New strain may have already spread across the UK, scientists warn

Jordan Kelly-Linden
·56-min read
A woman wears a face mask as she carries a Christmas tree on a scooter, along the main shopping street of Oxford Street that remains nearly empty in central London -  Alberto Pezzali  / AP
A woman wears a face mask as she carries a Christmas tree on a scooter, along the main shopping street of Oxford Street that remains nearly empty in central London - Alberto Pezzali / AP
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

05:40 PM

Today's top headlines

That's all from me today. Before I go here's a little rundown of what went on...

  • The number of people in English hospitals with Covid-19 is slowly creeping up to levels not seen since the height of the UK's lockdown in April, data from NHS England shows.

  •  It comes as the UK recorded another 36,804 cases of the virus against an additional 691 deaths – the highest death toll announced in a 24 hour period since early May.

  • The new and more infectious variant of Covid-19 has already spread across the UK, with cases identified in Wales and Scotland, genetic sampling has shown.

  • Tougher lockdown measures are under consideration in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has announced, after Covid-19 cases rose by 15 per cent in the past fortnight.

  • The European Commission has recommended that travel bans should be discontinued to avoid supply chain disruptions, but “non-essential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged”. Prior to the announcement at least 54 countries across the world had enforced restrictions on UK travellers.

  • The chief executive of BioNTech says the German pharmaceutical company is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the UK variant, but further studies are need to be completely sure.

  • Dutch hospitals are bracing for a wave of Covid-19 patients after cases across the country jumped 42 per cent last week.

  • Japanese citizens have been asked to wear masks at home to fight record infection rates over holiday period.

  • The U.S. Congress on Monday approved an $892 billion coronavirus aid package, throwing a lifeline to the nation's pandemic-battered economy after months of inaction.

  • Antarctica, once the only continent not to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, has reportedly recorded its first set of confirmed cases

  • Taiwan has reported its first locally transmitted Covid-19 case since April 12, jolting the island of 23 million out of its much praised infection-free streak of more than 250 days. 

05:31 PM

Pfizer vaccine arrives in Singapore

Singapore on Monday became the first Asian nation to receive a batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, marking the start of its staged strategy to vaccinate its entire population against Covid-19 by the end of 2021.

Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, called the shipment’s arrival on board a Singapore Airlines 747-400 freighter “a welcome ‘present’ that we’ve all been looking forward to!” but his government has already warned the public not to treat vaccines as a “silver bullet.”

“Singapore cannot let its guard down. Continue to be vigilant, keep up with good practices,” the health ministry said in a statement explaining the vaccination rollout.

Like other East Asian nations, Singapore will not start vaccinating its first frontline workers and older citizens until early next year, taking a more cautious approach towards its decisions about which will be the most promising and safest vaccine to invest in.

In contrast to Europe and North America, Asian nations which have managed to keep the pandemic under control through strict border rules, quarantines, testing and tracing, have bought themselves more time to observe the success rates or challenges of different vaccines in the West.

While countries like the UK need the vaccine more urgently, Asian capitals have not pinned their hopes on any one drug as a quick fix to the pandemic.

Nicola Smith has the full story.

05:29 PM

Nigerian president calls for 'urgent measures' as virus cases rise

Nigeria's president has called for greater vigilance as coronavirus cases climbed in Africa's most populous country, advising states to implement stricter measures ahead of the festive season.

The country's Centre for Disease Control said there has been a rapid increase in the number of new cases over the last two weeks, with 78,790 total infections registered as of Monday and 1,227 deaths.

"New epicentres have been identified and the nation cannot afford to lose the gains of the last nine months," President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement.

"I have critically evaluated the situation and remain convinced that urgent measures have to be taken to halt the spread and the attendant fatalities."

The president added that "the nation is clearly in a perilous situation given the virulent nature of this second wave and we must act decisively to protect our people."

A presidential task force issued an advisory on Monday asking the country's 36 state authorities and the nation's capital to implement stricter measures for the next five weeks.

These measures include closing bars, nightclubs and recreational venues, suspending non-essential travels and limiting gatherings to no more than 50 people.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari  - AFOLABI SOTUNDE /  REUTERS
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari - AFOLABI SOTUNDE / REUTERS

05:22 PM

The 12 areas of the UK reporting the most coronavirus cases per population

Covid-19 case rates are now above 1,000 cases per 100,000 people in 12 local areas of the UK, the latest data shows.

Three of the areas are in Wales: Merthyr Tydfil, where the rate is currently 1,336.1 - the highest anywhere in the UK; Bridgend, where the rate is 1,145.9; and Blaenau Gwent, where the rate is 1,002.0.

The other nine areas are in England: Thurrock (1,257.3), Havering (1,190.9), Epping Forest (1,146.6), Brentwood (1,095.8), Basildon (1,080.1), Medway (1,054.4), Rochford (1,041.6), Redbridge (1,040.6) and Castle Point (1,011.3).

All figures are based on data published on Tuesday afternoon and are for the seven days to December 18. Data on new cases for December 19-22 is incomplete and therefore not included.

Covid hotspot postcode search
Covid hotspot postcode search

05:18 PM

Number of people in English hospitals nears peak lockdown levels

The number of people in English hospitals is slowly creeping up to levels not seen since the height of the UK's lockdown in April. 

Professor Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, shared the latest figures on Twitter. 

As of December 21, 17,709 patients were in hospital with Covid-19, according to data from NHS England.

This compares to around 18,974 patients recorded at the peak of the crisis in April.

 It comes as the UK recorded another 36,804 cases of the virus against an additional 691 deaths.

Today's death toll is the highest announced in a 24 hour period since early May.

05:11 PM

'I lost my husband and son-in-law to Covid. Anyone who refuses the vaccine can answer to me'

The vaccine will only be effective in stopping the pandemic if enough people receive it but selfish naysayers are putting everyone at risk, writes  Anne Mayer Bird: 

“This might hurt a bit,” said the nurse administering the Covid vaccine. I had to laugh. I’m 87 and my long life has shown me a lot of experiences; mostly good but, over this difficult year, many painful. 

I lost my husband John, the love of my life, and then, weeks later, my wonderful son-in-law Andy. My daughter Catherine and I were just beginning to grapple with these losses when the pandemic was declared. Straight away we couldn’t hug or be hugged. Then we were confined by lockdown to our separate homes. 

I didn’t try to explain to the nurse why I laughed at the prospect of a little additional pain – or how joyful I felt to be on the end of her needle. I’ve seen what Covid can do. My son-in-law was full of life. Then, suddenly, he was in intensive care.

Read more

04:53 PM

'We just want to go home': Lorry drivers stuck in Dover fear they will Christmas

More than 1,500 hauliers are stuck in Kent just days before Christmas due to the French border closure.

"I'm tired, I'm disappointed. We just want to go home", one of the lorry drivers told the media, as they face the prospect of spending Christmas waiting for the borders to reopen.

France has demanded that all lorry drivers travelling across the border have coronavirus tests before they are allowed onto the continent as ministers try to overturn a travel ban imposed by Emmanuel Macron.

04:28 PM

Fauci receives his coronavirus vaccine

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the United States' National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has had his jab and says he hopes this will encourages millions of other Americans to do the same.

He said the shot should be “a symbol to the rest of the country that I feel extreme confidence of the safety and efficacy of this vaccine.”

04:14 PM

Dutch hospitals brace for wave of Covid-19 patients as cases jump

 Hospitals in the Netherlands on Tuesday said they would postpone all non-critical care the coming weeks in order to deal with the rapid rise in Covid-19 patients.

Coronavirus infections in the country jumped 42 per cent to 83,240 in the week through Tuesday, the National Institute for Public Health said, following a string of record daily increases.

The Dutch government early last week imposed a tough five-week lockdown, closing all schools and non-essential stores, in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.

The Health Ministry on Tuesday said all Dutch hospitals would postpone non-critical care for an indefinite period of time, while the number of available intensive care beds in the country would be increased to 1,450.

The ministry said it had so far found two Dutch patients infected with a virulent variant of the coronavirus first discovered in Britain, which has prompted much of the world to cut off travel ties with the United Kingdom.

One of the patients had not recently been to Britain, health minister Hugo de Jonge told national news agency ANP. 

Coronavirus Netherlands Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Netherlands Spotlight Chart - Cases default

03:52 PM

How consultants, airlines and China cashed in on PPE scramble

At least £175m of taxpayer money has been spent on consultants - but the true cost is likely to be much higher. Michael O'Dwyer and Ben Gartside unpick the details:

Private sector consultants won a raft of contracts across the Government as departments and public agencies scrambled to respond to the pandemic, with Deloitte, EY, KPMG and McKinsey thought to be among the biggest beneficiaries.

The firms insist they have played a key role in helping to roll out Government programmes at speed, immediately calling in teams with expertise in logistics, digital systems and project management that the civil service did not possess internally. 

However there has been public anger at the huge contracts being dished out to the private sector and it remains impossible to tot up the taxpayer’s outlay on private firms because many of the biggest contracts remain undisclosed. 

Here is how consultants, airlines and China cashed in on the PPE scramble.

03:46 PM

Scotland considering even tighter restrictions

Tougher lockdown measures are under consideration in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has announced, after Covid-19 cases rose by 15 per cent in the past fortnight.

She said the new measures announced on Saturday – cutting festive easing to Christmas Day visits only, a travel ban, the Boxing Day increase in levels and a delay in pupils returning to schools – are needed to counter the risk of "exponential growth" of the new, more infectious variant of the virus.

Speaking at a review of restriction levels at the Scottish Parliament, she said this system has "until now been effective", but as more information on the new strain emerges consideration will be given on whether the top level – Level 4 – needs to be strengthened.

She said: "It seems that we are facing a virus that spreads much faster now than in March, so we need to consider whether the current Level 4 restrictions will be sufficient to suppress it."

As part of this, plans to resume in-class teaching for all pupils by January 18 will be kept under review.

03:40 PM

France contemplates banning un-vaccinated from using public transport

People who fail to get vaccine could be banned from using public transport in France, according to a draft law sparking angry protests from opposition politicians, AFP reports.

Prime Minister Jean Castex on Monday got his cabinet’s backing for a bill that is designed to provide a legal framework for dealing with health crises, including the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the text, which will now be submitted to parliament, a negative Covid test or proof of a “preventative treatment, including the administration of a vaccine” could be required for people to be granted “access to transport or to some locations, as well as certain activities”.

03:34 PM

Sweden to fast-track pandemic bill permitting wider shutdown

Sweden's government is rushing to put forward a temporary pandemic bill that would give it powers to shut shops, private museums and by law limit the number of people in gatherings, news agency TT reported on Tuesday.

Sweden has shunned lockdowns throughout the pandemic and has preferred to work with voluntary measures aimed at promoting social distancing and good hygiene. The government has lacked powers to enforce many of the recommendations by sanctions.

But with records for new cases set almost every week over the past two months and healthcare close to maximum capacity, the government has seen it necessary to ask for wider powers.

"It is the ambition to put forward a legislative bill to the Riksdag on the Pandemic Act, or parts of the Pandemic Act, on 4 January," Lena Hallengren, Minister for Health and Social Affairs, said in a TT interview.

Parliament could vote for the bill as early as Jan. 8.

A commuter wearing a protective face mask rides the tram with her dalmatian dog in Gothenburg, Sweden - Fredrik Lerneryd / Bloomberg
A commuter wearing a protective face mask rides the tram with her dalmatian dog in Gothenburg, Sweden - Fredrik Lerneryd / Bloomberg

03:29 PM

Vulnerable told to shield again in Wales

Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething has said people who were previously shielding "should no longer attend work or school outside the home" due to the surge in coronavirus cases in Wales.

Letters confirming the advice from the country's chief medical officers to clinically-vulnerable people will be "unavoidably delayed" due to the Christmas period, he said.

Mr Gething said in a statement: "This decision has been taken based on number of factors but has been influenced most recently by the significant recent growth in rates of infection, possibly due to the new variant of the coronavirus.

"We have also taken account of the pressures we see on our health service with increasing hospitalisations. This advice will be reviewed on a three-weekly basis aligned to the Welsh Government reviews of alert levels across Wales."

03:21 PM

BioNTech CEO 'confident' Pfizer vaccine will work on UK variant

The chief executive of BioNTech says the German pharmaceutical company is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the UK variant, but further studies are need to be completely sure.

Ugur Sahin said Tuesday that "we don't know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant," but because the proteins on the variant are 99 per cent the same as the prevailing strains, BioNTech has "scientific confidence" in the vaccine.

Mr Sahin said BioNTech is currently conducting further studies and hopes to have certainty within the coming weeks.

"The likelihood that our vaccine works ... is relatively high." But if needed, "we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks," he added.

BioNTech's vaccine, developed together with US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, is authorized for use in more than 45 countries including Britain, the United States and the European Union.

Moderna, which manufactures a different coronavirus vaccine, is also testing its jab against the faster-spreading version of the disease.

03:00 PM

Survived the Blitz, killed by Covid: Cafe de Paris, the famed nightspot of Edward VIII, forced to close

It survived the Blitz and entertained royalty, and was a timeless, bustling hotspot in Central London for the 96 years it survived. But the Cafe de Paris has finally been vanquished by Covid-19.

The business has announced it will be closing for good, with the effects of lockdown even more devastating than the 1941 Blitz bomb which laid waste to the glitzy concert hall, forcing it to close for refurbishment until 1948.

Cafe de Paris was a symbol of the West End, it opened in 1924 and its and hosted a rotating cast of A-list stars including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Noël Coward.

Surviving the ages, it featured in  David Bowie's 1986 music video Absolute Beginners and in 1990 was a setting for the film The Krays.

Helena Horton has more on this historic venue here.

Cafe de Paris nightclub in Leicester Square, London. Image shot 2010. Exact date unknown. - Jeffrey Blackler / Alamy Stock Photo
Cafe de Paris nightclub in Leicester Square, London. Image shot 2010. Exact date unknown. - Jeffrey Blackler / Alamy Stock Photo

02:55 PM

Welsh cases rise by 2,761 against 24 deaths

There have been a further 2,761 cases of coronavirus in Wales, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 128,089.

Public Health Wales reported another 24 deaths, taking the total in Wales since the start of the pandemic to 3,149.

02:55 PM

Nanoparticles in Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine may have triggered rare allergic reactions

A compound in the Covid-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech may be behind the severe allergy-like reactions recorded over the last two weeks in at last eight people who received the jab in the US, scientists say.

Polyethylene glycol  – or PEG – is found in the packaging of the messenger RNA (mRNA) that forms the vaccine’s main ingredient.

A similar mRNA vaccine developed by Moderna, which was authorized for emergency use in the United States on Friday, also contains the compound.

PEG has never been used before in an approved vaccine, but it is found in many drugs that have occasionally triggered anaphylaxis – a potentially life-threatening reaction that can cause rashes, a plummeting blood pressure, shortness of breath, and a fast heartbeat.

Some allergists and immunologists believe a small number of people previously exposed to PEG may have high levels of antibodies against PEG, putting them at risk of an anaphylactic reaction to the vaccine. 

It is worth noting that anaphylactic reactions can occur with any vaccine, but they are extremely rare, occurring in about one per 1 million doses.

02:46 PM

Japan tells people to wear masks at home to fight record infection rates over holiday period

Japanese citizens have been asked to wear masks at home over the holidays in Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures. 

The extra precaution was recommended for elderly people and their family members as cases rise across the country.

“The fate of the coming year will be determined by how you spend the year-end and New Year holidays”, Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo, said in a joint letter with other regional leaders. 

She added that as the health crisis continues, the holidays cannot be an excuse for people to let their guard down. Instead of attending parties or returning to their home towns for a traditional New Year celebration, Mrs Koike urged people to remain indoors and take as many precautions as possible. 

Read more

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has called for all vulnerables to wear a mask at home during New Years celebrations  - Yuki Sato / Kyodo News
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has called for all vulnerables to wear a mask at home during New Years celebrations - Yuki Sato / Kyodo News

02:41 PM

Brussels calls for coordinated action over blanket bans

Brussels called for co-ordinated action by the EU's 27 states in relation to the UK's coronavirus variant, with travel bans discontinued.

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders said: "Given the current uncertainties and in light of the precautionary principle, member states should take co-ordinated action to discourage non-essential travel between the UK and the EU.

"At the same time, blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes.

"While precautions are needed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus variant, with today's recommendation, we therefore ensure that the restrictions are co-ordinated and provide for the necessary exemptions for citizens and residents returning home and other essential travellers."

EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean said: "Within the EU, it is crucial that transport workers are exempted from any restrictive measures, as quarantine and testing."

02:40 PM

India to track down British arrivals

India plans to track down everyone arriving from Britain over the past month, officials said on Tuesday, hoping to stop a more infectious strain of the coronavirus detected there spreading in a country battling the world's second highest Covid-19 toll.

Eight people arriving from Britain tested positive for Covid-19 this week and more results are awaited, officials from three Indian cities said. So far none of the infections appeared to be the new strain, a senior government advisor said, while a testing coordinator said analysis was still ongoing.

Recorded infections in India exceeded 10 million at the weekend, second only to the United States. More than 146,000 people in India are recorded to have died from the disease.

The discovery this month of a new more easily transmissible form of the virus in Britain is a particular concern since several hundred people typically arrive at each of India's major airports from Britain every day.

India will suspend flights from Britain from Wednesday until the end of the month and has been testing passengers.

02:32 PM

Switzerland begins mass vaccination

Switzerland got its first doses of Covid-19 vaccine on Tuesday, paving the way for jabs to begin just as the country imposes a month-long clampdown on public life in an attempt to curb stubbornly high infection rates, health officials said.

Switzerland's drugs regulator authorised use of jabs from Pfizer and partner BioNTech on Saturday in what officials called the world's first such approval under a standard procedure.

An initial batch of 107,000 doses will go to individual cantons to start inoculating vulnerable people, including those over 75 at first and those with medical conditions.

Covid-19 cases in Switzerland and neighbouring Liechtenstein have surpassed 400,000 and the death toll has topped 6,000, prompting the government last week to close restaurants for a month and urge people to stay home.

Switzerland has a contract with Pfizer and BioNTech to get 3 million doses of the vaccine, enough to give 1.5 million two jabs three weeks apart. It has ordered 15 million vaccine doses in all including deals with Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Artist David "S.I.D." Perez paints a graffiti, representing two vaccines (Modernos 19 and Pizter Klorokinos) fighting against a virus in the background of a popular video game Street Fighter, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Gland, Switzerland - DENIS BALIBOUSE / REUTERS
Artist David "S.I.D." Perez paints a graffiti, representing two vaccines (Modernos 19 and Pizter Klorokinos) fighting against a virus in the background of a popular video game Street Fighter, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Gland, Switzerland - DENIS BALIBOUSE / REUTERS

02:27 PM

Northern Ireland records 16 new coronavirus deaths

A further 16 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health has said.

The death toll recorded by the department now stands at 1,219.

An additional 439 cases of the virus have been confirmed in the last 24-hour reporting period.

02:27 PM

Death toll creeps up by 405 in England

A further 405 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in hospital in England, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths reported in hospitals to 46,983, NHS England said on Tuesday.

Patients were aged between 26 and 100. All except 13, aged between 54 and 90, had known underlying health conditions.

The deaths were between July 2 and December 21.

Twenty other deaths were reported with no positive Covid-19 test result.

02:16 PM

New Covid variant 'has spread around UK already'

Genomic researchers have found the new and more infectious variant of Covid-19 has already spread around the UK, with cases identified in Wales and Scotland.

The Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium sampled cases around the UK and found the variant is also in the South West, Midlands and North of England, areas that are under Tier 2 and 3 restrictions.

Jeffrey Barrett, lead Covid-19 statistical geneticist at COG-UK, warned there was a lag in the sequence data being sampled, so the most recent data was from the first week of December when England came out of the second national lockdown.

At a Science Media Centre briefing on Tuesday, he said: "They're relatively small numbers but I think it is important to be aware that it is certainly not the case that this is just completely geographically constrained to what is the current Tier 4 area."

In a briefing on Tuesday afternoon, officials in Manchester said they were not aware of the mutant strain of the virus in the city yet.

02:08 PM

Government borrowing surges as furlough ramps up for second wave

Rishi Sunak ramped up borrowing again in November as the second wave of Covid brought extra restrictions, and spending on furlough jumped.

The budget deficit hit £31.6bn in the month, the Office for National Statistics estimates, up from £21.7bn in October.

This is the third-biggest monthly deficit on records dating back to 1993, and the highest for any November.

Borrowing this financial year has now reached a record £241bn, while the national debt hit £2.1 trillion - 99.5pc of GDP.

Tim Wallace has more

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leaves 11 Downing Street in central London -  BEN STANSALL / AFP
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leaves 11 Downing Street in central London - BEN STANSALL / AFP

02:01 PM

Ireland to close hospitality venues and most shops from Christmas Eve

Ireland will shut restaurants, pubs serving food and some shops from Christmas Eve after health officials warned the country had quickly spiralled into a third wave of infections, Reuters reports.

Prime Minister Micheal Martin said there was no evidence that a new, virulent variant of the virus that has isolated neighbouring Britain had reached Ireland, but the safest way forward was to assume it had.

Ireland has one of the lowest incidence rates in Europe after moving early in October to temporarily shut shops, bars and restaurants. Unlike much of Europe, they have largely been open again during the busy December trading period.

However daily cases were now rising at 10 per cent, Martin said, prompting the government to scrap provisional plans to keep hospitality open until closer to the New Year and move to a modified version of its highest level of restrictions until 12 January.

01:49 PM

After months of inaction, U.S. Congress approves $892 billion Covid-19 relief package

The U.S. Congress on Monday approved an $892 billion coronavirus aid package, throwing a lifeline to the nation's pandemic-battered economy after months of inaction, while also keeping the federal government funded.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the package into law.

Following days of furious negotiation, both legislative chambers worked deep into the night to pass the bill - worth about $2.3 trillion including spending for the rest of the fiscal year - with the House of Representatives first approving it and the Senate following suit several hours later in a bipartisan 92-6 vote.

The virus relief bill includes $600 payments to most Americans as well as additional payments to the millions of people thrown out of work during the Covid-19 pandemic, just as a larger round of benefits is due to expire on Saturday.

Read more.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she supported the bill despite the fact it did not include the direct aid for state and local governments - KEN CEDENO / REUTERS
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she supported the bill despite the fact it did not include the direct aid for state and local governments - KEN CEDENO / REUTERS

01:44 PM

No your heart is melting

In New York, New dog recruits are helping to expand a nursing home's pet therapy program, giving residents and staff physical comfort while human visitors are still restricted because of the pandemic

Here Sal Markowitz, 96, right, and Sandra Greer, 82, left, receive a visit from Marley, a Great Dane, while therapeutic activities director Catherine Farrell looks on at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

 Sal Markowitz, 96, right, and Sandra Greer, 82, left, visits with Marley, a Great Dane, while therapeutic activities director Catherine Farrell looks on at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale in New York - Seth Wenig / AP
Sal Markowitz, 96, right, and Sandra Greer, 82, left, visits with Marley, a Great Dane, while therapeutic activities director Catherine Farrell looks on at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale in New York - Seth Wenig / AP

01:41 PM

Covid crisis has seen disabled people struggle to access food, MPs warn

The coronavirus pandemic has had "profoundly adverse effects" on disabled people's access to food, MPs have said.

A report argued that the Government's focus on people who are "clinically extremely vulnerable" had led to unintended consequences for those outside that group.

The women and equalities committee paper, called "Unequal Impact?", said the approach meant ministers had "set one group of people with clinical needs against others with social barriers to food shopping".

The report found disabled people faced "increased barriers" to shopping because of difficulties in complying with social distancing measures and dealing with changes to store layouts.

It said those with disabilities suffered from disproportionate deaths and "potentially discriminatory practices" in health and social care services.

Amy Jones has more on this story here.

01:33 PM

EU Commission calls for end to UK travel bans

The European Commission has recommended that flight and train bans on travel from the UK should be discontinued to avoid supply chain disruptions, but “non-essential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged”.

The Commission also said that “until the end of December, free movement rules still apply to the UK. This means that Member States should not in principle refuse the entry of persons travelling from the UK.”

01:29 PM

India's coronavirus death count falls

India has recorded its lowest number of daily deaths from Covid-19 in over six months, with just 301 reported fatalities on Monday.

According to official statistics, the virus appears to be on the retreat in the subcontinent with the number of new daily cases also dropping below 20,000 on Monday for the first time since early July.

Public health experts are unsure why new infections and deaths have suddenly dropped but suggest it could be due in part to poor monitoring.

On average, India misses 90 cases for every Covid-19 reported infection, according to a December study by the Department of Science and Technology.

India still hopes to begin a vaccination campaign of its 1.38 billion citizens against Covid-19 in January, according to the Ministry of Health.

01:17 PM

Italy to trace 44,000 British travellers

Italy wants to trace and test the estimated 44,000 people who flew in from the UK in December in a bid to discover if any of them are suffering from the mutant strain of Covid-19. 

The authorities want to locate all the travelers, swab them for the coronavirus, and then trace their family, friends and other contacts - a huge logistical challenge.

Some Italian commentators and medical experts have been highly critical of the fact that it took the British authorities so long to publicly announce the discovery of the new strain of the virus.

"It is a highly alarming situation caused by the delay in communication by the British authorities," said Corriere della Sera newspaper on Tuesday.

Two members of the Lodi local police patrol in full uniform -  FLAVIA MAZZA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Two members of the Lodi local police patrol in full uniform - FLAVIA MAZZA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

01:10 PM

Meanwhile in Dover...

Hundreds of trucks have filled the runway at the former RAF airfield at Manston in Kent as the Port of Dover remains closed.

France is among a number of countries to ban travel from the UK as Covid-19 infections rise dramatically and the possibility of a new mutant strain.

More on all the countries closing their borders to UK travellers here.

UK. Hundreds of trucks fill the runway at the former RAF airfield at Manston in Kent as the Port of Dover remains closed. France is among a number of countries to ban travel from the UK as Covid-19 infections rise dramatically and the possibility of a new mutant strain. - Peter Macdiarmid/LNP
UK. Hundreds of trucks fill the runway at the former RAF airfield at Manston in Kent as the Port of Dover remains closed. France is among a number of countries to ban travel from the UK as Covid-19 infections rise dramatically and the possibility of a new mutant strain. - Peter Macdiarmid/LNP

01:08 PM

Record number of doctors and nurses working in the NHS

The NHS workforce has reached record highs, figures published by the Department of Health and Social Care show.

The number of nurses working in the NHS in England has increased by 13,313 on last year to a record 299,184, and the number of doctors rose by 6,030 to 122,446.

The final figures from this year’s admission cycle show there were 29,740 acceptances to nursing and midwifery courses in England, 6,110 more than last year. While the number of new nursing applicants to English providers between 15 January and 30 June was 68 per cent higher than the same period last year.

In addition, recent figures for this year show the highest ever number of GPs entering training with 3,793 posts accepted – exceeding the mandated target of 3,250. 

“This winter will be challenging as we continue to fight this deadly virus, and I’m hugely grateful to all our staff who continue to save lives and provide care to those who need it," Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said in response to the figures.

“We are backing our NHS and thanks to their unrelenting dedication, we will not only beat Covid but secure the future of our health service and deliver on our manifesto commitment of 50,000 more nurses.”

12:53 PM

Afternoon summary

Here’s a round up of the latest developments:

  • Tougher lockdown restrictions could be needed to tackle the new variant coronavirus, Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of the Government's Sage scientific advisory panel, has suggested. 

  • The chief executive of BioNTech has said the German pharmaceutical company is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the UK variant, but further studies are need to be completely sure.

  • A total of 45 countries are now off-limits to all UK travellers, including 23 of the EU's 27 member states. Travel restrictions vary from Spain's ban on non-Spanish visitors from Britain, to Croatia's suspension of all flights until January 31. 

  • The freight ban on the French border is expected to be lifted from tomorrow morning, ministers have suggested, as ongoing chaos at the border risks a shortage of strawberries and other fruit in the UK.

  • The U.S. Congress on Monday approved an $892 billion coronavirus aid package, throwing a lifeline to the nation's pandemic-battered economy after months of inaction.

  • Antarctica, once the only continent not to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, has reportedly recorded its first confirmed cases

  • Taiwan on Tuesday reported its first locally transmitted Covid-19 case since April 12, jolting the island of 23 million out of its much praised infection-free streak of more than 250 days. 

12:42 PM

Seoul bans groups of more than 4 people

The South Korean capital and its surrounding areas will ban meetings of more than four people in a bid to clamp down on year-end festivities and curb a third wave of infections.

The number of Covid-19 cases in the country has broken the 50,000 mark, with 926 new cases added yesterday - down from Sunday's record-high of 1,097. This raises the total tally to 50,591, with the death toll reaching 698 after adding 24 new fatalities.

The restriction will be imposed in Seoul, surrounding Gyeonggi province, and nearby Incheon city from tomorrow to Jan 3.

South Korean volunteers wearing Santa Claus costumes and face masks pose for a photograph as they attend a Christmas season charity event in Seoul, South Korea - JEON HEON-KYUN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
South Korean volunteers wearing Santa Claus costumes and face masks pose for a photograph as they attend a Christmas season charity event in Seoul, South Korea - JEON HEON-KYUN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

12:34 PM

Amputations for diabetes patients increase during the pandemic, charity warns

Amputations for diabetes patients have increased during the pandemic, a charity has warned, amid concerns patients are delaying seeking help because services are not operating as normal.

Diabetes UK is urging people with the condition to see a doctor immediately if they are experiencing problems with their feet, after clinicians reported a “worrying surge” in patients arriving at hospitals with advanced foot disease.

The charity says it is concerned people may be putting off treatment as they are afraid of contracting Covid-19, or because they don’t know where to get help as services are not operating as usual.  

Lizzie Roberts has more.

12:29 PM

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge accused of 'inadvertently' flouting the rule of six

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were accused on Monday of “inadvertently” flouting the rule of six after meeting up with the Earl and Countess of Wessex with their children at a Christmas attraction.

The Cambridges were photographed at Luminate, a woodland walk on the Queen’s Sandringham estate, with their three children, Prince George, seven, Princess Charlotte, five, and Prince Louis, two, on Sunday evening. 

They appeared to be with the Wessexes and their two children, Lady Louise Windsor, 17, and James Viscount Severn, 13. 

Both groups arrived separately, the Cambridge’s from their Norfolk home, Anmet Hall, and the Wessexes from their home, Bagshot Park in Surrey. 

They had been given consecutive slots to enter the mile-long illuminated trail, but fellow visitors said the two families were clearly mixing and chatting together. 

Victoria Ward has more on this story here.

12:24 PM

China suspends UK visa process

China has suspended its visa application service in London, the Chinese embassy in the UK has announced.

In a statement on its website it said:

In accordance with the relevant pandemic prevention advice, the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre in London will suspend its operation from December 22nd, 2020 till further notice.

Meanwhile, India which suspended flights from the UK, has said the new strain of the virus has not yet been detected in India.

V.K. Paul, a senior Covid adviser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, told Reuters the new virus strain would have no impact on vaccines being developed in India.

India has suspended all flights from Britain starting on Wednesday until the end of the year.

12:12 PM

Slovakia's finance minister tests positive as virus hits government

Slovakia's  Finance Minister Eduard Heger has tested positive for Covid-19, the ministry said on Tuesday, becoming the sixth government member infected by the coronavirus after Prime Minister Igor Matovic contracted the illness last week.

The finance ministry said Heger would remain in home quarantine. He was not showing symptoms or feeling ill.

Matovic, 47, said last Friday he had tested positive for Covid-19. Four other government members, including the defence minister, later confirmed to have been infected with the disease after that.

Slovakia entered a partial lockdown on Saturday after cases spiked again this month.

The country of 5.5 million reported 2,663 new cases through standard PCR tests on Monday, bringing the total case tally to 155,218 since the pandemic started.

Hospitalisations have doubled to 2,310 since late October.

11:56 AM

Myanmar's biggest city closes parks to stem coronavirus transmission

Myanmar has closed off public gardens, parks and a lake in Yangon in a bid to prevent a spike in Covid-19 cases during year-end holidays.

The closures come amid fears that fatigue and frustration from the coronavirus crisis and containment measures could see a larger turnout than usual this year.

"We have seen some people do some extreme celebrations at New Year. And we think the crowd would get bigger for celebrations this year," city administrator Myo Kyi said.

"We are so nervous of infections from the crowd because Myanmar is just about to control the infections."

People exercise in a park in Yangon - SAI AUNG MAIN / AFP
People exercise in a park in Yangon - SAI AUNG MAIN / AFP

11:53 AM

British army called in to ease pressure on Welsh Ambulance Service

The Welsh Ambulance Service has said more than 90 soldiers from the British Army will again be called in to support its teams from Wednesday to help deal with the "extreme pressure" on their services.

Soldiers previously answered the call to drive ambulances and accompany paramedics in Wales back in April ahead of the anticipated surge in demand on staff during the first wave of coronavirus.

The ambulance service's chief executive Jason Killens said: "The extreme pressure on our ambulance service in the last couple of weeks has been well documented, and it's why we've taken the decision to re-enlist the military, who did a superb job of assisting us earlier in the year."

11:48 AM

Italian spook and her British ex-army husband test positive for new UK strain

Nick Squires reports from Rome:

A woman who has been infected with the new strain of the coronavirus is reportedly a member of Italy's foreign secret service, while her husband, 45, who is also infected, is ex-British Army

 The former army officer is understood to have flown into Rome's Fiumicino airport from the UK in the last few days. They are both at home, in isolation, and are said to have mild symptoms.

They are the first people in Italy to have been detected with the new strain and have been dubbed the country's "patients zero". The woman, 42, works for AISE, the Italian equivalent of MI6.

The former British Army officer, who was reportedly an aide-de-camp to a general, now works for a financial institution in Rome. 

11:42 AM

Two cardinals close to Pope Francis test positive

Two cardinals close to Pope Francis have contracted coronavirus, Vatican sources said Tuesday.

The Polish cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who is in charge of the pope's charities, "tested positive for Covid-19", Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.

The 57-year-old, known as the pope's "Robin Hood" for his work with the poor and the homeless, had symptoms of pneumonia and is currently under surveillance in a hospital in Rome.

Officials are still seeking to identify his recent contacts, but he is known to meet with the pope regularly.

Italian cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, 78, the president of the governorate - effectively the chief executive - of the tiny state of Vatican City has also tested positive, a Vatican source told AFP.

 Pope Francis greets a child during an audience with Vatican employees for Christmas greetings at the Paul VI Hall - Franco Origlia / Getty
Pope Francis greets a child during an audience with Vatican employees for Christmas greetings at the Paul VI Hall - Franco Origlia / Getty

11:34 AM

Night curfew falls over Mumbai amid UK virus strain fears

The Indian state of Maharashtra has imposed a night curfew on cities including the country's financial hub Mumbai because of fears about the new coronavirus strain from Britain, the local government said.

In addition, Mumbai airport said Tuesday that all air passengers from anywhere in Europe or the Middle East will have to go into institutional quarantine upon arrival and then be tested.

The announcements come even though daily numbers of new coronavirus infections has fallen sharply in India in recent weeks, including in Maharashtra, whose capital Mumbai is home to one of Asia's biggest slums.

India is yet to confirm any cases of the new strain.

The Maharashtra government said that the night curfew beginning on Tuesday would last until January 5.

Coronavirus India Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus India Spotlight Chart - Cases default

The restrictions will put a dampener on New Year's celebrations in Mumbai and elsewhere in the western state of around 120 million people, which has seen the most Covid-19 cases and deaths in India.

On Monday, India joined other countries in suspending all flights from Britain - home to a large Indian diaspora - starting from Tuesday night until December 31.

India has reported the world's second-largest number of coronavirus infections after the United States and crossed the 10-million caseload mark last week. It has registered more than 145,000 deaths.

11:21 AM

WATCH: Huge queues form outside supermarkets

A huge queue stretched round an M&S in North Tyneside at 7am this morning as shoppers waited for the store to open. 

It comes as Sainsbury's warned of imminent fresh produce stock shortages due to Brexit and Covid, which have caused border closures from France to the UK. 

Read more.

11:12 AM

London: Data reveals socioeconomic factors impacting Covid-19 mortality

Stark inequalities in Covid-19 mortality data has been unveiled in research carried out by the London Assembly. 

New data published today indicts that poorer ratings of GP satisfaction and higher levels of deprivation go hand in hand in creating worse clinical outcomes among Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) residents.

The research was carried out to see how health services benefit the people they serve.

It found that the more ethnically diverse and deprived boroughs have lower GP satisfaction and higher Covid-19 deaths. But as the borough get less diverse and deprived, GP experiences and Covid-19 death rates improve.

“The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the BAME community has been heart-breaking to witness, and we cannot allow it to continue," Dr Onkar Sahota AM, Chair of the Health Committee, said of the findings.

"All the evidence shows that we’ve suffered a greater impact because we are, on average, more prone to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, renal disease and poor mental health.

"We are also more likely to live in overcrowded housing, poorer quality housing, poorer neighbourhoods and work in low-paid, public facing jobs."

"It’s also clear that for those who live in areas of high deprivation, there’s the additional challenge of trying to access treatment from under-funded and under-resourced health services."

"All of this has a major impact on patients, and it’s likely to have deterred some in the BAME community from receiving adequate treatment during this pandemic."

10:55 AM

WHO Europe to convene members over new virus variant

The World Health Organization in Europe said Tuesday it would convene its members to discuss how to handle a new variant of the novel coronavirus discovered in the UK.

Hans Kluge, WHO's regional director for Europe said on Twitter that the organisation was closely monitoring the spread of the new variant and would "convene member states to discuss strategies for testing, reducing transmission & communicating risks," without specifying a timeframe.

The WHO's European region comprises 53 countries, including Russia and several Central Asian nations - a region that has registered nearly 24 million Covid-19 cases and over 500,000 deaths.

Kluge said "limiting travel to contain spread is prudent until we have better info," but cautioned that "supply chains for essential goods and essential travel should remain possible."

Over the weekend, WHO Europe urged stronger action to contain the new strain and called on members to "increase the sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 viruses where possible and sharing of sequence data internationally, in particular, to report if the same mutations of concern are found."

Dozens of countries from India to Argentina have banned flights from Britain in fear of the new virus strain, which is reportedly 70 percent more contagious.

According to the WHO there is currently "no evidence to indicate any change in disease severity."

10:51 AM

Deaths in England and Wales fall for second week in a row

The number of coronavirus deaths registered in England and Wales has fallen for the second week running, new figures show.

There were 2,756 deaths registered in the week ending December 11 mentioning "novel coronavirus" on the death certificate, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

This is 79 fewer deaths than were registered during the previous week, or a 2.8% fall, with Covid-19 accounting for 22.4% of all deaths.

The previous week saw weekly registered deaths involving Covid-19 fall for the first time in three months, as the four-week national lockdown was lifted.

Overall, 1,542 more deaths were registered during the week ending December 11 compared to the average for this period over the past five years.

10:42 AM

EU to get 12.5 million doses of BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine by year-end

BioNTech and U.S. drugmaker Pfizer will supply 12.5 million doses of their Covid-19 vaccine to the European Union by the end of the year, the German company said on Tuesday.

That is more than half the 20 million doses expected to be delivered to the United States before the end of the year, BioNTech's chief business officer, Sean Marett, told a briefing.

With two shots administered three weeks apart, the EU deliveries would be enough to vaccinate 6.25 million people as the companies gear up to deliver the first shots following regulatory approval on Monday.

The 27 EU member states that want shots will receive them within five days, Mr Marett told a briefing.

10:34 AM

UK variant probably already in US, says Dr Fauci

A new Covid-19 variant linked to a surge of cases in the United Kingdom is probably already in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday.

“You have to make that assumption,” Fauci told reporters

“When you see something that is pretty prevalent in a place like the UK, there are also mutations that we're seeing in South Africa, and given the travel throughout the world, I would not be surprised if it's already here."

He added that "when we start to look for it we're going to find it."

10:22 AM

ONS data shows quarter of deaths now from Covid-19

A total of 2,756 deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending December 11 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This is down from 2,835 deaths in the week to December 4 - a fall of 3 per cent.

It is the second week a in row that the number of deaths has decreased.

Nearly a quarter (22.4 per cent) of all deaths registered in England and Wales in the week to December 11 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate.

So far 84,198 deaths involving Covid-19 have taken place in the UK.

10:12 AM

Currently 'zero evidence' new Covid strain increases severity of the virus, says WHO expert

The World Health Organisation said on Monday there's "zero evidence" at this point that there's any increase in severity associated with this disease.

Mike Ryan, the WHO's top emergency expert, has said that despite increased rates of transmission, the situation "is not, in that sense, out of control, but it cannot be left to its own devices."

He says, "as we learn more about the virus, we'll learn more about how it may replace other strains. And that, as I said, has happened before."

09:54 AM

New coronavirus variant probably exists in German

 It is highly likely that the mutation of the coronavirus that has been found in Britain also exists in Germany, the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health institute said on Tuesday, adding, however, that it had not shown up in data yet.

09:46 AM

The deadliest year in US history?

This is the deadliest year in US history, with deaths expected to top 3 million for the first time — due mainly to the coronavirus pandemic.

Final mortality data for this year will not be available for months. But preliminary numbers suggest that the United States is on track to see more than 3.2 million deaths this year, or at least 400,000 more than in 2019.

US deaths increase most years, so some annual rise in fatalities is expected. But the 2020 numbers amount to a jump of about 15 per cent, and could go higher once all the deaths from this month are counted.

That would mark the largest single-year percentage leap since 1918, when tens of thousands of US soldiers died in World War I and hundreds of thousands of Americans died in a flu pandemic. Deaths rose 46 per cent that year, compared with 1917.

09:34 AM

First coronavirus cases reported on Antarctica

Covid-19 has now reached every continent, including Antarctica.

At least 36 people on a Chilean military base have contracted the virus, officials announced on Monday.

While the source of the infections wasn’t disclosed, Chilean media outlets reported that a Navy ship had traveled to the Antarctic base to provide logistical support earlier this month, and that several of the ship’s crew members tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return to Chile.

The outbreak at the Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme base has infected 26 Chilean soldiers and 10 civilians who were conducting maintenance work, government authorities said Monday.

All have been returned to Chile, where they are being isolated in the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, which typically serves as a base for Antarctic expeditions.

Greg Dickinson has the latest.

09:25 AM

WHO backs travel bans

Travel bans to contain the spread of the mutant virus are "prudent", the World Health Organisation's European chief has said.

A meeting has also been called of WHO's European member states to discuss the UK strain.

Hans Kluge wrote on Twitter: In response @WHO-Europe to convene member states to discuss strategies for testing, reducing transmission & communicating risks.

"Limiting travel to contain spread is prudent until we have better info. Supply chains for essential goods & essential travel should remain possible.

"Welcome GB action to share data & intensify investigations.

"Reaffirming our commitment to £solidarity in the face of new Covid challenges yet again.

"No one is safe until everyone is safe."

09:18 AM

Old PPE could be recycled into green fuel

Scientists have found a way to turn single-use Covid facemasks, plastic aprons and visors into green fuel.

The Swansea University-led team said the new recycling technique could help tackle a global problem of what to do with the pandemic's medical waste.

At the moment most used-PPE is incinerated, which produces climate-warming carbon emissions.

This new approach uses sunlight to break the items down into hydrogen.

Researchers are also studying whether the process can kill off pathogens left on the PPE - including the Covid virus.

They say it could potentially save a lot of money for the NHS - with an estimated £700m a year spent disposing of hazardous medical waste across the UK, even before the pandemic struck.

09:00 AM

BioNTech CEO 'confident' vaccine will work against mutant Covid

The chief executive of BioNTech has said the German pharmaceutical company is confident that its Pfizer coronavirus vaccine works against the UK variant, but further studies are needed to be completely sure.

Moderna, which manufactures a different coronavirus vaccine, is also testing its jab against the faster-spreading version of the disease.

08:56 AM

Could the new strain force Britain into tougher lockdown restrictions?

Epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government's Sage scientific advisory panel, suggested tougher lockdown restrictions would be needed to tackle the new variant coronavirus.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The Government have actually acted pretty fast.

"It depends now on how effective these measures are and how widespread the virus is.

"Unfortunately it does look like the virus is probably across the country already and so I do think that we might unfortunately have to impose tougher restrictions across the country."

08:47 AM

Taiwan ends 253 day virus-free streak

Nicola Smith, our Asia Correspondent, reports:

Taiwan on Tuesday reported its first locally transmitted Covid-19 case since April 12, jolting the island of 23 million out of its much praised infection-free streak of more than 250 days. 

The individual who tested positive for Covid-19 was a friend of a person who had already been confirmed to have been infected with the virus, the health minister, Chen Shih-chung, told a news conference.

The case is believed to be linked to a cluster among overseas pilots flying cargo planes in and out of the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, which began with a New Zealand pilot in his 60s who was likely infected during a trip to the United States.

According to Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre, the pilot travelled around the north of the island on Dec 8-11 after completing the three day quarantine required for airline crew. 

A CECC spokesperson said the man mainly drove alone but the authorities are tracing his movements via his iPad and also with the help of the police. The health ministry warned that he had visited department stores in central Taipei and urged the public to look out for any Covid-19 symptoms. 

The infection is a blow for an island that has been lauded for its pandemic response, having recorded just 770 coronavirus cases and seven deaths after it shut its borders early and implemented strict quarantine rules.

08:35 AM

Analysis: The mutant virus has sealed Britain off from the world. But is it all it's cracked up to be?

Global Health Editor Paul Nuki and Jordan Kelly-Linden on whether data presented by ministers may not be as frightening as it seems.

There is nothing quite like news of a ‘mutation’ to get the juices flowing. We’ve had Italian, Spanish and minkish varieties to date – and those are just the ones we remember.

There were more than 12,000 mutations detected in the first 50,000 Covid genomes studied and scientists have now diligently recorded more four times that number.

Read more here.

08:00 AM

Priti Patel: Tougher Tiers nationally 'inevitable'

Asked if Tier 4 measures would be increased, Ms Patel told Sky News: "As this virus changes, grows, the Government takes proactive measures, we've seen that... It is inevitable as people travel and of course we're urging people not to travel for the sake of everybody's health, we have to take strong measures and we're doing that. We're constantly reviewing these measures as well."

She added: "Well of course if the virus continues to spread then we will take stronger measures, because at the end of the day our objective is to save lives and to keep people safe, but right now it's not for me to pre-empt any change because obviously there'll be a natural review mechanism in two weeks' time."

07:38 AM

Priti Patel: 'We are working to get a resolution' at Dover

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the Government was "working to get a resolution" as talks continued with France on reopening full trade and transport across the Channel.

She told Sky News: "We speak to our colleagues in France constantly on a range of issues and that work has been under way over the last 24 hours and will continue today."

"It's in both our interests, both countries to ensure that we have flow and of course there are European hauliers right now who want to be going home and quite frankly it's in both our interests to carry on those discussions and negotiations and we will see what materialises today."

06:57 AM

Warning over food shortages

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, is warning of food shortages if the borders don't open within 24 hours.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he says the "borders really need to be running pretty much freely from tomorrow to assure us that there won't be any disruption".

"There is a problem potentially directly after Christmas and that is really in fresh produce, so we're talking here about things like salad, vegetables, fresh fruit, of which the vast majority come from Europe at this time."The problem actually is empty lorries, so the empty lorries which are now stuck in Kent, they need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the net (next) consignment of raspberries and strawberries and they need to get back within the next day or so otherwise we will see disruption."As long as it can be cleared today there'll be minimal impact for consumers - remember the shops are shut on Christmas Day which takes one day of buying out of the equation, but those lorries that are stuck in Kent, they do need to get back within the next day."

Read more: Sainsbury's says  border closure could cause fresh food shortages

05:40 AM

Sydney sees dip in cases after record testing

Sydney has seen a two-day dip in coronavirus cases after Australian authorities imposed a snap lockdown and residents flocked to testing centres in record numbers, but officials have cautioned the outbreak is still "evolving".

A Covid-19 cluster on Sydney's northern beaches has grown to 90 cases since emerging last week, sending the area's picturesque seaside suburbs into a lockdown.

Despite record testing, eight new coronavirus cases were confirmed on Tuesday after 15 cases the previous day - raising hopes that the city's five million residents may yet be able to celebrate Christmas with family and friends.

Long queues have snaked outside testing sites across Sydney, with more than 83,000 people tested on Monday and Tuesday in New South Wales, a state of 7.5 million people that includes the sprawling harbourside city.

State Premier Gladys Berejiklian praised the "outstanding" public response but said the virus threatened to continue spreading because those infected visited gyms, pubs and restaurants across Sydney.

Vehicles queue at the Bondi Beach drive-through coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre - Reuters
Vehicles queue at the Bondi Beach drive-through coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre - Reuters

 

04:20 AM

'As long as I'm back for my turkey lunch, I don't care

For lorry driver Eric Johnson, there was only one aim: to make it back to Birmingham in time for Christmas lunch. As it stood on Monday, stranded in Dover, his chances looked bleak.

Mr Johnson, 50, along with colleague Dave King, 48, had dropped his cargo at the Kent port at around 10am. They had intended to take the Caterpillar heavy machinery parts to Lokeren, Belgium, but now face the prospect of spending Christmas alone on the road, many miles from their families. 

British truck drivers (right) Eric Johnson, (middle) Dean Hammond (31) , and (left) Dave King (48) stranded in Dover Port - Jeff Gilbert
British truck drivers (right) Eric Johnson, (middle) Dean Hammond (31) , and (left) Dave King (48) stranded in Dover Port - Jeff Gilbert

With Kent languishing in Tier 4, there was nowhere to go to get so much as a sandwich.

"All the laybys nearby are booked up and the truck stops are full too,” Mr Johnson said. "For a lot of us getting here later on, there's nowhere else to go.

"As long as I'm back home by 11.30am on Christmas day for my turkey lunch, I don't care.”

Read more: Lorry drivers left facing Christmas in the cab

01:49 AM

Schools could shut until January

Minister are considering keeping schools closed for all of January amid fears that the new Covid-19 strain is spreading faster among children, The Telegraph understands.

Government scientists said they were concerned that children may be fuelling a new surge of the virus across the country as cases rose by 55 per cent in single week.

Teaching unions have written to Boris Johnson demanding that he delays the reopening of schools next term amid growing evidence that the mutant variant infects children "more effectively".

Read more: JJanuary school closures considered as fears grow over new Covid strain's spread among children

01:28 AM

Should we be worried about mutant virus?

Mutations are important. It is not for nothing that they are the mainstay of a certain genre of horror film, Paul Nuki and Jordan Kelly-Linden write. They are what cause animal viruses to “spillover” to humans in the first place. And given the right conditions, or indeed just an unfortunate roll of the dice, they can make a nasty human disease a whole lot worse.

It is thought - but not proven - that the second wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was more deadly because of a change in the H1N1 virus, for example. Mutations in the HIV virus, a pathogen that has killed over 30 million, also explain why treatments took so long to create and why a vaccine has proved elusive.

So what are we to make of VUI-202012/01, the simulationist sounding name given to the new variant of the coronavirus? How strong is the evidence for it being, in the Prime Minister’s words, “up to 70 per cent” more transmissible, and what does it really mean if it is? 

One thing we can say with certainty is it has had a huge impact. It is the justification for the recent “cancelling” of Christmas and it has all but sealed off Britain from the rest of the world. At the time of writing, no fewer than 40 countries had closed their borders to us, severely limiting freedom of movement and severing supply chains. 

Here's what we know about the age demographics affected by the new strain:

Read more: The mutant virus has sealed Britain off from the world. But is it all it's cracked up to be?

01:25 AM

What happened today