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Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid try to quell hospitality fears over limiting socialising

Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid today tried to quell hospitality fears after health experts suggested it was 'sensible' for people to limit socialising over the festive period.

The Prime Minister urged people not to cancel Christmas parties or school nativity plays as he promised to 'throw everything' at the booster vaccination campaign to tackle the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

He promised that everyone eligible would be offered a jab by the end of January with at least 400 military personnel helping the NHS, and vaccination centres 'popping up like Christmas trees'.

Mr Johnson rejected a call from a senior health official to limit socialising in the run-up to Christmas, insisting that he had already put in place a package of 'balanced and proportionate measures' in response to the threat posed by the new variant.

But as cases of Omicron reached 22 in the UK, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said they were likely to go higher and 'we have to be realistic' that there is already likely to be transmission of the new strain within the community.  

He added that people should get vaccinated to 'give ourselves the best chance of a Christmas with our loved ones'.

Mr Javid said: 'What we're seeing recently has brought back memories of the strain of the last winter. But although we can't say with certainty what lies ahead, we have one huge advantage that we didn't have back then: our vaccination programme, which has already done so much to keep this virus at bay.

'But these defences will only keep us safe if we use them. This is a national mission and we all have a role to play.

'If we want to give ourselves the best chance of a Christmas with our loved ones, the best thing we can all do is step up, roll up our sleeves, and get protected when the time comes.'

The mandatory wearing of face coverings in shops and on public transport came into force in England on Tuesday morning, along with tighter testing requirements for international travel and the return of self-isolation for contacts of confirmed Omicron cases, even if they have been fully vaccinated.

But it is the booster campaign which the Government believes provides the greatest line of defence against Omicron and Mr Johnson used a Downing Street press conference to promise another 'great British vaccination effort' to deliver millions of jabs.

'We're going to be throwing everything at it, in order to ensure that everyone eligible is offered that booster in just over two months,' he said.

Mr Javid said the booster programme would be put 'on steroids' to meet the target, while NHS England's chief executive Amanda Pritchard said staff are working at 'breakneck speed'.

The announcement of the rapid expansion of the booster campaign came as Downing Street was embroiled in a row with a senior health official over her suggestion that people should limit social contacts in the run-up to Christmas. 

The Government's top health experts earlier said a warry approach to office parties could help stop the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

But bosses of beleaguered hospitality businesses - still recovering from nearly two years of Covid disruption - today warned further setbacks could be the 'final nail in the coffin' for some venues.

Others warned the Government not to be heavy-handed with restrictions in what they described as a 'critical time for the sector'. 

It comes as Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency and boss of NHS Test and Trace, said 'being careful' and 'not socialising when we don't particularly need to' could be beneficial. 

She also hinted there could be a return to working from home guidance in England if cases increase as she said that 'if we see surges, then working from home will be a good thing to do'. 

Mr Johnson was asked about Dr Harries' socialising comments during a visit to a vaccination centre in London at lunchtime and he said he believes it is 'always sensible to be careful' and 'I think what Jenny is saying there is right'.

However, the Prime Minister insisted that the Government is 'not going to change the overall guidance' as he said he is sticking with his original response to the new variant.

Meanwhile, Downing Street rejected the idea of a potential return to working from home as the PM's Official Spokesman said 'it is not our advice to the public currently'.

The Government's new Omicron-focused rules in England came into effect at 4am this morning and include making face masks compulsory in shops and on public transport, requiring returning travellers to take a PCR test on or before day two after their arrival in the UK and forcing all contacts of a case of the variant to self-isolate for 10 days. 

The new rules have sparked a backlash from hospitality bosses who have warned the measures, as well as the suggestion that socialising should be limited, could strike a hammer blow to the struggling sector. 

Meanwhile, the aviation industry has also expressed major concerns about the tougher testing requirements for holidaymakers. 

Airline easyJet said it is already seeing some impact on demand because of the new variant as it revealed annual losses of more than £1billion. 

Labour's London Mayor Sadiq Khan today urged people in the capital to go beyond the Government's face mask rules as he called for coverings to be worn in pubs and restaurants as well. 

Nationally, the restrictions are to be reviewed again in three weeks, which means Britons could be stung with last-minute curbs just days before Christmas. 

However Sacha Lord, Greater Manchester's Night Time Economy Adviser, warned last minute changes could be a huge hit from hospitality business. 

He said: 'If the hospitality sector is not supported and closes in December, it will be the final nail in the coffin for many of our beloved venues. 

'With the news of the Omicron variant, pubs, bars and restaurants are already seeing cancellations. 

'This festive period was supposed to help these businesses reach back to pre-pandemic levels and boost revenues for the first time in months.'

He added: 'If the Chancellor does not plan these essential support packages for the country's pubs and bars, they are at risk of closing come January.' 

Kate Nicholls (pictured left), the CEO of industry group UKHospitality, also urged the Government to trust hospitality businesses rather than enforce tighter restrictions Sacha Lord (pictured right), Greater Manchester's Night Time Economy Adviser, said hospitality businesses faced going under without proper Government support in the event of tighter restrictions.

Boris Johnson pictured attending a news conference at the Downing Street briefing room this afternoon. He rejected a call from a senior health official to limit socialising in the run-up to Christmas

At the current rate of 2.1million boosters administered per day, it will take England until February to boost all over-18s who've had two jabs already

Vaccine-makers Moderna and Pfizer are already working on Covid vaccines that could tackle the Omicron strain, if it poses a problem for the current crop of vaccines, but they won't be ready until mid-2022

The Government's new rules on face masks and self-isolation to slow the spread of the variant came into effect in England from 4am this morning, which mean coverings are compulsory on public transport, in shops, beauty salons and hairdressers. Pictured: Commuters at Kings Cross station in London this morning

Meanwhile, Kate Nicholls, the CEO of industry group UKHospitality, also urged the Government to trust hospitality businesses rather than enforce tighter restrictions.

She said: 'It is important to remember that hospitality operators have invested significantly to ensure the safety of staff and customers, focusing on better ventilation, hygiene and sanitation, measures which SAGE recommend are the most effective measures of infection control. 

'This means hospitality venues will be far safer places to socialise with family and friends this Christmas than at home.' 

'However, despite this, the chilling talk of Plan B is already being felt across hospitality as bookings are cancelled and plans changed.

British tourists' ski holiday chaos as Switzerland brings in Covid rules that require TEN-DAY quarantine 

Winter holiday plans for thousands of Britons have been thrown into chaos after Switzerland suddenly tightened Covid entry rules over fears of the Omicron variant. 

Anyone wanting to travel to the Alpine country from the UK including for onward transit now has to quarantine for 10 days on arrival, even if they have been double-vaccinated, recovered from Covid or tested negative.

The rules will ruin the holiday plans of thousands of Britons who fly to Geneva in order to reach nearby French ski resorts such as Val Thorens, Courchevel, and Meribel - as well as resorts in Switzerland itself.

It comes after France announced it would require a Covid vaccine pass to access ski slopes, causing further difficulties for Britons wanting to travel.

Those hoping to reach the French resorts are now being forced to divert to Lyon, though capacity is far more limited at that airport than Geneva

Anyone unable to get a flight to Lyon faces either a three-hour transfer from Grenoble, or else an eight-hour journey from Calais

'There is no doubt that this will have a damaging effect on businesses, just as they head into their key trading period.

'This all comes at a critical time for the sector, as costs are rising across the board, supply chain issues continue, chronic labour shortages show no sign of easing and next year will see a return of 20 per cent VAT rate.'

In a round of interviews, Mr Khan today said: 'One of my requests from the Government is, let's not have a hokey cokey when it comes to face mask-wearing where they're going to review it in three weeks' time. 

'As far as I'm concerned, on public transport — because more often than not we've got to be confined, we can't keep our social distance — let's keep it at mandatory with the ability to back it up with the police, with the ability to issue fines even in three weeks' time, finger crossed, should Omicron not be as bad as some fear.' 

Mr Johnson will hold a Downing Street press conference at 4pm this afternoon to outline how to book booster jabs amid fears the top-up drive will not be able to keep up with ministers' demands for at least 500,000 a day. 

NHS leaders today demanded the Army be called back in to help hit the target after GPs warned No10 that some face-to-face appointments with patients will have to go if they are expected to help.

The Government's vaccines advisers have expanded the rollout to everyone aged over 18 despite those already eligible struggling to get one before Christmas or having to travel 35 miles or more to their nearest vaccination centre. 

Scientists say it will take two weeks to establish how effective jabs are against Omicron, which has twice as many mutations on its spike protein as Delta. The strain is expected to make current vaccines significantly weaker at preventing infections, but it's less clear how it will impact hospitalisations and deaths.  

Even though the vaccines are expected to be much weaker against Omicron, it is hoped that topping up everyone's immunity to very high levels will offer an extra line of defence against a potential new wave of infections. 

Dr Harries told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that people could do their bit to slow the spread of the virus by reducing the number of social contacts they have.

She said that even if our 'vaccines appear to be effective, but we find that the variant is more highly transmissible, having lowish grade infection, but in very large numbers of the population, (it) could still be a significant impact on our hospitals'.

She said that 'our behaviours in winter and particularly around Christmas we tend to socialise more so I think all of those will need to be taken into account'.

Asked about working from home, she said: 'We've seen that not everybody has gone back to work and I'd like to think of it more in a general way, which is if we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay.

'So I think being careful, not socialising when we don't particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jabs which, of course, people will now be able to have at a three-month interval from their primary course.'

Dr Harries said the advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) 'has shown that if we have significant surges in Covid cases, then actually working from home is one of the key ones to implement and that's why it is in Plan B'.

She added: 'But it's probably worth just thinking through at the moment; although I'm sure we will have more cases announced, we do only have five confirmed cases (of the new Omicron variant in England) and 10 highly probable at the moment.

'So it's a very early stage for this, I think, but certainly, if we see surges, then working from home will be a good thing to do.'

'We have been living with a pandemic for a long time and people should continue to do things like make sure they have lots of fresh air, they wash their hands and take normal precautions.

'I think that is entirely reasonable but we are not going to change the overall guidance. We don't think that is necessary.

'We don't see anything to suggest that we need to go for instance to Plan B. But what we do need to do is take particular precautions against Omicron until we have worked out exactly what kind of a threat it may present.

'But whatever kind of a threat it may present, the crucial thing to do is for everybody to go out and get vaccinated.'

Mr Johnson defended the Government's Covid rules in a statement issued overnight as he said they are 'proportionate and responsible'.

'The measures taking effect today are proportionate and responsible, and will buy us time in the face of this new variant,' he said. 

'Vaccines and boosters remain our best line of defence, so it is more important than ever that people come forward when eligible to get boosted.'  

The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body's immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body's cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness 

Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and the first person to spot the new variant in a patient, said her patients infected with Omicron reported different and much milder symptoms, including tiredness, muscle aches, a sore head and a dry cough. But none reported the tell-tale symptoms of a loss of smell or taste or breathing difficulties 

Christmas parties are under threat after new head of NHS Test and Trace today warned Britons not to socialise before the holidays 'unless you need to'

'When we have a plan...we'll contact you': Health minister tries to calm booster jabs booking scramble 

A Health Minister today urged up to 40million Britons now eligible for a booster to be 'patient' as they put a plan together with GPs to administer 500,000 jabs a day to outflank the Omicron variant - but the proposal has already hit trouble because doctors insist they have no capacity to do it.

The Government's vaccines advisers have expanded the rollout to everyone aged over 18 despite those already eligible struggling to get one before Christmas or having to travel 35 miles or more to their nearest vaccination centre.

Yesterday's announcement saw the NHS' website crash under the weight of people trying to book an appointment, and the 119 phoneline overwhelmed, leading to Health Minister Gillian Keegan today urging people to wait to be contacted by their GP.

She told Sky News: 'In the next couple of days we'll have the plan', adding the aim is to vaccinate 3.5million people a week - up from 2.5million currently. People will be contacted in five-year age brackets, she said, meaning the 35s to 39 group will be next.

Ms Keegan said the booking of booster jabs for all adults would open in age order and the systems would be up and running 'in the next couple of days'. People will be called by GP in age order, she said, adding: 'I think probably what will happen is the next cohort will be invited forward and then they'll be given, you know, some timeframes.

'But within the next couple of months... we are pretty good at this, standing up these operations, so we do know what to do but we just need to give the NHS a bit of time to operationalise... because we're doubling the eligible people, more or less, who are due a booster now.'

Hospitality sector bosses have expressed concerns about the potential impact of the new rules and warned the messaging on socialising will have a 'damaging effect on businesses'. 

Andrew Andrea, boss of pub group Marston's, said the messaging has been 'unhelpful', but said the group had not yet seen customers cancel reservations and Christmas parties. 

The travel industry has also expressed concerns about the new restrictions and of the impact the Omicron variant could have on bookings. 

EasyJet said today that it has seen signs that demand is softening in its current quarter due to the emergence of the new strain of Covid-19, with winter bookings starting to weaken and some travellers transferring trips to early next year. 

But chief executive Johan Lundgren said the impact so far is not on the level seen previously when restrictions were imposed, although he stressed it is 'too soon to say' what the ultimate hit will be. 

EasyJet said: 'It's too soon to say what impact Omicron may have on European travel and any further short-term restrictions that may result. However, we have prepared ourselves for periods of uncertainty such as this.'

The comments came as the company posted statutory pre-tax losses of £1.04 billion for the year to September 30, compared with losses of £1.27 billion the previous year, which was the first full-year loss in its 25-year history.

The Government's new Covid rules are designed to buy time to allow scientists to analyse the new variant and to determine how effective the current crop of vaccines will be against it.  

Professor Paul Moss, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said that scientists are 'well prepared' to tweak the vaccines in the event that the Omicron variant evades the protection afforded by the current vaccines. 

AstraZeneca on Saturday said it has developed a platform to allow it to 'quickly respond' to any emerging variants, including Omicron. 

Scottish health authorities announced three more Omicron cases overnight, bringing Scotland's total to nine spread between Glasgow and Lanarkshire. 

The UK's total is 22, with five further cases found in Nottingham, Brentwood, Camden, Wandsworth and Westminster. 

Two Omicron infections have also been identified in Barnet, while there is one in each of Haringey, Liverpool, North Norfolk and Sutton.

Labs across the country are probing hundreds more probable cases and there are signs the strains already spreading in the community. 

Asked if she had raised the WFH issue when she addressed a meeting of the Cabinet today, the PM's Official Spokesman said: 'That wasn't something she raised at Cabinet, no. It is not our advice to the public currently.

'You will know the measures we set out at the weekend. We have Plan B as you say, that is well worked up, those plans can be brought in if required.

'But currently there is nothing in the data and given what we currently know about this variant and indeed what we do not know we believe our approach as set out at the weekend is the proportionate and responsible one.'

Asked if Dr Harries had raised the socialising issue at Cabinet, the spokesman said: 'No. Our advice to the public is as set out at the weekend. 

'We have put advice out on face coverings and on inward travellers and those who are identified as having the Omicron variant of coronavirus.

'Beyond that we haven't set out any further guidance to the public.' 

Speaking earlier about vaccine effectiveness, Dr Harries said it is highly likely that the UK's vaccination programme will be beneficial in the face of the Omicron variant but experts also expect vaccine effectiveness to be reduced.

She said the current understanding is that the booster will 'shoot up your immunity levels and so getting that high background level of immunity on a population basis may, to some extent, counter the reduced effectiveness against this particular variant'.

She added that there is a need to 'be really careful about interpreting the data' after suggestions from South Africa that the variant is causing mild illness, saying that the UK has an older population, with an average age of 41, compared with 27 in South Africa. 

Meanwhile, Mr Khan hinted that face coverings might need to be extended to hospitality settings at a later date if the so-called 'Omicron' variant is worse than feared. 

In an interview with Sky News this morning, he urged: 'If you're in a pub, bar or restaurant, particularly if you're standing up in one of those bars rather than at a table, and you can't keep your distance, and you're not drinking, wear a facemask.'

It comes after Health Minister Gillian Keegan today insisted it is better for the UK to 'overreact than underreact' to the new Omicron coronavirus variant after Joe Biden told the US the mutant strain is 'not a cause for panic'. 

Ms Keegan said ministers are trying to strike the right 'balance' in the response but she admitted it is a difficult judgment to make because there are many 'unknowns' associated with the variant. 

All travellers returning to the UK must now take a PCR test on or before day two after their arrival. They can leave isolation once they have a negative test result.  

Close contacts of Omicron cases must isolate at home for ten days regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not, prompting fears of another 'pingdemic'.

Ms Keegan insisted 'Christmas is on track' amid fears the Omicron variant could result in more people having to self-isolate over the festive period. 

Head of Moderna warns 'it will be MONTHS' before there is a specific jab to fight Omicron 

Covid vaccine maker Moderna warned today that it will take months to develop an Omicron-specific booster jab as Scotland detected three more cases of the mutant strain and Boris Johnson prepares to give an update on the variant at a Downing Street press briefing.

Stephane Bancel, chief executive at Massachusetts-based Moderna, said he expects the highly-evolved coronavirus variant to cause a 'material drop' in the effectiveness of existing vaccines, warning that the result was 'not going to be good'. 

He warned that it will take until summer 2022 for Moderna to develop a new vaccine and scale up manufacturing to vaccinate entire populations. 

Scientists say it will take two weeks to truly work out how effective jabs are against Omicron, which has twice as many mutations on its spike protein as Delta. 

The strain is expected to make current vaccines significantly weaker at preventing infections, but it's less clear how it will impact hospitalisations and deaths is still unknown.

Last night US President Mr Biden said that 'this variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic'. 

His comments prompted scrutiny of the UK's response, which has seen ministers roll out three main curbs to buy scientists some time as they race to analyse the new variant and assess how effective existing vaccines will be against it. 

Ms Keegan was asked during an interview on Sky News if the UK is in danger of overreacting.

She replied: 'We are trying to get that balance and proportion and it is difficult because it is unknown so we need to buy some time so our scientists can work with the world's leading scientists to just basically figure out, we know it is very transmissible by looking, but we don't know whether it'll work with the vaccine, the vaccine will work, or the other treatments et cetera.

'So the scientists do need some time for that. We think we have got the balance and the proportional response to it. But we will review it in three weeks, that will give the scientists enough time to hopefully give us some insights then.'

Told that it could subsequently become apparent that the UK has overreacted, Ms Keegan said: 'I would rather overreact than underreact at this point. 

'I think we have been here so many times that, you know, we have got this fantastic wall of vaccine now, we want to keep that, we want to strengthen it.

'We would rather be stronger to be able to face any new variants and I think we have all the things, all the capability to do that, so that is what we would rather do.'  

The new self-isolation rules for people identified as a close contact of an Omicron case has sparked concerns of a potential 'pingdemic' at Christmas, should the variant surge in the UK in the coming weeks. 

Told that the restrictions could result in more people being unable to see their family over the Christmas period, Ms Keegan said: 'Obviously you could be self-isolating over Christmas. You could be. But what we are hoping is we keep these cases, obviously everybody is going to be contacted, people will start the isolation.

'With or without this you could be isolating for Christmas, with another variant.

Bring the Army back for booster jabs drive: Calls to mobilise soldiers to meet 3.5milllion-a-week target 

NHS leaders today demanded the Army be called back in to help administer 500,000 jabs a day and outflank the Omicron variant after GPs warned Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid that some face-to-face appointments with patients will have to go if they are expected to help.

The Government's vaccines advisers have expanded the rollout to everyone aged over 18 despite those already eligible struggling to get one before Christmas or having to travel 35 miles or more to their nearest vaccination centre. 

Figures show a third fewer mass vaccination hubs are in operation compared to earlier this year, while overwhelmed NHS staff say they will struggle to help with getting jabs in arms due to winter pressures, with pharmacies picking up most of the slack but only offering appointments in around a month's time. 

Yesterday's announcement saw the NHS' website crash under the weight of people trying to book an appointment, and the 119 phoneline overwhelmed, leading to Health Minister Gillian Keegan today urging people to wait to be contacted by their GP. 

Delivering 3.5million jabs per week until February has caused panic in the health service, with two NHS leaders telling the Health Service Journal's Dave West that 'the Army should be brought in to help'. Soldiers are currently helping deliver the vaccine in Scotland but not in England. 

As well as putting jabs in arms, they also co-ordinated distribution of the vaccines and set up vaccination centres before being largely stood down in the summer.

An average of 2.1million people in England are getting their booster jab per week, meaning all adults won't be boosted until mid-February if it continues at the current rate. 

But ministers are aiming to carry out 500,000 Covid booster jabs a day in an effort to outpace the Omicron variant. 

'Of course Christmas is on track. What everyone wants for Christmas is if you haven't had your first jab, come and get it, if you haven't had your second jab, come and get it, and if you haven't had your booster, come and get it when you are asked.'

Ms Keegan said that Christmas will 'hopefully not' be ruined, adding: 'Let's be proportional and balanced as we are trying to be, we have got five cases today, that will go up I am pretty sure, but what we are trying to do is really clampdown on that as much as possible.'

Meanwhile, asked about the prospect of Christmas plans being called off, Professor Paul Moss, of the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy at the University of Birmingham, told Sky News: 'I don't think we need to worry too much about that at this stage... the measures that we got in place have a good chance of gaining some control here.

'The two ways that we're adopting to try and control this are: one, in behavioural change to reduce transmission: the travel restrictions; more lateral flows; masking.

'And the second big factor is the immunity and we know that we may lose some immunity with this virus. So what is happening is we are boosting our immune levels to super-high levels with the plans that were introduced yesterday, and that should retain some protection.

'What we've seen with Covid is that things change very rapidly. And I think we need at least three weeks to assess this.

'We need excellent epidemiology and within the laboratory people are testing the resistance of the virus against vaccinated samples. So we will need that sort of time. And we will know a lot more before Christmas.'

He added: 'You probably saw that the doctor in South Africa who initially identified it had seen relatively mild cases, which is very encouraging. However, you know, that's a much younger population.

'It's the elderly population, we need to worry about - in South Africa only six per cent are above 65 years whereas we've got a much higher proportion.' 

Professor Moss insisted vaccine manufacturers should be able to produce new jabs tailored to the variant quickly.

He said: 'Well, as you know, the companies have already started — the gene has been cloned, but typically talking around 100 days.

'We've learned so much in the last 18 months — nobody felt we would get a vaccine within a year when the pandemic started, and we did — we got several.

'So it will be accelerated and, of course, if we were in that severe situation — but I really hope that we won't get to, by the way — we're very well prepared. We know what to do.'

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said that the UK had to 'act immediately and not wait' after the discovery of the Omicron variant.

He told BBC Breakfast: 'The main question is whether it's able to evade the immunity that we've got to some extent from the vaccine so far and the infections we've all had.

'And so because of that, and because of the possibility of a major wave, the thing to do now is to act immediately and not wait.'

Tube mask crackdown begins: Enforcement officers order commuters to wear face coverings with TfL warning anyone who refuses WILL face £200 fine as retail bosses say staff WON'T be expected to police new rules 


New Covid restrictions in England in force today

New restrictions on compulsory facemasks, testing and travel in England were published last night and came into force at 4am this morning.


From today, people must wear facemasks in the following places:

Those caught flouting the restrictions will be fined £200 for a first offence, which will double on each subsequent offence up to a maximum of £6,400.

Schoolchildren are being asked to wear facemasks in communal areas but not classrooms. Teaching unions have called for masks to be extended to lessons. 


All travellers returning to the UK must take a PCR test and self-isolate for 10 days until they receive a negative result. 

Anyone who breaks the self-isolation law without a 'reasonable excuse' faces a fine of £1,000, rising to £10,000 for repeat offenders and serious breaches.

A number of countries in Africa were added to the UK's red list last week. They are:


All contacts of anybody who tests positive for the so-called 'Omicron' variant must self-isolate – regardless of their age or vaccination status. 

This has sparked fears of a return to the 'pingdemic madness' of the summer, when a million healthy pupils were forced to stay home because of the Test and Trace system. 

Anyone who breaks the self-isolation law without a 'reasonable excuse' faces a fine of £1,000, rising to £10,000 for repeat offenders and serious breaches. 

The crackdown on mask-flouters in London began today as Tube officials threatened to fine non-compliant commuters £200 if they refuse to cover their faces.

Under Covid restrictions which came into force at 4am this morning, facemasks are again compulsory on public transport, in shops and settings such as banks, post offices and hairdressers in England.

Those caught flouting the restrictions will be fined £200 for a first offence, which will double on each subsequent offence up to a maximum of £6,400.

Although many commuters in London wore facemasks on their way to work this morning, many others on packed carriages chose to ignore the law.

Some Transport for London officials were seen rebuking mask-flouters and urging them to cover up as they warned that they would be fined if they were caught breaking the restriction again.

Writing on Twitter, TfL said: 'You must wear a face covering on all our services unless exempt. Our officers will continue enforcing the requirement, including reintroduction of powers for TfL and police to issue £200 fines for first offence.'

Scenes of non-compliance had sparked calls for tougher enforcement of the rules, as Unite's national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said 'people are not going to wear masks now just because Boris Johnson says it's the right thing to do'.

The Mayor of London also told people to wear facemasks on public transport, and called on the Prime Minister to keep the restriction in place possibly past December 21 – when the new rules will be reviewed – in case the new Covid variant is worse than feared.

However, passengers at London Bridge Station insisted that offenders were not being challenged by police or enforcement officers.  

Mark Briggs, 53, who works as a facilities manager, said: 'I didn't see much difference today. There are still a lot of people who are not wearing masks.

'I would say about 60 per cent of people have been covering their faces. I come in about three days a the week and it has been like that for a while. I didn't see anyone enforcing it. I have never seen that. It is mentioned on the tannoys but that is it.

'I prefer to get an earlier train like I did today because it is quieter. I have seen some people say, ''Please don't sit next to me unless you have got a mask on''. I thought he was right. It is a bit embarrassing when that happens and most people just keep their head down rather than make a fuss.' 

And retail leaders said businesses are refusing to enforce the rules because they fear that their staff will be accosted by customers. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, stressed that it is the role of the authorities to enforce these new regulations, adding that customers also have responsibility to adhere to the rules.

'Retailers will be communicating the new rules on face coverings in England through in-store signage and other channels,' she said.

'However, it is vital that we do not place hardworking retail staff in harm's way, and enforcement of face coverings must remain the duty of the authorities. Furthermore, we all have an individual responsibility to put on a face covering before entering a shop.'

It is the latest challenge for retailers ahead of a key Christmas period. They have already seen pressure from supply chain disruption and labour shortages.

Meanwhile, Richard Walker, managing director of the Iceland grocery chain, said he will not be asking staff to police the mask rules among customers.

'The first thing to say is that of course we support the reintroduction of compulsory face masks in shops and there is no doubt that the emergence of this Omicron variant is really concerning,' he told Radio 4's Today programme.

'Safety of staff and customers is of course a priority. But the question isn't whether or not we should mandate facemasks, but whether we can mandate them. What I won't be doing is asking my store colleagues to police those who refuse to adhere to the rules. They are already working under significant pressure, particularly as we hit the busiest trading month of the year.' 

The Unite trade union also called for facemasks to also become mandatory in pubs, cafes and restaurants after they were not included in the rule change. 

Transport for London officials rebuked a commuter at Victoria Station in London for not wearing a facemask

One commuter is seen not wearing a facemask on the Victoria Line as new restrictions come into force today

Writing on Twitter, TfL said: 'You must wear a face covering on all our services unless exempt. Our officers will continue enforcing the requirement, including reintroduction of powers for TfL and police to issue £200 fines for first offence'

Hundreds of commuters, some not wearing masks, disembarked trains at London's Kings Cross Station today

While it was business as usual for most passengers, the response led to some anger among early morning travellers in London.  Cafe worker Vicky Briant, 23, said: 'People need to take responsibility not just for themselves but for everyone. There are not enough people wearing masks which is irresponsible. The last thing we want is to cancel Christmas again.'

Builder Sam Walters, 46, said: 'Trains and buses have been packed this morning and it seems too many people have got out of the habit of covering their faces even though they were always supposed to in London. It's crazy.'

But outside Canada Water station in south east London, office worker Grace Thompson, 54, said: 'Face coverings don't work so it is just another pointless gesture. I've had friends who caught the virus even though they never left home without one. I've had two jabs and I am getting a booster this week so I am not concerned about the virus.'

According to the Office for National Statistics, 85 per cent of adults said they had worn a facemask outside their home in the past seven days, with 70 per cent saying they wore one often or always while shopping. 

However, just 18 per cent of people shopping said that everyone or almost everyone they saw was wearing a face covering. 

Downing Street insisted that the new measures coming into effect today are 'temporary and precautionary' and will stay in place initially until December 21 – though Whitehall sources last night acknowledged they were likely to continue into the New Year. 

MPs will vote on the regulations tonight, with ministers braced for a rebellion by Tory MPs deeply unhappy at the prospect of a return of controls. But with Labour backing the measures, there is expected to be little chance of a Government defeat. 

South Africa province where the Omicron Covid variant was first detected sees 330% surge in hospitalisations in the past two weeks 


The South African province where the Omicron Covid variant was first detected has suffered a more than 300 percent increase in virus related hospitalisations this week.

Gauteng, which includes the city of Johannesburg, recorded 580 hospitalisations because of the virus this week, per official data — a 330 percent jump from 135 two weeks ago.

Just under 40 percent of the provinces 12million residents have received at least one shot of a Covid vaccine - third-lowest of the nation's 12 provinces.

Last week, the new Omicron variant was sequenced in 77 cases in the region, and many fear it is the most infectious strain of the virus yet and that it could evade vaccine protection because of its high number of mutations.

While South African health officials have reported that cases of the variant are often mild, the increase in hospitalisations in the province seems to hint otherwise.

Over the past two weeks, Covid related hospitalizations in the Gauteng province of South Africa have jumped 330% - from 135 in the week that ended on November 7 (week 45) to 580 last week (week 47). Gauteng is the province where the Omicron variant was first sequenced

Despite the local surge in hospitalizations, South African officials insist that cases of the Omicron variant are generally mild compared to other strains. Pictured: A man suffers from a Covid infection in Cape Town, South Africa on December 29, 2020

Gauteng is the largest province in the country by population, as it is home to more than 12 million people.

After a Covid surge around three months ago, the province has experienced decreasing hospitalizations from the virus for weeks.

During the week that ended on November 7, 120 Covid related hospitalizations were detected.

Last week, that figure doubled to 276, before jumping to 580 last week.

Because genetic sequencing is only performed on a small percentage of positive tests, experts can not say which people have Omicron versus another strain. 

South African officials have said that cases of this new strain are relatively minor, though, to such an extent that it surprised them.

'Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before,' said Dr Angelique Coetzee, a South African Medical Association board member, told The Telegraph.

'It presents mild disease with symptoms being sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two not feeling well

'So far, we have detected that those infected do not suffer the loss of taste or smell. They might have a slight cough. There are no prominent symptoms. Of those infected some are currently being treated at home.' 

Joe Phaahla, South Africa's health minister, has blamed the recent uptick in cases the nation has experienced on the highly infectious variant, though.

Over the past nine days, cases have increased nine-fold from around 500 per day on November 20 to 4,500 per day this week.

This surge in cases also corresponds with the surge in hospitalizations the nation has suffered in recent weeks.

One thing to note is that some of the 77 cases found by health officials last week were among vaccinated people - causing the alarm.

Vaccinated people generally have a lower risk of severe Covid infection than their unvaccinated peers, which could have resulted in the more mild cases.

Gauteng as a whole, though, has a vaccination rate of only 38 percent as of Monday morning, a low enough number that the province is vulnerable to surges of the virus. 

Gauteng has one of the lowest vaccination rates among the 12 South African provinces, with only 38% of the population having received the shots as of Monday morning. It is the nation's most populous province

In response to the discovery of the new Covid variant, President Biden suspended travel from South Africa - and six of its neighbors - to the the U.S.

Many European nations, like the UK, have banned incoming flights from nations in the southern portion of the continent as well.

The move has been met with criticism from some health officials.

'Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,' Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization's regional director for Africa, said in a statement.

'If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.

'...The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended.' 

'WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of Covid.' 

Despite widespread travel restrictions, the variant has managed to find its way around the world anyways.

The UK has joined many European countries like Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, the UK and Portugal in finding cases of the variant over the past few days. 

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said Monday morning that it is likely too late to prevent the spread of the variant, and it probably has found its way into countries like the U.S. by now - it just has not yet been sequenced. 

Not much is yet known about the variant, but what experts do know has them terrified.

The variant has over 50 mutations, with 30 being on the spike protein, more than any other detected Covid variant.

Because available vaccines for Covid target the spike protein, these types of mutations could make the variant vaccine resistant.

Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson - producers of the available vaccines in the U.S. - have all announced that they will either update their existing vaccine or release a stand along Omicron vaccine if needed.

BioNTech believes they will be able to determine the variant's ability to evade the vaccines within the next two weeks.

So far, the variant has yet to reach America, and Dr Anthony Fauci, the US's top infectious disease expert, said he does not believe lockdowns are necessary.  

The Omicron variant may spell the end of the Covid pandemic. So, asks Professor ANGUS DALGLEISH, why is it being treated like Ebola? 

As I listened to ministers react nervously in recent days to the new Omicron Covid variant, I began to experience an all-too-familiar sinking feeling.

Shall I put it into words? Here we go again, I thought.

Mask mandates have been reimposed in shops, schools and hairdressers, and new swingeing £200 fines will be levied on those who dare to break the rules.

Meanwhile, the inevitable chorus of gloomy voices has begun to sing again: that unholy alliance of scientific 'experts' who have been given blanket coverage by the BBC and Left-wing media so often during this pandemic.

The Government has used these voices as justification to impose fresh restrictions on our lives — as well as to threaten more in future.

The Government has used an unholy alliance of scientific 'experts' who have been given blanket coverage by the BBC and Left-wing media as justification to impose fresh restrictions on our lives — as well as to threaten more in future.

Mask mandates have been reimposed in shops, schools and hairdressers, and new swingeing £200 fines will be levied on those who dare to break the rules


Right now, the key question is: are any of the new measures actually necessary?

Yes, there remains much we don't know about Omicron, but the early signs are distinctly encouraging. Many patients have reportedly recovered quickly from what have been very mild symptoms.

Southern Africa, where the variant emerged, has largely avoided panicking. One German epidemiologist, Professor Karl Lauterbach, who is running to be Germany's next health minister, has even said that a mild strain would be an 'early Christmas gift'.

Given all that, how much can the Government's hawkish approach truly be justified?

Very little, I would submit.

Many patients have reportedly recovered quickly from what have been very mild symptoms

The real danger for most of us now comes not from Omicron or any other coronavirus variant. Instead, it comes from ministers and officials apparently flirting with taking us into yet another era of ruinous restrictions, cancelling Christmas or other cherished holidays, dashing all hope of foreign travel, wrecking the economy and otherwise immiserating our lives at the whim of the state.

Yes, a new, heavily mutated coronavirus variant has been identified. But Professor Lauterbach, a highly respected clinical epidemiologist, suggested yesterday that the variant might even be good news. Why? Because its numerous mutations — twice as many as the Delta variant that swept the world this year — mean that though it may well be more infectious, it could also be less deadly.

In layman's terms, this means that more people might catch it, but not suffer serious illness. And that is a good thing — certainly compared to a very infectious, very virulent virus with the capacity to sicken or kill large numbers of people.

Anyone infected with a 'mild' Covid virus — one unlikely to cause serious disease — will still develop antibodies to guard against future infection. And the more people with such antibodies, the closer we are to the fabled 'herd immunity'.

This, coupled with the help of our highly successful vaccination programme, could even spell the eventual end of the pandemic — though not, it must be said, the end of Covid.

This is the sort of grown-up discussion ministers should be having with us. Instead, by announcing new restrictions over the weekend, flanked by his two familiar harbingers of doom, Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Prime Minister risked terrifying large swathes of the nation all over again — just as they were beginning to catch their breath as the worst of the pandemic was lifting.

Anyone infected with a 'mild' Covid virus — one unlikely to cause serious disease — will still develop antibodies to guard against future infection

Coronavirus restrictions, it should not need pointing out, do not work in isolation.

A year ago, I wrote in the Mail how I believed that lockdown was a killer in the making far worse than Covid-19. Today, I stand by that view.

From spiralling hospital waiting lists and delayed cancer treatment to the horrendous impact on the mental health of the nation, I think we are seeing the tip of an iceberg of premature deaths from causes other than Covid — and that, in time, history will reveal the second and third lockdowns, at least, for the folly I believe them to be. That is before you contemplate the ramifications of our sabotaged economy: livelihoods destroyed by the enforced shutdown of businesses and High Street firms shuttered thanks to working-from-home mandates.

It is imperative that ministers do not go down that dangerous road again — unless some terrible new variant or new virus with a vastly higher death rate does emerge.

Even the most fervent lover of lockdown would be hard-pressed to describe today's scenario as an Armageddon-in-the-making, especially as the virus is behaving exactly as scientists always suspected that it would.

Just as with flu, it is likely that in years to come the world will experience new waves of this coronavirus. Crucially, there is no evidence that these waves will somehow be ever-more lethal. Instead, it is likelier that this virus, like most pathogens, will become less deadly over time.


This flies in the face of those who favour the 'just-in-case' argument: that we must be extra cautious and ready to lock down early again, lest the new variant prove more dangerous than anticipated.

That argument was valid at the start of the pandemic, when we lacked treatments and vaccinations. But it does not hold any longer.

Today, we are well-versed in the ways of our foe. With a few exceptions (usually the unvaccinated), most people are dying with Covid, not necessarily because of it, while others have had an imminent death merely hastened.

Even the most compassionate individual must realise that public policy cannot be founded on trying to mitigate against a death that, however sad, was due sooner rather than later.

A long time ago, when I was a junior doctor working in A&E, I was initially amazed by the fact that among those admitted to hospital with flu and pneumonia symptoms were the young and fit. That is often the nature with the flu virus.

A percentage of them would end up in intensive care, and a proportion would die — just as they do today.

Each individual death was terribly sad, of course, but no one would argue they meant that we should change our health policy.

What a contrast with today, when we live in a country increasingly bedevilled by what the former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption has rightly labelled 'Covid authoritarianism'.


Flailing Labour politicians, desperate for any stick with which to beat the Government, demand ever-tougher measures: work-from-home advice and yet more masks, with new lockdowns and furlough schemes waiting in the politicians' arsenal.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon exhorts her citizens to work from home while demanding tougher restrictions down south.

We are not dealing with Ebola, which kills up to 90 per cent of those it infects, but a virus which was found in one Cambridge University study last summer — thanks to vaccinations and better treatments — to have an infection fatality rate of just 0.085 per cent

Many of us are only too happy to let such Cassandra-like prophecies drift over our heads, but there are many others who have been frightened into what feels like near-permanent paralysis in the face of the news headlines and political shroud-waving.

I see this phenomenon among my own friends. There is a clear divide between those who, like me, think we need to get on with our lives, and others who still appear obsessed with Covid, long after the worst of the virus appears to have retreated.

Yet get on we must. We are not dealing with Ebola, which kills up to 90 per cent of those it infects, but a virus which was found in one Cambridge University study last summer — thanks to vaccinations and better treatments — to have an infection fatality rate of just 0.085 per cent.

By all means let us watch this virus closely. But let us also retain the clear perspective and the common sense that should hold in a free society. 

Angus Dalgleish is an oncologist at a London teaching hospital