Betting Omicron has peaked, UK’s Johnson to lift virus rules

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face covering to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus, leaves from 10 Downing Street in central London on Jan 5, 2022 to take part in the weekly session of Prime Minister Questions at the House of Commons. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

LONDON / WASHINGTON / PARIS / LISBON / GENEVA / PRAGUE / BERLIN – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to end most COVID-19 measures introduced to curb the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in England as he looks to live with the virus and fully reopen the economy after an apparent peak in cases.

Britain was the first country to limit international travel over the Omicron variant, raising alarm bells about its mutations, and in December introduced work at home advice, more mask-wearing and vaccine passes to slow its spread.

Britain was the first country to limit international travel over the Omicron variant and in December introduced work at home advice, more mask-wearing and vaccine passes to slow its spread

But while cases soared to record highs, hospitalizations and deaths have not risen by the same extent, in part due to Britain's booster rollout and the variant's lesser severity.

Health minister Sajid Javid said on Tuesday Britain had likely reached the peak in both cases and hospitalizations, with the so-called Plan B measures due to expire in a week.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to substantially reduce measures next week," Javid said in parliament.

Johnson will address parliament on Wednesday on next steps for Plan B and hopes to reset his agenda following furore over the lockdown gatherings at his office, which has some in his party plotting to remove him.

Johnson admitted he attended a gathering in the garden of his Downing Street office and residence in May 2020 while social mixing was banned.

The lifting of Plan B measures, along with Johnson's navigation of Omicron without resorting to stringent lockdown, could help him appease vocal opponents of restrictions in his own party amid the party unrest.

"Decisions on the next steps remain finely balanced," a government spokesperson said.

"The Omicron variant continues to pose a significant threat and the pandemic is not over. Infections remain high but the latest data is encouraging, with cases beginning to fall."

Johnson has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic overall, and Britain has reported 152,513 deaths, the seventh highest total globally.

A child (left) looks at soap bubbles as she waits to receive the anti coronavirus COVID-19 Biontech/Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-11 in the General University Hospital in Prague, Czech Republic on Dec 21, 2021. (MICHAL CIZEK / AFP)

Czech Republic

The Czech government will on Wednesday consider making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for workers in key professions and people over the age of 60 after the daily tally of new coronavirus cases hit a record high.

Authorities said 28,469 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Tuesday, more than double the 12,371 reported for Tuesday of last week. Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus variant in the central European country of 10.7 million people. 

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala's government will consider what further steps to take after shortening quarantine and isolation times as part of new measures while also launching mandatory testing of employees at companies from this week.

Asymptomatic essential healthcare workers and social service personnel who test positive for COVID-19 are allowed to continue working. 

Hospitalizations, which peaked at more than 7,000 in early December, dropped to 1,635 on Tuesday from 1,761 reported for Monday.

A woman is about to receive a dose of a vaccine against the COVID-19 in a social center of La Gavotte Peyret popular neighbourhood, in Septeme-Les-Vallons on Jan 12, 2022. (CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU / AFP)


The COVID-19 situation continues to worsen in France, with 464,769 new cases detected in the past 24 hours, it was announced by the country's public health agency on Tuesday. This broke the previous daily record of 368,149 cases.

The agency said that 3,881 COVID-19 patients were being treated in intensive care, accounting for over 70 percent of the French health system's current capacity.

Also on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced two new measures providing government aid to companies that have been struggling due to the pandemic.

The first measure will help small companies (with less than 250 employees) that lost more than 30 percent of their turnover in December 2021 and January 2022, by covering 20 percent of their social contributions.

The second concerns companies that lost more than 65 percent of their turnover, and have asked employees to work part-time. These companies will be exempted from charges normally paid by employers for permanent staff, and will also receive aid equivalent to 20 percent of their social contribution payments.

A medical helper prepares test material in a COVID-19 test center in the small village of Unterschleissheim near Munich, southern Germany on Jan 18, 2022. (CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP)


Germany reported 112,323 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, a fresh single-day record as the health minister said the peak had not been reached and compulsory vaccination should be introduced by May.

Germany's tally of COVID-19 infections now stands at 8,186,850, the Robert Koch Institute for infectious disease said. The death toll also rose by 239 on Wednesday to reach 116,081.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said he expected the wave to peak in a few weeks as the highly infectious Omicron variant brought Germany's seven-day incidence rate to 584.4 cases per 100,000 people.

In this file photo taken on Sept 22, 2021, honorands and senior University members take part in the annual Encaenia ceremony at Oxford University in Oxford, west of London. (TOLHA AKMENM / AFP)

Oxford Univerisity

People with mild COVID-19 who do not suffer any other traditional "long COVID-19" symptoms can still exhibit deteriorated attention and memory six to nine months after infection, a study by Britain's Oxford University has found.

Cognitive issues impacting concentration levels, along with forgetfulness and fatigue, are features of long COVID – a condition that afflicts some after an initial bout of infection – but it has not been established how widespread issues with attention span might be following COVID-19 infection.

In the study, participants who had tested positive for COVID-19 previously but did not report other traditional long COVID symptoms were asked to complete exercises to test their memory and cognitive ability.

The researchers found that participants were significantly worse at recalling personal experiences, known as episodic memory, up to six months after infection.

They also had a bigger decline in their ability to sustain attention over time than uninfected individuals up to nine months after infection.


Portugal on Tuesday registered 43,729 new cases of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours, the highest daily number since the beginning of the pandemic.

The total number of infections in Portugal has now reached 1,950,620.

ALSO READ: With Omicron, global economy sees chance to push past COVID


Slovenia recorded 8,681 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, which was a new all-time high, the National Institute of Public Health said on Tuesday.

The previous high was reached on Friday with 7,592 cases. The government called upon citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as only 57.3 percent of the country's 2.1 million population has been fully vaccinated.

The government had decided that from Wednesday people who work in healthcare, social services and education will no longer have to start mandatory seven-day self-isolation after a risky contact with a COVID-19 patient.

Instead, they will have to take a COVID-19 test every day for seven consecutive days after the risky contact as well as to wear an FFP2 mask at work.

A healthcare worker places solution droplets into a rapid antigen COVID-19 test at a Reliant Health Services testing site in Hawthorne, California on Jan 18, 2022. (Patrick T. FALLON / AFP)


The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday advised against travel to 22 nations and territories because of a rising number of COVID-19 cases, including for Israel, Australia, Egypt, Albania, Argentina and Uruguay.

The CDC elevated its travel recommendation to "Level Four: Very High," telling Americans they should avoid travel to those destinations, which also include Panama, Qatar, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Suriname, Saint Lucia and Bolivia.

In total, the CDC now lists just over 100 countries and territories at "Level 4." The CDC also raised another 20 countries to Level 3: High," including Uganda, Kuwait, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Cuba. The CDC recommends that unvaccinated Americans avoid nonessential travel to those destinations.

Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab is seen at the opening of the WEF Davos Agenda virtual sessions at the WEF's headquarters in Cologny near Geneva on Jan 17, 2022. (FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)


The topic of fighting against COVID-19 has dominated the Davos Agenda 2022 of the World Economic Forum, with participants across the world calling for vaccine equity and international cooperation to tame the spread of the virus.
The contagious Omicron variant and the reintroduction of national lockdowns, travel bans and quarantines around the world have "reinforced the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic," the Geneva-based forum said on its website.
The five-day online event, kicking off on Monday, provides an opportunity for world leaders, chief executives and experts to reflect on the state of the world and shape solutions to critical challenges in the year ahead, the WEF said.

A picture taken on May 8, 2021 shows a sign of the World Health Organization at the entrance of their headquarters in Geneva amid the COVID-19 outbreak. (FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)


There is no evidence at present that healthy children and adolescents need booster doses of COVID-19 vaccine, the World Health Organization's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said on Tuesday.

Speaking at a news briefing, she said that while there seems to be some waning of vaccine immunity over time against the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus, more research needs to be done to ascertain who needs booster doses.

"There is no evidence right now that healthy children or heavy adolescents need boosters. No evidence at all," she said.

Israel has begun offering boosters to children as young as 12, and the US States Food and Drug Administration earlier this month authorized the use of a third dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 12 to 15.

Last week Germany became the latest country to recommend that all children between ages of 12 and 17 receive a COVID-19 booster shot. Hungary has also done so.

Swaminathan said the WHO's top group of experts would meet later this week to consider the specific question of how countries should consider giving boosters to their populations.

"The aim is to protect the most vulnerable, to protect those at highest risk of severe disease and dying. Those are our elderly populations, immuno-compromised people with underlying conditions, but also healthcare workers," she said.