Tougher coronavirus restrictions could be announced on Saturday after an initial analysis of a new variant of the virus in England suggested it is “growing faster than the existing variants”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed this week that its numbers “are increasing rapidly”.
It prompted Boris Johnson to call an unscheduled meeting of senior ministers on Friday night to discuss how to contain the new variant, which has largely been confined to London and the South East.
Experiments on the new strain have confirmed ministers’ fears about it being far more infectious than the original strain.
Much of the South East was put into Tier 3 by the Government on Thursday, but the new information about the transmissibility of the mutant strain is so worrying that ministers fear they may have to act immediately.
Travel restrictions are among the measures under discussion, with one source suggesting the Government could restrict travel between the South East and other parts of the country.
An alternative would be to ban commuters from travelling to London, after the mutant strain, which originated in Kent, spread rapidly to London and then the home counties.
Follow the latest updates below.
Gondolas offer socially distanced movie experience
In Manila, some moviegoers in the Philippines capital are tired of lengthy Covid restrictions so they are opting for a taste of Venice – bobbing in front of the big screen in socially distanced gondolas.
Gondoliers in striped uniforms steer and position each boat in an outdoor canal to watch full-length films, a rare chance to visit the cinema after nine months of lockdowns.
“Riding a boat made it a unique experience,” patron Violet Gatchalian told Reuters at the Venice Grand Canal-themed shopping mall in Manila.
With more than 456,000 infections and 8,875 deaths, the Philippines is South-East Asia’s hardest-hit country after Indonesia.
The government started gradually reopening the economy in June, but most non-essential businesses remain shut – in Manila, the gondola cinema and a drive-through theatre are the only movie venues.
Gondola moviegoers sit two to a boat, with up to 10 guests per screening and boats are kept metres apart. Admission is 500 pesos (£7.40), roughly the minimum daily wage in the capital.
Guests bring their own earphones and listen to audio broadcast at a radio frequency available only to those aboard the gondolas.
Strict lockdown for Sydney’s northern beaches
Around a quarter of a million people in Sydney’s northern beach suburbs were ordered on Saturday into a strict lockdown until midnight on Wednesday in an effort to contain a coronavirus cluster that authorities fear may spread across the city.
Authorities will on Sunday announce whether further restrictions will be imposed on the rest of Sydney, Australia’s most populous city.
The outbreak now totals 39, with two additional cases still under investigation. Authorities do not know the origin, which genome testing suggests is a US strain of the virus.
Until this week, Australia had gone more than two weeks without any local transmission and lifted the majority of restrictions ahead of Christmas. The Sydney outbreak prompted states and territories to reimpose border restrictions, sending holiday travel plans for thousands into chaos.
The Sydney lockdown will mean people in the designated area will only be allowed to leave home for one of four essential reasons: grocery shopping, work, compassionate grounds including emergency medical treatment, or visiting an isolated relative.
Archbishop urges church caution at Christmas
People who are at higher risk of complications from Covid-19 should avoid going to Christmas church services in person and watch them online instead, the Archbishop of Canterbury said.
Places of worship have been allowed to open in all tiers since December 2 and, between December 23 and 27, worshippers can attend services with members of their Christmas bubble.
Services, including Christingle and Midnight Masses, can be held as long as social distancing requirements are met.
Speaking to The Times, the Most Reverend Justin Welby was asked about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request for people to “think hard” about what they do over Christmas.
“I would say, yes, go to church,” he said.
“Or go online. If you’re vulnerable, if you’re more at risk, then it’s going to have to be online.”
Shipping containers of surplus PPE moved to railway station
Thousands of shipping containers of surplus Personal Protective Equipment have been moved to railway stations after blocking up ports, it has emerged.
Photographs published on social media revealed thousands of containers of PPE had been deposited next to the rural railway station of Melton in Suffolk.
The PPE had been reportedly transported from the UK’s busiest container port, Felixstowe.
Further images taken by ITV news show that the several thousand shipping containers containing masks, gloves and aprons were transported from Felixstowe to the Port of Tilbury, arousing concerns that the Government over-ordered and overpaid for the medical gear.
HK police launch manhunt for escaped Covid patient
Hong Kong authorities are searching for a Covid-19 patient who escaped one of the city’s largest hospitals while undergoing treatment, according to health officials.
The 63-year old man, identified as patient 7379, was admitted to the isolation ward of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital on December 14 after it was confirmed he had coronavirus.
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Severe shortage of hospital beds in South Korea
South Korea’s Covid-19 surge continued on Saturday, with a lack of hospital beds raising concerns in a country that has kept fatalities low despite a third wave of the disease.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 1,053 infections, a record fourth consecutive day of more than 1,000 cases.
South Korea has recorded 659 deaths out of 48,570 infections, a comparatively low mortality rate attributed to aggressive tracing and testing for much of the year, which minimised the strain on hospitals, allowing them to focus on seriously ill patients.
The mitigation efforts made the country a global success story when many nations saw soaring infections, prompting wide lockdowns.
But the recent surge – stemming from widespread clusters rather than the large, isolated outbreaks of the first two waves – has caused a severe shortage of hospital beds.
Only four critical-care beds were available as of Friday in greater Seoul, an area with almost 26 million people, data showed.
Six people with Covid have died in South Korea this month waiting for beds, and hundreds cannot get admitted as infections overload the health system, officials and media said on Friday.
The number of severely ill patients reached 275 on Saturday, up from 97 on December 1.
Despite the surge, the government has refrained from raising social distancing restrictions to the highest level, which would mean ordering 1.2 million business to suspend operations.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said on Friday that “social consensus” would be necessary for such a move, given the burden on businesses.
China aims for winter-spring vaccinations
China will aim to vaccinate all “key groups” – including workers in the cold chain industry, customs, healthcare, markets and public transport – over winter and spring, a senior health official told a briefing on Saturday.
The country will use the vaccination programme to build a “group shield” that will give active immunity to the public, said Zeng Yixin, vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission and the director of the working group in charge of vaccine research and development.
US gives Moderna’s Covid vaccine green light for emergency use
Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine on Friday became the second to receive emergency use authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration, welcome news to a nation with a staggering Covid-19 death toll of more than 307,000.
The biotech company has worked with the US government to prepare for the distribution of 5.9 million shots as early as this weekend.
The FDA decision is based on results from a late-stage study of 30,000 volunteers that found the vaccine was nearly 95 per cent effective at preventing illness from Covid-19 with no serious safety concerns.
“Authorisation of Moderna’s vaccine means we can accelerate the vaccination of frontline healthcare workers and Americans in long-term care facilities, and, ultimately, bring a faster end to this pandemic,” US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.