The UK Health Security Agency’s chief has suggested the government might decide on whether further restrictions are needed in England based on Omicron’s wider impact, rather than the variant’s severity alone.
The risk of hospitalisation is up to 70% less for people with Omicron compared to those infected with Delta, according to the first UK government study of its kind.
Monday is expected to be the first day the government could consider any further restrictions after Boris Johnson said no further measures would be brought in before Christmas.
Asked whether the government will have the information on Monday to make key decisions, Dr Jenny Harries told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Ministers will look at all of the data that we have available – and that isn’t simply what the epidemiology is saying, it’s how it’s impacting society.
“So, for example, we have very high rates of individuals off sick – we know that particularly in London, around one in 35 have currently got Omicron.
“Now that’s having an impact on the workforce. So these are not simply about hospitalisation rates.”
She added that ministers are being kept updated on a daily basis and that will continue throughout the Christmas period. “I don’t think we do know yet that this is going to be a significantly less serious disease for the population – the older population – that we are normally most concerned about in relation to serious disease and death.”
NHS staff are struggling with a “very, very depleted workforce”, the head of the Royal College of Nursing has warned, saying that staff want a course of action that allows them to care for patients safely.
Pat Cullen told BBC Breakfast that nurses and other healthcare workers are “quite ill from the spin-off with Covid”.
“[They] continue to be simply because their internal and personal resources are low going into this because of the number of hours that they’re working and the shifts they’ve been working on a very, very depleted workforce working in a fragile service leading up to this current wave,” she said.
Cullen said staff want leaders to act to “support the health service” in order to allow them to “care for their patients safely … If that means tighter measures, that’s for political leaders to decide based on the scientific evidence.”
South Africans offered booster doses
People in South Africa will be offered a booster dose of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine from Friday after the health regulator approved its used for the general public.
While both J&J and Pfizer’s vaccines had been approved for use as boosters, they had previously only been offered to health workers.
“From 24 December 2021 the National Vaccination Programme will provide J&J booster vaccinations to anyone who received their last dose at least 2 months prior,” the health department’s statement said, adding ideally it would also be within six months of their initial shot.
Meanwhile, people who had their second Pfizer dose at least six months ago will be able to get a booster dose of the vaccine from 28 December.
According to figures from earlier this month, 44% of South African adults have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine – a figure well shy of the country’s target.
While Mongolia’s vaccine take-up was excellent for the first two doses, the country’s booster drive has lagged behind.
More than 90% of adults in the sparsely-populated nation of three million took up their initial vaccine doses, but only half of this figure have had the booster so far, due to a combination of online misinformation and the difficulties of reaching remote populations, according to AFP. About one-third of the country is nomadic.
In order to bring up the country’s booster coverage, health workers are travelling to remote areas to offer herders a third vaccine dose.
“During the first wave, people were queuing outside (for vaccines) and I was working until 9pm,” said nurse Sodkhuu Galbadrakh. “There were days I didn’t go home. Now, only five to six people come to get the booster shot per day.”
He said he calls herders daily to try and arrange the third shot but often can’t get through, especially with poor phone reception in pastureland.
However, Batbayar Ochirbat, the official leading the vaccination programme, told AFP that confidence in the booster is slowly growing after a fall in cases.
After daily cases reached more than 3,000 in September, figures have fallen to an average of 200 daily cases, which he attributes partly to boosters. “People started to build trust after they saw vaccinated people have booster shots, develop no symptoms, and not get sick,” he said.
UK’s chief scientific adviser defends Omicron modelling
The UK government’s chief scientific adviser has defended Sage against the charges that the group’s modelling was fearmongering, saying it was not their job to “spread gloom”.
Sir Patrick Vallance said it was not the responsibility of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) “to take a particular policy stance or to either spread gloom or give Panglossian optimism”.
The remarks followed criticism of epidemiological modellers’ response to the Omicron outbreak. In a piece for the Times, Vallance said those participating in the debate “need to consider all the data in the round, not only those parts that fit an argument while ignoring the rest”.
“That is not science, even though it might sometimes make an entertaining read,” he said. Instead, he wrote, science must be “self-correcting”.
It comes after a statement from the SPI-M-O, a group of scientists who report to Sage, warned last week that hospitalisations could peak at between 3,000 and 10,000 a day and deaths at between 600 and 6,000 if no new restrictions were introduced.
Two people have died in a fire in the the intensive care unit of a Russian Covid-19 hospital in the southern city of Astrakhan, according to the Tass news agency.
Russia’s emergencies ministry said in a statement that there were casualties, but gave no further details. Investigators said they have launched an investigation into the case.
A number of Russian hospitals have dealt with accidental fires since the onset of the pandemic, chiefly due to ageing infrastructure and low safety standards, AFP reports.
In August, nine coronavirus patients died after an oxygen pipe ruptured at a hospital in Vladikavkaz.
Hello, I’m Clea Skopeliti and I’ll be bringing you the latest developments in the coronavirus pandemic for the next few hours. If you’d like to get in touch with any suggestions for coverage, my Twitter is @cleaskopeliti, or you can send me an email. Thanks in advance.
China punishes dozens of officials for ‘insufficient rigour’ of Xi’an lockdown
Dozens of officials have reportedly been punished over a virus outbreak in the locked-down city of Xi’an, China’s disciplinary body said on Friday, Agence France-Presse reports.
China is on high alert for new infections as it prepares to hold the Winter Olympics in February in the capital Beijing and is continuing to pursue a strict zero-Covid approach.
Xi’an recently plunged into a strict lockdown where its 13 million residents have been told to stay home from Thursday, shuttering businesses and launching several rounds of mass testing.
The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said on Friday that 26 Communist party officials had been punished for “insufficient rigour in preventing and controlling the outbreak”.
Chinese officials who are deemed to have failed at controlling the virus in their region are regularly sacked or reprimanded.
The statement said inspections had revealed there had been a lax approach to testing and an uncoordinated response that hindered contact tracing in Xi’an.
Authorities would clamp down on “bureaucratic issues in disease control work such as shirking responsibility, not taking action, passing the buck and dealing with things in a negative way”, a party discipline official said.
Thailand has reported its first domestic cluster of coronavirus infections from the Omicron variant in Kalasin province in northeastern Thailand, officials said on Friday, Reuters news agency reports.
“From the Kalasin cluster, there are 21 new infections,” said the country’s Covid-19 taskforce spokeswoman, Apisamai Srirangsan.
The infections stem from a couple who travelled from Belgium through the country’s Test & Go scheme that waived quarantine for vaccinated arrivals, she said.
Both had tested negative for infections before travelling and after arrival in Thailand in early December. By 15 December, they started having symptoms and tested positive and were later confirmed to have the Omicron variant, she said.
The announcement comes as Thailand’s capital city Bangkok cancelled government-sponsored New Year activity, including midnight prayers.
Fireworks and countdown events organised by malls were still going forward and would require proof of vaccination and antigen test results.
If you’ve just joined us welcome to our live Covid blog covering all the latest coronavirus developments.
Here’s a brief snapshot of how Covid is unfolding around the world ahead of the holiday season.
- Boris Johnson has invoked the teaching of Jesus Christ to urge the public to get a Covid booster jab. In a recent video, he celebrated members of the public for “getting jabbed not just for themselves, for ourselves, but for friends and family and everyone we meet … That, after all, is the teaching of Jesus Christ, whose birth is at the heart of this enormous festival – that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves.”
- NHS England has said there are 200,000 vaccination appointments available on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day and urged anybody due a booster to consider coming forward “to get the gift of a jab”.
- In England around 1.2 million people were infected with Covid last week, or one in 45 of the population – a pandemic record. London estimated one in 30 people were infected last week.
- Airlines in the US and Australia have announced cancellations to hundreds of flights ahead of Christmas.
- Australia cuts the Covid booster interval to four months after their second dose, then the wait will be shortened again.
- Ecuador has declared Covid vaccination will be mandatory after a marked rise of infections.
- New York City will scale back New Year’s Eve celebrations after mayor Bill de Blasio announced new restrictions for the city’s planned event in Times Square.
- An Oxford University lab study on AstraZeneca’s vaccine, Vaxzevria, showed that after a three-dose course of the vaccine, neutralising levels against Omicron were broadly similar to those against the Delta variant after two doses.
- Italy is planning to tighten restrictions including making mask wearing mandatory outdoors. The country has also banned public New Year’s Eve celebrations.
- The Spanish region of Catalonia will introduce a night curfew on Thursday.
- Nightclubs in Scotland are to close from 27 December for three weeks.
- Denmark will require foreigners entering the country to provide a negative Covid-19 test from 27 December, regardless of vaccination status
NHS urges people to get ‘gift of a jab’
NHS England has said there are 200,000 vaccination appointments available on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day and urged anybody due a booster to consider coming forward “to get the gift of a jab”.
Staff and volunteers will continue to deliver jabs in some locations on 25 and 26 December, as the NHS tries to meet Boris Johnson’s target of giving everybody eligible a booster by the end of the year amid a surge in the number of Covid cases.
Vaccination centres that were open “over the festive period” included Redbridge town hall in north-east London from 10am to 5.50pm and Grim’s Dyke golf club in Pinner, Middlesex, the NHS said. Walk-in appointments can be obtained in Eastbourne, Dewsbury and Hartlepool.
Dr Emily Lawson, the head of the NHS Covid vaccination programme, praised those willing to work over the Christmas weekend and argued that people should consider getting a booster as a last-minute present to family members.
Hello, it’s Samantha Lock with you on the blog this Christmas Eve. I hope everyone is well.
I’ll be bringing you all the latest Covid developments from across the world.
In some disappointing news for those wanting to visit family and friends over the holidays, airlines in the US and Australia have announced cancellations to hundreds of flights ahead of Christmas.
United Airlines and Delta Air Lines say they have been forced to cancel dozens of Christmas Eve flights due to Covid’s toll on its flight crews and other workers.
United cancelled 120 flights for Friday, while Atlanta-based Delta said it has cancelled about 90 flights, Reuters reports.
Meanwhile, thousands of Australians have also had their domestic flights cancelled in the hours leading up to Christmas, as frontline staff were ordered to test and isolate amid a rise in Covid cases.
There were 117 domestic services cancelled on Friday between Sydney and Melbourne.
An Oxford University lab study on AstraZeneca’s vaccine, Vaxzevria, showed that after a three-dose course of the vaccine, neutralising levels against Omicron were broadly similar to those against the Delta variant after two doses.
“As we better understand Omicron, we believe we will find that T-cell response provides durable protection against severe disease and hospitalisations,” Mene Pangalos, the head of AstraZeneca’s biopharmaceuticals R&D said, referring to a critical component of the immune system that respond to fight infection.