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Covid briefing as Mark Drakeford warns Wales to brace for ‘difficult’ January as he shares latest Omicron case predictions

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Here are the coronavirus morning headlines for Sunday, January 2, as the First Minister reiterated his warning that Wales is set to experience “challenging weeks” in January as the Omicron variant has become dominant in all parts of the country.

Mark Drakeford said that latest figures showed that more than 10,400 people tested positive in Wales on Thursday, December 30, as infection rates continued to rise but added that modelling shows the peak is still expected towards the end of this month.

Speaking on BBC Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement show he said: “The data shows us that Omicron is now apparent in all parts of Wales, and has become the dominant form of coronavirus. On December 30, 10,400 new people fell ill with coronavirus in Wales on a single day and the positivity rate is now 37% – a really, really high figure.

“The difficult January that we could see coming is with us and the protections that are in place are necessary to help us get through the challenging weeks ahead.

“The modelling shows that we will see the peak towards the end of the month, that we will see a rapid rise to the peak, and then – compared to earlier waves – a relatively rapid decline as it goes through Wales and out the other side.”

The First Minister was also asked about the scientists who had advised a four-week lockdown should be introduced.

The Technical Advisory Cell (TAC) – which looks at data and models how different restrictions would work – said alert level four (full lockdown) measures for two weeks from December 27 would be the best way forward. Read more details of that report here.

Mr Drakeford said: “The advice we are given changes day by day as more information is fed into the model. We feel the measures we took, the level two measures, were proportionate at the time that we took them.

“We have had this long-standing argument with the Treasury in London. When ministers in England decided that they need to move up the levels they know that they can draw on Treasury money to do so. We, as are Scotland and Northern Ireland, are not in that same position so we would not be able to move to level four on our own.”

Asked what 2022 means for coronavirus he said: “We were living with coronavirus in a pretty reasonable way as we came through the summer and into the autumn. If we can make our way back as fast as possible to that point in this year then I think we will be moving into the territory where living with the disease becomes something we are able to manage while getting on with almost everything we want to do in our lives.

“But while the rich west fails to support the rest of the world in making sure other countries are vaccinated then somewhere out there a new variant brewing and we may not be so lucky next time. There is a huge a job for the world to do as no-one is safe until everyone is safe from this awful disease.”

Plans being drawn up for workplace absences

Boris Johnson has tasked ministers with developing “robust contingency plans” for workplace absences as the UK Government acknowledged high Covid levels could hit businesses hard over the coming weeks.

Public sector leaders have been asked to prepare for a worst-case scenario of up to 25% of staff off work as the virus continues to sweep across the country, the Cabinet Office said.

Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is chairing “regular meetings” with ministers to assess how the highly-transmissible Omicron variant is affecting workforces and supply chains.

He is also keeping close tabs on the situation in schools ahead of pupils returning for the new term.

The department said Mr Johnson has charged ministers with working with their respective sectors to test preparations and contingency plans to limit disruption from mounting Covid infections.

It acknowledged that, despite the accelerated booster programme, high Covid levels and the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant could mean businesses and public services face further disruption in the weeks to come.

The news comes amid reports that work-from-home guidance in England could be set to roll on for most of January.

The Cabinet Office claimed that, so far, disruption caused by Omicron has been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”.

But it said public sector leaders have been asked to test plans against “worst-case scenarios” of 10%, 20% and 25% workforce absence rates.

In December England’s education secretary Nadim Zahawi called on ex-teachers to help with Covid-related staff shortages in the new year.

The plea came amid reports that some schools were experiencing very low attendance among teachers and pupils ahead of the Christmas break.

Labour claimed the Prime Minister had previously gone missing “for days on end” when he should have been instructing ministers to draft contingency plans.

Deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Boris Johnson’s lack of leadership means his government has dithered and delayed, leaving contingency planning to the very last moment.

“Boris Johnson should have instructed his ministers to start planning weeks ago but instead he went missing for days on end.

“With record Covid infection numbers the Prime Minister must immediately get a grip on workforce pressures, keep essential services moving, keep schools open, and keep people safe.”

Omicron is ‘less likely to damage lungs’

The Omicron variant is more likely to infect the throat than the lungs, according to several reports.

Scientists believe it may explain why it appears to be more infectious but less deadly than other variants.

Six studies – four published since Christmas Eve – have found that Omicron does not damage people’s lungs as much as Delta and other previous variants of Covid. The studies have yet to be peer-reviewed by other scientists.

Deenan Pillay, professor of virology at University College London, told The Guardian : “The result of all the mutations that make Omicron different from previous variants is that it may have altered its ability to infect different sorts of cells.

“In essence it looks to be more able to infect the upper respiratory tract – cells in the throat. So it would multiply in cells there more readily than in cells deep in the lung. This is really preliminary but the studies point in the same direction.”

Masks back in English classrooms

Masks are returning to classrooms in England and plans are being drawn up for possible absence levels of up to a quarter of public sector workers as Omicron continues to spread across the country.

The Welsh Government announced in November that all staff and learners in secondary schools, colleges, and universities should now wear face coverings indoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained. Details of that announcement are here while the latest updated guidance for schools in Wales is here.

The move in England comes after a health boss warned the “next few days are crucial” in the fight to reduce the impact of the highly-transmissible coronavirus variant as NHS staff work “flat out”.

England’s education secretary Nadhim Zahawi acknowledged the variant “presents challenges” but said the UK Government was taking steps to “bolster our support for schools” in an effort to minimise disruption when students return to their desks after the Christmas break.

Face coverings will return for secondary school pupils in England’s classrooms having already been recommended in communal areas for older students and staff.

The Welsh Government has also updated guidance to schools ahead of the start of term. School leaders are being warned to plan the start of term at “very high risk levels”. That means contact bubbles and masks to be worn by staff and secondary pupils in communal areas among other measures which were announced at the end of last term.

They are also being asked to consider: “How will you manage and communicate arrangements for operating at various levels of staff absences e.g. 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%?”

The new guidance also tells school leaders to plan for a return to online learning. Primary and special schools should also send warn and inform letters if anyone in their child’s class tests positive for Covid, the advice adds. Read more about the guidance here.

Around 132m vaccinations given last year

Around 132m coronavirus jabs were given last year amid the largest vaccine campaign in British history.

More than 90% of people in the UK over the age of 12 have now had their first dose of a Covid-19 jab and 82.4% have had their second.

The emergence of the Omicron variant triggered an acceleration of the rollout over the festive season and more than 1.6m people received their booster dose in the final week of 2021.

It was announced last week that every eligible adult in Wales had been offered their booster by December 31.

Recent UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data shows people who are unvaccinated are up to eight times more likely to be admitted to hospital than those who are fully vaccinated.

Coronavirus cases are continuing to rise across the world and one in 25 people in England had the virus last week, according to ONS data. This figure increases to one in 15 in London.

Cruise ship held in Lisbon amid virus outbreak

A cruise ship carrying more than 4,000 people has been held in the Portuguese capital Lisbon after a Covid-19 outbreak infected crew members, according to the German news agency dpa.

German company Aida Cruises told dpa that it discovered the positive coronavirus cases during routine health checks and has accommodated those infected ashore in coordination with Portuguese authorities in Lisbon.

Portuguese media reported that 52 members of the crew of more than 1,000 workers tested positive. None of the nearly 3,000 passengers had tested positive.

All on board had passed a screening test and were vaccinated with two doses before the ship set sail from Germany.

The ship is waiting for the arrival of new crew members to continue its journey to Spain’s Canary Islands, dpa said.

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