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Covid news – live: Omicron data expected ‘in days’ as UK buys millions more Pfizer and Moderna vaccines

Boris Johnson denies breaking Covid rules with No 10 Christmas party

Scientists are imminently expecting data relating to how transmissible the omicron variant of Covid is, according to the World Health Organisation.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the agency’s Covid-19 technical lead, told a press briefing on Wednesday it is still “very early days” in terms of understanding the new variant, but insisted information is coming in all the time.

“We expect to [know] more on transmission within days, not necessarily weeks, but in days,” she said, while stressing the need for “all countries” around the world – of which 23 have so far reported cases of omicron – to continue encouraging their residents to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the government has sped up signing new contracts for millions more Covid vaccines in light of the new variant. Health secretary Sajid Javid announced the move on Wednesday night, saying 60 million Moderna shots had been acquired along with 54 million Pfizer doses for next year and 2023.

Follow our live coverage below

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Britons must ‘test the hell out of’ themselves over Christmas – Hancock

Matt Hancock appeared on ITV’s Peston last night, saying “we should test the hell out of ourselves” to “keep things open” over the Christmas period.

The former health secretary also said it was “really important” that lateral flow tests “stay free”.

“We’ve got the lateral flow tests that anybody can take, I took one this morning and then I ordered another box of seven. They are available free, it’s really important that they stay free, the tests,” Mr Hancock told the political show.

Asked if Dr Jenny Harries, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief, was right to warn against unnecessary social interactions, he said: “Saying things like we may need to go further on working from home is perfectly reasonable. But I don’t think we’re there yet.”

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Ask an expert virologist about the omicron variant

The country is currently bracing itself for the coming weeks as the omicron variant could see a surge in new Covid-19 infections across Britain even bigger than previous waves.

Results of detailed laboratory studies on omicron are expected in the coming days and weeks, but both Sage and Nervtag groups have warned it is likely the new variant can escape immunity from existing vaccines “to some extent”. But, what does it all mean?

To help answer questions around the situation which now faces us with omicron cases having been confirmed in the UK, an expert in virology will be on hand on this page to answer your questions.

Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds, will be answering your questions about the Covid variant in the comments section of the below article tomorrow (2 December) between 1pm and 2pm.

Ask Dr Stephen Griffin about the prospect of the variant spreading over the coming weeks and months

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JCVI member ‘more positive’ about Christmas this year than last

Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), has given a positive outlook on the festive period.

Speaking to Sky News, he said he was feeling “more positive” about Christmas this year than the situation in 2020 due to vaccines carrying out “a lot of the heavy lifting”.

Prof Harnden said: “I think if people ... get vaccinated with the booster and are sensible with their precautions - that’s social distancing and mask wearing - then I don’t see any reason why we can’t enjoy Christmas”.

He said this was only at risk should “this [omicron] variant take a turn for the worse”. But, he stressed scientists “really aren’t going to know that for a couple of weeks”.

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Omicron could fuel largest wave of pandemic, advisers warn

The omicron variant could cause the biggest wave of Covid cases yet in the UK if allowed to spread unchecked, leading government scientific advisers have warned.

Sage advisers cautioned that a “very stringent response” from Downing Street may be needed, while scientists in the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) said a spike in cases could overwhelm the NHS.

The warnings emerged as nine new cases of the more transmissible omicron variant were identified in England, bringing the total to 22, report Adam Forrest and our science correspondent Samuel Lovett.

A ‘very stringent response’ may be needed if the new variant is found to significantly escape immunity and drive infections over winter, Sage experts said

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Ministers buy millions more Pfizer and Moderna vaccines

Sajid Javid announced this evening that the government agreed deals to buy 114 million more Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid vaccines, saying ministers had sped up signing the new contracts in light of the new omicron variant.

The deal involves an additional 60 million Moderna shots and 54 million Pfizer doses for next year and 2023, and will also include access to any modified vaccinations if they are needed to combat the omicron strain or any other variant.

“These new deals will future proof the Great British vaccination effort - which has so far delivered more than 115 million first, second and booster jabs across the UK - and will ensure we can protect even more people in the years ahead,” the health secretary said in a statement.

So far, nearly 51 million people in the UK have received their first Covid vaccine - almost 89 per cent of the population aged over 12 - more than 46 million have had two doses, and some 18.6 million have received a booster shot.

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No ‘snogging under the mistletoe’ for strangers this Christmas, Coffey says

A Cabinet minister has advised Britons against “snogging” people they “don’t know” under the mistletoe this year, to help limit the spread of the new omicron Covid variant.

Asked if she sided with the government or Dr Jenny Harries over the approach to socialising over the festive period, Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary told ITV’s Peston programme that “we should all be trying to enjoy the Christmas ahead of us”.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe,” she quipped, clarifying: [You] don’t need to do things like that.”

She also said the government was “working so hard to get the deployment of as many vaccines as possible” to allow people to enjoy the festive period.

When it was put to her that it sounded like she was backing Dr Harries, Dr Coffey said: “No, Christmas we should continue to plan for and enjoy.” But, she added “snogging” should be avoided with “people you don’t already know”.

Coffey has been work and pensions secretary since 2019

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ICYMI: Watch Starmer accuse PM of ‘taking Britons for fools’ over Christmas party

Starmer accuses Johnson of ‘taking the British public for fools’

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Experts concerned over impact of omicron on drugs for vulnerable patients

Scientists fear the omicron coronavirus variant will reduce the effectiveness of key drugs that are used to treat Covid-19 in vulnerable patients.

As with the vaccines, it remains unclear as to what extent omicron will dent the protective levels provided by lab-made antibodies – a treatment that is available via the NHS for those people who struggle to mount a strong immune response against Covid-19.

But due to the high number of mutations in the variant’s spike protein, which is targeted by the antibodies, it’s expected that this type of treatment may need to be tweaked to better identify and neutralise omicron, reports our science correspondent Samuel Lovett.

Lab-made antibody treatments may not be as effective in neutralising the variant due to its high number of mutations

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Watch: Everything we know so far about omicron strain

Omicron variant: Everything we know so far about the new Covid strain

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Anger in Scotland amid confusion over booster jab advice

MSPs have accused the Scottish government of sending out “mixed messages” on booster vaccine eligibility, which they say is leaving the public “frustrated and confused”.

New guidance published this week by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says booster doses now should be given no sooner than three months after people have had their second dose of an original vaccine. Previously, the advice said boosters should be given six months after a second dose.

However, concerns have been raised in Scotland that the outdated advice is still being applied, with some people reporting on social media they have been turned away for appointments.

A Scottish government spokesperson said instructions have been issued to health boards to vaccinate in line with the JCVI’s latest guidance.

Scottish Conservative shadow cabinet secretary for health Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “Patients are rightly frustrated and confused over mixed messages coming from the SNP Government on booster vaccine eligibility. We are facing an urgent and developing situation that requires immediate action.”

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour’s health and Covid recovery spokesperson Jackie Baillie added the situation was “nothing short of a shambles”. She added: “The change to JCVI guidance is clear, and all those eligible should be able to receive their booster as quickly as possible.”

Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government responded by apologising in a statement “to those people who have been keen to get their booster vaccination and attended before the necessary protocols were in place”.

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