The Omicron coronavirus variant vigorously continued its viral march across the US on Christmas Day, throwing many winter holiday celebrations into turmoil.
Airlines canceled over 2,000 flights on Friday, with more than 600 within, into or out of the US, stranding passengers after short-staffed carriers were hit by pilot and flight attendants reporting infections. Hundreds more cancellations were anticipated for Saturday.
The global tally of cancelled flights exceeded 5,400 trips over the weekend.
FlightAware, a flight-tracking website, noted 888 flights entering, leaving or inside the US were canceled on Saturday, up from 690 on Friday.
Christian churches were disrupted, with many canceling in-person congregations, while others planned outdoor services or a hybrid of online and in-person worship, including requirements to wear masks and show proof of Covid-19 vaccinations.
Comedian Sarah Millican has led a campaign to help keep people connected during Christmas, offering entertainment, distraction and someone to speak to for anyone feeling lonely or isolated.
Social media users have enthusiastically responded with pictures of their breakfasts and pets under the hashtag #JoinIn.
Just over a year ago, Anna-Jane Casey was forced to abandon the Covid-shuttered West End to deliver hundreds of parcels in a second-hand van. She was overjoyed to find herself back on stage this Christmas in one of theatreland’s most star-studded and critically acclaimed shows: Cabaret.
But productions are at the mercy of Omicron, with the highly transmissible Covid variant ripping holes in casts and backstage staff daily, so Casey’s triumphant return to the West End has been put on hold.
“Cabaret had to come off [last week] because there are about four to five cast members ill,” she said from her home in Kent. “It’s hit so many different departments: the dressers in the wardrobe department … our automation and sound and lighting. We’ve got a lot of cases across the board – and we’re a new production so the understudies aren’t ready to step in yet.”
Cabaret – which stars Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley in a revival of the 1960s musical about the Nazi-menaced nightlife of the Weimar republic – is not the only theatrical casualty of the wave of infections sweeping the capital. Last week more than 70 performances of 31 shows were axed, including Moulin Rouge, Mamma Mia! and Matilda.
“Up until about four days ago, 2021 was rocking along just fine. But we seem to be back where we were last year,” said Casey, who has appeared in shows including Chicago and Billy Elliot. “Producers are losing money hand over fist. Our producers are being unbelievably generous and paying us while we are not working but I don’t know how long that will last.”
How do you forecast the future of the British economy during something as unpredictable as a pandemic? The Guardian’s Economics editor Larry Elliot spoke to Richard Hughes about just how they have tried to do that over the past year and what they’re learning over at the Office for Budget Responsibility.
We spend a lot of time talking to public health experts, to epidemiologists, to [England’s chief medical officer] Chris Whitty and to Sage advisers. We start by saying: what’s the outlook for the virus? How effective are the vaccines? What are the prospects of having to reimpose Covid restrictions? Because all of that dictates the near-term economic outlook.
When you are hit with an enormous shock, you gather information from wherever you can get it.
The Queen looked back on a year marked by personal, as well as national, grief in her Christmas Day message – the first since the loss of her husband – yet strived to strike a more hopeful tone for the year to come.
As a second year marked by the Covid-19 pandemic drew towards its end, the 95-year-old monarch said she could understand the feelings of all those who have lost loved ones, having been bereaved herself in April. Nevertheless, she looked forward becoming the first British monarch to celebrate a platinum jubilee – 70 years on the throne – in 2022.
“Although it’s a time of great happiness and good cheer for many, Christmas can be hard for those who have lost loved ones. This year, especially, I understand why,” the Queen said in her annual televised address.
Two more members of the K-pop boy band BTS have tested positive after the group returned to South Korea from performances in the United States.
Rapper RM and singer Jin joined their bandmate Suga, who tested positive on Friday.
The concerts in Los Angeles were their first in-person performances in the country since the start of the pandemic, which forced them to call off their biggest ever world tour last year.
All three members of the group, which has spearheaded a global craze for K-pop, had been double-vaccinated.
Scientists who have become familiar faces during the course of the pandemic have taken to Twitter on Christmas Day. Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and lead researcher of the Covid Symptom Study app, shared an impressive model of a church made from lateral flow tests.
From Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of government advisory body the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group:
From Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of Independent Sage and former interim director Runnymede Trust:
Kit Yates, senior lecturer in mathematical biology at the University of Bath, writes:
From University College London infectious diseases expert Dr Neil Stone, who is working on the ward on Christmas Day:
And finally a Christmas Day message from the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:
Ireland reports highest daily Covid cases
Ireland recorded 13,765 new cases on Saturday, more than 2,500 more than its previous record of 11,182 cases just yesterday. Approximately 83% of reported cases are believed to be the Omicron variant.
As of 8am this morning, there are 378 people in hospital with the virus and 87 people in intensive care with Covid.
The Department of Health said “large volumes” of case numbers are anticipated over the coming period.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK will be forced to self-isolate on Christmas Day after a record 122,186 tested positive for Covid, the highest daily figure since the pandemic began.
If you are self-isolating at Christmas and feeling alone, you’re far from the only one. You can join the comedian Sarah Millican’s #JoinIn Twitter hashtag on Twitter and speak to others in your position.
Now in its 11th year, #JoinIn is a space for people who have not chosen to be alone but find themselves on their own on Christmas Day.
The Omicron variant has become the dominant strain in Portugal, one of the countries with the highest Covid vaccination rates worldwide, officials said.
“The Omicron variant is already dominant in Portugal,” the General Directorate of Health said, “accounting for 61.5% of cases on December 22.”
On Friday, Portugal recorded 11 deaths and 12,943 cases – a record since 29 January.
Schools, bars and clubs are closed until 10 January, with people told to work from home and face masks mandatory indoors.
Germany recorded 22,214 new cases, compared with 35,431 the day before, officials said. A further 157 deaths were recorded.
The latest figures came after health authorities admitted they are struggling to trace the contacts of people infected with Covid. In an interview published yesterday, Ute Teichert, chair of the Federal Association of Doctors in the Public Health Service, said “comprehensive followup [of Covid cases] is almost no longer taking place at the moment.”
In some German states including Baden-Württemberg, Berlin and Hamburg, contact tracing has been completely suspended as officials focus on recording the “numerous coronavirus infections”, she added.
Thousands of people across England will receive a Christmas Day booster jab as the vaccination effort continues in the face of record case rates.
Queues have been spotted at pharmacies as people wait for their “jingle jabs” with appointments available in locations in London, Manchester, Swindon and Eastbourne. Vaccination clinics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are closed today.
NHS England has thanked staff who are working or volunteering on Christmas Day. In a tweet, it said: “From vaccinators to volunteers, porters to paramedics, midwives to mental health practitioners, and all other essential workers – thank you to everyone who is working over the festive period!”
Meanwhile, the government says it will be sending millions of text messages on Boxing Day urging people to “get boosted now”.
The message will say: “Every adult needs a Covid-19 booster vaccine to protect against Omicron. Get your Covid-19 vaccine or booster.”
Malaysia has detected its first local case of the Omicron variant, officials have said. In a briefing today, the country’s health minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, said the case was reported in the Borneo state of Sarawak on Christmas Eve.
The individual, a 38-year-old Chinese national, is fully vaccinated and has not travelled abroad recently, he added. The cause of the infection is not known and investigations are ongoing.
Malaysia has a total of 62 Omicron cases, about half of which are from Saudi Arabia, followed by five from the UK, four from Qatar and three from the US.
New Covid measures in England could be in place until late March under measures examined by the UK government’s scientific advisers, Press Association reports.
The modelling by experts from Warwick University considered a package of measures including a ban on socialising with another household indoors and a return to the rule of six outdoors, in line with the Step 2 restrictions in place in England earlier this year.
The research, published on Christmas Eve by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group (Spi-M-O), looked at imposing Step 2 restrictions on either 28 December or New Year’s Day and keeping them in place until 15 or 18 January or 28 March 28. A summary read:
A reduction in mixing equivalent to half that of Step 2 results in only a very small reduction in severe outcomes compared to Plan B alone.
Step 2 has a much larger effect, reducing the number of deaths up to 31st May by 39% (24-54%) if kept in place from 28 December until 28 March , and 18% (12-27%) if kept in place until 15 January.
The work was completed before the latest data suggesting the Omicron variant may produce less severe illness than the Delta strain.