Netherlands launches ‘painful’ Christmas COVID lockdown

All the latest updates as Iran reports first Omicron case and Netherlands gets locked up.

People leave after receiving their COVID-19 vaccines at a vaccination center in Iran Mall shopping center in Tehran, Iran [Vahid Salemi/AP Photo]

Iran has detected its first case of infection by the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The announcement on Sunday comes as Europe tries to rein in the rising number of infections linked to the highly mutated strain.

Germany’s health authority also announced that the United Kingdom had been added to its list of COVID high-risk countries, which will mean tighter travel restrictions.

Many countries are reimposing travel restrictions and other measures weeks after the variant was first detected in South Africa.

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Kremlin convinced WHO will approve Sputnik V vaccine within months

The Kremlin is convinced that the World Health Organization (WHO) will recognise Russia’s flagship Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine within a few months, the Interfax news agency cited Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying.

The Kremlin on Tuesday said Russia had still not handed over all the information needed for the vaccine to be approved by the WHO because of differences in regulatory standards.

France not planning to extend Christmas holidays due to COVID: minister

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said on BFM television that the government has no plans to extend the Christmas school holidays because of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Some European countries have brought Christmas holidays forward, and French conservative presidential candidate Valerie Pecresse has called for an extension of them in order to help ensure any infections caught over year-end holidays are discovered before children return to school.

Italy eyes new COVID-19 measures amid Omicron worries: reports

Italy’s government is considering new measures to avoid a surge in COVID infections during the holiday period, local newspapers reported, amid worries over the spread of the Omicron variant.

After holding a meeting with ministers on December 23, Prime Minister Mario Draghi could impose an obligation on the vaccinated to show a negative test to access crowded places, including discos and stadiums, daily Corriere della Sera reported.

Under current rules, people who have been vaccinated or have recently recovered from the disease have free access to indoor seating at bars and restaurants, museums, cinemas, clubs and sporting events.

“Some measures, such as making masks compulsory even outdoors … could be taken soon,” Franco Locatelli, one of the government’s main scientific advisors, told the newspaper.

People walk at a street a year after the peak of Italy’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bergamo, the country’s epicentre, Italy [File: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters]

Netherlands starts ‘painful’ Christmas coronavirus lockdown

Shopping streets in the Netherlands were closed and people’s Christmas plans were in disarray as the country began a lockdown aimed at limiting an expected COVID-19 surge.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced the sudden shut-down on Saturday evening, ordering the closure of all but the most essential stores, as well as restaurants, hairdressers, gyms, museums and other public places from Sunday until at least January 14.

Hospitality workers demanded compensation for lost income in the holiday season, while gym owners stressed the importance of exercise during a health crisis.

“Closing all bars and restaurants in such an important month is incredibly painful and dramatic. We need compensation and an exit strategy”, the Dutch association for hospitality services said.

UK PM’s position not too weak to impose further COVID restrictions: Javid

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not too politically weak to bring in further COVID-19 restrictions if necessary, health minister Sajid Javid said.

Johnson is facing the biggest crisis of his premiership after a litany of scandals and missteps, and earlier this week more than 100 of his own lawmakers voted against the government’s latest measures to tackle the spread of COVID-19.

Asked on BBC Television if Johnson was too weak to bring in any further restrictions, Javid said: “No, I don’t think that’s the case … if the government felt that further action had to be taken of course we would present that to parliament and it would be for parliament to decide.”

Report: Iran announces first case of omicron variant

Iran has detected its first case of infection by the omicron variant of the coronavirus, state TV reported.

Deputy Health Minister Kamal Heidari told state TV that the infected person was a middle-age Iranian man who recently returned to Iran from the United Arab Emirates.

“The necessary measures were taken to quarantine this person who lives in Tehran and those who were in contact with him,” Heidari said. “This is the first case of Omicron [coronavirus] variant that has been identified in Iran.”

Iran has vaccinated some 60 percent of its population of roughly 85 million people with two doses of coronavirus vaccines.

Officials urged people who got two doses of vaccine to get their third dose as soon as possible.

London Mayor: Inevitable we will have more COVID restrictions

New COVID-19 restrictions are inevitable as without them Britain will see public services such as the National Health Service (NHS) on the verge of collapse, London Mayor Sadiq Khan told BBC Television.

Khan declared a “major incident” on Saturday to help the capital’s hospitals cope with a surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant.

“I think it’s inevitable,” Khan told the BBC when asked about the likelihood of further restrictions. “If we don’t bring in new restrictions sooner rather than later you’re going to see even more positive cases and potentially public services like the NHS on the verge of collapse, if not collapsing.”

UK health minister Javid: I understand Frost’s reasons for quitting

British health minister Sajid Javid said he understood why Brexit minister David Frost, who quit over disillusionment with the direction of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, had resigned.

“I do understand his reasons. He is a principled man, principled people do resign from the government,” Javid told Sky News when asked about the resignation.

UK is monitoring COVID data closely, to act if necessary: health minister

The British government is monitoring the latest COVID-19 data on an almost hourly basis and will do whatever is necessary to tackle the spread, health minister Sajid Javid told Sky News.

Javid said analysis of the data suggested around 60 percent of all new COVID-19 cases in England are the fast-spreading Omicron variant, but the country was in a better position than last Christmas thanks to things such as vaccinations and testing.

Asked about reports of possible further measures, Javid said: “We will do what is necessary but it has got to be backed up by the data … we are watching the data, discussing it with our scientists and our best advisers almost on an hourly basis and we will monitor that very carefully we will keep the situation under review.”

China administered total of 2.67bn doses of COVID-19 vaccines

China administered about 12 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines on December 18, bringing the total to 2.67 billion, data from the National Health Commission showed.

Omicron less effective at attacking lungs than other variants: Study

British research has found Omicron might be less efficient at attacking the lungs than earlier COVID-19 variants.

The Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease study concluded mutations on the virus’s spike protein, which makes it able to avoid antibodies, may also reduce how it replicates in the lungs and causes severe disease.

“These observations highlight that Omicron has gained immune evasion properties whilst compromising on properties associated with replication and pathogenicity,” the study’s abstract stated.

Study leader Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge, said there are still challenges ahead despite the seemingly positive findings.

He tweeted: “What does this all mean? Efficient infection of lung cells could correlate with severity of lung disease. Syncitia or fused cells are often seen in respiratory tissues taken following severe disease. Delta was very good at both, in contrast to Omicron. Further work is needed.”

Biden to deliver Tuesday speech on Omicron variant amid COVID rise

US President Joe Biden will deliver a speech on Tuesday addressing the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, NBC News reported on Saturday, citing a White House official.

Biden is expected to go beyond his “Winter Plan” with additional steps to help communities in need, the report said.

Earlier, Vice President Kamala Harris admitted that the government “didn’t see Omicron coming”.

“And that’s the nature of what this, this awful virus has been, which as it turns out, has mutations and variants,” she said.

Australia says it is well prepared for mounting COVID-19 cases

Australian officials on Sunday said there was no need to clamp down on Christmas festivities even as new COVID-19 infections climbed in Sydney, with the country’s high vaccination rate helping keep people out of hospital.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was confident Australia would not need to follow the Netherlands, which has reimposed a strict lockdown over the Christmas and New Year period to curb the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

“We’re going into summer, we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and a very different set of circumstances. So we don’t see that’s a likely situation in Australia,” Hunt told reporters in a televised media conference.

“We’re well prepared and people are overwhelmingly … continuing to do an amazing job,” Hunt said, referring to the more than 90% of Australians over 16 who have been fully vaccinated.

Dutch head into Christmas ‘lockdown’ to stop Omicron

The Netherlands will go into “lockdown” over the Christmas period to try to stop a surge of the Omicron coronavirus variant, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has announced.

All non-essential shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums and theatres must shut from Sunday until January 14, while schools must close until at least January 9, Rutte said on Saturday.

People are now only allowed two guests at home, except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, December 26 and the New Year period when four guests are permitted.

“I stand here tonight in a sombre mood,” Rutte told a televised press conference.

“To sum it up in one sentence, the Netherlands will go back into lockdown from tomorrow.

“It is inevitable with the fifth wave and with Omicron spreading even faster than we had feared. We must now intervene as a precaution.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies