Monday briefing: Booster plans expand as Omicron variant hits
Contact tracers for first UK cases going as far back as nine days ago … Arctic blast follows Storm Arwen … Barbados becoming a republic
Top story: Mask up, secondary school pupils told
Hello, the news looks like being challenging terrain this week. Warren Murray here to help you pick your way through.
The Covid booster vaccination scheme could be significantly expanded as early as today in response to the spread of the Omicron variant. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is expected to advise boosters for younger people, and could also recommend a cut in the current six-month wait between second and booster doses, it is understood. Secondary school pupils in England are meanwhile being told to wear masks in communal areas, and it will be mandatory again from tomorrow in shops and on public transport. For the global Omicron situation, including Japan closing its borders, read our latest news wrap, and remember our live blog is covering further developments.
A third case of the Omicron variant has been confirmed in the UK, in someone linked to southern Africa. Investigators looking into one of the two cases announced on Saturday have sought potential contacts in Brentwood, Essex, as far back as nine days ago, raising questions over how long the new variant has been in the UK. Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that all arrivals to the UK “must take a day-two PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result”. With other countries also tightening entry requirements, such as Switzerland requiring 10 days’ quarantine, travel firms are once again scrambling to rearrange people’s holiday plans.
What does the advent of Omicron mean for the double vaccinated? Experts seem cautiously optimistic that even with its more than 30 mutations in the crucial “spike protein”, the variant will still be targeted by the antibodies and T-cells that a person builds up from previous infection or vaccination. Prof Paul Morgan, an immunologist at Cardiff University, said: “I think a blunting rather than a complete loss [of immunity] is the most likely outcome.” If necessary, it would be possible within a matter of months to produce a vaccine with antigens tailored to a new variant, said Dr Peter English, a retired consultant in communicable disease control.
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Icy Monday in Arwen’s wake – A minus 10C Arctic blast is forecast to follow the blizzards and close to 100mph winds of Storm Arwen, which caused power blackouts for half a million households in swathes of the north of England, Scotland, Wales, the south-west and the Midlands at the weekend. Three people were killed by falling trees, two of them in their cars. The Met Office said that as the storm cleared towards Europe, temperatures would drop to the coldest of the season so far. “Even if you do live in a city, you can expect to be scraping frost, ice or even snow off your cars on Monday morning,” said forecaster Tom Morgan.
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Crisis in the making – Britain’s manufacturers are facing a crisis of rapidly rising costs and towering debts that many fear could push them over the brink, the trade body Make UK has said. It is urging the government to introduce loan payment holidays as factories struggle with debt racked up to get them through the pandemic, as well as other challenges. Britain’s supply chain meltdown, much of which relates to Brexit, is leading to gaps on shelves and price rises. British manufacturing has endured its worst downturn for more than 30 years, and the closely watched RSM survey says it now faces a “sharp inflationary spiral”. The government says it is “committed to supporting business as they grow and recover from the pandemic”, offering the Recovery Loan Scheme and Pay as you Grow schemes.
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Old Bexley and Sidcup poll looms – One habitual Tory voter may brand the prime minister a “blithering idiot” while another wants Boris Johnson to “sort himself out”. But Labour still faces an uphill battle to win the seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup in Thursday’s byelection. Daniel Francis would need to overturn the 19,000 majority earned by James Brokenshire, who died from cancer at the age of 53 last month. Louie French is the Conservatives’ candidate and his team did not respond to Guardian requests for an interview. There are 11 candidates in total standing.
It is the first in a series of three – possibly four – byelections, including in North Shropshire, the safe Tory seat vacated by Owen Paterson following his official rebuke over lobbying. Analysis by Best for Britain, meanwhile, suggests the Tories would be stripped of their majority and unable to form a government if opposition parties cooperated in fewer than a quarter of England’s parliamentary seats.
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Battle to keep care homes afloat – Social care across England is “rapidly deteriorating” with waiting lists soaring and councils struggling with care home closures, service chiefs have warned. Long-term waiting lists have almost quadrupled and 1.5m hours of necessary home care were not delivered in the three months to November amid a staffing crisis. Half of councils have had to respond to a care home closure or bankruptcy in the past six months. Separately, Conservative voters in the north of England view Boris Johnson’s changes to social care funding as toxic and say his broken pledge on not selling homes to pay for care is a betrayal, according to research seen by the Guardian. The polling and focus group undertaken for Labour found more than two-thirds of the public oppose the plans, with pro-Brexit voters (71%) as likely to oppose them as remain voters (74%).
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Housing hoopla – This year’s property market is poised to become the busiest for 14 years, with one in 16 privately owned homes on course to change hands by the end of December, according to new data. Zoopla also said the annual rate of UK house price growth was running at 6.9% – up from 3.5% in the same month last year – and that the average cost of a home had risen by £15,500 over the past 12 months. However, interest rate rises – the first is expected next month – and rising inflation could put a brake on the market.
Today in Focus podcast: Inflation rises again
The inflation rate keeps going up – and some economists are warning that it’s time to take urgent action. So what is causing the change, what does it mean for ordinary people, and what’s the best way to deal with it?
Lunchtime read: Barbados cuts ties with the Crown
Late on Monday night, local time, Barbados will declare itself a republic, becoming the first nation to remove Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state in nearly three decades. The transition, flagged last year in the thick of activism inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, is being executed amicably, in the presence of Prince Charles, and circumspectly, more than 20 years since it was recommended by a government commission. Michael Safi reports from the ground.
Michael Carrick said after Manchester United held Chelsea to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge that Ralf Rangnick had no influence on his decision to name Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench. Pep Guardiola described as “fantasy” the idea that Manchester City can launch another long unbeaten run to match last season’s 28-match sequence following their 2-1 win against West Ham. Tributes from across motor sport have been paid after the death of Sir Frank Williams at the age of 79. Emma Raducanu has spoken in glowing terms about the support and positive advice she has received from Lewis Hamilton since her US Open victory as she looks to move on and continue her growth as an athlete. Great Britain triumphed against Czech Republic in the Davis Cup, winning Group C and progressing to the quarter-finals thanks to a decisive 6-4, 6-2 doubles victory by Joe Salisbury and Neal Skupski.
England’s Roses opened their three-Test netball series against Jamaica with a 55-45 victory after a storming comeback. Billy Vunipola celebrated his comeback from injury by creating the try that broke Sale’s resistance in a 25-14 Premiership victory for Saracens. Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi played to a third successive draw in the third game of their world championship showdown in Dubai as the Russian challenger weathered another atypical position before negotiating a bloodless result after 41 moves in 2hr 42min. World No 1 Mark Selby was knocked out of the UK Championship after suffering a 6-2 defeat to Iran’s Hossein Vafaei in York. And Mikaela Shiffrin marked the return of the women’s World Cup to North America by setting yet another record.
Japanese’s Nikkei index dropped 1.4% in morning trading but recovered to be 0.02% lower at the midday break. US stock futures have been leading a market rebound. Oil prices bounced more than $3 a barrel to recoup a chunk of Friday’s falls, while safe-haven bonds and the yen lost ground as markets latched on to hopes the Omicron variant of Covid would prove to be mild. The FTSE is poised to open higher, while the pound is on $1.332 and €1.182 at time of writing.
Apart from boosters and Omicron, our Guardian front page also features “French fury over UK ‘double talk’ on refugees”. The interior minister in Paris, Gérald Darmanin, said: “The more France is used as a punching bag for British domestic politics, and we hear provocative statements like ‘France has to take back all the immigrants’, the harder it becomes to find a solution. It’s not only insulting, it’s totally unrealistic.” Darmanin was speaking after France convened a meeting of immigration ministers from Germany, Holland and Belgium, as well as officials from the EU, Europol and the border agency Frontex. The UK home secretary, Priti Patel, was barred from the meeting because of Boris Johnson issuing public demands of the French about the Channel crisis, without paying the courtesy of putting them to Paris beforehand.
The Express seeks to offer reassurance this morning: “Vaccine makers – we CAN defeat Omicron variant”. The Daily Mail says “Booster for all over-18s”; the Times headline is similar, appended with “in bid to save Christmas”. The Mirror adopts the “save Christmas” line as well. Between supply chain crises, supermarket shortages and Covid, Christmas is certainly taking a lot of saving this year.
Commuters’ friend the Metro says “Cover up, protect others … It’s not too much to mask” – their use in England in shops and on public transport will become mandatory again from Tuesday. The lead story in the Financial Times is the travel angle – it says Omicron has “sparked restrictions around the world”. “Face masks in schools to restrict Omicron” says the i, while the Telegraph has “Curbs on Omicron will cause ‘chaos’ in schools” – it’s talking about self-isolation requirements for close contacts. The latter paper also covers a 10-year deal between Israel and the UK to deepen trade and defence ties, including a joint commitment to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.