Here are the headlines for Wednesday, December 15, as the South African GP who first discovered the Omicron variant has accused the UK of “over-reacting” with talk of new lockdowns.
Dr Angelique Coetzee told Sky News that many of her patients have mild symptoms and there is a “huge gap” between “the science and what is actually happening”.
“If Omicron really were such a deadly variant, we would expect the numbers to have shot up, yet that simply isn’t happening here.,” she said. “This makes it all the more peculiar to see what’s happening in the UK.
“This huge over-reaction is scaring people unnecessarily, and if your Government does decide go to for a hard lockdown in the New Year, that could end up doing far more harm than good.”
Read more: See the latest Covid headlines
She added that the UK is a much better vaccinated than in South Africa.
Describing the Delta variant as “terrible”, she said they knew they were in trouble from the start, but that she had not witnessed similar scenes with Omicron.
But her comments came as the World Health Organisation’s director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned people they underestimate coronavirus at their peril, as he voiced concerns the Omicron variant is being dismissed by some as “mild”.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has told MPs that even if it did turn out to be less severe than the Delta variant, the fact it was so easily spread meant “it still has the potential to overwhelm the NHS”.
In Wales, the public have been told to prepare for more restrictions in the coming days, but health minister Eluned Morgan insisted politicians do not want to “cancel Christmas”. The next review of restrictions is expected to be announced on Friday, amid warnings that they are expected to be increased. What the health minister said about restrictions and Christmas here.
Downing Street did not reject a suggestion that new Omicron cases could hit a million per day next week based on a “valid” estimate from the UK Health Security Agency that daily infections are currently around 200,000.
In Scotland, people have been urged to limit their mixing by socialising with only up to two other households indoors either side of Christmas.
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, politicians also backed mandatory Covid certification regulations for patrons wishing to access nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises.
From 4am on Wednesday, hotel quarantine for travellers arriving in England is abandoned, with all 11 countries on the red list removed because the spread of Omicron in the UK was deemed to mean the measure to prevent cases being imported was less effective. Read more about the restrictions lifted here.
Blow for PM as over 100 Tory MPs vote against covid rules in Commons rebellion
Boris Johnson is facing intense pressure on his leadership after his party dealt him his biggest rebellion since he became Prime Minister two-and-a-half years ago.
The PM will be hoping the dissatisfaction among his MPs – which saw nearly 100 backbenchers defy the party whip to vote against the Government on Tuesday – is not felt more widely, as the Conservatives battle to keep the seat of North Shropshire in a key by-election on Thursday.
It comes after nearly a third of his MPs voted against the introduction of mandatory Covid passes in nightclubs and large venues, with many saying they were unhappy about the way Mr Johnson was leading the country and his party.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee, said that a leadership challenge has “got to be on the cards” for Mr Johnson in the new year if he did not change the way he worked with his MPs.
While former Tory chief whip and leading rebel Mark Harper said: “You either listen and you respond and you do things differently or you ignore what you have been told and you plough on regardless and then this will happen over and over again.”
Some 126 MPs voted against regulations to make Covid passes – also known as vaccine passports – mandatory in some venues, with fines for establishments that refused or those who faked the documentation.
This included 97 Conservatives, according to the division list, but Tory MP Steve Baker said he believed there were two more votes against – which had not been reported in the list – bringing the total to 99 Conservative rebels, plus two tellers for the noes.
In recent months, division lists have been updated to include names not initially published.
The measures still passed, as Labour had supported the Government in the vote.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The Prime Minister needs to take a long, hard look at himself and ask himself whether he has the authority to take this country through the pandemic. This is a very significant blow for him.”
Other measures under the Government’s Plan B also cleared the Commons, including to drop the requirement to isolate and instead do daily Covid tests for those fully vaccinated people who are contacts of a positive Covid case.
MPs also approved mandatory vaccinations for NHS and social care staff by April 2022 and the requirement to wear face coverings to more indoor spaces in England – including museums and galleries.
Schools in fourth area of Wales shutting early
Ceredigion is the latest area in Wales to close schools early before Christmas as it records the second highest increase in Covid in all of the country.
Ceredigion council confirmed that all pupils will move to distanced learning from Monday, December 20, in a bid to “safeguard our children, staff, families and communities”.
Four Welsh councils have now said they will end face-to-face lessons on Friday, December 17, and learn from home until term ends officially on December 21.
Read what every council in Wales has said about closing schools early before Christmas and delaying pupils returning in January here.
On Monday, Denbighshire Council announced that pupils in the county will end face-to-face lessons on Friday (December 17) and learn from home until term ends officially on December 21. That came after a similar decision was made in Anglesey, where most pupils will learn from home after this Friday. Wrexham has now followed suit, with on-site learning ending on Friday.
Ceredigion council said: “This decision has been taken to safeguard our children, staff, families and communities by reducing contact to prevent the spread of the virus. Ceredigion’s case rate has shown the second highest increase of all local authorities in Wales over the past seven days and cases of the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, are rising rapidly in Wales.”
Chris Whitty fronts sombre television advert
England’s top medic urged people to “please, get boosted now” in a sombre television advert, as the rollout has been extended to everyone aged 18 and above.
He said every adult “needs” to get a booster jab in the face of the “highly infectious” variant.
And told viewers: “Boosters give you the best possible protection against the virus and should significantly reduce your risk of serious illness and hospitalisation.”
Prof Whitty had already warned the Cabinet of a “significant increase in hospitalisations” from Omicron, and Mr Johnson told ministers to expect a “huge spike” in infections.
The stark messages came as almost 60,000 new Covid-19 cases were reported, the highest total since January 9, driven by the surge in the highly-transmissible variant.
Prof Whitty also said it is “too early to say how severe” the strain is after suggestions from South Africa that it could be relatively mild.
In Wales, all available clinical staff in Wales will be redeployed to vaccination centres as the booster scheme i s accelerated.
Walk-in lanes are also being introduced at some mass vaccination centres as administrators aim to offer jabs to up to 60,000 people a day before the end of December.
Welsh Government health minister Eluned Morgan used the Welsh Government press conference on Tuesday to explain how they will try to meet a target of offering all adults in Wales boosters by the end of the December. There is now Omicron in every health board area in Wales, she said, and delivering boosters is the “number one priority”. See live updates from the press conference here.
Downing Street staff reportedly told to ‘go out the back’ after quiz
No 10 staff who stayed in Downing Street to take part in a Christmas quiz were told to “go out the back”, it has been alleged.
The Daily Mirror reported that the quiz on December 15 – which the Prime Minister helped to host – had been held virtually, but with many taking part from the office.
No 10 previously said that Downing Street staff were “often required to be in the office to work on the pandemic response” during the various lockdowns.
And therefore “those who were in the office for work may have attended virtually from their desks”.
But the Mirror said a message sent by No 10’s head of HR on the night advised that those who had stayed behind to take part “go out the back” when they left.
A Government spokesperson said: “Given there is an ongoing review, it would be inappropriate to comment while that is ongoing.”
An image published by the Sunday Mirror showed the Prime Minister flanked by colleagues, one draped in tinsel and another wearing a Santa hat, in the No 10 library.
The newspaper quoted a source who said many staff were huddled by computers in their Downing Street offices, conferring on questions and drinking alcohol while the quiz was taking place.
Tier 2 restrictions in London on December 15 said there could be no mixing of households indoors, apart from support bubbles, and a maximum of six people outside.
It comes as the former Conservative mayoral hopeful Shaun Bailey quit as chairman of the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee on Tuesday.
His resignation as chairman of the committee came shortly before The Mirror published a photograph of him and other staff at a party in Conservative headquarters.
The image showed 24 people with drinks, and buffet food laid out.
The Tories previously admitted the party had taken place on December 14, when London was in Tier 2 restrictions, and said that staff had been disciplined.
And the GLA Conservatives confirmed on Tuesday that Mr Bailey had stepped back from the role.
In a statement, they said: “Shaun Bailey AM has today stood aside as chairman of the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee.
“He does not want an unauthorised social gathering involving some former members of the London mayoral campaign team last December to distract from the committee’s important work holding the Mayor of London to account.
“He will continue to speak up for Londoners who no longer feel safe in our city and push for a strategy to tackle the disproportionate level of crime in London’s black community.”
A Tory spokesman previously said: “Senior CCHQ (Conservative Campaign Headquarters) staff became aware of an unauthorised social gathering in the basement of Matthew Parker Street organised by the Bailey campaign on the evening of December 14.
“Formal disciplinary action was taken against the four CCHQ staff who were seconded to the Bailey campaign.”
But on Tuesday, Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said the newly-revealed photo showed “just how rotten Johnson’s Conservative Party has become”.
She said: “The image of Bailey and his mates living it up at Conservative HQ while the British public were locked down and the NHS was saving lives, is another punch to the stomach to everyone who followed the rules.
“From No 10 to Tory HQ, the slew of rule-breaking revelations show that Boris Johnson has set a very low bar for standards within his party and his presence in Downing Street is eroding public trust.”
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has been tasked with investigating alleged gatherings or parties held in Government buildings during restrictions.
It has been suggested he could come back with his findings as early as this week.
Celebrity chef warns ‘restaurants will crumble’ after hundreds cancel bookings
Michelin starred chef Tom Kerridge has warned “places will crumble without help” due to any new restrictions and fears over the new Omicron , echoing concerns raised by music venues who say they are on the brink of collapse.
He posted a video on Instagram showing pages and pages of cancelled bookings at one of his restaurants in the past six days – totalling 654 guests.
“I completely understand why and have no problem with them letting us know,” he said. “Public health is THE most important thing. The problem is what will the government do to support the hospitality industry? Many places are going to crumble without help….
“And before some gammon-faced idiot says ‘you can afford it fat lad!’ … yes I probably can, but this isn’t about me or my restaurants. It’s about our industry and people’s livelihoods.”
Mandatory NHS vaccination branded ‘heavy-handed’ by GMB
The trade union for more than 600,000 workers has described new legislation imposing mandatory vaccines for NHS and non-residential social care staff as “heavy-handed”.
GMB national secretary Rehana Azam said the compulsory jab would deepen the staffing “black hole” in the NHS.
“GMB’s position is consistent – we are opposed to legally enforced medical procedures as a condition of employment – it’s heavy-handed and will deepen the health service’s devastating staff black hole,” she said in a statement.
“Our union has encouraged take up of the vaccine and booster jabs, but the Government needs to look beyond strong-arm tactics.
“While they’re asking front line workers to go above and beyond once again, they are still not paying these workers properly.”
Dozens of Conservative MPs opposed the introduction of vaccinations on Tuesday evening, before the measure was passed by the Commons.
GMB said its members are facing mandatory vaccination while also enduring a “wage crisis” and “cost of living crisis”.
“That’s not good enough and it’s got to be confronted,” Ms Azam said.
“All political parties supporting these measures should understand our key workers must be paid properly – it’s the least they deserve for everything they are doing for all of us.”
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