A new strain of coronavirus has been identified – and it could be driving the spread of Covid in the south east of England, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.

All London boroughs and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will go into the toughest Tier 3 restrictions from one minute past midnight on Wednesday following “very sharp, exponential rises” in cases.

Bringing forward a scheduled review of the English tier system today, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs that cases involving the new variant were “increasing rapidly”, with analysis suggesting it is growing faster than the existing strain.

In some areas, Covid rates are doubling every seven days and in all age groups.

However, experts have been quick to point out that viruses like those behind Covid-19 are known to evolve and mutate over time.

“This is to be expected, SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus and these viruses mutate and change.” Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome and a member of Sage said in response to the findings.

While full significance of this variant is not yet clear – and this includes “whether a new strain is responsible for the current rise of infections in parts of the UK” – he warned against complacency. 

“This is potentially serious; the surveillance and research must continue and we must take the necessary steps to stay ahead of the virus,” he said.

Prof Whitty, who appeared at the Downing Street Press conference this evening, also said we don’t know if the new strain of Covid-19 is getting more frequent because it’s in a part of the country where the rate of increase is faster anyway.

He also added that there is “no evidence that the symptoms are any worse or different with this variant”.

Story continues

​Follow the latest updates below.

07:05 PMVaccine one of the ‘keys to unlock the door’ to end of pandemic: Fenton

Prof Kevin Fenton, Public Health England’s (PHE) regional director for London, closes the press conference by encouraging Londoners to take up the vaccine.

He says he knows many Londoners have questions about the vaccine but he say it is “highly effective” and PHE are working to educate different communities to ensure everyone has the information they need.

He says the vaccine is one of the “keys to unlock the door to the end of this pandemic” and he would encourage all Londoners to take up the opportunity of the vaccine “when they are able to”.

07:03 PMWe may never know about some variants: Whitty

Asked again about the new variant of coronavirus, Prof Chris Whitty says the virus will “continue to produce mutations over time”, adding that many of these will die out, some will be neutral, and some will have new properties.

Many of them we may never know about, he says.

He says, in the long run, there may be an issue that new variants will evolve which are less affected by vaccines. He says this may mean we have to re-vaccinate over time, like we do with flu.

06:58 PMChristmas not about ‘doing the maximum that the rules allow’

Asked about the scientific modelling around the size of the rise in infections to expect from Christmas mixing, Matt Hancock said “it all depends on people’s behaviour”. 

He said: “The most important thing is that people are cautious and careful ahead of Christmas, and during Christmas, and hence we’re saying that so clearly.

“And I think it’s, certainly from talking to people, the response I get, this is how most people are thinking about Christmas, as a time yes, to see loved ones who we may not have been able to see for a long time, but to do so, really carefully.

“So it isn’t about, you know, doing the maximum that the rules allow, it’s about taking personal responsibility.”

“The key thing is people have just got to be sensible,” Proff Whitty adds as he calls for people to follow a “minimalist, responsible” Christmas.

Our Global Health editor has summed up the feeling in the room over on Twitter: 

I suspect most people would actually like Hancock and Whitty to say: Do not have any relatives outside your immediate household visit at Chrismas, call them on Christmas day instead #Covid_19

— Paul Nuki (@PaulNuki) December 14, 2020

06:56 PMDoes the new Covid variant trigger the same symptoms?

Prof Whitty has confirmed that there is “no evidence that the symptoms are any worse or different with this variant”.

He says the main reason “we are bringing it to people’s attention” is because it appears to be spreading more quickly. But he insists that the variant is not the reason behind putting more areas into tier three.

Matt Hancock says it is “a tribute to British science and in particular the support that has gone into genomics that we are in a position to identify this strain”.

06:49 PMUnclear whether variant is liked to rise in cases: Whitty

Prof Whitty has said we don’t know if the new strain of Covid-19 is getting more frequent because it’s in a part of the country where the rate of increase is faster anyway

However there is there’s “no evidence” that it is more transmittable or more dangerous. 

“It would be surprising, not impossible, but pretty surprising” if this variant would actually have evolved to be able to get around the vaccine, he says.

As time goes by, with any infection, the new variants that emerge are more likely to be ones that are able to escape from a vaccine, he says.

But there’s no reason to think that’s happening now and that is being tested at the moment at Porton Down, he adds.

06:45 PMShould London have been put in Tier 3 earlier?

Prof Whitty has said there is no perfect time to reassess the tiers as he commented on whether London should have been put into Tier 3 earlier.

“Go too late and too light, and the virus takes off,” he said.

“Go too early and you damage large numbers of social and economic activities without huge benefits.

“The idea of perfection, when you’re choosing between two bad situations, I think should be avoided – there isn’t a perfect time.”

Asked about whether the current tier system is fit for purpose, Prof Whitty says parts of northern England and the Midlands have seen their rates come down and stay down using measures similar to tier three, while he says many others have managed to “hold the line” in tier two.

However, he says in London the situation has “escalated” and it’s “now clearly a time to move” to tier three.

06:44 PMHancock refuses to answer on whether Christmas relaxation of Covid rules would be re-assessed

The Health Secretary sidestepped a question from Sky News’ Sam Coates, on whether there were any circumstances in which the Christmas relaxation of Covid rules would be re-assessed.

Matt Hancock said: “Our messages around Christmas are really clear. We understand why people want to see their loved ones, especially at this time of year, especially after this year.

“But it must be done in a way that is careful and responsible, and I think people understand that too.

“If you are planning to meet up with loved ones at Christmas, then being careful now, two weeks ahead, making sure you minimise the chance of both catching the disease and passing it on is the right thing to do – actually, that’s the right thing to do all the time.”

06:35 PM’Christmas is a period of greater risk’: Whitty

Matt Hancock says he understands why people want to see their loved ones at Christmas, but that must be done in a way that is “careful and responsible”.

“It is no secret that Christmas is a period of greater risk,” Prof Whitty has said.

“But, at the same time, what we have to try to do, all of us as society, is trying to find this really difficult balance between doing things that are the least damaging we can achieve, whilst keeping the virus under control – walking that really narrow path.”

06:27 PMWill there be another lockdown after Christmas?

A member of the public has asked if England will have a ‘firebreak’ style lockdown in January. He also asks how the government will support hospitals to deal with the extra pressure

Matt Hancock urges people to be “careful and cautious, especially ahead of Christmas”.

In terms of protecting hospitals, he says the government will be reviewing the tier system to determine “which areas should be in which tiers so we can keep this virus under control”.

Prof Whitty repeats the call for people to be “very careful” and warns that the period after Christmas could be “extremely difficult for every area of A&E”.

06:25 PMNo evidence vaccine affects fertility: Whitty

Responding to a question about whether the new coronavirus vaccine can have an effect on fertility, Proff Whitty said: 

There “no current evidence” of an impact on fertility from any of the vaccines and he says it would be “quite surprising” if they did so.

“This is not an area that people should be concerned about at this point in time,” he says.

He points out that the vaccine is currently being rolled out to elderly people – who will not be thinking about fertility – and the focus is on getting these groups vaccinated.

06:18 PMRises in infections ‘in a number of London boroughs’

The camera turns to Prof Kevin Fenton, Public Health England’s regional director for London, who says cases in the city and surrounding area are worryingly high.

“This is a pivotal moment for London and the south east of England,” he says, and “quick and decisive action is needed”.

He says there is a “strong connection” in the increases in London and the south east so it “really is important” that officials work together across the region.

He says there were initially increases in infection rates especially in the north east of the capital – which is connected to Essex – and the south east, which is connected to Kent.

“But more recently we are seeing exponential rises in a number of boroughs across the city, and this is of concern,” he says.

06:17 PMUptick in cases not yet fed through into hospitals: Whitty

Chris Whitty leads on the slides.

He points to the number of Covid-19 patients in hospitals across England. 

“This up tick (in new cases) has not yet fed through the hospitals,” he says, but the consequences will soon be felt over the next week or 10 days.

Already the rise in cases is “putting some pressure on the some hospitals and considerable pressure on others. And this will leads inexorably not only to more Covid deaths , but it also leads importantly to displacing other health activity,” he warns.

06:10 PMSpread of Covid-19 uneven: Hancock

Once again, the spread of this disease is not even across the country, he says.

As we already know, there have been sharp rises in South Wales, London, Kent, Essex, and parts of the Eastern southeast of England.

“This rise has been amongst people of all age groups, not just school aged children. And I’m particularly concerned about the rising rates in the over 60s, and the number of people in hospital, which is also rising,” he says.

“We’ve seen it time and time again elsewhere this year, when cases rise pressure on hospitals mounts. And so to then, sadly, to the number of people who die from coronavirus.”

“Stop this, we need to act fast,” he adds.

06:08 PMAverage daily cases on the rise: Hancock

Fresh from the Commons, Matt Hancock begins the Downing Street briefing by going through the numbers. 

The UK has seen a 14% increase in cases in the last week, he says.

Today the UK reported 18,023 new cases.

“Which is up on last week,” he says. There are also “16,531 Covid patients in hospitals across the UK, which is also up.” 

Sadly, 420 deaths have been reported today, he adds.

06:02 PMSweden records all-time high of Covid-19 hospital patients

Sweden, known for its soft-touch response to the coronavirus pandemic, recorded an all-time high on Monday for patients being treated in hospital for Covid-19, according to a calculation by the country’s state broadcaster.

Swedish Television (SVT) reported that a total of 2,389 patients, including those in intensive care, were receiving hospital treatment for the disease on Monday, 65 more people than on April 20, when the previous high was recorded.

SVT said three of Sweden’s 21 regions had not provided updated COVID-19 statistics on Monday and that it had used the last reported figures for those regions. The National Board of Health and Welfare, responsible for compiling health statistics could not immediately confirm the calculation.

Unlike most European nations, Sweden has shunned masks and official lockdowns, instead focusing on voluntary measures including social distancing and good hygiene.

Sweden has so far registered more than 7,500 deaths, a much higher per capita rate than its Nordic neighbours but lower than in several other European countries, including Britain, Italy, Spain, France and Belgium, which opted for lockdowns.

05:47 PMJump in US medical school applications ‘due to Fauci effect’

Even as applications to US universities fall, applications to medical schools are increasing significantly, college admissions officials say.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the number of applicants has risen 18 per cent over last year.

“It’s unprecedented,” the organisation’s Geoffrey Young told National Public Radio, comparing the spike to the high number of applications to the US military in the days after 9/11.

Medical schools say the rise could be attributed to public health officials, such as top US disease expert Anthony Fauci, who have emerged as heroes during the pandemic.

They are even referring to the phenomenon as the “Fauci effect”, according to US media.

Dr Fauci, who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for generations and is on the White House coronavirus taskforce, told NPR that he finds the label “very flattering”.

“If it works to get more young individuals into medical school, go ahead and use my name. Be my guest.”

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci – ERIC BARADAT / AFP05:44 PMShould we be worried about the potential new strain?

This is what one of the UK’s leading scientists and a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had to say on the news.

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, said:  

“While research is ongoing, there is evidence to indicate a new variant of the Covid-19 virus. There have been many mutations in the virus since it emerged in 2019. This is to be expected, SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus and these viruses mutate and change. 

“The full significance of this is not yet clear – that includes whether a new strain is responsible for the current rise of infections in parts of the UK and, if so, what this may or may not mean for transmission and the efficacy of the first vaccines and treatments. This is potentially serious; the surveillance and research must continue and we must take the necessary steps to stay ahead of the virus.”

05:37 PMFrance reports 3,063 new cases

France has reported 3,063 new Covid-19 infections over the past 24 hours, sharply down from Sunday’s 11,533, but the number of people hospitalised for the disease went up for the third day running.

Case numbers have tended to dip on Mondays as there are fewer tests conducted on Sundays. The seven-day moving average of new infections averaging out weekly data reporting irregularities stood at 12,001, declining for the first time in 10 days.

The number of people in France who have died from Covid-19 infections rose by 371 to 58,282, up from 150 on Sunday. The cumulative number of cases in France now totals 2,379,915, the fifth-highest in the world.

05:23 PMSpanish scientists start trial on inhalable Covid-19 vaccine

Spanish scientists are preparing to start clinical trials of a Covid-19 vaccine nasal spray that they say could stop the spread of the virus as well as prevent people from falling ill. 

The vaccines that are currently available or close to approval, including the leading Pfizer/BioNTech jab, are all administered via injection, and while they are effective at preventing disease in someone who is infected with the virus, it is not yet clear if they stop people transmitting it.

The Spanish team is one of a handful across the world working on nasal sprays as a means of delivering a vaccine.

The theory is that inhalable vaccines activate the local immune response in the nose, mouth and throat and therefore stem infection here, making it less likely for people to pass the virus on.

The vaccine would also deliver the wider systemic immunity that is delivered by any other candidate, the scientists say.

James Badcock and Anne Gulland have the full story.

05:21 PMItaly reports 491 Covid-19 deaths on Monday

Italy reported 491 coronavirus-related deaths on Monday against 484 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections declined to 12,030 from 17,938.

There were 103,584 swabs carried out in the past day, down sharply from a previous 152,697, the ministry said.

The first Western country hit by the virus, Italy has seen 65,011 Covid-19 fatalities since its outbreak emerged in February, the highest toll in Europe and the fifth highest in the world.

It has also registered 1.856 million cases to date.

05:16 PMNot possible for hospitals to reduce social distancing measures: Hancock

In case you missed it: Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons it is not possible for hospitals to return beds which were removed for social distancing purposes at the moment.

Conservative former minister Harriett Baldwin asked if hospitals could “add more capacity as the vaccine rollout is completed” as many have had to remove beds to increase the space between patients.

Mr Hancock replied: “I certainly hope so, that’s one of the things that we’re talking about the NHS.

“For now, that isn’t possible. We, of course, have extra emergency capacity in the Nightingales.”

05:15 PMHospitals in Wales ‘nearly full’ due to Covid, NHS director says

Hospitals in Wales are almost full due to a surge in the number of patients with coronavirus, the director of the Welsh NHS Confederation has said.

Darren Hughes warned that more hospitals around the country could soon suspend non-urgent care after two health boards said they were doing so in response to a large increase in cases.

The warning came as health minister Vaughan Gething said more than 14,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 had been recorded in Wales in the last week, while an intensive care consultant called for the planned relaxation of rules over Christmas to be aborted and the country put into immediate lockdown.

Speaking on Monday, Mr Hughes said many hospitals were “near capacity”, affecting their ability to treat patients with non-urgent health problems.

He said: “I have said many times that nobody in the NHS wants this to be the case, but if we have a rising number of patients with coronavirus, we simply may not have the capacity to treat other non-urgent health issues.

“Our capacity is not just about the number of beds we have available but also about our staff. If community transmission is high, more staff go off sick or have to self-isolate as well.

“We ask everyone in the run-up to Christmas to please reduce your social contacts as much as possible. We want everyone in Wales to be able to have a happy and safe Christmas, and if we work together we can bring case rates down and have a greater reassurance that a safe Christmas is possible.”

05:00 PMRewatch: Matt Hancock address the commons

Here’s a recap of Matt Hanock’s speech in the Commons earlier this evening.

 Scroll to the post at 16:41pm for a brief recap of his address.

04:55 PMComing up: Matt Hancock to host Downing Street briefing

The Health Secretary is expected to make an appearance at the No.10 briefing at a revised time of 6pm.

We’ll bring you updates here.

04:55 PMFather Christmas is immune to Covid-19, WHO confirms

Father Christmas is immune to coronavirus, the World Health Organization has said.

Responding to a question at an online press briefing Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid-19 technical lead at the WHO, said:

“I understand the concern for Santa because he is of older age but I can tell you that Santa Claus is immune to this virus and we had a brief chat with him and he’s doing very well.”

She said leaders across had relaxed quarantine measures so that Father Christmas could still travel and deliver presents to children. 

“It is really important that the children of the world still listen to their moms and dads and their guardians and make sure that they go to bed early on Christmas Eve,” she said.

04:54 PMWATCH: Nurse becomes first person in United States to get Covid vaccine

This is the “light at the end of the tunnel,” Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Governor, told the first American to get vaccinated, outside of clinical trials, on Monday.

In many ways, it was only appropriate that the first person to receive the vaccine was a resident of New York, which has been harder hit by Covid-19 than almost anywhere else in the US.

“I feel hopeful today,” said Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Queens, as the state looked to close the chapter on one of the deadliest years in its history.

“I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time,” Ms Lindsay said after receiving the first of two doses of the Pfizer BioNTech shot, which was approved for use in the US by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday.

“I believe in science. I trust science. I want to instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe,” she said, smiling.

Josie Ensor reports

04:52 PMWHO responds to UK virus mutation

Our Global Health deputy editor Anne Gulland has asked the World Health Organization about the new strain of Covid-19 discussed by Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, today.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead says there is “no evidence so far” that the new strain of Covid “behaves differently”.

She said the variant was already been monitored by the Virus Evolution Working Group. “It’s come up in the context of mink variants identified elsewhere,” she said.

Dr Mike Ryan, WHO’s director of emergencies, said WHO had been made aware of the new variant by the UK authorities. 

“Obviously we are looking at the significance of this. We’ve seen many variants and we’ve always said this virus evolves and changes over time and we’ve seen different variants emerge.

“The question is what is their significance in public health terms and certainly, looking at this particular variant it seems to have become more prevalent in the UK and we will obviously need our international lab network to see if that variant is becoming more prevalent on an international basis.

“But again I would like to say that these kinds of evolutions and mutations are quite common. 

“The question we have, as we had most recently with the mink variants in Denmark and the previous variations of the virus – does this make the virus more serious, does it allow the virus to transmit more easily, does it in any way interfere with diagnostics, would it any way interfere with vaccine effectiveness?

“These are questions that we have and we have no information to suggest that any of that is the case.”

He praised the UK authorities for releasing information on the variant saying it was the “height of transparency”.

04:50 PMWant to help deliver the Covid-19 vaccine? St John Ambulance explains what it takes

St John Ambulance, whose bright green uniforms were once a frequent sight at rowdy football matches, have been helping the NHS respond to the country’s coronavirus crisis since March.

At the start of the pandemic, they helped staff the Nightingale hospitals. Now, St John first aiders are being called upon to deliver the UK’s largest ever mass vaccination programme. 

Around 30,500 volunteers will be needed to meet staffing demands. While applications aren’t yet open to the public, the organisation has already begun to train up 10,000 of its current volunteers.

Jordan Kelly-Linden joined a training day to find out more.

04:41 PMWhat did we learn….

Matt Hancock is still fielding questions in the Houses of Commons. Before we return to the world news, here’s a recap of the his speech: 

Matt Hancock has confirmed that London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be moved into Tier 3 restrictions on Wednesday following a sharp rise in cases.

In some parts the rates are doubling every seven days and not just among school age children, but all age groups including the over-60s, he says. 

It is thought that a new variant of the virus is behind this rise, but Mr Hancock was quick to reassure MPs that it is “highly unlikely” the new strain will compromise the vaccine or result in more severe disease.

Hospital admissions across England are up 13 per cent while cases have risen by 14 per cent in the last week, he added.

However, mobile testing and community testing are already being expanded, with another 67 local authorities getting community testing this week, he said.

Thanks to science “help is on its way”, but while that day will come “this isn’t over yet”, he said, stressing that people must do what it takes to protect the NHS and loved ones, especially in the run up to the Christmas period.

The Health Secretary is expected to host a Downing Street briefing at 5pm this evening. We’ll bring you more updates as they come.

04:20 PMWhy has London been treated differently to Essex and Hertfordshire?

Felicity Buchan, the MP for Kensington asks why London has been “treated as one” when other counties such as Essex and Hertfordshire have been split up. 

She says central London cases are “significantly below the national average, and whether this House likes it r nt, central London is the powerhouse of our national economy”. 

She asks why London has been treated differently. 

Matt Hancock says they look “in great detail” at what is happening, and cases are rising in central London. 

He adds: “I understand the impact on the economy but the very clear public advice is that London should move together because all areas are seeing an increase in rates, and we need to stop that.”

04:14 PMMP raises concern over lateral flow test accuracy

SNP health spokeswoman Philippa Whitford says many public health officials have questioned using lateral flow tests and notes that the manufacturers do not recommend them for people who are asymptomatic.

She says there have been “serious concerns about their accuracy” when used in the Liverpool community testing project.

“He should delay rolling them out to 67 other local authorities and not proceed with plans to spend £43bn on a test that is so inaccurate,” she says.

“I think we should test, test, test,” replies Matt Hancock.

He says the lateral flow test finds around 70% of those who are infectious and urges the MP to “back the testing programme”.

04:13 PMMatt Hancock: People must take ‘personal responsibility’ over Christmas

Munira Wilson, the Lib Dem MP for Twickenham, asks if “given what we are seeing after Thanksgiving in the US” whether he should reconsider Christmas easements. 

She says she knows he does not want to be “the Grinch” but “should he be reconsidering the Christmas measures in place” to avoid “unnecessary additional deaths”. 

Matt Hancock says people should exercise caution and “take personal responsibility in case they have coronavirus and might be passing it on but don’t have any symptoms and don’t know about it”.

04:07 PMMatt Hancock: Government will support people as much as possible

Janet Daby, Labour MP for Lewisham East, asks about the rising level of poverty as a result of the pandemic. 

Matt Hancock says the Government is doing what it can, including the furlough which has been extended to March. 

He says he speaks to the Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey “regularly to make sure we take the action that is necessary in the way that supports people as much as possible”. 

03:58 PMNew virus variant ‘highly unlikely’ to pose risk to vaccine: Hancock

It is “highly unlikely” that the new coronavirus variant will cause a more serious disease or compromise the vaccine, Matt Hancock has said

Matt Hancock said: “I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease and the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.”

He added: “I need to tell the House that over the last week, we’ve seen very sharp, exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.

“We do not know the extent to which this is because of the new variant but no matter its cause we have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out.”

03:55 PM’We are entering the final stretch’

Matt Hancock says mobile testing and community testing are already being expanded, with another 67 local authorities getting community testing this week.

He says this will help areas “to move down tiers” and return closer to normal life.

Thanks to science “help is on its way”, but while that day will come “this isn’t over yet”, he says, stressing that people must do what it takes to protect the NHS and loved ones.

He finishes his statement by saying that people must not waver “as we enter the final stretch”.

03:49 PMLondon, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire to enter Tier 3, Matt Hancock confirms

London, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire are seeing exponential increases in the virus, he says, which will require action. 

In some parts the rates are doubling every seven days and not just among school age children, but all age groups including the over-60s, he says. 

Hospitals are already under pressure, and it “only takes a few doublings for the NHS to be overwhelmed”. 

That means ahead of the formal review date, Greater London, the South and West of Essex and South Hertfordshire will be placed into Tier 3. 

03:48 PMNew fast-spreading variant of virus identified: Hancock

A new variant of coronavirus has been identified in the UK, which may be associated with the fastest spread in the southeast of England, Matt Hancock has told MPS.

“We’ve currently identified over 1000 cases with this variant predominantly in the south of England,” he told MPs.

“Cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the last few months.”

The World Health Organization has been notified, he said.

It is unlikely to cause more serious disease than other variants, he adds.

03:42 PMBriefing begins: Hospital admissions rise by 13 per cent, warns Hancock

The Health Secretary begins the briefing by praising the NHS for the roll out of its coronavirus vaccine profile, but warns that the fight is not over.

“It’s life saving work. However, it will take time for its benefits to be felt far and wide,” he warns.

“The virus remains just as dangerous as it has always been,” he says. “The average daily hospital admissions are up, 13 per cent. “

“The latest figures show that the average daily pieces have risen by 14 per cent in the last week, and we’re seeing a sharp rise in South Wales in London, and parts of the east and southeast of England.”

03:36 PMIt could be worse: The European countries cancelling Christmas

We are about to hear from Matt Hancock, who is expected to confirm that London and other parts of the South East will be placed into the highest Tier a week away from Christmas. 

But perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky. Our benevolent dictators have decreed that Christmas will not be cancelled this year, but merely sanitised to within an inch of its life.

From December 23 until December 27 we each have permission to form a festive “bubble” composed of people from no more than three households. 

But other countries are not even permitting this much festive freedom. They are beating their subjects into submission with all the relish of Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

03:14 PMFurther 179 Covid deaths recorded in English hospitals

A further 179 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died, bringing the total number of confirmed reported deaths in hospitals in England to 44,464.

Patients were aged between 40 and 99 years old. All except four, aged 74 to 92 years old, had known underlying health conditions. The date of death ranges from 5 to 13 December 2020.

The Midlands was the worst-affected region, with 56 deaths registered, followed by the North East & Yorkshire (32), the South East (27) and the North West (23). 

There were 17 deaths in the East of England, 13 in London and 11 in the South West. 

03:13 PMComing up: Matt Hancock to announce London heading into Tier 3

The Health Secretary is expected to appear in the Commons in 15 mins. 

We’ll bring you the latest from 3:30pm here.

02:59 PMTier 3 also extended to parts of Essex and Hertfordshire

Tier 3 will also be extended to parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, the BBC has reported.

BBC Newsnight’s policy editor Lewis Goodall says he has been told this will be from 00:01 on Wednesday.

We expect to hear more from Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who will address the Commons at 3:30pm.

02:56 PMPolice intervene at anti-vaxx protest in London

A demonstrator is detained by police officers during an anti-vaccination demonstration at the Parliament Square, London.

A demonstrator is detained by police officers during an anti-vaccination demonstration at the Parliament Square in London, Britain, December 14, – HENRY NICHOLLS / REUTERS

A woman holds up a sign demanding  the ‘end of lockdown’ during an anit-vaccination demonstration in London

People participate in an anti-vaccination demonstration at the Parliament Square in London – HENRY NICHOLLS / REUTERS02:50 PMFirst US citizen receives coronavirus vaccine

America kicked off its mass vaccination campaign on Monday. The vaccinations took place in Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens just after 9am local time.

Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at the hospital, was the first to receive the historic jab thanks to an algorithm which scored her and her colleagues on their level of coronavirus risk.

“I believe in science. I trust science. I want to instil public confidence that the vaccine is safe,” said Sandra Lindsay, who’s hospital is one of the hardest-hit in the state.

Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester in the Queens borough of New York – Mark Lennihan / AP

The moves come just six days after Britain became the first nation in the world to begin rolling out a fully tested vaccine. Since then, a handful of other nations, including Canada and Singapore, have approved the same vaccine.

02:40 PMAfternoon summary

Good afternoon, if you’re just joining us here is everything you need to know:

London is expected to be plunged into Tier 3 restrictions as soon as tonight due to a “big increase” in infections in recent days.

We’ll know more from 3:30pm when Matt Hancock is expected to address the Commons.

Office Christmas parties that cannot be held virtually face being postponed until summer, Nicola Sturgeon has said. 

There are “very few reasons to be cheerful about the very serious situation” of Covid-19 in Wales, health minister Vaughan Gething has said, as cases in the country continue to rise.

Despite growing concerns, Downing Street has said there are no plans to shorten the period over Christmas in which social distancing will be relaxed amid concerns over increasing coronavirus rates.

Moderna expects the European Union to approve its Covid-19 vaccine candidate in mid-January and is ready to start distribution immediately afterwards.

Billionaire philanthropist and global health advocate, Bill Gates, has warned that there will likely be no respite from coronavirus globally, and that the first four to six months of next year could be the worst so far.  

02:27 PMChina plans set up of new disease control agency in Covid-19 aftermath

China is considering setting up a new disease control agency as part of its public health reforms following the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, Caixin reported on Monday.

The government body will oversee work aimed at preventing future outbreaks and managing emerging ones, Caixin said, citing two government insiders and three public health experts.

02:17 PMModerna vaccine expecting EU approval by mid-Jan

Moderna expects the European Union to approve its Covid-19 vaccine candidate in mid-January and is ready to start distribution immediately afterwards, the head of its European division told German daily Stuttgarter Zeitung.

“We expect approval for the EU and thus for Germany on Jan. 12,” Dan Staner was quoted as saying on Monday. “As soon as we have received the approval, we can deliver.

02:14 PMJustin Bieber teams up with London medics for charity single

Justin Bieber has teamed up with a choir of London medical staff to record a special charity Christmas single.

The choir, made up of nurses, doctors and other health care staff working in the British capital’s Lewisham and Greenwich public health service, joined the Canadian pop star for a special version of his song “Holy” in a bid to top the Christmas chart.

Choir members recorded their vocals at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios. Profits from the collaboration will go to National Health Service charities.

The choir gained fame when it vied with Bieber in 2015 for the Christmas No. 1 song. Bieber urged his millions of fans on Twitter to support the choir, not him, and it eventually won the top spot on the singles chart. The star then travelled to London and presented them with their charity award.

“It’s great to be reunited with the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS choir, as we share a fun bit of U.K. chart history together,” said Bieber, 26. “Especially in these difficult times, I’m humbled to team up with them for a charity single that will benefit NHS workers on the frontlines of this pandemic and pay tribute to their unbelievable dedication.”

The NHS Choir has reunited with Justin Bieber five years after fighting a closely fought race for Christmas number one. – Carsten Windhorst / PA02:07 PMRussia repeats 91.4% efficacy rate in new Covid-19 vaccine data

Russian coronavirus vaccine developers published fresh results from their trial of the Sputnik V vaccine on Monday based on new data, and said the shot had again been found to be 91.4 per cent effective in providing protection from Covid-19.

The new results are based on data from 22,714 participants in the trial, and were published after 78 confirmed coronavirus cases were reported among the group, researchers at the Gamaleya Institute said in a statement made on Monday with the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is marketing the shot.

Of the 78 cases, 62 occurred among participants who had received a placebo, the researchers said. 

01:54 PMWelsh NHS having to make tough choices, health minister warns

The NHS in Wales is “having to make choices to make sure that it doesn’t become overwhelmed”, health minister Vaughan Gething has said.

Mr Gething said two health boards, Aneurin Bevan and Swansea Bay, were “making choices about restricting normal treatment”, which highlighted the extent of the pressure faced.

“We know that in putting off outpatients or planned surgery appointments, that produces a different sort of harm and our NHS will need to catch up with that in the future,” Mr Gething said.

“But the reason those choices are being made, the reason I endorsed the local framework that enabled health boards to do that, is because otherwise we really could see our NHS being overwhelmed.”

Mr Gething said he could not give an “absolute guarantee” that the NHS in Wales would not be overwhelmed as he could not determine the number of Covid-19 cases to come, even if the Welsh Government implemented a lockdown.

01:50 PMNext four to six months of Covid-19 pandemic could be the worst yet, Bill Gates warns

The billionaire philanthropist and global health advocate has warned that there will likely be no respite from coronavirus globally, and that the first four to six months of next year could be the worst so far.  

“Sadly, the next four to six months could be the worst of the pandemic. The IHME (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation) forecast shows over 200,000 additional deaths,” Mr Gates told CNN on Sunday.  

He said that a large percentage of those deaths can be avoided if people followed Covid-19 rules, including wearing masks and avoiding mixing.

Mr Gates, who is also the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has invested millions of dollars to fund research for a Covid-19 vaccine as well as for testing and logistics. The foundation pledged $70m to ensure the vaccine reaches everyone, not just those with the means to buy it.

01:45 PMAnger grows in Sri Lanka over forced Muslim virus cremations

Outrage is mounting in Sri Lanka after at least 15 Muslim coronavirus victims, including a baby, were cremated against family wishes and in contravention of Islamic tradition.

Health authorities in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka insist all victims must be cremated – even if they are Muslims, who traditionally bury their dead facing Mecca.

The order issued in April came amid alarm raised by influential Buddhist monks that burying bodies could contaminate groundwater and spread the virus.

After the families of 19 Muslims refused to claim the bodies of relatives from a Colombo morgue, last week, the attorney general ordered their remains cremated.

So far at least 15 have been – including a 20-day-old baby named Shaykh and despite the pleas of his parents.

Over the weekend members of the public tied thousands of white ribbons to the gates of the cemetery housing the crematorium, which authorities removed on Monday morning.

01:41 PMPostpone your office Christmas party to the summer, says Nicola Sturgeon

Office Christmas parties that cannot be held virtually face being postponed until summer, Nicola Sturgeon has said. 

“If you can’t work from home and you’re sharing a workplace with colleagues just now I understand why it might be tempting to have some sort of celebration or social gathering at work because this obviously has been a really difficult time for everyone”, the First Minister said.

“But office parties, especially if they involve alcohol, present a real risk of transmission. People are less likely to stick to physical distancing requirements than when they are working and more likely to pass around food or drinks without perhaps washing their hands as carefully as they should.

“So I’m asking everybody please don’t take these risks. By far the best way of marking Christmas with your colleagues this year is virtually.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “It is not as much fun, I appreciate that, but it is much, much safer. And if you can’t do that then perhaps think about postponing your Christmas celebration into next year, perhaps the spring or the summer of next year when hopefully we will be starting to see some greater normality return to our lives.”

01:32 PMCoronavirus world news – in pictures

A person looks at a painting during the opening of Tate Liverpool’s exhibition of Liverpool NHS worker portraits.

The new commission by New York based artist Aliza Nisenbaum features portraits and two large scale murals painted of key workers from NHS Merseyside who worked for their communities during the coronavirus 

A person looks at a painting during the opening of Tate Liverpool’s exhibition of Liverpool NHS worker portraits. The new commission by New York based artist Aliza Nisenbaum features portraits and two large scale murals painted of key workers from NHS Merseyside who worked for their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. – Peter Byrne / PA

Austrian Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner applauds during a presentation of Fantasy, a sniffer dog trained to detect the coronavirus disease in Vienna, Austria

Austrian Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner applauds during a presentation of Fantasy, a sniffer dog trained to detect the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Vienna, Austria – LEONHARD FOEGER / REUTERS

A medical staff member wearing protective gear takes a swab from a woman at a temporary testing station outside Seoul station in Seoul

A medical staff member wearing protective gear takes a swab from a woman to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a temporary testing station outside Seoul station in Seoul – JUNG YEON-JE / AFP

 Sri Lanka Customs have seized 25 metric tonnes of illegally imported Turmeric in Colombo. The container was detected by Customs after being declared as large onions and unloaded at the port.

Currently, the import of turmeric, a popular ingredient in local cuisine and also used as a disinfectant by most Sri Lankans, is banned over fears the root could become a potential coronavirus transmitter and over competition concerns as it can be grown locally

Sri Lankan Customs officers inspect a load of dried turmeric yams (Curcuma longa) from a confiscated container at the customs examination yard in Colombo, Sri Lanka, – CHAMILA KARUNARATHNE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock01:20 PMLondon could be moved into Tier 3 today, suggests Sadiq Khan

Sadiq Khan has hinted it is “possible” that London could be plunged into Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions as soon as this afternoon, due to a “big increase” in infections across the capital in recent days.

The London Mayor’s warning came as speculation grew in Whitehall that the Government is planning to bring forward its review of tier allocations from Wednesday to today, amid concerns that urgent action is needed to curb the virus in areas where it is rising fastest.

Cabinet ministers were this morning summoned to an emergency meeting of the “Covid O” sub-committee, chaired by Michael Gove, which formulates and advises the Prime Minister on coronavirus policy.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is due to present an update on Covid-19 in the Commons this afternoon.

MPs for London and the South East also received a “data download” of the latest virus statistics this morning in a virtual briefing.

Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, and Prof Kevin Fenton, Public Health England’s director for London, said urgent action was needed, according to one source who tuned in.

The Conservative MP said: “The data showed that infection rates are increasing exponentially in London and the South East – in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire as well as Kent and Essex.”

Under the original tier allocation review timetable, ministers were set to examine data on coronavirus infections and hospital capacity on Wednesday, then announce any changes to tiers on Thursday, which were due to come into force at one minute past midnight on Saturday.

The allocation of tiers was due to be reviewed on Dec 16 but Mr Khan said the situation in the capital means a decision might be taken sooner.

He said “it’s possible” that a decision will be made today “because we have seen over the last few days a big increase in the virus”.

01:10 PM’Very few reasons to be cheerful’ about Covid situation, Welsh health minister says

There are “very few reasons to be cheerful about the very serious situation” of Covid-19 in Wales, health minister Vaughan Gething has said.

Mr Gething told a press conference in Cardiff that more than 14,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus were recorded in Wales in the last week, while one in five tests carried out were positive.

Cases are rising in all but one local authority areas in Wales, with coronavirus “widespread” in communities and the chances of catching and spreading it when in contact with other people is “high”, he said.

On Friday, the number of people in Welsh hospitals with coronavirus symptoms exceed 2,000 for the first time.

“Our NHS experienced one of its busiest weekends of the year, as winter and pandemic pressures came together,” Mr Gething said.

“Coronavirus is putting additional and sustained strain on our health service.”

Mr Gething said health boards were making “difficult decision” to pause some normal services, with Swansea Bay and Aneurin Bevan University Health Boards postponing some surgery and outpatient appointments.

01:07 PMChristmas bubble plans remain unchanged, Downing Street says

Downing Street has said there are no plans to shorten the period over Christmas in which social distancing will be relaxed amid concerns over increasing coronavirus rates.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “No. We’ve set out the details of the Christmas guidelines.

“There are no plans to review the Christmas guidance. What we’ve said alongside that is that the public should continue to be cautious.

“I think the Prime Minister said it’s the season to be jolly careful and we would emphasise that we should continue to do that.

“We’ve been clear that it’s a limited easement to allow families to bubble over the Christmas period after what has been a very difficult year for many people.

“But it remains important for the public to follow the guidance.”

01:01 PMSchools expected to stay open until end of term, Downing Street says

Downing Street has said schools are expected to stay open until the end of term after London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for an early closure in the capital to tackle the spread of coronavirus.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We’ve consistently said that not being in school has a detrimental impact on children’s learning as well as their own personal development and mental health.

“Which is why we expect all schools and colleges to remain open until the end of term on Thursday, as schools have remained open throughout the pandemic.”

Asked whether action will be taken against councils that close early, the spokesman said: “Our regional school commissioner teams are working closely with schools and local authorities across the country and will continue to work with them and support them to remain open.”

01:00 PMAstraZeneca UK vaccine trial drops sub-group with children

Drugmaker AstraZeneca has removed a study group comprising children from a trial of its Covid-19 vaccine candidate in Britain, clinical trial registers in the United States showed on Monday.

The mid-to-late stage trial of more than 12,000 participants previously included children above the age of five years with the consent of their parents. However, the page was updated on December 10 to reflect the changes.

AstraZeneca, which is developing the vaccine along with the University of Oxford, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, Reuters have reported.

12:42 PMCanada’s first Covid-19 vaccinations set to start as soon as Monday

Canada’s first Covid-19 inoculations are set to begin as soon as Monday after some of the 30,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine arrived over the weekend.

The United States is also expected to begin doling out doses of the vaccine on Monday after the UK started inoculations last week. Canadian officials said last week the first shots would be given on Monday or Tuesday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced late on Sunday that a first batch had arrived.

The hard-hit province of Quebec is prioritising residents and staff in two care homes, a provincial Health Department spokeswoman said. More than 80 per cent of Canada’s 13,350 pandemic deaths have been in such homes.

The vaccine “can arrive at anytime,” said Lucie Tremblay, director of nursing for the health network that manages the Maimonides Geriatric Center in Montreal, where 15 died in a recent outbreak, according to government data.

Close to 300 of the facility’s 327 residents should be vaccinated over the course of a week, depending on their health, Tremblay said.

12:31 PMPoland faces real threat of pandemic third wave

 Poland faces a real threat of a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said on Monday, adding he would recommend that current restrictions continue until at least January 17.

Poland’s government is expected to adopt a national coronavirus vaccine plan on Tuesday. 

12:23 PMWales records 1,228 new cases

There have been a further 1,228 cases of coronavirus in Wales, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 101,953.

Public Health Wales reported another 33 deaths, taking the total in Wales since the start of the pandemic to 2,882.

12:22 PMIslington council advises schools to move to online learning

Islington Council has advised schools to move to online learning from the end of Tuesday because of a rise in coronavirus cases across the capital.

The council is advising schools in the north London borough to move to online learning from the end of Tuesday to stop the virus spreading.

The council has also asked schools to be open for onsite learning for children of key workers and vulnerable pupils.

Schools in Islington are also advised to remain closed after the Christmas break and continue online learning until January 11.

Cllr Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council, said: “There is a serious and very worrying rise in coronavirus across London, with cases doubling every few days.

“We must all take action now to stop this deadly disease spreading serious illness and death to the people we love.”

12:19 PMMPs describe ‘gloomy outlook’ from London tier discussions

Health minister Helen Whately is understood to have painted a gloomy picture of the coronavirus situation in London to the capital’s MPs with the city verging on a move up into Tier 3.

She was said to have told them in a briefing on Monday morning that a final decision ahead of Wednesday’s review is yet to be made but said there is extreme concern in Government about the figures.

One London MP at the briefing described the picture as “very depressing”.

Another MP in the capital said there was a “lot of frustration” with no real answers to their questions.

It was the “same gloomy outlook as last week’s meeting except all the data is even worse, almost back to the levels pre-lockdown”.

The MP suggested that the message over Christmas would be “do not mix if you don’t need to”.

12:18 PM’Reconsider holiday travel’, Japan PM warns, as virus spikes

Japan’s prime minister on Monday urged citizens to reconsider their holiday travel plans and suspended a controversial domestic tourism campaign as the country battles record numbers of coronavirus infections.

“We have decided to take strongest steps possible in order to stop the spread of the infections… so that all of you can welcome the New Year in peace and quiet,” Suga told a special cabinet-level meeting on anti-pandemic measures.

He said the travel subsidy programme would be suspended between December 28 and January 11, with the halt coming into effect earlier for hardest-hit areas, including the capital Tokyo.

He also urged the public to reconsider plans to visit relatives during the holiday season.

The call came as Japan sees rising infections – standing around 3,000 new cases per day – with doctors and nurses warning they are overwhelmed.

12:13 PMUAE starts Covid-19 vaccinations in capital

The United Arab Emirates has launched Covid-19 vaccinations in the capital Abu Dhabi, health officials said Monday, days after it approved the jab by Chinese drugs giant Sinopharm.

The wealthy Gulf nation is one of the first countries to start widespread inoculation, after Britain became the first to roll out a campaign using a vaccine by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

Gulf countries UAE and Bahrain, where third-phase trials of the Sinopharm vaccine were carried out, have both officially registered it for public use after it was previously approved for emergency use for frontline health workers.

Sinopharm – which uses an inactive form of the novel coronavirus – is administered in two doses, 21 days apart, according to SEHA.

The UAE has so far recorded more than 184,000 novel coronavirus cases, including 617 deaths.

12:06 PMWill London be sub-divided?

Lucy Fisher, our Deputy Political editor, writes: City Hall insiders expect London to be treated as one bloc when the tier review takes place. Calls for tiers to be implemented on a borough-by-borough basis in the capital, based on the specific Covid-19 data for each local authority, have been deemed impractical by officials.

One source said the proposal was viewed as unworkable from a police enforcement angle.

11:52 AMNew restrictions expected as South Africa enters Covid-19 ‘second wave’

South Africa’s president is expected to announce fresh restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 today after the country officially entered its second wave of the deadly virus last week. Cyril Ramaphosa will address the nation on Monday evening after he chaired a number of meetings over the weekend to discuss the rise in cases.

Confirmed cases have risen dramatically in South Africa since mid-November up to around 8,000 a day. The health minister blamed the surge on teenagers attending large parties without wearing masks or sanitising.

As South Africa enters its summer holiday season many are worried that increased travel will lead to a spread of the virus. South Africa, which has the most Covid-19 cases in Africa, entered one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in March.

Citizens were unable to leave their homes, businesses were shut down and the sale of cigarettes and alcohol was banned. The country is currently at restriction level one out of five. 

11:45 AMHave your say: Should London schools shut before the Christmas holiday?

Despite central Government stressing the high priority of education, after months of lockdown, the London council of Greenwich has advised that all schools shut from this evening, as cases in the borough surge. 

Sadiq Khan says he is sympathetic towards the move – although Sir Keir Starmer said he would prefer schools to make use of inset days rather than attempt a return to remote learning. 

Alok Sharma this morning said their preference was for schools to remain open. However, with suggestions that London could be placed into Tier 3 as early as today, is a pre-Christmas closure the right approach? 

Have your say in the poll below. 

11:37 AMLondon could be moved into Tier 3 as early as today, says Sadiq Khan

Sadiq Khan has called on the Government to provide clarity on whether London will enter Tier 3, saying it is “possible” an announcement could be made today. 

He told Sky News: “My understanding is that Covid-O is meeting as we speak – that’s the sub-committee of the Cabinet that makes the recommendations.

“We will have to wait and see what the Government decides – it’s a Government decision, not my decision or London leaders’ decision.”

The Mayor of London suggested moving the capital up a Tier could be a “blunt instrument” that might not address the surge in cases. 

He added: “London provides huge amount to the country in terms of money into the coffers… it will be not just London that suffers but the country as a whole. It is in the country’s interest… for London not to suffer the catastrophic consequences of the next few weeks.”

11:37 AMGermany will get 11 million doses of BioNTech vaccine by March

Germany expects to receive 11 million doses of BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine by March, the health ministry announced on Monday.

In January alone, 3 million to 4 million doses of the vaccine will be provided for inoculations in Germany, a ministry spokesman said.

11:31 AMPfizer poised to reveal which of their vaccine trial volunteers received a placebo

Organisers behind the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine may soon allow trial volunteers to learn if they had a placebo rather than the shot, so they can get the real thing if they want.

More than 43,000 people were enrolled in trials to test the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine, but half of those received a placebo mixture of salt and water. The vaccine developers, Pfizer and BioNTech, may now tell guinea pigs if they got the placebo and allow them to take the real thing, Bloomberg reported. 

“Pending required approvals, Pfizer and BioNTech plan to provide an option for clinical trial participants who received the placebo to get the vaccine at scheduled time points in the study,” Pfizer said in a statement. “This option will be voluntary and implemented in alignment with the regulatory authorities where the trial is being conducted.” 

The Telegraph last week reported that volunteers in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine trial would also be “unblinded” so they can receive potentially life-saving Covid vaccinations quickly. 

Regulators’ approval of vaccines raises an ethical dilemma for organisers who want their trials to continue as long as possible collecting data on the long term effects of new shots. Yet maintaining the trial’s experimental conditions can mean those on placebos foregoing potentially life-saving jabs. 

Ben Farmer has the full story here.

11:24 AMSpain sets out vaccination plans

Spain expects to start vaccinating people against the coronavirus as early as 4th January or 5 if the European Medicines Agency gives the green light to a vaccine on 29th December, health minister Salvador Illa said on Monday.

11:14 AMOn a mission

Researchers, from the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Health Science Center, catch bats as they stream out of a daylight hole during a catch and release program above the Khao Chong Pran Cave in Photharam, Ratchaburi Province, Thailand.

The team, led by Supaporn Wacharapluesadee at Chulalongkorn University, consisting of scientists, ecologists, and officers from Thailand’s National Park Department, have been collecting blood, tissue, saliva and fecal samples from bats in an effort to understand the origins of the Covid-19 virus.

Researchers, from the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Health Science Center, catch bats as they stream out of a daylight hole during a catch and release program above the Khao Chong Pran Cave in Photharam, Ratchaburi Province, Thailand – Andre Malerba / Bloomberg 11:06 AMEswatini prime minister dies of Covid-19

Eswatini’s prime minister died of Covid-19 in South Africa on Sunday where he had been seeking medical treatment. Ambrose Dlamini, 52, tested positive in November and was airlifted to a hospital at the beginning of December.

The tiny African nation, formerly known as Swaziland, has around 6,500 cases of the deadly virus and 127 confirmed deaths. Mr Dlamini was moved to South Africa “to guide and fast track his recovery”.

He is the second head of state to die of Covid-19 in Africa following the death of Burundi’s president in June.

10:55 AMTough Christmas lockdown looming in Netherlands

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte held emergency meetings on Monday about the soaring rate of Covid-19 infections and was expected to announce tougher lockdown measures during a television address in the evening.

Key members of the Dutch government were weighing stricter social curbs and Rutte took the unusual step of inviting the heads of all political parties in parliament for talks, the national news agency ANP reported.

He was set to address the country from his office in a rare broadcast at 1900 local time.

New coronavirus infections in the country of 17 million jumped by almost 10,000 in the 24 hours through Sunday morning, data released by national health authorities showed, the biggest rise in more than six weeks.

10:48 AMEU could donate 5% of vaccines to poorer countries

The European Union may donate five per cent of  the coronavirus vaccines it has secured to poorer nations, according to Reuters.

An unpublished plan, drafted by the French government, sets for the first time a clear target for EU vaccine donations which so far had only been considered as an option if the bloc ended up with surplus doses.

The move could however deal a blow to the global procurement scheme, led in part by the World Health Organisation and known as COVAX, which has the goal of delivering 2 billion shots by the end of next year to at least 20 per cent of people most in need anywhere in the world.

Under the French plan, which still needs to be agreed among the 27 EU states, up to 65 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines could eventually be donated by the EU to poor nations.

That would be the 5 per cent of 1.3 billion doses the EU has so far secured under six advance purchase agreements sealed with Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca/Oxford, Sanofi/GSK and CureVac, the document shows.

10:41 AMLondon must ‘prepare for tier three’

Labour MP Wes Streeting has given a a stark warning to Londoners as he urged them to follow coronavirus rules.

London is showing exponential growth in #covid19. Given the situation in Redbridge, I’d urge residents to exercise caution, follow the rules and prepare for tier three.

We haven’t been told explicitly that tier 3 is coming in words, but the numbers don’t lie. #covid19

— Wes Streeting MP (@wesstreeting) December 14, 2020

Scientists have previously told the Government that they must consider placing London in Tier 3 restrictions by scientists.

Around three quarters of the 32 boroughs have seen a rise in cases, particularly among secondary school-age children.

10:33 AMAntiviral drug may be effective coronavirus treatment

A new study has claimed that remdesivir may work in treating coronavirus, despite previous research saying it had no impact on death rates from the disease.

A single-patient study conducted by Cambridge University and published in the journal Nature Communications describes how doctors who gave the drug to a patient with both COVID-19 and a rare immune disorder saw a marked improvement in his symptoms and the disappearance of the virus.

“Our patient’s unusual condition gave us a rare insight into the effectiveness of remdesivir as a treatment for coronavirus infection,” said Nicholas Matheson, who co-led the study at Cambridge University’s Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease.

“The dramatic response to the drug – on repeated challenge – suggests that it can be a highly effective treatment, at least for some patients.”

Since early in the coronavirus pandemic, scientists had hoped that Gilead’s antiviral drug  remdesivir, which was originally developed to treat hepatitis C and subsequently tested against Ebola, might prove effective against COVID-19.

It was even praised by Donald Trump, who received the drug when he caught the virus.

But the drug’s effectiveness against the pandemic disease has been hotly disputed since a large World Health Organization-led trial found in October that it failed to improve COVID-19 survival rates.

10:17 AMPfizer vaccine approved by Singapore

Singapore has become the latest country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine and expects delivery of the first shots by the end of December, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed.

He added that the city-state, with a population of  5.7 million, expects to have enough vaccines for everyone by the third quarter of 2021 and will make it free for citizens and long-term residents.

While vaccination will be voluntary, Lee said he and other government officials would be among the early recipients along with healthcare workers, other front-line personnel, the elderly and the vulnerable.

“My colleagues and I, including the older ones, will be getting ourselves vaccinated early. This is to show you, especially seniors like me, that we believe the vaccines are safe,” he said in a national broadcast.

10:10 AMMeghan praises ‘power of the human spirit’ during Coronavirus

The Duchess of Sussex has paid tribute to those who demonstrated the “power of the human spirit” by feeding the hungry during the pandemic.

Meghan, in her first public appearance since she wrote about suffering a miscarriage, praised communities for coming together to help support their neighbours.

The duchess, appearing in a pre-recorded two-minute video message as part of the CNN Heroes series, said: “For many families the impact of the pandemic has been catastrophic and far too many were faced with a heartbreaking question – how am I going to put food on the table for my family?

“But in the face of this devastating reality we also saw the power of the human spirit and the remarkable ways that communities respond in challenging times.

The duchess, wearing a delicate neck scarf blouse, sat outside on a bench in front of an array of purple foliage.

The Duchess of Sussex said that ‘we have the power to remind someone else that there is hope and that we will be OK’

She highlighted those who helped children, and people who were shielding.

She added: “They showed us, all of us, that even in the darkest times, when we come together, we have the power to remind someone else that there is hope and that we will be OK.”

10:04 AMSir Keir Starmer ‘reluctant’ to shut schools

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has urged leaders to try to keep schools open after London Mayor Sadiq Khan called on the Government to consider closing them in the capital to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Sir Keir told his LBC radio phone-in: “I’m very reluctant to close our schools down.

“I’m worried about closing schools early but equally I can see council leaders are put in a difficult situation now.”

And when asked what he would say to Mr Khan, Sir Keir said: “Talk to the Health Secretary about what we can do this week to keep schools open, try to keep them open this week.”

However, Sir Keir suggested bringing an extra inset day forward from the new year would be “quite smart” in order to close schools a day earlier than planned.

“But the worry about closing schools is all the parents have to decide what they do, that’s very difficult with short notice, and we know from previous experience that for children out of school it’s really difficult for the most vulnerable children,” he added.

09:47 AMSocial distancing character Japan’s ‘symbol of the year’

Japan has selected a kanji character used to encourage social distancing as its defining symbol for 2020, highlighting a catchphrase used extensively during the coronavirus pandemic that even inspired its own computer game.

The character “mitsu”, meaning “congested” or “dense”, was derived from a buzzword “San-mitsu”, which was central to Japan’s approach to the containing the pandemic. Translated as “Three Cs” in English, it refers to avoiding closed spaces, crowds and close contacts.

Japanese TV networks broadcast the annual announcement live, with the master of the ancient Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto writing the character on a huge white panel with an ink-soaked calligraphy brush.

Seihan Mori, chief Buddhist priest at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, writes the Chinese “mitsu”, – REUTERS

The “three Cs” term was first introduced by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, to urge the residents to stay indoors during the first wave of coronavirus infections earlier this year.

The catchphrase even inspired a computer game of Koike navigating through crowds while uttering her daily “mitsu desu” call for social distancing. 

09:38 AMSchools shut in Seoul

South Korea ordered schools to close from Tuesday in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas as it battles its worst outbreak of novel coronavirus since the pandemic began, surpassing the previous peak in February.

Schools in the capital region would move classes online until the end of the month, in the latest ratcheting up of social distancing measures which so far have failed to reverse the spike in infections.

The school closure is a step towards the imposition of Phase 3 social distancing rules, a move that would essentially lock down Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said such a step required careful review, as the government comes under mounting pressure to do more to step the rise of infections.

“The government will not hesitate to make the decision to upgrade to Phase 3 if it is considered necessary as it takes into account the opinions of related ministries, local governments, and experts,” he told a meeting of health officials according to a transcript from his office.

09:25 AM’Red zone’ looms for Italy as leaders mull Christmas curbs

Italy is considering more draconian nationwide coronavirus restrictions throughout Christmas and New Year holidays after concerns that January could see a third wave of cases, reports Dominic Penna.

Italy this weekend surpassed the UK as the European country with the worst coronavirus death toll, as it reported 484 deaths with the disease.

The government is now pondering whether to enact “red-zone” rules from December 24 to at least January 2.

This would extend night curfews, ban non-essential movement, and close shops, bars and restaurants on weekends and holidays, with the exception for those selling essential goods.

It would follow a similar move by Germany, which yesterday confirmed it would close most shops from Wednesday amid a surge in cases.

09:23 AMHugging relatives at Christmas a ‘personal choice’

A Cabinet minister has suggested people will need to make a “personal choice” about whether to form a festive bubble and hug relatives over Christmas.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “If people feel that they would be safer not doing that, that is up to them.

“I know on your programme people have talked about ‘families will hug’ but I also know that there are people who have taken a conscious decision that, whilst they may have their elderly parents come over Christmas, they will ensure that they don’t hug them.”

Mr Sharma added that the approach to Christmas is “proportionate” and “balanced”.

09:16 AMBrexit will not affect vaccine supplies

Business Secretary Alok Sharma insisted the Government was confident that supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would not be disrupted if there was a no-deal Brexit.

He told the BBC that was partly due to security concerns around the supply of the vaccine, which is made in Belgium.

“We have put in place arrangements to make sure that the distribution of vaccines is not in any way disrupted,” he said, but added: “I’m not going to go into the detail of that.”

Mr Sharma said supplies could be flown in and added: “I’m confident that as things stand these vaccines will continue to flow into the UK.”

There has been speculation that the RAF could be used to airlift supplies if there is chaos at ports following the end of the Brexit transition period.

09:04 AMDo not call for vaccine like viral star

The director of primary care for the NHS has urged people not to call their local GP practices despite the success of a 91-year-old who went viral in the US.

Last week Martin Kenyon phoned Guy’s hospital in central London and became one of the first people to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

He then went viral after taking part in an interview with CNN, where he mentioned parking difficulties, his “nasty lunch” and that he had not had time to tell his family he’s had the vaccine.

But despite his success in phoning, Dr Nikita Kanani, director of primary care at NHS England, urged against ringing GP practices as they started rolling out their vaccine programme Monday morning.

“The way we would really like people to access their vaccination is wait to be contacted. You can imagine that general practices are very busy, particularly on a Monday morning,” she told the Today programme.

“There’s a huge range of things that general practices are already doing so if we can ask for people to just wait a moment and wait to be contacted that would be very appreciated.”

The video of the interview can be seen here:

07:57 AMConsider Christmas actions carefully, Welsh Health Minister says

Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething said members of the public should carefully consider their actions over the festive period as the impact of increased coronavirus cases and deaths would not hit “just one Christmas.”

Speaking on the Today programme, he said that people often became “obsessed” with specific rules on coronavirus.

“We’re not looking as our preference to disturb the Christmas arrangements,” he said.

“(Consider) should you go and see lots of different people? Should you see the maximum number permitted or should you think about how you can restrict your contacts?

“Because this isn’t just one Christmas.

“These are many future life events we are planning for because the greater mixing, the greater the number of infections, the greater number of people who will need hospital care and the greater number of people who will not leave that care.”

07:38 AMGerman lockdown ‘unlikely’ to ease soon

A broad lifting of anti-pandemic measures in Germany early next year is unlikely, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, said.

Germany goes into full lockdown on Wednesday to tackle high infection rates.

Braun told broadcaster n-tv he was very optimistic that the stricter measures would help to bring new infection numbers down.

However, during winter and as long as not enough vaccines are available for everyone, “we are going to have some difficult days ahead,” he said. “A comprehensive easing is very, very unlikely.

It came was German Economy Minister, Peter Altmaier, said that he hoped the lockdown it is likely the country can avoid another recession despite the stricter measures.  

“I hope we can prevent a complete economic standstill in the second wave of the pandemic,” he told public radio Deutschlandfunk.

Germany is set to enter the strict lockdown due to the “exponential growth” in coronavirus cases, with restrictions on private gatherings and the closure of shops and schools.  

German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the announcement in Berlin on Sunday after a consultation with state leaders, saying “we are forced to act and we are acting now”.

06:44 AMMayor says London surge is deeply concerning

The surge in coronavirus cases across London is “deeply concerning” and requires further Government action to be brought under control, Sadiq Khan has said.

The Mayor of London wrote to Boris Johnson on Sunday requesting an immediate increase in Covid-19 testing provision across the capital in response to the rising number of infections.

Mr Khan also asked for a compensation scheme for businesses ahead of any further restrictions being imposed on the city.

He warned that moving London from Tier 2 to Tier 3 would have a “catastrophic” economic impact on businesses and put “hundreds of thousands of livelihoods at stake”.

The Government said it will review all tiers in England on December 16.

READ MORE: Sadiq Khan calls for London schools to close as Tier 3 looms after ‘catastrophic’ rise in infections

06:37 AMLatest coronavirus news from around the world…EUROPE

Germany will close most stores from Wednesday until at least January 10, cutting short the busy Christmas shopping season, as it tries to rein in the spread of Covid.

Italy plans to set up primrose-shaped pavilions in its artistic squares to dispense coronavirus vaccines, an official said on Sunday, a day after the country overtook Britain to report the highest official death toll from Covid among European countries.

Moscow will not impose a curfew or curb alcohol sales during the New Year holiday, despite a rise in coronavirus cases, the mayor of the Russian capital was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

The Dutch government is set to decide on stricter measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak in the Netherlands on Monday.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

Eswatini Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini, who tested positive for Covid four weeks ago, has died at age 52 after being hospitalised in neighbouring South Africa.

Nigeria‘s army headquarters is isolating due to a Covid outbreak during an annual conference.

Bahrain said it had approved a Covid vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group and launched online registration for the vaccine for citizens and residents.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune made his first appearance on Sunday since being flown to a hospital in Germany 47 days ago after testing positive for coronavirus.

AMERICAS

United States President Donald Trump suggested that senior White House officials would wait longer for vaccines, hours after media outlets reported senior officials were to receive doses within 10 days.

The first vaccines have landed on Canadian soil, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, and some Canadians are expected to roll up their sleeves for a shot as soon as Monday.

Brazil‘s Supreme Court gave the country’s health minister 48 hours to fix the starting date for a national vaccination program to fight the world’s second-deadliest outbreak of coronavirus.

05:54 AMEmployee at glove manufacturing company dies of Covid

Malaysia’s Top Glove Corp reported on Monday that one of its workers died after contracting Covid-19 – the first death since an outbreak at its dormitories and factories.

The world’s largest glove maker told Reuters that the 29-year-old worker from Nepal passed away on Saturday due to Covid pneumonia with lung fibrosis.

He had worked at the manufacturing facility in Klang, 40km (25 miles) west of the capital Kuala Lumpur, for more than two years, the firm said.

A worker inspects newly made gloves at the Top Glove factory in Shah Alam, Malaysia – REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

The outbreak at Top Glove’s facilities in which more than 5,000 workers tested positive was Malaysia’s largest cluster. The company said it first detected infections on November 2 among workers who took mandatory pre-flight tests in preparation to return home.

As the number of infections rose sharply, the government put in place strict movement controls and ordered the manufacturer to shut its affected factories in stages last month, to assist in screening and quarantine.

Workers told Reuters that social distancing during work was difficult to maintain and not consistently enforced. Dormitory conditions were also often cramped, with up to 20 people in some rooms.

Last week, the manufacturer said during a financial results call that 94pc of workers tested were now fit to return to work.

05:32 AMFather dies of cancer after pandemic delays MRI scan

A father-of-two who had to “beg” to get an MRI scan because of the Covid-19 crisis has died of cancer, his family have revealed.

Sherwin Hall, 27, from Leeds, West Yorkshire, went to hospital on March 23 suffering from leg pain but despite repeated visits he was given only a course of antibiotics for a misdiagnosis of prostatitis.

After “begging for a scan” and 13 hospital visits in four weeks, Mr Hall was finally given an MRI scan on May 26 which revealed a 14cm malignant tumour in his pelvis and 30 small tumours on his lungs.

Sherwin Hall with his wife and child – Emily Green Photography/PA

Before his death, Mr Hall said: “I kept begging them in April and May to give me an MRI scan, but no one would listen.

“Both my GP and my consultant told me that I couldn’t get one because scanning services were slowed down because of the coronavirus.”

His widow, LaTroya Hall, who is being supported by the Catch Up With Cancer Campaign, said: “I am devastated. I have lost the love of my life.

“If Sherwin’s cancer had been found earlier it is likely he would still be here today. He would want me to do everything I can to prevent other families suffering as we have.

“It worries me that the Government and NHS leaders continue to say cancer services are back to normal; our family’s experience has been that, even now, this is simply not the case.

“Even if services were back at pre-pandemic levels, that is not enough. The cancer backlog also needs to be cleared.

“The Government and NHS leaders need to treat this as the crisis it is and urgently boost services so the NHS can catch up with cancer.”

RELATED: While Covid has been prioritised, what has become of the rest of the NHS?

04:56 AMThird wave hits South Korea

The Telegraph’s Asia correspondent Nicola Smith says South Korea has deployed more than 300 special warfare officers to health centres on Monday as the president warned that it would be hard to imagine “how serious the damage will be” if the country was forced into lockdown:

After impressing the world with its robust response to coronavirus, South Korea is now being hit by a third wave that is threatening to overwhelm hospitals. 

On Sunday, the nation’s daily number of infections hit a record high of 1,030 – most of them in the capital region. 

A total of 379 officers from the army’s Special Warfare Command have been dispatched to 79 public health centres in Seoul and its surroundings to help with contact tracing and virus tests. 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday that it was “inevitable” that social-distancing measures would be tightened to the strictest level unless the country’s coronavirus outbreak could be contained.

02:07 AMToday’s top stories



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