Dr Jenny Harries, the current head of NHS Test and Trace, has told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that people can do their bit to reduce the spread of the new omicron variant by reducing the number of social contacts they have.
She said that even if our “vaccines appear to be effective, but we find that the variant is more highly transmissible…(it) could still be a significant impact on our hospitals.”
“And of course, our behaviours in winter and particularly around Christmas we tend to socialise more so I think all of those will need to be taken into account.”
“So I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jobs which, of course, people will now be able to have at a three-month interval from their primary course.”
Face masks are now mandatory in many indoor settings including hairdressers, after the Government extended the list of settings at which they will be required.
Guidance published on Monday night said coverings would be needed in personal care and beauty salons, as well as tattoo parlours. They will also be required at takeaways, estate agents, solicitors, loan providers and veterinary clinics and in taxis, private hire vehicles and driving instruction cars or vans.
The rules, which came into force from 4am on Tuesday, will be reviewed in three weeks. Non-compliance will be punishable with a fine of £200 for a first offence, which will double on each subsequent offence up to a maximum of £6,400.
Follow the latest updates below.
Austria to fine the unvaccinated form February
Unvaccinated Austrians refusing to get jabbed face fines of up to €7,200 (£6,127) from February, reports our Europe Editor James Crisp.
Austria became the first country to re-enter full lockdown in Europe on November 22, and the first to decide to make vaccination compulsory.
The government had earlier introduced a lockdown just for the unvaccinated in a bid to boost numbers getting the jab but was forced to make it universal in the face of soaring infections. Just two thirds of Austrians are fully vaccinated.
Under the draft bill, seen by the Die Presse newspaper, everyone resident in Austria must get jabbed unless they have health reasons not to, are pregnant or under the age of 12.
Anyone refusing to comply will be summoned to their district authorities. If that summons is ignored twice, the person will be fined €3,600 (about £3,000).
If refusal to get the jab puts people at “serious risk” or if they continue to refuse to get a Covid-19 vaccine, the fine can be doubled.
Among ideas still to be worked out is a proposal to fine anyone who cannot prove they are vaccinated every six months. Booster vaccinations are also expected to be made compulsory but how that should be policed and the length of time between jabs is yet to be finalised.
The bill will be formally presented on December 6 and the draft is subject to change.
There were protests against compulsory vaccinations in Vienna after the idea was first mooted following crisis talks between the federal government and regional leaders.
The leader of the FPO, the hard-Right opposition party, declared that Austria had become a dictatorship after Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg blamed the unvaccinated for the return of lockdown.
2020 winter lockdown ‘legal’, says Germany’s highest court
Germany’s highest court has ruled that last winter’s lockdown was legal, potentially clearing the way for new restrictions when Angela Merkel holds talks with regional leaders this afternoon, reports Justin Huggler.
The Consititutional Court rejected several challenges to the lockdown, ruling it was justified and proportionate in the light of an “overriding public interest” in the face of the “extreme danger of the pandemic”.
The court rejected arguments that school closures were an infringement of children’s right to an education, and that curfews were an infringement of civil liberties.
The ruling comes just hours before Mrs Merkel is to hold talks with regional leaders and incoming chancellor Olaf Scholz to discuss tightening restrictions. Mrs Merkel and regional leaders from her Christian Democrat party (CDU) have been pressing for a new lockdown.
But Mr Scholz, who is to replace Mrs Merkel as chancellor next week, has so far resisted the calls and urged regional governments to use other measures introduced by his incoming government.
Any new lockdown would require a vote in parliament, after the incoming coalition allowed the old emergency law to expire last week. The German infection rate dropped slightly for the first time in three weeks on Tuesday. While the reduction was small, virologists said the rate has been slowing for several days and the R number is now below 1.
While it is too early to be certain. There are grounds for “cautious optimism” that the German infection rate could stop rising and plateau as in the UK, Hendrik Streeck, a leading German virologist said.
Tory MPs hold pre-Covid vote meeting to discuss concerns
Conservative MPs are meeting this morning to discuss their reservations over the reintroduction of Covid restrictions, ahead of key vote this afternoon.
Members of the Covid Recovery Group have told The Telegraph they are concerned about proposals to allow rules requiring anyone coming into close contact with an individual who tests positive for the omicron variant to isolate, as they appear to run until March next year.
Backbenchers are threatening to rebel on this measure, for fear it could lead to a return of the pingdemic experienced this summer, in which thousands of people were forced into quarantine. Other measures, such as mandatory mask wearing, come up for review in three weeks.
MPs are also deeply unhappy about comments by Dr Jenny Harries, who this morning said people should not socialise unnecessarily in the run-up to Christmas.
One said: “Who put her in charge of who people can meet?”
You can follow all the latest developments from Westminster with my colleague Catherine Neilan on our dedicated politics live blog here.
Pakistani opposition demands inquiry into coronavirus response funds corruption
Pakistan’s political opposition has demanded an inquiry into how coronavirus response funds were spent after an audit found billions of rupees of irregularities, reports Ben Farmer.
A 200-page investigation by the state Auditor General of Pakistan raised questions over 40bn rupees (£170m) of spending during the pandemic, the Express Tribune reported.
Irregularities included poor procurement, welfare payments to people who were not eligible and the purchase of substandard goods.
The audit found the government was poorly prepared and there were instances of bad procurement, delays and weak financial controls.
The International Monetary Fund made the release of the audit one of its conditions for the country getting a $1bn loan by January.
Senator Sherry Rehman, a senior politician with the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, told The News: “This is just a trailer of corruption as the whole movie is still left. The government did not spare even the Corona fund, which is taxpayers’ money.”
Omicron detected in the Netherlands before South Africa flights
The Covid-19 omicron variant was detected in the Netherlands before two flights arrived from South Africa carrying the virus, Dutch health official have admitted.
“We have found the omicron coronavirus variant in two test samples that were taken on November 19 and November 23,” the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) said. “It is not clear yet whether these people have visited Southern Africa.”
At least 14 people on two flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town arrived in the Netherlands on November 26 carried the new variant, the RIVM said.
Greece to make vaccinations for people over 60 mandatory, PM says
Greece will make vaccinations mandatory for people aged 60 and over, a drastic step for the country grappling with a new surge in coronavirus cases.
Authorities said they would impose a 100 euro (£85) fine on every individual over the age of 60 who was not vaccinated. The measure would apply each month from Jan. 16 onwards.
About 63 per cent of the population of about 11 million is fully vaccinated. Vaccine appointments have picked up in recent weeks.
“We are focusing our efforts on protection of our fellow citizens and for this reason their vaccination will be mandatory from now on,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a cabinet meeting.
“Greeks over the age of 60 who have not been vaccinated must, by Jan. 16, booked an appointment for their first dose, or else they will face a 100 euro administrative fine every month.”
The country this month barred unvaccinated people from indoor spaces including restaurants, cinemas, museums and gyms, even if they had tested negative for the coronavirus.
Over 1,000 pupils infected as South Korean sticks with ‘Living with Covid-19′
At least 1,090 school pupils in Seoul tested positive for the coronavirus last week, the first week that children were back in classes across the South Korean capital as part of the government’s “Living with Covid-19″ initiative, reports Julian Ryall.
An additional 95 teachers and school staff in Seoul tested positive for the virus between November 22 and 28, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education announced.
Health authorities have been able to determine that 36 per cent of the cases were from students’ family members, while nearly 19 per cent of transmissions took place within schools. Infection routes could not be identified in the remainder of the cases.
Kindergartens, junior, middle and high schools across South Korea returned to full in-person classes last week under the campaign to return the nation to normality, with schools reporting that 86 per cent of he 824,000 pupils in Seoul are now attending classes.
According to Yonhap News, the local education authority has said it will step up inspections of school facilities to ensure that guidelines are being followed.
Families whose loved ones died of Covid must be heard at inquiry
The voices of those who lost loved ones to Covid-19 must be at the heart of the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, campaigners have said.
Prime minister Boris Johnson pledged in May to hold a full, independent public inquiry into the Covid pandemic, saying it would start in the first half of next year.
Now, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, a campaign group that was instrumental in getting the government to agree to an inquiry, have published a report laying out the key areas they say the investigation must cover.
In the foreword to the report Jo Goodman and Matt Fowler, who both lost their fathers to Covid, said a comprehensive, independent, public inquiry was the only way to learn lessons from the pandemic and prevent any loss of life in the future.
They added: “It is our sincere hope that this report will help the government and future chair of the inquiry to understand the perspectives of those who have experienced the pandemic first-hand, and to ensure that their voices are at the heart of this inquiry.”
You can read the full story from our Global Health Security deputy editor, Anne Gulland, here.
French Miss Universe contestant tests positive after arriving in Israel
The French contestant for Miss Universe has reportedly caught Covid after arriving in Israel for the beauty competition, which officials say will go ahead despite concerns about the omicron variant.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Clémence Botino tested positive upon arrival in Israel and it is not yet known whether she was carrying the new strain of coronavirus.
Israel’s tourism minister, Yoel Razvozov, said the competition will continue as planned despite rising global concerns about omicron. The majority of contestants have already arrived in Israel.
“This is an event that will be broadcast in 174 countries, a very important event, an event that Eilat, too, is very much in need of,” he said
“We will know how to manage this event. So, by using the waivers committee, we will have events like this, to which the country already committed itself and cannot cancel.”
Boris Johnson defends new restrictions
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended England’s new coronavirus rules, which came into force on this morning.
“The measures taking effect today are proportionate and responsible, and will buy us time in the face of this new (omicron) variant,” he said.
“Vaccines and boosters remain our best line of defence, so it is more important than ever that people come forward when eligible to get boosted.”
India to give boosters to immunocompromised
“India will introduce booster doses for its immunocompromised population, over fears of the omicron variant spreading and overwhelming its public health system, reports Joe Wallen.
Three arrivals from South Africa have tested positive for Covid-19 over the last week. Of two passengers in Bangalore, one was found to have the delta variant and the second has a new, different variant.
The Indian government will confirm whether this is India’s first case of the omicron variant later today. India, one of the world’s largest producers of Covid-19 vaccines, had said it would prioritise exports to other developing countries over domestic booster doses.
But, fears are now growing over the potential spread of omicron in India, which is believed to be six times more transmissible than the delta variant which devastated the subcontinent in the spring.
To speed up rollout, the Indian government is planning to carry out door-to-door vaccinations for adults yet to receive their second dose and will also begin the immunisation of children in the new year.
Currently, 82 per cent of Indian adults have received one dose but only 44 per cent of its eligible population have been fully vaccinated.”
Scotland identifies three further omicron cases
Scotland has identified three further cases of the omicron variant, taking the national total to nine cases.
The country’s health minister Hamza Yousaf said there are now five cases in the Lanarkshire area and four in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, up from the six across the two areas announced on Monday.
Asked if there was any connection between Cop26 or a recent South Africa rugby match, he told BBC Good Morning Scotland: “There’s nothing that links these cases or indeed the variant back to Cop26 or indeed the rugby match.”
He added: “There’s nothing that indicates these cases or this new variant has come via the rugby or Cop26 but that work of course is still ongoing .”
Moderna CEO warns Covid-19 shots less effective against Omicron
Drugmaker Moderna’s CEO set off fresh alarm bells in financial markets on Tuesday after he warned that Covid-19 vaccines were unlikely to be as effective against the omicron variant as they have been against the delta version.
Crude oil futures shed more than a dollar, the Australian currency hit a year low, and Nikkei gave up gains as Stéphane Bancel’s comments spurred fears that vaccine resistance could lead to more sickness and hospitalisations, prolonging the pandemic.
“There is no world, I think, where (the effectiveness) is the same level . . . we had with delta,” Moderna CEO Bancel told the Financial Times in an interview.
“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to . . . are like ‘this is not going to be good’,” Mr Bancel said.
The uncertainty about the new variant has triggered global alarm, with border closures casting a shadow over a nascent economic recovery from a two-year pandemic.
News of its emergence wiped roughly $2 trillion off the value of global stocks on Friday, but some calm was restored this week as investors waited for more data on omicron.
First omicron case detected in Japan
Japan has confirmed its first case of the omicron coronavirus variant, a day after authorities announced new Covid border restrictions.
“Regarding the traveller arriving from Namibia, it was confirmed to be a case of Omicron after analysis at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases,” government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters.
“This is the first omicron case confirmed in Japan,” he said, adding that the infected traveller, a man in his 30s, is now in isolation at a medical facility.
The case was flagged during routine testing at an airport. Japan requires all arrivals to be tested before travelling to the country and when they land.
The announcement came a day after Japan tightened its border rules again, barring all new foreign arrivals just weeks after relaxing tough regulations to allow some students and business travellers entry.
The new rules mean only Japanese citizens and existing foreign residents can enter the country, with few exemptions, and those coming from areas with known omicron cases require hotel quarantines ranging from three to 10 days.
Don’t expect staff to enforce mask rules, say retail bosses
Richard Walker, the boss of the grocery chain Iceland, has warned that he will not ask staff to police the government’s face mask policy because of the potential threat of abuse.
“My store colleagues can’t be expected to police those who refuse,” he said.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, which represents most big retailers, told the Guardian: “It is vital that we do not place hardworking retail staff in harm’s way, and enforcement of face coverings must remain the duty of the authorities.”
Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, also told the newspaper: “It’s vital that [shop owners] feel supported by government at every level and by the police, if necessary.”
“We do hope that customers will recognise, like they did during previous restrictions, the government’s new guidelines when visiting their local independent shops. We’re urging shoppers to make sure they show respect to the shop owners and staff of every business they go to.”