UK reports record 88,376 daily Covid cases – The Telegraph

The UK recorded a further 88,376 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the past 24 hours, the highest daily total recorded since the pandemic began.
The latest figure is 10,000 more than the previous record set on Wednesday, as the omicron variant sweeps through the country.
Professor Chris Whitty warned that records would continue to be broken over the coming weeks during a press conference at Downing Street on Wednesday. 
The Chief Medical Officer for England also said that Britons should be "prioritising those things that really matter" ahead of Christmas, and urged: "Don’t mix with people you have to for either work or the family things that really matter to you."
Tory MPs hit out at Prof Whitty in the Commons following his comments, with backbencher Steve Brine, the former health minister, saying he had "put this country, certainly hospitality… into effective lockdown".
Meanwhile, Joy Morrissey, the MP for Beaconsfield, wrote in a now deleted tweet that “this is not a public health socialist state”. 
However, Prof Whitty said today that if Christmas parties or football matches are important to people they can go, stressing that he wanted to "avoid making other people’s choices for them".
That’s all from us, but here’s a look back at today’s key developments:
British tourists are to be barred from entering France from Saturday as the country drastically restricts travel to and from the UK due to the spread of omicron.
Pubs and restaurants warned that sales have plunged since the Government introduced new Covid-19 measures.
Christmas parties and football matches are acceptable to attend if they are important to people, Professor Chris Whitty has said.
The Queen has cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family party next week.
Nicola Sturgeon has urged people to reduce contact with those from other households ‘as much as you possibly can’.
Downing Street has slapped down claims by Conservative MP Joy Morrissey, who accused Prof Chris Whitty of acting as if Britain is a “public health socialist state”.
Almost two thirds of care home staff have not received a booster jab, rising to three-quarters in London where omicron is thought to be the dominant Covid strain.
Scroll down for more Covid updates from today.
Omicron now accounts for nearly three-quarters of new cases of Covid-19 in London, an analysis has suggested.
Some 73.5 per cent of a sample of new coronavirus cases in the capital with specimen dates for December 13 and 14 were found to have S gene target failure (SGTF) – a way of detecting the likely presence of omicron.
Most samples of omicron that have been sequenced in a laboratory have been found to contain a slight but identifiable difference from other Covid-19 variants such as delta.
This difference – a deletion in the S gene – shows up in certain laboratory PCR tests and can be used as a way of estimating the spread of omicron.
The figures, which have been published by the UK Health Security Agency, also show that 48 per cent of a sample of detectable cases in eastern England from December 13 and 14 were classed as SGTF, along with 41 per cent in south-east England and 39 per cent in north-west England.
North-east England had the lowest estimate, at 16 per cent.
It has been alleged that the Prime Minister attended a party with No 10 staff during the first national lockdown in May last year.
The Guardian and The Independent reported that Boris Johnson was present for 15 minutes at the gathering, said to have taken place on May 15 2020, following a Covid press conference.
The newspapers said the alleged event was held on the same day that Matt Hancock, then Health Secretary, urged people to “please stick with the rules”.
At the time the party is said to have taken place, people were only permitted to meet one other person from outside their household in an outdoor, public place, and were told to keep two metres apart.
The PM reportedly told one attendee that they deserved a drink for “beating back” the virus.
The papers said that, when asked about Mr Johnson’s “beating back” comment and his presence at the alleged party where staff were said to be drinking and socialising, a No 10 spokesman told them: “In the summer months Downing Street staff regularly use the garden for some meetings.
“On May 15 2020 the Prime Minister held a series of meetings throughout the afternoon, including briefly with the then-Health and Care Secretary and his team in the garden following a press conference.
“The Prime Minister went to his residence shortly after 7pm. A small number of staff required to be in work remained in the Downing Street garden for part of the afternoon and evening.”
Stormont ministers are to meet next week to consider potential new coronavirus restrictions for Northern Ireland.
Ministers will convene on Wednesday to decide what steps will be required in response to the threat posed by the omicron variant.
At a meeting at Stormont today, executive ministers received a stark briefing from officials on what the next number of weeks could hold if action is not taken.
A briefing paper warned “significant intervention” could be required immediately after Christmas to keep Covid-19 hospital inpatient numbers below 1,000.
A Department of Health modelling paper said that would be the scenario facing if omicron turns out to be “close” to the severity of the delta variant.
The peak of Covid-19 hospital inpatient numbers during the pandemic in Northern Ireland was 1,055 in January this year.
More than 100,000 planned operations could be cancelled in England this winter amid surging omicron cases, according to a new study.
Using computer modelling, researchers predict 22,147 procedures could be cancelled each week across December, January and February if Covid hospital admissions reach the same levels as April 2020.
That would mean a decrease of just over a third from pre-pandemic levels.
If that rises from a point seen in the first half of October 2021 at around 14,348 each week, a total of 100,273 operations could be cancelled, the study predicts.
Led by researchers at the University of Birmingham, the research team used NHS England data from September 2020 to July 2021 to develop their model.
The pharmaceutical industry has to admit “we dismally failed” at ensuring Covid-19 vaccines are rolled out across the globe, the head of a major trade body conceded today.
In a candid press briefing, Thomas Cueni, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), said that “everybody is ashamed and embarrassed” by the vast imbalances in access to coronavirus shots worldwide, adding that “we really need to do better in 2022.”
To date almost 8.6 billion doses have been administered worldwide, yet just 7.6 per cent of people living in low income countries have had at least one shot – across high income nations, this figure is 75 per cent. 
But officials involved in the Covax scheme – set up to counter “vaccine nationalism” and distribute vaccines worldwide – reacted with surprise to Mr Cueni’s comments, suggesting he has spent much of the pandemic undermining efforts to ensure shots are prioritised for healthcare workers and vulnerable people worldwide.
“Ironic, he personally pushed against multiple efforts around vaccine equity over the past 12 months,” said John Butler, head of Global Health Strategies Europe. 
This proportion rises to three-quarters in London where omicron is thought to be the dominant Covid strain, new figures suggest.
Some 79 per cent of residents and 34 per cent  of staff at older age care homes in England have had their booster as of December 12, according to data from NHS England.
This falls to 24.7 per cent of staff in care homes in the capital.
A fifth of residents (65,036 residents) and 66 per cent of staff (301,400 staff) have not been recorded as having received their booster by this point.
People are eligible for their booster if they received their second dose at least three months ago, while those who test positive for coronavirus must wait 28 days.
The figures cover up to Sunday, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson implored the nation to “get boosted now” to curb the spread of the new variant.
The Chancellor has responded to widespread criticism from within the hospitality sector that the Government’s new Covid measures have reduced trade for businesses without providing any financial support.
He tweeted: “I understand that this is a very concerning time for businesses up and down the country. My team and I held meetings with the hospitality sector earlier today.
“We’re listening to their concerns and will continue to work with them over the coming days.”
Germany is to make up for vaccine shortages with new orders, health minister Karl Lauterbach told a press conference today.
The EU has approved early deliveries of 35 millon doses of Moderna
Germany has made a new order for 80 million jabs from Pfizer. It iss hoped some may come ahead of schedule and make up the shortfall in the first quarter of 2022.
Germany is also in talks with Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Portugal to buy jabs they do not want.
Pubs and restaurants warned that sales have plunged since the Government introduced new Covid-19 measures, with some official figures coming in.
My colleague Hannah Boland reports:
UKHospitality, the industry trade body, said trade was down by a third at pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants, while sales were down by a quarter at nightclubs. 
In total, the hospitality sector is estimated to have suffered a £4 billion sales drop from the move by the Government to bring in Plan B measures and warn the public to take a more cautious approach to socialising. 
The group said consumer confidence had taken a severe hit, throwing the recovery of many pubs and restaurants off track. Many had been due to reach 95 per cent of pre-pandemic trade levels over the Christmas period before the emergence of the omicron variant. 
 
I want to say a MASSIVE thank you to the 25 million people who have come forward for their booster. Nearly 3/4 of a million people got boosted yesterday alone. A HUGE national effort.

Let’s keep going. Don’t delay. If you haven’t already – Get Boosted Now. pic.twitter.com/pKrKWOOmnX
Ryanair’s boss has said flying should be limited to vaccinated passengers.
In an interview with The Independent, Michael O’Leary criticised the Government’s ongoing travel restrictions and said he would agree with reserving air travel for those vaccinated against Covid.
Michael O’Leary said:
It seems to us that their policies are designed specifically to discourage people from travelling by air, particularly when people are fully vaccinated.
There is this omicron hysteria in the UK, most of it generated by Downing Street and the government – I suspect to cover up their day-to-day mismanagement of almost every aspect of life.
I see no justification for the UK government rules that passengers who’ve already done the sensible thing and got vaccinated now have to take tests before they travel and, more ludicrously, two days after they travel.
I would however support encouraging more and more of the unvaccinated minority to get vaccinated. Instead of introducing mandatory vaccination policies you have to make it more and more attractive for people to become vaccinated.
So I would support limiting air travel to vaccinated people.
The EU’s drug regulator has allowed member states to use Pfizer’s new Covid pill ahead of its formal approval, as an emergency measure to curb a new wave of the disease.
The US pharma giant said this week that the pill – a new type of treatment that should withstand the new omicron variant – reduced hospitalisations and deaths in at-risk people by almost 90 per cent.
“The medicine, which is not yet authorised in the EU, can be used to treat adults with Covid-19 who do not require supplemental oxygen and who are at increased risk of progressing to severe disease,” the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in a statement.
“EMA issued this advice to support national authorities who may decide on possible early use of the medicine… for example in emergency use settings, in the light of rising rates of infection and deaths due to Covid-19 across the EU.”
The treatment, dubbed Paxlovid, is a combination of a new molecule, PF-07321332, and HIV antiviral ritonavir, that are taken as separate tablets.
#OmicronVariant latest information

1,691 additional confirmed cases of the #Omicron variant of COVID-19 have been reported across the UK.

Confirmed Omicron cases in the UK now total 11,708. pic.twitter.com/lJW3Eh2mvc
 
Covid-19 case rates for London and eastern England have risen to their highest level since early January, new figures show.
A total of 702.8 new cases per 100,000 people were recorded in London in the week to December 12. This is up sharply from 475.8 the previous week and is the highest rate for the capital since the week to January 10.
The rise has been driven by the rapid spread of the omicron variant, with some boroughs in London currently experiencing the steepest jump in rates of any local authorities in the UK.
Omicron has already become the dominant variant of the virus in the capital, but is now having an impact in other parts of the country.
Eastern England’s rate stands at 616.5 cases per 100,000, up week-on-week from 563.2 and the highest since the week to January 10.
North-west England has recorded a small week-on-week rise, up from 412.2 to 430.0.
All other regions have recorded a slight fall, however.
Finland has announced all UK travellers must take a pre-departure within 48 hours of departure. Previously proof of vaccination was all that was required.
It has yet to be confirmed if the test will need to be a PCR or lateral flow, but as restrictions tighten the news is a blow to tourism businesses in Lapland, who rely on the Christmas period heavily.
The rule comes into force on December 21. Finland has reported 34 cases of omicron.
“According to the new decision, passengers arriving from outside the EU and the Schengen area who have received a full vaccination series would continue to be required to have a negative Covid-19 test result less than 48 hours old in addition to the vaccination certificate,” read a statement from Finland’s Ministry of Interior.
The UK has registered a record-high number of Covid vaccines, as the Government’s “Get Boosted Now” campaign builds momentum. 
A record 745,183 booster and third doses of  Covid vaccines were reported in the UK on Wednesday, new figures show. The previous record was 656,711 doses on Tuesday.
More than 25.4 million booster and third doses have now been delivered in the UK, with nearly 3.8 million in the past seven days.
The figures have been published by the UK’s four health agencies.
Earlier this week Boris Johnson described the current surge in cases in the UK as a ‘tidal wave’ of omicron. The French Prime Minister has now cited this as a key factor behind the new travel ban announced today.
Jean Castex said in a statement: “In the face of the extremely rapid spread of the omicron variant in the United Kingdom, the Government has chosen to reinstate compelling reasons for travel to and from the United Kingdom, and to strengthen the requirement for testing on departure and arrival.
“In the UK Government’s own words, the UK will face a ‘tidal wave’ linked to the omicron variant in the coming days.”
Joy Morrissey’s attack on the Chief Medical Officer is dangerous and unacceptable. Dominic Raab should demand she apologise for undermining public health messages that could save lives. If she doesn’t, he should sack her. pic.twitter.com/IOFEgJSSGv
A rapid rise in Covid cases has led to a surge in booking cancellations across the hospitality industry in the capital
 
Following the news from France this morning, ski tour operators have been left with little choice but to cancel upcoming holidays.
A statement from Crystal Ski Holidays, reads:
“We’re aware that the French Government have today announced a ban on UK travellers entering France. As a result we’ve had to cancel our holidays to France on December 21, December 28 and January 4. We understand the huge disappointment this will cause. We know customers have been looking forward to their trip to the mountains with friends and family and we’ve emailed all customers with a re-booking incentive. We’ll continue to monitor the situation for future departures.
“For customers due to travel January 3 to January 31 that want to change their holiday can do so up to 14 days before their departure with our Crystal Holiday Promise. For customers due to travel February 1 onwards, that want to change their holiday can do so up to 28 days before their departure with our Crystal Holiday Promise.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has accused Tory MP Joy Morrissey of “doubling down” on criticism of England’s Chief Medical Officer.
He tweeted: “Astonishing. Having attacked the Chief Medical Officer this morning, Joy Morrissey – a Government PPS – is doubling down.
“The Conservative Party has spiralled into disarray and Boris Johnson is too weak to act.”
After deleting her original tweet, the MP for Beaconsfield followed up with another stating that she was “increasingly concerned at public health pronouncements made in the media that already seem to exceed or contradict decisions made by our elected representatives”.
I am increasingly concerned at public health pronouncements made in the media that already seem to exceed or contradict decisions made by our elected representatives.

Expert advice is important but decisions must be made by those we elect, who are democratically accountable.
The first person in the UK to die with the omicron variant was unvaccinated, LBC has reported. 
A relative of the UK’s ‘first omicron victim’ said his stepfather was fit and healthy, but died after refusing to get vaccinated after being taken in by anti-vaxxer “conspiracy theories”.
“He was a recluse to be honest with you, he never went out, he had his shopping brought to him. The only place he went to was the bin, outside the block he lived in, and the postbox,” said the caller, who only gave his first name as John.
“He was one of the cleanest guys I ever knew.
“He wasn’t vaccinated at all. My sister, she’s gutted – but on the other hand she’s a little bit angry that he never took these vaccines.
“She did have an argument with him at the end of October about this very thing, getting vaccinated.
“He thought it was a conspiracy. He was an intelligent man but it’s all these different things you are getting from online and different media things.. about oh it’s not real…conspiracy theories really.”
New Zealanders have reacted with fury after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern indicated the emergence of the omicron Covid variant could push back the border reopening date, reports Giovanni Torre.
As part of the country’s transition away from its ‘zero-Covid’ policy, Ms Ardern initially stated that the international borders would reopen for New Zealanders on January 17.
However, the Prime Minister has confirmed the re-opening date will be subject to a review on either January 7 or 8 due to the emergence of the new strain.
“We haven’t changed any decisions at this stage around reconnection … but I think people understand we need to review the latest details and evidence around Omicron,” Ms Ardern said.
Read the full story.
The Government is not telling football fans not to go to matches, despite a senior official last night suggesting they avoid them, Downing Street has said.
Speaking at the press conference yesterday Dr Nikki Kanani, the medical director for primary care at NHS England, said people should only visit a football stadium to get a jab at a pop-up clinic. 
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there was “no guidance or restrictions in place”.
He added: “Like Professor Whitty and the Prime Minister, she’s not being prescriptive. We understand it’s a personal choice for the public. There’s no restrictions on those sorts of events, obviously, apart from the use of the Covid pass which provides a level of reassurance and protection.
Asked whether the Government was telling fans not to attend matches, the spokesman said: “That is not our advice.”
Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen warned that further measures to curb a third wave of the Coronavirus might be coming after the Scandinavian country saw yet another record number of daily infections.
“Infection rates are unfortunately as expected very, very high,” Mette Frederiksen said on Instagram. “I have no doubt that new initiatives will be needed to break the chains of infection,” she added.
Denmark logged 9,999 new infections in the last 24 hours, the highest yet. But death rates and hospital admissions are still far below the levels seen a year ago.
No 10 insisted there are enough PCR tests available for those who needed them, despite ongoing reported shortages.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “There is sufficient PCR capacity for those with symptoms, 150,910 PCR test kits were dispatched yesterday, over half a million processed the day before on Tuesday.
“I believe our PCR testing capability is among the highest in the world and we are indeed going further, increasing booking slots at physical test sites by more than 100,000 and we’ve secured an increase in PCR testing capacity of a further 200,000 a day and are going beyond that procuring additional lab capacity.”
He said turnaround times of PCR test results were also improving, as he urged “everyone to come and get a PCR test as required”.
Get all the latest politics news here. 
Mumbai has become the first Indian city to introduce restrictions on gatherings, over fears of omicron spreading in India’s financial capital during the festive period.
There will be a 50 per cent capacity limit on indoor events, while employees of shops and commuters on public transport must be fully vaccinated to continue working.
On Wednesday, eight new omicron cases were detected in Mumbai. None of those infected had travel history suggesting the variant is now spreading within the community.
Some doctors in Mumbai said they were beginning to see an uptick in Covid-19 patients and those reporting with respiratory problems and urged the authorities to scale up testing.
In Delhi, the authorities have refused to rule out implementing restrictions if the number of Covid-19 cases begin to surge after eight international travellers tested positive for the virus on arrival at the city’s airport. The city saw some of the most horrific scenes during India’s second wave, as its hospitals ran out of beds and oxygen.”
The French ban on tourist travel from the UK comes just days ahead the peak season for many travel companies, including ferry operators across the Channel.
Niall Walsh, Chief Operating Officer at Direct Ferries, said:
The announcement today from the French government on restricting travellers from the UK is yet another blow to our business and the travel industry, just days before the peak ferry travel period commences. Our Dover to Calais route is one of our most popular at this time of year and this year has been no exception.   
We are currently dealing with calls from distraught UK customers who are desperate to either cancel or bring their bookings forward. It’s a disappointing and we believe unnecessary decision which will keep many people apart again this year for the holidays and will knock consumer confidence in travelling again after the recent months of growth in the sector.   
With the PCR testing currently in place for travel for British tourists and the willingness of travellers to take on these additional costs in order to be able to travel, it is hugely disappointing that this is not being seen as a viable option to keep travel going but minimising the spread of infection.
Downing Street has slapped down claims by Conservative MP Joy Morrissey, who accused Prof Chris Whitty of acting as if Britain is a “public health socialist state”.
Asked if Boris Johnson agreed with her comment, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “No. Professor Whitty is a hugely respected and trusted public servant who provides independent, evidence-based advice.
“I think he himself has been clear that he provides advice and it is rightly for ministers and elected politicians to decide.
“He has been a hugely trusted and valued part of our pandemic response and continues to be so.”
In a follow up to a deleted tweet in which she claimed Professor Chris Whitty is acting as if Britain is a “public health socialist state”, Tory MP Joy Morrissey wrote: “I am increasingly concerned at public health pronouncements made in the media that already seem to exceed or contradict decisions made by our elected representatives.
“Expert advice is important but decisions must be made by those we elect, who are democratically accountable.”
The Russian parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, gave the first nod of approval to a draft law that would require people to show QR codes demonstrating proof of immunity to Covid-19 in order to visit certain public places.
The bill still needs to be approved by the upper house of parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin to come into force.
Earlier this week, the Russian parliament said it would shelve a draft bill that would have required people travelling by plane or train to present QR codes, after strong public opposition to the proposal.
Omicron is likely to be the dominant strain of coronavirus in Scotland from tomorrow, Nicola Sturgeon has said.
Speaking in the Scottish Parliament, she said 5,951 coronavirus cases were reported on Wednesday, 45.4 per cent of which were likely to be omicron.
She said she was “profoundly concerned” by the challenge posed by the variant which is “running faster than even the fastest rollout of vaccines”.
The First Minister of Scotland has urged people to reduce contact with those from other households ‘as much as you possibly can’.
Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs in the Scottish Parliament: “Let me be clear, this is not a choice between protecting health and protecting the economy.”
She said a surge in infections “will cause and indeed is already causing staff absences that will also cripple the economy and other critical services”.
She added: “Please reduce your contact with people from households other than your own as much as you possibly can. For now, please stay at home much more than you normally would and as much as is feasible.
“Right now the risk of getting Covid from interactions with others is high and it is rising. So ask yourself before doing anything you might have planned over the coming days, is it as safe as it needs to be and is it vital enough to you to justify that risk.
“I suspect what is most important to most of us over the next couple of weeks is having time with our families at Christmas. Every interaction we have before then increases the risk of us getting Covid and so possibly losing that”
NHS Test and Trace will not effectively reduce the spread of the omicron variant because infections are surging so quickly and symptoms are appearing faster, a leading epidemiologist has warned.
Prof Tim Spector, who helped found the Zoe Covid app, urged the public to conduct their own “health checks” in the run-up to Christmas rather than rely on contact tracing.
He also encouraged people to watch out for “severe cold” symptoms of the highly-transmissible variant, regardless of vaccination status.
“I don’t think NHS Test and Trace is going to work in this scenario because it only takes about two days from meeting someone to getting an infection,” he told BBC Radio 4.
“That often isn’t enough time to do much about it, you’ve already spread it by the time you’ve been contacted by Test and Trace in my opinion.”
Read the full story here.
Prof Whitty said he anticipates the height of the omicron wave will fall faster than previous Covid-19 peaks.
He told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee: “I think what we will see with this – and I think we are seeing it in South Africa – is that the upswing will be incredibly fast, even if people are taking more cautious actions, as they are.
“That will help slow it down, but it’s still going to be very fast.
“It’ll probably therefore peak really quite fast. My anticipation is it may then come down faster than previous peaks but I wouldn’t want to say that for sure.
“I’m just saying that that is a possibility.”
Yet another senior Conservative MP has criticised Joy Morrissey for her tirade against Prof Chris Whitty. 
Mark Harper, chairman of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group and a former chief whip, told The Telegraph: “If Joy is cross with Chris Whitty, then she needs to speak to ministers… I don’t think it’s right to blame advisers. Ministers know what they [advisers] are going to say and decide if they are going to go out in public.”
He said that Prof Whitty was “pulled away from a select committee to go to the press conference, the Prime Minister knew what he was going to say”, adding: “They wanted those views out there on the front of every newspaper today.”
Follow all the latest politics news here.
The Queen has cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family party next week.
A Buckingham Palace source confirmed the decision to call off the royal gathering, which comes as Covid cases spike with the surge in the omicron variant.
It is understood the decision was taken as a precaution with the source suggesting it could put too many people’s Christmas arrangements at risk if it went ahead.
Plans were reportedly fully in place at Windsor Castle for next Tuesday’s Christmas lunch, which the 95-year-old monarch hosts each year for her extended family.
Last year’s gathering was also scrapped because of the Covid-19 crisis.
Most years, the Queen invites her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to join her at Buckingham Palace before she departs for her annual Christmas stay at Sandringham.
The EU’s drug regulator said it would decide whether the Novavax coronavirus jab will become the fifth vaccine approved for the bloc at a meeting next Monday.
The US firm’s shot uses a more traditional technology than current vaccines, which experts hope could ease hesitancy and scepticism among the unvaccinated.
“Our human medicines committee will hold an extraordinary meeting on 20 Dec to review the application for the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Novavax,” the European Medicines Agency said on Twitter.
“We will communicate the outcome of this scientific discussion.”
Novavax’s so-called protein subunit technology is similar to that used in the decades-old Hepatitis B and whooping cough vaccines that are widely used around the world.
The other four vaccines currently in use in the EU employ far newer technology.
Portugal’s prime minister says he intends to keep tighter Covid border controls in place beyond their planned end date on January 9 because of the threat from the omicron variant.
He says Portugal is also likely to provide another booster shot next year for already vaccinated vulnerable people who are receiving a booster after having the Covid-19 jab earlier this year.
Portugal currently requires a negative test for all passengers on arriving flights.
The Portuguese government had previously announced a “contention week” from January 2-9, when working from home is mandatory and schools will be closed.
Incredulous business leaders appealed to Rishi Sunak for help after Boris Johnson and his Covid advisers urged Britons to cut back on socialising but offered no financial support for the trades affected.
My colleagues Matt Oliver and Helen Cahill have more:
The Chancellor was urged to “come out of hiding” and provide urgent support after Boris Johnson warned Britons to “think carefully” about going out in the run up to Christmas.
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, also urged people to “prioritise” social engagements and reminded them that catching the coronavirus in the days to come could thwart their hopes of celebrating with family.
The announcement – which stopped short of formally restricting social gatherings – infuriated business groups, who are concerned that increasingly gloomy rhetoric is imposing “lockdown by stealth” and throttling trade.
Many are particularly frustrated by the lack of financial support to compensate them for the impact of the pronouncements, as well as recent guidance to work from home.
Read the full story here.
Prof Chris Whitty has said “anybody who has something that really matters to them” should prioritise that, as he refused to rule out any type of social plan in the run-up to Christmas. 
Speaking to the health affairs committee, he told MPs; “I am advising people to prioritise – if the most important thing for them to do in the next 10 days is to go to a football match, that is the priority for them.”
But if people did not want to “end up self isolating or unwell at a time you really don’t want to be, then probably going to want to do fewer other things”.
People should not “accept everything” that they are asked to do, he adds. 
In terms of office Christmas parties, he stressed he was “trying to avoid making other people’s choices for them”, but that people should “go to the things that matter to them and cut down on the things that don’t”. 
Poland has detected its first case of the omicron Covid variant, a deputy health minister was cited as saying by state-run news agency PAP.
Waldemar Kraska said the variant had been detected by sanitary authorities in the southern city of Katowice, the agency reported.
Poland has been dealing with persistently high daily case numbers in a fourth wave that has forced authorities to tighten restrictions.
So far, Poland, a country of around 38 million people, has reported nearly 4 million Covid cases and over 90,000 deaths.
Denmark has approved Merck’s molnupiravir antiviral pill for Covid patients at risk of serious illness, including the elderly.
The treatment is still under review by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Faced with rising coronavirus cases, the EU drug regulator issued advice in November on using it for adults ahead of providing any wider recommendation.
Announcing its approval for restricted use in Denmark, Health Authority chief medical officer Kirstine Moll Harboe said: “We believe that the benefits of being treated (with it) outweigh the disadvantages for those patients who are most at risk of becoming seriously ill with Covid-19.”
Britain last month became the first country to approve the treatment, jointly developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and for which Merck says it has signed deals totalling more than 7 million courses.
Hospitality firms have been thrown into a “zombie world” by Covid concerns and government messaging, the chief executive of Shepherd Neame has claimed. 
Jonathan Neame told Times Radio: “We’ve seen a significant number of cancellations and that’s accelerating every day, and will accelerate even further after the news last night, which seems to have thrown us back into that sort of zombie world of the first week of March, of the pandemic last year.”
That was echoed by Dominic Paul, chief executive of takeaway chain Domino’s Pizza, who said parts of the hospitality industry “are going to have a really tough few months”.
He added: “The Government showed a real willingness to support the industry before and I think they probably will again.”
Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge has highlighted the suffering in the sector when he revealed one of his restaurants has seen more than 650 cancellations in the past six days due to omicron fears.
Amid questions over how the new policy will affect cross-Channel trade, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said hauliers will be exempt.
He tweeted: “To confirm I have liaised with my French counterpart (Jean-Baptiste Djebbari) and hauliers will remain exempt.”
To confirm I have liaised with my French counterpart @Djebbari_JB and hauliers will remain exempt.https://t.co/7kKsusKlwW
Rhys Herbert, senior economist at Lloyds Bank, says:
The UK economy continues to grow but there are signs of a loss of momentum this month in the wake of the doubt created by the emergence of omicron.
To date, the impact is relatively limited. Fewer holiday bookings and cancelled Christmas functions are already hurting those subsectors furthest behind in their recovery, but the wider services industry and the economy as a whole are yet to feel the impact as acutely.
However, it remains to be seen whether the latest restrictions will be successful in curbing infection rates while limiting the impact on businesses.
Fresh uncertainty over the pandemic, and a threat of omicron leading to damper demand, will be influential factors as the Bank of England reveals its decision on the immediate course for interest rates at midday.
The shocking failure to make the UK more resilient to pandemics could destroy the Tories and our society, argues Allister Heath:
The blame, this time, falls squarely on Boris Johnson. The scientists have done their jobs, the private sector has delivered the goods, but the Government has let us down by failing to address the vulnerabilities of our health system. Britain feels permanently on the back foot, unable to pre-empt events, petrified at all times by the possibility that the NHS will be overwhelmed, and is reintroducing increasingly intolerable restrictions that should have been avoidable.
Read Allister’s full piece here.
The Israeli government has said it is donating 1 million coronavirus vaccines to the UN-backed COVAX program.
The Foreign Ministry said the AstraZeneca vaccines would be transferred in the coming weeks, a decision that was part of Israel’s attempts to strengthen ties with African countries.
“I am delighted that Israel can contribute and be a partner in eradicating the pandemic around the world,” said Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
The announcement said the vaccines would reach close to a quarter of African countries, though it did not provide a list. 
COVAX is a global initiative that aims to provide coronavirus vaccines to poorer nations. Wealthier countries have acquired most of the world’s vaccine supplies, causing vast inequality in access to jabs.
Australia’s New South Wales state recorded 1,742 new cases of Covid on Thursday, its highest daily total since the pandemic began.
Hospitalisations were also up across the state. There were 192 coronavirus patients in New South Wales hospitals on Thursday, up from 166 the day before. Of those, 26 were in intensive care.
The previous peak for new infections in one day in Australia’s most populous state was 1,599 on September 11.
Yesterday, the state’s health minister Brad Hazzard said cases are doubling every two to three days. Modeling at the University of New South Wales forecasts up to 25,000 cases per day by the end of January.
Dr Jeremy McAnulty of New South Wales Health said a rising number of cases in the Australian city of Newcastle should cause people to “seriously consider” postponing Christmas plans.
“Several venues and events have now seen transmission of Covid-19 and New South Wales Health again asks everyone across the community to continue to be particularly careful and practice Covid-safe behaviours,” Dr McAnulty said.
Hospitality firms are ramping up calls for support from the Government, as the spread of omicron and health warnings wreak havoc on pubs and restaurants.
UKHospitality boss Kate Nicholls made a plea for business rates relief and VAT discounts to be extended, warning that the sector has been knocked harder than expected by the new restrictions.
She said hospitality sales have plunged by more than a third over the last 10 days with £2 billion of trade already lost in December.
It comes as the CBI also urged the Government to provide support “in lockstep with future restrictions”.
The rapid rise in Covid-19 cases as the omicron variant sweeps the country has led to a surge in booking cancellations.
South Africa’s National Coronavirus Command Council has retained its lockdown at ‘adjusted level 1’, the lowest of a five-tier system of restrictions, health authorities said today.
In the past few days, South Africa has reported more than 20,000 new daily Covid infections, but its scientists see no sign yet that the variant causes more severe illness.
“The Council has directed the department to closely monitor the rising Covid infections,” the health department said in a statement, adding that it would also track hospital admissions, mortality and recovery rates.
These factors were all largely driven by the omicron variant, which was contributing to a fourth wave of infections, it added.
Sweden will require visitors from other Nordic nations to have a vaccine pass to cross the border, as it gradually tightens restrictions amid rising cases of the omicron variant.
“We see an increase in infections in Europe, but also in our neighbours,” news agency TT quoted Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson as saying.
“For visitors from any country except the Nordics, we have a requirement for a Covid pass. Today, the government is going to take the decision that there will be the same requirement also for the Nordic countries.”
The new regulation will come into force on December 21.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told BBC Breakfast “only about half or maybe even fewer of people who do have Covid ever get tested”.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said the doubling rate of omicron would lead to an “extraordinary number of cases” and “a huge wave of infection”.
He added: “If you think about getting a year’s worth of rain over a month, then you’re going to get flooding and potentially severe flooding, no matter how much you’ve shored up your defences.
“And that’s the concern here – that that huge wave is going to cause lots of people to be off work having to isolate, which is going to cause disruption, and it’s going to spill over into people going into hospital.”
The South Korean government has said it will reinstate stricter social distancing rules a month-and-a-half after easing them under a ‘living with Covid’ policy, as the number of new infections and serious cases spirals.
Curbs will return from Saturday to January 2, limiting gatherings to no more than four people – as long as they are fully vaccinated – and forcing restaurants, cafes and bars to close by 9pm and movie theatres and internet cafes by 10pm, officials said.
Unvaccinated people can only dine out alone, or use takeout or delivery services.
The measures come as South Korea’s daily Covid tallies and the number of serious cases continue to create new records amid a persistent spike in breakthrough infections, adding to strains on the country’s medical system.
“We’re making all-out efforts to overcome the pressing crisis by expanding our medical capacity and vaccination campaign, but we need time,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said.
France will ban non-essential travel to and from Britain from the weekend to slow the spread of the omicron Covid variant, the French government announced this morning.
From midnight Saturday (2300 GMT Friday) there will be a “requirement to have an essential reason to travel to, or come from, the UK, both for the unvaccinated and vaccinated… People cannot travel for touristic or professional reasons,” the French government said in a statement, adding that French citizens and EU nationals could still return to France from the UK.
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