British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced tighter restrictions Wednesday to stem the spread of the omicron variant, urging people in England to again work from home and mandating COVID-19 passes for entrance into nightclubs and large events.
Johnson said it was time to impose stricter measures to prevent a spike of hospitalizations and deaths as the new coronavirus variant spreads rapidly in the community.
“It has become increasingly clear that omicron is growing much faster than the previous delta variant and is spreading rapidly all around the world,” he said in a news conference. “Most worryingly, there is evidence that the doubling time of omicron could currently be between two and three days.”
Johnson said that 568 cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed across the U.K., and “the true number is certain to be much higher.”
He said beginning next Monday, people should work from home if possible. Starting on Friday, the legal requirement to wear a face mask will be widened to most indoor public places in England, including cinemas. Next week, having a COVID-19 pass showing that a person has had both vaccine doses will be mandatory to enter nightclubs and places with large crowds.
Overall, the British government reported another 51,342 confirmed daily cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, with 161 more people dying.
The announcement came as Johnson and his government faced increasing pressure to explain reports that Downing Street staff enjoyed a Christmas party that breached the country’s coronavirus rules last year, when people were banned from holding most social gatherings. Johnson on Wednesday ordered an inquiry and said he was “furious” about the situation.
The revelations have angered many in Britain, with critics saying they heavily undermine the authority of Johnson’s Conservative government in imposing virus restrictions.
-From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 2:55 p.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 267.5 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University, which maintains an online database of global cases. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Wednesday that governments need to reassess national responses to COVID-19 and speed up vaccination programs to tackle the omicron variant, though it is too early to say how well existing shots will protect against it.
The variant’s global spread suggests it could have a major impact on the pandemic, and the time to contain it is now before more omicron patients are hospitalized, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“We call on all countries to increase surveillance, testing and sequencing,” he told a media briefing. “Any complacency now will cost lives.”
In Europe, France’s Ile-de-France region — with the capital Paris at its centre — said all hospitals are activating an emergency plan due to the strained COVID-19 situation. The plan includes stepping up the number of ICU beds and, if necessary, rescheduling treatments to free up capacities.
Meanwhile, European Union health ministers discussed measures to try to halt the spread of the omicron variant, with the Netherlands calling for negative tests for incoming travellers from outside the bloc and France urging tests even for those arriving from EU states.
Poland and several other countries in central and eastern Europe are battling their latest surges of coronavirus cases and deaths while continuing to record much lower vaccination rates than in western Europe.
In Russia, more than 1,200 people with COVID-19 died every day throughout most of November and for several days in December, and the daily death toll remains over 1,100. Ukraine, which is recording hundreds of virus deaths a day, is emerging from its deadliest period of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the mortality rate in Poland — while lower than it was in the spring — recently hit more than 500 deaths per day and still has not peaked. Intensive care units are full, and doctors report that more children require hospitalization, including some who went through COVID-19 without symptoms but then suffered strokes.
The situation has created a dilemma for Poland’s government, which has urged citizens to get vaccinated but clearly worries about alienating voters who oppose vaccine mandates or any restrictions on economic life.
In the Americas, the number of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 reached 200 million Wednesday amid a dispiriting holiday-season spike in cases and hospitalizations that has hit even New England, one of the most highly inoculated corners of the country.
Brazil will require that unvaccinated travellers entering the country go on a five-day quarantine followed by a COVID-19 test, after its president said he opposed the use of a vaccine passport.
In Africa, South Africa reported nearly 20,000 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, a record since the omicron variant was detected, and 36 new COVID-related deaths. It was not immediately clear how many of the infections were caused by omicron, given only a fraction of samples are sequenced, but experts believe it’s driving South Africa’s fourth wave of infections.
A weekly epidemiological report published Tuesday by WHO said that in the Middle East, the most cases reported last week were in:
- Jordan, with 32,108 reported cases.
- Iran, with 26,255 reported cases.
- Lebanon, with 10,406 reported cases.
In the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea will consider expanding home treatment of COVID-19 patients, as both new daily infections and severe cases hit record highs, putting hospital capacity under strain.
-From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 4:05 p.m. ET
N.Korea fires two ballistic missiles from Pyongyang airport, S.Korea says
North Korea fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) on Monday from an airport in its capital city of Pyongyang, South Korea’s military reported, the fourth test https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/north-korea-used-railway-born-missile-fridays-test-kcna-2022-01-14 this month to demonstrate its expanding missile arsenal.
Japan also reported the launch, with chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno condemning it as a threat to peace and security.
In less than two weeks, nuclear-armed North Korea has conducted three other missile tests, an unusually rapid series of launches. It said two of them involved single “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after launch, while a test on Friday involved a pair of short-range ballistic missiles fired from train cars.
Monday’s launch appeared to involve two SRBMs fired east from Sunan Airfield in Pyongyang, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
North Korea used the airport to test fire the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in 2017, with leader Kim Jong Un in attendance.
The missiles fired on Monday travelled about 380 km (236 miles) to a maximum altitude of 42 km (26 miles), the JCS said in a statement.
Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said the missiles appeared to have landed in the ocean near North Korea’s east coast.
“It is self-evident that the aim of North Korea’s frequent missile launches is to improve their missile technology,” he told reporters.
“The repeated launching of North Korea’s ballistic missiles is a grave problem for the international community, including Japan,” Kishi added, noting that the launches were a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from all ballistic missile development.
The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said it assessed that the launch did not pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, but “these missile launches highlight the destabilising impact of (North Korea’s ) illicit weapons programme”.
The pace of testing and the different launch sites suggests that North Korea has enough missiles to feel comfortable expending them on tests, training, and demonstrations, and helps reinforce its deterrent credibility by emphasizing the volume of its missile force, said Mason Richey, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
North Korea has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons since 2017, but after denuclearisation talks stalled in 2019, it began unveiling and testing a range of new SRBM designs.
Many of the latest SRBMs, including the hypersonic missiles, appear designed to evade missile defences. North Korea has also vowed to pursue tactical nuclear weapons, which could allow it to deploy nuclear warheads on SRBMs.
“Every tactical missile launch flaunts how little sanctions have constrained the Kim regime, and how the U.S. … has failed to make North Korea pay a sufficient cost for short-range missile programme development,” Richey said.
‘ISOLATING AND STIFLING’
The latest launches have drawn both condemnation and an appeal for dialogue from a U.S. administration that has imposed new sanctions over North Korean missile launches and is pushing for more.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration imposed its first new sanctions on Pyongyang on Wednesday, and called on the U.N. Security Council to blacklist several North Korean individuals and entities. It also repeated calls for North Korea to return to talks aimed at reducing tension and persuading it to surrender its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
North Korea has defended the missile tests as its sovereign right to self-defence and accused the United States of intentionally intensifying confrontation with new sanctions.
In a statement before Friday’s missile tests, the North Korean foreign ministry said that although the United States might talk of diplomacy and dialogue, its actions showed it was still engrossed in its policy of “isolating and stifling” North Korea.
South Korea’s national security council held an emergency meeting after Monday’s test, with members stressing that “above all else, it is essential to start dialogue as soon as possible in order for the situation on the Korean Peninsula to not become more strained and to restore stability”, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.
The launches came as North Korea, more isolated than ever under self-imposed border closures aimed at preventing a COVID-19 pandemic, appeared to be preparing to open at least some trade across its land border with China.
Chinese brokers said they expect the resumption of regular trade with North Korea soon after a North Korean train pulled into a Chinese border town on Sunday in the first such crossing since anti-coronavirus lockdowns began in 2020.
Zhao Tong, a Beijing-based nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said North Korea had few reasons to hold back its missile development.
Leader Kim appeared to have little hope of a breakthrough with the United States, and China’s sympathy for North Korea and antipathy towards the United States could encourage North Korea to think that China was unlikely to support any effort by the international community to censure it for the tests, he added.
“North Korea may think this is a safe time to advance its missile development,” Zhao said.
Last week, China criticised the new U.S. sanctions but also called on all sides to act prudently and engage in dialogue to reduce tensions.
China says it enforces existing international sanctions on North Korea, but has joined with Russia to urge https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/china-russia-revive-push-lift-un-sanctions-north-korea-2021-11-01 the U.N. Security Council to ease the measures, saying they hurt the civilian population.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Elaine Lies and Sakura Murakami in Tokyo; and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Neil Fullick and Gerry Doyle)
Winter storm slams U.S. East Coast, Canada, thousands of flights canceled
A major winter storm slammed much of the eastern United States with snow, ice and high winds on Sunday, causing widespread travel disruptions and power outages on a holiday weekend.
Winter weather alerts stretched more than 1,000 miles (1,609 km) from Alabama to Maine, with the governors of Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina all declaring emergencies due to the storm.
More than 200,000 homes and businesses in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia reported power outages, according to PowerOutage.US, a website tracking power outages.
In North Carolina, where some regions saw record snowfalls, two people died Sunday when they lost control of their car in Raleigh.
The highest snowfall totals were expected along the spine of the Appalachians as well as across the lower Great Lakes.
The storm made its way through the Mid-Atlantic region toward New England on Sunday night, bringing snow that is expected to change to ice, sleet and eventually rain, the National Weather Service said.
In Canada, the storm is forecast to dump between 20-40cm (8-16 inches) of snow through Monday morning over parts of southern and eastern Ontario, the Canadian province that shares part of its border with New York state, the government weather agency, Environment Canada, said.
The inclement weather hits just as Ontario schools were set to reopen for in-person classes on Monday after the winter break was extended because of the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant.
More than 3,000 flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled on Sunday, and over 8,000 flights were delayed, according to FlightAware data.
American Airlines Group Inc saw more than 660 flight cancellations. More than 90% of the flights into and out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, an American Airlines hub, were canceled, the FlightAware website https://flightaware.com/live/cancelled showed.
American Airlines said it is allowing customers affected by the weather to rebook flights without a fee.
Toronto, home of Canada’s busiest airport, is set to see accumulations of 15 to 20cm of snow.
This was a long weekend for most people in the United States as Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said on Sunday people should avoid non-essential travel in areas impacted by the storm.
“If you’re able tonight and tomorrow morning, stay home and off the roads,” Kemp said on https://twitter.com/GovKemp/status/1482828779005353984Twitter. “It’s going to be treacherous in a lot of parts of our state.”
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe in Washington and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Kieran Murray and Karishma Singh)
Back to school in 4 provinces as Omicron spreads – CTV News
Parents and teachers in four provinces are bracing for students to return to the classroom Monday as the Omicron variant-fuelled wave of COVID-19 continues to spread and questions remain about how prepared schools really are for a full-scale return.
Kids in Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s largest provinces, are to resume in-person learning after their governments delayed their return in the face of record-setting case numbers over the holidays.
While public health experts, parents and officials agree that in-person learning is best for children, school boards, families and unions say they’re preparing for an increase in staff absences because of the virus, with some worried that the contingency plans touted by provincial governments may not be enough to keep schools operating safely.
In a letter to members over the weekend, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario President Karen Brown said educators from across the province have expressed a range of emotions about heading back to class during this fifth wave of the pandemic, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“Some members are enthusiastic and feel safe, others are cautiously optimistic, and some are anxious,” reads the letter to the union’s roughly 83,000 members.
Ontario reported there were 3,595 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, with 579 in intensive care.
The latest figures represent a drop from the day before, but Health Minister Christine Elliott noted that not all hospitals report their COVID-19 numbers over the weekend.
Quebec, meanwhile, said hospitalizations rose by 105 over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of patients to 3,300.
Manitoba and Nova Scotia will also send kids back to the classroom on Monday, with Nova Scotia being the only province in the Atlantic region to do so.
That province reported 68 people were admitted to hospital because of COVID-19 on Sunday, 10 more than the previous day, with 10 receiving intensive care.
In neighbouring New Brunswick, where schools won’t return until Jan. 31 and residents are back under a 16-day lockdown, officials reported there were 113 patients hospitalized because of COVID-19. Officials in Newfoundland and Labrador, meanwhile, logged 384 new infections and one additional virus-related death.
Nova Scotia Teachers Union President Paul Wozney cast doubt on whether schools will be able to stay open for the week, pointing out that kids had to be sent home earlier than hoped for before the Christmas break because of staffing levels — and that was when caseloads were lower than they are today.
“The pressure that Omicron presents hasn’t lessened, it’s gotten worse.”
Rather than send students back to school on Monday, Wozney suggested the province should have taken a more cautious approach as its neighbours have done until COVID-19 case levels become more manageable.
One of the problems, he says, is the dwindling list of available substitute teachers, which is even more of an issue in rural areas than in the provincial capital of Halifax.
“We do not have the people to sustain in-person learning for any prolonged period of time,” he said. “We’ve made that abundantly clear to the (education) department.”
School boards in Ontario have also warned parents to expect possible returns to remote learning as they try to manage both infection and staffing levels in classrooms.
To keep schools open, Ontario and Nova Scotia plan to supply students with rapid antigen tests. The move comes at a time when Ottawa tries to ensure the 140 million it promised to send provinces this month arrive on schedule, as it works with 14 different suppliers and battles supply issues as demand for the tests have soared.
Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government also plans to rely on rapid testing to keep students in school and says it’s still working on ventilation upgrades at many buildings.
Improved air quality and access to better masks were chief among the concerns parents, educators and doctors wanted governments to address before kids went back to class.
In Quebec, for example — where updated guidelines say schools won’t need to shut down in the event of an outbreak but can move online if more than 60 per cent of students are isolating — some parents have denounced the fact N95 masks are being reserved for
“We know surgical masks aren’t as protective, so … by magic, the children will be protected here in Quebec and aren’t going to get COVID?” said Cheryl Cooperman, a Montreal mother of two who penned an open letter decrying what it calls inconsistencies in Quebec’s approach.
Contact tracing also remains an issue. In Manitoba, those infected in schools will not be able to count on officials to notify their close contacts. Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s top doctor, said at a briefing last week that the virus is simply spreading too fast.
He also stated the risk of children becoming severely ill from the Omicron variant is low.
The mass return to in-person learning comes after Health Canada reported less than four per cent of children in the country aged 5-11 were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday, with nearly 50 per cent having received at least one dose.
At the same time, the country boasts that nearly 90 per cent of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated while provinces race to get booster shots into as many arms as possible to battle the current surge.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2022.
With files from Keith Doucette in Halifax and Virginie Ann in Montreal.
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