Coronavirus

Covid live: Omicron variant could cause ‘large wave of infections’, UK scientists warn; Switzerland tightens restrictions

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Italy reported 74 coronavirus -related deaths on Friday against 72 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 17,030 from 16,806. Italy has registered 134,077 deaths linked to COVID-19 since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the ninth-highest in the world. The country has reported 5.08 million cases to date.

The Conservatives are pressing ahead with their Christmas party in spite of scientists’ fears over the spread of Omicron, as their co-chair told people to “keep calm and carry on” with festivities, Rowena Mason and Matthew Weaver report.

Labour has decided to cancel its Christmas function though it is not urging businesses to do the same.

Despite criticism of No 10 for allegedly holding lockdown-busting parties last Christmas, the Conservative party’s co-chair said on Friday that No 10 and the central party would be carrying on with their functions.

“We obviously wouldn’t set out details of private functions in No 10 but, as I say, there will be festive events in the run-up to Christmas,” said Oliver Dowden.

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Europe crossed 75 million coronavirus cases on Friday, according to a Reuters tally.

More than 15 countries in Europe have now reported confirmed cases of the new variant that has rattled financial markets.

Even before the discovery of Omicron, Europe was pandemic’s epicentre with 66 out of every 100 new infections each day coming from European countries, according to a Reuters analysis.

Eastern Europe has 33% of the total reported cases and about 53% of the total reported deaths in Europe. It makes up 39% of the region’s population.

The UK has so far reported the highest total number of coronavirus cases in the region followed by Russia, France and Germany.

The Reuters data shows the pace of the pandemic has picked up speed in the second half of 2021. Europe has reported highest daily average of 359,000 new cases in second half as compared with highest daily cases of about 241,000 a day in the first half of the year.

It took 136 days for the European region to go from 50 million cases to 75 million, compared with 194 days it took to get from 25 to 50 million while the first 25 million cases were reported in 350 days.

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The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, has said the first confirmed case of the Omicron variant discovered in Wales is associated with foreign travel.

Public Health Wales has said the case was identified in the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board area.

Drakeford told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “It is associated with international travel.

“The individual has been identified through our sequencing service and public health officials have now been able to contact them, their immediate contacts, and we are confident that the people who need to be in isolation are now doing that.”

Asked about the health of the affected individual, Drakeford said: “I am told that they are reasonably well and not themselves badly affected by the illness.”

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Tunisia reported its first infection from the Omicron variant, the health minister, Ali Mrabet, said on Friday. The infected person was a 23-year-old man from Congo who came to Tunisia from Istanbul airport.

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At least 13 people in Oslo have been infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus following a corporate Christmas party in the capital, and more cases are expected to be confirmed, local authorities said on Friday.

Norway reintroduced some nationwide restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 following the emergence of the new Omicron variant in the country on Thursday.

The outbreak took place at a Christmas party on 26 November organised by renewable energy company Scatec, which has operations in South Africa where the variant was first detected, Reuters reported.

The first person in Oslo confirmed as infected had attended the party, where at least one employee had just returned from the country.

All the attendees were fully vaccinated and had tested negative before the event.

“Health authorities have confirmed a further 12 cases of Omicron in Oslo after an outbreak,” the city of Oslo said in a statement. “So far 13 Omicron cases have been confirmed after sequencing. More cases are expected.”

Health authorities said the individuals infected were so far displaying mild symptoms, with none hospitalised.

“They cough, have sore throats and headaches,” Tine Ravlo, chief physician for the Oslo borough of Frogner, told broadcaster NRK.

Scatec said its focus was on taking care of its employees and limiting the spread of the virus.

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The first case of the Omicron variant has been confirmed in Mexico, the deputy health minister said on Friday. The infected person is a 51-year-old who travelled from South Africa, according to a post on Twitter from the deputy health minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell, who added that the person has only presented mild symptoms so far.

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New analysis from the UK Health Security Agency (HSA) of 22 Omicron cases confirmed in England by 30November shows that:

  • 12 of the 22 cases were more than 14 days after receiving at least two doses of vaccine.
  • Two cases were more than 28 days after a first dose of vaccine.
  • Six were unvaccinated.
  • Two had no available information.

None of the cases are known to have been hospitalised or died, but the HSA said that “most of the cases have a specimen date that is very recent and that there is a lag between onset of infection and hospitalisation and death”.

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Zimbabwe reported a sharp rise in coronavirus infections on Friday despite measures to stem the spread of the virus, a day after it identified its first case of the new Omicron variant.

It announced 1,042 new cases of Covid-19 in the past 24 hours, compared to just around 20 two weeks ago.

After South Africa alerted the world to the new strain of Covid last week, dozens of countries imposed travel bans on southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, AFP reports.

South Africa led a chorus of criticism over the bans, but Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, instead imposed his own restrictions.

On Tuesday, he required a 10-day quarantine for all arrivals in the country, extended a night-time curfew, and required proof of vaccination to visit bars or clubs. But one case of Omicron was confirmed Thursday, and infections are soaring.

The country has limited health surveillance systems, and the huge jump in cases has alarmed authorities.

“We are now in a particularly dangerous period once again,” the health minister, Constantino Chiwenga, said.

As in neighbouring South Africa, a large cluster of infections appears to have emerged among students.

Many are also worried that, under the new quarantine requirement in Zimbabwe, the country’s large migrant population in South Africa will become stuck at the land border after crossing back over for the Christmas holidays.

Zimbabwe has reported 136,379 Covid-19 infections since March 2020, including 4,707 deaths.

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The Czech health ministry is preparing a decree making Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for people over 60, as well as workers in critical sectors such as medical staff, police, soldiers and firefighters, the news website idnes.cz

reported.

The government has been considering compulsory vaccinations due to lagging inoculation numbers compared with west European nations, Reuters reported.

The country of 10.7 million has been one of the world’s worst-hit in recent weeks by a surge in infections. Some other European countries have begun moving towards compulsory vaccinations, including the Czech Republic’s neighbour Austria, which has mandated shots for all citizens.

The report states the decree should be published next week, with the vaccine mandate effective from March.

But whether it remains in place long enough to take effect could be in doubt, as the government is due to be replaced by a centre-right coalition later this month following an election in October. The new coalition has been against compulsory vaccination for age groups, and lukewarm on mandatory vaccination for professions.

Just 59.6% of Czechs are vaccinated, compared to an EU average of 66.3%, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

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Canada has discovered a total of 11 cases of the new omicron variant, all of them among travellers who arrived from abroad, chief public health officer Theresa Tam told reporters on Friday. “The need for heightened vigilance remains, regardless of which variant is circulating,” she said.

Two people who returned to Russia from South Africa on Friday tested positive for Covid-19 and their test samples are being studied to determine whether their infection was caused by the new Omicron variant, Russian authorities said.

The two have been hospitalised, Russia’s public health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said in a statement.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether their condition required hospital care or they were admitted to a hospital for additional testing because of the variant, AP reports.

Russia restricted entry for all foreigners travelling from countries in southern Africa and required all Russian nationals returning from South Africa or neighbouring countries as of Thursday to quarantine for 14 days because of the the Omicron variant, which was first reported by scientists in South Africa.

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More regions of Russia have made Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for residents age 60 and over as the country tries to control infections and to keep the Omicron variant at bay, AP reports.

Authorities in the northern region of Komi said on Friday that people in that age group are required to get fully vaccinated by 1 February. The Omsk region in Siberia introduced a more stringent timeline on Thursday that obligates those 60 and above to get their first vaccine dose by Dec. 24 and their second dose by Jan. 15.

Several other regions, including Lipetsk, Kurgan and the city of St. Petersburg, adopted similar mandates in recent weeks.

Some regions also imposed vaccine mandates for certain categories of essential workers.

Russia has struggled to get cases down amid low vaccination rates and poor compliance with public health measures.

About 40% of Russia’s nearly 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though the country approved a domestically developed Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, months before most of the world.

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Does the Omicron variant mean Covid is going to become more transmissible?

Here Hannah Devlin, Guardian science correspondent, looks at the facts.

The first case of the Omicron variant has been detected in Wales, in the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board area, the Welsh Government has announced.

The case is linked to international travel, according to officials.

The government said it was “prepared to respond rapidly to emerging variants of concern and intensive investigations and robust public health action are being taken to slow any spread”.

Meanwhile, the public in Wales have been urged to follow steps “which keep us safe”, with the government calling for people to take up the offer of a vaccine.

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