Latest COVID updates: Netherlands eases lockdown after four weeks

COVID news update from January 14: Dutch PM says shops, hairdressers and universities will be allowed to reopen.

People are seen sitting at bars and walking along the boulevard outside in Valkenburg, southern Netherlands
People enjoy the reopening of bars in Valkenburg, Netherlands, where shops, bars and restaurants opened in a protest action that underscored growing anger at weeks of lockdown measures, a day before some of the restrictions will be eased [Peter Dejong/AP Photo]

The Netherlands will ease some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in Europe, allowing shops, gyms, hairdressers and sex workers to reopen from Saturday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said.

The UK Health Security Agency said it is increasingly confident that the Omicron coronavirus variant “causes low severity of disease in adults,” as it published its updated briefing on the variant Friday.

Also on Friday, the Australian government cancelled Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second time, saying the world tennis No 1, unvaccinated for COVID-19, may pose a risk to the community.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Mirror newspaper reported that staff at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s residence held gatherings dubbed “wine-time Fridays” during pandemic lockdowns last year, with Johnson regularly witnessing gatherings and encouraging staff to “let off steam”.

A senior civil servant is investigating a spate of parties at Downing Street, and Johnson apologised for the events earlier this week.

The live blog is now closed, thank you for joining us. Here are the updates for January 14.

Google mandates weekly COVID-19 tests for access to US offices

Google is mandating weekly COVID-19 tests for any person entering its offices or facilities in the United States, CNBC reported on Friday, citing a memo.

According to the report, anyone entering any of Google’s US sites will be required to demonstrate a negative COVID test, report their vaccination status and wear surgical-grade masks.

CDC updates recommendations on masks

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) laid out new recommendations for masks on Friday, advising Americans to wear “well-fitted” masks that can be comfortably worn all day.

“Some masks and respirators offer higher levels of protection than others, and some may be harder to tolerate or wear consistently than others,” the CDC wrote on its website. “It is most important to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection.”

Johnson’s staff held ‘wine-time’ gatherings in lockdown: UK’s Mirror

Staff at UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s residence held gatherings dubbed “wine-time Fridays” during pandemic lockdowns, with the British prime minister regularly witnessing gatherings and encouraging staff to “let off steam”, the Mirror newspaper has reported.

The newspaper said staff had bought a large drinks fridge for the office, which they refilled by taking a suitcase to the local supermarket to buy bottles.

The Mirror said Johnson attended a “handful” of the gatherings when indoor socialising was banned.

A senior civil servant is investigating a spate of parties at Downing Street, and Johnson apologised for the events earlier this week.

Federal testing website launches next week, four tests per home

The federal website where Americans can request free COVID-19 tests will begin accepting orders on Wednesday as the White House looks to address nationwide shortages, but supplies will be limited to just four free tests per home.

Starting on January 19, the website will provide tests at no cost, including no shipping fee, the White House announced Friday.

As he faced criticism for low inventory and long lines for testing, President Joe Biden announced last month that the US would buy 500 million at-home tests to launch the program and on Thursday the president announced that he was doubling the order to one billion tests.

Brazil begins vaccinating young children despite Bolsonaro objection

Brazil has begun vaccinating children aged five to 11 against COVID-19 after the move was approved despite objections from President Jair Bolsonaro.

Davi Seremramiwe Xavante, an Indigenous eight-year-old boy, was the first child to be vaccinated during an official ceremony at a Sao Paulo hospital, with the state governor Joao Doria in attendance.

The new age group was approved for vaccination by Anvisa health authorities a month ago.

Number of French ICU patients falls, despite record infections

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units in France has fallen for the second day in a row, despite a record infection rate, health ministry data has shown.

France reported 3,895 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units on Friday, 44 fewer than Thursday, and the second consecutive fall, despite the seven-day moving average of new infections reaching a new high of nearly 294,000 on Thursday.

The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 rose by 357 to 24,511, but the week-on-week increase of 13.5 percent was the lowest since the start of the year.

Canada expects Omicron surge to strain healthcare system

Canada will see a surge in cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the coming weeks which could put significant new strains on the healthcare system, chief public health officer Theresa Tam has said.

“A large surge of rapidly accelerating Omicron cases is forecast for Canada in the coming weeks,” Tam told a news briefing, adding that the wave might peak before receding into February.

New daily cases of COVID-19 have jumped to a record 37,500, which is most likely a drastic undercount of the true number, given constraints in testing capacity across the country, she added.

Serbian president says Australia ‘mistreating’ Djokovic

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has accused Australia of “mistreating” tennis star Novak Djokovic after authorities revoked his visa for a second time.

Speaking out for the first time on the sage he described the decision as putting “unreasonable attacks and pressure” on the first-ranked tennis player.

“Why are you mistreating him, why are you taking it out not only on him but also on his family and the whole nation,” Vucic said on social media.

Djokovic is set to take his fight to remain in Australia unvaccinated to a federal court on Saturday.

In rare move, Uruguay opens borders for residents infected with COVID-19

Uruguay has opened its borders to citizens and residents even if they are infected with COVID-19, a rare move amid surging cases worldwide, though passengers would need to travel in private vehicles across the border and be in a family “bubble”.

The South American country’s government said the move was in “solidarity” with Uruguayans and residents who were infected with the virus abroad.

“All Uruguayan travelers and resident foreigners who have got Covid abroad may return to our country at any time,” Uruguayan Health Minister Daniel Salinas said on his Twitter account on Friday.

US sending medical teams to hospitals in six states

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Deanne Criswell has announced that Department of Defense medical teams are being deployed to six states that are seeing hospitals under increased pressure due to COVID-19 and the Omicron variant.

The states include Ohio, Michigan, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico.

The Department of Health and Human Services is also sending an additional team to Rhode Island.

“In the next several weeks, we are also prepared to do more,” Criswell told reporters at a White House briefing Friday.

Netherlands to relax tough COVID-19 restrictions: PM

The Netherlands will ease some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in Europe, allowing shops, gyms, hairdressers and sex workers to reopen, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said.

Bars, restaurants, cafes and cultural locations will however remain closed until at least January 25, Rutte told the first press conference since a new government was sworn in earlier this week.

Non-essential stores, hairdressers, beauty salons and other service providers will be allowed to reopen under strict conditions until 5pm local time (16:00 GMT) for the first time since mid-December.

US researchers share COVID-19 vaccine with the world

Researchers in the United States have created a cheap, easy-to-produce COVID-19 vaccine that may offer a solution to unequal vaccine access in developing countries.

Bypassing the patent restrictions of major pharmaceutical firms, doctors Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez at the Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development used traditional vaccine technology that can be deployed rapidly to help inoculate the global population.

“There are countries that are just ridiculously low in the percent of access and vaccine coverage. We really have to do a better job,” Bottazzi told Al Jazeera. “We really need to vaccinate the entire world.”

Read about it here.

Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez at Texas Children's Hospital used traditional technology to make a vaccine for global use.
Doctors Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez at Texas Children’s Hospital used traditional technology to make a coronavirus vaccine for global use [Courtesy of Texas Children’s Hospital]

Eight million people tested positive in Spain: Health data

The number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Spain since the pandemic started in 2020 has reached 8 million, according to Health Ministry data.

The number of cases increased by 162,500 since Thursday.

The total number of people infected with COVID-19 stood at 8,093,036, while the death toll was 90,759, the data showed.

US students stage walkouts to protest in-person classes

Students in Boston and Chicago have planned walkouts to pressure officials to switch to remote learning, as a surge in COVID-19 cases fuelled by the Omicron variant disrupts schools around the US.

An online petition started by a Boston high school senior saying schools are a “COVID-19 breeding ground” and calling for a remote option had gathered more than 8,000 signatures as of Friday morning.

The Boston Student Advisory Council, which called for a citywide walkout on Friday morning, posted a series of demands on Twitter, including two weeks of remote learning and improved COVID-19 testing for teachers and students.

UK leader’s office apologises for party before royal funeral

Boris Johnson’s office has apologised to the royal family for holding staff parties in Downing Street on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral last year – the latest in a string of allegedly lockdown-breaching gatherings that are threatening to topple the British prime minister.

Farewell parties for Johnson’s departing spin doctor and another staffer, complete with late-night drinking and dancing, took place on April 16, 2021, the night before Queen Elizabeth II sat alone at her husband’s funeral because of social distancing rules in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Johnson spokesman Jamie Davies acknowledged that news of the gatherings had caused “significant public anger”.

“It’s deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning and No. 10 has apologised to the palace,” he said, using a term for the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. office.

UK study finds more Omicron hospitalisations in infants, but cases mild

Infants under one year old are proportionally more likely to be hospitalised with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus than older children but they did not become particularly sick, British researchers have said.

Of children hospitalised with COVID-19 in the last four weeks, 42 percent were under one, compared with approximately 30 percent in previous waves, the early data showed.

Presenting the data, Russell Viner, professor of child and adolescent health at University College London, told reporters the trend was likely in part because Omicron symptoms might resemble the sort of respiratory conditions that would encourage parents to take babies to hospital as a precaution.

Djokovic’s PCR test ‘absolutely valid’: Serbian health ministry

A document showing that Djokovic tested positive for COVID-19 on December 16 is valid, a Serbian health ministry official has said.

“After the documentation appeared on social networks we analysed the document, and the document is absolutely valid,” said Zoran Gojkovic, a member of the Crisis Staff team working on fighting COVID-19 in the country.

He said there was no legal penalty for those who break quarantine rules in Serbia, referring to Djokovic’s interview with French newspaper L’Equipe.

“I defend his free will not to get vaccinated,” Gojkovic said.

UK weekly infections down 29.5 percent

The UK has reported 99,652 new cases of COVID-19 in its daily data, a drop that pushed the seven-day tally down by 29.5 percent on the week before.

It reported 270 deaths of people who had tested positive for the disease within the previous 28 days. The seven day total for deaths is up 67 percent on the week before, following a record spike in infections in recent weeks.

UK health agency increasingly confident Omicron is less severe

The UK Health Security Agency has said it was increasingly confident that the Omicron coronavirus variant was less severe for adults, as it published its updated briefing on the variant.

“There is now high confidence that the Omicron variant causes low severity of disease in adults,” UKHSA said.

It added that there were 53 sequences of a sub-lineage of Omicron, BA.2, which does not have a specific mutation that easily distinguishes it from Delta, adding it would monitor the sub-lineage closely.

Israel says 500K have received fourth dose

Israel has administered a fourth vaccine dose to more than 500,000 people, the Ministry of Health has said.

“Israel’s trailblazing vaccine campaign has reached another milestone,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement.

“Thank you to the half a million Israelis who got the fourth dose of the COVID vaccine and in so doing, help to keep us all safer.”

Russia records 783 Omicron cases: Official

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova has said that Russia had so far recorded 783 cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant and expected a rise in cases in the near future.

She added that more than half of the cases had been detected in the capital Moscow.

Polish advisers resign over lack of scientific influence on policy

Thirteen of the 17 members of Poland’s Medical Council advising the prime minister have resigned, state-run news agency PAP has reported, condemning what they said was a lack of scientific influence on policy.

Even with one of the world’s highest death rates, Poland has introduced much more limited measures than many other European countries to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“The discrepancy between scientific and medical rationale and practice has become especially glaring in the context of the very limited efforts in the face of the autumn wave and then the threat of the Omicron variant, despite the enormous number of deaths expected,” the 13 council members said in a statement given to PAP.

Some restaurants rebel, reopen ahead of Dutch lockdown easing

Restaurants in one Dutch city have reopened and others said they would open on Saturday regardless of whether they are included in plans by the government to ease the country’s lockdown.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte was expected to order the reopening of most stores, hairdressers and gyms at a nationally televised news conference Friday evening, as popular support for the month-long lockdown evaporates despite the strain on hospitals and record new infections.

National broadcaster NOS reported that restaurants and bars would be excluded from the reopening, citing government sources. Rutte is due to speak at 18:00 GMT.

Netherlands registers more than 35,000 cases in 24 hours

The Netherlands has registered more than 35,000 new COVID-19 infections in 24 hours, a record high, official data has showed.

Norway opens jabs to 5-11-year-olds

Norway has said it would open vaccinations to five to 11-year-olds on a voluntary basis but stopped short of issuing an official recommendation.

In addition, children aged 12 to 15, who have until now been offered a single dose of the vaccine, may now receive a second dose if their parents wish, the health ministry said.

Omicron has 1/3 reduced risk of hospitalisation compared with Delta: UK researchers

There is a one-third reduction in the risk of going into hospital associated with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 compared with Delta, researchers at Imperial College London have said in scientific advice published by the British government.

The reduction in risk from Omicron compared with Delta increased to two-thirds when looking at severe outcomes such as formal admission or death, the researchers said.

China suspends more flights, Shanghai curbs tours

China has suspended dozens of international flights, while the city of Shanghai has curbed tourist activity.

Shanghai’s tourism and culture authority said travel agencies and online tourism companies must once again halt organising group tours into and out of Shanghai after it reported five new domestically transmitted infections on Thursday, all linked to an arrival from overseas.

China announced that 30 inbound international flights from several countries were suspended due to COVID-19 cases, including four more from the US. So far this year, China has announced the cancellation of 74 flights from the US.

England’s R number estimated between 1.1 and 1.5

The estimated range of England’s COVID-19 reproduction “R” number is between 1.1 and 1.5, the UK Health Security Agency has said, adding that cases might be growing by slightly less each day.

An R number between 1.1 and 1.5 means that for every 10 people infected, they will on average infect between 11 and 15 other people. Last week, the range was 1.2 to 1.5.

The daily growth of infections was estimated at between +1 percent to +5 percent, compared with +3 percent and +6 percent the previous week.

EMA lists rare spinal condition as side effect of AstraZeneca jab

>A safety panel of the European drug regulator has recommended adding a rare spinal inflammation called transverse myelitis as a side effect of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine.

European Medicines Agency’s safety committee also recommended a similar warning to be included for Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine.

The committee, after reviewing data, concluded that a causal relationship between these two vaccines and transverse myelitis is at least a reasonable possibility.

EU excess deaths in November hit highest in a year: Eurostat

Approximately 27 percent more people died in the European Union than usual during November, the biggest increase in a year as a fresh wave of COVID-19 swept the region, according to official data.

Excess mortality – the increase in total number of deaths, from any cause, compared with the same time in previous years – continued to vary across member states, EU statistics office Eurostat said.

Bulgaria and Romania saw the highest rates in November, the last month for which data for all 27 EU member states is available, with excess mortality at 88 percent and 84 percent respectively, while Italy saw 4 percent more deaths.

COVID-19 Omicron variant now dominant in Italy

The highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant is now predominant in Italy, according to the National Health Institute (ISS), accounting for 81 percent of cases in a flash survey on January 3.

“In Italy on January 3, the Omicron variant was predominant, with an estimated prevalence of 81 percent, while Delta was at 19 percent of the sample tested”, ISS said in statement.

The analysis is based on 2,632 swabs tested in 120 laboratories and collected in all 21 Italian regions and autonomous provinces, the Institute said.


Philippines bans unvaccinated from public transport

The Philippines will push through with its plan next week to ban from public transportation people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19, according to officials.

The ban applies to the notoriously congested capital region of about 13 million people, where most new cases have emerged, but has faced stiff opposition from the country’s human rights commission, which called it restrictive and discriminatory.

But the transport ministry said there would be no stopping the plan, which was necessary to curb the spread and prevent the healthcare system from getting overwhelmed.

S Korea court exempts teens, supermarkets from vaccine passes

A South Korean court has ruled that large shops and teenagers should be temporarily excluded from COVID-19 vaccine pass mandates in the capital Seoul, part of an intensifying legal fight over one of Asia’s strictest vaccination policies.

A group of more than 1,000 doctors, professors and ordinary citizens filed for an injunction last week against Seoul’s mayor to suspend the mandates, which require vaccination passes or testing for entry to most public facilities except for schools.

An administrative court in the capital said department stores, supermarkets and shops in Seoul that have 3,000sq metres (32,300sq feet) or more of space should be exempted.

The court said the mandate should not apply to teenagers using any Seoul-based facilities.

WHO recommendation on Merck’s oral pill likely in early February

The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently reviewing Merck’s COVID-19 antiviral oral pill molnupiravir and a recommendation will likely be made by early February, according to an agency official.

Janet Diaz, WHO lead on clinical management, said the WHO’S Guidelines Development Group is also getting ready to review Pfizer’s oral pill.

“We will be looking at that [Pfizer oral pill] data in early February for publication likely at the end of that month.”

Omicron leaves Germany on brink of recession as growth dips

The risk of recession is looming for Germany after Europe’s biggest economy shrank at the end of 2021 and as it faces a bumpy start to this year, with the rapid spread of COVID-19’s Omicron variant deterring people from shopping and travel and supply bottlenecks holding back manufacturers.

Output in Germany fell by between 0.5 percent and 1 percent in the fourth quarter, the state statistics agency Destatis said.

Forecasts are also shaky for the first three months of 2022, and two straight quarters of falling output would leave Germany in recession, according to one commonly used definition.

Australian judge to hold emergency Djokovic hearing: court

The Australian judge who blocked Novak Djokovic’s deportation scheduled an emergency hearing late on Friday, after the government cancelled the tennis star’s visa for a second time.

“A directions hearing will be conducted tonight at 8:45 pm (09:45 GMT) before Judge Anthony Kelly of the Federal Circuit Court,” a court spokesman said in a statement.

Djokovic’s lawyer Nick Wood requested an injunction against the Serbian’s removal and appealed for him to be allowed to stay out of immigration detention as the case proceeds.

“We are very concerned about time,” Wood told an emergency hearing three days before Djokovic tries to defend his Australian Open crown.

Bangladesh tightens curbs as COVID cases rise

Bangladesh has enforced a new set of rules and guidelines to check a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in the past week.

The South Asian country reported 3,359 new cases and 12 COVID-related deaths on Thursday, with a positivity rate of 12 percent, according to a daily bulletin issued by the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).

Read more here.

Coronavirus vaccination in Bangladesh
Slum-dwellers stand in a queue to get vaccines in Korail Slum in Dhaka [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Philippines eyes ‘unvaccinated list’ amid Duterte’s arrest threat

The Philippine government is looking to issue an order that would allow village officials to go “house-to-house” and record the vaccination status of all residents as it extends limits on mobility until the end of January due to a new surge in COVID-19 cases.

The move comes after President Rodrigo Duterte’s warning last week that he will order the arrest of those of have not been vaccinated to contain the spread of the disease.

Read more here.

Police block a church in Manila to prevent worshippers from entering
Police officers man the Quaipo Church in Manila to prevent devotees from entering [File: Lisa Marie David/Reuters]

Swedish PM Andersson tests positive for COVID

Swedish Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has tested positive for COVID-19, according to her spokesperson.

Andersson, 54, is one of several party leaders to have tested positive for the virus in the wake of a debate in parliament earlier this week while Sweden’s king, queen and crown princess have all been hit with infections this month.

“She (Andersson) is following the current recommendations and will perform her duties from home. The PM is feeling well, given the situation,” the spokesperson said.

Thousands gather at Hindu festival in India as virus surges

Tens of thousands of devout Hindus, led by heads of monasteries and ash-smeared ascetics, took a holy dip into the frigid waters of the Ganges River in northern India despite rising COVID-19 infections in the country.

Hindu pilgrims congregated at the Sangam, the confluence of three rivers – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati – in Prayagraj city, 200km (124 miles) northeast of Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, to participate in the Magh Mela festival, one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism.

Read more here.

Hindu pilgrims at Ganges river
Hindu pilgrims gather to take a dip at the confluence of the river Ganges and the Bay of Bengal, on the occasion of “Makar Sankranti” festival at Sagar Island [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

J&J booster 85 percent effective against Omicron: Study

A booster shot of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has shown 85 percent effectiveness in protecting against the Omicron variant for one to two months after it is received, according to the head of South Africa’s Medical Research Council (SAMRC).

Glenda Grey presented the findings of a SAMRC study at a South African health ministry briefing on the COVID-19 fourth wave, which has been driven by the new variant.

Australia cancels Djokovic’s visa again over vaccination

The Australian government cancelled Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second time, saying the world tennis number one, unvaccinated for COVID-19, may pose a risk to the community.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used discretionary powers to again cancel Djokovic’s visa, after a court quashed an earlier revocation and released him from immigration detention on Monday.

“Today I exercised my power under section 133C(3) of the Migration Act to cancel the visa held by Mr Novak Djokovic on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so,” Hawke said in a statement.

Read more here.

A Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic sits on a bench
Djokovic rests during a training session at Melbourne Park [Diego Fedele/AAP Image via Reuters]

Hong Kong airport suspends transit flights from high-risk countries

Hong Kong International Airport has said passenger transit flights from countries considered high-risk because of the coronavirus will be suspended from January 16 to February 15.

“Passenger transfer/transit services via Hong Kong International Airport for any persons who have stayed in Group A specified place(s) in the past 21 days will be suspended,” the airport said in a statement on its website.

Hong Kong considers 153 countries as high risk.

Read more here.

Shanghai cuts some tourism trips on COVID-19 cases again

The eastern Chinese financial hub of Shanghai has suspended some tourism activities as part of its efforts to head off a handful of sporadic new local transmissions, while it also faces an increase in COVID-19 infections from overseas.

Shanghai’s tourism and culture authority said travel agencies and online tourism companies must once again halt organising group tours between Shanghai and other provinces, regions or municipalities, after the city reported five new domestically transmitted infections, all linked to a previous arrival from overseas.

The order, in line with a national guideline to cut tourist activities in provincial divisions where new infections have emerged, came less than a month after Shanghai lifted a previous suspension that had come into effect in November, according to local government statements and a report by a newspaper managed by China’s tourism authority.

Cambodia begins fourth round of COVID vaccinations

Cambodia has begun a fourth round of vaccinations against the coronavirus following the recent discovery of cases of the Omicron variant, with high-risk groups being the first to receive their next shots.

Among those waiting at hospitals and clinics were front-line medical staff as well as members of the armed forces.

Government ministers, including Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, also received booster doses on Friday. Hun Sen has appealed to all Cambodians to get fully vaccinated, including a booster, saying that is the only way to make sure to keep their families and communities safe from COVID-19.

‘Alarm’ in China at latest outbreak

Al Jazeera’s Britt Clennett, reporting from Hong Kong, says there is growing “alarm” in China about the latest coronavirus outbreak.

The country confirmed 201 new cases for January 13, up from 190 a day earlier. Authorities also reported 42 asymptomatic cases, which China does not report among its confirmed cases.

Clennett says the concern is that cases from Tianjin, just 30 minutes by train from Beijing, could spread to the capital just as it is preparing to host the Winter Olympics. She says authorities are “taking no chances” and have ramped up checks on travellers to the capital.

Omicron set to become dominant in South Korea

Omicron is set to become the dominant variant in South Korea, with officials keeping a close eye on the spread of the virus before the upcoming Lunar New Year.

“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly especially from last week and is on the verge of becoming the dominant variant as it accounted for 20 percent of domestic cases two days ago,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said during a COVID-19 response meeting, according to Yonhap news agency.

“I request people to restrain from their hometown visits and meetings with relatives and families during the Lunar New Year holiday period.”

While the government is extending health curbs until February 6 given the concerns, it says it will also relax the rules slightly so that six fully vaccinated people can attend private gatherings rather than four. A 9pm curfew on restaurants, cafes and bars will continue.

Three people wearing masks silhouetted against the sky on a cold morning in Seoul
People wearing masks take a walk on a cold winter’s day at a Han river park in Seoul [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

Philippines to extend COVID-19 curbs until January 31

The Philippines’s coronavirus task force plans to extend movement curbs in the area around Manila and other provinces until the end of January, according to acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles.

The Southeast Asian nation is battling its biggest-ever surge in COVID-19 cases.

Online and physical classes at all public and private schools in Manila began a one-week suspension on Friday.

Australia’s NSW reports record deaths

The Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) has reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths for a third day.

The state reported 29 of the 56 deaths announced in Australia on Friday.

The surge in Omicron cases is putting pressure on hospitals, but health officials say they expect admissions to reach their peak next week.

The state’s Health Deputy Secretary, Susan Pearce, told the media the number of patients in hospital was better than the best-case scenario in official modelling and plateauing “but that plateauing is obviously still at a relatively high level of COVID patients in our hospitals and in our [intensive care].”

More party revelations for UK PM Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing new allegations of his office partying while citizens were being told not to gather for social events because of COVID-19.

The Daily Telegraph says the latest gatherings took place on April 16 last year – the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral – despite rules limiting the size of gatherings both indoors and out.

Johnson is already under pressure, with some in his party calling for his resignation after he admitted on Wednesday that he attended a staff drinks gathering during the May 2020 lockdown. He told parliament that he thought it was a work event.

Djokovic practises as clock ticks down on Australia visa decision

Tennis star Novak Djokovic has been out practising in Melbourne this morning as the Australian government prepares to announce its decision on his visa status.

Immigration officials cancelled his visa when he arrived in the country last week before the Australian Open tennis tournament, citing insufficient evidence of a medical exemption to COVID-19 vaccination.

That decision was reversed by a court.

The top men’s tennis player is awaiting a decision on his visa from Immigration Minister Alex Hawk.

Novak Djokovic in blue shorts, t-shorts and shoes plays a shot during practise at Melbourne Park
Djokovic practises at Melbourne Park [Diego Fedele/AAP Image via Reuters]

WHO approves new COVID-19 treatments

A WHO expert panel has added two more drugs to its guidelines for recommended treatments for COVID-19.

The drug baricitinib, which is also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, is “strongly recommended” for patients with severe or critical COVID-19, in combination with corticosteroids.

Sotrovimab, an experimental monoclonal antibody treatment, has been given a “conditional recommendation” for those with non-severe COVID-19 but at the very highest risk of hospital admission.

You can read more on that story here.

You can read all the updates from January 13 here.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies