UK, France set COVID-19 records as airlines cancel flights

Holiday travel disrupted as Thailand reports first Omicron cluster, Ecuador makes vaccines compulsory, Italy calls for masks. outdoors.

People wearing face masks walk on a shopping street in London amid a record outbreak of COVID-19 across the UK [Kevin Coombs/Reuters]

The United Kingdom and France reported record numbers of new COVID-19 infections on Friday as the spreading Omicron variant forced global airline carriers to cancel thousands of flights.

Meanwhile, South Africa eased several coronavirus curbs, despite being hit by a fourth wave of cases driven by the Omicron variant. The United States will lift its ban on travel from eight southern African nations beginning December 31.

Thailand reported its first Omicron cluster in the northeast province of Kalasin, saying 21 infections stemmed from a Belgium couple who had travelled to the country earlier this month.

In Europe, Italy has reintroduced mandatory face masks outdoors, and Greece has ordered people to wear masks indoors and outdoors. In South America, Ecuador made vaccines compulsory for nearly all to combat coronavirus infections surging globally just before the Christmas holidays.

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


Antetokounmpo clears NBA’s COVID protocols

The Milwaukee Bucks received an early Christmas present in the form of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo clearing the National Basketball Association’s health and safety protocols on Friday.

However, Antetokounmpo’s status remains up in the air for Milwaukee’s Christmas Day showdown against the visiting Boston Celtics on Saturday afternoon.

For their part, the Celtics officially placed five more players into COVID protocols on Friday, bringing the team’s total to 12.

Milwaukee Bucks'' Giannis Antetokounmpo
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s status for Saturday’s game versus the Boston Celtics remains uncertain [File: Aaron Gash/AP Photo]

Blinken thanks South Africa in call with counterpart Naledi Pandor

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke via phone with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor about an earlier announcement that the US plans to lift travel restrictions on several southern African nations, imposed last month amid fears over the Omicron variant.

“The Secretary again thanked South Africa’s scientists and government for their transparency and expertise,” State Department Spokesman Ned Price said in a statement describing the call.

“He emphasized the importance of the longstanding partnership between the United States and South Africa to combat the impacts of COVID-19.”

More than 4,000 Christmas flights cancelled worldwide

Airlines around the world called off more than 4,000 flights over the Christmas weekend, due to the increase in COVID-19 cases from the Omicron variant.

The website FlightAware showed 2,314 flights had been cancelled worldwide on Christmas Eve, a typically robust day in passenger transit. About a quarter of those suspended itineraries were in the US.

Another 1,404 flights scheduled for Christmas Day were cancelled globally, the website said, along with 340 more that had been scheduled for Sunday, Boxing Day.

California braces for wave of COVID infections

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is now spreading rapidly across California, the US’s most populous state, the Los Angeles Times newspaper reported.

Omicron appears to account for 50 percent to 70 percent of new cases, according to data from California health systems. New cases are expected to spike, perhaps to unprecedented levels, prompting officials to warn hospitals face a renewed influx of patients.

“These numbers make it crystal clear that we’re headed into a very challenging time over the holiday,” Los Angeles Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

The Omicron variant has also been spreading rapidly in the US western states of Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

Third Florida-based ship has outbreak, state cases hit record

A COVID-19 outbreak has been reported on a third Florida-based cruise ship, as the numbers of coronavirus cases in Florida – a popular international tourist destination – hit the highest level since the start of the pandemic.

An undisclosed number of passengers and crew aboard the Carnival Freedom cruise caught the virus and the ship was denied entry to Bonaire and Aruba, Carnival said in a statement.

The ship has 2,497 passengers and 1,112 crew members and was scheduled to return to Miami on Sunday following an 8-day cruise. Passengers were required to be vaccinated and tested before leaving last Saturday, according to Carnival.

Pope celebrates Christmas Eve Mass as virus surges in Italy

Pope Francis delivers the Christmas Eve Mass liturgy at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome [Alessandra Tarantino/AP Photo]

Pope Francis celebrated Christmas Eve Mass before an estimated 2,000 people in St Peter’s Basilica on Friday, going ahead with the service despite a resurgence in COVID-19 cases that has prompted a new vaccine mandate for Vatican employees.

A maskless Francis proceeded down the central aisle as the Sistine Chapel choir sang ‘Noel’, kicking off the Vatican’s Christmas holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus.

Attendance was limited to a fraction of the capacity of St Peter’s, which can seat up to 20,000, and in pre-pandemic times would have been packed for one of the most popular Vatican liturgies of the year.

US Supreme Court to take up COVID vaccine mandates

The United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on January 7 on whether the Biden administration can order workers at private companies and healthcare providers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

A new regulation proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) spawned court challenges from more than two dozen US states, conservative groups, and businesses that oppose the vaccine mandate.

The OSHA rule would require businesses with 100 or more workers to have employees vaccinated or tested weekly. Until the court rules, millions of US workers face a patchwork of requirements depending on where they live.

Read more here.

France reports record new COVID-19 cases

France hit another COVID-19 infection record on Friday, with the daily figure getting close to 100,000, a trend that has prompted President Emmanuel Macron to call for a special meeting of government ministers on Monday.

French health authorities reported 94,124 new COVID-19 cases on Friday while the number of people hospitalised for the disease reached a seven-month high at close to 16,200.

A woman wearing a mask stands in front of the main entrance of Paris Gare de Lyon railway station ahead of Christmas [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

UK sets new record for COVID cases as Omicron sweeps London

The United Kingdom reported another day of record COVID-19 cases, with 122,186 new cases of COVID-19, up from 119,789 reported on Thursday.

Many industries and transport networks were struggling with staff shortages as sick workers self-isolated and hospitals in the UK warned of the risks to patient safety.

While recent research on Omicron suggests it has a lower hospitalisation rate than previous variants, health officials have maintained a cautious note.

“What we have got now is a really fine balance between something that looks like a lower risk of hospitalisation – which is great news – but equally a highly transmissible variant and one that we know evades some of our immune defences,” Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, told the BBC.

Facing a massive surge in COVID-19 cases, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a press conference in November had hoped Christmas would be better this year [Hollie Adams/Pool via Reuters]

Guadeloupe protesters seize legislature in standoff with Paris

Protesters angry over virus and vaccine rules occupied the regional legislature of Guadeloupe and demanded the French government reverse an order requiring health workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face suspension without pay.

Inside the French Caribbean island’s council building, protesters strung a banner reading “No to Obligatory Vaccination, No to the Health Pass”, according to images posted online by local officials. A Christmas tree was knocked over.

Officials in Guadeloupe and Paris denounced the protest action as unacceptable and a threat to the democratically elected body. Regional Council President Ary Chalus agreed to a meeting with some of the protesters’ representatives.

Read more here.

The Washington National Cathedral and other US churches have cancelled in-person Christmas services [Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

Many US churches cancelling in-person Christmas services

Amid a surge of coronavirus cases across the United States, prominent US churches have cancelled in-person Christmas services, disappointing pastors and churchgoers who look forward to the annual events.

Other churches planned outdoor services or proposed a hybrid of online and in-person worship, often imposing tight restrictions for those in attendance, including mask and vaccination requirements.

“Unfortunately, as the Omicron variant takes hold across the world, our city seems to be leading the nation in infections,” said the Very Reverend Randolph Marshall Hollerith, head of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, which has cancelled in-person services until January 9.

The cathedral would typically host 15,000 people for Christmas services.

Chile to give fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose

Chile will offer its citizens a fourth coronavirus vaccine dose from February, starting with high-risk categories, the Agence France-Presse news service reported.

First to get the booster shot will be health workers, elderly people and those with chronic diseases.

Health Minister Enrique Paris said the decision was taken as studies showed that virus-fighting antibody levels drop six months after the last dose.

The South American country has registered more than 1.7 million coronavirus infections and suffered nearly 39,000 deaths, with 54 deaths in the last 24 hours.

Small crowds celebrate birth of Jesus in Bethlehem

Palestinian scout bands parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ [Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

The biblical town of Bethlehem is marking its second straight Christmas Eve under the shadow of the coronavirus.

Small crowds and gray, gloomy weather dampened celebrations on Friday in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

A ban on nearly all incoming air traffic by Israel — the main entry point for foreign visitors heading to the occupied West Bank — kept international tourists away for a second consecutive year.

Ecumenical Patriarch tests positive for virus

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, has tested positive for COVID-19 and is displaying mild symptoms.

The Istanbul-based Patriarchate said Friday that Bartholomew, who is 81 and recently had heart surgery, is fully vaccinated. It added that “his general condition is good”.

The Patriarch has urged people to get their vaccine jabs and follow the recommendations of doctors.

Long traffic queues at Hungary-Serbia border ahead of holidays

Balkan citizens leaving Western Europe to go home for the holidays created huge traffic jams at border crossings on Friday.

Long queues built up on the border between Hungary and Serbia as thousands of people waited for hours to cross. Many people from Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, who work and live in Western Europe, drive home for the holidays.

Serbia has reported about 1,500 new COVID-19 cases daily in recent weeks, but health authorities have warned Christmas visits by relatives from abroad and large family gatherings risk further spread of the virus.


Shoppers wear face masks on Oxford Street in London on December 24. [Alastair Grant/AP Photo]

Omicron sweeps through swathes of London’s population

One in 10 Londoners may have COVID-19 this week up from 1 in 20 last week, according to new estimates that underline the relentless advance of the Omicron variant in the UK

The new figures published by the Office for National Statistics are based on scientific modelling and subject to revision. The numbers come a day after Britain recorded a new high of 119,789 daily coronavirus cases as the Omicron variant sweeps across the country.

A woman wearing face mask to protect against COVID-19 shops in central Paris. France’s government is desperately trying to avoid a new lockdown that would hurt the economy [Michel Euler/AP Photo]

France’s President Macron to convene COVID-19 meeting

French President Emmanuel Macron will convene a meeting of public health officials on Monday to address the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, an Elysee presidential official has told the Reuters news service.

France is confronting a record number of new infections of COVID-19. The council includes Macron and ministers of health, sefence, economy and labour with leaders of large public health institutions.

Christmas shopping in London falls 30 percent versus last week

Shopper numbers in central London on Christmas Eve were 30 percent lower than the previous Friday as fears of the Omicron variant kept many people from high streets, according to data from Springboard.

City centres outside London saw a 10 percent drop in shoppers in the hours up to midday versus a week earlier, the data showed. Footfall across all destinations was 21 percent lower than on Christmas Eve 2019, Springboard said.

The White House will lift a ban on travel to the United States from southern Africa [Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

US to lift travel ban on 8 southern African countries

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke via phone with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor on Friday. They discussed an earlier announcement that the US plans to lift travel restrictions on several southern African nations, including South Africa.

The Biden administration will lift travel restrictions to eight southern African countries on New Year’s Eve, December 31, the White House announced.

The restrictions, imposed when the Omicron outbreak was discovered last month, were meant to buy time for the US to prepare for its spread, President Joe Biden had said.

The November 29 travel ban barred most non-US citizens who recently have been in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, Mozambique, and Malawi from entering the United States.

Read more here:

Global airline carriers scrap more than 2,000 flights

Global airline carriers have cancelled more than 2,000 flights so far on Friday, the FlightAware website said, in an indication of how COVID-19 is affecting holiday travel.

The website showed that as of 8:20 am Eastern Time (13:20 GMT), 2,028 flights around the world had been scrapped.

FlightAware said there had been 448 cancellations within, into, or out of the United States so far on Friday.

Air carriers have cancelled flights because of crew shortages [File: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters]

Lufthansa, United, Delta cancel flights over Christmas

At least three large airlines said they have cancelled dozens of flights because illnesses largely tied to the Omicron variant of COVID-19 have taken a toll on flight crew numbers during the busy holiday travel season.

Germany-based Lufthansa said that it was cancelling a dozen long-haul transatlantic flights over the Christmas holiday period because of a “massive rise” in sick leave among pilots.

US-based Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said they had to cancel dozens of Christmas Eve flights because of staff shortages tied to Omicron. United cancelled 169 flights, and Delta called off 127, according to FlightAware.

Read more here.

Travellers walk through the Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania [Hannah Beier/Reuters]

PM Johnson urges Britons to get COVID-19 jab for Christmas

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on the eve of Christmas, has urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as a gift to their families and the nation, as a surge in cases driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant casts a shadow over the festivities.

“Though the time for buying presents is theoretically running out, there is still a wonderful thing you can give your family and the whole country and that is to get that jab, whether it is your first or your second or your booster,” Johnson said in his annual seasonal message, posted as a video clip on Twitter.

Calling vaccination “an invisible and invaluable present”, he praised the “immense spirit of neighbourliness” of the millions of Britons who had already come forward for inoculation.

Read more here.

Bhutan starts giving COVID-19 booster shots

Bhutan has started giving COVID-19 booster shots to senior citizens and priority groups as the Himalayan kingdom tries to stave off the Omicron variant, health ministry officials said.

Those aged 65 and older, overseas travellers, health workers, sufferers from chronic ailments and all adults living in “high risk” areas are eligible, the officials said.

“Bhutan becomes the first country in the South Asian region to administer booster doses,” public service broadcaster BBS said in a report.

“As we did for the second dose, mix and match is recommended even for the booster, given its higher efficacy,” Sonam Wangchuk, an official of the Royal Centre for Disease Control (RCDC), was quoted as saying in the Kuensel newspaper.

France says COVID-19 tests needed for trips to its overseas territories

France has announced that negative COVID-19 tests will be required to travel to its overseas territories.

The new measure will take effect on December 28 and affect travellers from mainland France and abroad, the health ministry said.

French regulator recommends boosters 3 months after first course

France’s Haute Autorite de Sante regulator said  COVID-19 boosters could be administered three months after the first full course of shots.

The new recommendation was issued as part of an ongoing effort to try to curb the spread of Omicron in the country.

Japan panel approves Merck’s oral COVID-19 treatment

Japanese regulators approved the COVID-19 antiviral pill developed by Merck & Co Inc, national broadcaster NHK reported.

The approval was widely expected and opens the door to shipments of 200,000 doses across the country from this weekend, based on preparations announced by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

An experimental COVID-19 treatment pill called molnupiravir is being developed by Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP [File: Merck & Co Inc/Handout via Reuters]

Duterte ‘nervous’ as Philippines braces for Omicron

President Rodrigo Duterte said he was worried Omicron could ignite a new outbreak that could further strain the government’s finances, especially after a powerful and deadly typhoon devastated several central and southern provinces last week.

“I’m afraid this can be as bad as the previous virus strains. I’m somehow nervous because, let me be frank to the public, the finances of the Philippines have really been depleted,” he said.

Health officials have detected only three Omicron infections in recently arrived Filipino and foreign Travellers, but the government recalled a decision to reopen the Southeast Asian nation to foreign tourists starting December 1, and to further intensify a vaccination campaign – including the provision of booster shots.

South Africa to roll out COVID-19 boosters immediately

An Orange Farm, South Africa, resident receives her jab against COVID-19 on December 3, 2021 at the Orange Farm multipurpose centre. [Jerome Delay/AP Photo]

South Africa will start offering booster shots of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine from Friday, the health department said in a statement, following its approval for use as a booster by the health regulator a day earlier.

Both J&J and Pfizer COVID-19 shots have been authorised as boosters by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), but the move opens up boosters to the general public for the first time.

“From 24th December 2021 the National Vaccination Programme will provide J&J booster vaccinations to anyone who received their last dose at least 2 months prior,” the statement said, adding ideally it would also be within six months of their original shot.

With immediate effect, the health department also lifted contact tracing for anyone who has come into close contact with an infected person.

The previously obligatory self-isolation has been lifted, health official Ramphelane Morewane told broadcaster eNCA. Tests will only be necessary in future if the person displays symptoms. For those infected, a 10-day quarantine is still necessary, after which tests are no longer necessary.

China punishes dozens of Xi’an officials as city enters COVID-19 lockdown

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said 26 Communist Party officials had been punished over a virus outbreak in the locked-down city of Xi’an for “insufficient rigour in preventing and controlling the outbreak”.

Xi’an reported another 49 cases on Friday, bringing the total outbreak to more than 250 in recent weeks.

The city of 13 million residents has been under lockdown from Thursday, with businesses shuttered and several rounds of mass testing launched.

Thailand reports first Omicron cluster, cancels some New Year events

Thailand reported its first domestic cluster of coronavirus infections from the Omicron variant in Kalasin province in northeastern Thailand, officials said.

“From the Kalasin cluster, there are 21 new infections,” said country’s COVID-19 task force spokeswoman Apisamai Srirangsan.

The infections stem from a couple who travelled from Belgium through the country’s Test & Go scheme that waived quarantine for vaccinated arrivals, she said.

The announcement comes as Thailand’s capital city Bangkok cancelled government-sponsored New Year activity, including midnight prayers.

Indian court urges delay in state elections as Omicron spreads

An Indian court has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to suspend political rallies and election campaigns in poll-bound states amid the rising number of Omicron cases, a variant of COVID-19.

Judges of the Allahabad High Court in the country’s most populous Uttar Pradesh (UP) state said the number of people infected with Omicron is on the rise and could result in a third wave of the coronavirus.

Elections to the state assembly in UP , home to more than 220 million people, are scheduled for early next year but final dates are yet to declared. Three other states are also scheduled to hold local elections at the same time.

Health expert: Omicron variant spreads efficiently indoors

Australia to shorten COVID-19 booster dose intervals from January

Australia will shorten the interval for people to receive their COVID-19 booster shots to four months from five from January 4, Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Friday, as the country grapples with record infections heightened by the Omicron variant.

The wait time will be further reduced to three months from January 31, Hunt said during a media conference.

Mexico adds 149 COVID-19 deaths, official death toll nears 300,000

Mexico’s health ministry reported 149 new confirmed deaths from COVID-19, bringing the official death toll since the pandemic began to 298,508.

The ministry has previously said the real number of victims of the coronavirus pandemic is likely significantly higher.

55 people test positive for COVID-19 on US cruise ship

Fifty-five people have tested positive for COVID-19 on board a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship that set sail Saturday from the southeastern US state of Florida, the company said.

The infections on the ship, the Odyssey of the Seas, involved passengers and crew members, even though 95 percent of the people on board were vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The vessel will remain at sea until it returns to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on December 26. It is carrying 3,587 passengers and 1,599 crew members, according to the USA Today newspaper.

Montenegro’s president tests positive for COVID-19

Montenegro’s president, Milo Djukanovic, has tested positive for COVID-19 after being in contact with an infected person.

“The president has mild symptoms and feels well. In line with epidemiological measures he will remain in self-isolation from where he will perform his regular presidential duties,” his office said in a statement on Thursday.

So far, 161,944 people in Montenegro — with a population of only 620,000 — have fallen ill from the coronavirus and 2,385 people have died.

Many Americans continue with holiday travel plans despite Omicron

Millions of Americans are pushing ahead with holidays that include cross-country flights, busy tourist attractions, and indoor dining — even as the surge in COVID-19 infections, increased by the Omicron variant, forces them to adapt plans on the fly.

While people scramble for COVID-19 tests and weigh varying public health guidance about how to gather safely for a second Christmas marked by the pandemic, many showed they were willing to brave the latest surge to enjoy holiday traditions such as worshipping and eating out.

The Transportation Security Administration on Wednesday screened 2,081,297 passengers through the nation’s airports, an increase of 144,000 over the number of travellers it screened pre-pandemic on the same date in 2019.

Spain’s Catalonia imposes nighttime curfew to stem surging cases

The northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia won court approval for a night curfew on Thursday as Madrid pledged to distribute millions of more test kits to tackle the Omicron variant that is driving up infections and overshadowing Christmas.

Spain lifted most COVID-19 restrictions over their summer — thanks to a high vaccination rate that suppressed infection — but Omicron’s arrival has sent daily cases soaring to a record of more than 72,900 on Thursday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies