UK PM Johnson rules out new COVID curbs before Christmas

The British leader says the government is monitoring Omicron closely and does not rule out new measures after Christmas.

People ice skate around the Christmas tree at the Natural History Museum amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in London, UK on December 21, 2021 [Kevin Coombs/Reuters]

United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced his government will not be introducing new COVID-19 restrictions in England before Christmas.

“We don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify any tougher measures before Christmas,” he said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, hundreds of far-right protesters gathered in Bucharest, Romania, on Tuesday to oppose a bill that would introduce a COVID pass or “green certificates” in workplaces to curb the spread of coronavirus infections.

Dozens forced their way into the parliament building’s courtyard and some tried to access the building but were stopped by riot police.

The WHO has said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading ‘significantly faster’ than the Delta strain and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from COVID-19.

This live blog is now closed. Here were Tuesday’s updates:

Oxford, AstraZeneca launch work on Omicron-targeted vaccine: Report

Oxford University and AstraZeneca Plc have begun work to produce an Omicron-targeted version of their coronavirus vaccine, the Financial Times reported.

A research group leader at Oxford, Sandy Douglas, told FT that preliminary steps in producing an updated vaccine have been taken in case it is needed, together with their partners AstraZeneca.

“Adenovirus-based vaccines (such as that made by Oxford/AstraZeneca) could in principle be used to respond to any new variant more rapidly than some may previously have realised,” Douglas said.

Israel to authorise fourth COVID-19 vaccine shot

The Israeli government announced late on Tuesday that it will authorise a fourth COVID-19 vaccine jab for medics and people over the age of 60 following the recommendations of an expert panel at the ministry of health.

“The citizens of Israel were the first in the world to receive the third dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, and we are continuing to pioneer with the fourth dose as well,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that authorising the fourth jab still needs the approval of the health ministry’s director general, which is “expected within days”.

Biden slams media outlets ‘peddling lies’ about vaccines

US President Joe Biden has slammed media outlets that spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, calling them “immoral” and accusing them of “peddling lies” that can kill their own consumers.

In a speech on Tuesday, Biden pleaded with all Americans to get their jabs, saying that unvaccinated people have a reason to be concerned about the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

“The unvaccinated are responsible for their own choices, but those choices have been fuelled by dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media,” he said.

NHL decides against competing in Beijing due to COVID-19: ESPN

The National Hockey League will not send its players to compete in the men’s ice hockey tournament at the Beijing Olympics due to coronavirus concerns, ESPN reported.

The NHL agreed last September to pause its regular season so the world’s top players could compete in Beijing with the caveat it could withdraw if COVID-19 disruptions forced games to be rescheduled during the Olympics window.

Alaba, Isco join Real Madrid COVID positive list

Austrian defender David Alaba and Spanish midfielder Isco have joined Real Madrid’s list of players contracting COVID-19, the Liga leaders announced.

“Real Madrid CF confirm our players Isco and David Alaba have tested positive for COVID-19,” the club said in a statement.

The pair join six other players recovering from the virus – Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, Andriy Lunin, Rodrygo, Luka Modric and Marcelo – and assistant coach Davide Ancelotti, son of head coach Carlo Ancelotti.

Biden tells unvaccinated Americans to be ‘concerned’ about new variant

Joe Biden warned unvaccinated Americans were putting themselves and loved ones at risk amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

“If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned,” Biden said.

While vaccinated people who get COVID-19 may get ill, they are protected from severe illness and death, he added, and said they should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as they had planned.

People wait in long lines to take a free COVID-19 test at a local fire station in Washington, US [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Get booster shot to protect your family: Biden

US leader Joe Biden said it was vital for Americans to get the booster shot to keep loved ones safe, while lamenting that millions of people eligible for the jab had still not received one.

“Get your booster shot. Wear a mask. Our doctors made it clear, booster shots provide the strongest protection.”

“The booster shots are free and widely available,” Biden added.

Biden says US not going back to March 2020

President Biden emphatically said “absolutely no” to any prospect of the US going back to the same restrictions since at the start of the pandemic last year.

“More than 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated. In March 2020, no one was fully vaccinated,” he said, adding that his administration will also be providing hospitals with more resources including gowns and beds.

COVID is a ‘tough adversary’, we are tougher: Biden

US President Joe Biden in a scheduled speech said while the coronavirus was a “tough adversary”, the country had the tools to fight it.

“We have the power of science and vaccines, prevent illness and save lives. Tougher because of our resolve,” he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the country’s fight against the coronavirus disease at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 21, 2021 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

‘Full-throttled’ policy response from Biden: US academic

Speaking to Al Jazeera via Skype from Los Angeles, George Manson University’s Jennifer Victor said United States President Joe Biden’s new COVID initiatives were a “full-throttled” response to the rising Omicron variant cases in the country.

“What we’re seeing with the White House press release this morning, and the address that Biden has scheduled for today, is really two things – one is a much more deliberate, full-throated, full-throttled policy response from the executive branch to respond to COVID,” Victor said.

“The second thing I think we’re seeing is the White House is using its public platform … and all of the media and control it can take over the public agenda to draw people’s attention to this issue, which I think is particularly notable.”

Motsepe says AfCon to go ahead despite ‘enormous challenge’ of COVID

African football chief Patrice Motsepe has confirmed that the Africa Cup of Nations (AfCon) will go ahead as planned in Cameroon next month despite the Omicron-variant led surge in COVID cases.

“I am going to watch, on the 9th of January, Cameroon and Burkina Faso [in the opening match],” Motsepe said at a news conference, dispelling rumours that the already delayed continental showpiece could fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the 59-year-old was quick to stress the dangers presented by the new variant responsible for record daily numbers of positive cases.

“Omicron is an enormous challenge,” Motsepe said, guaranteeing that nobody would be allowed to set foot in the stadiums without a negative PCR test.

Portugal imposes post-Christmas curbs as Omicron infections rise

Portugal has ordered bars and nightclubs to close while telling people to work from home for at least two weeks starting on Saturday to control the spread of COVID-19 during the holiday period.

“This still isn’t the normal Christmas we are used to,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa told a news conference. “If we do not adopt these measures now, the consequences on everyone’s lives will be much worse after Christmas and the New Year.”

Costa also announced capacity restrictions at stores and said a negative coronavirus test would now be required to stay at hotels or go to events.

The country reported 5,754 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday [File: Rafael Marchante/Reuters]

‘Storm coming’ in Europe as Omicron spreads: WHO

The World Health Organization’s European head warned countries to brace for a “significant surge” in COVID-19 cases as Omicron spreads, and advised the widespread use of boosters for protection.

Since it emerged in late November, Omicron has been detected in at least 38 of the 53 countries in the WHO’s European region and is already dominant in several of them including Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom, Hans Kluge told a news conference in Vienna.

“We can see another storm coming,” said Kluge. “Within weeks, Omicron will dominate in more countries of the region, pushing already stretched health systems further to the brink.”

UK reports 90,629 new infections

The United Kingdom reported 90,629 new COVID-19 cases, and total cases in the seven days to December 21 were 63 percent higher than in the previous seven-day period.

The daily number of deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test was 172, according to official data released by the government.

New York City mayor-elect postpones inauguration ceremony

New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams is postponing his inauguration ceremony, which was set for January 1, due to the rise in cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, he said in a statement quoted by local media.

“It is clear that our city is facing a formidable opponent in the Omicron variant,” he said in the statement. “After consulting public health experts, we have decided that our joint inauguration ceremony will be postponed to a later date,” the statement added.

Israel records first Omicron death: Israeli media

Israel recorded its first known death from the Omicron variant of COVID-19, according to Israeli news media which reported that an elderly man died in Beersheba on Monday.

The patient died at Soroka Medical Center and had pre-existing conditions, according to the Times of Israel and Ynet news reports.

People wearing masks for protection against the coronavirus leave Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv [File: Jack Guez/AFP]

Germany agrees new contact limits to curb virus spread

Germany will introduce new measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus including limiting private gatherings for vaccinated people to a maximum of 10 people before New Year’s Eve, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.

Scholz also agreed with the premiers of Germany’s 16 federal states that big events, including football matches, would take place without spectators.

US government providing rapid tests a ‘big deal’: AJ correspondent

The decision by the Joe Biden White House to give out 500 million rapid tests was a “big deal” in the fight against the coronavirus surge in the United States, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett reported from Washington, DC.

“If people know that they’re positive for COVID-19, they won’t go out and that will reduce the infections,” Halkett said.

“The other reason this is a big deal is the fact that this is something that Americans haven’t really had access to prior to this,” Halkett noted, adding that rapid at-home tests were expensive and hard to find.

City residents wait in a line extending around the block to receive free at-home rapid COVID-19 test kits in Philadelphia, Monday [Matt Rourke/AP Photo]

France to introduce ‘vaccination pass’ in early January

France will pass a law transforming its health pass needed to exercise some professions and to go to cinemas and bars into a “vaccination pass” in the first half of January, government spokesman Gabriel Attal told journalists.

“The wave awaiting us will be high,” Attal said, adding that the Omicron variant accounts for 20 percent of new COVID-19 infections in France and is spreading rapidly, particularly in the Paris region.

UK’s Johnson rules out new coronavirus limitations before Christmas

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that he would not be introducing new COVID-19 restrictions in England before Christmas, but the situation remained extremely difficult and the government might need to act afterwards.

“We don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify any tougher measures before Christmas,” he said in a video posted on social media.

“We can’t rule out any further measures after Christmas,” he added. “We continue to monitor Omicron very closely and if the situation deteriorates we will be ready to take action if needed.”

Women wearing face masks wait to cross a street amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in London, UK December 21, 2021 [Kevin Coombs/Reuters]

Nigeria urges caution amid virus cases surge

Nigeria said cases have shot up in Africa’s most populous nation, urging people to respect anti-COVID measures as it enters a fourth wave of the coronavirus.

“Nigeria has recorded a 500 percent increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks across the country caused by the Delta and Omicron variants,” the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control said.

“The country is now in a fourth COVID-19 wave,” it added in a statement.

Cyprus workers without booster shots face weekly tests

Cyprus announced it was imposing weekly coronavirus tests for workers in advance of the Christmas holidays, except for those who have had booster jabs.

Health Minister Michalis Hadjipantelas announced the measures as infections and hospitalisations climb on the island.

Uganda MPs test positive for COVID-19 after sports tournament

Dozens of Ugandan legislators and their staff have tested positive for the coronavirus after participating in a regional tournament in Tanzania, a parliamentary spokesman said.

About 50 lawmakers and staff tested positive for COVID-19, parliament spokesman Chris Obore said on Twitter, adding that no one was hospitalised.

The tournament drew nearly 1,500 participants from the six-nation East African Community bloc, even as some member countries such as Kenya confront a surge in infections, with one in four tests turning up positive.

The legislators faced off against each other in the two-week tournament in Arusha, playing various sports including tug-of-war.

UK’s Johnson to announce in 48 hours whether more restriction required: The Sun

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to make an announcement in the next 48 hours on whether to impose “circuit-breaker” restrictions in England to stem the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus, The Sun newspaper reported.

It said Johnson is considering a return to “Step 2” curbs that would limit pubs and restaurants to outdoor service only and ban indoor mixing between households.

People who get booster will receive $100: NYC mayor

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday that residents who get a COVID-19 vaccine booster by the end of the year will receive $100 from the city.

People wait in long lines in Times Square to get tested for COVID-19 on December 20, 2021, in New York City [Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP]

Virus remains ‘extremely worrying’ across Europe: Health agency

The director of the European Union’s drug regulator says that the COVID-19 situation “remains extremely worrying across Europe” with the continuing high levels of transmission of the delta variant and the swift spread of the Omicron mutation.

European Medicines Agency director Emer Cooke said that “there’s no answer yet on whether we will need an adapted vaccine with a different composition to tackle this or any other emerging variants.”

Romanian crowd tries to storm parliament in protest at COVID-19 pass

Romanian protesters tried to force their way into parliament, blocking traffic and vandalising some cars in the capital Bucharest in an attempt to prevent lawmakers from making a COVID-19 health pass mandatory for workers.

Riot police were caught off guard when hundreds of protesters poured in through a yard gate, spray painting cars and forcing security staff to block the building’s entryways. The protesters later left. The police did not use force.

An estimated 2,000-2,500 people from across the country gathered outside parliament in the morning waving Romanian flags and chanting “Freedom,” in a protest organised by the opposition ultra-nationalist Alliance for Uniting Romanians (AUR).

Anti-COVID-19 green pass protesters stand outside of the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021 [Andreea Alexandru/AP Photo]

UK offers $1.3bn to businesses hurt by Omicron

The United Kingdom announced one billion pounds ($1.3bn) in grants and other aid to help the hospitality industry survive the onslaught of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, bowing to days of pressure from pubs, restaurants and other businesses that have seen their income plunge following public health warnings.

Businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors in England will be eligible for one-time grants of up to 6,000 pounds ($7,954) each.

An additional 100 million pounds ($133m) will be given to local governments to support businesses in their areas hit by the sudden spike in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly transmissible new variant.

Sweden tightens COVID restrictions as cases mount

Sweden will urge all employees to work from home if possible and impose tighter rules for social distancing, the government said on Tuesday, as it ratchets up restrictions aimed at fighting a surge in new infections of the COVID-19 virus.

The new rules also will also require seated-only service at bars and restaurants, as well as at larger public events.

“We must now take joint responsibility and we need to adapt to the new reality,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a news conference. “I understand that many are tired of this – so am I – but we now have a new virus variant, which means we are in a new situation.”

Sweden is still seeing some of the lowest levels of new cases in Europe, according to the WHO, but it has seen an increase of 37 percent in the 14-day incidence rate, compared with the preceding period [File: TT News Agency/Fredrik Sandberg via Reuters]

Swedish COVID cases could hit new peak in worst scenario: Health agency

Sweden could see more than 15,000 new COVID-19 cases per day in a worst-case scenario in mid-January, a record number, fresh projections from the Health Agency showed.

In previous waves of the pandemic, daily infections have peaked at just more than 11,000 cases.

The new model projection factored in the spread of the more contagious Omicron variant, assuming it is 25 percent more contagious than the Delta variant and factored in varying degrees of protection offered by vaccines.

German committee recommends booster after three months

Germany’s STIKO vaccine authority shortened the recommended period between a second coronavirus shot and a booster to three months from six, reflecting the increasing presence of the highly infectious Omicron variant.

The authority said anyone over age 18 should have a booster using an mRNA vaccine three months after completing a two-shot course of COVID-19 vaccines.

STIKO previously recommended anyone fully vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine should wait six months after their last shot. For the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, that period remains four weeks.

Baden-Wuerttemberg’s Minister of Social Affairs, Health and Intergration of Manfred Lucha, left, vaccinates patient Gabi Stirm in her car with the BioNTech vaccine in a COVID-19 vaccination station in Stuttgart, Germany [Thomas Kienzle/AFP]

Israel legislators approve US travel ban

Israeli legislators have approved a ban on citizens and residents from US travel, adding it to a list of more than 50 countries declared off-limits.

A parliamentary committee voted to approve a health ministry recommendation putting the US on Israel’s “red list” along with Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, and Turkey, committee spokeswoman Ronit Gal said in a statement.

The United Kingdom, France and Spain were among the countries already on the red list.

US to give additional $580m in international aid

The US will give $580m in additional aid to international organisations to fight COVID-19, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

“The rapid spread of the Omicron variant reinforces that we must all continue to accelerate our efforts to end this pandemic and that none of us are safe until all of us are safe,” Blinken said in a statement.

The additional funds to seven multilateral agencies bring overall US assistance to $19.6bn, according to the State Department.

Read more here.

EU sets 9-month validity of vaccinations for COVID travel pass

The European Commission has adopted rules that will make the European Union COVID-19 certificate valid for travel nine months after the completion of the primary vaccination schedule, an EU official told Reuters.

The new rules will be binding on the 27 EU states from February 1, the official said. The rule can be blocked by a qualified majority of EU governments or a simple majority of European Parliament members, but officials have said there is sufficient support for it.

Swedish agency recommends shots for some 5- to 11-year-olds

Swedish children aged five to 11 who are sensitive to upper respiratory tract infections should be vaccinated against COVID-19, the country’s Public Health Agency has said.

“Based on the current situation, evidence and discussions with the Swedish Pediatric Association and the Medical Products Agency, the Health Agency recommends vaccination against COVID-19 to certain groups of children who are generally extra sensitive to upper respiratory tract infections,” the agency said in a statement.

Sweden had previously recommended vaccination from the age of 12, while the EU has recommended children aged five to 11 be vaccinated.

US to distribute 500 million COVID-19 tests

Faced with a surging Omicron variant, US authorities will distribute 500 million free COVID-19 tests, mobilise military medical personnel if needed and increase vaccination capacity, a senior White House official said.

“We have the tools to get through this wave,” he said, noting there are no plans to impose new restrictions. If Americans “are vaccinated and follow the precautions that we all know well, especially masking when travelling, they should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays”.

The fast-spreading Omicron variant is now the main coronavirus strain in the US, accounting for 73.2 percent of new cases over the past week for which data is available [Jae C. Hong/AP]

Hungary rejoins EU’s vaccine procurement system

Hungary decided to rejoin the EU’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement process to shield its population from the Omicron variant, ordering 9.5 million doses of the jab developed by BioNTech SE and Pfizer, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said during a news conference.

‘Cancel now, celebrate later’

NHL shuts down Wednesday through Saturday; 5 games postponed

The NHL is beginning a leaguewide shutdown Wednesday amid a rise of infections among players, and with 10 of the league’s 32 teams’ schedules already paused and their facilities closed.

The league announced that it will open its annual holiday break two days earlier than scheduled and have it run through Saturday. The decision, reached in coordination with the NHL Players’ Association, means five additional games scheduled for Thursday will be postponed, bringing the total this season to 49.

Thailand reinstates mandatory quarantine

Thailand will reinstate its mandatory COVID-19 quarantine for foreign visitors and scrap a quarantine waiver from Tuesday, a government spokeswoman said, due to concerns over the spread of the Omicron variant.

The decision to halt Thailand’s “Test and Go” waiver means visitors will have to undergo hotel quarantine, which ranges between seven to 10 days.

The decision to halt Thailand’s ‘Test and Go’ waiver means visitors will have to undergo hotel quarantine, which ranges between seven to 10 days [Narong Sangnak/EPA]

Moderna could be ready to develop Omicron booster in weeks: CEO

COVID-19 vaccine maker Moderna does not expect any problems in developing a booster shot to protect against the Omicron variant and could begin work in a few weeks, Chief Executive Stephane Bancel said in an interview.

Moderna hopes to start clinical trials early next year on a vaccine to protect against the fast-spreading variant but for now is focusing on a booster dose of its current mRNA-1273 vaccine.

India reports 200 Omicron cases in 12 states

India has so far recorded 200 cases of the Omicron variant across 12 states, mostly in the western state of Maharashtra and the nation’s capital New Delhi, said the health ministry.

The country’s tally of Omicron cases has nearly doubled within a week, but there have been no deaths reported so far. In less than 40 percent of cases, patients either fully recovered or were discharged, the data showed.

India has been accelerating its vaccination campaign amid fears of potential surges in infections, with at least one dose given to 87 percent of the eligible 944 million adults.

India has been accelerating its vaccination campaign amid fears of potential surges in infections [Amit Dave/Reuters]

Kuwait to make jab booster compulsory

Kuwait will require travellers arriving in the country to have the COVID-19 vaccine booster shot if more than nine months have passed since their vaccination, the government communication centre tweeted.

Kuwait will also require incoming travellers to quarantine at home for 10 days unless they receive a negative PCR test for the coronavirus within 72 hours of their arrival.

Australia PM rules out lockdowns despite Omicron surge

Australia must move past “the heavy hand of government” and authorities must stop shutting down people’s lives with COVID-19 lockdowns, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday, as daily infections in the country shot up to a new pandemic high.

“We have got to get past the heavy hand of government and we have got to treat Australians like adults,” Morrison told reporters, urging authorities to shift from “a culture of mandates” when it comes to masks and social distancing rules.

“We’re not going back to lockdowns. We’re going forward to live with this virus with common sense and responsibility.”

First Omicron-linked death reported in Texas

Texas’ Harris County has reported its first death related to the Omicron variant, a man who was unvaccinated, the county health department said in a statement.

It is believed to be the first known recorded Omicron death in the United States, broadcaster ABC News reported.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not immediately respond to a Reuters news agency request for comment on the issue.

The victim, aged between 50-60 years old, was at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19 as he was unvaccinated, the health department said in a statement.

New Zealand delays reopening plans

New Zealand said on Tuesday that it would delay its reopening plans until the end of February, fearing a rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

New Zealand had previously announced that non-quarantine travel would reopen by mid-January for New Zealand citizens and residents in Australia, and to foreign tourists by April.

“There’s no doubt this is disappointing and will upset many holiday plans, but it’s important to set these changes out clearly today so they can have time to consider those plans,” COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said in a statement.

Singapore finds suspected Omicron cluster in gym

Singapore’s Ministry of Health has announced that it has detected a cluster of three COVID-19 cases linked to a gym, of which two have tested preliminarily positive for the Omicron variant. The result for the remaining case is pending.

All three people were fully vaccinated and have mild symptoms.

The health ministry is ring-fencing the cases through contact tracing, it added.

Omicron now dominant strain in US

The fast-spreading Omicron variant is now the main coronavirus strain in the US, accounting for 73.2 percent of new cases over the past week for which data is available, according to health authorities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the spike for the week ending on Saturday.

Over the same time period in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, Omicron accounted for 96.3 percent of new cases.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies