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Europe in Covid ‘ceasefire’ that could bring end of pandemic – WHO

Two years after the outbreak of Covid, Europe could soon enter a “long period of tranquility” due to high vaccination rates, the milder Omicron variant and the end of winter, the WHO said on Thursday.

“This period of higher protection should be seen as a ceasefire that could bring us enduring peace,” the WHO’s Europe director, Hans Kluge, told reporters. “This context, that we have not experienced so far in this pandemic, leaves us with the possibility for a long period of tranquility,” he added.

Europe would also be in a better position to fend off any resurgence in transmission, “even with a more virulent variant” than Omicron, he added.

“I believe that it is possible to respond to new variants that will inevitably emerge – without reinstalling the kind of disruptive measures we needed before,” Kluge said.

Nevertheless, he cautioned that the optimistic scenario would only hold true if countries continued their vaccination campaigns and intensified surveillance to detect new variants.

Hello, I’m Tom Ambrose and I will be bringing you the latest Covid news from around the world for the rest of the day.

Britain reported 88,171 new Covid cases on Thursday and 303 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test, official data showed.

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The figures compared to 88,085 cases and 534 deaths reported on Wednesday, the highest daily number of fatalities since late February 2021.

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The Covid-19 vaccine developed by Novavax has been approved by the UK regulator for use in people over the age of 18.

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The vaccine will not be immediately widely available as its use as part of the UK’s vaccination programme will be considered by the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

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Clinical trials suggest two doses of the Novavax jab have an efficacy of about 90% against symptomatic Covid, similar to the other approved UK vaccines. A recent study by Novavax suggests its protection holds up much better against Omicron than most other vaccines, raising the prospect it may be able to provide broader protection across variants in future.

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Two years after the outbreak of Covid, Europe could soon enter a “long period of tranquility” due to high vaccination rates, the milder Omicron variant and the end of winter, the WHO said on Thursday.

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“This period of higher protection should be seen as a ceasefire that could bring us enduring peace,” the WHO’s Europe director, Hans Kluge, told reporters. “This context, that we have not experienced so far in this pandemic, leaves us with the possibility for a long period of tranquility,” he added.

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Europe would also be in a better position to fend off any resurgence in transmission, “even with a more virulent variant” than Omicron, he added.

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“I believe that it is possible to respond to new variants that will inevitably emerge – without reinstalling the kind of disruptive measures we needed before,” Kluge said.

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Nevertheless, he cautioned that the optimistic scenario would only hold true if countries continued their vaccination campaigns and intensified surveillance to detect new variants.

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Hello, I’m Tom Ambrose and I will be bringing you the latest Covid news from around the world for the rest of the day.

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Here’s a roundup of Thursday’s top Covid news from around the world so far.

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  • The number of UK long-Covid sufferers has hit a record high of 1.33 million people, an ONS survey found, rising from 1.27 million at the start of December.
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  • New Zealand has announced it will reopen its border to visitors in stages, starting at the end of February, after its earlier plans to do so were derailed by Omicron.
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  • Germany’s expert vaccine panel said it would recommend Novavax’s Covid-19 vaccine for over-18s, and recommended a second booster shot for the vulnerable.
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  • Russia continues to break its daily Covid case record as Omicron sends infections spiralling – with more than 155,000 positive tests today.
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  • Sweden announced it will end Covid restrictions from Wednesday, following other European countries such as France, Denmark and the Czech Republic in opening up again.
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  • Similarly, the Czech Republic will end requirements for a Covid pass – proof of vaccination or recovery – to enter restaurants and entertainment venues from next week.
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  • South Korea expanded its rapid testing policy after a record jump in Covid cases following the Lunar New Year holidays.
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  • Japan’s health ministry announced a relaxation of rules for family members living with Covid-positive people, shortening quarantine to seven days providing they have no symptoms.
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  • Ukraine broke its daily Covid record after reporting 39,620 new cases, more than double the 18,821 infections detected on Thursday two weeks ago.
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  • The Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, is self-isolating after exposure to Covid.
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  • A fresh wave of UK Conservative MPs have submitted letters of no confidence in Boris Johnson, breaking cover to criticise the prime minister as the fallout from the Downing Street lockdown parties scandal continues to imperil his premiership.
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  • India reported 172,433 new Covid cases in the past 24 hours, the Times of India reports, a 50% drop on the 347,254 infections detected on Thursday two weeks ago.
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That’s all from me, Jem Bartholomew, here in London for today. I’ll be back tomorrow. Drop me a message via email or on Twitter with tips for then. Bye for now.

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The number of UK long Covid sufferers has hit a record high of 1.33 million people, an Office for National Statistics survey found, rising from 1.27 million at the start of December.

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The figure includes more than 550,000 people who caught Covid a year beforehand, underscoring the long-lingering and often debilitating impact of the virus for some people.

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The figures are based on self-reported long Covid – more than four weeks of symptoms – from a representative sample of people in private households in the four weeks to 2 January.

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Nearly two in three people with long Covid (836,000) said it was adversely affecting their day-to-day activities – with 244,000 people saying their ability to undertake day-to-day activities has been “limited a lot”, the ONS found.

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Common symptoms, the survey found, include:

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  • Fatigue (experienced by 50% of those with self-reported long Covid)
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  • Shortness of breath (37%)
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  • Loss of smell (37%)
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  • Loss of taste (28%).
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number of UK long Covid cases – ONS survey”,”contributors”:[],”primaryDateLine”:”Thu 3 Feb 2022 22.35 GMT”,”secondaryDateLine”:”First published on Thu 3 Feb 2022 05.09 GMT”},{“id”:”61fbad4c8f0817decd957b78″,”elements”:[{“_type”:”model.dotcomrendering.pageElements.TextBlockElement”,”html”:”

Sweden announced it will end Covid restrictions on Wednesday next week, following other European countries such as France, Denmark and the Czech Republic in opening up again.

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“It is time to open Sweden again,” said the prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, adding: “The pandemic is not over but has entered a totally new phase.”

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Curbs including capacity limits, opening hours, vaccine certificates and masks on public transport will be removed.

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Sweden is experiencing a record-breaking Covid wave in terms of infection numbers – with a current seven-day average of about 35,000 cases a day – but this has yet to translate into burdening hospitals. Andersson said 80% of Swedes aged over-50 are triple jabbed.

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Germany’s expert vaccine panel said on Thursday it would recommend Novavax’s Covid-19 vaccine for over-18s.

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The standing committee on vaccination at the Robert Koch Institute (Stiko) recommended the protein-based shot as a first vaccine. (It said a booster should be given with an mRNA vaccine such as Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.)

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Stiko also updated its booster shot recommendation, Reuters reports, and now advises vulnerable people and healthcare workers to get a second RNA booster shot.

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It follows the European Medicines Agency’s move to recommend granting a conditional marketing authorisation for the Novavax jab to over-18s on 20 December. Two studies found the shot has a roughly 90% efficacy in preventing symptomatic Covid cases.

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Novavax also applied for approval from the US Food and Drug Administration on 31 January.

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Japan’s health ministry announced a relaxation of rules for family members living with Covid-positive people, shortening quarantine to seven days providing they have no symptoms, the Japan Times reports.

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The Times has the details:

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n

Due to a rapid increase in the number of infection cases among children, guardians taking care of infected kids have had to remain isolated for a maximum of 17 days before resuming social activities.

n

People living with Covid-19 patients are considered close contacts and until now have been asked to stay home for a maximum of 17 days, as the ministry previously required a seven-day wait for family members from the time patients ended their 10-day self-isolation.

n

Of close contacts, 99.98% developed symptoms within seven days of the symptom onset for the Covid-19 carriers they came in contact with, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

n

The ministry, therefore, judged it appropriate to shorten the quarantine period for close contacts.

n

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It comes after Japan broke its daily Covid record on Wednesday, with 94,908 cases according to the Times, exceeding the 90,000 mark for the first time. That’s roughly double the 45,997 infections reported on Thursday two weeks ago.

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In Tokyo alone, a record 21,576 cases were detected yesterday.

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Russia continues to break its daily Covid case record as Omicron sends infections spiralling.

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A fresh 155,768 positive tests were recorded in the past 24 hours, Reuters reports, vaulting yesterday’s 141,883 cases and representing a 305% increase on the 38,508 cases reported on Thursday two weeks ago.

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The country has broken its infections tally almost every day since late January.

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But the Kremlin yesterday ruled out a national Covid lockdown. Meanwhile, several cities have imposed their own restrictions at a local level.

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“Already today we are not talking about the lockdown, we are not talking about the quarantine, we are not talking about some kind of emergency countermeasures,” Anna Popova, the head of Russia’s public health agency, told state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

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A further 667 deaths from Covid-related causes were reported in the past 24 hours, compared to 671 two weeks ago. Russia has the second-highest death toll in the world of more than 700,000 people, behind the US. (Russia has the 9th highest population.)

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vaults daily Covid peak again with 155,000 positive tests”,”contributors”:[],”primaryDateLine”:”Thu 3 Feb 2022 22.35 GMT”,”secondaryDateLine”:”First published on Thu 3 Feb 2022 05.09 GMT”},{“id”:”61fb8bd78f0854a991e05d21″,”elements”:[{“_type”:”model.dotcomrendering.pageElements.TextBlockElement”,”html”:”

South Korea expanded its rapid testing policy on Thursday following record jumps in Covid cases after Lunar New Year holidays.

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A further 22,907 infections were reported on Thursday, AP reports, around a five-fold increse in cases since mid-January as Omicron grips the nation.

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Since the start of the pandemic the country’s testing regime has relied on lab PCR tests. But now, rapid tests are being expanded, reserving PCRs for higher-risk groups like the over-60s and clinically vulnerable.

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AP reports from Seoul:

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Long lines snaked around testing stations in the capital Seoul and other major cities, where most people were provided rapid antigen test kits to use under the supervision of health workers, who then approved lab tests for anyone who tested positive.

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Some experts have opposed the new policy, saying that rapid tests aren’t sensitive enough to reliably detect omicron infections and raising concerns that transmissions could worsen if people who return false negative tests continue to venture out in public.

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But health officials say the country must concentrate lab tests and other crucial medical resources due to the speed of infections driven by omicron. Officials are also expanding at-home treatments and have eased quarantine periods for virus carriers and people who come in close contact with them, citing concerns about major disruptions at workplaces and essential services if large numbers of people are constantly placed under quarantine.

n

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Korea expands rapid testing after record infections”,”contributors”:[],”primaryDateLine”:”Thu 3 Feb 2022 22.35 GMT”,”secondaryDateLine”:”First published on Thu 3 Feb 2022 05.09 GMT”},{“id”:”61fb87be8f08ed69ff281950″,”elements”:[{“_type”:”model.dotcomrendering.pageElements.TextBlockElement”,”html”:”

The Czech Republic will end requirements for a Covid pass – proof of vaccination or recovery – to enter restaraunts and entertainment venues from next week.

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It comes despite the country breaking its daily Covid record on Wednesday, with over 57,000 infections, as the Omicron wave sweeps through. But hospitalisations are yet to surge.

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Mandatory testing will also end for firms and schools from 18 February. Measures including indoor mask-wearing and capacity limits will remain.

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It follows the peeling back of restrictions across Europe in countries like Austria, Italy and France after the winter Covid wave.

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The Czech Republic has roughly the 25th highest Covid death toll globally, with around 37,000 deaths from Covid-related causes, compared to the 86th highest population.

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Ukraine broke its daily Covid record after reporting 39,620 new cases, more than double the 18,821 infections detected on Thursday two weeks ago.

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It breaks the previous record of 37,351, from 29 January, as Omicron contnues to batter the country.

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A further 210 people were reported to have died from virus-related causes, a 46% jump on the 144 reported two weeks ago.

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Ukraine’s death toll rises to 100,809 people, the world’s 16th highest. (Ukraine has the 35th highest population worldwide.)

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breaks daily Covid record with almost 40,000 infections”,”contributors”:[],”primaryDateLine”:”Thu 3 Feb 2022 22.35 GMT”,”secondaryDateLine”:”First published on Thu 3 Feb 2022 05.09 GMT”},{“id”:”61fb644b8f08ed69ff2817bd”,”elements”:[{“_type”:”model.dotcomrendering.pageElements.TextBlockElement”,”html”:”

New Zealand has announced it will reopen its border to visitors in stages, starting at the end of February, after its earlier plans to do so were derailed by Omicron.

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It will be the first time the country has opened up since prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced its snap closure in the first month of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The country’s borders have been closed, apart from a short-lived travel bubble with Australia, for nearly two years.

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“With Omicron’s arrival, we pushed that change in border settings out – to give ourselves the chance to roll out boosters – a chance most other countries never had,” Ardern said in a speech on Thursday.

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“With our community better protected we must turn to the importance of reconnection. Families and friends need to reunite. Our businesses need skills to grow. Exporters need to travel to make new connections.”

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The border will initially open to vaccinated New Zealand citizens and visa holders coming from Australia, then from the rest of the world, and finally to all other vaccinated visitors.

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They will still have to self-isolate at home for 10 days, but will no longer have to pass through the country’s expensive and highly space-limited managed isolation facilities, known as MIQ.

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Hello and welcome to the Guardian’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with me, Helen Livingstone.

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New Zealand has announced it will reopen its border to visitors in stages, after its earlier plans to do so were derailed by Omicron. The country’s borders have been closed, apart from a short-lived travel bubble with Australia, for nearly two years.

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Three more Conservative MPs have publicly called on UK prime minister Boris Johnson to resign, describing their shock and anger at his conduct since the publication of an interim report into parties held at Downing Street while the country was under strict lockdown measures.

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Here’s what else has been happening over the past 24 hours:

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  • Serbia’s state prosecutors on Wednesday rejected suggestions that Novak Djokovic used a fake positive test for Covid-19 to try to enter Australia and compete in the Australian Open.
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  • The US army has said soldiers who refuse to get a Covid-19 vaccine will be immediately discharged, maintaining the move is critical to maintain combat readiness.
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  • UK Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson has sparked a backlash after arguing on ITV that breaching Covid rules is equivalent to parking on a double-yellow line.
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  • Italy will soon announce a timetable to roll back its Covid curbs, prime minister Mario Draghi said today. It comes as the surge in cases fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant started to show signs of slowing.
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  • Germany has recorded over 10 million total Covid cases, after detecting 208,498 new infections in the past 24 hours. Ministers said they hope to lift restrictions in March.
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  • Police in Ottawa, Canada, have seen signs that guns have been brought into a
    truckers’ protest
    against vaccine mandates that has paralysed the Canadian capital, the police chief said.
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  • The chairman of The Ivors Academy has called for “major reform” so musicians are treated with “dignity and respect” amid criticism of Spotify over Covid misinformation on the platform.
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  • UK Covid infections have stopped falling, with levels holding steady or climbing, the ONS said. For England one in 20 people had Covid in the week ending 29 January.
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  • Russia broke its record Covid tally, with 141,883 new infections over the past 24 hours.
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  • In Japan, Tokyo detected a record-breaking 21,576 new cases, topping the previous record of 17,631, as the country battles Omicron.
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  • Exposure to a single nasal droplet is sufficient to become infected with Covid-19, according to a landmark trial in which healthy volunteers were intentionally given a dose of the virus.
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Key events

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Frustrations are boiling over in Canada’s capital as a protest by truckers against Covid-19 vaccine mandates has clogged downtown Ottawa for a week and shows no sign of ending, Reuters reports, with many residents angry at police for not breaking it up.

Dozens of trucks in the so-called “Freedom Convoy” have been blocking streets since Friday, forcing the closure of the main shopping mall in the area and local businesses, and disturbed residents with constant horn honking.

The city’s police force has stood by as protesters filled jugs of diesel to top up their rigs, which they keep running to provide heat in sub-zero temperatures, rather than cutting off the fuel supply.

“For six days and nights, residents living in downtown Ottawa continue to experience unprecedented violence on their local streets,” said city councillor Catherine McKenney in a letter to the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, on Thursday.

“They are being … harassed and terrorised,” McKenney said, citing complaints of air horns, erratic driving, open fires and “widespread public urination and defecation,” while asking for more police support.

Police chief Peter Sloly said his officers could neither deny the truckers their right to demonstrate, nor was he in a position to negotiate an end to the protest. I do not have a mandate under the Police Services Act to negotiate with the tens of thousands of people who come to Ottawa to exercise their charter of rights to free speech,” he said.

The protesters have said they will not leave Ottawa until the federal government lifts Covid-19 vaccine mandates and all pandemic restrictions, even though most of those restrictions are controlled by provincial governments.

The number of home care staff in England has dropped by more than 17,000 since the government launched its consultation on mandatory coronavirus vaccination, figures suggest.

There were 406,365 domiciliary care staff in registered settings reported by councils and providers as being in post in the week ending January 30, latest NHS England vaccination figures show. Analysis by the PA news agency shows this is down 17,664 staff from the week ending September 12, when 424,029 workers were recorded. There will be other types of home care workers, such as agency staff, that are not captured in the data.

Africa must boost the vaccination rate against Covid-19 “six times” to reach the target of 70 percent vaccine coverage set for the end of the first half of 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, AFP reports.

Africa has received “more than 587 million vaccine doses” but it “is still struggling to expand rollout, with only 11 percent of the population fully vaccinated”, explained the WHO regional office for Africa. “The world has finally heard our calls. Africa is now accessing the vaccines it has demanded for far too long. This is a dose of hope for this year,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “However, a dependable pipeline must go hand in hand with operational funding to move doses out of depots and into people’s arms.”

People enrolled in the U.S. government’s Medicare program can get over-the-counter Covid-19 tests for free starting early spring, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said.

The Biden administration laid out plans last month that require private insurance companies to cover the cost of eight over-the-counter at-home tests per person each month, but said nothing about such coverage for Medicare beneficiaries. Under the new coverage plan, Medicare and Medicare Advantage beneficiaries will be able to access up to eight over-the-counter Covid-19 tests per month for free, Reuters reports. The latest announcement is a “positive” for those enrolled in Medicare plans with the federal government covering costs directly, Evercore ISI analyst Michael Newshel said. “The program is also a potential small positive for pharmacies to sell the tests to Medicare beneficiaries, though supply is limited and the window may be short depending when the public health emergency ends.”

Tensions in societies around the world over the current Covid situation are going to be very difficult to handle, one of Britain’s most senior scientific figures has warned.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, who stepped down as a government scientific adviser in November last year, warned the idea of simply “exiting” a pandemic is not realisitc. “I just don’t think you wake up on Tuesday and it’s finished. It’s not going to happen like that,” he said in an online meeting of the Royal Society of Medicine. “The transition from [the] acute phase of the pandemic to something new, not yet defined, it’s really difficult – bumpy, different around the world, different within a single country, with the degree of inequity that’s happened globally, but also nationally.”

Here are some more details on South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics using the publicly available sequence of Moderna Inc’s mRNA Covid-19 vaccine to make its own version of the jab which could be tested in humans before the end of this year.

“If this project shows that Africa can take cutting edge technology and produce cutting-edge products, this will banish this idea that Africa can’t do it and change the global mindset … this can be a game-changer,” Charles Gore, executive director at MPP, told Reuters at Afrigen’s facility. “We haven’t copied Moderna, we’ve developed our own processes because Moderna didn’t give us any technology,” Petro Terblanche, managing director at Afrigen, told Reuters. “We started with the Moderna sequence because that gives, in our view, the best starting material. But this is not Moderna*s vaccine, it is the Afrigen mRNA hub vaccine.” Terblanche said Afrigen was also working on a next generation mRNA vaccine that did not require freezing temperatures for storage, required for the Pfizer and Moderna doses, and which would be better suited to Africa.

Tory Shepherd

Sue Rees survived cancer but died in hospital as Australia’s Omicron wave took off.

Her daughter wants to remember the person hidden by the daily toll.

Italy reported 112,691 Covid related cases on Thursday, against 118,994 the day before, the health ministry said, while the number of deaths rose to 414 from 395.

Italy has registered 147,734 deaths linked to Covid since its outbreak emerged in February 2020, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the ninth highest in the world. The country has reported 11.35 million cases to date.

Patients in hospital with Covid – not including those in intensive care – stood at 19,324 on Thursday, down from 19,550 a day earlier.

There were 95 new admissions to intensive care units, down from 104 on Wednesday. The total number of intensive care patients fell to 1,457 from a previous 1,524.

Some 915,337 tests for Covid were carried out in the past day, compared with a previous 964,521, the health ministry said.

A security officer checks customers’ green pass at the entrance to a clothing store in Naples, southern Italy, 01 February 2022.
A security officer checks customers’ green pass at the entrance to a clothing store in Naples, southern Italy, 01 February 2022. Photograph: Ciro Fusco/EPA

UK records 88,171 new Covid cases, 303 deaths

Britain reported 88,171 new Covid cases on Thursday and 303 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test, official data showed.

The figures compared to 88,085 cases and 534 deaths reported on Wednesday, the highest daily number of fatalities since late February 2021.

Portugal will drop a requirement to present a negative Covid test for air passengers arriving with a valid digital European Union certificate or recognised proof of vaccination, the government said on Thursday.

The move, approved in a cabinet meeting, is aligned with European Union rules.

In a statement, the government said negative tests will no longer be required for “those who present the EU Covid Digital Certificate in any of its modalities or other proof of vaccination that has been recognised”.

It did not say when the decision would take effect, but the rules now in force were meant to last until 9 February.

People enrolled in the US government’s Medicare programme can get over-the-counter Covid tests for free starting in early spring, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said on Thursday.

The Biden administration laid out plans last month that require private insurance companies to cover the cost of eight over-the-counter at-home tests per person each month, following a surge in infections due to the Omicron variant.

However, the policy did not apply to Medicare beneficiaries.

Under the new coverage plan, Medicare and Medicare Advantage beneficiaries will be able to access up to eight over-the-counter tests per month for free.

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