This article titled “UK Covid live: pregnant women made priority group for jabs after research shows higher risk of serious illness” was written by Lucy Campbell, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th December 2021 15.15 UTC
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary for England, has responded to calls to tackle the school staffing crisis by asking former teachers to sign up with supply agencies.
In recent weeks school leaders have complained of difficulties finding cover for absent or sick teachers, with supply teachers hard to find because many themselves have been hit by Covid or are working for the government’s national tutoring programme.
In an end-of-term letter to head teachers, Zahawi confirmed that the Department for Education was “looking at what steps and measures we can put in place to boost supply capacity”. He continued:
We will work with sector leaders and supply agencies over the coming days to offer advice to ex-teachers who want to provide support to schools and colleges. We will help them to register with supply agencies as the best way to boost the temporary workforce available to the sector.
Senior DfE officials have already begun to discuss this with key stakeholders. From now, you can support this effort by using your own professional and personal networks to encourage others to sign up to offer temporary help.
Labour was quick to deride Zahawi’s downbeat announcement as “a sticking plaster” over a much larger problem.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he welcomed anything that might help overcome the staff shortages, but added:
This is all coming very late in the day for a situation which is already critical and has been so for some time, and the initiative will need to be well publicised, promoted and supported in order to have any degree of success.
It is also important to emphasise that even then it is very unlikely to be enough to solve a problem at such a scale as this.
Unions are calling for immediate support for workers in the hospitality and entertainment industries amid warnings of a jobs “crisis”, PA Media reports.
The Omicron variant has caused a growing number of theatres and live events to cancel performances, alongside reports of a downturn in bookings, with pubs and restaurants facing similar problems.
Sharon Graham, leader of the Unite union, said:
The government must bring forward a package of support for hospitality workers today. The uncertainty the prime minister is causing is devastating – workers don’t know if they will even have a job to go to next week. This is an appalling position to put people in. Hospitality workers did not cause this crisis and they should not be the ones who pay for it. They still have rent to find and bills to pay but are seeing their incomes disappear before their eyes. They need help now.
Bectu, the theatre workers union, has written to the chancellor, urging him to provide urgent support for the industry to prevent a “jobs crisis”.
Head of Bectu, Philippa Childs, said:
We now face a New Year theatre crisis with a lack of leadership from government, a rising wave of Omicron cases and an anxious public. This started as a public health crisis but it could quickly become a jobs crisis as well. With the recent tightening of Covid restrictions, there has been little commentary on the significant impact these will have on self-employed workers working in theatres and live events. Bectu is concerned that self-employed workers again appear to be at the back of the queue when it comes to planning for any further financial disruption to our everyday lives. We need to give business stability and the support for the creative industries to be open and trading safely, but we must also contemplate what happens if the government imposes restrictions that actually or effectively closes them.
Transport Salaried Staffs Association general secretary, Manuel Cortes, said:
The government must bring back furlough to protect jobs at Eurostar and elsewhere as we suffer the effects of Omicron. Measures to tackle the virus, such as travel restrictions, must come with financial support for businesses, including our travel trade, to prevent thousands of job losses. Eurostar has already suffered from plummeting passenger numbers since the start of the pandemic, but as our only green link to Europe it must be a strategic priority for government to sustain the route. The government has refused to provide anything other than furlough support since the beginning of the pandemic.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said:
Eurostar has taken an absolute hammering financially since the pandemic hit. We are calling on the government to recognise the importance of Eurostar to the future of UK transport infrastructure and to meet in tripartite talks with ministers, the company and the unions to ensure a safety net is in place to prevent any risk of the operation tipping over. With the loss of revenues over Christmas and into the New Year, the situation at Eurostar is deadly serious and the government cannot be allowed to just wash their hands and walk away.
Nicola Sturgeon urges Scots to ‘stay at home’ to curb Omicron
Nicola Sturgeon has urged Scots to “stay at home” as she warned that the new Omicron variant is “currently running faster than even the fastest rollout of vaccines”, and likely to be the dominant variant across Scotland by Friday.
In a strongly worded statement ahead of first minister’s questions on Thursday, Scotland’s first minister told MSPs:
If we don’t act now, what we have feared all along but so far avoided, the overwhelming of the NHS, could happen.
Appealing directly to the public, she went on:
Please reduce your contact with people from households other than your own as much as you possibly can. Please stay at home much more than you normally would and as much as is feasible.
Here is the full report: Nicola Sturgeon urges Scots to ‘stay at home’ to curb Omicron
Thousands of hospitality firms across the UK could go bust by January because of a “fear campaign” and a lack of financial support following the surge in the Omicron variant, the boss of a leading pub chain has warned.
Young’s chief executive, Patrick Dardis, said a surge in cancellations for Christmas bookings would be dire for the hospitality sector, which relies heavily on the holiday season for its earnings.
He said the mixed messaging from government about risks and restrictions was leaving patrons “terribly confused” about whether to keep their bookings at a time when restaurants and pubs were already “hanging on by their fingernails”.
While the prime minister, Boris Johnson, struck an upbeat note about the rollout of the booster programme, England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, sent a clear message on Wednesday that people should cut back on socialising in the runup to Christmas, despite a lack of formal restrictions on group gatherings.
“Unfortunately, with the latest fear campaign that’s being run, it’s damaging so many businesses that could have possibly survived, and as a consequence, thousands and thousands of businesses will now collapse in January”, Dardis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“There are a lot of individual owner-operators who’ve been running their businesses for years and have thrown the kitchen sink – people have lost their marriages, they’re losing their livelihoods, and this is the last straw. This is the bit that they were desperately clinging on to and it’s been taken away from them without any support from government,” he added.
More on this story here: Thousands may go bust amid UK Omicron ‘fear campaign’, says pubs boss
Bank of England lifts interest rates to 0.25%
The Bank of England has unexpectedly raised interest rates for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic despite growing concern over the Omicron variant.
Threadneedle Street’s monetary policy committee (MPC) voted by a majority of eight to one to raise rates from the historic low of 0.1% to 0.25%, judging that pressure from surging inflation outweighed the risks to the economy from the new variant.
Official figures showed inflation hit 5.1% in November amid soaring energy prices and global supply-chain bottlenecks, hitting a rate the Bank had not expected to be reached until spring. The MPC has an official inflation target of 2%.
However, the rate rise comes amid a severe deterioration in the economic outlook with Omicron triggering a collapse in consumer confidence, leading to a wave of cancellations for hospitality businesses during the key festive trading period.
Here is the full story: Bank of England raises interest rates to 0.25%
And my colleague Graeme Wearden has live updates over on the business blog:
The rising wave of Omicron infections could lead to daily hospitalisations from Covid exceeding the peak of last winter when more than 4,500 people in the UK were admitted on a single day, England’s chief medical officer has said.
The staggering speed at which Omicron is spreading means large numbers of vulnerable people may need hospital care over a very short space of time, Prof Chris Whitty told MPs on Thursday, with daily admissions potentially peaking above that seen last winter at the start of the vaccine programme.
The highest number of Covid hospitalisations in a day in the UK was 4,583 on 12 January, when the Alpha variant – first spotted in Kent – was dominant. Omicron is now the dominant variant in London and is expected to become the most common in England within days or weeks.
“Even if it is milder, because it is concentrated over a short period of time you could end up with a higher number than that going into hospital on a single day. That is entirely possible,” Whitty told the health and social care committee. “The whole point about this is it’s going to be really concentrated in a very short period of time, very possibly.”
More on this story here: Omicron could lead to record daily Covid hospitalisations, MPs told
JCVI makes pregnant women priority group for Covid vaccination
Pregnant women have been made a priority group for vaccination following research showing that they are vulnerable to more serious illness and pregnancy complications if they are infected with Covid-19.
The vaccines watchdog, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), announced on Thursday that pregnant women would be moved into priority group 6, alongside adults under the age of 65 years who have long term health conditions and urged pregnant women to get booster and primary doses as soon as possible.
However, maternal health experts, who have repeatedly called for pregnant women to be prioritised, questioned whether the move would make a material difference to the ability of pregnant women to access vaccines.
The JCVI’s decision was underpinned by research from the University of Oxford, showing that pregnant women and their babies were at particular risk if they became infected. The research found that 17 pregnant women died during the Delta wave of the pandemic – a 50% increase in maternal mortality compared with usual. It also found that of 1436 pregnant women admitted to hospital during the Delta wave, 33% required respiratory support, around 2% had a stillbirth, 2% had pregnancy loss and around one in five had a preterm birth.
Pregnant women are less likely than the general population to have been vaccinated. In August, when pregnant women had to wait until their age group became eligible, only 22% of women who gave birth in England had received a single dose, and 25% in Scotland and 18% in Wales. The proportion has increased since then, but are still disproportionately less likely to be vaccinated, with the lowest rates seen in those from black and ethnic minority groups.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of JCVI Covid-19 immunisation, said:
There is no evidence to suggest that Covid-19 vaccines used in pregnancy increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirths, congenital abnormalities or birth complications.
Having a UK approved Covid-19 vaccine is safer than having Covid-19 itself. Women who are pregnant are strongly encouraged to have a first, second or booster vaccine dose as appropriate in order to better protect yourself and your baby from any serious consequences from Covid-19.
Gayatri Amirthalingam, from the UK Health Security Agency, said:
We know that the vaccines used in the UK Covid-19 vaccination programme have been highly effective in preventing serious complications and those recommended for pregnant women have a good safety record.
I would urge all pregnant women to come forward and get their vaccine without delay. This is the best way to protect you and your baby.
Here is my colleague Amelia Hill’s story on what is understood to have been a precautionary decision taken by the Queen to cancel her pre-Christmas family lunch at Windsor.
She was expected to host 50 or so members of her extended family, including Prince Charles and Camilla. But on Thursday, the Queen agreed that it would be irresponsible to go ahead, with a source suggesting the party could put too many people’s Christmas arrangements at risk.
Here is a summary of some of the main points from this afternoon’s lobby briefing with No 10:
- Downing Street denied the government was sending out mixed messages on social contacts following the emergence of the Omicron variant. On Wednesday, the chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, urged people to cut back on social contacts to help curb the spread of the disease whereas Boris Johnson had previously said people did not need to cancel Christmas parties. The prime minister’s official spokesman said:
Both the prime minister and the CMO were making the point that given the current infection rate, the prevalence of this variant, people should be cautious and think carefully before mixing with others. The prime minister was clear that this is a personal choice and people should do what is right for them.
- Family visits over Christmas will be down to “individual circumstances and judgment”, No 10 said.
The spokesman said:
I think the public recognise that those deemed to be clinically extremely vulnerable are most at risk and they would want to do everything possible, using the guidance we’ve put out available and the mitigation such as testing and vaccinations, to protect their loved ones at a time of high prevalence. But it will be down to individuals to decide what is right for them.
- No 10 said the government was not seeking to cancel things on the public’s behalf. The spokesman said:
Hospitality remains open, businesses remain open to trade. We recognise that the prevalence of this variant and the high transmissibility is leading to further challenges for the hospitality sector in particular, and that’s why we want to hear their concerns and that’s something the chancellor and chief secretary will be doing today.
- The government is not telling football fans not to go to matches, Downing Street has said. Following comments from the medical director for primary care at NHS England, Dr Nikki Kanani, that if anyone was visiting a football stadium this weekend it should be to get a jab at a pop-up clinic, the spokesman said there was “no guidance or restrictions in place”. He said:
Like Professor Whitty and the prime minister, she’s not being prescriptive. We understand it’s a personal choice for the public. And there’s no restrictions on those sorts of events, obviously, apart from the use of the Covid pass which provides a level of reassurance and protection.
Asked whether the government was telling fans not to attend matches, the spokesman said: “That is not our advice.”
- Downing Street said the capacity for posting out lateral flow tests was increasing. The spokesman said 649,000 orders for tests were received on Wednesday. But he said reports that distribution could be restricted to one pharmacy per town was not something he recognised.
- No 10 insisted there were enough PCR tests available for those who needed them. The spokesman said:
There is sufficient PCR capacity for those with symptoms, 150,910 PCR test kits were dispatched yesterday, over half a million processed the day before on Tuesday. I believe our PCR testing capability is among the highest in the world and we are indeed going further, increasing booking slots at physical test sites by more than 100,000 and we’ve secured an increase in PCR testing capacity of a further 200,000 a day and are going beyond that procuring additional lab capacity.
He said turnaround times of PCR test results were also improving.
Given the massive upsurge in testing, which is to be welcomed, we know that will be a challenge for our laboratories. And I think the public will understand that, but we are further ramping up capacity to help mitigate that and we urge everyone to come and get a PCR test as required, as needed, because we do have sufficient capacity.
- No 10 was asked why the government was not putting out stronger messaging to protect the NHS, amid fears of staff shortages. The spokesman said:
I think we are taking steps to that end through the introduction of plan B and massively increasing our booster programme. As we said when we announced we were bringing forward the target, this is because we know that without this sort of action the pressure on the NHS can become unsustainable. Obviously, the NHS has well-established measures in place to cope with staff sickness and absence, including via the use of staff banks, digital staff passports – which allow them to move between hospitals more easily – and we already have existing prevention and control measures in place and PPE for example. We will continue to make sure our NHS has what it needs in the coming weeks and months.
- Downing Street signalled there were no plans to ban French travellers from the UK after restrictions were imposed by Paris. The spokesman said the UK had been made aware of the announcement in advance, and the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, had spoken to his French counterpart. When asked if there were any plans for measures at UK borders, the spokesman said:
I mean we think, given the rising Omicron cases around the world, a red list and sort of tighter border measures wouldn’t be effective or proportionate in slowing the import of Omicron from abroad.
- Downing Street dismissed a claim by Tory MP Joy Morrissey that Prof Chris Whitty is acting as if Britain is a “public health socialist state”. [see 9.57am.]. Asked if Boris Johnson agreed with her comment, the spokesman said:
No. Professor Whitty is a hugely respected and trusted public servant who provides independent, evidence-based advice. I think he himself has been clear that he provides advice and it is right for ministers and elected politicians to decide. He has been a hugely trusted and valued part of our pandemic response and continues to be so.
- Downing Street said Rishi Sunak’s visit to California was a “long-planned trip”. The spokesman was asked why the chancellor’s trip was not on the list of government engagements for the week, and he said:
I don’t know, I’d have to refer to [the] Treasury on that for when it was finalised, but I believe my understanding is a long-planned, long-standing trip.
A Treasury spokesperson said: “The chancellor is in the US on a long-planned trip conducting government business. He is in constant contact with staff back home and will be speaking to UK hospitality businesses today to hear their concerns.”
- Downing Street said it was likely the prime minister’s audiences with the Queen would move to being virtual. Asked whether Boris Johnson would continue to meet the Queen in person, the spokesman said:
That will be a matter for the royal family. I’m not aware of them not being… I think they will probably be moved virtually but that’ll be a matter for the palace.
Schools across UK defy No 10 and close early for Christmas
Scores of schools and colleges across the UK are closing early for Christmas, in defiance of No 10, while others are preparing for further disruption and possible closures next year as the Omicron variant sweeps the UK.
The Welsh government has announced that its schools will delay the start of the new term by two days “to ensure they have robust plans in place to move to remote learning if required”, while school leaders in England are preparing for an extended switch to online learning in January, with many ensuring that pupils take laptops and textbooks home for the holidays.
The Guardian has learned of primary and secondary schools in England and Wales that have decided to end term early because of staff shortages caused by illness and Covid-related isolation. While some schools have already closed on schedule, for most pupils the official end of term is on Friday, with schools in a few local authorities continuing until next Tuesday.
The full story is here: Omicron leads many UK schools to close early for Christmas
Away from Covid for a moment, Boris and Carrie Johnson, have named their baby daughter Romy.
Speaking at a vaccination centre in Kent, the prime minister revealed the name. And posting on Instagram, Carrie announced the pair’s second child’s full name as Romy Iris Charlotte Johnson.
She said Romy was picked after her aunt Rosemary, Iris for the Greek word for rainbow, and Charlotte after the prime minister’s late mother.
The couple announced the birth of a healthy baby girl at a London hospital on 9 December.
Omicron likely to be dominant variant in Scotland from tomorrow, Sturgeon says
Nicola Sturgeon has warned the Scottish public and the UK government “we do not have time to waste”, as she confirmed it is likely that Omicron will be the dominant variant across Scotland by tomorrow.
Sturgeon has said in a statement before first minister’s questions that “Omicron is currently running faster than even the fastest roll out of vaccines,” telling the public that if they don’t take action to slow down the spread the “consequences will be significant”.
She told MSPs she wanted to “strongly underline” her advice to reduce contact with other households, and to stay at home where possible in advance of Christmas Day meetings, adding that there was “no evidence” that Omicron was milder than other variants.
The first minister also called on the UK government to “act urgently”, saying she had asked to speak to Boris Johnson directly this afternoon about urgent financial support as she said “we must not sleep walk into an emergency for both health and business”.
We don’t have time to waste on vaccination, but we don’t have time to waste and putting in place the protective measures that will help slow this down. Lives again are at risk here, livelihoods are at risk and the NHS is at risk. Yes, the government’s got to speed up vaccination but all of us have to come together to do what is required to slow this down. And the UK government has to step up and provide the financial support that businesses need.
Sturgeon said that the announcement of advance funding released by the Treasury for devolved administrations earlier this week was “not enough”.
The return to school for pupils in Wales will be delayed by at least two days to give teachers time to plan for the possibility of a move back to remote learning.
Schools will be asked to use the time to look at whether they will need to bring in further Covid mitigation measures to deal with the Omicron surge and contingency plans to make sure pupils taking exams are prioritised. Heads will also be allowed to operate staggered start and finish times.
The health minister, Jeremy Miles, said:
I am providing all schools with two planning days at the start of the spring term. This will allow time for schools to assess staffing capacity and put the necessary measures in place to support the return of all learners.
Schools will be asked to make use of the planning days to ensure they have robust plans in place to move to remote learning if required – this could be for individual classes/year groups or possibly for the whole school.
Schools will be asked also to use this opportunity to revisit contingency plans, ensuring exam years are prioritised for onsite provision should there be a need to restrict in-person learning at any time and consider what arrangements might need to be in place for vulnerable learners and the children of critical workers during any periods of disruption.
Greg Clark asks whether we are now in a phase of giving broad advice rather than imposing restrictions, and if this is the right way to be thinking about Covid now.
Whitty says it’s where we are now, but if we were in a situation where, for example, it looked as if the boosters were not going to be as effective against the disease and transmission, then ministers would clearly need to consider what else needs to be done.
The further you go up the ladder of intervention the more damage you’re going to do in other areas, he says, so it needs to be balanced.
Clark also asks what would trigger a scenario where we can de-escalate the advice being given.
Whitty says there are multiple exit points and they depend on what happens next.
It could be that with vaccinations and boosters and a milder variant, we could de-escalate quite quickly, he says.
An alternative scenario could be a very sharp wave that decreases quite quickly. Another exit, albeit a longer one, would be an Omicron-specific vaccine, he says.
However, again he says, there are so many unknowns at the moment.
Back to the committee, on the link between case numbers and hospitalisations, Whitty says medics don’t yet know how many Omicron hospitalisations there will be.
But we can say the new variant is not more dangerous than Delta, he says.
In comparison to the last big wave, the hospitalisation rate prior to the vaccination programme was 22% with Delta, he says.
After two doses of the Covid vaccine, that dropped to just 6%, he says.
There isn’t evidence that Omicron is intrinsically milder, he says, and it is very critical to wait for more data before predicting what will happen.
He says medics are taking the new variant extremely seriously as the NHS will be impacted by a shortage of staff as more people isolate with Covid.
Whitty is asked how we deal with the 5-10% of the population who are unvaccinated.
He says although those who aren’t vaccinated are very noisy the numbers are also small.
He says that due to weird conspiracy theories and all sorts there are people who won’t get vaccinated.
Unless these people work in places with lots of vulnerable people, the view is fine, he says, and this has to be accepted.
However, he says of the percentage of unvaccinated people, some simply haven’t got round to getting their jabs, rather than being anti-vaxx.
There are four things people want to know, Whitty says:
- The disease is a big enough threat
- The vaccines actually work
- The side effects are proportionate to the benefits the vaccines are giving them
- It is convenient to get vaccinated
We have to make sure people’s fears are politely and scientifically addressed, and making it as convenient for people as possible, he says.
Whitty is asked how the combination of restrictions is decided.
He says the first layer in deciding measures is looking at things that have no downsides to the British public, such as wearing face masks, washing hands and opening windows.
Do all of them because they protect you from different elements of risk, he says.
Then he says ministers decide whether to enforce things that have more impact – socially and economically – such as advising working from home.
And then you go up a ladder of intervention, and each step further makes more of an impact, he says.
R number for Omicron in UK estimated to be between 3 and 5
Hopkins says that for Omicron, the R value is between 3 and 5 in the UK, and that the variant is spreading rapidly – doubling in size every two days.
The current R value of the Delta epidemic in the UK is estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.2.
Back at the committee, Whitty says he strongly believes that we should be maximising the number of vaccines in lower to middle-income countries.
It’s a humanitarian need and is a matter of self-interest as well, he says, adding there is absolutely nothing to be lost and everything to be gained.
He says in Africa and resource-poor parts of Asia, there are good vaccination systems for vaccinating children under five, but there is not a good system in place for vaccinating older adults who need it more.
It’s not just a product problem, it’s a system problem, he says.
Boris Johnson denies imposing ‘lockdown by stealth’ and resists calls for extra business support
After last night’s astonishing press conference where medical advisers told people to deprioritise unnecessary social contact, Boris Johnson has this morning insisted he is not instituting an “effective lockdown” – as several Tory MPs claim.
Backbenchers have been claiming that businesses will be hard hit by the change in message, with Steve Brine, a former health minister, claiming that “at a stroke, the chief medical officer changed government policy.
But Johnson tried to play down any suggestion rules were being imposed, and instead said it was up to people to decide how much risk they wanted to take they may end up catching Covid and forced to isolate over Christmas.
Speaking on a visit to a vaccine centre in Kent, the prime minister said:
If you want to go to an event or a party, then the sensible thing to do, if that’s a priority… is to get a test and to make sure that you’re being cautious.
But we’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted.
Following concerns that hospitality firms have already been hit by a wave of cancellations and shops are seeing footfall sink during a crucial trading period, Johnson did not hint at any more support but said the government had “kept business going” through the pandemic.
Johnson added he would do “whatever I have to to protect the public” and insisted “we’re in a very different position” from last year, when tough restrictions were imposed just days before Christmas.
His message to the public was:
There’s a lot of Omicron around, be careful, exercise caution if you want to avoid isolation, getting unwell, over Christmas.
Implement Plan B but get boosted now is the fastest route back to normality because the booster does give you an excellent level of protection.
Whitty urges pregnant women to get vaccinated, saying Covid and pregnancy is a ‘dangerous combination’
The committee hears that in August, only 22.2% of pregnant women were vaccinated and that high numbers of critically ill patients were unvaccinated pregnant women.
Whitty is asked if it was a mistake to not include pregnant women in priority groups sooner.
Whitty says the uptake of vaccination in pregnant women is depressingly low and that significant numbers of women have come to serious harm.
Pregnancy is a period of vulnerability, he says, adding I think we really should have made that point even clearer earlier on.
We need to take on the myths around the vaccine and pregnancy and say it is not true that there are increased risks with this vaccine, Whitty says.
We need to say that what is true is that Covid and pregnancy is a dangerous combination, he says, encouraging everybody who is pregnant to get vaccinated.
Back to the committee. Whitty says data from South Africa and the UK suggest it’s too early to be sure but for now we can stick to the view that Omicron is much milder in children than in older adults.
Queen cancels pre-Christmas family lunch as ‘right thing to do’
PA reports that the Queen has cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch next week.
It is understood the decision was a precaution with a source suggesting it could put too many people’s Christmas arrangements at risk if it went ahead.
And this is from the Sunday Times’s royal editor, Roya Nikkah
Whitty says scientists and the government are trying to navigate how to keep people from spending Christmas alone while curbing the spread of Omicron.
On staff shortages in social care affecting the Covid crisis, Whitty says there is a serious issue with recruitment in social care, which is longstanding over many years.
He says there have been several attempts to look seriously at what can be done to improve the situation, but that he isn’t the right person to answer how it can be done.
Whitty is asked about how mistakes made earlier in the pandemic can be avoided this time around.
He says there were several mistakes made, including not being fast enough on cutting down on people working between care settings, and not spotting the effects of people not having adequate sick pay quickly enough.
Those mistakes haven’t been repeated this time round, he says.
The most difficult decision with Omicron is balancing the needs of family being able to see those in care, with reducing the risk of spread over Christmas.
We’re trying to navigate a route between those two, he says.
Chris Whitty suggests it will be 18 months until a vaccine can cope with wide range of variants but each six months will be better than last
Lucy Allan asks if we will have to live with reduced social contact and “deprioritisation” for years to come in the event of more variants of concern.
Whitty anticipates that in about 18 months we will have polyvalent vaccines which will cover a much wider range and several antivirals and a variety of other countermeasures that mean the great majority of the heavy lifting with a new variant can be met by medical means, unless it’s extremely different, he says.
I don’t see this as we’re going to have to do this repeatedly every few months situation, he says, adding we’re in a transition.
The response to this variant is very different to how we would have responded in a pre-vaccine era, he adds, and he thinks the risks will gradually decrease over time.
Each six months will be better than the last six months, he says.
Hunt asks if Whitty has advised the government to do more to reduce the spread of Omicron, that is another lockdown.
Whitty says the only formal advice is what comes from Sage.
To make tough social and economic decisions, there is a lot of information we don’t yet have, he says, and there is a wide range of possibilities where this will go.
Ministers will take constant reviews of restrictions if vaccines prove less effective than expected, he says.
Because of the steepness of this, a lot of people will simultaneously fall ill across the whole economy, which we will need to take quite seriously, he says.
Whitty says he is extremely cautious about hospitalisation projections.
We don’t yet know the level Omicron will peak at, nor do we know the effects, in terms of hospitalisation, of two doses of vaccine, or prior infection, and of a booster dose, he says.
Hunt asks about the previous peak in hospital admissions of 4,583.
Whitty says that even if Omicron is milder, because it is concentrated over a short period of time, you could end up with a higher number than that going into hospital on a single day.
However, two caveats are how long people stay in hospital and that being vaccinated will provide some protection, he says.
The doubling rate will slow down as people continue to take more precautions, including prioritising social interactions that matter most to them and working from home, Whitty says.
This will buy us time to get boosting and slow it down, he adds.
He estimates that Omicron will peak incredibly fast and it could come down faster than previous peaks, he says.
Data on severity of Omicron won’t be known for another fortnight
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at the UK Health and Security Agency, says there are 15 patients in hospital with Omicron.
Whitty adds there are many more than that – that number is only those who are proven.
Updated figures will come out this afternoon.
She adds that data on the severity of Omicron won’t be known for another fortnight.
At least 250 patients would need to be admitted to hospital before there could be a statistical analysis of the disease, she says.
That is likely to be between Christmas and New Year or early January, she adds.
Boosters ‘absolutely critical’ to reducing Omicron risks, says Whitty
Moving onto Omicron, Hunt asks if current data on the extent to which a third dose of vaccine is more effective than two relates to antibody and/or T cell deterioration.
Whitty says that on the lab side, they are looking at the antibody data, which suggests the antibody response is much less effective against Omicron than it was against Delta, Alpha and the original strain.
That is likely to translate into reduced ability to reduce infection, which is what we’re seeing, he says.
Clinical studies are showing lots of people are getting reinfected with Omicron who have been vaccinated or vaccinated and had a previous infection, he says, so it is likely to bypass some of the ability to reduce infection.
What we don’t have is very good T cell studies, he adds.
We don’t have clinical studies, from South Africa or anywhere else, telling us with confidence what the level of protections of one or two doses, and a booster dose, are on hospitalisations and deaths, he says.
On the positive side, he says we think there will be some preserved immunity, particularly on the T cell side, and therefore it will be likely someone with two doses and a booster will have more protection against hospitalisation and death, even though the protection against infection is less good.
On boosters, it does look as though they restore quite a lot of the ability to reduce infection, he adds.
It will reduce the risk of severity, it will reduce probably the risk of mortality, and it almost certainly will reduce the risk of transmitting and getting symptomatic disease, so boosters are absolutely critical to this, he says.
I’m trying to avoid making people’s choices for them, but people should prioritise the things that matter to them and cut down on the things that don’t, Whitty adds.
Anybody who has something that really matters to them, concentrate on that one, rather than accepting every invitation, Whitty says.
That also applies to work – work from home if you can, he adds.
Prioritise the things that really matter to you, he reiterates.
But if you wish to not end up self-isolating or unwell at a time you really don’t want to be, you really want to be doing fewer other things, he adds.
The committee chair, Jeremy Hunt, asks what prioritising social interactions over Christmas means in practical terms.
This is moving very fast, it’s highly transmissible and rates are going up, Whitty says.
People have plans that are most important to them at this time of year, and that means it’s sensible to cut down on work or social interactions that are less important to them, so this is a period to prioritise, he says.
Chris Whitty gives evidence on Omicron to health and social care committee
England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, is due to be questioned by the Commons health and social care committee on the Omicron variant from 10.30am, which I will be covering here.
Housebound elderly people are having to wait weeks to get their booster vaccine, despite being a key priority group for top-up jabs, raising fears about them being left at risk.
Charities have warned that older people are being “overlooked” in the NHS’s rush to deliver the 1m boosters a day that Boris Johnson has ordered to reduce the threat posed by the Omicron variant.
However, NHS staff involved in the booster rollout have privately told the Guardian that the longer time involved in jabbing the housebound, difficulty involved in transporting the Pfizer vaccine and million-a-day target has prompted some GPs and practice nurses to instead focus on vaccinating other patients, because they can get more done more quickly that way.
Read the full story here: Housebound elderly people waiting weeks for Covid boosters
The row between the UK Treasury and the Scottish government over the nature of additional Covid funding is ramping up, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon last night accusing Westminster of leaving her to fight the Omicron surge with “one hand tied”.
On Tuesday, the UK Treasury announced £430 million to the devolved governments to support the booster roll-out and other health measures, with £220 million for Scotland.
But, following Wednesday’s Cobra meeting, Scotland’s finance secretary Kate Forbes wrote to the Treasury calling for more funding, saying that the money released did not represent extra money but was the early release of money already budgeted for.
Overnight, Sturgeon accused the Treasury of reducing funds to Scotland, saying:
As feared, this is not ‘additional’ money – it is being brought forward from money we were expecting in January and had already budgeted for. But it’s actually more concerning than than that…the net effect of yesterday’s Treasury announcement appears to be that the Scottish government is £48m worse off than we thought we were before the announcement. The total we were expecting in January was £268m…we have just been told the actual amount is £220m.
There is though a more fundamental point. Each of the four UK governments is responsible for protecting public health in their own country. But only when UKG takes decisions for England is funding triggered, leaving the rest of us trying to protect health with one hand tied.
A UK government spokesperson said it was “giving the devolved administrations the certainty they need to spend more money in the coming weeks” and would “continue to engage with the Scottish government in the face of this serious health crisis.”
Given the row over furlough extension we saw this time last year, as well as the pressure on the Scottish government from the hospitality sector following advice to postpone office Christmas parties, this is likely to escalate in the coming days.
The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, has called a Tory MP’s comments about Prof Chris Whitty “outrageous”.
In a now-deleted tweet, Joy Morrissey, the MP for Beaconsfield, suggested that England’s chief medical officer should not give advice on people’s social plans ahead of elected officials. She wrote: “Perhaps the unelected Covid public health spokesperson should defer to what our ELECTED members of parliament and the prime minister have decided. I know it’s difficult to remember but that’s how democracy works. This is not a public health socialist state.”
Streeting responded that the tweet was “extremely poorly judged” and the comments should be withdrawn immediately:
It is outrageous to see a government PPS [parliamentary private secretary] attacking the chief medical officer in this way. She should apologise and withdraw this immediately. Chris Whitty has never disputed where policy is made – he makes this point repeatedly.
It seems @joymorrissey has now deleted her extremely poorly judged tweet. I hope she will now have the good grace to apologise. The chief medical officer and every health and care worker in the country deserves our full support. Their only motivation is helping us.
Government urged to ‘hammer out’ hospitality support after socialising discouraged
Labour has written to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, urging him to provide more support for businesses facing “closure by stealth” amid concerns over calls for people to consider limiting their social contacts around Christmas.
The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, and the shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, said in the letter that they met business leaders and major trade union bodies on Wednesday. They said they “learnt that many of them hadn’t had proper engagement from government on how Plan B and the necessary restrictions resulting from Omicron would affect them”.
The letter went on:
Since then, the public have been told to ‘de-prioritise social contact’. Following the science is crucial, but this will hit businesses and workers hard, especially in sectors like hospitality and leisure. Businesses face a perfect storm of cancelled bookings, rising costs and staff shortages.
Businesses and their employees have put up with so much from this government. It is time the government came forward with their plans to ensure our great British businesses and their workers have the clarity and support they need to weather this storm.
The health minister, Gillian Keegan, admitted the situation was “terrible” for hospitality having also suffered last Christmas, but insisted this morning that there were still measures in place to help businesses through the pandemic, including VAT reductions, business rates cuts and recovery loans. The chancellor “keeps everything under review”, she added.
But Labour said more support was needed after Prof Chris Whitty told the public on Wednesday to prioritise events that “really matter to them” over the festive period, in an effort to curb the spread of Omicron.
Indeed, the news has drawn concern from the hospitality sector as people weigh up whether to risk nights out or cancel to improve the chances of spending Christmas with family.
British Chambers of Commerce president Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith said on Wednesday the cautions “will almost certainly have an enormous impact for businesses”. She added:
Despite this still we heard no news of any new financial support measures coming from government to help those businesses, and others badly affected by the current restrictions.
And the head of a company with 320 pubs and hotels said on Thursday that his business was now in a “zombie world”. Jonathan Neame, chief executive of Shepherd Neame, told Times Radio:
Go to pubs. Don’t go to pubs. It was the message last time which is a really confusing and difficult message. And confuses both the operators but also confuses customers, too. Up until this point, I think that people have been mainly concerned not so much for their personal health, but for getting self-isolated and missing their family Christmases. That’s been a sort of key driver behind cancellations. But I fear now the messaging is changing. And therefore, we may see much more acceleration in cancellations.
The acute problem is that if you miss Christmas, and we’re in the zombie world where we’ve been desperately trying to hang on to staff and want to hang on to staff, then what could be very profitable could quickly run into a significant loss.
The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, stressed that hospitality businesses were having a “hard time at the moment” and said the government should be “by their side”.
“I do think the chancellor and the business secretary need to get business leaders around the table with trade union leaders to hammer out a deal to help hospitality because, you know, they really need us right now,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
He said Sunak should return from his trip to California to agree a deal to help businesses hit by lower footfall due to the rise in Covid.
We understand the chancellor is currently out of the country in California. So perhaps he might want to get himself on a flight back and get a grip on the situation because businesses need certainty and confidence now.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has said he has spoken to his equivalent in the French government, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, and agreed that hauliers will be exempt from the new restrictions.
France to tighten Covid restrictions on travel from UK
France is set to tighten restrictions on travel from the UK to slow the spread of the Omicron variant that is causing record numbers of cases on the other side of the Channel, the French government has said.
“We will put in place a system of controls drastically tighter than the one we have already,” the government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told BFM television, saying the office of the prime minister, Jean Castex, would issue a statement on the new measures in the coming hours.
He said travellers coming to France would need a negative test less than 24 hours old, a blanket quarantine would be enforced on return to France, and trips for tourism limited.
“We will reduce the validity of the test to come to France from 48 hours to 24 hours,” said Attal, adding:
We will limit the reasons for coming to France from the UK, it will be limited to French nationals and residents and their families. Tourism or business trips for people who do not have French or European nationality or are residents will be limited.
People [coming back] will have to register on an app and will have to self-isolate in a place of their choosing for seven days – controlled by the security forces – but this can be shortened to 48 hours if a negative test is carried out in France.
Attal said this policy was aimed at “tightening the net” to slow down the arrival of Omicron cases in France and give time for the French vaccination booster campaign to gain more ground.
The measures are expected to come into effect at the weekend.
More on this story here: France to tighten Covid restrictions on travel from Omicron-hit UK
And for more global updates on the pandemic, here is our global live blog:
Minister urges people to make ‘sensible’ choices about socialising before Christmas
Good morning. People should “use their own judgement” to “make a sensible choice” about socialising over the festive period if their priority is to spend Christmas with their families, the health minister, Gillian Keegan, has told Sky News.
She said “everybody is urging caution” due to the fast spread of Omicron.
Most of us will know somebody now who’s positive with Covid, and that means if you’ve tested positive, then you’ll be in isolation over Christmas. So that’s bound to make people a bit more cautious.
Make a sensible choice for yourself, make a sensible choice. You know, if you’re going to go to a party, take a test. If there’s lots of people there you don’t know, if that’s your priority, fine. If your priority is to make it through to Christmas Day with your family then take a different approach.
Everybody’s got different pros and cons, you know, so make a sensible decision but definitely wear a mask and definitely, you know, make sure that you take a test beforehand and also try to go to well-ventilated places as well.
Her comments echo those of England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, at the Downing Street press conference on Wednesday. Whitty said it would be “sensible” and it “is going to become increasingly important” for people to “prioritise” social interactions they most value and “deprioritise” others.
In a separate interview with Times Radio, Keegan said:
What they were saying was prioritise, because obviously the more contacts you have, the more chance you have of testing positive, and that would mean that you’d be isolated on Christmas Day.
Obviously if you want to have a family Christmas, then be cautious, otherwise you could end up testing positive and having to isolate over Christmas. That’s the message.
Everybody must prioritise, you know, if you’re going to have a family Christmas with your relatives, and you know, you’ve got some maybe elderly relatives, then of course people aren’t going to be going out to nightclubs in the run-up to that event, because the chance of success in testing positive after that is probably much higher.
So people are being cautious anyway, people will make their own choices.
It’s not for the government to say, for every single situation, you must use your judgment as well and take a test beforehand.
It comes as the UK registered a record number of daily coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with 78,610 infections reported in a 24-hour period.
I’ll be bringing you all the latest developments on the coronavirus pandemic in the UK for the next eight hours or so. 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.
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