Hello it’s Samantha Lock back with you on the blog as my colleague Tom Ambrose takes a well-deserved break.
I’ll be reporting to you from Sydney so let’s dive in with some Covid numbers out of Australia.
The country’s most populous state of NSW has recorded a record 2,213 new Covid cases and one death while Victoria recorded 1,510 cases and 7 deaths.
Here’s what we know so far about Omicron’s spread in Australia.
The Welsh government will bring in new restrictions including closing nightclubs and imposing a 2-metre social distancing rule in offices from 27 December to try to combat the Omicron variant and has issued “strong guidance” over how to stay safe over Christmas.
The first minister, Mark Drakeford, said the new legally enforceable regulations were needed to counter what he called the most serious development in the pandemic to date.
Drakeford is strongly advising people to celebrate the festive season only with their nearest and dearest, saying a “smaller Christmas” will be a safer one.
From the day after Boxing Day, Wales will introduce fresh legal restrictions, including a 2-metre social distancing rule in offices and putting extra measures in place to protect customers and staff, such as one-way systems and physical barriers.
Nightclubs will also close and the government is to make up to £60m available to support businesses affected by the new restrictions.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has started distributing free Covid home test kits to international travellers, the agency said.
The CDC said it began distributing the kits on Wednesday and is giving them out at Minneapolis-St Paul, Miami and Chicago O’Hare and will soon add Dallas-Fort Worth. It plans to add four additional unidentified international airports in the coming weeks.
The CDC encourages – but does not mandate – international air travelers to get a new Covid test upon arriving in the United States.
New rules took effect on 6 December to require nearly all people flying to the United States to obtain a negative test within one day of travel.
CDC panel votes to recommend mRNA Covid vaccines over J&J’s
A panel of advisers to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have voted to recommend Americans choose to receive one of the other two authorised Covid vaccines over Johnson & Johnson’s shot, due to rare but sometimes fatal cases of blood clotting.
The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization voted unanimously to make the recommendation. The regulator still needs to sign off on the guidance.
Cases of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), which involves blood clots accompanied by a low level of platelets, have previously been reported in recipients of the J&J vaccine. The highest reporting rates are in women under 50.
The CDC said that the rate of such incidents is higher than previously estimated, both in women and men.
At least nine people have died following the blood clotting incidents in the United States, the CDC has said.
Members of the panel also said J&J’s vaccine is less effective in preventing COVID-19 than the other two authorized vaccines.
In a presentation to the committee, a leading J&J vaccine scientist said the vaccine generates a strong and long-lasting immune response with just a single shot.
Read The Guardian’s view on the Omicron surge.
The government is doing too little to head off soaring Covid infections – and too little to compensate the businesses and workers already suffering.
Read the full opinion piece below.
The rapid spread of Omicron across the UK has led public health officials and ministers to warn that, without action, the country will see 1 million infections a day by the end of the month.
The consequences of the Omicron “tsunami” are far from clear, but a picture is beginning to take shape.
My colleague Ian Sample has put together this useful Q&A, covering how the NHS plans to deal with this scenario and what the next few weeks may look like…
In the UK, the London venue Printworks is the latest in the events industry to postpone shows that had been scheduled for this weekend.
In a statement posted on Facebook, a spokesperson said:
Due to the current public health status we have evaluated the potential impact of shows for our guests, staff, artists and partners. Given the time of year, it’s also important to take into account the potential impact on festive celebrations for individuals and families, especially those who were impacted last year.
For that reason, we have had to make the unfortunate decision to postpone this weekend’s Printworks shows. The wellbeing of those who attend our venue and those who work at our venue is of paramount importance to us.
The emergence of the Omicron variant has made it clear the pandemic won’t be over until it is beaten everywhere.
But there has been a vast and continuing inequality in the global Covid vaccine rollout.
This mirrors other rollouts, such as the vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus, which has a vaccination rate as low as 41% in some countries.
In the case of Covid, inequality has been compounded by wealthy nations buying up doses, and the need to ramp up adult vaccination programs in countries that hadn’t had them before.
This map shows how the Covid vaccine rollout has progressed globally, showing the number of doses administered per 100 people over time.
The Metropolitan Police are to contact two people who attended a pre-Christmas party at the Conservative Party headquarters in London during lockdown last year in relation to alleged breaches of coronavirus regulations.
The force said it was aware of a gathering at an address in Matthew Parker Street in London, where the Conservative party headquarters is based, on 14 December 2020.
The party was organised by Shaun Bailey’s London mayoral campaign team. On Wednesday, Bailey stepped down from an official role in the London assembly after a photograph emerged of him joining a throng of people at the party amid the Covid lockdown in December last year. Bailey has apologised “unreservedly” for the event.
The Met did not say who they were seeking to contact.
In a statement, the force said: “Officers will be making contact with two people who attended in relation to alleged breaches of the health protection (coronavirus restrictions) regulations.”
The Met also said it is looking into staff gatherings at 10 Downing Street and the Department for Education in November and December 2020 and is in contact with the Cabinet Office, but will not open an investigation at this time.
Here’s a round-up of today’s international developments on Covid and Omicron.
- ICU capacity in Ontario, Canada could be overwhelmed by Omicron within weeks without action, a panel of experts said.
- Denmark broke its daily Covid record for the fourth day running, with the prime minister Mette Frederiksen warning new restrictions were on the horizon.
- The UK recorded its highest tally of lab-confirmed Covid cases since the pandemic began – for the second day running – with almost 90,000 new infections. Independent SAGE said it’s urging a circuit-breaker lockdown until 24 December.
- England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty told MPs hospital admissions could peak above levels seen last winter, before the vaccine roll-out, given Omicron’s infectiousness.
- Italy reported its highest Covid case rate since 12 March, with
26,109 cases, jumping 90% on three weeks ago.
- Germany’s health minister Karl Lauterbac warned the country is lacking millions of Covid vaccine doses, imperilling the country’s defence against the highly-mutated Omicron strain.
- The European Commission said it reached a deal with Moderna to accelerate its vaccine delivery, particularly with a view to supplying Germany with 10 million doses in December.
- Malawi announced new restrictions to beat back its rising cases and announced a vaccine mandate for frontline workers such as healthcare staff.
- France reported 60,866 new Covid cases, up 45% from three weeks ago. The government also announced a ban on non-essential travel to and from Britain to try and block the spread of Omicron.
- Palestine detected its first three Omicron cases in the occupied West Bank, the health ministry said.
- AstraZeneca said its Evusheld antibody cocktail appears effective against Omicron in the first study conducted.
- Portugal said it will extend border restrictions beyond the initial 9 January deadline, mandating negative tests for entry even for double-vaccinated travelers.
- UK prime minister Boris Johnson attended a pizza party in No 10 Downing Street during the May 2020 lockdown, a joint investigation by the Guardian and Independent reported, with members of a group for bereaved families attacking Johnson’s attendance as “disgusting.”
- Poland reported its first Omicron case from a 30-year-old woman who flew in from southern Africa. She currently feels well but is in hospital isolation.
- The UK’s Queen Elizabeth II cancelled a pre-Christmas lunch with her family over surging Omicron cases, despite palace insiders insisting on Tuesday the event would go ahead. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon also urged the Scottish public to stay home.
- Sweden is to end a vaccine pass exemption for its Nordic neighbours, authorities said.
- Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo urged people not to travel abroad after the country detected its first Omicron case.
That’s all from me, Jem Bartholomew here in London, for today. I’ll be back on Sunday – drop me an email or message me on Twitter with tips and stories for then. Now I’m handing over to my colleague Tom Ambrose for the next few hours.
The UK campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice has said that it is “disgusting” that prime minister Boris Johnson attended a pizza party in Downing Street on 15 May last year while the UK was still under lockdown.
“I remember 15 May 2020 very well. That’s because while Boris Johnson was at this party I was sitting in a hospital with my dad dying in intensive care,” said Hannah Brady, a spokesperson for the group.
“We had to fight to see Dad and sat there for 5 hours with him. We just didn’t want him to die alone. When he stabilised we were told to go home. He died the next day.”
“To know that I was sitting in the hospital while the prime minister and his colleagues were drinking at a party, breaking the same rules the rest of the country were following, just makes me sick to my stomach”, she said.
It comes after a joint investigation by the Guardian and Independent revealed Johnson had attended the event for 15 minutes, sources allege, while rules then said only two people from different households could meet outside, at a distance of 2 metres.
The group have become staunch critics of the British government’s handling of the pandemic and are seeking “core participant” status in the public inquiry that will take place under Baroness Hallett.
Brady added: “My dad was only 55 and he was fit and healthy. He worked in the Heinz factory, and he carried on working during lockdown because he was proud to be a key worker helping to keep the UK fed. I wanted some good to come of his sacrifice. But when me and other Covid-bereaved families called for a rapid review inquiry over summer 2020 – so that lessons could be learned to protect other families ahead of the second wave – we were told again and again that staff were too busy tackling the virus. Now we know what that looked like.”
“What makes it hurt even more is that when I met the prime minister some months later, I showed him a photo of dad in the hospital, taken on the same day that we now know this party took place. The prime minister looked me in the eye and told me he’d ‘done everything he could’ to protect my Dad. It’s disgusting.”
France reported 60,866 new Covid infection in the past 24 hour, down slightly on yesterday but climbing 45% from 33,464 three weeks ago today.
A further 165 people died from Covid-relates causes on Thursday, jumping 129% from 72 daily deaths three weeks ago.
It comes after France banned non-essential travel to and from Britain from Friday at 11pm GMT to reduce the spread of the Omicron strain. As of Wednesday France had reported 170 Omicron cases.
“Our strategy is to delay as much as we can the development of Omicron in our country and take advantage to push ahead with the booster drive,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal told local media.
An update on two antibody treatments, potentially useful tools in the box against Omicron and future mutated variants.
AstraZeneca on Thursday said a lab study showed its antibody cocktail, Evusheld, retained neutralising activity against Omicron, the first such data for the treatment.
The picture was less rosy for Regeneron, which said on Thursday its Ronapreve therapy is less effective against Omicron, though it is still active against the Delta variant.
It comes after the UK’s antiviral taskforce chair Eddie Gray said on Thursday the country will have access to both Merck’s molnupiravir and Pfizer’s paxlovid treatments over winter.
Scientists say antibody therapies, alongside vaccines, regular testing and social distancing measures, will be an important weapon in the arsenal fighting the latest Covid wave.
In the US the Omicron variant has surpassed Delta in collections taken from wastewater samples in Orange County, Florida, officials said.
Despite few confirmed clinical infections, wastewater samples showed the new variant is now the dominant strain. Omicron represented almost 100% of strains from wastewater facilities in a sampling this week, Orange County Utilities spokesperson Sarah Lux told AP.
Orange County is home to tourist attractions such as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.
Italy detects highest daily Covid cases since March
Italy reported 26,109 new Covid cases on Thursday, its highest daily number since 26,790 new infections on 12 March.
Today’s tally is a 90% surge on Italy’s 13,756 new cases three weeks ago.
A further 123 people died from Covid-related causes in the past 24 hours, rising 73% from 71 deaths on Thursday three weeks ago.
The health minister, Roberto Speranza, tightened restrictions to try to halt the new wave on Tuesday, announcing mandatory Covid testing for all arrivals from the European Union and a five-day quarantine for the unvaccinated. The measures come into effect from 16 December until 31 January.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson joined staff for a party in his official residence in Downing Street during lockdown in May last year, sources allege, raising questions over a culture of flouting the rules.
It comes after Johnson was accused of hosting an indoor quiz last year during another lockdown, which has rocked his authority in the nation and in his own Conservative party.
The prime minister spent about 15 minutes with staff at the alleged social gathering on 15 May 2020, telling one aide they deserved a drink for “beating back” coronavirus, a joint investigation by the Guardian and Independent was told.
Rules at the time allowed only two people from different households to meet outside, at a distance of 2 metres. Earlier that evening, Matt Hancock, then health secretary, had urged people to “stay at home as much as is possible”.
Read my colleagues’ full story here.
Canada’s Omicron infections could overwhlem Ontario ICUs within weeks, panel warns
The highly-mutated Omicron variant could swamp intensive care capacity in Ontario, Canada within weeks without action, a panel of experts said on Thursday.
“This will likely be the hardest wave of the pandemic. There is still some uncertainty but there is an undeniable urgency,” said Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of Ontario’s Covid advisory group. “Waiting to take action means waiting until it is too late to take action.”
Canada reported 5,810 new Covid cases on Wednesday, an 85% jump from 3,146 infections two weeks beforehand.
The panel said vaccination alone would not tackle Omicron. Instead, it called for public health measures – such as restrictions on indoor gatherings – to cut peoples’ contacts by 50% and accelerate booster doses.
Ontario province, which contains Toronto, has about 600 ICU beds according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with a further 500 surge capacity, but 300 patients will cause knock-on impacts across the health system.