Portuguese decision comes amid concern high case load could paralyse country; Welsh government helps out Westminster with test loan.
France reports over 200,000 new daily cases for second day in a row
France reported 206,243 new confirmed Covid cases in a 24-hour period on Thursday, a tally above 200,000 for the second day running.
The record of 208,099 was set just the day before, on Wednesday, as the health minister, Oliver Véran, warned of a “tsunami” of infections.
At the beginning of December, there were fewer than 50,000 daily cases. One month before that, the daily data broke the 10,000 threshold for the first time since mid-September.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people should avoid cruise travel regardless of vaccination status, following a rise in onboard Covid cases, in a major blow to the industry that has been ravaged by the pandemic.
The CDC on Thursday raised its Covid travel health notice level for cruise ships to 4, its highest warning level.
“Even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk for getting and spreading Covid-19 variants,” the health agency said. With several cruise ships already on the seas, the CDC said the passengers should get tested three to five days after their trip ends, and self-monitor for Covid symptoms for 14 days.
The CDC has investigated or started an investigation into Covid cases on more than 85 ships already. It had eased its warnings for cruises by a notch from the highest level in June after cases had eased.
As New Year’s Eve approaches, further changes are being made to coronavirus measures in different UK nations. Both Wales and Northern Ireland have announced a cut to self-isolation rules, the same as has been introduced in England.
The PA news agency has broken down how Covid measures currently compare in the four nations.
On Thursday, it was announced the self-isolation period for confirmed Covid-19 cases will be reduced in Northern Ireland from 10 days to seven in line with England. The new rule will be subject to negative lateral flow tests on days six and seven, will apply retrospectively and take effect from Friday.
It has already been announced that nightclubs will be closed on New Year’s Eve, while dancing will also be prohibited in hospitality venues. This will not apply to weddings. People must remain seated for table service, while table numbers will be limited to six.
Ministers have also agreed that sporting events can continue with no limits on capacity, while the work-from-home message is being bolstered and legislation introduced to require social distancing in offices and similar workplaces. The guidance is for mixing in a domestic setting to be limited to three households.
The first minister, Paul Givan, said on Thursday following a virtual meeting of the Stormont executive that no further restrictions would be introduced at this time, but that the executive would continue to assess the data as more information emerged.
The Welsh government also announced on Thursday that the mandatory isolation period for people who test positive with Covid-19 will drop from 10 days to seven, subject to two negative lateral flow tests on days six and seven. Initially the new rule was to be introduced on 5 January, but it will now come into force on Friday.
Current rules in Wales state groups of no more than six people are allowed to meet in pubs, cinemas and restaurants. Licensed premises can offer table service only, face masks will have to be worn and contact tracing details collected, and 2-metre social distancing rules are in place. Nightclubs have been closed since Boxing Day and there is a requirement to work from home wherever possible. A maximum of 30 people can attend indoor events and a maximum of 50 people at outdoor events.
People attending weddings or civil partnership receptions or wakes are also being told to take a lateral flow test before attending.
Events have 1-metre social distancing and are limited to 100 people standing indoors, 200 people sitting indoors and 500 people outdoors. One-metre physical distancing is in place in all indoor hospitality and leisure settings. Table service is also required where alcohol is being served.
Since 14 December, people have been asked to reduce their social contact as much as possible by meeting in groups of no more than three households. Allowing staff to work from home where possible has become a legal duty on employers. Care home visits have also been limited to two households.
On Monday, it was announced that no further coronavirus restrictions would be imposed in England until the new year, meaning the country has the most relaxed rules in the UK.
However, Covid passes for entry into nightclubs and other venues have been in place as of 15 December. This applies to indoor events with 500 or more attendees where people are likely to stand or move around, such as music venues, certain outdoor events, such as music festivals, and any events with 10,000 or more attendees.
Face coverings have also been made compulsory in most indoor public settings, as well as on public transport, and people have been told to work from home if they can.
If a person in England has tested positive or has symptoms, they can stop self-isolating after seven days instead of 10 days if they receive two negative lateral flow test results on days six and seven. Those who are unvaccinated close contacts of positive cases must still isolate for 10 days.
England’s guidance is that people should work from home if they can. Anyone who cannot work from home should continue to go in to work but is encouraged to consider taking lateral flow tests regularly.
There were winners and losers as work patterns transformed during the pandemic – and perhaps forever – with repercussions for city centres and society as a whole. My colleague Joanna Partridge reports:
Welsh government comes to Westminster’s aid with 4m lateral flow tests
The Welsh government has come to the aid of Westminster by lending England 4m lateral flow tests, as ministers scramble to secure supplies from around the world.
There has been a surge in demand for Covid tests as people try to comply with advice to limit the spread of the Omicron variant by ensuring they do not have the virus before socialising.
But by 9am on Thursday, home delivery slots for lateral flow tests were unavailable on the gov.uk website. Pharmacies have also complained about patchy supplies of lateral flow kits.
The Welsh government has agreed to loan four million more tests to the NHS in England, bringing the total the country has given England to a total of 10 million.
The first minister, Mark Drakeford, said:
Wales has a significant stock of lateral flow tests, sufficient to meet our needs over the weeks ahead.
In a letter to MPs, the health secretary Sajid Javid said the supply of lateral flow devices (LFDs) was being tripled in January and February from a pre-Omicron plan of 100m to 300m a month.
“To respond to anticipated demand over the coming few weeks we are buying hundreds of millions more LFD tests, bringing new products on board and accelerating their deployment to the public,” he said.
But “in light of the huge demand for LFDs seen over the last three weeks, we expect to need to constrain the system at certain points over the next two weeks to manage supply over the course of each day, with new tranches of supply released regularly throughout each day”.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, previously urged people in England heading out for New Year’s Eve festivities on Friday to get tested.
Prof Peter Openshaw, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said the conditions at a New Year’s Eve gathering were “perfect” for spreading coronavirus.
The UK Health Security Agency said on Wednesday that 8m lateral flow test kits would be made available to pharmacies by New Year’s Eve.
Russia Covid death toll climbs to world’s second highest
Russia has overtaken Brazil to have the world’s second-highest death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, behind the United States, data from Russia’s state statistics service and Reuters calculations showed on Thursday.
The statistics service, Rosstat, said 87,527 people had died from Covid-related causes in November, making it the deadliest month in Russia since the start of the pandemic.
Russia’s overall pandemic death toll reached 658,634, according to Reuters calculations based on Rosstat figures up to the end of November and data from the coronavirus task force for December, overtaking Brazil, which has recorded 618,800 deaths.
The death toll in the United States is higher, at 825,663 people, according to a Reuters tally, but its population is more than twice as big as Russia’s.
Reuters calculations also showed Russia recorded more than 835,000 excess deaths since the beginning of the outbreak in April 2020 to the end of November, compared to average mortality in 2015-2019.
Some epidemiologists say that calculating excess deaths is the best way to assess the true impact of a pandemic.
So far, Russia’s death toll has not been affected by the Omicron variant and was mostly caused by a surge of infections in October and November, which health authorities blamed on the Delta variant and a slow vaccination campaign.
On Thursday, Russian authorities ordered hospitals to get prepared for a possible surge in Covid cases.
Germany announced it would in early January lift strict travel rules introduced amid fears over the Omicron variant, AFP reports.
All countries currently listed in the “virus variant” category, including the UK and several southern African nations, will be reclassified as “high risk” from 4 January, said government health agency, the Robert Koch Institute.
The change eases a ban on entry for travellers who are not German residents or citizens, instead allowing anyone to enter as long as they observe quarantine and testing rules.
Germany introduced its “virus variant” travel category in a bid to stop new variants that have not yet spread widely on its territory.
Only citizens and residents of Germany are permitted to enter from a “virus variant” country and are subject to a two-week quarantine, regardless of whether they are fully vaccinated or can provide a negative Covid test.
By contrast, anyone can enter from a high-risk country as long as they provide a negative test on arrival.
Travellers from high-risk areas are exempt from quarantine if they have been fully vaccinated.
Germany has so far recorded 16,748 cases of Omicron but the real number is thought to be much higher due to delays in reporting over the Christmas period.
The health minister, Karl Lauterbach, said on Wednesday that he expects a significant rise in the number of Omicron cases in Germany within “in a few weeks”.
Scotland’s health secretary has admitted the country is likely to miss its target of getting 80% of the eligible population boosted by the end of December, despite a concerted effort to promote the booster programme.
Humza Yousaf told BBC Scotland an “exceptionally high” number of people would need to come forward for their booster or third vaccinations in the final hours before New Year’s Day to hit the 80% target.
He estimated that on Thursday morning the government was 120,000 people short of that target despite repeated calls on Scots to get “boosted by the bells” – a reference to the bells that traditionally ring out at midnight on 31 December to welcome in the new year.
Our target was always to get to as close to 80% as we possibly could, we could get to 80% because the capacity is absolutely there, it will really be dependent on how many people come forward today and tomorrow.
NHS Scotland data published at 2pm on Thursday showed that 2,944,977 booster or third vaccinations had been administered in Scotland, and the daily figures suggest the rate has slowed down during the Christmas holidays.
Yousaf urged those who had not yet been boosted to book appointments in January, to continue the programme. He said there was plenty of capacity. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, told MSPs on Wednesday some people had missed appointments because they had either caught Covid or were self-isolating as close contacts.
When the target of boosting nearly all UK adults by the end of December was first set by Boris Johnson, the prime minister, on 12 December, Yousaf had been quite sceptical it could be achieved.
He said it would prove “extremely challenging” and would require diverting NHS staff to vaccination clinics, calling in military support and using trainee doctors and private firms to achieve it. Several days later Sturgeon said the revised target was to give 80% of eligible adults a booster by New Year’s Day.
Wales shortens self-isolation period from 10 to seven days
The number of people with Covid in hospitals in Wales has increased to 446 – 49% higher than last week, the Welsh government has said.
It has also announced that from Friday, people who have tested positive for Covid will have to isolate for seven rather than 10 days to help get people in critical jobs back to work.
In a written statement, the first minister, Mark Drakeford, said the public health situation in Wales had deteriorated with the seven-day case rate at more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people across Wales. Cases are highest among 20- to 39-year-olds.
The first minister said hospitalisations remained lower than in previous waves, but these too are starting to increase. However, Wales is not seeing a rise in the number of patients with Covid-19 needing critical care.
Drakeford said Wales had a “significant stock of lateral flow tests, sufficient to meet our needs over the weeks ahead” and was loaning millions of tests to England.
On the isolation rules, Drakeford said: