UK COVID cases soar to new daily record of 183,037

France, Italy and Greece also reported record daily highs as WHO warned of COVID ‘tsunami’.

People arrive at Piccadilly amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in London, Britain
People arrive at the Piccadilly subway station amid the COVID-19 outbreak, in London, Britain December 29, 2021 [Kevin Coombs/Reuters]

Britain reported 183,037 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, a new daily record, and over 50,000 more than the previous highest figure, according to government figures.

The risk posed by the Omicron variant is still “very high”, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said, after COVID-19 case numbers shot up by 11 percent globally last week.

Omicron is behind the rapid virus spikes, the WHO said in its COVID weekly epidemiological update on Wednesday, having overtaken the previously dominant Delta variant in several nations, including the United Kingdom and the United States.

The update came after a number of countries, including the US, Australia, and many in Europe and Argentina, reported record-high infection figures in recent days.

This live blog is now closed. Here are Wednesday’s updates:

More US flights cancelled as Omicron intensifies staffing issues

Hundreds of flights were cancelled Wednesday as the Omicron variant creates havoc both for travellers and for airlines that are having to cobble together flight crews as pilots, flight attendants, and ground crews become infected or are exposed to others who have been.

More than 850 flights were cancelled by midday on Wednesday and that number has ticked higher throughout the day, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightAware. There were nearly 1,300 cancellations for flights entering, leaving or inside the United States on Tuesday, and about 1,500 on Monday.

Cancellations began to spike the day before Christmas during what is already a buzzing pace for airlines this time of year.

US CDC investigates 88 cruise ships due to COVID cases

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating more cruise ships due to new cases of COVID-19 as the Omicron variant drives extremely high infection levels in the industry hub of Florida.

The CDC said 88 vessels are now either under investigation or observation, but it did not specify how many COVID-19 cases have been reported. Four other vessels are also being monitored by the CDC.

US stocks close at record highs despite Omicron surge

The Dow and S&P 500 closed at all-time highs on Wednesday, as investors shrugged off concerns on the spreading Omicron variant.

The Dow has now risen six straight trading days, marking the longest streak of gains since a seven-session run from March 5 to March 15 this year.

Some early studies pointing to a reduced risk of hospitalisation in Omicron cases have eased some investors’ concerns over the travel disruptions and powered the S&P 500 to record highs this week.

“The market started to recognize that the Omicron variant was, in a strange way, good news because it will burn itself out more rapidly because it’s easily transmissible, but it’s less likely to overwhelm hospitals,” said Jay Hatfield, founder and chief executive of Infrastructure Capital Management in New York.

Still, he said Omicron arguably is going to be a headwind for at least the next month.

Argentina hits daily record of new coronavirus cases

Argentina reached a daily record of new coronavirus cases on Wednesday with 42,032 people testing positive, according to the government, surpassing the previous all-time high of 41,080 cases registered in May.

The health ministry also said on Wednesday that 26 deaths occurred from the virus recorded over the previous 24 hours.

Argentina is among the countries with the most deaths per capita in the world, along with its Latin American neighbours. More than 117,000 people have died in the nation of 45 million since the beginning of the pandemic.

A healthcare worker takes a swab sample from a man to be tested for COVID-19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina
A healthcare worker takes a swab sample from a man to be tested for COVID-19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Thursday [File: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters]

Sixty percent increase in US cases from last week: CDC

The current seven-day daily average of cases of about 240,000 cases per day is an increase of 60 percent from the previous week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said.

“The rapid increase in cases we are seeing across the country is in large part a reflection of the exceptionally transmissible Omicron variant.  In a few short weeks, Omicron has rapidly increased across the country and, we expect, will continue to circulate in the coming weeks,” she told a White House press briefing.

However, Walensky said despite the rise in cases, hospitalisations and deaths remain “comparatively low right now”.

‘Pockets of people’ in US still resistant to getting vaccinated: Health official

Some people in the United Stated continue to be “very, very resistant” to getting vaccinated, Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Al Jazeera.

“We’re working very hard to convince them to get vaccinated and fully vaccinated and then boosted because with the Omicron variant that we’re now seeing [as the] predominant strain in the United States, you have to be boosted be protected from that as well,” he said from Washington, DC via Skype.

A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest by New York City Fire Department (FDNY) union members, municipal workers and others [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

Mask-wearing mandatory outdoors in Paris starting December 31

Wearing masks on the streets of Paris will be mandatory starting from Friday, local authorities said, as the number of COVID-19 infections soared.

“Not complying with this rule will induce a fine of 135 euros ($153)”, local authorities said in a press release.

Earlier, Health Minister Olivier Veran told lawmakers France was seeing a “tsunami” of COVID-19 infections, fuelled by both the Delta and Omicron variants of the disease.

County in Kansas state to potentially implement mask mandates

In the United States, health officials in one of Kansas’ most populous counties are talking again about the possibility of imposing a local mask mandate over COVID-19 — only days after one for children expired.

The interest in a new mask mandate in Douglas County, home to the main University of Kansas campus, comes as the state continues to see relatively high numbers of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalisations, and deaths.

The Delta variant has spread across the state, and 25 cases of the Omicron variant have been reported in 10 of the state’s 105 counties, including a case in Douglas County.

Greece citizen facing charges over COVID treatment fraud

Authorities in northern Greece say a 47-year-old woman is facing criminal charges of fraud and impersonating a doctor after she allegedly received 3,000 euros ($3,400) from a couple trying to get two sick parents into an ICU ward for COVID-19 treatment.

Police said the woman has been identified by authorities but not yet formally arrested. They said, despite having no medical qualifications, she posed as an anesthesiologist who offered personalised treatment in the ICU of a Greek state hospital in the northern city of Thessaloniki.

The woman claimed she had been given a government civil mobilisation order as a private doctor to cover staff shortages but a hospital investigation found that she had no connection with the institution.

Lebanon to introduce curbs ahead of New Year: Minister

Lebanon’s Interior Minister says police forces will begin implementing strict measures ahead of New Year’s Eve to limit the spread of the coronavirus in the small country.

Bassam Mawlawi’s comments came as the daily cases of the virus reached 3,153, a figure not seen in Lebanon in months.

After last year’s New Year’s Eve, Lebanon witnessed a sharp increase in coronavirus cases and deaths that overwhelmed hospitals [File: AFP]

Italy reports record 98,030 coronavirus cases

Italy reported another fresh record daily tally of COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, with new cases hitting 98,030 against 78,313 a day earlier, the health ministry said.

The number of coronavirus related deaths fell to 148 from 202 on Tuesday.

Turkey reports highest daily cases since April

Turkey logged 36,684 new coronavirus cases, the highest number of daily infections since April 29, health ministry data showed.

Turkey also recorded 142 deaths from the virus, according to the data.

Daily deaths in Turkey have hovered just below 200 in recent weeks, despite cases falling to around 20,000 in that period [File: Bloomberg]

UK reports new record number of infections

The United Kingdom reported 183,037 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, a new record and over 50,000 more than the previous highest figure, government statistics showed.

There were also 57 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test, up from 18 on Tuesday.

Widespread flight cancellations continue as Omicron spreads

More than 850 flights were cancelled in the United States with the number ticking higher throughout the day, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightAware.

There were nearly 1,300 cancellations for flights entering, leaving, or inside the US on Tuesday, and about 1,500 on Monday.

Worldwide, at least 2,539 flights have been cancelled, according to FlightAware data.

Read more here.

A traveller sits with her luggage in an airport
Cancellations began to spike the day before Christmas during what is already a buzzing pace for airlines this time of year [File: Dieu-Nalio Chery/Reuters]

Omicron cases identified in Libya

Libyan health authorities said they have identified the country’s first cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The National Center for Disease Control did not provide further details, including the number of those who were found to have the variant.

The centre, which tracks the virus spread, urged people across Libya to urgently receive vaccines.

Scotland reports another new daily record in infections

Scotland has recorded a record-high 15,849 new coronavirus cases in the past day, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed, without announcing any new restrictions.

The number of new infections is 4,819 more than the previous high, which was recorded on Boxing Day.

Sturgeon told a virtual meeting of the Scottish parliament that the expected wave of Omicron variant infections is now rapidly developing, as she warned a further steep rise in cases is expected for the days, and possibly, weeks ahead.

Sturgeon said the test positivity rate is 28.9 per cent, with the Omicron coronavirus variant now accounting for about 80 percent of cases [File: Russell Cheyne/Reuters]

Portugal reports new daily infections record but deaths drop

Portugal reported a new record of 26,867 coronavirus cases over the last 24 hours on Wednesday, up sharply from 17,172 the previous day, although daily deaths dropped to a fraction of early 2021 peaks.

Health authority DGS registered 12 fatalities, down from Tuesday’s 19, while the number of patients in intensive care units was steady at 151.

In late January, the number of daily deaths exceeded 300 and there were more than 900 patients in intensive care.

New virus cases in US soar to highest levels on record

More than a year after the vaccine was rolled out, new cases of COVID-19 in the US have soared to the highest level on record with more than 265,000 per day on average, a surge driven largely by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The previous mark was 250,000 cases per day, set in mid-January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.

A registered nurse administers a nasal swab test for the coronavirus disease at a Sameday Health clinic, in the Brentwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles, California, US on December 27, 2021 [Bing Guan/Reuters]

Coronavirus patients in English hospitals up by 916 in one day

Patients with COVID-19 occupied 10,462 beds in English hospitals on Wednesday, up by 916 on the day before, official data from NHS England showed.

The health body also said that of those hospitalised COVID patients, 771 were in mechanical ventilation beds, a figure that has been relatively unchanged through December.

Spain cuts isolation period to seven days from 10

Spain reduced the isolation period for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to seven days from 10, the health ministry said, even as new infections hit record highs.

The Spanish decision, taken unanimously at a meeting between Health Minister Carolina Darias and regional health chiefs, follows similar moves by other countries such as the United States and Britain.

A lack of staff due to long isolation times has caused disruptions to some industries even though many of those who test positive are asymptomatic.

A health worker collects a nasal swab as she conducts a rapid antigen test for COVID-19 at the Mobile World Congress 2021 venue in Barcelona, Spain [File: Bernat Armangue/AP Photo]

WHO: Acute phase of pandemic could end in 2022

The acute phase of the pandemic could end next year but the coronavirus will not disappear, the World Health Organization’s Mike Ryan said.

Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert, also said it was too early to draw conclusions on the severity of the Omicron variant until it had spread more widely to older people.

Cuba to fast track boosters as Omicron looms

Cuba will give booster shots to all eligible recipients next month to keep Omicron at bay, a report in state-run media says.

Health Minister Jose Angel Portal Miranda said the threat posed by the new variant had prompted Cuba’s government to fast track its vaccination campaign, according to the state news outlet CubaDebate.

Health authorities in the country, which is heavily dependent on tourism, last week reported a 35 percent week-on-week jump in COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday, they had registered at least 44 cases caused by the Omicron coronavirus variant.

WHO chief warns of ‘tsunami of cases’

The rapid circulation of the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 worldwide is creating a “tsunami of cases”, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says.

Addressing reporters at a news briefing, Tedros also repeated his call for countries to share vaccines more equitably and warned that the emphasis on delivering booster jabs in richer countries could leave poorer nations short of shots.

He said hitting a 70 percent global vaccination target could help bring about an end to the acute phase of the pandemic.

Germany’s COVID infections outstrip official figure, minister says

Germany’s number of new coronavirus cases has been under-reported and the actual incidence rate of infections is about two or three times higher than the officially reported figure, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach says.

The under-reporting was due to fewer tests being performed at workplaces and at doctors’ practices, as well as only a few of those test results being submitted to authorities, Lauterbach said.

The Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases on Wednesday reported a seven-day incidence rate of 205.5 cases per 100,000 residents, the lowest figure seen since early November.

People queue outside of Germany's Cologne Cathedral to receive a dose of COVID-19 vaccine
Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases reported a seven-day incidence rate of 205.5 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents on Wednesday, the lowest figure seen since early November [Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters]

Malta registers COVID record

Malta has registered a record number of new COVID-19 infections, with 1,337 cases detected over the past 24 hours.

The development marked the fifth time in eight days that the number of daily infections hit a new high figure on the Mediterranean island, despite a high rate of mass vaccination. However, hospitalisations stayed low at just 82 patients.

About 95 percent of the island’s residents have received two doses of a vaccine and some 200,000 people — out of a population of about 500,000 — have received a booster dose, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Tuesday.

France witnessing ‘tsunami’ of infections: Minister

France is seeing a “tsunami” of COVID-19 infections, with 208,000 new cases reported over the past 24 hours, a national and European record, Health Minister Olivier Veran says.

France has been breaking COVID-19 records repeatedly over the past few days, with a previous high of 180,000 cases registered on Tuesday.

“This means that 24 hours a day, day and night, every second in our country, two French people are diagnosed positive for the coronavirus,” Veran told a parliamentary hearing. “We have never experienced such a situation,” he said, describing the increase in cases as “dizzying”.

Read more here.

Greece introduces new curbs as Omicron spreads

Greece will roll out new restrictions on the hospitality sector from Thursday, bringing forward measures planned for early January as COVID-19 infections surge.

The decision came after authorities announced a new daily record of 21,657 cases on Tuesday, more than double compared with Monday. Authorities said Omicron now appeared to be the dominant variant circulating nationwide, barely a month after it was first detected.

Bars, nightclubs and restaurants will be forced to close at midnight, with no standing customers and no music, with the exception of New Year’s Eve when they can stay open until 2am.

Authorities had already moved to introduce other restrictions last week, mandating masks in open spaces and banning Christmas and New Year festivities in public places.

Daily cases surpass 2,000 mark in UAE

Daily infections in the UAE, the Gulf region’s tourism and commercial hub, have risen above 2,000 for the first time since June.

Authorities on Wednesday recorded 2,234 new infections in the past 24 hours, without breaking down the cases by variant. The UAE, which is hosting the Dubai Expo 2020 world fair, announced its first known case of the Omicron variant earlier this month.

Daily cases had fallen below 100 in October but started to climb again in December as tourists flocked to Dubai during the holiday period. The UAE saw daily infections hit a record near 4,000 last January amid the peak tourism season as millions of visitors travelled to Dubai to escape lockdowns at home.

People relaxing on the beach in Dubai
New daily infections in the UAE started to climb again in recent weeks as tourists flocked to Dubai during the holiday period [File: Rula Rouhana/Reuters]

World hits record number of COVID cases in a week: AFP tally

The world has hit a record number of COVID infections in a week, with more than 935,000 cases detected on average each day between December 22 and 28, according to a tally by the AFP news agency.

The figures, the highest since the virus first emerged at the end of 2019, are based on tolls given daily by health authorities in each country.

Read more here.

Cases at record highs in US, Australia and parts of Europe

Daily COVID infections have hit record highs in the US, swaths of Europe and Australia amid Omicron’s rapid advance.

The surge in cases is coinciding with the New Year holidays, normally a period of parties and travel.

Although studies have suggested Omicron is less deadly than some earlier strains, the huge numbers of people testing positive mean hospitals in some countries may soon be overwhelmed, while businesses may struggle to carry on because of workers having to quarantine.

PM urges Britons to get booster jabs

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is urging people to take COVID-19 booster vaccines, saying the overwhelming majority of people admitted to hospital intensive care units with the disease had not received their third jab.

“I’m sorry to say this, but the overwhelming majority of people who are currently ending up in intensive care in our hospitals are people who are not boosted,” he told reporters on a visit to a vaccine centre. “I’ve talked to doctors who say the numbers are running up to 90 percent .”

Johnson also said people should celebrate with caution on New Year’s Eve after he decided not to bring in tougher restrictions to curtail the UK’s virus caseload.

China’s Xian in COVID lockdown for 7th day

A lockdown of 13 million people in the Chinese city of Xian has entered its seventh day, with many unable to leave their residential compounds and relying on deliveries of necessities as new COVID-19 infections persisted.

Xian reported 151 domestically transmitted infections with confirmed symptoms for Tuesday – nearly all of the 152 cases nationwide – bringing the total number of local cases to nearly 1,000 in the December 9 to 28 period. No cases of Omicron have been announced in the city so far.

While the Xian outbreak is small compared with outbreaks in many other places around the world, officials have imposed tough curbs on travel within and leaving the city since December 23, in line with Beijing’s drive to immediately contain outbreaks as they appear.

Workers in personal protective equipment stand at an entrance to a university's residential area in the Chinese city of Xian
The Xian outbreak is small compared with other places around the world, but officials imposed tough curbs on travel [File: China Daily via Reuters]

Cases climb in Kenya

Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, says infection rates are rising rapidly there and in dozens of countries throughout Africa.

“In Kenya, the positivity rate is now at 34 percent – a steep rise from the beginning of the year,” she said. “The biggest concern here now is vaccinations – people are not getting vaccinated as quickly as the government wants. Only 14 percent of the population is vaccinated.”

Soi added that there was particular concern on the continent over the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the least COVID-vaccinated country against in the world, where a fourth wave of infections has seen hospitals grappling with an influx of patients.

Omicron surge ‘unabated’ in Europe

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, says the surge of Omicron is continuing “unabated” in the UK and across Europe.

Several countries, including Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, expect the fast-spreading variant to be the dominant strain within days, he added, but noted that “not all countries are responding in equal measure”.

“There’s a lockdown ongoing in the Netherlands but others are coming up with piecemeal restrictions. There’s a real risk health services may not be able to cope with COVID-19, but also a whole range of other urgent needs and ailments that people may have.”

Thailand warns of infection spike from ‘super-spreader’ event

Thai health authorities say the country should brace itself for a potential jump in infections after classifying the country’s first cluster of the Omicron variant as a “super-spreader” incident.

The cluster identified in the northeastern province of Kalasin on Christmas Eve has been linked to a couple who had travelled from Belgium and visited bars, concerts and markets.

That, in turn, had infected hundreds, with cases spreading to 11 other provinces, said senior health official Opas Karnkawinpong. Thailand has recorded 740 cases of Omicron to date, including 251 in people who had come into contact with foreign arrivals, said Opas.

A crowd of people wearing face masks at a train station in Bangkok, Thailand
Thailand has recorded 740 cases of Omicron to date [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

In India, fears of a third wave grow

India has reported a total of nearly 800 Omicron cases and more than 9,000 fresh infections overall nationwide, adding to mounting concern the country could be on the cusp of entering a third wave of COVID-19.

Read more on the situation here.

France extends nightclub closures

French Tourism Minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne says nightclubs will remain closed for three more weeks after Tuesday’s record case numbers.

All of the country’s approximately 1,600 nightclubs were ordered shut on December 6 for four weeks as officials hoped to avoid a wave of infections fuelled by holiday travel and festivities amid the advance of Omicron.

Lemoyne told France Inter radio that the decision to extend the mandatory closure was part of new measures announced by the government this week.

Poland reports highest daily fourth wave deaths

Poland has reported 794 COVID-related deaths, the highest daily number in the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Deputy Minister of Health Waldemar Kraska says.

More than 75 percent of those who died were unvaccinated, Kraska told TV news channel Polsat News.

Poland has been dealing with persistently high daily infection numbers during the fourth wave, despite Omicron failing to gain a foothold there yet, forcing authorities to tighten virus restrictions. On Wednesday, health authorities recorded 15,571 new coronavirus cases nationwide.

Data expert notes rising COVID positivity rate in the Philippines

Australia’s Omicron outbreak strains testing clinics

Australia’s COVID-19 infections are surging to new records due to Omicron’s rapid spread, overwhelming testing facilities in the country’s most populous state.

The crush at testing facilities in New South Wales has been partly blamed on neighbouring state Queensland requiring interstate tourists to return a negative PCR test result before arriving.

Australia is in the grip of an Omicron-led COVID-19 outbreak but authorities have so far ruled out lockdowns.

California first state to top 5 million cases amid Omicron surge

California has become the first US state to record more than 5 million known coronavirus infections, according to data released by the state on Tuesday.

California’s caseload is also ahead of other large states. Texas had more than 4.4 million and Florida topped 3.9 million as of Sunday.

California has recorded more than 75,500 deaths related to COVID-19.

Long lines overwhelm testing sites in the US

Long lines are overwhelming coronavirus testing sites across the US amid a recent surge in cases, with appointments at pharmacies scarce.

Midgalia Dancel, who had been trying to get tested in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, told local TV station WPVI she had stopped by a city-run mobile site in the Rhawnhurst neighbourhood of Philadelphia on Tuesday but was unable to get a test.

US President Joe Biden has promised to boost testing capacity in the US to combat the Omicron-driven wave of infections, including the distribution of 500 million at-home tests starting next month.

Quebec to allow some COVID-positive essential workers to continue working

The Canadian province of Quebec will allow some essential workers to continue working even after testing positive for COVID-19, in what Health Minister Christian Dube says is an effort to prevent staff shortages from impeding healthcare services.

“Omicron’s contagion is so exponential that a huge number of personnel have to be withdrawn – and that poses a risk to the network capacity to treat Quebecers,” Dube told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday.

Quebec, which has been setting daily records since Omicron started a new wave of rapidly rising infections, recorded 12,833 new cases on Monday – the highest one-day count of any region in Canada during the pandemic.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies