 per 100,000 of the population.
Mexico is also reporting a record daily increase of more than 60,000 new confirmed Covid-19 cases, health ministry data showed on Wednesday, as the country steps up testing for the virus.
In the past 24 hours, more than 150,000 test results were logged, the ministry’s data showed, far more than Mexico was registering at the start of the month.
With 60,552 new infections, the number of overall cases since the pandemic began increased to 4,495,310 while 323 more deaths brought the overall death toll to 302,112.
Brazil reports record high of daily Covid cases
Brazil has reported 204,854 new confirmed cases of coronavirus in the past 24 hours, breaking the country’s previous record for the second day in a row, the health ministry said on Wednesday.
The ministry also reported 338 new Covid-19 deaths.
The previous record of 137,103 cases of the coronavirus was reported on Tuesday.
The South American country has now registered 23,416,748 cases since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 621,855.
Hello it’s Samantha Lock back with you on the blog as we unpack all the latest Covid developments from across the world.
I’ll be reporting to you from Sydney and my colleagues from London will take over a little later in the day.
Here’s a snapshot of how Covid is unfolding across Australia.
The NSW Covid numbers are in and sadly another 25 Covid positive people in the state have died, with 30,825 new infections recorded.
NSW has also recorded a slight reduction in the number of people hospitalised, with 2,781 patients now in Covid wards, compared with 2,850 yesterday.
Victoria’s number are also in and sadly 15 more people with Covid-19 have died with 21,966 new infections recorded. There are now 1,206 hospitalisations, an increase from yesterday’s 1,152.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration has just granted provisional approval to two oral Covid-19 treatments, Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir + ritonavir) and Lagevrio (molnupiravir).
The interval for a booster shot will be reduced to three months in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and the ACT amid unprecedented strain on hospitals as Omicron cases surge.
Meanwhile, Alexander Zverev believes some more players at the Australian Open may have Covid-19 but they may have gone undetected because they weren’t tested, AAP reports.
Here’s a round-up of Wednesday’s top international Covid news.
- Denmark reported a record 38,759 infections, a 37% jump on two weeks ago.
- Algeria announced it’s closing schools for ten days over rising cases.
- Germany reported a record 112,323 cases as Omicron continues to batter Europe.
- Bulgaria reported its highest Covid tally of the whole pandemic, with 11,181 new infections, a 65% jump on the 6,766 cases recorded on Wednesday two weeks ago.
- France detected over 400,000 new cases for the second day in a row.
- Japan is is set to widen Covid restrictions to cover half its population as the Omicron variant drives record infections.
- Northern Ireland will cut self-isolation from seven to five days from Friday, following suit from new isolation rules in England.
- England will soon scrap virtually all Covid measures, the health secretary confirmed.
- St Petersburg in Russia detected record cases, as the country clocked over 33,000 infections.
- Hana Horka, a Czech folk singer, died on Sunday after deliberately exposing herself to Covid. Her son said she was a victim of the antivax movement.
- The US government will make 400m non-surgical N95 masks free to the public from next week, the White House said.
- Children aged 5-11 in Malaysia will be jabbed starting February with the Pfizer vaccine.
- Tennis ace Novak Djokovic is the controlling shareholder in a Danish biotech firm aiming to develop a Covid treatment that doesn’t involve vaccination.
- In the US, Starbucks has suspended the requirement for its 220,000 employees to be vaccinated or regularly tested after a Supreme Court ruling.
- US actor John Malkovich was turned away from a luxury hotel in Venice, Italy last week after failing to present a valid Covid vaccination pass.
- Portuguese voters with Covid or isolating will be allowed to vote in person on 30 January.
- Authorities in Beijing, China announced another piece of infected international mail, local media reported, amid doubts from experts, who say such events are extremely rare.
That’s all from me, Jem Bartholomew, in London for today. Now over to my colleague Samantha Lock in Australia. Bye for now.
The US government will make 400m non-surgical N95 masks from its strategic national stockpile available for free to the public starting next week, the White House said.
The masks will be available in high street pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens. It’s part of an effort to stamp out the rise of the Omicron variant across the nation.
Health experts recommend an N95, rather than a cloth mask, to stop the spread of the highly-mutated Omicron variant.
Denmark reports record high daily Covid infections of almost 40,000
Denmark reported a record high of 38,759 new Covid infections, a 37% jump on the 28,283 cases detected on Wednesday two weeks ago.
The Copenhagen Post reports this alarming stat based on per capita data: “Were Denmark as populated as the UK, its count would be 420,000.” A further 16 people died from virus-related reasons.
It comes after Denmark on Monday ended restrictions on cinemas, museums and cultural institutions after in measures a month intended to clamp down on Omicron, with public venues reopening on a day Denmark also broke its record-case tally.
Children aged 5-11 in Malaysia will be vaccinated starting February, authorities said.
The dosage for children in this age bracket is lower, around one-third the dosage given to over-12s, and only the Pfizer-BioNTech will be used following evidence it’s safe and effective.
Clinical trials found that the risk of symptomatic infection in vaccinated children is reduced by 90%, the country’s vaccine committee said in a statement. (The decision to vaccinate this age bracket was already taken on 6 January.)
Meanwhile, Malaysia reported 3,245 new Covid cases in the past 24 hours, the New Straits Times reports, largely flat on the 3,270 cases on Wednesday two weeks ago.
A further 9 new Covid-related deaths were announced, halving the 18 reported two weeks ago today and climbing the national death toll to 31,818, the 29th highest worldwide.
Algeria closes schools for 10 days to combat Covid
Algeria announced it will close schools for ten days over rising Covid cases.
Elementary and high scools will shut from Thursday, president Abdelmadjid Tebboune said on Wednesday, but universities will decide for themselves whether to close.
Reuters reports the details:
Algeria is battling infections from both the delta variant infections and the fast-spreading omicron variant. On Wednesday, heath officials reported a daily record of 1,359 omicron cases and 12 deaths.
Tebboune urged officials to set a “robust testing structure” in public heath facilities and in private laboratories.
In December, Algeria started requiring a vaccine passport to enter many public venues, seeking to boost the country’s low inoculation rate and overcome vaccine hesitancy that has left millions of vaccines unused. Less than a quarter of Algeria’s population has had even one vaccine dose.
More on the fallout from UK health secretary Sajid Javid’s confirmation earlier today that England will scrap virtually all Covid restrictions, which drew scorn from experts.
Health professionals questioned the move:
Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, pointed to the high number of Covid-19 patients in hospital “at a time when the NHS is already at full stretch and contending with the toughest winter on record”, and some regions were still seeing increased infection numbers.
Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said ministers would “regret sending the wrong signal to the public for political expediency”.
Likewise, unions expressed concern:
Unison, the UK’s largest health union, warned that ditching plan B “in one fell swoop” risked jeopardising progress made. Christina McAnea, the union’s general secretary, said: “Rather than allowing a free-for-all, ministers should be urging caution and encouraging continued mask-wearing on transport, in public places and in schools, where it can still make a real difference.”
Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “While the trend amongst secondary aged children is down, it is however uncertain, due to the short time schools have been back since the Christmas holidays, that this trend will continue. Such uncertainty could lead to a pronounced risk of increased disruption with children and staff having to isolate.”
Read The Guardian’s full story here.
BMA warns ending England’s Covid measures risks resurgent infections and hospitalisations
The British Medical Association has warned that lifting all Covid restrictions in England risks a resurgence in infections, more people ending up in hospital and more cases of long Covid.
“Today’s announcement from the prime minister risks creating a false sense of security when the levels of infection and illness remain high, and the NHS is still under crippling pressure”, said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s chair of council , in a highly critical response to Boris Johnson’s statement.
“This decision clearly is not guided by the data. When Plan B was introduced in December, there were 7,373 patients in hospital in the UK . The latest data this week shows there are 18,979. Case rates too are nearly twice as many.
“The pressures on the NHS are clear for everyone to see. We have a record backlog of 6m patients [in England] at a time when hospitals are cancelling operations, Trusts are declaring critical incidents and ambulance delays are jeopardising public safety. Removing all restrictions risks a rebound in the number of infections across society, would inevitably increase hospitalisation rates, further destabilise patient care and drive up the rate of staff absences and the number of people with long Covid,” he added.
Nagpaul said that ending mask-wearing and the duty to isolate after displaying symptoms of Covid were particularly reckless.
“It is vital that the government acts according to the data and takes a measured approach. Removing effective infection control measures like mask-wearing on public transport and indoor crowded spaces will inevitably increase transmission and place the public at greater risk, especially for those who are vulnerable. We recognise the implications of restrictions on our society, but equally we have seen the impact of the failure to control the virus on the economy, business and education.
“The announcement by the prime minister that he will seek to end self-isolation rules is premature, especially given the statement by the World Health Organisation earlier today that the pandemic is far from over amidst high global case rates and the risk of new variants emerging.”
Hana Horka, a Czech folk singer, died on Sunday after deliberately exposing herself to Covid, her family said.
Horka, 57, wanted to prove recovery from Covid so she could obtain a health pass to visit venues.
Horka, vocalist for the band Asonance, voluntarily exposed herself to the virus when her vaccinated husband and son caught it before Christmas, her son Jan Rek told public radio iRozhlas.cz. “She decided to continue to live normally with us and preferred to catch the disease than to get vaccinated,” Rek said.
Rek blamed the death on a local anti-vaccine movement, saying its leaders had “blood on their hands”. Read the full story here.
France detected 436,167 new Covid cases on Wednesday, a dramatic 117% jump from the already-high 202,293 new cases recorded on Wednesday three weeks ago.
It comes after France on Tuesday reported its record daily tally for the pandemic, at 464,76 infections, edging close to half a million. It keeps French Covid infections above 400,000 for the second day in a row.
A further 231 people died from Covid-related causes in French hospitals, Reuters reports.
Earlier this month French President Emmanuel Macron’s plans for a vaccine passports were approved by parliament, part of a strategy he characterised as intended to suppress Omicron’s spread and “piss off” unvaccinated people.
Northern Ireland to cut isolation period from 7 to 5 days
Northern Ireland, UK will cut the self-isolation period from seven to five days from Friday, first minister Paul Givan said on Twitter.
The move follows guidance announced earlier this week in England, UK for five full days’ isolation – provided people test negative by lateral flow on quarantine days five and six. The change reflects latest medical evidence, policymakers said, and is expected to combat staff shortages.
The US charted the path on 5-day isolation periods – cut from 10 days – last month but the decision drew scorn from experts for not baking in a test-to-release component.
Northern Ireland reported a further six people had died from Covid-related reasons on Wednesday, plus another 4,451 new infections.
St Petersburg detects record cases as Russia clocks over 33,000 daily cases
Russia reported 33,899 fresh Covid infections over the past 24 hours, the Moscow Times reports, a 117% surge on the 15,632 new cases on Wednesday two weeks ago.
Russia’s last wave peaked in early November, with cases gradually dropping week on week, but infections began jumping again in early January driven by Omicron.
St Petersburg, Russia’s second-biggest city behind Moscow by population, set a new record high on Wednesday – with 4,382 new cases. (Tuesday saw the city report 3,958 cases.)
Russia reported a further 698 deaths on Wednesday. Russia has the world’s second-highest death toll from the virus, behind only the US, with Reuters estimating deaths of over 670,000 people.
It comes after Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, said on Tuesday he was extending work-from-home rules and guidance to protect elderly people until April 1 amid the Omicron climb.
“Given the rapid and wide spread of Omicron, it is clear that the workload of outpatient clinics will increase sharply,” Sobyanin said.
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is the controlling shareholder in a Danish biotech firm aiming to develop a Covid treatment that doesn’t involve vaccination.
The tennis world No 1, who was deported from Australia this week after the government canceled his visa over his unvaccinated status, bought an 80% stake in QuantBioRes in June 2020.
My colleague Mark Sweney has further details (full story here):
QuantBioRes has about 11 researchers working in Denmark, Australia and Slovenia, according to Loncarevic, who stressed the company is working on a treatment, not a vaccine. The company’s website says that it started developing a “deactivation mechanism” for Covid-19 in July 2020.
Djokovic, who may also be barred from defending his French Open title in Roland Garros in May after the French government ruled on Monday that all athletes will have to be vaccinated in order to attend and compete in sporting events, acquired his stake in the company in June 2020.
The company is developing a peptide, which inhibits the coronavirus from infecting the human cell, expects to launch clinical trials in Britain this summer, added Loncarevic.
In the US, Starbucks has suspended the requirement for its 220,000 employees to be vaccinated or regularly tested after a Supreme Court ruling. Reuters reports the details:
The coffee giant had said earlier this month it would require its around 220,000 US employees to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or undergo weekly testing.
The US Supreme Court last week struck down Joe Biden administration’s vaccination-or-testing mandate for large businesses, ruling that the policy overstepped executive authority.
“We respect the court’s ruling and will comply,” Starbucks chief operating officer John Culver wrote in a memo to workers.
The vast majority of Starbucks employees are vaccinated, Culver added.
UK health secretary Sajid Javid confirmed previous reports (see earlier post) that England will revert back to Plan A measures, departing from Omicron-prompted Plan B restrictions.
The changes include an end to mandatory face masks and Covid passports from next Thursday, and the immediate suspension of ‘work from home’ guidance. For the full story follow our UK live blog here.
Bulgaria reports highest ever daily Covid case tally
Bulgaria reported its highest Covid tally of the whole pandemic on Wednesday, with 11,181 new infections, a 65% jump on the 6,766 cases recorded on Wednesday two weeks ago.
The country’s former record tally came yesterday at 9,996 cases, and was previously 7,560 on 7 April 2021. Bulgaria’s positive rate was 24% on Wednesday, state broadcaster BNT News reports.
A further 91 people died from Covid-related causes in the past 24 hours, BNT reports, a 38% climb on the 66 deaths on Wednesday two weeks ago.
Bulgaria, with has seen over 32,000 people die from the virus, has the lowest vaccination rate in the EU, with only about 29% of the country’s population double-jabbed according to a Reuters estimate.
Bulgaria has among the highest per capita death rates in the world.
Ukraine detected 12,815 new Covid infections in the past 24 hours, a 172% jump on the 4,711 new cases on Wednesday two weeks ago.
The country’s most recent wave peaked in late-October and early-November. But Omicron is driving a new uptick in cases.
A further 163 people died from Covid-related causes, local media Ukrinform reports, 45% down on the 297 people who died on the same day two weeks ago.
It comes after Ukraine received almost 1m doses of the Pfizer Covid vaccine from the US and expects 200,000 Sinovac vaccine doses from China.
Ahead of the imminent UK Covid press conference (which you can follow live here), let’s take a look at today’s Covid figures in context. New daily cases, although remaining high at 108,069, appear to have spiked after the dramatic rise in recent weeks.
Hospitalisations, which lag cases, have also jumped, but significantly less than last year.
It’s the same story with deaths, climbing recently but not as significantly as this time last year. The UK reported that a further 359 people died from Covid-related reasons in the past 24 hours.
This is Jem Bartholomew taking charge of the blog from here on out. Do get in touch with tips and stories from around the world. Drop me an email or message me on Twitter, it’s always great to from readers.
The staffing crisis in social care is getting worse and worse, data from the Care Quality Commission regulator has shown.
Vacancy rates have almost doubled since April and now stand at 11% in England. That figure does not include the tens of thousands of care workers off with Covid.
The south of the country is worse affected than the north and the crisis is raising concerns about standards of care and widespread rationing of services.
A typical care home in London with 100 staff now has at least 12 vacancies.
The National Care Forum, which gathers data from its own survey, estimates the problem is worse with an 18% vacancy rate.
UK records another 108,069 cases and 359 deaths
The UK has recorded a further 108,069 Covid cases and 359 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest data from the government’s coronavirus dashboard.
That is compared to 94,432 infections and 438 fatalities reported in the 24 hours prior.
It comes as Boris Johnson announced the end of all Covid measures introduced to combat the Omicron variant – including compulsory mask-wearing on public transport and in shops, guidance to work from home and vaccine certificates – from next week.
The prime minister told the Commons that the legal requirement on people with coronavirus to self-isolate would be allowed to lapse when the regulations expired on 24 March, and that date could be brought forward.
You can read more about that here: All plan B Covid restrictions, including mask wearing, to end in England
The US actor John Malkovich was turned away from a luxury hotel in Venice last week after failing to present a valid Covid vaccination pass, Italian news media reported Wednesday.
Local newspaper Il Gazzettino reported that the theatre and film actor, star of “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Being John Malkovich”, was in Venice for two days of filming for US television series “Ripley”.
Because his mandatory vaccination card had expired, Malkovich was denied entry to his luxury suite at the Hotel Danieli overlooking the Grand Canal, the paper wrote.
He was instead housed in private lodgings, it said.
Contacted by phone, the hotel would not confirm reports due to privacy concerns.
Italian news agency ANSA confirmed the report, citing sources within the production.
Under Italian law, only those who show proof of full vaccination or recovery from Covid can access public spaces like hotels, restaurants, bars and other venues, as well as public transport.
What does England moving to Plan A mean? My colleague Rachel Hall has this explainer:
Portugal to allow Covid-positive voters to leave home on election day
Portuguese voters with Covid-19 or those in isolation due to exposure to the virus will be allowed to leave home to cast their ballots in a snap election on 30 January, the government said on Wednesday.
The announcement came a day after Portugal, which has almost 90% of its 10 million population fully inoculated, reported a daily record of 43,729 Covid infections, stoked by the fast spreading Omicron variant. Hospital admissions and mortality remain well below levels seen in the previous peaks.
The interior minister Francisca Van Dunem told a news conference that quarantined voters should only head to polling stations from 6pm to 7pm, urging those not infected to go before that period.
The recommendation is not mandatory. They must wear a face mask, keep a social distance and can only leave home to vote.
Staff working at polling stations will be given protective equipment.
“We need a social pact that allows everyone to vote in safety,” said Van Dunem, asking those in isolation not to take public transport to the polling station but walk or use their own vehicle instead.
The head of health authority DGS, Graça Freitas, said there would be no designated areas for those with Covid-19 to vote in and they would not be required to show proof of their health status at the polls.
“This solution of having a dedicated time period for these people to vote… will prevent, not totally, but will minimise the risk of contagion,” Freitas said.
The election was called after parliament rejected the minority Socialist government’s budget bill for 2022. The prime minister António Costa’s party has a comfortable lead in opinion polls but is likely to fall short of a full parliamentary majority.
The election campaign is in full swing after Sunday’s kick-off and street rallies draw large crowds, where mask-wearing is optional.
A woman acting as a “guerrilla journalist” when she filmed inside a hospital in an attempt to prove her belief that lockdown measures were disproportionate has been convicted of a public order offence.
Debbie Hicks, 47, a former teacher and psychologist, filmed twice at the Gloucestershire Royal hospital in Gloucester in December 2020 and told staff who challenged her she could do what she wanted as she paid her taxes.
Hicks, from Stroud, argued that she was exercising her right to freedom of expression and trying to expose what she believed was a false government narrative that hospitals were full of patients with Covid.
But finding her guilty of using threatening words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, the district judge Nicholas Wattam said staff had the right to work without being molested.
Read the full story here: Covid denier fined for filming in Gloucester hospital
Czech Republic scraps mandatory Covid jabs as daily cases hit record
The Czech government has scrapped a decree making Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for key professionals and over-60s to avoid “deepening fissures” in society, while the daily tally of new cases hit a record high.
The prime minister Petr Fiala said his new centre-right government did not see reasons for compulsory inoculation as the previous administration had planned in some sectors.
“This does not change our stance on vaccination. It is still undoubtedly the best way to fight Covid-19 … however, we do not want to deepen fissures in society,” Fiala told a news conference on Wednesday.
In December, the previous government ordered Covid-19 vaccinations from March 2022 for hospital and nursing home staff, police, soldiers and some other professions, as well as those aged over 60. That decision brought protests against the measures.
The policy turn comes as a wave of the Omicron variant hits the country of 10.7 million people. The health ministry said 28,469 new cases were reported for Tuesday, a record daily number since the start of the pandemic and more than double the 12,371 reported the same day last week.
Like other central European nations, the government expects about 50,000 daily cases by the end of the month.
In preparation, asymptomatic essential healthcare workers and social service personnel who test positive may be allowed to continue working. Businesses want the list extended.
Fiala’s government has also shortened quarantine and isolation times, while launching mandatory testing of employees at companies from this week.
Hospitalisations, which peaked in the latest Delta wave at more than 7,000 in early December, dropped to 1,635 on Tuesday from 1,761 reported for Monday.
The country has reported 36,937 coronavirus deaths since the start of the pandemic, one of the world’s worst rates per capita.
German police have said they are currently investigating more than 12,000 cases of suspected forged vaccine passes.
Since December, when tighter restrictions were introduced in an effort to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, the number of reported forgeries has soared, police said.
In most public places in Germany the public now have to prove a 2G status – that they are double vaccinated or recovered – and more recently 2G +, which represents either an official lateral flow test result or a booster shot.
The measures do not apply to essential services such as medical practices, supermarkets and other grocery stores, whilst on public transport, 3G rules apply (according to which people have to prove they have been double vaccinated, have recovered or have a negative test result).
The demand for forged vaccine passes has increased as rules have tightened, the federal police department told the news agency DPA.
Forgeries have been particularly high in the southern state of Bavaria, where 4000 cases are active, and the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where police are investigating more than 3500 cases. The government in Munich has said it believes the real number is likely to be considerably higher.
Fake vaccines are also an issue in Germany, as highlighted following raids last week carried out at 100 addresses across four states, after it was discovered that a doctor in Bavaria had administered placebo vaccines – consisting of a saline solution – to his patients.
Vaccine sceptics from across the country reportedly travelled to his practice to receive the jabs and the accompanying vaccine certificate. Among the jabbed were also people who had thought they had received a genuine vaccine, discovering only through an antibody test offered by the local health authorities that that was not the case.
The doctor has been temporarily suspended by medical authorities, pending a criminal investigation.
One of the people who unwittingly received the placebo vaccine, a 50-year-old woman who lives with her 85-year old mother, told the tabloid newspaper Bild: “I was flabbergasted when I found out. I wanted BioNTech, but I got saline solution instead.”
She said the doctor had inoculated her in her right buttock, stating at the same time: “Be careful – winter’s coming”.
NHS and health leaders reacted with caution to the announcement that Plan B measures are to be scrapped in England, highlighting that with about 20,000 patients still in hospital with Covid, the current Omicron wave “isn’t over”, and warning that there could be “a second Omicron surge”.
Some accused ministers of “sending the wrong signal to the public” for political expediency, and said it was “very premature” to conclude the threat from Omicron had subsided.
Hospitals in some areas have also not yet hit predicted peak Covid admission levels, NHS leaders said.
Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services, said:
Trust leaders have been encouraged that the number of people catching Covid-19 is now falling nationally, and the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital is stabilising.
However, there are still nearly 20,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital, at a time when the NHS is already at full stretch and contending with the toughest winter on record. There are also regional variations in the number of Covid-19 hospitalisations, with the numbers increasing in the North East and Yorkshire, while decreasing in London. This means that some trusts tell us they are expecting their peak later this week, or possibly early next.
Cordery said it was “important” to recognise “that this surge isn’t over” and that “the health service is still operating under extremely challenging circumstances”.
The government must continue to examine the evidence closely and make calculations based on the future level of risk, including of a second Omicron surge.
Pat Cullen, the Royal College of Nursing’s general secretary and chief executive, said:
The prime minister’s decision to loosen the restrictions may have relieved the pressure from his backbenchers but will do nothing to relieve the pressure on the NHS.
Cullen said the country could not rely on vaccines alone when the situation is “still so precariously balanced”.
Time will tell whether dropping other measures when the pressure on health and social care services remains unrelenting was wise – particularly when thousands of unvaccinated nursing staff are facing the sack.
Ministers should adopt a cautious approach. The government will regret sending the wrong signal to the public for political expediency.
With so many Covid-19 patients still in hospital, it would be very premature to conclude this wave is over. That is not what our members are telling us.
Catherine Noakes, professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds, and a member of Sage appears to be furious with the relaxation of Covid restrictions in England.
In a couple of tweets following Boris Johnnson’s announcement, she said:
Right, okay…erm not sure we’re following the science… it’s still around, still at 1 in 20 people, still seriously infectious, still pretty unpleasant to catch. I’d keep ventilating and wearing masks folks
I see we’re also back to “face coverings for people you don’t normally meet” FFS, YOU CAN CATCH IT FROM A PERSON YOU KNOW
Teaching unions expressed concern about the sudden lifting of Covid restrictions, in particular the requirement to wear face masks in classrooms, warning that many head teachers in England are still seeing widespread disruption to education due to Covid.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:
Schools and colleges are still feeling the impact of Covid. The latest ONS infection survey update shows 1 in 10 primary age pupils have Covid.
While the trend amongst secondary aged children is down it is however uncertain, due to the short time schools have been back since the Christmas holidays, that this trend will continue. Such uncertainty could lead to a pronounced risk of increased disruption with children and staff having to isolate.
The government is due to publish figures for Covid-related absence in schools next week. “The danger is we lift restrictions too quickly before the effects of returning to school are clear,” said Bousted.
This will result in more education disruption which is extremely worrying particularly for pupils taking national exams this year whose education has been so badly disrupted already.
There was also scepticism that the Covid announcements may have been politically motivated to distract from the prime minister’s predicament. “Rather than announcements aimed at saving Boris Johnson’s job, government should be exercising a duty of care to the nation’s pupils and the staff who educate them,” said Bousted.
This disruption is at the door of the government who should have got ventilation and filtration solutions in place before Omicron as advised by Sage and they should be getting these solutions in place urgently now to ensure interruption of education remains at the minimum.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the prime minister’s decision to lift Plan B measures is at odds with the situation school leaders are facing on the ground.
Mass disruption is ongoing, with high numbers of staff and pupils absent. School leaders are telling us they still feel very much in the eye of the Covid storm. The reality for many children and young people is that Covid continues to seriously disrupt the normal rhythm of schools.
Parents and teachers alike will be hopeful that we have passed the peak of infections from Omicron, but it is imperative that schools continue to be supported by government to keep the gates open, as we emerge from the depths of winter disruption.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, gave a conditional welcome to the announcement on masks, as long as it is supported by public health and scientific advice.
He said the situation in schools and colleges remains extremely challenging with significant levels of pupil and staff absence due to Covid as well as difficulties in obtaining supply cover because of high demand.
There is a danger that we are heading once again for a situation in which the government gives the impression that the crisis is over when in actual fact there is huge disruption continuing to take place in education and it is very far from being a case of business as normal.
The Department for Education later clarified that masks will no longer need to be worn in classrooms from Thursday, but will continue to be worn in communal areas in schools in England until Thursday next week when masks will go altogether.
Linked to the announcement that Plan B measures will be dropped in England from next week is falling infection levels across most of the country, writes our science editor Ian Sample.
Covid infections are falling across most parts of the UK, according to the latest official data which suggest that the winter wave driven by the Omicron variant has passed its peak.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that infections in the community fell in England, Wales and Scotland in the week ending 15 January, with the trend in Northern Ireland still uncertain.
The figures mark a turning point in the latest phase of the epidemic which has seen weeks of record-breaking infections in the UK fuelled by Omicron. While infection levels are still high, the ONS estimates that they fell in England from 3,735,000 in the first week of January, with 1 in 15 people testing positive, to 2,984,200 or 1 in 20 testing positive last week.
Similar declines were seen in Wales and Scotland where the ONS estimates that 1 in 25 and 1 in 20 people, respectively, had the virus in the week ending 15 January. Infections may be approaching a peak in Northern Ireland too, where a further 1 in 20 were estimated to have the virus last week.
The interim data from the ONS, which will be followed by a full report on Friday, show Covid infections declined in all regions of England in the most recent week, except the North East and the South West where it was unclear whether cases had peaked for now.
While infections decreased in most age groups in England in the latest week of the survey, they rose in young children aged two years old to year six of primary school.
Sarah Crofts, head of analytical outputs for the ONS Covid-19 infection survey said the latest figures showed “a welcome decrease in infections across most parts of the UK and among all age groups apart from younger children.”
Mandatory face masks, Covid passports and working from home advice to be scrapped in England
Plan B measures aimed at tackling the spread of Covid are to be dropped across England, the prime minister has announced.
Boris Johnson told MPs more than 90% of over-60s across the UK had now had booster jabs to protect them, and scientists believed the Omicron wave had peaked nationally.
He said the government had taken a “different path” to much of Europe and the “data are showing that, time and again, this government got the toughest decisions right”.
The restrictions, which include working from home advice, mandatory face masks in some settings and Covid passports, will be allowed to expire on 26 January.
The news comes as Covid infection levels are falling in most parts of the UK for the first time since early December.
From 27 January, the following changes will take effect in England:
- End of mandatory Covid passes, but businesses can continue to use them if they choose to
- It will no longer be a legal requirement to wear a face mask, including in classrooms for secondary students and on public transport, but they will still be recommended in some places, such as in enclosed or crowded spaces, particularly when you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet
- End to work from home guidance
- Restrictions on care homes will be eased – further detail to be released
However, there will still be a legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive for Covid.
But Johnson said there will “soon be a time” when self-isolation guidance can be removed entirely. The regulations expire on 24 March, he said, adding he does not expect to renew them.
A cross-party committee of councillors is to decide the future of the Sheffield city council chief executive, Kate Josephs, a week after she apologised for having leaving drinks in Whitehall during lockdown.
Josephs led the government’s Covid-19 taskforce from July to December 2020. After details of the gathering emerged in the media she released a statement admitting it took place and saying she was “truly sorry”.
Sheffield city council, her current employer, said a committee of councillors would be set up “to consider what steps, if any, should be taken next”.
Josephs’ leaving drinks gathering was attended by dozens of officials from the Cabinet Office’s Covid-19 taskforce.
On the day it was held the government’s official Twitter feed replied to a query asking if employers could hold Christmas parties at the end of the working day.
The feed said: “Hi Mick, although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.”
The full story is here: Sheffield council to decide fate of chief Kate Josephs following lockdown drinks
Austria’s new daily coronavirus infections have shattered the previous record as the Omicron variant continues to spread, the chancellor Karl Nehammer said.
Nehammer told a news conference on Wednesday:
We have close to 30,000 infections. That is a frighteningly high figure.
The previous record for new daily cases published by the interior and health ministries was 17,006, set a week ago.
Museums and concert halls in the Netherlands opened briefly on Wednesday to protest at their continued closure under a Covid lockdown, offering yoga sessions in front of paintings by Dutch masters and haircuts to the swell of a live symphony orchestra.
The Netherlands eased a month-long lockdown last weekend, allowing gyms, hair dressers and shops to reopen. But cultural venues were ordered to remained closed to the public until at least 25 January.
“I simply don’t understand why the measures are still so strict, preventing cultural events from happening,” Alexandra Gerny, a life coach who could not resist an invitation to have her hair done on stage while the 130-year-old Concertgebouw Orchestra played, told Reuters.
“If you look at the rest of Europe, I find myself asking: why so cautious? I simply don’t get it. The damage caused by staying closed is so much greater. It just makes me so angry and that’s not so easy to do!”
She was among 50 visitors welcomed to the “Kapsalon Concertgebouw” haircut performance, held in violation of rules banning concerts for an audience.
Guests wore face masks and socially distanced, while attendants at the entrance checked passes showing proof of vaccination against Covid, recovery from the illness, or a negative test.
Famous museums across the Netherlands, from the Van Gogh in Amsterdam to the Frans Hals in Haarlem, opened their doors at risk of being fined. Also on offer to visitors were Tai Chi sessions and nail studios.
Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema, said she would “enforce” the current lockdown measures but there were no signs of officials doing so.
In a Twitter post, the junior culture minister Gunay Uslu voiced understanding for the protest but urged caution. She wrote:
The cultural sector is drawing attention to their situation in a creative way. I understand the cry for help and that artists want to show all the beautiful things they have to offer us. But the opening of society must go step by step. Culture is high on the agenda.
The prime minister Mark Rutte last week announced the reopening of shops and resumption of group sports despite record numbers of new Covid infections.
New cases have been hitting near daily records above 30,000. The country has recorded more than 3.5 million infections and 21,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
But hospital numbers have been steadily declining. “It’s a protest of the cultural sector in the Netherlands,” said Dominik Winterling, the new managing director of the Concertgebouw. “We want to make sure that the politicians in The Hague understand that we want to open again.”
After nearly two years of uncertainty, performers and musicians need perspective, he said.
“We simply don’t know what’s going on. We cannot open from one day to the next, so we need some time to prepare. What we really want is to play for an audience because that’s what we’re there for. We want to inspire people. That’s what it’s about.”
Winterling said he could not guarantee everyone would get a haircut, but they would all experience a show to remember.
Good morning from London! If you’re joining us, here is a quick recap of some of the main developments from today so far:
- Polish state employees will move to remote working and private sector companies should follow suit as the country faces another surge in daily Covid cases, the health minister said. Poland reported more than 30,000 daily cases today for the first time since April, intensifying debate over whether stricter restrictions on public life are needed.
- The Czech government will today consider making Covid vaccinations mandatory for workers in key professions and people over the age of 60, as the daily tally of new coronavirus cases hit a record high in the country.
- The UK’s minister for armed forces, James Heappey, said there needs to be “some reflection” about the amount of alcohol consumed in No 10 and how regularly. Asked about whether there is a “drinking culture” at the heart of government, in the light of the Downing Street lockdown parties, Heappey said: “I think that there does need to be some reflection about the amount of alcohol that appears to be consumed and how regularly, not just at No 10 but in a number of departments of state, and I know that all secretaries of state and the prime minister and the senior civil service are quite seized at whether or not this reflects on a culture that needs to change.” [For his full answer, see 8.45am.].
- There have been record daily Covid cases in Germany, which have gone over 100,000 for the first time. The health minister Karl Lauterbach said he expected the wave to peak in a few weeks, telling the RTL broadcaster: “I think we will reach the peak of the wave in mid-February, and then the number of cases could fall again, but we haven’t reached the peak yet.”
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.
Poland warned new daily cases could hit 50,000 next week by health minister
Polish state employees will move to remote working and private sector companies should follow suit as the country faces another surge in daily Covid-19 cases, the health minister said.
Poland reported more than 30,000 daily cases today for the first time since April, intensifying debate over whether stricter restrictions on public life are needed.
“If these trends continue, next week the number of infections could exceed the level of 50,000 per day,” Adam Niedzielski told a news conference.
Reuters report he urged private employers to follow the state sector in requiring people to work from home whenever possible.
A quick snap from Reuters here that the Hungarian opposition’s candidate for prime minister, Péter Márki-Zay, said he has tested positive for coronavirus and has moved into quarantine.
Márki-Zay said on his official Facebook page that he had mild symptoms resembling a cold, and had received three Covid-19 shots so was hoping to get back on the campaign road in five days if he has a negative test then. Hungary holds elections on 3 April.
Almost two years after working in a temporary Covid intensive care unit at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Kim Bishop, a critical care nurse, can still remember which patients were in which rooms.
“When you walk back on these units, you know which patient survived in which room and which ones didn’t,” said Bishop, who still works at the Philadelphia hospital and moves among different units. “I thought we closed that chapter once we closed that unit, but now walking back into it, it’s almost like a slap in the face.”
Bishop’s feelings are not unique among providers who treat Covid patients in the US. Many are leaving the field.
Recent research indicates that healthcare workers and first responders are displaying post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms like veterans who served in combat.
Read more of Eric Berger’s report here: ‘It’s a war zone’ – healthcare workers show signs of stress similar to combat veterans
Nicola Slawson is live now with our combined UK politics and Covid live blog – it is going to be a busy day for her with plots against Boris Johnson and PMQs due for noon. You can follow that here.
I’ll be continuing here with the latest international Covid developments.
The Czech government will today consider making Covid vaccinations mandatory for workers in key professions and people over the age of 60, as the daily tally of new coronavirus cases hit a record high in the country.
Reuters report authorities said 28,469 new cases were reported on Tuesday, more than double the 12,371 reported for Tuesday of last week.
Neha Arora reports from New Delhi for Reuters that India reported new coronavirus infections at an eight-month high on Wednesday. However, the federal authorities have said Omicron was causing fewer hospitalisations and deaths than the Delta variant, which killed hundreds of thousands last year.
But Tarun Bhatnagar from the ICMR-National Institute of Epidemiology in Chennai said the impact of the current run-up in infections will only show up with a lag: “We have to worry about hospitalisation and deaths and that will come later. There will always be a lag of two-three weeks.”
Scotland’s national clinical director has said Omicron is definitely on a “downward slope”, but urged caution over thinking the pandemic is in its final stages. Asked if we are in the “endgame”, PA Media quotes Prof Jason Leitch telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
I think we’re in the endgame of Omicron. Nobody knows if we’re in the endgame of the whole pandemic. And anybody who does, I’m afraid it’s hope rather than reality.
I hope we’re in the endgame, and the WHO are telling us still to be cautious – don’t drop your guard for surveillance of other variants that might come into your country or you might generate yourself. But we’re definitely in a downward slope of Omicron, which is terrific news.
David Aaronovitch of the Times sums up quite neatly here that UK government ministers on the airwaves appear very happy to pre-judge the outcome of Sue Gray’s investigation when it comes to staff and civil servants, less so when it comes to fellow Conservative politicians.
Uk government minister: there needs to be ‘some reflection’ about alcohol consumed at No 10
The minister for armed forces in the UK, James Heappey, has been asked about whether there is a “drinking culture” at the heart of government, in the light of the Downing Street lockdown parties that have emerged. PA Media quotes him telling BBC Breakfast:
I think it’s quite hard to answer that in a straight way because what I reflect on having worked both in Downing Street and in the Ministry of Defence, both departments where an awful lot of people have to work extraordinarily long hours, because they are dealing with real-time operational issues, and I don’t know that colleagues who get to the end of a very, very long day, and maybe have a glass of wine at their desk before they go home, is that a drinking culture different to those who finished work earlier in the evening and go for a drink with friends outside work?
I think that there does need to be some reflection about the amount of alcohol that appears to be consumed and how regularly, not just at No 10 but in a number of departments of state, and I know that all secretaries of state and the prime minister and the senior civil service are quite seized at whether or not this reflects on a culture that needs to change.
A quick snap from Reuters here that Hungary’s daily tally of new Covid-19 infections has jumped to a record 14,890. The government said the Omicron variant “was spreading strongly”, but the number of patients treated in hospital has remained at a relatively low level.
In the UK, Jonathan Reynolds is Labour’s shadow secretary for business and industry and he has been on the airwaves this morning. He told Sky News:
That interview yesterday the prime minister gave, where there was a new excuse. This time no one had told him about the rules that he himself had introduced. He has lost all authority. And whether it is when the report comes out, or whether it is earlier than that, given how quickly things seem to be moving last night, we all know what’s going to happen. There is going to be a no-confidence vote.
And what I resent most of all about all of this is, if you look at the situation people are facing right now … this cost of living crisis, the squeeze on households demands a responsible government. Are they responding? No, because the prime minister is trying to get himself out of a scandal of his own making.
With speculation mounting in the UK that enough Conservative MPs may be unhappy with Boris Johnson’s performance as prime minister to trigger a vote of no confidence, environment secretary George Eustice has said he would not be one of them. PA Media quotes him telling BBC Good Morning Scotland:
I’ve got confidence in the prime minister. Clearly the revelations that have been coming out are damaging and it’s unsettled parts of the Conservative parliamentary party, there’s no denying that.
I think the prime minister was right to apologise but I support him because I do think the important agenda that he’s got around levelling up our country, bringing our union together after a number of difficult years, arguing over things like Brexit, I think he is the right one to do that, and he has my support to carry out that important agenda that he was elected to.
Here is another quote from armed forces minister James Heappey on his media round this morning in the UK, with what looks like an attempt to paint a picture of the prime minister as a hapless victim of circumstance. PA Media quotes him telling Times Radio:
If you are going through a day in which you are having calls with world leaders, meetings on national security, meetings on ten different policy areas, all of those meetings come and go in the blink of an eye, you rely utterly on the team around you to make sure that you are properly briefed and to have your back around what it is that they put in your diary.
As unedifying as I think it is to point to those who perhaps don’t have a platform with which to respond, the reality is that those who work around the prime minister need to have his back.
By the prime minister’s own admission in parliament, he spent 25 minutes in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020.
Theresa May’s former chief of staff Gavin Barwell has said Boris Johnson should have apologised immediately over the Downing Street lockdown party scandal. PA Media quotes him telling LBC:
It’s been clear for months that someone has been leaking things drip by drip by drip. So, after the first story, you have to establish all the facts, get it all out there on your own terms and apologise, genuinely apologise contritely and hope that you can get through that.
Now that might not have worked, it might be that people were so angry that that would have been it, but I’m sure that would have been a better strategy than trying to deny it for months on end.
Just a little bit more from Reuters here on those record daily Covid cases in Germany, which have gone over 100,000 for the first time. They report that health minister Karl Lauterbach said he expected the wave to peak in a few weeks, telling the RTL broadcaster: “I think we will reach the peak of the wave in mid-February, and then the number of cases could fall again, but we haven’t reached the peak yet.”
James Heappey is the UK government minister for the armed forces, and he is on the media round in the UK this morning. Here’s what he has had to say on Sky News about intrigue against Boris Johnson over Downing Street’s lockdown parties:
I only know what I’ve read in the papers overnight that some colleagues appear to have met to discuss things. I don’t think that’s surprising. I suspect there’s lots of colleagues who are reflecting on what they’ve heard in their constituencies and a feeling under a lot of pressure right now, because the British public are absolutely furious with what they’ve heard.
The prime minister has apologised. I can tell colleagues that in the meetings I see the prime minister, in which we discuss the most sensitive matters that the state has to deal with, at a time when the world is incredibly unstable the prime minister is taking really big decisions and he’s making the right calls. And this doesn’t feel like the time to be changing our prime minister.
I just think that the prime minister has given his account of things he did at the dispatch box, which all ministers take very seriously. They have a responsibility to be absolutely accurate in what they say. Others have contested that version and said that they’re willing to do so on oath. We will wait to see what Sue Gray has heard and the conclusions that she makes.
Hello, and a good morning from me, Martin Belam, in London. Another busy day of political intrigue that revolves around Covid ahead of us in the UK, I suspect. Here are three things it might be worth bearing in mind over the next couple of days.
Here is exactly what Boris Johnson said in parliament on 8 December:
I apologise for the impression that has been given that staff in Downing Street take this less than seriously. I am sickened myself and furious about that, but I repeat what I have said to him: I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken. I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.
And here is what he said in parliament on 12 January:
When I went into that garden just after six on 20 May 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event.
With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them. I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this house I offer my heartfelt apologies.
And here’s a reminder from Alain Tolhurst at PoliticsHome of exactly what the rules were at the time:
Around an hour before the gathering took place the Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden told a televised Covid briefing: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place provided that you stay 2 metres apart. The law at the time said gatherings between more than two people were not permitted in public places, but that an exception would be made for “essential for work purposes”.
The number of letters of no confidence in UK prime minster Boris Johnson could hit threshold of 54, though numbers may be short, the BBC is reporting.
As many as 20 Conservative lawmakers who won their seats at the last general election in 2019 plan to submit letters of no confidence in Johnson, according to reports.
“Group of 2019 MPs to submit letters to try to hit threshold of 54 to trigger a contest,” BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said. “They might hit 54.”
An analysis by the Times showed that 58 Conservative lawmakers had criticised the prime minister.
The letters are confidential, so the chairman is the only person who knows how many lawmakers have actually written them.
Johnson will address parliament on Wednesday after his Cabinet is expected to approve plans to end the recent restrictions imposed to tackle the spread of Covid-19 in England.
We will have more on this story as it develops.
Before I hand over to my esteemed colleague Martin Belam and before Boris Johnson announces a potential end to plan B Covid measures across England, here is a recap of how Covid has unfolded across the globe.
- British PM Boris Johnson is to meet with his cabinet on Wednesday morning where he is expected to end of plan B Covid measures across England. A review of Covid restrictions will likely see ministers approve the end of current advice for people to work from home where possible and the use of vaccine certificates to enter venues like nightclubs and sports stadiums.
- Germany is recorded 112,323 new coronavirus cases and 239 deaths on Tuesday, according to recently updated figures from the Robert Koch Institute. It is the highest recorded daily figure since the pandemic began. Omicron accounts for more than 70% of new infections.
- The Czech Republic has reported a daily Covid record of 28,469 new cases on Wednesday. Fatalities significantly decreased however with 6 deaths recorded for Tuesday, a drop from Monday’s 23 fatalities, according to ministry of health data.
- Brazil has recorded a record 137,103 new cases of the novel coronavirus in the past 24 hours, the health ministry reported on Tuesday. The number of deaths also rose by 351, the highest number since mid-November.
- Authorities in Beijing have announced another piece of infected international mail, the Beijing news has reported.
- Japan is poised to widen Covid-19 controls to cover half its population as the Omicron variant drives new infections to record levels, Reuters reports. Prime minister Fumio Kishida is expected to officially approve the plan after it was cleared by an expert panel on Wednesday.
- Vietnam recorded its first cases of the Omicron variant in the community. The three positive cases were detected over the weekend in Ho Chi Minh City and confirmed as Omicron late on Tuesday.
- China reported its lowest daily count of local Covid infections in two weeks after cities clamped down on high-risk areas, quarantined infections and conducted mass testing on residents. Mainland China reported a total of 55 domestically transmitted infections for Tuesday, lower than the 127 recorded a day earlier and marking the fewest since 1 January.
- A Chinese couple who were trapped on a never-ending date thanks to a Covid lockdown have tied the knot.
- The rate at which Covid is spreading in the Philippines’ capital Manila is on a “clear downward trend”, analysis suggests, though infections have continued to rise rapidly elsewhere in the country.
- Taiwan has expanded its airport testing for new arrivals, after dozens of positive cases were detected despite a requirement that all travellers obtain a negative PCR result no more than two days before getting on their flight.
- A mass hamster cull in Hong Kong has sparked fears among animal welfare groups that people will abandon their pets after 11 of the rodents from one petshop in the city tested positive for Covid-19.
Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific
- Australia has announced financial incentives in a bid to lure international workers, backpackers and students to the country to fill some of the critical workforce shortages being faced as a result of the Omicron surge.
- The small island nation of Papua New Guinea has just announced its first case of the Omicron variant as local authorities call for calm.
- Australia and New Zealand have started to dispatch aid to Tonga to help provide temporary shelter and clean drinking water after volcanic eruption. However, there are fears that relief workers could bring a “tsunami of Covid” cases to the Pacific Island nation that has so far recorded just one case of the virus.
- The World Health Organization has cautioned that the Covid pandemic is far from over as the agency’s chief described the narrative that Omicron is a mild disease as “misleading”.
- The WHO also says the worst of the coronavirus pandemic – deaths, hospitalisations and lockdowns – could be over this year if huge inequities in vaccinations and medicines are addressed quickly.
The Czech Republic has reported a daily Covid record of 28,469 new cases on Wednesday.
Fatalities significantly decreased, however, with six deaths recorded for Tuesday, a drop from Monday’s 23 fatalities, according to ministry of health data.
The daily death toll for the month of January has averaged 38 fatalities per day with a high of 61 deaths recorded on 3 January.
A mass hamster cull in Hong Kong has sparked fears among animal welfare groups that people will abandon their pets after 11 of the rodents from one pet shop in the city tested positive for Covid-19.
The local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which runs veterinary clinics, told Reuters “numerous” worried pet owners have been contacting them for advice.
“We urge the pet owners not to panic or abandon their pets,” SPCA said in a statement.
Scientists around the world and Hong Kong health and veterinary authorities have said there was no evidence that animals play a major role in human contagion with the coronavirus.
However, Hong Kong government officials took no chances after a series of recent infections with the Delta variant were traced back to a worker at a pet shop.
Hundreds of samples were collected from animals, including rabbits and chinchillas, but only the hamsters tested positive for Covid-19, resulting in officials giving orders for some 2,000 hamsters from 34 pet shops to be put down “humanely”.
Vanessa Barrs, professor of companion animal health at City University of Hong Kong, said:
Millions of people around the world have pets, and there have been no cases proven of pets transmitting infection to other humans. The theoretical risk is there, but it just doesn’t happen.”
Health workers in hazmat suits were seen walking out of pet shops around the city carrying red plastic bags into their vans.
Dozens of pet shops were asked to close, while imports and sales of small mammals were suspended. Buyers of hamsters after 22 December, 2021 were asked to hand them to authorities for culling and not leave them on streets. It was unclear how many had been handed in.
A hotline for inquiries was set up, while 150 of the pet shop’s customers were sent into quarantine, officials said.
Beijing announces another piece of infected international mail
Authorities in Beijing have announced another piece of infected international mail, the Beijing news has reported.
It brings the total number of international parcels which authorities say they have detected traces of Covid-19 on to seven, days after attributing one to Beijing’s first case of the Omicron variant.
The CDC in Shunyi district said on Tuesday it had conducted an epidemiological investigation, further testing, and environmental disinfection, finding three close contacts and four secondary contacts of the most recent parcel. It has also tested more than 1,000 people and taken 50 environmental samples.
The news follows an announcement on Monday linking an otherwise untraced case of the Omicron variant to an international parcel sent from Toronto, Canada via the US and Hong Kong. Health officials said 22 traces of the virus were found on that piece of mail, including two on the outer surface of the package, two on the inner surface and eight on the paper inside the document. Nucleic acid testing confirmed the variant was Omicron. 54 environmental samples of international mail also from Toronto were collected, and five were found to be positive, authorities said.
Australia calls on backpackers to help ease Omicron-fuelled labour shortage
Australia has announced financial incentives in a bid to lure international workers, backpackers and students to the country to fill some of the critical workforce shortages being faced as a result of the Omicron surge.
Prime minister Scott Morrison unveiled the $55m package that will refund the cost of visa application fees for up to 175,000 backpackers and international students on Wednesday.
Under the details of the visa rebate program, the $630 fee for international students will be covered for the next eight weeks, and for backpackers for 12 weeks.
Morrison said his message to 150,000 international students and 23,500 backpackers with visas was to “come on down”.
We want you to come to Australia and enjoy a holiday here … [and] move all the way around the country.
At the same time, join our workforce and help us in our agricultural sector, in our hospitality sector, and so many of the other parts of the economy that rely on that labour.”
He said international students “particularly those who are working and being trained in healthcare, aged care, those types of sectors” would be “incredibly helpful”.
The prime minister also said states that still had in place quarantine requirements for international arrivals should consider lifting them to take advantage of the additional staff arriving into the country.
“I’d be encouraging them to look at those rules to make sure they can get those critical workers in,” Morrison said.
Read the full story here.
Fears aid workers could bring ‘tsunami of Covid’ to Tonga
Australia and New Zealand have started to dispatch aid to Tonga to help provide temporary shelter and clean drinking water after volcanic eruption.
However, there are fears that relief workers could bring a “tsunami of Covid” cases to the Pacific Island nation that has so far recorded just one case of the virus.
New Zealand has dispatched two naval vessels with relief supplies onboard. Defence minister Peeni Henare said they were expected to arrive in four days, though could arrive as soon as Friday if the weather holds.
Sophie Ford, international response coordinator for the Australian Red Cross, said aid groups were aware of Covid-19 restrictions that require people coming into the country to isolate for up to three weeks, and goods to be quarantined for days.
“We’re really mindful that our response doesn’t bring any more problems,” Ford said.
A senior Tongan diplomat in Canberra, Curtis Tuihalangingie, told the ABC that there were concerns of “a tsunami of Covid hitting Tonga” as humanitarian relief came to the country.
Read the full story here.
Taiwan expands airport testing for new arrivals
Taiwan has expanded its airport testing for new arrivals, after dozens of positive cases were detected despite a requirement that all travellers obtain a negative PCR result no more than two days before getting on their flight.
The new measure comes as Taiwan battles small clusters of local infections including the Omicron variant.
Last week Taiwan’s CDC ordered that all passengers on long-haul flights from the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand would be given a rapid PCR test at the airport immediately on arrival.
On Tuesday the CDC said this process would be expanded to people from other regions, after the process detected a surprisingly high number of apparently positive cases on arrival, including 58 on the first day.
Those who test positive are taken directly to hospital or quarantine facility with their luggage. Those who test negative are allowed to continue through the arrival process, which includes a being sprayed with disinfectant, and put in designated transport to a quarantine hotel or facility.
During the two weeks in quarantine (and a subsequent week of mandatory semi-isolation), individuals are tested another five times – including two PCRs and three at-home rapid tests.
Taiwan is maintaining extraordinary measures as part of an apparent Covid Zero strategy, one that has kept life for those inside its borders relatively normal for most of the pandemic.
However the Omicron wave sweeping the planet has also coincided with Lunar New Year, the most important holiday of the year for much of East Asia, when hundreds of millions travel across the region.
Tens of thousands of overseas Taiwanese have reportedly arrived in Taiwan this month, beginning quarantine early to be out in time for the Spring Festival. There are now clusters of community cases linked to Taoyuan international airport and a steakhouse in the city.
Of the 17 community cases in Taiwan reported on Tuesday, five are still untraced. Also on Tuesday, the health minister Chen Chih-shung gave a frank indication that people will at some point have to accept the presence of the virus in Taiwan.
Asked about Taiwan’s future strategy, Chen said it was a combination of mask wearing, strong hygiene, vaccinations and quarantine for inbound travellers, but people also needed to prepare for co-existence.
The rate at which Covid is spreading in the Philippines’ capital Manila is on a “clear downward trend”, analysis suggests, though infections have continued to rise rapidly elsewhere in the country, placing pressure on health services.
The Philippines has experienced a recent surge in infections, which health experts have blamed on the more transmissible Omicron variant.
There is hope that the wave of infections in Manila, previously a hotspot for cases, is slowing. Dr Guido David, of the research group OCTA, which has provided analysis of the Covid outbreak in the Philippines, said the seven day average of new cases in Manila had fallen over the past week by 23% from 2,152 to 1,658. “The region is still at critical risk, so we need to continue to follow health protocols,” David added.
Various restrictions have been in place to curb infections in Manila, including a “no vaccination, no ride” policy limiting access to public transport. Businesses such as restaurants and beauty salons are also operating at a lower capacity, as are churches and parks.
Elsewhere across the Philippines, infections have continued to rise. This includes Davao City, on the southern island on Mindanao, where a major Covid hospital has suspended admissions for non-emergency cases, according to a report by Rappler. Scheduled surgeries have also been postponed at the Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC). Davao region is under similar restrictions to Manila.
Chinese couple trapped on lockdown date now engaged
A Chinese couple who were trapped on a never-ending date thanks to a Covid lockdown have tied the knot, Agence France-Press reports.
Zhao Xiaoqing, a 28-year-old woman from northern China’s Shaanxi province, thought her date in mid-December with a young man living in a different city would be a one-day affair where she would also get to know his family.
“I never thought about staying the night, because it’s pretty awkward,” Zhao Xiaoqing, who was meeting the man for only the second time, told local media Jimu News on Monday.
But authorities in her date’s city of Xianyang suddenly ordered a lockdown due to a spike in virus cases, leaving the woman unable to return home.
The man’s parents urged the pair to get engaged after just one week together – but Zhao said she felt it was “too rushed.”
Zhao said she was “not too interested” when she first saw a photograph of the man – named Zhao Fei – but later thought he looked better in real life.
Despite the awkward start, the pair began to develop feelings for each other, and have now decided to get engaged.
Zhao Xiaoqing, who is an online apple trader, told Jimu News:
We get along very well.
I have to sell apples on livestream at his house, but no matter how late it is he’s always by my side. I’m very touched by this.
Our souls are compatible, we get along very well, and both our parents are happy.”
China reports fewest daily locally-transmitted Covid cases in two weeks
China has reported its lowest daily count of local Covid infections in two weeks after cities clamped down on high-risk areas, quarantined infections and conducted mass testing on residents.
Mainland China reported a total of 55 domestically transmitted infections for Tuesday, according to data from the national health commission, lower than the 127 recorded a day earlier and marking the fewest since 1 January.
China reported a total of 171 new confirmed Covid-19 cases for Monday, 17 January, down from 223 a day earlier, according to government data. The 127 local transmissions was down again from 163 a day earlier.
The drop was mainly driven by fewer infections in the central city of Anyang, which reported 29 new local symptomatic cases for 18 January, compared with 94 the prior day.
Germany reports record rise of 112,323 new cases
Moving across to Europe where the Omicron variant continues to spread, Germany is reporting a daily rise of more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases.
The European country recorded 112,323 new coronavirus cases and 239 deaths on Tuesday, according to recently updated figures from the Robert Koch Institute.
The weekly incidence rate reached 584.4 new infections per 100,000 people over seven days, the agency added.
The number is a significant jump on yesterday’s daily rise of 74,405 and 193 deaths and on case numbers recorded at the end of the last week.
It is the highest recorded daily figure since the pandemic began.
Germany now joins other European countries like the UK, France and Italy in recording more than 100,000 new Covid-19 infections on one day.
Omicron now accounts for more than 70% of new infections.
The country recently tightened restrictions on access to restaurants, bars and cafes to people who have received their booster jabs or who are tested on top of being fully vaccinated or recovered. Germany has also pledged to accelerate vaccinations while the parliament prepares to discuss introducing mandatory vaccinations – a measure supported by new chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Vietnam has also just recorded its first cases of the Omicron variant in the community.
The three positive cases were detected over the weekend in Ho Chi Minh City and confirmed as Omicron late on Tuesday, the Tien Phong Newspaper reported, citing health authorities.
Up to now, Vietnam has recorded 70 Omicron cases, all of which were imported cases and isolated immediately after entry.
The Southeast Asian country reported a recent daily increase of 16,838 Covid cases, according to ministry of health figures.
As many countries report rapid rises in cases fuelled by Omicron, some have managed to escape the destruction caused by the new variant altogether.
The small island nation of Papua New Guinea has just announced its first case of the Omicron variant as local authorities call for calm.
Authorities announced on Tuesday the case was a man who came to Papua New Guinea in December from South Africa, after travelling through London and Hong Kong. He initially tested negative with no symptoms upon arrival in the country.
“Given the period for the man’s travel, it is unclear when or where he contracted the Omicron strain, however given its incubation period of three days– it is likely he acquired it after departing South Africa,” said David Manning, national pandemic response controller.
Read the full story by Guardian reporter Lyanne Togiba in Port Moresby here.
Japan set to widen Covid curbs amid record infections
Japan is poised to widen Covid-19 controls to cover half its population as the Omicron variant drives new infections to record levels, Reuters reports.
Prime minister Fumio Kishida is expected to officially approve the plan after it was cleared by an expert panel on Wednesday.
The so-called quasi-emergency measures permit governors to impose curbs on mobility and business, including shorter opening hours for bars and restaurants, as well as prohibitions on alcohol sales.
The measures, already in place in three regions, will widen to cover Tokyo and 12 other prefectures, lasting from Friday until 13 February.
Japan recorded 20,835 new Covid-19 cases on Monday, according to ministry of health data. The figure jumped more than 32,000 on Tuesday, according to a tally by national broadcaster NHK, exceeding the previous high seen in August shortly after Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics.
The western prefecture of Osaka posted a record 5,396 new cases, while Tokyo had 5,185, the highest since 21 August.
Public health experts are concerned that a wave of Omicron cases could overwhelm the healthcare system. Tokyo’s occupancy rate of hospital beds for Covid patients rose to 23.4% on Tuesday. An increase to 50% would warrant declaration of a full state of emergency, officials have said.
Japan has vaccinated about 80% of its population, but its booster shot program has barely begun.
Brazil reports record daily Covid rise
Brazil has recorded a record 137,103 new cases of the novel coronavirus in the past 24 hours, the health ministry reported on Tuesday.
The number of deaths also rose by 351, the highest number since mid-November.
The Omicron variant has spread rapidly across the South American country, becoming the dominant strain.
New cases have soared above the previous daily record of 115,228 on 23 June last year.
Brazil has now registered 23,211,894 cases since the pandemic began while the official death toll has risen to 621,517, according to ministry data.
Brazil has the world’s third highest death toll from Covid-19 after the United States and Russia. Almost 70% of Brazilians are fully vaccinated, and Brazil this week started vaccinating children aged 5-11 years.
Pandemic is ‘nowhere near over’, WHO chief warns
The Covid pandemic is far from over, the World Health Organization chief has said, cautioning against a narrative that the Omicron variant is risk-free.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in a press conference from the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva on Tuesday:
This pandemic is nowhere near over.
Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading,” he said.
Make no mistake: Omicron is causing hospitalisations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities.”
The UN health agency chief warned against dismissing Omicron as mild in light of evidence it seems to cause less serious disease.
Debate continues as to whether the virus is on the verge of passing from the pandemic phase to becoming an endemic disease that humanity can live with – with the implication that the danger will have passed.
But the WHO has warned that the sheer numbers of people infected will mean many people are still falling seriously ill and dying.
“An exponential rise in cases, regardless of the severity of the individual variants, leads to inevitable increase in hospitalisations and deaths,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told Tuesday’s press conference.
As England prepares to see an easing of Plan B Covid measures later this month, here is a quick visual representation of how many people remain in hospital with coronavirus each day in the UK.
A No 10 statement setting out the plan for Wednesday’s decision noted that case numbers are still high, with 17,000 Covid patients in hospital in England.
A government spokesperson said: “Decisions on the next steps remain finely balanced. Plan B was implemented in December to slow the rapid spread of the extremely transmissible Omicron variant, and get more jabs in arms.
“The Omicron variant continues to pose a significant threat and the pandemic is not over. Infections remain high but the latest data is encouraging, with cases beginning to fall.
England expected to ease Plan B Covid curbs
British prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to instruct millions to return to workplaces across England as he tries to placate furious MPs with a review of Covid restrictions that could end all rules introduced to combat Omicron.
The cabinet will meet on Wednesday morning to examine Covid data and review plan B restrictions imposed in December amid the rapid spread of the variant, with Johnson set to update the Commons later in the day.
While an official statement said decisions remained “finely balanced”, ministers are widely expected to approve the end of current advice for people to work from home where possible and the use of vaccine certificates to enter venues like nightclubs and sports stadiums. This would happen from Monday 26 January, the pre-set review point for the plan B measures.
It is also possible, if considered less likely, that the cabinet could drop the final plan B restriction which mandates masks on public transport and in shops. This move in particular would please many Conservative backbenchers, especially those in the influential Covid Recovery Group.
Read the full story here.
Hello it’s Samantha Lock with you on the blog today as we unpack all the latest Covid developments from across the world.
I’ll be reporting to you from Sydney and my colleagues from London will take over a little later in the day.
Boris Johnson’s fight to salvage his premiership and the Downing Street parties scandal continues to somewhat overshadow the Covid crisis unfolding in the UK.
Johnson will attempt to change the national conversation by meeting with his cabinet on Wednesday morning where he is expected to end of Plan B Covid measures across England.
A review of Covid restrictions will likely see ministers approve the end of current advice for people to work from home where possible and the use of vaccine certificates to enter venues like nightclubs and sports stadiums.
This would happen from Monday 26 January, the pre-set review point for the plan B measures.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has cautioned that the Covid pandemic is far from over as the agency’s chief described the narrative that Omicron is a mild disease as “misleading”.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addressed reporters during a press conference on Tuesday, saying: “Make no mistake: Omicron is causing hospitalisations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities.”
Here’s a quick run-down of all the global developments:
- The United Nations is preparing for distanced relief operations in Tonga to avoid a Covid outbreak in the Pacific island nation that is reeling under the impact of a volcanic eruption and tsunami.
- Covid deaths in the US are climbing and modellers forecast 50,000 to 300,000 more Americans could die by the time the wave subsides in mid-March.
- The World Health Organization says the worst of the coronavirus pandemic — deaths, hospitalisations and lockdowns — could be over this year if huge inequities in vaccinations and medicines are addressed quickly.
- The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised against travel to 22 nations and territories because of a rising number of Covid cases.
- In France, 464,769 new cases have been registered in the past 24 hours – a global record increase.
- Italy’s cases have jumped to 228,179 from 83,403 a day earlier.
- Omicron measures in Scotland will be lifted on Monday, Nicola Sturgeon has announced. This includes restrictions on indoor live events, table services in hospitality and distancing in indoor public places.
- The UK has reported 94,432 new Covid cases and 438 deaths.
- There were more than 900 Covid deaths in England and Wales in the first week of January. The ONS records a 58% rise on the previous week but figures are artificially high due to Christmas bank holidays.
- Lateral flow tests will no longer be free for people in the UK by the end of June, according to a document seen by Reuters news agency.
- France’s education minister is facing calls to resign after it emerged he had announced Covid protocol for schools while he was on holiday in Ibiza.
Please feel free to get in touch with me if you have a story or tips to share. Your thoughts are always welcome.
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