Latest coronavirus news as of 12pm on 4 January
Staff shortages force health service providers to enact emergency measures
At least six National Health Service trusts in England have declared critical incidents as a result of staff shortages caused by covid-19.
A critical incident means that the healthcare providers believe they may no longer be able to provide a range of critical services, and the status enables them to call for help from staff and other organisations. University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay and United Lincolnshire Hospitals are among the trusts implementing emergency measures.
The chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, wrote in a blogpost that many parts of the health service are currently in “a state of crisis”, while community and social care services are at “breaking point”.
On a visit to a vaccination centre in Buckinghamshire yesterday, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said: “I think we’ve got to recognise that the pressure on our NHS, on our hospitals, is going to be considerable in the course of the next couple of weeks, and maybe more.”
Meanwhile, as children return to schools today, the government has recommended the wearing of face masks in secondary classrooms in England, as is already advised in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Head teachers have warned that high levels of staff absences could lead to children being sent home to learn remotely.
Other coronavirus news
Covid-19 cases may have plateaued in London and could start to fall in other parts of the UK within 3 weeks, an epidemiologist and government adviser has said. Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that infection rates in the capital appear to be stabilising in the 18 to 50 age group, which has been driving the omicron epidemic.
“With an epidemic which has been spreading so quickly and reaching such high numbers, it can’t sustain those numbers forever, so we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week; [they] may be already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to 3 weeks,” he said.
“Whether they then drop precipitously, or we see a pattern a bit like we saw with delta back in July of an initial drop and then quite a high plateau, remains to be seen. It’s just too difficult to interpret current mixing trends and what the effect of opening schools again will be.”
In the US, thousands of schools have delayed the start of term or switched to remote learning amid surging cases caused by the omicron variant. New York City’s mayor has vowed to keep schools open despite soaring infection rates, in contrast to cities such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit. Nationwide, the number of patients in hospital with covid-19 increased by 40 per cent in the past week, according to Reuters.
The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be given to children aged 12 to 15. A panel advising the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will now decide whether to recommend booster shots in this age group.
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New Scientist Weekly features updates and analysis on the latest developments in the covid-19 pandemic. Our podcast sees expert journalists from the magazine discuss the biggest science stories to hit the headlines each week – from technology and space, to health and the environment.
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Our daily covid-19 update will resume on 4 January
Immunity offered by vaccines wanes more quickly with omicron, finds UK study
The protection conferred by booster vaccines against the omicron variant begins to wane within 10 weeks, according to a briefing released by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Based on an analysis of 147,597 delta and 68,489 omicron cases, the agency found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are less effective against omicron than delta. For people who had two initial doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the UKHSA estimates that Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna boosters are around 60 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections from omicron 2 to 4 weeks after the third dose, but this falls to 35 to 45 per cent by 10 weeks. For those who had two initial doses of Pfizer/BioNTech, protection falls from 70 per cent at 2 to 4 weeks to 45 per cent at 10 weeks after a Pfizer booster, but stays around 70 to 75 per cent up to 9 weeks after a Moderna booster.
The UKHSA report also estimates that someone infected with omicron is 50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital, compared with delta. This is based on a preliminary analysis of 114,144 omicron cases and 461,772 delta cases occurring between 22 November and 19 December. The difference is somewhat larger than suggested by a study published by Imperial College London on Wednesday, which reported a 15 to 20 per cent lower risk.
However, modelling suggests that the severity of omicron would need to be around 90 per cent lower to avoid similar levels of hospital admissions to previous waves, according to minutes from a meeting of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Monday.
“What we have got now is a really fine balance between something that looks like a lower risk of hospitalisation – which is great news – but equally a highly transmissible variant and one that we know evades some of our immune defences, so it is a very balanced position,” Jenny Harris, chief executive of UKHSA, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.
The UK recorded 119,789 new cases of covid-19 yesterday, setting another record. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 1.4 million people in the UK had the virus in the week ending 16 December, the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020.
Other coronavirus news
Healthcare workers in the US who have tested positive for covid-19 but do not have symptoms can stop isolating after seven days instead of 10, if they test negative for the virus, under new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Italy has banned public new year’s eve celebrations as well as all concerts and open air events until 31 January, aiming to curb a rise in infections driven by the omicron variant. Mask wearing will also be compulsory in outdoor public places under new rules.
Australia will cut the interval between second doses and booster shots from 5 months to 4 from 4 January, and then to 3 months on 31 January.
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