Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Sunday that Britain faces a “tidal wave” of infections from the omicron coronavirus variant and announced a huge increase in booster vaccinations to strengthen defences against it.
In a televised statement, Johnson said everyone aged 18 and older will be offered a third dose of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of this month in response to the omicron “emergency.” The previous target was the end of January.
Johnson said cases of the highly transmissible variant are doubling every two to three days in Britain, and “there is a tidal wave of omicron coming.”
“And I’m afraid it is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need,” he said.
“But the good news is that our scientists are confident that with a third dose — a booster dose — we can all bring our level of protection back up,” he said.
A national program was announced to deliver booster vaccines with pop-up vaccination centres and seven-day-a-week clinics getting extra support from teams of military planners and thousands of volunteer vaccinators.
Johnson’s Dec. 31 target applies to England. The other parts of the U.K., including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, are also expected to speed up their vaccination campaigns.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is receiving treatment for mild COVID-19 symptoms after testing positive for the disease on Sunday, his office said.
Ramaphosa started feeling unwell and a test confirmed COVID-19, a statement from the presidency announced.
He is self-isolating in Cape Town and being monitored by the South African Military Health Service, the statement said. He has delegated all responsibilities to Deputy President David Mabuza for the next week.
Ramaphosa, 69, is fully vaccinated. The statement didn’t say whether he had been infected with the omicron coronavirus variant.
Last week, Ramaphosa visited four West African countries. He and all members of his delegation were tested for COVID-19 in each of the countries during the trip. Some in the delegation tested positive in Nigeria and returned directly to South Africa. Throughout the rest of the trip, Ramaphosa and his delegation tested negative. He returned from Senegal on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Austria ended lockdown restrictions for vaccinated people across most of the country on Sunday, three weeks after reimposing strict rules to combat a rising wave of coronavirus infections.
The rules, which vary by region within the country, largely allow for the reopening of theatres, museums and other cultural and entertainment venues on Sunday. Shops will follow on Monday.
Some regions are reopening restaurants and hotels on Sunday, while others will wait until later in the month. In all cases, there will be an 11 p.m. curfew for restaurants, and masks will still be required on public transit and inside stores and public spaces.
Chancellor Karl Nehammer last week called the move an “opening with a seatbelt,” giving each of Austria’s nine regions the ability to loosen or tighten restrictions based on the local situation.
Unvaccinated people will still be subject to the lockdown restrictions and should remain at home for all but a handful of specific reasons, such as buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.
Since the start of the lockdown, new case numbers have plummeted in the small Alpine country. On Friday, Austria reported 367.5 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants, down from 1,102.4 on the first day of the lockdown in November.
However, hospitalizations from the virus have not dropped as sharply as new case numbers. There are currently 567 coronavirus patients in intensive-care units across the country, only slightly down from 572 on the first day of the lockdown last month.
Austrian officials have stressed that high rates of vaccination are necessary to control the virus. Just 67.7 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, a relatively low rate for western Europe, and the government has introduced measures to put increasing pressure on unvaccinated individuals to get the vaccine.
Among those measures are a countrywide vaccine mandate, which will go into effect in February for all residents aged 14 and over. Those who do not comply will face fines of up to 3,600 euros (about $5,200 Cdn).
In France, 400 investigations were opened into networks providing fake COVID-19 health passes, the interior minister said Sunday, as virus-related hospitalizations rise sharply across the country.
The case of a woman with the virus who died in a Paris regional hospital after showing a false vaccine certificate has drawn attention in French media in recent days. The hospital’s intensive care chief said they would have given the woman immediate antibody treatment had they known that she wasn’t vaccinated.
Authorities have identified several thousand fake COVID-19 health passes in use around France, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said Sunday on RTL radio.
— The Associated Press, last updated at 5:10 p.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
- Saskatchewan ICU hospitalizations rise to 35, 37 new cases confirmed.
- Nova Scotia reports 111 new cases on Sunday; ages 60 and up now eligible for booster shots.
- New Brunswick reports 112 new cases, bringing total active cases to 1,019.
- Alberta senior’s cancer surgery cancelled during 4th wave, now given just months to live.
- Quebec reports 1,753 new cases on Sunday, 1 new death.
- Ontario reports 1,476 new cases on Sunday, 8 additional deaths.
- Winnipeg centre hosts vaccine clinic geared toward children with developmental disabilities, on the autism spectrum.
- N.S. university cancels in-person exams after outbreak forces students to isolate.
- B.C. professor mulls new holiday traditions amid second year of pandemic.
- P.E.I. reports 7 new cases, issues new exposure notifications.
What’s happening around the world
As of Sunday afternoon, more than 269.9 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracking tool. The reported death toll has surpassed 5.3 million.
More than half a billion people globally were pushed into extreme poverty last year as they paid for health costs out of their own pockets during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization and the World Bank said on Sunday.
The pandemic disrupted health services globally and triggered the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, making it even more difficult for people to pay for health care, according to a joint statement from both organizations.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia said on Sunday it will shorten the wait time for people to receive a COVID-19 booster to five months, following a rise in cases of the omicron variant. Australia had previously said it would offer the booster to everyone over 18 who had had their second dose of the vaccine six months earlier.
In the Americas, the United States on Sunday was approaching 800,000 coronavirus-related deaths. The country has lost more lives to the virus this year than in 2020, even as vaccines became widely and freely available, due to the more contagious delta variant and people refusing to get inoculated against COVID-19.
Roughly 60 per cent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, CDC data showed. The deaths this year were mostly in unvaccinated patients, health experts say.
In Europe, the number of registered COVID-19 cases in Russia now exceeds 10 million, data from the government’s coronavirus task force showed on Sunday. However, the latest wave of the pandemic has lost its momentum, and the number of new cases and deaths is declining.
Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya Research Institute that produced the Sputnik V vaccine, said 10 days would be enough to test the efficiency of Russia’s most popular vaccine against the omicron variant, RIA news agency reported on Sunday.
In the Middle East, Israeli researchers said on Saturday they found that a three-shot course of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine provided significant protection against the new omicron variant.
The findings were similar to those presented by BioNTech and Pfizer earlier in the week, which were an early signal that booster shots could be key to protect against infection from the newly identified variant.
In Africa, South Africa on Saturday reported 17,154 new COVID-19 cases and a further 36 deaths.
— From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 5:10 p.m. ET