Coronavirus: What’s happening in Canada and around the world on Tuesday

The latest:

British lawmakers voted Tuesday to approve new restrictions to curb the spread of the omicron variant, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a major revolt by MPs in his own Conservative party who are opposed to the regulations.

The result was a blow to the authority of the embattled prime minister, whose approval ratings — both with voters and inside the Conservative Party — have plunged amid ethics scandals and allegations that his government breached its own pandemic restrictions.

The House of Commons voted on measures that take effect this week, ordering masks to be worn in most indoor settings in England, changing rules on self-isolation and — most contentiously — requiring proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test to enter nightclubs and large crowded events.

All passed comfortably because of opposition party support, but 96 Conservatives voted against the nightclub rules — by far the biggest rebellion of Johnson’s premiership. It came despite Johnson imploring Tory legislators to back the measures in a private meeting just before the vote.

People take part in a protest against COVID-19 vaccine passports and other policies outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

As if to underscore omicron’s rapid spread, a handful of lawmakers missed the vote because they have COVID-19 and are in quarantine.

Vaccine passes have become commonplace in many European countries, but Johnson’s government has resisted introducing them in England, although the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which set their own health rules, have done so.

‘A grave threat’

The British government argues that the highly transmissible omicron strain has changed the argument, and proof of vaccination or negative tests is now a sensible measure, along with booster vaccinations for all adults.​​​

“Omicron is a grave threat,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told members of Parliament, saying the strain was already estimated to be infecting 200,000 people a day in the U.K. “Scientists have never seen a COVID-19 variant that is capable of spreading so rapidly.”

He said the nightclub rule was “not a vaccine passport” because people could also use a negative virus test to enter venues.

Many Conservative legislators, however, argued that the new requirements were economically damaging and restricted individual freedoms.

Meanwhile, Johnson called for thousands of volunteers to staff new vaccination centres in shopping areas, stadiums and racecourses as the government accelerates its booster program to combat the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The drive comes two days after Johnson set a target of giving booster shots to all adults by the end of this year to stem the tide of omicron, the latest variant of concern.

“We need tens of thousands of people to help out — everyone from trained vaccinators to stewards,” Johnson said in a statement. “Many thousands have already given their time — but we need you to come forward again, to work alongside our brilliant GPs, doctors, nurses and pharmacists, to deliver jabs and save lives.”

Long queues formed at vaccine centres in England on Tuesday as hundreds of thousands of people rushed to get COVID-19 booster shots.

Omicron spreading quickly

Meanwhile, Javid told Parliament that Britain will remove all 11 countries from its COVID-19 travel red list from Wednesday.

“Now that there is community transmission of omicron in the U.K. and omicron has spread so widely across the world, the travel red list is now less effective in slowing the incursion of omicron from abroad,” he said. “Whilst we will maintain our temporary testing measures for international travel, we will be removing all 11 countries from the travel red list effective from 4 a.m. tomorrow morning.”

Health officials with the World Health Organization — which had previously called for a moratorium on boosters as it worked to increase equitable access to the vaccine worldwide — on Tuesday noted that it’s still critical to get doses to people who have not yet had access to initial shots.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said vaccine booster shots can play a role in curbing the spread of COVID-19 as long as people most in need of protection also get access to jabs.

The update came as Tedros and colleagues urged people not to underestimate the virus even as scientists work to pin down more detail on the omicron variant.

“Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril. Even if omicron does cause less severe  disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” he said, noting in his briefing that omicron was “spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant.”

WATCH | WHO warns omicron could overwhelm health systems: 

WHO warns omicron could swamp health systems

The World Health Organization says people must take all measures to control omicron, or the new variant of the coronavirus, now spreading rapidly through countries, could overwhelm fragile health systems. (Sumaya Hisham/Reuters) 1:22

Tedros said 77 countries had reported cases of the omicron variant — and noted that it was likely that it had spread to other countries that had not yet detected it. 

— From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 3 p.m. ET

What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | COVID-19: How can Canada fight omicron? 

COVID-19: How can Canada fight omicron?

Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, discusses the steps needed to fight the expected wave of omicron and whether more lockdowns could be looming. 1:53

What’s happening around the world

People get vaccinated against COVID-19 at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital on Monday. South Africa’s seven-day rolling average of daily new COVID-19 cases has risen from 7.60 new cases per 100,000 people on Nov. 28 to 32.71 new cases per 100,000 people on Dec. 12, according to Johns Hopkins University. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 271.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to a case-tracking tool from U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.3 million.

The African continent might not reach the target of vaccinating 70 per cent of its 1.3 billion population against COVID-19 until the second half of 2024, a target many of the world’s richer countries have already met, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

The warning comes as the world faces a new surge in cases driven by the highly infectious omicron variant. Health officials in South Africa, which first announced the variant, say early data indicates it causes less severe illness and shorter, less-intensive hospital stays. But some richer countries have rushed to allow booster vaccine doses in response, even as less than eight per cent of Africa’s population has received two doses.

Just 20 of Africa’s 54 countries have fully vaccinated at least 10 per cent of their populations against COVID-19. And 10 countries have fully vaccinated less than two per cent of their populations.

The WHO Africa director, Matshidiso Moeti, pushed back against any suggestion that African nations are allowing large numbers of vaccine doses to go to waste amid poor infrastructure and vaccine hesitancy. The African continent has received about 434 million vaccine doses, and some 910,000 of them have expired in 20 countries, Moeti said. The main challenge in Africa, she said, remains access to vaccine supplies.

In Europe, the Dutch government on Tuesday ordered elementary schools to close a week early for Christmas holidays as authorities battle to rein in coronavirus infections amid concerns about the swift spread of the new omicron variant. Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte also extended the country’s existing lockdown until Jan. 14.

Italy extended a COVID-19 state of emergency to March 31 and ruled that all visitors from EU countries must take a test before they arrive, extending a requirement that was already in force for many non-EU countries.

Meanwhile, France is contemplating tightening controls for travellers coming from Britain, who must currently show a negative test less than 48 hours old, said French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal.

A medical staff member works in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for COVID-19 patients at La Timone hospital in Marseille, France, last Friday as the country sees an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

In the Asia-Pacific region, Singapore is considering requiring its residents to get a booster shot to qualify as fully vaccinated against COVID-19, its health minister said.

In the Middle East, Oman reported two cases of the omicron variant. Health ministry officials said the cases involved travel abroad, according to local media reports.

In the Americas, the omicron variant was estimated to be 2.9 per cent of the COVID-19 variants circulating in the United States as of Dec. 11, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the week ending Dec. 4, the omicron variant constituted 0.4 per cent of all the variants in the country, based on the specimens sequenced.

The agency also estimated that the fast-spreading variant was 13.1 per cent of circulating coronavirus variants in New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for the week ending Dec. 11.

— From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 3 p.m. ET

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