Coronavirus latest as Boris Johnson announces Plan B rules including face masks in more settings, COVID passes in large venues and working from home guidance; SAGE warns Omicron wave could be bigger than January 2021 despite vaccine; UK reports 50,867 new daily cases and 148 deaths.
It starts at 7pm and we’ll be covering the main bits here.
As the world grapples with the challenge posed by the omicron variant, scientists and residents in South Africa are coming to grips with the real-world realities of this worrying strain, writes our Africa correspondent John Sparks.
This country has already seen two weeks of mass infection and the experience is generating the sort of anecdotal information and scientific observation that will help provide the answers that people are desperately looking for.
When it comes questions about transmissibility – or the infectious nature of this emergent strain – you do not really need to speak to the scientists.
Instead, you could spend 15 minutes with local councillor Adolf Marema, who represents Alexandra township in Johannesburg.
“Is the variant is spreading quickly?” I asked.
“Very fast, very fast, like a bomb, I can tell you,” he replied.
Unlike the issue of transmissibility, questions about the severity of Omicron are less certain but there are a lot of people who do not think it is particularly serious.
Others, like Dr Fareed Abdullah, are also beginning to take a view on this critical question.
A leading clinician at Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital, he has spent the past 18 months treating the most serious COVID19-related cases. Yet with Omicron, he has witnessed a significant reduction in the number of patients suffering from the most serious symptoms.
“Right now, we have 40 patients, either COVID positive or waiting for results but the difference this time around is that the majority of these patients are not here because of severe COVID-pneumonia,” he said.
“The picture could change but what is certain is that there is a difference this time around compared to the previous three waves [of COVID-19].”
The Premier League match had been set for Sunday, but will have to move to another date following an outbreak among Tottenham players and staff.
Thirteen first-team players and staff have tested positive for COVID, which already led to tonight’s Europa Conference League clash against Rennes being called off.
Next Thursday’s Premier League fixture at Leicester also seems to be in doubt as both clubs have reported cases.
The UK is facing a “crisis” over Omicron and people must now cut down on social events if they want to enjoy Christmas properly, a top scientist has warned.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the SAGE subcommittee advising on behavioural science, told Sky News that Omicron is spreading so fast that if we do nothing, we will see 512 times as many infections within three weeks.
“Even if [Omicron] was less virulent and led to less hospitalisations, you’d still have a huge number of hospitalisations and a huge number of infections, which would mean that so many people would be off sick it would disable the NHS and practically any other service you can think about,” he said.
“Secondly, because of the number of hospitalisations, it would probably overwhelm the NHS.”
Explaining what can be done to control the spread, he encouraged people to think about “what encounters really matter” because “if we have too much socialising, the danger is this gets out of control and we have to put in more draconian restrictions”.
He continued: “The more that we socialise now and the more the virus spreads, the more it endangers the things we really value at Christmas.
“On Christmas morning, you don’t have a big breakfast and spoil your Christmas dinner. And similarly with socialising, let’s not spoil the things that really matter to us.”
Professor Reicher admitted this is something “none of us want to hear” and we are all “sick and tired of what’s going on”, but he said it is “probably better to miss one or two parties than to be in a situation where our loved ones are getting infected”.
We’ll be putting your COVID questions to an expert panel live on Sky News at 7pm.
Tune in if you want to hear the most pressing questions answered – and we’ll be following it live here too.
Less than a third of hospital patients admitted for COVID-19 in the latest wave linked to Omicron are suffering severe illness, compared with two-thirds in the early stages of the last two waves.
Early data shows there have 1,633 hospital admissions in Tshwane, where the first suspected outbreak of Omicron occurred, with 31% of these being severe cases needing oxygen or ventilation.
This is compared with 66% early in the second wave and 67% in the first.
However, we shouldn’t read too much into this just yet as it is not clear how much these figures have been affected by higher vaccine coverage – which is likely keeping cases milder.
It’s not clear how many of these patients have been vaccinated, and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said severe cases could rise as the fourth wave continues.
Still not sure what the new rules are? We’ve got you covered.
Public Health Scotland has issued new guidance urging people and businesses not to go ahead with parties over the festive period.
It said the warning follows a number of COVID outbreaks linked to Christmas parties.
Dr Nick Phin, director of public health science and medical director at PHS, said: “There is much that we still need to learn about Omicron, but early evidence suggests that this new COVID variant is much more transmissible.
“The impact of this transmissibility has been seen in recent weeks, with a number of Omicron outbreaks linked to parties.”
He continued: “To help minimise the further spread of COVID-19, and Omicron in particular, I would strongly urge people to defer their Christmas parties to another time.
“I appreciate that everyone is keen to celebrate this festive season, particularly after the pressures of the last 20 months, but by postponing some plans we can all do our bit to protect ourselves and our loved ones.”
Remember that debate about whether pork pies could be considered a substantial meal? It seems every set of new restrictions brings strange debates about what is and what isn’t within the rules.
When he announced mask-wearing rules would be extended to more settings, Boris Johnson said there would be some exceptions where it is not practical – such as when people are singing.
So naturally, it led someone to ask whether a shopper could remove their mask in Tesco if they were singing.
At the time, an official said that would be within the rules, as would removing the mask to sing in a theatre.
But the prime minister’s official spokesperson has now said it would be “hard to justify” shoppers having a “reasonable excuse” to remove their masks to sing in supermarkets.
“It might be for the police to decide what is appropriate, as has been the case throughout the pandemic,” they said.
It’s worth noting that singing and talking loudly can spread more virus particles than regular speaking.
One of the UK’s leading epidemiologists has described the emergence of the Omicron variant as a “very severe setback”.
Speaking at a webinar hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine, Professor John Edmunds said the UK could have a significant number of Omicron cases by Christmas.
Professor Edmunds, who is a member of SPI-B the group that advises SAGE on behavioural science, said he expected the new variant would cause a large number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths over the next two months.
He also rejected the idea that the spread of Omicron could end up being a “Christmas gift” if it turned out to cause a milder form of disease.
“This is as bad news as you can possibly get quite frankly,” he said.
But he said he remained positive that vaccines will still provide some level of protection from Omicron, especially when combined with a booster dose.