Germany’s outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Saturday made what is likely her final appeal before leaving office next week for Germans to get vaccinated against Covid.
Merkel gave what is expected to be her last weekly video message two days after federal and state leaders decided on a series of measures meant to break a wave of coronavirus infections.
The measures include excluding unvaccinated people across the country from nonessential stores, restaurants and sports and cultural venues. In a longer-term move, parliament will consider a general vaccine mandate.
At least 68.9% of Germans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, short of the government’s aim of a minimum 75% vaccination rate. The number of unvaccinated residents has been blamed as a key factor in a surge of new virus cases in recent weeks.
Official figures suggest that the infection rate may now be stabilising, but at too high a level.
The UK health secretary, Sajid Javid, has met the World Health Organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, describing the meeting as “productive”.
“We continue to work with WHO on our global treaty to prepare for and respond to future pandemics, and on building a global surveillance network.”
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Saturday urged Germans to get vaccinated against Covid-19, speaking days ahead of leaving office in the final episode of more than 600 weekly video podcasts.
“I once again emphatically ask you to take this tricky virus seriously,” Merkel said, calling the fourth coronavirus wave to hit Germany “very serious” and even “dramatic”, with intensive care units overloaded in some parts of the country.
“The new Omicron variant in particular seems to be even more infectious than those that came before. Get yourself vaccinated, whether it’s your first shot or a booster,” she added.
“Every vaccine helps.”
After 16 years in power, Merkel is expected to pass the reins to Social Democrat, Olaf Scholz, following a vote in parliament on Wednesday to elect the new chancellor.
In her podcast, she thanked “those who are reasonable and understanding in this difficult period” and “stick to the rules to protect themselves and take care of others”.
“You are the vast majority in our country. You demonstrate the civic responsibility that’s so marvellous about our country, without which no chancellor or government can achieve anything.”
One of Scholz’s first steps as head of government is expected to be passing a law to make vaccination compulsory from February or March next year.
Most of the political spectrum has rallied behind the previously controversial move.
Looking back at her first video podcast in 2006, Merkel recalled that “back then it was very unusual for a head of government to address the public online so directly”.
“My hope at the time, that the World Cup should be a great party even beyond the stadiums, was more than fulfilled,” she added, using the “summer fairytale” moniker Germans still apply to the football tournament they hosted that year.
While Merkel touched on a vast range of subjects in podcasts over her time in office, from digitalisation to antisemitism, in the past two years she has frequently spoken about the pandemic.
UK government officials and scientific advisers believe that the danger posed by the Omicron variant may not be clear until January, potentially allowing weeks of intense mixing while the variant spreads.
Across Westminster, invitations to Christmas drinks are landing in embossed envelopes or on WhatsApp groups. Departmental staff parties are set to take place, as well as a reception for journalists with Rishi Sunak at No 11. Even Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves are hosting a joint bash.
However, minutes for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggest there is deep concern about the threat from the new variant, particularly its transmissibility. Though there is a wariness about overreacting, one government scientific adviser said Downing Street was “putting all its eggs in one basket” by focusing its efforts on the booster vaccine drive.
Russia has reported 32,974 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours. Additionally, 1,215 deaths were reported in the country.
GP targets suspended to focus on vaccination programme in England
Doctors’ leaders in England have welcomed a move to suspend some targets for GPs to enable them to concentrate on the vaccination programme, but warned the service remains under pressure.
NHS England has told GPs that routine health checks for the over-75s and for new patients may be deferred. Dr Farah Jameel, chair of the BMA’s England GP committee, said suspending some paperwork would create some additional capacity, but that individual practices would have to decide how much they could switch to delivering Covid jabs.
“That will then allow us to support the national effort – the national priority being to one vaccinating the nation as quickly as possible,” she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“We have been struggling with significant prevailing workforce pressures – backlog pressures, winter pressures, pandemic pressures.
“Whilst these changes make a difference and start to create some time, I think every single practice will have to look at just how much time it does release.
“What it will do is free up staff time who are busy filling some of these tick-box exercises, so some of our staff can be redeployed to the vaccination effort.”
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UK prime minister reported to police over lockdown breaches
The UK prime minister has been reported to the police by Labour MPs over allegations there were at least two parties in Downing Street during lockdown restrictions last year.
Neil Coyle, Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, wrote to the Met police commissioner, Cressida Dick, asking her to investigate reports that the prime minister spoke at a leaving do in November and also allowed a staff Christmas party to go ahead in December.
At the time, there were lockdown restrictions in place preventing socialising. After sending the letter, Coyle said: “I believe they broke the law. Most of my constituents followed the rules; those that didn’t faced penalties. Johnson is not above the law, despite his bloated self-entitlement.”
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In England, unvaccinated women who suffered with Covid-19 during their pregnancies have told “terrifying” stories of having the virus, from being rushed to hospital to having emergency C-sections.
The women appear in a video sharing their experiences of severe Covid-19 during pregnancy as part of a new campaign encouraging expectant mothers to get the vaccine.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said 98% of pregnant women in hospital with symptomatic Covid-19 are unvaccinated.
The video features three women who experienced serious complications after contracting Covid-19 before they had been vaccinated, as well as the doctors and frontline staff who treated them, to warn of the dangers of the virus for pregnant women and their babies.
Christina, a mental health therapist from Guildford who was admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in her third trimester, said: “I had to give birth via emergency C-section because there was concern that I could have a stillbirth. It was terrifying.
“I don’t know what the future holds for me and my baby; I’m still suffering with symptoms now along with the anxiety of not knowing how or when I’ll recover.
“I would urge pregnant women to get vaccinated because I don’t want anyone to experience what I went through.”
Tanviha, who works in anaesthesiology and research in Manchester, spent two months in hospital with Covid-19 following an emergency C-section, said she caught Covid-19 during her second pregnancy in February.
An Italian man who wanted a coronavirus vaccine certificate without actually having the jab tried to play the system by presenting health workers with a fake arm.
Despite the realistic skin colour, nobody was fooled by the silicone limb, and the man – in his 50s – was reported to local police following the incident on Thursday night in Biella, northwest Italy.
“The case borders on the ridiculous, if it were not for the fact we are talking about a gesture of enormous gravity,” the head of the Piedmont regional government, Albert Cirio, said in a statement on Facebook.
He said such an act was “unacceptable faced with the sacrifice that our entire community has paid during the pandemic, in terms of human lives, the social and economic cost.”
The Cook Islands on Saturday recorded its first case of Covid-19 since the pandemic began, as the South Pacific country edges toward reopening its borders to tourists.
The nation of around 17,000 people has one of the highest vaccination rates globally, with 96% of the eligible population double-dosed.
The virus was detected in a 10-year-old boy quarantining after arriving on a repatriation flight with his family on Thursday, the prime minister, Mark Brown, said in a statement. The boy was believed to have flown in from New Zealand.
Record cases in South Korea
South Korea again broke its daily records for coronavirus infections and deaths and confirmed three more cases of the new Omicron variant as officials scramble to tighten social distancing and border controls.
The 5,352 new cases reported by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Saturday marked the third time this week the daily tally exceeded 5,000. The country’s death toll was at 3,809 after a record 70 virus patients died in the past 24 hours, while the 752 patients in serious or critical conditions were also an all-time high.
As the Delta-driven surge threatens to overwhelm hospital systems, there is also concern about the local spread of the Omicron variant, which is seen as potentially more infectious than previous strains of the virus.
The country’s omicron caseload is now at nine after KDCA confirmed three more cases. The new cases include the wife, mother-in-law and a friend of a man who caught Omicron from a couple he drove home from the airport after they arrived from Nigeria on 24 November. The couple’s teenage child and two other women who also travelled to Nigeria have also been infected with Omicron.
Officials say the number of Omicron cases could rise as some of the patients had attended a church gathering involving hundreds of people on 28 November.
While the emergence of Omicron has triggered global alarm and pushed governments around the world to tighten their borders, scientists say it remains unclear whether the new variant is more contagious, more likely to evade the protection provided by vaccines or more likely to cause serious illnesses than previous versions of the virus.