Coronavirus

Covid news live: WHO declares 2022 to be the year ‘we end the pandemic’ as US says Omicron is now dominant strain

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Hong Kong adds Britain to government camp quarantine

Travellers to Hong Kong from Britain will have to initially quarantine in a government camp from Tuesday, joining 12 African nations and the United States on the city-state’s strictest entry tier, Agence France-Presse reports.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong has maintained some of the world’s toughest quarantine restrictions, with curbs increasing due to the Omicron variant.

Most people arriving in Hong Kong must undergo 21 days of hotel quarantine and frequent testing before being allowed out.

However, people from countries deemed to have high Omicron infection rates must spend the first four days of quarantine in a government-run camp before seeing out the rest of their isolation in a hotel.

Britain was added to that list from midnight on Tuesday.

The other countries on the highest tier are Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, the United States, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Will the UK face another Covid Christmas?

That’s the question Guardian science correspondent Nicola Davis attempts to answer on the latest Today in Focus episode.

The British government hasn’t cancelled Christmas – yet – but the rate of the Omicron variant’s spread should make us all reconsider our plans, Davis reports.

Last winter, after promising the nation it would get to enjoy Christmas as usual, prime minister Boris Johnson’s government made an 11th-hour U-turn, introducing new Covid-19 restrictions in a last-ditch attempt to control the virus. It was “the right decision – made at the wrong time and in the wrong way”, as the Observer put it.

People visit a Christmas market in London, Britain, on 20 December as many wonder whether new Covid curbs will be introduced.
People visit a Christmas market in London, Britain, on 20 December as many wonder whether new Covid curbs will be introduced. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

This year, the government has been reluctant to be seen cancelling Christmas again. But as the Omicron variant sweeps through the country, rising case numbers are making the situation harder to ignore.

Over the weekend, Sage issued guidance suggesting that whole households should stay home if one member tests positive for Covid-19. These guidelines, however, are only recommendations. On Monday afternoon, the prime minister and his cabinet held an emergency meeting to discuss the possibility of introducing new official restrictions, but ultimately decided not to announce binding new curbs quite yet.

All this comes just days after the Guardian published a photo from a May 2020 garden party at Downing Street where Johnson and his partner can be seen apparently breaking lockdown rules. Guardian science correspondent Nicola Davis tells Michael Safi that while trust in the government has suffered, the public has consistently demonstrated a desire to adhere to measures for the collective good.

Listen to the latest Today in Focus episode here.

NHL to shut down season early amid Covid spike across league

The NHL will begin a leaguewide shutdown on Wednesday amid an increase of positive Covid-19 test results among players across the league, ESPN confirmed on Monday night.

Beginning the annual holiday break two days early means five additional games will be postponed, bringing the total this season to 49.

Dallas Stars Ryan Suter defends against a shot by Minnesota Wild left wing Kirill Kaprizov in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Dallas, 20 December.
Dallas Stars Ryan Suter defends against a shot by Minnesota Wild left wing Kirill Kaprizov in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Dallas, 20 December. Photograph: Tony Gutierrez/AP

The league and NHL Players’ Association on Sunday said in a joint statement they were attempting to avoid a leaguewide shutdown and were making decisions on a team-by-team basis. The latest shift gives all 32 teams an extended break before players, coaches and staff can gather again Sunday to skate and undergo coronavirus testing.

Read the full story here.

Summary

It’s been a busy day with announcements from global health bodies and governments changing course on Covid plans.

Here’s a wrap-up of the day’s news so far.

  • The Omicron variant is spreading faster than Delta and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from Covid, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) says.
  • Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has rejected a return to Covid lockdowns.
  • New Zealand has announced a suite of measures to strengthen its defence against the Omicron variant, including pushing back the start of its quarantine-free border reopening for its citizens returning from Australia to the end of February.
  • Singapore has detected a cluster of three Covid-19 cases linked to a gym, its ministry of health said late on Monday.
  • The White House says US president Joe Biden had close contact with a staff member who later tested positive for the coronavirus and is experiencing symptoms of Covid-19.
  • Health officials in Texas say the state has recorded the first death related to the Omicron Covid variant. It is believed to be the first known recorded Omicron death in the United States.
  • Omicron is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the US, federal health officials said on Monday, racing ahead of Delta and other variants and accounting for 73% of new infections last week.
  • Los Angeles has called off its New Year’s Eve celebrations as the Omicron variant sweeps across the US.
  • The World Health Organisation declared 2022 to be the year ‘we end the pandemic’ while sounding a new warning about the Omicron variant, arguing some events over the festive period should be postponed.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has rejected a return to Covid lockdowns.

Ahead of a national cabinet meeting, Morrison told reporters:

We have to move from a culture of mandates to a culture of responsibility.”

We’ve got to get past the heavy hand of government and we’ve got to treat Australians like adults.”

State and territory leaders will hold a snap meeting before Christmas to discuss the issues posed by the Omicron variant.

Morrison has been urging state leaders to avoid lockdowns and mandates.

Scott Morrison rejects return to Covid lockdowns ahead of national cabinet meeting – video

Updated

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has also issued a statement of reassurance while cautioning the country is “not out of the woods yet”.

“We’re not out of the woods yet. But we’ve got your back, and we can get through this,” Trudeau said in a tweet on Monday evening local time.

“We’ve secured enough boosters for adults across Canada, we’ve got enough vaccines for kids over 5 to get their first shot, and we’re sending more rapid tests to the provinces and territories.”

Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau)

We’re not out of the woods yet. But we’ve got your back, and we can get through this. We’ve secured enough boosters for adults across Canada, we’ve got enough vaccines for kids over 5 to get their first shot, and we’re sending more rapid tests to the provinces and territories.

December 20, 2021

Updated

US president Joe Biden has addressed Omicron concerns in a series of tweets on Monday evening.

“Folks, Omicron cases are on the rise in the United States. I want to give you all a sense of where we are and what we know,” the president said, adding that vaccines are working.

If you’re an adult choosing to be unvaccinated, you will face an extremely difficult winter for your family and community.

Omicron cases will increase in the coming days—even among fully vaccinated individuals. If you’re vaccinated and boosted, you may still get a breakthrough case but doctors say you will likely have no symptoms or mild ones.

We still need to take precautions and remain vigilant. Listen to the advice from doctors: even if you’re fully vaccinated, you should wear a mask when indoors in a public setting. It will help protect you and others—especially kids under 5 who can’t get vaccinated yet.

We are working around the clock to increase testing capacity, vaccine availability, and support for our hospitals. I’ll have more to say on this tomorrow. In the meantime: Get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask. And keep the faith. We’ll get through this together.”

President Biden (@POTUS)

Folks, Omicron cases are on the rise in the United States. I want to give you all a sense of where we are and what we know.

December 21, 2021

South Korea is reporting 5,202 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 52 deaths over the last 24 hours.

A total of 1,022 people are believed to be in critical condition.

The country now requires its citizens over the age of 18 to present a quarantine pass, or proof of Covid vaccination or negative PCR test, in order to access indoor sports events, movie theatres or concert halls.

Singapore has detected a cluster of three Covid-19 cases linked to a gym, its ministry of health said late on Monday.

The variant was found in two men, aged 24 and 21, and an 18-year-old woman.

Two cases have reportedly tested preliminarily positive for the Omicron variant and the result for the remaining case is pending.

All three cases are fully vaccinated and have mild symptoms. The health ministry is now pursuing contact tracing, it added.

“All three cases had no recent travel history. Our epidemiological investigations found that they recently visited Anytime Fitness (Bukit Timah Shopping Centre) between 15 December and 17 December 2021,” the statement read.

There have been 71 confirmed Omicron cases detected in Singapore so far, with 65 imported cases and 6 local cases.

Biden had close contact with staffer who tested Covid positive

The White House says US president Joe Biden had close contact with a staff member who later tested positive for the coronavirus and is experiencing symptoms of Covid-19.

Press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Monday night that the staff member tested positive earlier in the day.

The statement read:

On Monday morning, a mid-level staff member, who does not regularly have contact with the President, received a positive result for a Covid-19 test.

Three days earlier, on Friday, that staff member had spent approximately 30 minutes in proximity to the President on Air Force One, on the way from Orangeburg, South Carolina to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This staff member is fully vaccinated and boosted, and tested negative prior to boarding Air Force One, as is required for everyone traveling with the President.

This staff member did not begin to experience symptoms until Sunday, and was tested on Monday.”

Psaki added that Biden, 79, is tested regularly for the virus and has had two negative tests since Sunday. She says he will be tested again Wednesday.

US president Joe Biden returns to the White House via Marine One on 20 December before his press secretary announced a staff member Biden had close contact with tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the day.
US president Joe Biden returns to the White House via Marine One on 20 December before his press secretary announced a staff member Biden had close contact with tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the day. Photograph: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Los Angeles has called off its New Year’s Eve celebrations as the Omicron variant sweeps across the US.

Organisers of the New Year’s Eve party planned for Grand Park in downtown LA nixed plans for an in-person audience, saying the event will be live-streamed instead, as it was last year.

The event, which is operated by the Music Center, had been slated to include an invite-only audience of the county’s front-line workers and first responders.

“Given the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases in the county, the Music Center/Grand Park team determined the safest route to continue with this popular annual tradition would be to eliminate a live audience,” event officials said, the Los Angeles Times reports.

NZ pushes back border reopening in wake of Omicron

New Zealand has announced a suite of measures to strengthen its defence against the Omicron variant, including pushing back the start of its quarantine-free border reopening for its citizens returning from Australia to the end of February.

Our reporter Eva Corlett has the full story below.

The government will also accelerate the booster vaccine roll-out by shortening the gap between second and third shots, meaning 82% of the vaccinated population will be eligible for it by the end of February.

The Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins announced travellers returning to the country will now be required to provide a pre-departure Covid test 48 hours before travel and the government is temporarily lengthening the time of stay in managed isolation and quarantine from 7-10 days.

Read the full story here.

Families reunite at Auckland Domestic Airport on 15 December. New Zealand will now push back the start of its quarantine-free border reopening for its citizens returning from Australia.
Families reunite at Auckland Domestic Airport on 15 December. New Zealand will now push back the start of its quarantine-free border reopening for its citizens returning from Australia. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Hipkins said: “All of the evidence so far points to Omicron being the most transmissible Covid-19 variant yet and public health advice says that soon, every case that comes into MIQ will be Omicron.”

“Covid-19 keeps throwing new curve balls and we have to respond in a way that continues to protect lives and livelihoods without putting in place restrictions and lockdowns unless absolutely necessary.”

Hipkins said the re-opening delay will be disappointing for those who had made travel plans over summer, but added that waiting until the end of February to open would increase New Zealand’s overall protection and slow Omicron’s spread.

Cabinet also confirmed that the Pfizer vaccine will be rolled out to 5-11 year olds from January 17.

Updated

Omicron infecting the vaccinated, evading some immune responses

The Omicron variant is spreading faster than Delta and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from Covid, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a Monday briefing:

There is now consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant.

And it is more likely people vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 could be infected or re-infected.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan added it would be “unwise” to conclude from early evidence that Omicron was a milder variant that previous ones.

“… with the numbers going up, all health systems are going to be under strain,” Soumya Swaminathan said.

The variant is successfully evading some immune responses, she added, meaning that the booster programmes being rolled out in many countries ought to be targeted towards people with weaker immune systems.

“Although we are seeing a reduction in the neutralisation antibodies, almost all preliminary analysis shows T-cell mediated immunity remains intact, that is what we really require,” WHO expert Abdi Mahamud said. “Of course there is a challenge, many of the monoclonals will not work with Omicron,” she added.

US records first Omicron death in Texas

Health officials in Texas say the state has recorded the first death related to the Omicron Covid variant.

It is believed to be the first known recorded Omicron death in the United States, according to a statement from Harris County health officials.

The victim was reportedly a man in his 50s, who was unvaccinated and had underlying health conditions.

The statement read:

The death reported this afternoon was of a man between the ages of 50-60 years old who was unvaccinated and had been infected with Covid-19 previously. The individual was at higher risk of severe complications from Covid-19 due to his unvaccinated status and had underlying health conditions.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo made the announcement during an afternoon news conference.

“My phone was ringing, I’m sure you guys noticed, and it was our public health director telling me we just had our first Omicron-related death,” she said.

Lina Hidalgo (@LinaHidalgoTX)

Sad to report the first local fatality from the Omicron variant of COVID-19. A man in his 50’s from the eastern portion of Harris County who was not vaccinated. Please – get vaccinated and boosted.

December 20, 2021

Omicron is now dominant Covid variant in US, officials say

Omicron is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the US, federal health officials said on Monday, racing ahead of Delta and other variants and accounting for 73% of new infections last week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers showed nearly a six-fold increase in Omicron’s share of infections in only one week.

The increase in Covid cases across the US is mapped with data compiled from Johns Hopkins University.
The increase in Covid cases across the US is mapped with data compiled from Johns Hopkins University. Photograph: The Guardian

In much of the country, Omicron’s prevalence is even higher. It’s responsible for an estimated 90% of new infections in the New York area, the south-east, the industrial midwest and the Pacific north-west.

Since the end of June, the Delta variant has been the main version causing US infections. As recently as the end of November, more than 99.5% of coronaviruses were Delta, according to CDC data.

Read the full story here.

The World Health Organisation sounded a new warning about the Omicron variant, arguing some events over the festive period should be postponed.

“All of us are sick of this pandemic,” said WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The fastest way to do this, he said, could mean potentially cancelling or delaying holiday events.

“An event cancelled is better than a life cancelled,” he said. The WHO says there’s now consistent evidence that the Omicron strain is spreading faster than the Delta variant

Watch the video from Monday’s briefing below.

‘An event cancelled is better than a life cancelled’: WHO urges rethink of holiday events – video

WHO declares 2022 to be the year ‘we end the pandemic’

The world must pull together and make the difficult choices needed to end the Covid-19 pandemic within the next year, the World Health Organization’s director general told reporters in Geneva.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus offered some hope to ending the pandemic, which already killed more than 5.6 million people worldwide, saying:

2022 must be the year we end the pandemic.”

WHO pointed towards the development of second and third generation vaccines, and the further development of antimicrobial treatments and other innovations.

The WHO’s top emergency expert, told the briefing:

(We) hope to consign this disease to a relatively mild disease that is easily prevented, that is easily treated.

If we can keep virus transmission to minimum, then we can bring the pandemic to an end.”

As end-of-year festivities approach, the UN health agency chief said countries should rein in national events linked to the holidays because allowing crowds to gather would be a “perfect platform” for Omicron to spread.

WHO warned that holiday festivities would in many places lead to “increased cases, overwhelmed health systems and more deaths” and urged people to postpone gatherings.

“An event cancelled is better than a life cancelled,” Ghebreyesus said.

It would be better to cancel events now and celebrate later “than to celebrate now and grieve later”, he added.

Since it was first reported in South Africa in November, Omicron has been identified in dozens of countries.

Hello it’s Samantha Lock back with you for today’s Covid blog as we countdown until the holiday break.

First up, some positive news to share with you.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has offered some hope to ending the Covid-19 pandemic, which has so far killed more than 5.6 million people worldwide.

“2022 must be the year we end the pandemic,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Monday.

“(We) hope to consign this disease to a relatively mild disease that is easily prevented, that is easily treated,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert, added. “If we can keep virus transmission to minimum, then we can bring the pandemic to an end.”

Over in the US Omicron has been found to be the dominant version of the coronavirus, federal health officials have said, racing ahead of Delta and other variants and accounting for 73% of new infections last week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) numbers showed nearly a six-fold increase in Omicron’s share of infections in only one week.

Omicron is responsible for an estimated 90% of new infections in the New York area, the south-east, the industrial midwest and the Pacific north-west.

Here’s a quick roundup of what’s been happening so far:

  • The UK government held off announcing further Covid restrictions but its prime minister, Boris Johnson, warned further measures remain on the table, with data on the threat of Omicron monitored “hour by hour”. Johnson was accused of failing to follow scientists’ advice on the need for immediate restrictions while leaving millions of people and businesses in limbo after a two-hour cabinet meeting ended with no decision on Monday.
  • Schools, bars, gyms and cinemas in Quebec will close as of Monday as public health officials race to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. All non-essential workers are being asked to work from home and restaurants will have to reduce their capacity to 50% and limit their hours from 5am to 10pm.
  • London’s New Year’s Eve celebration event in Trafalgar Square will not take place because of the surge in cases of the Omicron Covid variant in the capital, the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has said.
  • The European Union’s drugs regulator has given the green light to a fifth Covid vaccine for use, granting conditional marketing authorisation to the two-dose treatment made by the US biotech company Novavax.
  • Donald Trump was greeted with boos from a live audience after revealing he has received a Covid-19 vaccine booster shot. The former US president dismissed the crowd’s negative response and claimed his administration was responsible for developing the coronavirus vaccines.
  • Moderna said a booster dose of its Covid vaccine appeared to be protective against the fast-spreading Omicron variant in laboratory testing and that the current version of the vaccine would continue to be Moderna’s “first line of defence against Omicron”.
  • Britain reported 91,743 new Covid cases on Monday, the second-highest figure since the start of the pandemic, as the Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly. The number of deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test was 44.
  • Queen Elizabeth will celebrate Christmas at Windsor instead of her usual choice of Sandringham over Covid safety fears, according to a palace source. The monarch usually spends the festive holiday at her estate in Norfolk and sources have said the decision was “a personal one after careful consideration and reflects a precautionary approach”.
  • The Russian maker of the Covid Sputnik V vaccine is due to submit its latest data by the end of December, with manufacturing site inspections expected to follow in February, a World Health Organization official said.
  • Panama has detected its first case of the Omicron variant of Covid, the Central American country’s health ministry said.

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