That’s it from me, Samantha Lock, for today. Please follow our new Covid blog here.

It’s been a busy past 24 hours on the Covid front with nations racing to close borders and reimpose restrictions after a new Covid variant was detected last week.

In case you’re still struggling to get your head around the new B.1.1.529 “omicron” variant here’s a helpful explainer on what it all means.

Updated

India reports lowest daily Covid case rise in 541 days

India saw a single-day rise of 8,318 new Covid infections with active cases declining to 1,07,019 - the lowest in 541 days, according to Union Health Ministry data updated today.

The country also recorded 465 daily fatalities.

The daily rise in new coronavirus infections has been below 20,000 for 50 continuous days and less than 50,000 daily new cases have been reported for 153 consecutive days now, the Times of India reports.

Active cases now comprise 0.311% of total infections, the lowest since March 2020, while the national Covid-19 recovery rate was recorded at 98.34%, the highest since March 2020, the health ministry said.

Updated

Canada introduces new border measures and 'rigorous monitoring'

The government of Canada says it will be implementing enhanced border measures to “to protect the health and safety of Canadians” in response to the new Omicron variant.

Canada is banning foreign travellers to the country from seven African countries. Foreign nationals who have travelled in any of these countries within the previous 14 days will not be permitted entry into Canada.

“As a precautionary measure, until January 31, 2022, the Government of Canada is implementing enhanced border measures for all travellers who have been in the Southern Africa region — including South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Namibia— within the last 14 days before arriving in Canada,” a recently published press release reads.

Canadian citizens, permanent residents and people with status under the Indian Act, regardless of their vaccination status or having had a previous history of testing positive for Covid-19, who have been in these countries in the previous 14 days will be subject to enhanced testing, screening, and quarantine measures.

Travellers will be required to obtain, within 72 hours of departure, a valid negative Covid test and upon arrival will subject to immediate testing. All travellers will also be required to complete a test on day 8 after arrival and quarantine for 14 days.

There will be “increased scrutiny” of quarantine plans for travellers from these countries and “rigorous monitoring” to ensure travellers are complying with quarantine measures, the statement added.

A passenger walks past several Air Canada jets at Vancouver International Airport as Canada announces new border restrictions in response to the new Omicron variant.
A passenger walks past several Air Canada jets at Vancouver International Airport as Canada announces new border restrictions in response to the new Omicron variant. Photograph: Andy Clark/Reuters

Updated

Summary of key developments

Here’s a quick recap of all the key developments you may have missed from the past few hours:

  • US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said no cases of the new Covid-19 Omicron variant detected in South Africa have so far been identified in the United States to date.
  • New York governor Kathy Hochul issued a Covid-19 “disaster emergency” declaration on Friday, citing increasing rates of infections and hospitalisations. An order from the governor said the state was experiencing Covid-19 transmission “not seen since April 2020” and that hospital admissions has been increasing over the past month to over 300 a day.
  • South Korea’s Covid deaths hit record high with new curbs expected. The country reported 4,068 new Covid-19 cases and 52 new deatgs. Critically ill patients hit an all-time high of 634, up 17 from the previous day, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
  • India will resume scheduled international flights from 15 December with a limited service to 14 nations, the Civil Aviation Ministry said.
  • Australia confirmed it will close its borders to anyone who has been in southern Africa, and is not an Australian citizen. Australian citizens, residents and their dependents arriving from these countries will need to go into immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days.
  • Brazil will shut its borders to travellers arriving from six southern African countries, the chief of staff to president Jair Bolsonaro said.
  • Germany reports an additional 67,125 Covid cases and 303 deaths, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute.
  • Stocks in the US followed those in Asia and Europe by falling sharply on Friday in the wake of concerns about the new Covid variant. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 2.5%, its worst day since late October 2020, while the S&P500 was down 1.73% and the tech-heavy Nasdaq fell 2.23%.

The latest Covid figures from Germany are in, with an expected rise in both cases and deaths.

The European nation reported an additional 67,125 Covid cases and 303 deaths, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute.

This takes the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases to 5,717,295 and total reported deaths to 100,779.

South Korea Covid deaths hit record high, new curbs expected

South Korea’s new Covid cases rose above 4,000 with the numbers of deaths and critically ill patients hitting fresh record highs on Saturday, Yonhap news agency reports.

The country reported 4,068 new Covid-19 cases, including 4,045 local infections, raising the total caseload to 436,968, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

The number was up 167 from 3,901 on Friday but down from 4,115 on Wednesday, which was the highest since the first case was reported in the country in January 2020.

Critically ill patients hit an all-time high of 634, up 17 from the previous day.

The country added 52 more deaths from Covid-19, bringing the death toll to 3,492. The fatality rate stood at 0.8%.

The government said it will announce toughened antivirus measures to contain the spread of the virus on Monday.

People queue for PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests at a Covid-19 testing centre in Seoul on 24 November as daily recorded deaths hit record highs.
People queue for PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests at a Covid-19 testing centre in Seoul on 24 November as daily recorded deaths hit record highs. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Updated

CDC says no cases of Omicron detected in US

No cases of the new Covid-19 Omicron variant detected in South Africa have been identified in the United States to date, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday.

“We expect Omicron to be identified quickly, if it emerges in the US,” CDC said in a statement, Reuters reports.

Shanghai today announced the latest three people to be identified with Covid were all infected by Delta mutant strains in the same transmission chain.

Authorities believe the flare-up was caused by exposure to the infected environment by imported cases in other province.

The outbreak led to the decision to cancel hundreds of flights on Friday while some schools were shuttered and tour groups suspended as China continues its strict zero-Covid policy.

India to resume international flights

India will resume scheduled international flights from 15 December with a limited service to 14 nations, the Civil Aviation Ministry said.

“Resumption of scheduled commercial international passenger services, to and from India, has been examined in consultation with Ministry of Home Affairs, External Affairs and Health, and it has been decided... may be resumed from December 15,” the ministry said on Friday evening.

The Aviation Ministry said 14 countries designated by the Health Ministry as ‘at risk’, and with whom there is an existing ‘air bubble’ agreement, would be allowed to resume 75% of pre-Covid operations (or a minimum of seven flights per week).

These 14 countries are: the United Kingdom, Singapore, China, Brazil, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, and New Zealand. The list also includes South Africa, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong - countries that have confirmed cases of the new B.1.1.529 variant of the coronavirus.

pic.twitter.com/tqMKQGVFbM

— DGCA (@DGCAIndia) November 26, 2021

Here is a quick visual refresh of where Europe stands in its fight against the coronavirus.

This updated map indicates incidence rates across the continent.

Australia confirms border closure to southern Africa

News just in from a Covid press conference today.

Australia confirmed it will close its borders to anyone who has been in southern Africa, and is not an Australian citizen, in response to the emergence of the Omicron Covid variant.

Australian citizens and residents and their dependents arriving from these countries will need to go into immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days, health minister Greg Hunt announced.

Anyone who has already arrived in Australia and who has been in any of the nine listed southern African countries within the past 14 days must immediately isolate themselves and be tested for Covid-19 and follow jurisdictional quarantine requirements

Australia will also suspend all flights from nine southern African countries for a period of 14 days as a matter of precaution.

The countries concerned are: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi, and Mozambique

Brazil to shut borders to southern Africa from Monday

Brazil will shut its borders to travellers arriving from six southern African countries, the chief of staff to president Jair Bolsonaro said on Friday, the latest in a slew of major nations to announce restrictions meant to combat the newly identified Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

“Brazil will close air borders to six African countries due to the new variant of the coronavirus,” Chief of Staff Ciro Nogueira wrote in a Twitter post late Friday evening.

“We are going to protect Brazilians in this new phase of the pandemic in that country. Ordinance will be published tomorrow and should take effect from Monday.”

The restrictions will affect travellers from South Africa, Botswana, Swatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe, he added.

Australia set to announce travel restrictions, reports say

The Australian government is set to announce new travel restrictions later on Saturday, the country’s Channel 7 broadcaster reported, as the new Covid-19 variant raises concerns about a new wave of the pandemic.

“7NEWS understands the federal government will today announce changes to travel - in response to new variant,” it said on Twitter on Saturday, without citing sources.

“Anyone who has been in South Africa in the last 14 days will likely face quarantine or isolation.”

The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, will be holding a press conference at 1pm AEDT.

Meanwhile, the federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has called for Australia to close the border to southern African countries.

“The Omicron outbreak is a major concern that should be of concern to all Australians. We know the impact that Delta had when it came here. And we can’t afford to be complacent,” he said.

“I make this point, Scott Morrison always waits until a problem becomes a crisis. And then he waits until a crisis becomes a political issue before he acts. He must act today.”

Australians are being urged to remain vigilant and maintain Covid-19 control measures in light of the new Omicron variant.

“It is not time to break the glass on the alarm, I don’t think, but I’m as concerned about this as I have been since Delta,” Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb told ABC TV.

“A state of heightened alert and caution is appropriate for us in Australia and for the world.”

Professor Crabb described the new strain as having “a whole host of mutations that, I must say, makes me have a sharp inhalation of breath”.

He stressed the most important thing wasn’t borders, but keeping up vaccine coverage and infection control measures.

About 86% of Australians aged 16 and older are double-dosed.

Prof Crabb said this translated to between 72 and 73% of the entire population. Just 1.5% of the country have received a booster shot.

Hi everyone, it’s Samantha Lock here, ready to take you through all the Covid developments this Saturday.

So let’s dive right in.

More on the ‘disaster emergency’ declared by Kathy Hochul, governor of New York state.

Hochul confirmed no cases of the Omicron variant has so far been found in the state but cautioned authorities are “on high alert”.

“We continue to see warning signs of spikes in Covid this winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming,” she said in a tweet Friday evening.

Updated

New York governor declares Covid 'disaster emergency'

Kathy Hochul, governor of New York state, has issued a Covid-19 “disaster emergency” declaration on Friday, citing increasing rates of infections and hospitalizations.

An order from the governor said the state was experiencing Covid-19 transmission “not seen since April 2020” and that hospital admissions has been increasing over the past month to over 300 a day. The state had to therefore “pursue a coordinated approach to ensure hospital capacity statewide is able to meet regional needs”.

New York governor Kathy Hochul.
New York governor Kathy Hochul. Photograph: Lev Radin/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Stocks in the US followed those in Asia and Europe by falling sharply on Friday in the wake of concerns about the new Covid variant.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 2.5%, its worst day since late October 2020, while the S&P500 was down 1.73% and the tech-heavy Nasdaq fell 2.23%.

A screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows the closing number for the Dow Jones on Friday.
A screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows the closing number for the Dow Jones on Friday. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

Cruise operators Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line plunged more than 10% each, while shares in United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines slumped almost as much.

European stocks had their worst day in 17 months.

Summary

Here’s a roundup of tonight’s Covid-19 news, as the world reacts to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

  • Countries across the globe, including the US and Canada have introduced travel restrictions on people coming from countries in southern Africa. Governments in the Middle East and North Africa are also among those to introduce curbs.
  • US president Joe Biden said the Omicron variant made it “clearer than ever” that global vaccinations are needed to end the pandemic.
  • The Netherlands will be “effectively closed from 5pm to 5am” according to remarks by caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte, announcing new Covid restrictions from Sunday.
  • Dozens of people are likely to have tested positive for the virus within the 600 passengers who landed at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands from South Africa on Friday.
  • Novavax, the US company that is among those to have produced a Covid vaccine, said it is working on a version to target the new variant. Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson have also said they were checking the effectiveness of their vaccines.
  • The European Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has classified Omicron, B.1.1.529, a “variant of concern”, warning the risk is “high to very high”.
  • Brazil has reported 315 more Covid deaths and 12,392 new cases, as it joined countries announcing restrictions on travel from southern Africa.
  • Delta Airlines has said it does not plan any changes to its flights between South Africa or the US, after the White House announced travel curbs.
  • The World Trade Organization has delayed its ministers’ meeting indefinitely. It was due to take place next week, in person, but has been suspended because of difficulties for the South African delegation.

Brazil has become another country to announce it will ban arrivals from six countries in southern Africa because of the Omicron variant.

Reuters reports that restrictions will apply to people arriving from South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Earlier on Friday it recorded another 315 deaths.

Dutch health authorities have said that it is likely dozens of people among the 600 passengers that landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on Friday will test positive for Covid-19.

Two flights landed from South Africa, and travellers have been isolated at the airport due to concerns about the newly detected Omicron variant.

Initial test results have estimated there is 85 positive cases among passengers who arrived on the KLM services.

Further tests will take place to determine whether those who are positive have the Omicron variant. All air travel was banned on Friday, but some flights already underway are exempt.

Updated

Delta Airlines has said it won’t plan any changes to its flights between South Africa or the US, after the White House announced travel curbs.

The carrier runs a service three-times a week between Johannesburg and Atlanta, and the airline said it had “no planned adjustments to service at this time”.

Brazil has reported 315 more Covid deaths and 12,392 new cases according to data released by its health ministry.

A total of 613,957 people have died from the virus in the country, with more than 22m confirmed cases.

Its health regulator Anvisa has recommended some travel restrictions should be in place in response to the new Covid-19 variant. However president Jair Bolsonaro was noncommittal on Friday.

“Brazil can’t handle another lockdown. There’s no use getting terrified,” he said after a military event in Rio de Janeiro according to Reuters. “I’m going to take rational measures.”

Updated

The World Trade Organization has delayed its first ministerial meeting in four years due to the deteriorating health situation, Reuters has reported.

Ministers from WTO members were due to gather next week, in a gathering that had seen pressure on it to waive intellectual property rights on vaccines.

The Geneva-based trade body said an in-person meeting would be difficult as delegations from South Africa would be limited to a mostly virtual presence.

Updated

Europe classifies Omicron as 'variant of concern'

The European Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has classified the newly-named Omicron variant, B.1.1.529, a “variant of concern”.

It is added to the group that already includes the Beta (formerly South African), Gamma (formerly Brazilian) and Delta (formerly Indian) variants.

The ECDC decision follows that of the World Health Organization earlier on Friday. (See 18:07)

A report published by the body says: “[It] is the most divergent variant that has been detected in significant numbers during the pandemic so far, which raises concerns that it may be associated with increased transmissibility, significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness and increased risk for reinfections.”

It says that the overall risk is “high to very high” and advocates a “precautionary approach” due the uncertainties around it.

The threat assessment adds that the possibility of further introduction and spread in the EU is “high”, with the impact alongside a resurgent Delta variant could be “very high”.

In response, the ECDC recommends further testing, avoiding travel to affected areas and contact tracing of cases. It encourages vaccination programmes to continue to target those who have not yet been jabbed and consider a booster dose for people aged 40 and over.

Dr Andrea Ammon, director of the ECDC, said: “We must be proactive and implement measures as a precaution to buy time until we gain more knowledge.”

Updated

More countries in north Africa and Middle East announce travel restrictions

A selection of countries in north Africa and the Middle East have joined those imposing restrictions on arrivals from southern Africa.

Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Morocco have introduced varying bans on travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini according to AFP.

Egypt has suspended direct flights to and from South Africa.

Iran said it will ban foreign travellers from six countries, including South Africa. Iranians will be admitted after testing negative twice for Covid, state broadcaster IRIB reported. On Friday it reported 86 deaths.

Updated

Novavax, the US company that is among those to have produced a Covid vaccine, said it is working on a version of its jab to target the Omicron variant detected in southern Africa.

The company said it could be ready for testing and manufacturing in the next few weeks, according to Reuters.

Its shot contains a version of the virus’ spike protein that can’t cause the disease but triggers the immune system.

Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson have also said they were checking the effectiveness of their inoculations against the new strain.

Updated

German officials say the new coronavirus variant hasn’t yet been found in the country, according to a government report.

Reuters says an interior ministry document says it is likely to have spread to more countries.

On the back of the announcement of new rules for people travelling into the US from southern Africa, Joe Biden has said it makes it “clearer than ever” that global vaccinations are needed to end the pandemic.

The president called for people to get their booster vaccination dose for additional protection over the festive period.

“For the world community, the news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations. The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other nation combined. It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity,” he said.

Biden added that nations at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting next week to waive intellectual property protections for vaccines.

“This news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly,” the US president said.

Updated

US and Canada introduce travel restrictions amid Omicron variant

US president Joe Biden will restrict travel from eight southern African countries after the emergence of the new Omicron variant, as of Monday.

New rules will apply to passengers from South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini, meaning non-US citizens and permanent residents will not be able to fly into the country.

Over the border, Canada said it would ban the entry of foreign nationals who have travelled through southern Africa in the last fortnight.

The restrictions applies to the same countries as new rules in the US, apart from Malawi.

Testing on arrival will be mandatory for Canadian nationals who have been through the region in the previous 14 days, and must quarantine until they get a negative result. Officials said no cases of the new variant had been detected.

Updated

The Netherlands will be “effectively closed from 5pm to 5am” according to remarks by caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte, announcing new Covid restrictions from Sunday.

Speaking at a press conference announcing the partial lockdown, he said: “We have to be realistic, the daily figures are still too high.” Rutte added that the government had failed to get across the message that people with symptoms needed to get tested, and took the blame himself, according to AFP.

Bars, restaurants and shops will be closed early to curb a spike in cases. Schools will stay open, despite the largest rise being among children.

Summary

It’s been an awfully busy Friday, so here’s a quick round-up of some of the main developments:

  • The new B.1.1.529 Covid variant, which has caused much global alarm, has been designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization and given the name Omicron. The WHO said Omicron “has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning”, and preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa, the WHO said.
  • Scientists have described the Omicron variant as the “most worrying we’ve seen, with it found to contain a large number of mutations that may not only make it more transmissible, but may also help it to evade the body’s immune system. Here is an explainer on what we known so far about Omicron.
  • The new variant may pose a “substantial risk to public health” and UK “must act with caution”, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said. He said it is highly likely Omicron had spread to other countries already, though no cases have so far been detected in the UK. The government will not at this stage, however, be implementing it’s so-called Plan B winter plan. Javid said Plan A remains the policy “that I think we need at this time” but added that this is kept under review and “if we need to go further we will”. He urged everyone eligible to get their booster jab as soon as possible.
  • Numerous nations imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and neighbouring countries including Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Eswatini. The severity of the restrictions and requirements and the specific countries impacted vary. Some of the countries to introduce measures include the UK, Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, India, Switzerland, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Israel and the Philippines. The EU has also agreed its member states should restrict travel from southern African countries. The European commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said it was important for Europe to remain united and act “swiftly and decisively”, and advised EU governments to pull an “emergency brake” to suspend travel to southern African countries. *It is interesting to note that - bar Switzerland - countries have so far only applied restrictions on southern African nations but not on Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium (the first known case in Europe), where cases of Omicron have been found (most of the cases detected so far are currently in South Africa and the variant has also been detected in Botswana).
  • The World Health Organization cautioned countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions linked to Omicron, saying they should take a “risk-based and scientific approach”. It would take several weeks to determine the variant’s transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics against it, WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said, noting that 100 sequences of the variant have been reported so far. People should continue to wear masks whenever possible, avoid large gatherings, ventilate rooms and maintain hand hygiene, he added.
  • South Africa condemned the decision of other countries to impose travel restrictions as ‘unjustified’. The health minister, Joe Phaahla, Phaahla said South Africa was acting with transparency, and that travel bans introduced by a number of countries against southern African nations are “completely against the norms and standards” of the WHO. Phaahla called on all South Africans over the age of 12 to come forward and receive the vaccine, which he said remained a “major bulwark” against infection and severe illness.
  • South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa will discuss reimposing lockdown restrictions at a meeting on Sunday, as the country scrambles to assess the potential for Omicron to unleash a deadly fourth wave. As I’ve mentioned above, the government appealed for people to get jabbed as soon as possible - only around 35% of South Africans have been vaccinated.
  • European stocks plummeted amid widespread selling on Friday, as reports of Omicron stoked fears of a fresh hit to the global economy and drove investors out of riskier assets. In the UK, the FTSE 100 dropped 3.6% - the biggest one-day fall since June 2020, wiping £72bn off the value of the blue-chip index and taking it to its lowest level in seven weeks. Among the European stock sectors, travel and leisure plummeted 8.8% in its worst day since the Covid shock sell-off in March 2020.
  • Germany’s top health officials raised the prospect of a national lockdown, warning that a rapidly rising number of coronavirus cases and a dramatic increase in the number of patients in intensive care meant contact reduction was the only way of tackling the crisis and avoiding “the road to chaos”. “We need a massive contact reduction immediately,” said Prof Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s federal disease control agency. He called on political leaders to utilise all available measures to prevent gatherings in large numbers and to urge the public to avoid any unnecessary contacts with people outside their own households. “We are at a crossroads,” he said. “We have one choice. Either we choose the road that leads to chaos and to a bad end … or the one which unburdens the health system and maybe enables a peaceful Christmas.” The outgoing health minister, Jens Spahn, called the situation “dramatically serious, to the extent that it has never been at any point in this pandemic”. Story here.
  • England’s Covid weekly reproduction “R” number has risen and is likely to be above 1, with latest estimates showing it between 1.0 and 1.1, the UK Health Security Agency said on Friday. An R number between 1.0 and 1.1 means that for every 10 people infected, they will on average infect between 10 and 11 other people. Last week R was estimated between 0.8 and 1.0.The daily growth of infections was estimated between -1% and +2%, compared with -2% and 0% the previous week.
  • Belgium brought in new restrictions including early closing of bars and full closure of nightclubs for three weeks to reduce social contact and curb a rapidly spreading fourth wave of Covid infections. The new measures come just a week after a previous package of coronavirus restrictions, including enforcing wider use of masks and more working from home. Under the new rules, Christmas markets, cultural sites, bars and restaurants will have to close at 11pm, with a maximum of six people per table. Private parties and gatherings are also banned, unless they are for weddings or funerals.

That’s all from me for today. Thank you all so much for reading along - I’ll now be handing over to my colleague Harry Taylor, who will continue to update you on global coroanvirus developments. Have a nice weekend and keep safe x

Updated

WHO names new variant Omicron, designates as 'variant of concern'

The World Health Organization has named the B.1.1.529 Covid variant Omicron and says an advisory group has recommended that it should be designated as “of concern”

In a statement, WHO said preliminary evidence suggests the latest variant carries a “higher risk of re-infection than other variants of concern”.

The WHO added:

The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021. This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning.

Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs [variants of concern].

The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.

Updated

EU members agree to restrict travel from seven African countries

This is from Eric Mamer, the European Commission spokesperson

Member States agreed to introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the EU from 7 countries in the Southern Africa region:
Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe.

Tests, quarantine & contact tracing for incoming passengers are important. https://t.co/CXGq4S428L

— Eric Mamer (@MamerEric) November 26, 2021

Earlier, we reported that health officials from the EU 27 met and agreed “on the need to activate” an emergency break on travel from southern Africa.

Mamer has now confirmed this will apply to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Updated

The Swiss government has banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region due to the detection of the new B.1.1.529 variant, while also imposing restrictions on travel from other countries that have recorded cases including Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.

All flights from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa were banned for an indefinite period.

“In addition, when entering the country from the region of southern Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, all persons will have to present a negative Covid-19 test and be quarantined for 10 days starting at 8pm on 26 November 2021,” the country’s health authority said in a statement.

“Entry from these countries will no longer be possible for persons who are not Swiss citizens or do not have a residence permit in Switzerland or the Schengen area.”

Guatemala will impose restrictions on visitors from some southern African nations, the president Alejandro Giammattei said.

Guatemala would limit entry to travelers from Lesotho, Mozambique and South Africa, the president said, although the Guatemalan Immigration Institute said it is still waiting to receive the presidential order.

Cyprus also said it was banning arrivals travelling from, or through, South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Botswana over the past 14 days.

The ban does not apply to Cypriot, EU nationals, nationals of the European Economic Area, Switzerland, or permanent Cyprus residents provided they carry a negative 72 hour PCR test and are tested again upon arrival. They will also have to quarantine in specially-designated hotels for a 10-day period, the Health Ministry said.

No cases of the new variant have been detected on the island, it added.

Saudi Arabia has also suspended flights to and from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini due to concerns related to the spread of Covid, the state news agency (SPA) reported on Friday.

Updated

South Africa says travel bans over new variant unjustified

The South African health minister Joe Phaahla has said preliminary studies suggest the new B.1.1.529 variant may be more transmissible, but the decision of other countries to impose travel restrictions is “unjustified”.

Scientists have so far only detected the B.1.1.529 variant in relatively small numbers, mainly in South Africa but also in Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, but they are concerned by its high number of mutations which could make it vaccine-resistant and more transmissible.

Phaahla told a media briefing that South Africa was acting with transparency, and that travel bans introduced by a number of countries against southern African nations are “completely against the norms and standards” of the World Health Organisation.

“We want to reassure South Africans that some of the reaction has been unjustified,” Phaahla says.

The foreign ministry said South Africa would speak to Britain to try to get it to reconsider its ban, and the president Cyril Ramaphosa will convene an advisory council on Sunday to consider evidence on the variant.

“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.

The rand currency slumped as much as 2% against the dollar and South African hospitality stocks plummeted, as investors were unnerved.

Phaahla added that foreign scientists have not presented any evidence that the new variant has the capacity to evade protection offered by vaccines, though he accepts that early signs suggest it is more transmissible.

He said the UK had imposed travel restrictions on his country without prior discussion. Britain banned flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia after the detection of the new variant in South Africa.

European Union states have also agreed to suspend travel to southern Africa after the detection of the variant, the presidency of the EU said on Friday.

However, Salim Abdool Karim, one of South Africa’s top epidemiologists, said of the new variant that it was “important to deal with it globally,” pointing out that the Delta variant had spread to 53 countries within three weeks of it being identified.

“So it doesn’t really help to close borders... We’ve got to find solutions to this variant together. And part of that is not to overreact,” he told Reuters, characterising the British travel ban as a “panic reaction” that was understandable.

The WHO was due to decide on Friday whether to designate the variant as being “of concern,” a label only given to four variants to date. But it could take weeks for scientists to fully understand the impact of the variant’s mutations.

Phaahla called on South Africans to come forward and receive the vaccine, which he said remained a “major bulwark” against infection and severe illness.

Related: Get vaccinated now, South Africans told amid new variant fears

Updated

European stocks plummeted amid widespread selling on Friday, as reports of the new B.1.1.529 variant stoked fears of a fresh hit to the global economy and drove investors out of riskier assets.

The benchmark STOXX 600 index ended 3.7% down in its worst session since June 2020, while the volatility gauge for the main stock market hit a near 10-month high. The day’s losses saw the STOXX 600 lose 4.5% this week.

Little is known of the variant, but scientists said it has an unusual combination of mutations and may be able to evade immune responses or make it more transmissible.

France’s CAC 40 shed 4.8%. UK’s FTSE 100 dropped 3.6%, while Germany’s DAX fell 4.2% and Spain’s IBEX lost 5.0%.

For the UK, it was the biggest one-day fall since June 2020, wiping £72bn off the value of the blue-chip index, taking it to its lowest level in seven weeks.

“With Europe and some northern parts of the US in a stretched situation due to an already high number of new cases and hospitalisations, this new virus strain comes at the worst possible time,” said Peter Garnry, head of equity strategy at Saxo Bank.

“Equities are reacting negatively because it is unknown at this point to what degree the vaccines will be effective against the new strain, and thus it increases risk of new lockdowns.”

Among the European stock sectors, travel and leisure plummeted 8.8% in its worst day since the Covid shock sell-off in March 2020.

Britain announced a temporary ban on flights from South Africa and several neighbouring countries from noon on Friday. The European Union has also agreed similar moves.

Travel stocks were the worst performers this week, down 13.6%. Concerns over rising Covid cases had pulled European stock markets from record highs last week amid fears of more restrictions.

The virus scare prompted euro zone money markets to scale back bets of a rate hike from the European Central Bank next year. Odds of a 10 basis point rate hike in December 2022 almost halved from 100% earlier this week.

Euro zone government bond yields dropped, pressuring European bank stocks, which lost 6.9%.

Oil & gas producers slumped 5.8%, while miners tumbled 5.0% as oil and metal prices lost ground as reports of the new virus variant fuelled economic slowdown worries.

The technology sector had relatively smaller losses, thanks to gains in stay-at-home stocks. Defensives such as healthcare and utilities fell the least.

For all the latest business updates, my colleague Graeme Wearden over on the Business live blog has you covered:

South Africa has urged all citizens to vaccinate themselves against Covid-19 as the country scrambles to assess the potential for the B.1.1.529 variant to unleash a deadly fourth wave.

As the president Cyril Ramaphosa prepares to discuss reimposing lockdown restrictions at a meeting on Sunday, the government appealed to all South Africans aged 12 and over to get jabbed as soon as possible.

The country’s top scientists were “in intensive engagement with all established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” a statement on Friday said.

“While this work continues, South Africans must take all measures to protect themselves against coronavirus infection, beginning with vaccination against Covid-19,” it added. Only about 35% of adults in the country are fully vaccinated.

The full story from Nick Dall and Lizzy Davies is here:

EU states 'agree on need' to temporarily halt travel to southern Africa due to new variant

European Union member states have agreed on the need to temporarily suspend travel to southern Africa after the detection of the new Covid variant, the presidency of the EU said on Friday.

A committee of health experts from all 27 EU states “agreed on the need to activate the emergency break & impose temporary restriction on all travel into EU from southern Africa,” the Slovenia presidency of the EU said on Twitter.

#COVID19 | ❗️Integrated Political Crisis Response mechanism (#IPCR) met & agreed on the need to activate the #emergency break & impose temporary restriction on all travel into EU from southern #Africa.#EU2021SI called upon Members to test & quarantine all incoming passengers.❗️

— EU2021SI (@EU2021SI) November 26, 2021

An EU source said the restrictions would apply to South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, according to Reuters.

Earlier, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said it was important for Europe to remain united and act “swiftly and decisively” in the face of the new B.1.1.529 mutation.

She advised EU governments to pull an “emergency brake” to suspend travel to southern African countries affected by the variant [see 2.34pm.].

A host of countries including the UK, Japan, Germany, Italy and Spain have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and neighbouring southern African countries over concerns about the new variant.

Earlier on Friday, the World Health Organization cautioned countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions linked to B.1.1.529, saying they should take a “risk-based and scientific approach” [see 1.49pm.].

It would take several weeks to determine the variant’s transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics against it, WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said, noting that 100 sequences of the variant have been reported so far.

People should continue to wear masks whenever possible, avoid large gatherings, ventilate rooms and maintain hand hygiene, he added.

Updated

The failure of the world to get vaccines to the developing world is “coming back to haunt us”, Gordon Brown has warned, as experts said the emergence of variants such as B.1.1.529 could have been avoided if jabs had been more fairly distributed.

Writing in the Guardian, the Labour former prime minister said the world had been “forewarned” that a lack of vaccines in poorer countries could have serious consequences for the pandemic.

He said there had been embarrassing failures to meet promises on fair distribution of vaccines by the west, highlighting figures that show only 3% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated compared with more than 60% in the rest of the world.

“In the absence of mass vaccination, Covid is not only spreading uninhibited among unprotected people but is mutating, with new variants emerging out of the poorest countries and now threatening to unleash themselves on even fully vaccinated people in the richest countries of the world,” he said.

Brown said world leaders now needed a global accord to ensure better distribution and accused the EU of “neocolonialism” in its approach to buying up vaccines made in South Africa.

“The good news is that our medical genius has ensured that the new Nu variant has been identified quickly; is being sequenced at speed; and, if it proves not only more transmissible but immune to current vaccines, a new vaccine will soon emerge,” Brown said.

He added:

But given the contrast between the success of our scientists and the failure of our global leaders, only a herculean effort starting this week can allay fears that new mutations among unvaccinated people in the least-protected places will take Covid into a third year – with even fifth, sixth and seventh waves.

Get the full story from Nicola Davis and Rowena Mason here:

Updated

Top US infectious disease official Dr Anthony Fauci said on Friday that a ban on flights from southern Africa was a possibility and the United States was rushing to gather data on the new Covid-19 variant.

No decision to halt flights had yet been made, he said.

Global authorities have reacted with alarm to the new B.1.1.529 variant, detected in South Africa, with the European Union and UK among those tightening border controls as scientists seek to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.

The World Health Organization (WHO), however, has cautioned against hasty measures [see 1.49pm.] and South Africa said a British ban on flights seemed rushed.

“There is always the possibility of doing what the UK has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Fauci said in an interview on CNN.

“That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do. You’re prepared to do everything you need to protect the American public. But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that,” he said.

“Obviously as soon as we find out more information we’ll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can.”

Fauci said US scientists would speak with South African counterparts on Friday about the new variant, called B.1.1.529, which has raised concern about its transmissibility and whether it might evade immune responses.

He added that there was no indication that the new variant was already in the United States.

Greece will allow in travellers from the southern African region only for essential reasons and after negative testing amid rising concern about the new B.1.1.529 Covid variant detected in South Africa, its health ministry said on Friday.

All travellers from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Eswatini, Zambia and Malawi will undergo a second test upon their arrival to the country and will be quarantined for 10 days, the ministry said in a statement.

There are no direct flights from Greece to those countries.

Ireland, one of the world’s most vaccinated nations, will make Covid booster shots available to all adults in a sharp ramping up of plans to provide additional protection, the health minister said on Friday.

Almost 90% of Ireland’s eligible 3.9 million people over the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated and booster shots had previously been approved for those over the age of 50 and for those with underlying health issues.

Some 670,000 boosters have been administered to date.

“We continue to prioritise boosters because we know they are having a positive impact on the level of hospitalisation, severe illness and mortality from Covid-19 in those aged over 70,” the health minister Stephen Donnelly said in a statement.

Like most of Europe, Ireland is battling a fresh wave of coronavirus which ministers have said may be plateauing at a high level. Hospitalisations have also stabilised over the last week but intensive care capacity remains very tight.

The government reimposed a midnight curfew on hospitality venues last week, less than a month after nightclubs were allowed to open their doors for the first time since March 2020.

Ministers have said that while some additional restrictions may be needed over the coming weeks, they do not envisage following Austria’s example of reimposing a lockdown.

UK reports further 50,091 cases and 160 deaths

The UK has reported another 50,091 Covid cases and a further 160 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest data from the government’s coronavirus dashboard.

That compares to 47,240 infections and 147 fatalities reported in the 24 hours prior.

It is likely that the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 that is spreading in South Africa will end up in the UK, the head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium said on Friday, but efforts to buy time and reduce transmission would help.

“I think buying time is important and it’s worthwhile, because we can find out what we need to know about that particular variant,” Sharon Peacock told reporters, saying that the health service might need to make preparations.

“This is part of important planning and preparation for something that I would guess is likely to be transmitted into the UK at some point, but it buys that time.”

Hong Kong’s government has said it will ban non-Hong Kong residents arriving from eight southern African states from entering the territory if they had stayed in those countries within the past 21 days.

The measure, effective from Saturday, affects people arriving from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, the government said in a statement on Friday.

“Along with South Africa which is already a specified high-risk place, non-Hong Kong residents who have stayed in these places within 21 days will not be allowed to enter the city”, it said.

The new B.1.1.5.2.9 coronavirus variant detected in South Africa has prompted the European Union, UK and other countries to tighten border controls as researchers sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.

The emergence of new variants such as B.1.1.529 could have been avoided if wealthy countries had ensured poorer nations had access to Covid jabs, experts have said.

Scientists have described B.1.1.529 , detected in countries including South Africa, as the “most worrying we’ve seen”, with it found to contain a large number of mutations that may not only make it more transmissible, but may also help it to evade the body’s immune system.

Experts such as Tim Bierley, a pharma campaigner at Global Justice Now, said the rise of the variant had been “entirely avoidable” and that conditions for its emergence had been created by low- and middle-income countries being “actively prevented” by the UK from having equitable access to vaccines.

For more than a year, South Africa, Botswana, and most countries have been calling for world leaders to waive intellectual property on coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments, so they can produce their own jabs. It’s a vital measure that will be discussed at next week’s World Trade Organization conference. But, so far, the UK and EU have recklessly blocked it from making progress.

If and when this new variant starts to tear through the world, remember that the British government has led opposition to the plan that could have stopped it.

Dr Ayoade Alakija, a co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, said:

I am so angry right now. Even if the moral argument didn’t work for them, if we had lost sight of our common morality, and common humanity, then even from an enlightened self-interest perspective, surely, surely, they understood that if they did not [vaccinate] the world as equitably and as quickly as possible, that what we were going to see was variants springing up that we don’t know whether we’re going to be able to control.

However, Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said new variants are likely to establish in any setting where the virus is circulating at high levels, including in the UK.

Read more on this story here:

Updated

The Guardian’s science correspondent, Hannah Devlin, has put together this explainer tackling what scientists know so far about the new B.1.1.529 variant:

People who are severely immunosuppressed can book their third Covid jab online from today, as the NHS England national booking system opens up to more people.

In line with JCVI guidance, those who are classed as severely immunosuppressed as a result of treatment, for conditions such as cancer or for those with long-term chronic conditions where their immunity is affected by medication, are eligible for a third dose eight weeks after their second dose.

NHS England said that so far more than three quarters of those who are severely immunosuppressed have had a third Covid vaccination.

From today, adults who are eligible for a third dose of the Covid vaccine and have received a clinical referral letter from their doctor can go online and book an appointment, as the NHS Covid-19 vaccination programme continues to protect those most at risk from the virus.

Prof Stephen Powis, the NHS national medical director, said:

Decisions on when to get a third dose remains between a patient and their clinician who knows about their ongoing treatment – more than three quarters of people who are severely immunosuppressed have had their third dose so far, and from today people can also book in online with a letter from their GP or clinician.

It’s incredibly important that people get the full recommended course of Covid vaccines, especially those most at risk from the virus – boosters and third doses are not a nice to have, they are the best way to protect you and your loved ones this winter.

Updated

The new B.1.1.529 variant could put even greater strain on an already stretched NHS, especially as it enters its traditionally tricky winter period, hospital bosses warned today.

NHS Providers and the NHS Confederation, which represent hospital trusts in England and (in the latter’s case also) Wales, welcomed the travel ban on South Africa and five other countries.

But both urged the public to do more to protect themselves and others from Covid, for example by wearing a face mask and ensuring they are fully vaccinated.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said:

If this variant is as dangerous as suggested, it would be particularly concerning as spread could coincide with what we are expecting to be an extremely difficult winter and when NHS pressures are greatest.

Trust leaders will be reassured that the government has said it will do whatever is necessary to keep people safe. Making decisions based on the scientific evidence, and putting in place tougher restrictions if and when necessary, will be absolutely critical.

In the meantime, it is important that we all continue to play our part in containing Covid-19, by using taking up vaccinations when offered, following rules on self-isolation, using lateral flow tests, and wearing a mask, especially in crowded and indoor spaces, as well as ventilating rooms.

Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said:

It is, as yet, too early to know whether this new variant will be more transmissible or less responsive to the vaccines currently available to help combat coronavirus.

Eighteen months into this pandemic healthcare leaders will however be watching this development with concern as we head into one of the most challenging winters the NHS has ever faced.

Last month the NHS Confederation urged ministers to move to their Plan B for managing the high rates of Covid being seen in the UK in order to reduce the risk of the NHS becoming overwhelmed this winter.

In a separate move today, the British Medical Association – the doctors’ union – has urged ministers and NHS leaders to take a series of emergency measures to help the service as it prepares for the next few months, with hospitals, GPs, ambulances and mental health care already under intense pressure.

“We are braced for what will likely be the worst winter in the history of the NHS”, said Dr Trevor Pickersgill, the BMA’s chief officer. He went on:

One of the biggest impacts on the health service remains Covid. If all governments across the UK strengthened infection prevention and control in public settings, such as making mask-wearing mandatory in indoor public spaces, improving ventilation, and providing better public messaging around the continued risk of Covid, plus the importance of taking up the vaccine and booster jabs, we could cut infection rates and relieve some of the pressure on staff and hospital beds.

Updated

The Catalan regional government, which had ordered Covid passports to be shown to gain entry to bars, restaurants, gyms and care homes, has suspended the requirement until at least Monday after “very intense” demand crashed the system for downloading the passes.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government has said plans to restrict flights from South Africa and Botswana will be proposed at the next cabinet meeting, which is scheduled for next Tuesday.

“We’ll see about other countries but for now those two,” the health minister, Carolina Darias, told state broadcaster TVE.

“We will also imminently adopt a resolution ... to require passengers from high-risk countries to provide, in addition to vaccination [proof], either an antigen test or a PCR.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission president, said she had advised EU governments to pull an “emergency brake” stopping travel to countries in southern Africa in light of the emergence of the B.1.1.529 variant.

She said:

We are taking the news about the new highly mutated Covid variant very seriously.

We do know that mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.

It is now important that all of us in Europe act very swiftly, decisively and united.

The European Commission has today proposed to member states to activate the “emergency brake” on travel from countries in southern African and other countries affected to limit the spread of the new variant.

All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant. And travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.

Von der Leyen did not refer to the identification of a first European case of the new variant in Belgium [see 1.30pm.].

Updated

Europe must act 'swiftly and decisively' on B.1.1.529 variant – Ursula von der Leyen

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has said it is important that Europe remains united and acts “swiftly and decisively” in the face of the new B.1.1.529 mutation – as she recommended member states to suspend all air travel from southern African countries affected by the variant.

Addressing a news briefing in Brussels following the emergence of the new Covid variant, Von der Leyen said:

The European Commission has today proposed to member states to activate the emergency brake on travel from countries in southern Africa and other counties affected to limit the spread of the new variant.

The first European case was confirmed earlier in Belgium [see 1.30pm.].

Von der Leyen had earlier tweeted in this vein:

The @EU_Commission will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.

— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) November 26, 2021

She told the briefing travel should be suspended until “clear understanding” of the danger posed by this new variant emerged.

Travellers returning from these regions should respect strict quarantine rules. It depends on all of us as citizens to contribute to better control of the pandemic.

She also stressed the importance of vaccinations, hand-washing and mask-wearing in the face of the pandemic.

A host of countries including the UK, Italy, Japan, Germany and Spain have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and neighbouring southern African countries over concerns about the new variant.

Earlier on Friday, the World Health Organization cautioned countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions linked to B.1.1.529, saying they should take a “risk-based and scientific approach” [see 1.49pm.].

It would take several weeks to determine the variant’s transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics against it, WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said, noting that 100 sequences of the variant have been reported so far.

People should continue to wear masks whenever possible, avoid large gatherings, ventilate rooms and maintain hand hygiene, he added.

Updated

Germany’s top health officials have raised the prospect of a national lockdown, warning that a rapidly rising number of coronavirus cases and a dramatic increase in the number of patients in intensive care meant contact reduction was the only way of tackling the crisis and avoiding “the road to chaos”.

“We need a massive contact reduction immediately,” said Prof Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s federal disease control agency.

He called on political leaders to utilise all available measures to prevent gatherings in large numbers and to urge the public to avoid any unnecessary contacts with people outside their own households, as the incidence rate in Germany rose by 75,400, a week-on-week increase of 44%.

“I expect right now for the decision-makers to trigger all measures in order that we can bring down the incidence rate together,” Wieler said, adding:

We are at a crossroads. We have one choice. Either we choose the road that leads to chaos and to a bad end … or the one which unburdens the health system and maybe enables a peaceful Christmas.

Germany’s outgoing health minister, Jens Spahn, called the situation “dramatically serious, to the extent that it has never been at any point in this pandemic”. He added:

It is half an hour after midnight, but some people have still failed to hear the alarm.

Of 22,000 available intensive care beds in Germany, 4,000 are occupied with coronavirus patients, 85% of whom need breathing assistance. Their average age is between 50 and 79 years. Wieler said while the figure might not seem that high to some, it marked an increase of 100% in a week, and even if there were no new infections, 1,000 more patients could be expected to end up in intensive care within the next 10 to 14 days.

Elective surgery around the country has been cancelled to free up beds and staff, and Germany’s air force is on call to transport patients from full hospitals to those with capacity.

Spahn called for decision-makers on the federal and state level to recognise the urgency of the situation and bring forward a meeting planned for 9 December. He said it would be foolhardy to wait for 10 days, as the participants had said they planned to do, in order to see whether the current measures in place were working.

Spahn added:

The medical staff don’t have 10 days to wait and see.

He criticised the fact the Christmas markets were in full swing in Berlin while the city’s university hospital, the Charité, was full. “It is just not appropriate at this time,” he said.

Get the full story here:

Merck & Co said on Friday updated data from its study on its experimental Covid-19 pill showed the drug was less effective in cutting hospitalisations and deaths than previously reported.

The drugmaker said its pill showed a 30% reduction in hospitalisations and deaths, based on data from over 1,400 patients. In October, its data showed a roughly 50% efficacy, based on data from 775 patients.

Merck’s shares fell 3% to $79.80 in premarket trading, amid a fall in the broader markets.

The company filed for a US authorisation of the drug molnupiravir on 11 October, following the interim data.

Merck said on Friday the data on molnupiravir, developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, had been submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration ahead of a meeting of its expert advisers on Tuesday.

The FDA’s scientists are expected to publish their briefing documents ahead of the meeting as early as Friday.

The panel is expected to vote whether to recommend that the agency authorise the oral capsules for the treatment of mild-to-moderate Covid in adults who are at risk of severe disease.

A planned interim analysis of the data last month showed that 7.3% of those given molnupiravir twice a day for five days were hospitalised and none had died by 29 days after the treatment. That compared with a hospitalisation rate of 14.1% for patients on placebo.

In the updated data, 6.8% of those given molnupiravir were hospitalised and one person died, while the other placebo group had a hospitalisation rate of 9.7%.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics, based on swabs taken from randomly selected UK households, suggests that the decline in infection levels seen in recent weeks has ended.

The results reveal the percentage of people testing positive for Covid increased in Northern Ireland and Scotland in the week ending 20 November, while the trend was uncertain in England and Wales.

The findings echo daily case data which is based on results from people who come forward for tests – in recent weeks these figures have suggests an uptick in Covid cases in the UK.

Among other insights the ONS data suggests infection levels have risen in the North East, East Midlands and South East of England, and among older teens and young people with rises seen in school Year 12 up to age 34 years.

Sarah Crofts, head of analytical outputs for the Covid-19 Infection Survey, said the picture across the UK is mixed.

“The uncertain picture across England is as a result of different trends in different parts of the country and among people in different age groups. School age children still have the highest levels of infection despite a decreasing trend over the last few weeks for those of secondary school ages,” she said.

England’s Covid weekly reproduction “R” number has risen and is likely to be above 1, with latest estimates showing it between 1.0 and 1.1, the UK Health Security Agency said on Friday.

An R number between 1.0 and 1.1 means that for every 10 people infected, they will on average infect between 10 and 11 other people. Last week R was estimated between 0.8 and 1.0.

The daily growth of infections was estimated between -1% and +2%, compared with -2% and 0% the previous week.

Updated

WHO cautions against travel measures over B.1.1.529 variant

The World Health Organization has cautioned countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions linked to the new B.1.1.529 variant of Covid, saying they should take a “risk-based and scientific approach”.

A closed-door experts’ meeting from Geneva, convened by the WHO, began at midday on Friday to assess B.1.1.529 and to designate it as either a variant of interest or a variant of concern, spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said.

Global authorities reacted with alarm on Friday to a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, with the EU and UK among those tightening border controls as scientists sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.

“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” Lindmeier told a UN briefing in Geneva. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”

It would take several weeks to determine the variant’s transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics against it, he said, noting that 100 sequences of the variant have been reported so far.

People should continue to wear masks whenever possible, avoid large gatherings, ventilate rooms and maintain hand hygiene, Lindmeier said.

“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and WHO technical lead on Covid-19.

“This is one to watch; I would say we have concern. But I think you would want us to have concern,” she told viewers of an event on social media on Thursday.

Van Kerkhove said that it was good that variants were being detected, adding: “It means that we have a system in place.”

Lindmeier said that the UN agency’s technical advisory group and other experts on virus evolution were conferring with South African researchers.

Updated

The Belgian government brought in new restrictions on Friday including early closing of bars and full closure of nightclubs for three weeks to reduce social contact and curb a rapidly spreading fourth wave of Covid infections.

“We are confronted with a situation now that is worse than the most pessimistic view of the experts from only two weeks ago,” the Belgian premier Alexander De Croo told a news conference. He said strain on the health service was mounting.

The new measures come just a week after a previous package of coronavirus restrictions, including enforcing wider use of masks and more working from home.

Under the new rules, Christmas markets, cultural sites, bars and restaurants will have to close at 11pm, with a maximum of six people per table. Private parties and gatherings are also banned, unless they are for weddings or funerals.

Israel has imposed a travel ban covering most of Africa after the detection of the new B.1.1.529 variant in South Africa that could be more contagious than the Delta strain.

“We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency,” the prime minister Naftali Bennett said on Friday, according to a statement from his office, before expanding a ban he announced on Thursday on the entry of foreigners from seven African countries and Israelis’ travel to them.

Under the broader restrictions, all African nations, except those in north Africa, were added to Israel’s red list of high-risk countries.

Bennett, who met Israeli health experts before the edicts were announced, said there were a few cases of the new variant reported in Israel.

Updated

First European case of B.1.1.529 variant identified in Belgium

A first case in Europe of the new variant of Covid-19 has been identified in Belgium in an unvaccinated young adult woman who developed mild flu-like symptoms 11 days after travelling to Egypt via Turkey.

The patient did not report any links with South Africa or other countries in southern Africa. None of her family members have developed symptoms. The patient was said to have a high viral load at the time of diagnosis by researchers at the universities, KU Leuven and UZ Leuven.

Updated

The Dutch government is set to announce new measures including early closure of bars, restaurants and retail to stem a record-breaking wave of Covid infections that is threatening to overwhelm the healthcare system, Reuters reports.

The caretaker prime minister, Mark Rutte, was meeting his Cabinet on Friday to make a final decision on what measures are needed to ensure that hospitals, stressed by a flood of patients with coronavirus, do not run out of capacity in intensive care units.

Rutte is due to hold a televised news conference announcing the decision at 6pm GMT.

The wave of cases in the Netherlands, running above 20,000 infections per day for the past week, has continued despite restrictions including the reintroduction of face masks and closure of bars and restaurants after 8pm imposed by the government earlier this month.

The surge in the Netherlands, one of several European countries to be hit by a wave of infections, is also occurring even though 85% of the adult population have been vaccinated, with infections now rising most quickly among schoolchildren, who are not vaccinated.

A report on Thursday by national broadcaster NOS said the country’s top healthcare panel had advised Rutte to close restaurants and non-essential stores by 5pm – and against closing schools. But some experts argue that school closures are needed as part of a short, near-total lockdown to regain control of the situation.

A government proposal - not yet policy - to restrict unvaccinated people from public places prompted three nights of rioting last weekend.

National security officials were meeting Friday to prepare for possible protests after the new measures are announced.

Dutch hospitals have been steadily curtailing care amid the rising coronavirus cases, with non-essential operations being cancelled or postponed from this week in order to free up beds in ICU units. Some patients have been transferred to neighbouring Germany.

The Dutch associations of house doctors and neighbourhood nurses said on Friday they too are becoming overwhelmed.

We “are doing everything we can to continue to offer the most necessary care,” they said in a joint statement. “That’s only possible if we postpone or don’t give some normal care.”

Updated

Spain will suspend flights to South Africa and Botswana from Tuesday over concerns about the new Covid variant B.1.1.529, state broadcaster TVE reported on Friday, following similar decisions by other European nations. The Health Ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The report came shortly after the European Commission recommended an EU-wide travel ban to and from southern Africa due to the rapid rise of the B.1.1.529 variant in South Africa, which scientists fear could evade vaccines.

The Philippines has also suspended inbound international flights on Friday from South Africa and other countries with cases or the likelihood of cases of a new coronavirus variant - South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique - until 15 December, the presidential office said.

England, India, Japan, Italy, Germany, Singapore and the Czech Republic are among a number of countries who have rapidly imposed a range of travel restrictions on southern African countries.

Updated

BioNTech, the German company that developed the first Covid vaccine, has said it is closely studying B.1.1.529, the new variant from South Africa, and will have conclusive data from laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest.

A spokesman for the company told the German daily Bild that it would then be in a position to see whether or not its current vaccine had to be adjusted to tackle it.

The spokesman said:

Pfizer and BioNTech started several months ago to ensure that in the case of an escape variant, the mRNA vaccine can be adapted within six weeks, the first doses of which would be ready to dispatch within 100 days.

Updated

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said that, with regards to the new B.1.1.529 variant, it would be “premature to ‘press the panic button’” and it is too soon to say if it will lead to further restrictions.

Neverhteless, it is the “most significant and concerning” Covid development of recent months, so action must be taken on a precautionary basis, she said, referring to restrictions on travel from people from affected countries and asking for isolation.

That is the appropriate action to take at this stage, but we will be looking carefully at developments over the days to come. The World Health Organization, I know, is very concerned about this variant and is meeting itself to consider how it categorises the threat.

We need more data to help us better understand the new B.1.1.529 variant - and it would be premature to ‘press the panic button’ - but it is the most significant & concerning Covid development of recent months, and so we must take it seriously and act on a precautionary basis https://t.co/8fB8MIS85e

— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) November 26, 2021

Updated

The number of excess deaths occurring in England and Wales during the winter of 2020/21 were over six times higher than the same period the year previous, the Office for National Statistics estimates.

According to the ONS, the growth was mostly driven by the large number of coronavirus deaths during April to July of 2020, and the winter months of 2021 (December to March).

Coronavirus was also found to be the leading cause of excess winter mortality in 2020 to 2021, accounting for 84% in England, and 82.9% in Wales, of all excess winter deaths.

Updated

Today so far

  • A new variant of Covid, B.1.1.529, has been causing global concern after it was discovered in Hong Kong, having emerged in southern Africa. It has been detected in both South Africa and Botswana. The World Health Organization’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) is meeting in Geneva to assess whether the variant should be designated a “variant of interest” or “variant of concern”.
  • B.1.1.529 has a very unusual constellation of mutations, which are worrying because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists have said.
  • Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said in a press briefing on Thursday: “We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”
  • England, India, Japan, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic are among a number of countries who have rapidly imposed a range of travel restrictions on countries including South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia. UK transport secretary Grant Shapps described the move as “a safety-first approach”. South Africa’s foreign ministry said Britain’s decision to ban flights from South Africa because of the detection of a new Covid-19 variant “seems to have been rushed”
  • UK health secretary Sajid Javid has described the new variant as “of huge international concern” and “may pose substantial risk to public health.”
  • Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett called a meeting with public health officials and his government to take stock of the Covid situation in the country after a case of the new variant was discovered there. “We are close to an emergency situation... we must act strongly and quickly,” Bennett said in a statement from his office. “When we have a clearer picture of the situation, we will take decisions accordingly,” he added.
  • Australia’s border is set to remain open to South Africa despite emergence of new Covid variant. Australia’s health minister, Greg Hunt, said officials were assessing the threat posed by the strain and would not yet introduce restrictions on arrivals from southern Africa.
  • Shares in travel and aviation businesses plummeted over fears that the new coronavirus variant described as potentially the worst so far identified could lead to a new wave of global pandemic restrictions.
  • Prof James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme the new variant will “almost certainly” make the vaccines less effective, but “it is bad news but it is not doomsday.”
  • Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn. He said the country needs to take decisive action now or else face drastic measures in the coming weeks that could include a complete reduction in contacts between people. “Everything we don’t decide now, everything we don’t reduce now in terms of contacts, will require even more drastic measures in two or four weeks’ time,” Spahn told a news conference in Berlin.
  • Hungary needs to increase the number of people taking booster shots against Covid-19 to curb infections, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told state radio this morning.
  • China is continuing to pursue its strict Covid-zero policy in light of three new cases detected in the city of Shanghai. Hundreds of flights have been cancelled while some schools were shuttered and tour groups suspended. Six Shanghai hospitals have also suspended outpatient services.
  • One member of the police forces was injured during violent clashes overnight with anti-Covid measure protesters on the French island of Martinique.

Updated

Here is a really helfpul explainer on what we know so far about the new “worst ever” Covid variant – known as B.1.1.529 – and why it is of concern:

Updated

B.1.1.529 variant ‘most worrying we’ve seen’, says top UK medical adviser

The chief medical adviser to the UK Health and Security Agency has warned that a newly identified Covid variant in southern Africa is the “most worrying we’ve seen”, with transmission levels not recorded since the beginning of the pandemic.

Dr Susan Hopkins said the R value, or effective reproduction number, of the B.1.1.529 variant in Gauteng in South Africa, where it was first found, is now 2. For an R of anything above 1, an epidemic will grow exponentially.

She voiced her concerns as the European Commission announced plans to stop flights from the southern Africa region. England and Scotland said on Thursday they were banning flights from six countries in the region.

Hopkins told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

What we’re seeing in South Africa is that they were at a very, very low point, with a very low amount of cases being detected a day, and in a shorter period than two weeks they have more than doubled their epidemiology picture.

They are saying that their transmission rates, the R value that they have in Gauteng around where this was first found, is now 2, which is really quite high and we’ve not seen levels of transmission like that since right back at the beginning of the pandemic, because of all of the mitigations and steps we’ve taken.

So that would cause a major problem if you had that high transmission with this type of virus in a population where it may evade the immune responses that are already there.

Read the full story here:

The health secretary has now left the Commons.

Share your experiences

The Guardian would like to hear from those who are travelling from the southern African countries affected by the red list announcement – South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe – or who have plans to travel to them.

We are also interested in hearing from those who have arrived in the UK from any of the affected countries and have been contacted by test and trace.

You can get in touch by filling in the form here or contact us via WhatsApp by clicking here or adding +44(0)7766780300. Your responses are secure as the form is encrypted and only the Guardian has access to your contributions.

One of our journalists will be in contact for publication before we publish, so please do leave contact details.

Updated

Labour MP Ruth Jones asks about sporting events due to take place in South Africa this weekend, including the United Rugby Championship which Cardiff Rugby and Scarlets Rugby have travelled to.

She asks what assistance is being given to them to get them home before the midday deadline for the red list.

Javid says whether it’s sports teams or British tourists that find themselves in these countries, this is “very difficult news” but he hopes they understand.

On the rugby teams specifically, the health secretary says:

Nothing. We won’t do anything to help them get back before this deadline. Because I think anyone who’s in South Africa, the best thing to do is to come back after 4am on Sunday and go into hotel quarantine.

Updated

Labour MP Meg Hillier asks whether there has been any indication from southern African countries about the impact of the variant on children – and whether there are plans to offer second doses to children in the UK.

Javid says “this has moved so fast” that there have been no indications yet about the potential impact on children in particular.

In the UK, the child vaccination programme is “going well” but he says we would wait for expert advice from the JCVI on second doses.

Labour MP Pat McFadden says one of the lessons of the new variant is that if we do not tackle the “enormous” vaccine inequality around the world we will continue to be exposed to new variants.

He asks if Javid agrees that the UK and other rich countries must ensure surplus doses are distributed to countries that do need them.

Javid says he agrees “with every word”, especially around surplus vaccines.

Updated

Plan A remains policy 'we need at this time', Javid says

Labour MP Rachael Maskell asks if Javid can give “clear leadership” about taking further public health measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and better ventilation.

The health secretary says she makes a “good point about the need to follow guidance and the rules that are currently in place”.

Plan A remains the policy “that I think we need at this time”, Javid adds – but itis kept under review and “if we need to go further we will”.

Updated

Tory MP Liam Fox says there is a need to “redouble our efforts” to vaccinate populations across the globe, and asks what do we know so far about the severity of illness with the new variant.

Javid says “we don’t know enough yet”, but from what we can tell it indicates there is a “possibility” it might have a different impact on someone if they get infected.

Updated

On the countries added to the red list, Javid says the government is currently going primarily by countries where the new variant has been detected, he says – adding ithas been confirmed in South Africa and Botswana.

The other four countries have been included as a “precaution”.

He says “we are keeping this under review and there’s very live discussions going on” about adding further countries.

Updated

Responding to Javid’s statement, the shadow public health minister, Alex Norris, says Labour is glad to see “swift action” and adding countries to the red list is the “right call” and the party supports it – after the government took too long to act on Delta and the variant was “allowed to run free”.

He asks why these specific countries have been added and not the wider group of countries where cases of the variant have been detected, asking if they will be required to use PCR tests on arrival rather than lateral flow ones.

The news today reflected a failure of the global community to distribute vaccines to low-income countries, he says.

Norris adds “we need to go further and faster with vaccination at home”, adding there are “huge pockets of the country” where “significant numbers” of people remain unvaccinated.

“This is a sobering reminder of the challenges that this pandemic brings,” he says.

Updated

Booster jab 'could not be more important' in light of new variant, Javid says

This is a reminder for all of us that this pandemic is far from over, Javid says.

We must continue to act with caution and do all we can to keep the virus at bay, including when eligible getting your booster shot, he adds.

The booster jab was already important before we knew about this new variant, he says, but now it could not be more important.

From midday on Friday, six countries - South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe - will be placed on the travel red list, Javid says.

Anyone not a UK or Irish resident who has been in one of these countries in the last ten days will be denied entry into England, he says.

UK and Irish residents arriving from these countries from 4am on Sunday will enter hotel quarantine, he says.

Anyone arriving before those dates should take PCR tests on day two and day eight, even if they are vaccinated, and isolate at home along with the rest of their household, he says.

If you have arrived from any of these countries in the last ten days, Test and Trace will contact you to take PCR tests, he says.

But do not wait to be contacted - you should take a PCR test right away, he adds.

UK must 'act with caution', Javid says

We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment, Javid says.

The UK is in a strong position thanks to reopening during the summer and the ongoing booster programme, he says.

We must act with caution, he says.

Updated

We’re also worried about rising cases in countries in southern Africa, Javid says, especially as these populations should have significant natural immunity.

In South Africa, there has been exponential growth, with cases increasing four-fold in the last two weeks, he says.

In Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, some 80% of cases, when tested with a PCR test, have shown something known as the S gene dropout, which we associate with this variant, he says.

So while we don’t know yet definitively if the exponential growth of cases in South Africa is directly associated with this variant, this PCR test analysis does indicate that there could be many more cases than just those so far sequenced, he says.

It has many of the features of the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants, Javid says.

Early indications show the variant may be more transmissible than Delta, he says, and current vaccines may be less effective against it.

It may also impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments, he says.

New variant could pose 'substantial risk' to public health, Javid says

We are concerned this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health, Javid says.

The variant has an unusually large number of mutations, he says.

Yesterday, the UK Health Security Agency classified the variant as a new variant under investigation, and the Variant Technical Group has designated it as a new variant under investigation with very high priority, he says.

It is the only variant with this designation, Javid says, making it higher priority than Beta.

Updated

'Highly likely' new variant has spread to other countries, Javid says

Further cases have been identified in South Africa and Botswana, he says, and it is highly likely it has now spread to other countries.

Updated

This is a fast-moving situation and there remains a high degree of uncertainty, Javid says.

The sequence of the variant – B.1.1.529 – was first uploaded by Hong Kong from a case of someone travelling from South Africa, he says.

The UK was the first to identify the threat from this new variant and alert international partners, he says.

Updated

No detected cases of new variant in UK yet, Javid says

Over the past 24 hours a small number of cases of a new variant have been detected in the international genomic database, Javid says.

There are no detected cases in the UK at this time, he adds.

But this variant is of huge international concern, he says.

The WHO has called a special meeting this morning which is taking place right now, he says.

Updated

Sajid Javid to give update on new Covid variant

The UK health secretary, Sajid Javid, will deliver a statement to the Commons shortly, giving an update on the B.1.1.529 variant, which experts have called the “most worrying we’ve seen”.

There is a meeting at the World Health Organization (WHO) starting very shortly over the new variant. Here is the statement they have given to the media:

WHO is closely monitoring the recently reported variant B.1.1.529. So far under 100 sequences have been reported. Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study. We are grateful for researchers in South Africa and experts on WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) who are assessing this variant.

WHO is convening a meeting of the TAG-VE today to better understand the timeline for studies that are underway and to determine if this variant should be designated as a variant of interest or variant of concern.

There is no live press conference or anything like that planned at this moment in time, but we are expecting the outcome of the meeting to be shared with the media later today.

Japan imposes travel restrictions on six African nations

Japan will tighten border controls for people arriving from six African nations from midnight. Reuters report that those arriving from South Africa, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Lesotho will be required to undergo a 10-day quarantine period in government-determined accommodation, the chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, told reporters.

Updated

Our community team would like to hear from those travelling or who have plans to travel from countries in the southern African region that has been affected with the sudden imposition of travel bans over the discovery of a new Covid variant. You can find out how to get in touch here: Tell us – how are you affected by the southern Africa Covid travel restrictions?

Germany's health minister calls for 'massive restrictions of contacts' now to avoid further measures

A quick snap from Reuters here with some quotes from Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn. He said the country needs to take decisive action now or else face drastic measures in the coming weeks that could include a complete reduction in contacts between people.

“Everything we don’t decide now, everything we don’t reduce now in terms of contacts, will require even more drastic measures in two or four weeks’ time,” Spahn told a news conference in Berlin.

“That is our appeal: massive restrictions of contacts,” he said, calling for this to be supported by Germany’s regions or else there could be a “complete” reduction, he said, without using the word “lockdown”.

Updated

Israeli PM: 'We are close to an emergency situation' over new Covid variant.

There’s a little bit more detail emerging of the situation in Israel where at least one case of the new B.1.1.529 variant has been detected in a traveller arriving there from Malawi, and the prime minister has said “We are close to an emergency situation”

Naftali Bennett called a meeting on Friday morning with public health officials and his government to take stock of the Covid situation in the country. “We are close to an emergency situation... we must act strongly and quickly,” Bennett said in a statement from his office. “When we have a clearer picture of the situation, we will take decisions accordingly,” he added.

Agence France-Presse remind us that earlier this month Israel held a “war games” style drill to help prepare for the possible emergence of what they termed a lethal “Omega” variant.

Portugal, which has vaccinated 86% of its population, is reintroducing a series of restrictions as cases in the country continue to rise. On Thursday the prime minister, António Costa, announced that from 1 December, face masks would once again be obligatory in enclosed spaces and that a digital certificate showing vaccination or recovery would need to be shown to enter restaurants, hotels and cinemas. All those entering hospitals, care homes, bars, clubs and sports events will need to show a negative test, while those flying into Portugal from abroad will also need a digital certificate or a negative test result.

Catalonia has become the latest Spanish region to decree that Covid passports are now needed to get into bars, restaurants, gyms and care homes. The passports are also in use in Aragón, the Balearic islands, Galicia, Murcia and Navarre, but their specific use varies between regions.

Updated

Health secretary Sajid Javid to make statement on Covid at 11am

It has just been announced that health secretary, Sajid Javid, will make a Commons statement on the latest Covid developments at 11am in the UK Houses of Parliament.

Updated

Travel and aviation shares tumble over new Covid variant fears

Shares in travel and aviation businesses, including the British Airways owner, IAG, easyJet and the aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce plummeted on Friday over fears that a new coronavirus variant described as potentially the worst so far identified could lead to a new wave of global pandemic restrictions.

The emergence of the variant, which was identified on Tuesday and is feared to be more transmissible and poses a threat to current vaccines, prompted the government to put six southern African countries back on England’s travel red list on Thursday night.

Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini are to be suspended from midday on Friday. Officials are also reviewing a number of travel measures, including whether there should be a limited reintroduction of the use of PCR tests for arrivals.

The news prompted a sharp sell-off of travel stocks on Friday, with IAG, which also owns the airline Iberia, tumbling as much as 14% in early trading.

Read more of Mark Sweney’s report here: Travel and aviation shares tumble over new Covid variant fears

Updated

The new coronavirus variant found in South Africa has so far not been identified in Germany or Europe, the head of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute said on Friday, adding that some mutations linked to the variant gave reason for great concern.

“There are other mutations (deriving from the new variant found in South Africa) whose biological composition is unclear. We are in fact very worried,” the RKI president, prof Lothar Wieler, told journalists in a news conference, Reuters report.

“So far, I am not aware that this variant has been identified in Europe or in Germany.”

Updated

Andrew Sparrow has our UK politics live blog for today up and running. He will be mostly focussed for now on the crisis in the relationship between Britain and France.

I’ll be continuing to bring you the latest coronavirus news from the UK and around the world, where the main story is the emergence of a new variant in southern Africa which is causing concern to scientists and sparking a series of travel bans.

Earlier this week Swiss health authorities warned of a rising “fifth wave” in the Alpine country, where vaccination rates are roughly in line with those in hard-hit Austria and Germany — at about two-thirds of the population. Infection rates have soared in recent weeks. The seven-day average case count in Switzerland went up to more than 5,200 per day from mid-October to mid-November, a more than fivefold increase — with an upward curve like those in neighbouring Germany and Austria.

However, federal government has not responded with new restrictive measures. Analysts say it does not want to stir up more opposition to its anti-Covid policies, which face a crucial test at the ballot box this weekend as critics have grown increasingly loud.

On Sunday, as part of the country’s regular referendums, Swiss voters will cast ballots about the so-called “Covid-19 law” that has provided billions of Swiss francs in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic. The law has also imposed the use of a special Covid certificate that lets only people who have been vaccinated, recovered, or tested negative attend public events and gatherings.

The Associated Press suggests in its report that if the Swiss give a thumbs-up on Sunday, that may free the government’s hand to ratchet up its anti-Covid efforts.

The Swiss Federal Council, the seven-member executive branch, went out of its way earlier this week to say: “It’s not the time to decree a tightening of measures nationwide,” while opting for a region-by-region approach and calling on citizens to act responsibly through mask-wearing, physical distancing, and proper airing of indoor areas.

Updated

A quick snap from Reuters that one member of the police forces was injured during violent clashes overnight with protesters on the French island of Martinique, French media reported.

A car burns at a barricade blocking a bridge overnight in Fort-de-France, on Martinique.
A car burns at a barricade blocking a bridge overnight in Fort-de-France, on Martinique. Photograph: Loïc Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Authorities on the Caribbean island of Martinique ordered a curfew on Thursday after protesters looted shops and set up burning barricades as demonstrations against Covid-19 protocols spread across France’s overseas’ territories.

A man walks past closed shops of the normally busy Fort-de-France downtown after unrest triggered by Covid curbs.
A man walks past closed shops of the normally busy Fort-de-France downtown after unrest triggered by Covid curbs. Photograph: Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters

Israel says it has detected a case of the Covid-19 variant first detected in South Africa

Israel has identified a case of a Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations first detected in South Africa, the health ministry said today.

“The variant discovered in southern African states has been identified in Israel,” the ministry said, adding it was recorded “in a person who returned from Malawi”.

Agence France-Presse report that two more cases were detected in “people returning from abroad”, adding that they had been placed in quarantine.

The three people were all vaccinated, the health ministry said, without specifying the number of doses or the type of vaccine.

Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, called a meeting on Friday morning with public health officials and his government to take stock of the Covid situation in the country.

Israel had already late on Thursday placed on its “red list” the southern African nations of Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe because of the discovery of the variant.

Updated

Reuters has an update on the reaction in India to the new variant emerging in southern Africa. India issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other “at risk” countries amid concerns over a new coronavirus variant, after easing some of its travel restrictions earlier this month.

The federal health ministry said reports of mutations in the new variant, identified as B.1.1.529, had “serious public health implications”.

“This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel,” the health secretary, Rajesh Bhushan, said in a letter to states late last night.

While some major Asian countries rushed to tighten border controls and restrict travellers, India had not yet issued a notification, a senior government source said.

“This has not been studied fully by ministry of health,” the source told Reuters, declining to be identified.

Updated

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), which advises the UK government, said it was “very, very early days” in understanding the new variant and whether it may affect vaccines, whether it spreads more rapidly or is more deadly.

He earlier told BBC Breakfast: “I think there’s been fewer than 100 confirmed cases in South Africa and elsewhere so far, so it is concerning, but really important that we gather as much information as possible right now so we really understand exactly how concerned we should be.”

PA Media reports he said South Africa could see a rapid spread in cases owing to the fact only 24% of the population are fully vaccinated.

Addressing people in the UK, he said: “The message really isn’t changed ... it is still important that people do go out, continue to get their vaccines, continue to get their boosters because it still will provide us with protection.”

He said the key thing for the UK was whether the variant would send the reproductive value (the R) significantly above one, or would potentially lead to higher numbers of hospital admissions.

He said then the government would need to look at taking action but added: “There’s an awful lot of ifs at the moment and all of these needs to be clarified before I think we get there and actually think about what might be happening if we start seeing a growing number of cases in the UK.”

Updated

There is a press briefing coming out from the World Health Organization (WHO) at the moment, and tit says:

  • It will convene an experts meeting at noon in Geneva today over the B.1.1.159 variant.
  • It will evaluate whether this new variant is a “variant of interest” or a “variant of concern”.
  • It declined to make any comment on the rapid imposition of travel bans for people coming from the southern African region where the variant has taken hold.

It is a while since the WHO last designated a “variant of concern”. So far there are four, named Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. There are currently two “variants of interest” – Lambda and Mu. If B.1.1.159 is named today it will become Nu.

As a reminder here are the definitions of those terms:

Variant of interest (VOI) – a SARS-CoV-2 variant with genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape; and that has been identified to cause significant community transmission or multiple Covid-19 clusters, in multiple countries.

Variant of concern (VOC) – a SARS-CoV-2 variant that meets the definition of a VOI and, through a comparative assessment, has been demonstrated to be associated with one or more of the following changes at a degree of global public health significance:

  • Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; OR
  • Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; OR
  • Decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.

Updated

Italy imposes ban on entry from seven southern African states

Italy has also imposed an entry ban on people who have visited a group of southern African states in the last 14 days, due to the spread of a new Covid-19 variant there.

Reuters reports a statement said the Italian health minister, Roberto Speranza, has signed an executive order banning entry by people who have visited South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini in the last fortnight.

“Our scientists are studying the new B.1.1.529 variant. In the meantime, we will adopt the greatest possible caution,” Speranza said.

Updated

Czech Republic latest country to apply travel ban to southern African states over new variant

A quick snap from Reuters that the Czech Republic is the latest country to ban travel from South Africa and other southern African countries to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus variant, foreign minister Jakub Kulhanek has said.

The ban which will take effect on Saturday, applies for third country citizens who spent more than 12 hours in the past two weeks in South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia.

Prof James Naismith: new variant is 'bad news but it is not doomsday'

There’s a lot of speculation on the airwaves in the UK about the new variant detected in South Africa which is already causing global concern. Prof James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme the new variant will “almost certainly” make the vaccines less effective, while also conceding that there is a lot we don’t know. PA Media quote him saying:

It has mutations consistent with the Delta variant, which does spread more quickly, but transmissibility and spread is not just as simple as this amino acid does this or this does that, it’s more like a team on things. So you can sometimes have the mutations all together but they won’t be effective as a team. It looks like it spreads more quickly but we do not know that.

If it spreads more quickly then yes it will get here [to the UK], the travel ban will delay its arrival but if it spreads more quickly the lesson has surely been from all the variants we’ve seen before that it will get here eventually.

We shouldn’t despair, vaccines will be effective, so if you haven’t had your vaccine go and get it, be that the booster, the first dose, the second dose.

Secondly there are new medicines coming along. These will not be affected almost certainly by this mutation. We have got much better at controlling the disease in other ways in hospital so it is bad news but it is not doomsday.

Incidentally, we have a quick Q&A about the new variant, which may potentially end up being dubbed the Nu variant by the World Health Organization. Here’s one of the key bits of information from it:

B.1.1.529 has a very unusual constellation of mutations, which are worrying because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists have said. Any new variant that is able to evade vaccines or spread faster than the now-dominant Delta variant might pose a significant threat as the world emerges from the pandemic.

Senior scientists on Thursday evening described B.1.1.529 as the worst variant they had seen since the start of the pandemic. It has 32 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that most vaccines use to prime the immune system against Covid. That is about double the number associated with the Delta variant. Mutations in the spike protein can affect the virus’s ability to infect cells and spread, but also make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen.

Read more here: What do we know about the new ‘worst ever’ Covid variant?

In the UK it is transport secretary Grant Shapps who has been doing the media round for the government, and naturally he is being asked a lot about the new variant that has been detected in South Africa. PA Media quote him on Sky News saying:

It is important to make sure that you do act immediately and in doing so you get to slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country.

That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome, which involves growing cultures - it takes several weeks to do - so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is.

It is a safety-first approach. We have done that before with things like the mink variant from Denmark and we were then able to relax it reasonably quickly.

Hungary needs to increase the number of people taking booster shots against COVID-19 to curb infections, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told state radio this morning.

Reuters report that Orbán said the government would extend a special campaign making vaccinations available without any prior registration to next week following a surge in Covid-19 cases.

He said he would “not exclude anything” but that if the spread of the virus can be curbed with vaccines then there will not be a need for lockdown measures.

Orban said the government would make vaccines available to parents if they want their children aged between 5 and 11 be vaccinated, and has ordered 2 million doses for this purpose, with the first shipment coming next month.

Thursday’s data showed 5.81 million people, or just under 60% of the population, have been fully vaccinated, while 2.15 million have received booster shots.

Hungary has made booster shots mandatory for healthcare workers and protective mask wearing has again been required in most indoor places since Saturday. But the changes fall short of the strict measures urged by Hungarian doctors as hospitals are filling up.

Germany to declare South Africa a 'virus variant area', restrict travel

Germany will declare South Africa a virus variant area later today after the detection of a new Covid-19 variant there, a health ministry source said.

The decision, which will come into effect from tonight, will mean airlines will be allowed to fly only Germans to Germany from South Africa, according to the Reuters source. Returning Germans, even those who are vaccinated, will then have to spend 14 days in quarantine.

“This newly discovered variant worries us. That is why we are acting pro-actively and early here,” health minister Jens Spahn said. “The last thing we need now is a new variant being introduced that causes even more problems.”

Indonesia has significantly recovered from a mid-year outbreak of coronavirus cases and deaths that was one of the worst in the region, but with its vaccination drive stalling due to logistical challenges and other issues, and with holidays approaching, experts and officials warn the island nation could soon face another surge.

Associated Press report that the world’s fourth most populous nation is only 33% fully vaccinated and 16% partially.

Most vaccinations have been distributed in the more urban areas on the archipelago nation’s biggest islands of Java and Bali, while many on smaller, more rural islands — where health care systems are often rudimentary and the population tends to be older — have not been reached, said Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist and academic adviser to the government.

As more people travel back to these areas over the holidays, there is a greater risk the virus will spread to those populations, some of which have been partially protected by their isolation, he said.

“It will not be as bad as what we saw in July and August, but if we maybe look at the first wave, in January 2020, maybe it will be similar due to their vulnerability,” he said.

Because Indonesia started early with its vaccination program, there’s also more likelihood that the effectiveness is now waning, he said. Boosters are planned but probably will not begin until early 2022.

The government is urging people to avoid travel if they can and has increased restrictions in all provinces over Christmas and New Year’s, but some 20 million people are still expected to vacation on the popular islands of Java and Bali over the holidays.

Prof Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said more needs to be learned about a new variant of the virus which causes Covid-19 to assess the threat it poses, but that new restrictions could not be ruled out.

PA Media report he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that a jump in cases in South Africa could be linked to the variant’s enhanced transmissibility. “We now need to wait and see just what kind of threat this new variant may pose,” he said. “If we’re lucky, it won’t be a serious one, but it could be very serious.”

As you can probably imagine, the questioning immediately turned to “What about Christmas?”

He said “On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions,” he said.

South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe have been put on England’s travel red list, and officials are reviewing a number of travel measures including whether there should be a limited reintroduction of the use of PCR tests for arrivals.

Prof Finn said sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.

If you haven’t read it yet, then here is the latest news on the detection of a new variant in South Africa that has been concerning authorities:

The World Health Organization will meet on Friday to assess a new variant detected in South Africa that is feared to be the worst Covid-19 variant yet identified.

The meeting will determine if the B.1.1.529 variant should be designated a variant of “interest” or of “concern”. The variant, which was identified on Tuesday, initially attracted attention because it carries an “extremely high number” of mutations.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said in a press briefing on Thursday: “We don’t know very much about this [variant] yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”

The infectious disease epidemiologist said that researchers would meet to “understand where these mutations are and what this potentially may mean” in terms of whether it is more transmissible or has potential to evade immunity.

A high number of mutations does not necessarily make a variant more transmissible. In August, similar concerns emerged about a variant in South Africa, known as C.1.2, but it was never listed as a variant of interest or concern. At the meeting the WHO may decide whether or not to give the B.1.1.529 variant a name from the Greek alphabet. If it does, it is likely to be named Nu, the next available letter.

Read more here: WHO to assess new highly mutated Covid-19 variant as countries ramp up health checks

Hello, it is Martin Belam here in London taking over from my colleague Samantha Lock in Sydney. First off, here is a quick reminder of where we stand in the UK with the latest coronavirus numbers. The UK has recorded 303,504 new cases of Covid in the last week.

Those case numbers are up by 9.5% week-on-week. Deaths are down by 14.8% on the previous week, and the number of patients being admitted to hospital is also trending downwards – 11.4% fewer than the previous week.

Japan is now the latest country to tighten border controls for visitors from South Africa and five other African countries, as per a Jiji news service report.

India also issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen travellers from the African nation and other “at risk” countries earlier on Friday.

South Africa’s foreign ministry said Britain’s decision to ban flights from South Africa because of the detection of a new Covid-19 variant “seems to have been rushed” as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps, Reuters reports.

“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement, adding South Africa would engage with British authorities to try to get them to reconsider their decision.

Singapore will restrict arrivals from south Africa and countries nearby in an effort to keep out a new Covid-19 variant, its health ministry said in a statement on Friday.

All non-Singaporean or non-permanent residents with recent travel history to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe will be denied entry or transit through Singapore, it said.

The additional border restrictions will apply for four weeks, after which the ministry will review and extend the restrictions if necessary.

Opening summary

Welcome back to our global Covid live coverage.

I’m Samantha Lock and I’ll be with you to report on all things coronavirus.

News of the recently identified B.1.1.529 variant has raised concern among scientists and world leaders, with the WHO set to assess its severity and potential impact in a meeting today.

Indian health officials on Friday put states on alert, asking them to carry out “rigorous screening and testing” of travellers who had arrived from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, and to trace and test their contacts.

Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan urged all states to ensure that samples from Covid-positive travellers be swiftly sent to genome sequencing labs for testing.

China is continuing to pursue its strict Covid-zero policy in light of three new cases detected in the city of Shanghai.

Hundreds of flights have been cancelled while some schools were shuttered and tour groups suspended, AFP reports. Six Shanghai hospitals have also suspended outpatient services.

  • Germany reports another 76,414 Covid cases and 357 deaths, according to data released from the Robert Koch Institute.
  • The Netherlands is set to tighten its partial lockdown today to curb soaring Covid cases. Prime minister Mark Rutte is expected to announce new anti-Covid measures which could include closing bars, restaurants and non-essential shops. Police are preparing for possible new riots against the restrictions.
  • Portugal is set to bring back Covid vaccination certificates for public spaces including bars, hotels, restaurants and gyms and once again make face masks compulsory indoors, reports Reuters.
  • China sees another Covid-19 outbreak with 6 cases in 3 cities in single day after a dinner with friends reportedly led to infections in Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou, all in the country’s east. The source of the fresh outbreak is still being traced, the South China Morning Post reports.
  • Hong Kong and Chinese authorities said a meeting on Thursday moved them closer to partially reopening the border between them. Hong Kong’s government said: “Good progress was made in the meeting on exploring the resumption of quarantine-free travel between the mainland and Hong Kong in a gradual and orderly manner.”
  • Australia’s border is set to remain open to South Africa despite emergence of new Covid variant. Australia’s health minister, Greg Hunt, said officials were assessing the threat posed by the strain and would not yet introduce restrictions on arrivals from southern Africa.
  • South Korean health authorities said a fetus has died of Covid-19 in the first case in the country, Yonhap news reports. A 24-week pregnant woman delivered the stillborn baby Monday, four days after being confirmed to have been infected with Covid-19, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
  • India’s daily Covid cases rose by 10,549 and deaths by 488, the nation’s health ministry said.
  • France says it plans to give Covid booster shots to all adults but has opted against a further lockdown or curfew to help combat an uptick in infections in the country.
  • Ministers are urging millions of Britons to get their Covid booster jab by 11 December to ensure they have “very high protection against Covid by Christmas Day” as new evidence shows the risk of infection increases with the time since the second dose.
  • Coronavirus cases are continuing to rise in the UK, recording 47,240 new cases, and 147 more people died. Yesterday there were 43,676 new cases and 149 deaths.
  • Brazil registered 303 Covid deaths on Thursday and 12,126 additional cases, according to data released by the nation’s health ministry.
  • Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are launching new features to encourage people to get their coronavirus booster jabs. From Friday, users will be able to update their profiles with frames or stickers to show that they have had their top-up jab or aim to when they become eligible.

Updated

Contributors

Samantha Lock (now); Harry Taylor , Lucy Campbell and Martin Belam (earlier)

The GuardianTramp

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