Coronavirus latest news: Half of UK cases could be new virus variant amid ‘sharp’ increase in spread

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    Half of coronavirus cases in the UK could be the new variant of the disease, new data show, amid a ‘sharp’ increase in the spread of the virus.

    In England 49 per cent of newly-diagnosed cases could be the VUI-202012/01 variant, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

    The Nervtag advisory group has said it was “highly confident” that the new variant is more transmissible, which led to the introduction of stringent ‘stay-at-home’ restrictions for millions of Britons across the south and south-east of England.

    The latest ONS data also suggest positive cases are increasingly “sharply” across swathes of the UK, with one in 85 people in England now testing positive – rising to one in 60 in Wales.

    London now has the highest rate of people testing positive, with an estimated 2.1 per cent of people in private households testing positive for the virus.

    It comes as a scientist who sits on the Government’s SAGE advisory board said that people intending to see their families tomorrow should “reconsider” their plans in light of the new variant.

    Dame Anne Johnson, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London, told the BBC that those wanting to see households as part of ‘Christmas bubbles’ tomorrow should “think very carefully”.

    Follow the latest updates below. 

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    1:25PM

    Secondary school children see highest infection rates of Covid-19, new figures show

    Secondary school children are the age group where Covid-19 is most rampant, the latest official statistics show as pressure grows on ministers to close schools, writes Steve Bird

    Rates of infection among youngsters in Year 7 to Year 11 is the highest among the entire population, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show.

    Gavin Williamson, U.K. education secretary, departs following a weekly meeting of cabinet ministers in London

    Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has argued that schools must remain open to ensure children’s “progress and well-being”.

    Credit:
    Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

    When modelling the level of infection among those children aged between 11 and 16 it was calculated that just under three per cent had coronavirus.

    The research has compounded fears the new UK strain of Covid-19 is spreading fastest among children.

    Throughout England one in 85 people have the virus, a level described by one professor as “worryingly high”.  

    • Full story: 11-16-year-olds have highest Covid rates
    • Gavin Williamson: ‘We must keep schools open for the sake of our children’
    • Telegraph View: The PM must resist pressure to close schools again
    1:17PM

    New Covid variant could make up half of all UK cases, finds weekly ONS study

    Half of coronavirus cases in the UK could be the new variant of the disease, new data show, amid a ‘sharp’ increase in the spread of the virus.

    In England 49 per cent of newly-diagnosed cases could be the VUI-202012/01 variant, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

    The Nervtag advisory group has said it was “highly confident” that the new variant is more transmissible, which led to the introduction of stringent ‘stay-at-home’ restrictions for millions of Britons across the south and south-east of England.

    The latest ONS data also suggest positive cases are increasingly “sharply” across swathes of the UK, with one in 85 people in England now testing positive – rising to one in 60 in Wales.

    London now has the highest rate of people testing positive, with an estimated 2.1 per cent of people in private households testing positive for the virus.

    12:56PM

    Coronavirus vaccine: 520,000 Britons have now had first dose

    More than 520,000 Britons have now had their first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, according to official NHS figures.

    A total of 521,594 Britons were given the first dose of a vaccine up to December 20, and 70.3 per cent of these were over the age of 80.

    Professor Stephen Powis, the NHS national medical director, said: “This vaccine presents a number of complex logistical challenges.

    D-Day veteran and Chelsea Pensioner Bob (Robert) James Sullivan, 98, a resident at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, London, is injected with the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine by Pippa Nightingale, 

    D-Day veteran and Chelsea Pensioner Bob (Robert) James Sullivan, 98, was injected with the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine yesterday.

    Credit:
    Aaron Chown/PA

    “But the NHS response has been nothing short of phenomenal, with hundreds of hospitals and local vaccination centres stood up across the country.”

    Datasets about how many people have received the vaccine, which will include a demographic breakdown, are to be released every week by NHS England.

    12:38PM

    Test and Trace figures released as system changes take effect

    The most recent figures for the NHS Test and Trace programme have been released today.

    However it is no longer possible to compare how many contacts have been reached with historical data after changes in how contact tracing is reported.

    Under the old system, where all contacts were traced individually, 60.5 per cent of close contacts were reached in the week ending November 18, which was broadly consistent with previous and subsequent figures.

    Under the new system, where contacts within one household can be recorded as having been reached via a single phone call to one person, 92.6 per cent of close contacts were reached in the week ending December 16.

    12:20PM

    Wales coronavirus deaths rise by 63

    There have been a further 2,161 cases of coronavirus in Wales, the country’s public health authority has confirmed, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 133,263.

    Public Health Wales (PHW) reported another 63 deaths, taking the total in Wales since the start of the pandemic to 3,263.

    It comes after figures from PHW showed that there have been almost 2,500 infections linked to hospital outbreaks since October.

    Around 90 British Army soldiers are currently helping Welsh paramedics in their response to the coronavirus crisis as part of an unprecedented arrangement.

    Welsh services have struggled under the weight of the highest case rates in the UK, staff absences, and a poor “flow” through hospitals.

    12:00PM

    London Nightingale hospital left without intensive care beds

    Staff shortages have left London’s flagship Nightingale hospital empty without any equipment or its 4,000 intensive care beds, despite Covid cases doubling in the capital.

    One of seven built at the start of the pandemic at a cost of £220 million, the Nightingale hospital, at the ExCel Centre, was shut and placed on standby soon after, although 90 per cent of the building has returned to how it was previously. 

     A view of the Excel Centre, which was used during the first national lockdown as the London NHS Nightingale Hospital and is a proposed mass immunisation centre site

    A view of the Excel Centre, which was used during the first national lockdown as the London NHS Nightingale Hospital

    Credit:
    Vickie Flores/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

    The Nightingale at Birmingham’s NEC and the one in Sunderland are also empty but on standby, while Manchester’s was open for “non-Covid care”, with those at Exeter and Harrogate being used as “specialist diagnostics centres” and Bristol’s deployed for “local NHS services”. 

    The Royal College of Emergency medicine said: “With regard to the Nightingale Hospitals, the challenge is safely staffing them. A bed requires nurses, doctors, pharmacists, anaesthetists in some cases, porters, cleaners.

    “The health service already faces staff shortages in many hospitals and some staff are also self-isolating or off sick due to Covid-19.”

    Charles Hymas  has the story in full.

    11:35AM

    Tier 4 delivers Christmas nightmare for retailers

    More than 170,000 businesses have already been forced to shut by Tier 4 restrictions amid a disastrous slump in footfall just before Christmas – with another 50,000 to close from Boxing Day as the rules are expanded, Tim Wallace reports.

    The new regime has already closed more than 130,000 shops, 8,500 pubs, 3,700 hair and beauty salons and 1,000 gyms in London and swathes of the South east and east of England , according to consultant Altus Group.

    It will be expanded in two days’ time to include Sussex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.

    Tier 4 rules have forced non-essential shops to close and have already wrecked the vital Christmas shopping season in much of the country since they were announced on Saturday.

    The number of visitors to high streets was down by more than half on Monday and Tuesday this week compared to the same days last year, according to data from Springboard. Retail parks performed better, but are still down almost one-fifth on 2019’s performance.

    Read the full story here.

    11:26AM

    Pfizer coronavirus vaccine could be limited to one jab per patient

    The Government is considering proposals to limit people to just one dose of the Covid jab in order to allow more people to be vaccinated as quickly as possible, writes our health editor Laura Donnelly.

    Whitehall sources said “live conversations” are going on with regulators after calls for the move were made by a number of experts, including the Government’s former director of immunisation.

    Professor David Salisbury, who led the programme at the Department of Health until 2013, said he would “strongly urge” the Government to use the current doses available on as many risk groups as possible.

    He said the new variant of the virus, which is spreading rapidly, “concerns him very greatly” and “adds even more reason” for giving people just one dose.

    “I would be telling people [that if we did this] we are going to be saving more lives,” Prof Salisbury told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

    Read more: Former immunisation director among those calling for ‘aggressive’ jab programme

    11:12AM

    New Covid variant could make up two-thirds of London cases

    Approximately two-thirds of recent positive cases in London, eastern England and south-east England could be the new variant of Covid-19, the Office for National Statistics found.

    Of positive cases in London between December 14 to 18, 68 per cent were estimated to be genetically compatible with the new variant.

    The estimate is 65 per cent in the east and south-east of England. For the nation as a whole, the Office for National Statistics estimated 49 per cent of new cases could be the new variant among those in private households.

    • Explained: Will the new Covid-19 strain respond to the vaccine?
    • How dangerous is the new variant of the virus?
    11:07AM

    Donald Trump demands changes to $900bn coronavirus relief bill

    Donald Trump has threatened to torpedo a $900 billion coronavirus relief package unless Congress agreed to increase direct stimulus payments to ordinary Americans.

    The president demanded that proposed cheques of $600 to individuals and $2,400 for a family of four be bumped up to $2,000 and $4,000 respectively.

    Mr Trump lambasted “wasteful” spending in the bill, which included aid to foreign countries.

    In a four-minute video address he said: “A few months ago, Congress started negotiations on a new package to get urgently needed help to the American people. It’s taken forever.

    “However, the bill they are now planning to send back to my desk is much different than anticipated. It really is a disgrace.”

    10:51AM

    ‘British’ Covid variant may have circulated in Italy for months

    The so-called ‘British’ variant of the coronavirus may have been circulating in Italy for weeks or months but there is no particular cause for alarm over it, says the head of the Italian Pharmacology Agency, writes Nick Squires.

    Giorgio Palu says it is no surprise that the variant was detected in an Italian man yesterday who had not traveled to Britain and has no links with the UK. He lives in the town of Loreto in the Marche region of central Italy.

    The professor of virology says the strain has an evolutionary advantage over other strains that are in circulation but does not seem to be more dangerous.

    It is “possible” that it has been in Italy since September, he says.  “In some Italian regions, such as Veneto, the infection curve looks very similar to the British curve,” he told Corriere della Sera newspaper. “The UK detected the new strain because the British have a strong capacity in this sort of research.

    Italian Red Cross medical staff perform rapid antigenic swabs in Civitavecchia near Rome, Italy,

    Italian Red Cross medical staff performing rapid antigen swab tests in Civitavecchia, near Rome.

    Credit:
    Giuseppe Lami/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

    “They have a sequencing system which is the best in the world.” The case of the mutant strain was detected by Prof Stefano Menza in a laboratory in the Adriatic port of Ancona.

    “If the variant has arrived in the Marche, a region which is lightly populated, and in a family without any direct or indirect contacts with Great Britain, then I imagine it must be present in other, more populated regions as well.”

    10:38AM

    A celebrity-filled performance of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas from Prince Charles and friends

    It is the quintessence of Christmas Eve, a much-loved festive poem read by generations as children await the arrival of the big man himself, writes Victoria Ward.

    And the Prince of Wales is hoping that his own recording of Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, featuring a host of national treasures from Dame Judi Dench to Dame Maggie Smith, will “make a few people smile” at the close of a difficult year.

    The Prince came up with the idea of an ensemble reading after an approach from the Actors’ Benevolent Fund (ABF), having heard first-hand about the difficulties the theatre and film industries have faced throughout the pandemic.

    Watch the video below:

    10:31AM

    Christmas bubbles: Household mixing plans should be ‘reconsidered’, says Sage member

    A member of the Government’s SAGE advisory body has called on people planning to see relatives on Christmas Day to ‘reconsider’ in light of surging infections due to the new variant, reports Mike Wright.

     Dame Anne Johnson, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at UCL, said people had to ‘think carefully’ about the risks of infecting relatives they visit in person.

    Here comments come as around 18 million people have been placed into Tier 4 restrictions, which ban any mixing on Christmas Day, with millions more are set to go into the highest tier from Boxing Day.

    However, millions of families in Tiers 1 to 3 are currently allowed to mix with one other household on Christmas Day.

    Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Dame Johson said: “I would really urge everybody to think very carefully. It is not too late to reconsider your plans and there are people who are going to get ill over the next few days and they absolutely must not mix with other people – they must self isolate. 

    “Everybody has to think very carefully about those risks, balancing the needs for people of both their health issues and social issues of those who are very extremely isolated.”

    10:06AM

    Intensive care beds in Milton Keynes are full, says hospital chief

    The chief executive of Milton Keynes hospital has warned that its intensive care beds are all full and new Covid patients will have to be transferred to other hospitals, reports Mike Wright.

    Professor Joe Harrison said this hospital was busier than at other point in the pandemic, with Covid admissions 50 percent higher than in March.

    Speaking on the today programme, he said his team expected more Covid patients to come in over the next two weeks and in discussion training hospitals in Oxford about sending critical patients to their ‘super centres’.

    “Our intensive care unit here is full of all Covid patients and that is nine beds that we have available to us,” he said.

    “Should we see a further increase we have further capacity we can call upon from our neighbouring organisations, which would mean transferring patients out.

    “What we will do is for patients that require that higher intensity of care we will make a clinical decision about whether there is a patient we can step down from critical care or who will need transferring out.”

    Prof. Harrison added: “We haven’t in the first wave or the second wave had to transfer any patients out as yet.”

    10:03AM

    One in 85 had coronavirus last week, according to Office for National Statistics

    One in 85 people in private households – or 1.18 per cent of the population – had coronavirus between December 12 and December 18, according to an estimate from the Office for National Statistics.

    This represents a rise from 567,300 (one in 95) in the previous week. The estimate does not consider hospital and care home settings.

    Rates of the virus remain highest among children aged between 11 and 16, the ONS said.

    Case rates have increased in all groups except for those aged 50 to 69, where there have been early signs of an increase, and for those aged 70 and over, where there are early signs of a decrease.

    9:41AM

    30 minute Covid tests rolled out as festive deal struck to end lorry chaos

    Cross channel ferries and trains are to run through Christmas Day to help end the lorry chaos in Kent after the British and French Governments struck a deal to cancel the festive break, report Charles Hymas and Anna Pujol-Mazzini.

    Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, announced on Twitter that they had agreed the UK-French border at Eurotunnel, Dover and Calais would remain open throughout Christmas “in order to help hauliers & citizens return home as soon as possible.”  

    Some 10,000 hauliers are stranded in Kent and elsewhere in the UK waiting to have their 30-minute Covid tests so that they can travel to France under a separate UK-French deal on Tuesday to end France’s 48 hour travel ban.

    Lorries queue on the M20 motorway to enter the Port of Dover following the coronavirus disease outbreak

    Lorries queuing on the M20 to enter the Port of Dover this morning.

    Credit:
    Matthew Childs/Reuters

    Furious lorry drivers clashed with police on Wednesday as they vented their frustration at delays in being tested and getting home for Christmas.  

    Overnight talks between Mr Shapps and his french counterpart Jean Baptiste Djebbari led to agreement with the ferry companies, port authorities, border police and unions, who had initially been reported to be opposed.  

    However, Christophe Fontaine, the delegate for the CFDT, the main union for the Calais port, confirmed staff will work in “solidarity” with the truckers on December 24 and 25 to help get them home. 

    • Read more: Channel ferries and trains to run through Christmas
    • Tempers boil over in Dover’s ‘Operation Stuck’
    9:30AM

    Dover news: Drivers receive tests from French officials

    French officials test a driver at the Port of Dover, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Dover, Britain, December 24, 202

    A driver is tested by French officials at the Port of Dover this morning.

    Credit:
    Simon Dawson/Reuters

    Another driver receives a Covid test at Dover.

    Another driver receives a Covid test at Dover.

    Credit:
    Simon Dawson/Reuters

    9:21AM

    Coronavirus vaccine order based on ‘wrong priorities’, says Prue Leith

    Prue Leith, the Great British Bake Off judge, has said that people of her age should not be prioritised for the Covid vaccine but should be left to “take our chance”.

    The 80-year-old chef, restaurateur and cookery writer said priority should be given to younger people who have a productive career and a full life ahead of them.

    Her comments, on The Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast, are likely to cause anger among relatives of older people waiting for the vaccine, which is being rolled out across Britain on the basis of age and vulnerability.

    Leith, who at 80 was photographed receiving her Covid-19 vaccine last week, said: “I was delighted and rather thrilled to be asked to have a vaccine so early on the first day.

    “I’ve never felt vulnerable. And in fact, to be absolutely honest, although I was very glad to get the vaccine and grateful for it, I think it’s the wrong priorities.”

    • Patrick Sawer has the full story
    • Listen to The Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast
    8:58AM

    New virus strain maybe more infectious for people who have already had Covid, senior government advisor warns

    Professor Peter Horby, chair of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) advisory body, warned this morning that the new strain of the virus could be more infectious to people who have already had Covid, as well as potentially making the vaccine ‘less effective’.

    Earlier in the pandemic, it had been hoped that people who had already contracted Covid would have effective immunity that would help strengthen the population’s overall resistance to the virus. There had even been discussions over the possibility of ‘immunity passports’ for those who had had the virus, which would allow them to ignore certain government restrictions.

    However, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme Thursday morning, Prof. Horby, warned the new variant of the virus, which is thought to have originated in South Africa, has concerning mutations in its receptor-binding domain, which determines how easy a virus is to catch and also for the immune system to fight off.

    He said: “Those two reasons are why this virus is a worry. It may be more infectious, so it may make it more difficult to control. And these three mutations that are in the receptor-binding domain may have an effect on the ability of antibodies to neutralise the virus. 

    “That may mean it is easier to get reinfected and it may mean that antibody-based therapies and vaccines may be less effective. Now we don’t know that for sure until the laboratory experiments are done. But the structural data would suggest that is a possibility.”

    8:56AM

    Prue Leith: Don’t prioritise the elderly for Covid vaccine

    Prue Leith, the Great British Bake Off judge, has said that people of her age should not be prioritised for the Covid vaccine but should be left to “take our chance”.

    The 80-year-old chef, restaurateur and cookery writer said priority should be given to younger people who have a productive career and a full life ahead of them.

    Her comments, on The Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast, are likely to cause anger among relatives of older people waiting for the vaccine, which is being rolled out across Britain on the basis of age and vulnerability.

    Leith, who at 80 was photographed receiving her Covid-19 vaccine last week, said: “I was delighted and rather thrilled to be asked to have a vaccine so early on the first day.

    “I’ve never felt vulnerable. And in fact, to be absolutely honest, although I was very glad to get the vaccine and grateful for it, I think it’s the wrong priorities.”

    Patrick Sawer has the full story.

    8:38AM

    Tier 4 lockdown: Which areas will move Tier on Boxing Day?

    Tier 4 will be extended across parts of England on Boxing Day to combat a second, more contagious strain of coronavirus.

    The stringent ‘stay-at-home’ restrictions were introduced for the first time on December 20 in London and the South-East, imposing restrictions akin to a full lockdown and effectively cancelling Christmas for millions.

    Non-essential retail, hairdressers and indoor gyms are closed, with Britons in affected areas unable to meet more than one person from another household in an outdoor, public space.

    Matt Hancock yesterday confirmed that Sussex, Oxfordshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, the remainder of Essex, Waverley, and Hampshire excluding the New Forest will enter Tier 4 from Saturday onward.

    Read more on the latest rules and changes here.

    7:59AM

    Current infections surge worse than first wave, Sage member says

    Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and member of the Government’s scientific advisory body, has tweeted that the current rise in Covid infections is now worse that the first wave of the virus.

    He said that the latest mortality figures of 744 deaths lay bare the scale of the ongoing infections as improvements in treatments now mean around a third more of patients are surviving compared to the beginning of the year. 

    6:54AM

    Sharon Osbourne back home after hospital spell 

    Sharon Osbourne is back home with rockstar husband Ozzy after testing negative for Covid-19.

    The former X Factor judge, 68, revealed earlier this month she had been diagnosed with the virus and was isolating herself from 72-year-old Ozzy.

    Now, Osbourne said she has had two negative test results and is “so grateful” to be back home.

    She posted a picture of a masked Ozzy sitting next to the couple’s dogs.

    View this post on Instagram

    A post shared by Sharon Osbourne (@sharonosbourne)

    Osbourne said: “Got the ok to go home after two negative test results and look at the joy waiting for me!

    “So grateful to be home for the holidays and thank you all so much for your love and support. Stay safe and wishing you the happiest of holidays.”

    5:27AM

    Singapore records first new strain from UK

    Singapore has confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus variant found in the United Kingdom, the city-state said, while 11 others who were already in quarantine had returned preliminarily positive results for the new strain.

    All the cases, which were imported from Europe, had been placed in 14-day quarantine at dedicated facilities or isolated upon arrival, and their close contacts had been quarantined earlier.

    “There is currently no evidence that the B117 strain is circulating in the community,” Singapore’s health ministry said late on Wednesday, referring to the new, potentially more infectious UK strain.

    Singapore has been conducting viral genomic sequencing for confirmed Covid-19 cases who arrived from Europe recently.

    The strain was found among 31 cases from Europe, who arrived in Singapore between Nov. 17 and Dec. 17 and were confirmed to have Covid-19 this month.

    The patient with the new variant came to Singapore from the UK on Dec. 6, had been quarantined on arrival and tested positive on Dec. 8. All her close contacts had been placed on quarantine, and had tested negative at the end of their quarantine period.

    The health ministry said it had been able to ring-fence the case so that there was no further transmission.

    A family walks through the departure hall of the Changi Airport in Singapore

    A family walks through the departure hall of the Changi Airport in Singapore

    Credit:
    EPA

    4:04AM

    Sydney residents told to stay home for Christmas

    Millions of Sydney residents were asked to limit their mobility over the Christmas holidays, with some families in lockdown and festive gatherings limited to 10 visitors indoors, as officials try to contain a Covid-19 outbreak.

    Australia’s most populous city has been virtually isolated from the rest of the country with state border closures or mandatory 14-day quarantine for Sydney arrivals.

    “Please limit your mobility,” New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney on Thursday. “Apart from those close family gatherings, which we have allowed over the Christmas break, we don’t want people moving around unless you absolutely have to.”

    The neighbouring state of Victoria on Thursday advised its residents not to “hug or kiss” any visitors who had been in Sydney in the past 10 days.

    Christmas has been cut short in Sydney this year

    Christmas has been cut short in Sydney this year

    Credit:
    GETTY IMAGES

    3:09AM

    Today’s top stories

    • The Government is considering proposals to limit people to just one dose of the Covid jab in order to allow more people to be vaccinated as quickly as possible

    • Almost half the country will be in Tier 4 lockdown from Boxing Day under measures announced by Matt Hancock as he warned that another mutant Covid strain has been found in Britain

    • Two cases of a “highly concerning” new coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa have been detected in the UK, triggering stringent new quarantine restrictions on anyone arriving from the rainbow nation

    • The new Oxford vaccine is a step closer to green light with regulators now considering full data, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has announced

    • Staff shortages have left London’s flagship Nightingale hospital empty without any equipment or its 4,000 intensive care beds, despite Covid cases doubling in the capital

    • Fears over when schools will be able to return are growing after Government scientists said the “fundamental question” is how the new Covid mutation affects children

    • Furious lorry drivers stranded in the UK by the French travel ban clashed with police on Wednesday as they vented their frustration at delays in being tested and getting home for Christmas