All primary schools in London are set to close for the start of the new term after the UK government bowed to protests and legal pressure from the capitalâ€™s local authorities amid fears of Covid-19 infection rates, Richard Adams and Simon Murphy report.
The U-turn comes after the government initially named 50 education authorities in the south of England, including many of those in and around London, where primary schools would be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of term.
But the list omitted several London areas where Covid-19 transmission rates remain high including the borough of Haringey, whose leaders said they were prepared to defy the government and support any schools that decided to close to protect staff and pupils.
The protests from local authority leaders came to a head with a letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, from nine London authorities, including Islington, Lambeth and the City of London, asking for their primary schools to be closed and suggesting they were prepared to take legal action.
The action provoked an emergency Cabinet Office meeting on New Yearâ€™s Day, which signed off on the revision, adding the remaining 10 London education authorities to the governmentâ€™s contingency areas.
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The US has become the first country to pass 20m lab-confirmed Covid cases, though the true number of infections is thought to be much higher.
Back in June, US public health experts said they believed more than 20 million Americans could have contracted the respiratory virus â€“ 10 times more than official counts at the time.
Almost 350,000 Americans have died because of Covid-19, according to the coronavirus resource center at Johns Hopkins University, by far the worldâ€™s highest death toll. The country with the second most fatalities is Brazil, where 195,000 people have died from coronavirus.
According to John Hopkins University, India has the second-most number of lab-confirmed cases across the world, followed by India, Brazil, Russia, France and the UK.
Arrivals to Turkey from the UK have been temporarily suspended after 15 confirmed cases of the Covid variant, the countryâ€™s minister of health has announced.
Dr Fahrettin Koca tweeted: â€œIn the investigations made due to the mutation originating from the UK, the mutated virus was detected in 15 people who entered the country from this country and were taken under control. Entries from the UK [to Turkey] have been temporarily suspended.â€
Earlier, he tweeted: â€œWe have 1,908 [new] patients detected today. The number of active cases and the number of serious patients continues to decrease. Our losses started to fall. Our losses will decrease due to the decrease in the number of severe patients. I believe the destructive effect of the epidemic will decrease.â€
Turkeyâ€™s coronavirus death toll rose by 212 in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Friday, as a four-day curfew began to curb the pandemic that has killed a total of 21,093 in the country.
The current nationwide lockdown will lift at 5am local time on 4 January, though the government in Ankara has also imposed weekday curfews in some cities.
Ireland plans to end a ban on travel to the country from Great Britain on 6 January and replace it with stricter testing measures as it seeks to stop the spread of the new variant of the virus, foreign minister Simon Coveney has said.
Ireland banned passenger flights and ferries on 21 December from Great Britain. About 30,000 people had travelled to Ireland from Britain in the previous two weeks, during which time the new variant was spreading rapidly in parts of Britain.
Passengers flying on non-essential business from Britain after 6 January will need to produce a negative test taken three days before their flight, Coveney told the Irish Independent newspaper.
They will also be asked to restrict their movements for at least five days from their arrival and can move freely only if they then receive a second negative test.
â€œWeâ€™re planning to end the travel ban with the UK on 6 January but replace it with a more restrictive set of travel regulations between Britain and Ireland,â€ he said.
â€œWe are anxious to move away from a travel ban, which we donâ€™t think is realistic and there does need to be travel facilitated between Britain and Ireland for lots of reasons.â€
Covid-19 is spreading rapidly again in Ireland and health officials have said that it has found seven cases of the new variant from 77 positive tests that subsequently underwent genomic sequencing, Reuters reported.
Residents of Mexico City spent New Yearâ€™s Eve queuing to refill oxygen canisters for relatives suffering from Covid-19, the Associated Press reported.
The city of 9 million people has had a surge in coronavirus infections and its hospitals are 87% occupied, straining oxygen supplies. That has resulted in long lines and price increases that make it difficult for people to refill tanks that, in some cases, last for only a few hours.
Blanca Nina MÃ©ndez Rojas was waiting in line on Thursday to refill an oxygen tank for her brother, who was recently discharged from a public hospital after contracting coronavirus.
â€œWe just left him disconnected [from oxygen], so he has to stay completely reclined so he wonâ€™t get agitated or have a problem, until we return with the tank,â€ she said, noting â€œtwo weeks ago a refill cost 70 pesos [Â£2.61], and now it is 150 pesos.â€
City officials have allegedly done little to combat price hikes that doubled or tripled the price of a refill â€“ but they have shut down a black market in which producers of industrial-grade oxygen were selling canisters for medical use.
The city government has started a programme to give people oxygen canisters or oxygen concentrators, which are machines that pull oxygen from the air and do not need to be refilled. But there are not enough to go around, and buying one of the machines on the private market is prohibitively expensive for most families.
The UK has recorded 613 Covid-related deaths since yesterday, after one of the highest daily tolls since April earlier this week of 981. It also registered 53,285 new cases in the last 24 hours, similar to the figure in previous days, as the number of lab-confirmed cases rises above 2.5 million.
The daily figure, which accounts for those who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, brings the UK total compiled by Public Health England and NHSX to 74,125.
Separate figures published by the UKâ€™s statistics agencies for deaths where Covid-19 has been mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, show there have been 90,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
The number of excess deaths in the UK this winter â€“ after the first wave of the virus when deaths reached the highest levels of the pandemic â€“ have remained at levels not incomparable with recent years amid restrictions on public and private life. There were 1,342 more deaths than expected in the last week for which there is official data, ending 18 December, with the total excess figure consistently less than the number of deaths with a mention of Covid, indicating fewer deaths from other causes than expected.
This could well change, however, once the excess death data catches up with the increasing deaths from the past two weeks. There have been 67,452 excess deaths since March, of 425,699 deaths from all causes, according to Public Health England. This means there have been 1.19 times the expected deaths between 20 March and 18 December.
Calls to mental health helplines and prescriptions for antidepressants in England have reached an all-time high, while access to potentially life-saving talking therapies has plunged during the coronavirus pandemic, a Guardian investigation has found.
More than 6 million people received antidepressants in the three months to September, equivalent to more than one in 10 people and the highest figure on record.
This is thought to have been a result of counselling services going online, which some doctors may have deemed inappropriate for certain patients, while some patients were reluctant to seek face-to-face help or add extra pressure to health services.
Concerns have been raised that vital early intervention treatment will not have been given, with experts saying the longer people wait for appropriate help the â€œmore severe and complex their difficulties and their lives can becomeâ€.
France will impose an earlier curfew in 15 north-east and south-east departments from Saturday to combat the spread of coronavirus, starting at 6pm instead of 8pm.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal told TF1 television:
We are taking a decision for 15 departments. In a weekâ€™s time we will assess the impact of this earlier curfew on these 15 departments, on the circulation of the virus elsewhere in the country. Obviously if the situation were to deteriorate further in some regions, we would take the necessary decisions. The measures are incremental and can of course â€“ in principle â€“ go as far a lockdown.
He reiterated that cultural venues would not reopen on 7 January. Restaurants and bars remain closed and it is not clear when they might reopen, although 20 January was initially floated as an initial target date.
A disease control official in China has said there is no sign that new coronavirus variants will affect the immune impact of a vaccine that China has just authorised for public use.
The shot by an affiliate of state-backed company Sinopharm was approved on Thursday, the day after news of Chinaâ€™s first imported case of a variant first identified in the UK.
â€œNo need to panic,â€ Xu Wenbo, an official at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told state television. â€œThe mutated variant, compared with previous mutated variants … has no obvious change so far in its ability to cause disease.â€
He said no impact of variants on the vaccineâ€™s immune effect had been detected. The variant which British scientists have named â€œVUI * 202012/01â€ includes a genetic mutation in the spike protein, which could theoretically result in easier spread of Covid-19, Reuters reported.
Xu added that mutation in the virus protein would not effect the sensitivity of most Chinese-made Covid-19 tests that target the virusâ€™s nucleic acids, which carry genetic information.
Jeeves Wijesuriya, a junior doctor working at a London hospital and a member of the Healthcare Workersâ€™ Foundation, writes that Covid conspiracies are â€œa kick in the teethâ€ for exhausted healthcare workers like her.
Covid is ripping through hospitals at an unprecedented rate, while an exhausted workforce, already running on fumes not from â€œjust another winter surgeâ€, but due to a second wave of Covid cases worse than the first, attempts to battle it. For us, the objective truth is undeniable: patients are desperately sick. Patients who often decline quickly and suddenly, needing intensive care, ventilation and specialist support.
And yet in the outer world, our social media and even newspapers amplify a different â€˜truthâ€™. That there is no major emergency, that itâ€™s misdiagnosis or global hysteria, which every major country, and their established academic and medical bodies, has inexplicably and simultaneously fallen prey to.
Singer Tom Jones has announced he has had the coronavirus vaccine in the UK, saying it is a perk of being 80.
After performing on Joolsâ€™s Annual Hootenanny broadcast on New Yearâ€™s Eve, Jones said:
Iâ€™ve had my jab already. Thatâ€™s one good thing about being 80, youâ€™re first in line for the jab. It was fine, it was like getting the flu jab.
When Holland jokingly asked if it was a legitimate vaccine, Jones said: â€œIt wasnâ€™t a black market one. It was the real deal.â€