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COVID-19: Face mask rules tightened, PCR tests for travellers and jabbed have to isolate if in conta

27 November

Boris Johnson has said that people who come into close contact with anyone who tests positive for coronavirus with the new Omicron variant will have to self-isolate, regardless of their jab status, as he delivered a press conference in Downing Street.

The prime minister warned the Omicron variant could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, as he announced a strengthening of England's rules, after two infections of the new strain were identified in Nottingham and Brentwood in Essex.
New measures to be reviewed one week before Christmas as Boris Johnson reacts to Omicron variant
In an attempt to slow the spread, Mr Johnson announced "temporary and precautionary" measures to be reviewed in three weeks, alongside a "boost" to the booster vaccination campaign.
Mr Johnson said that day two PCR tests are back for all international travellers, saying: "Will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result".
There will also be a ramping up of mask wearing in shops and indoor settings.
But, the prime minister said he is "confident" this festive period "will be considerably better than last Christmas".
When asked about this year's festivities, Mr Johnson said: "We continue to be in a strong position largely thanks to the speed of the vaccine rollout, another booster rollout and I think I'm going to stick with the formula I've used before, which is I'm pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas."
It comes after the UK Health Security Agency confirmed the two new cases of the Omicron variant in the UK, which are both believed to be connected and linked to travel to southern Africa, after genomic sequencing overnight.
The individuals and their households were ordered into self-isolation and targeted testing will take place in the areas where the cases were found.
Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola will face travel restrictions from Sunday, when they will join South Africa and five other neighbouring nations on England's red list.
Professor Chris Whitty added it is "inevitable" the Omicron variant will spread across the world over the next few days.
England's chief medical officer said while it is clear Omicron is highly transmissible, it is not yet clear how effective the vaccine will be as protection against it.
However, he said those who are vaccinated or receive the booster jab will be less likely to become seriously ill.
The UK's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance also warned the UK may need to "face up" to the possibility of further action if the Omicron variant is very transmissible.
Sir Patrick told the Downing Street press conference: "I think we'll get more information on transmissibility, we'll get more information on the ability of the vaccines to protect against the virus, but that's going to take a little bit of time.
"At the moment, the models are more 'if it spreads very fast, of course it's going to spread very fast and go into a lot of places, and if it spreads less fast it's going to do so less'.
"But if it's very transmissible and does cause big escape, then clearly that's a major issue we have to face up to.
"But that isn't what we know at the moment, we need to get that information."
The Prime Minister admitted the latest restrictions on travel "sound tough", but added: "That's the way it's got to be."
When asked about whether the Government could have moved faster to close borders to protect the country from the new Omicron variant, Boris Johnson responded: "I really don't know how we could've acted faster.
"We got the news out about it on Thursday and we put quite a lot of southern African countries on the red list yesterday, and some more today."

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COVID-19: Two cases of Omicron variant detected in UK - with targeted testing to be rolled out in af

27 November

Two cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in the UK, the health secretary has said.

Sajid Javid also said there would be targeted testing in the areas where the cases were found - in Brentwood, Essex, and in Nottingham.
It had previously been reported that one of the cases was in Chelmsford, but that has since been corrected.
Mr Javid said the two individuals are now self-isolating along with their households, while further tests are carried out.
The two cases are "linked", the health secretary added, and that connection has been traced to South Africa.
In addition, four more countries are being added to the travel 'red list' from 4am on Sunday: Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.
Mr Javid said he only found out about the Omicron cases "late last night" when he was contacted by the UK Health Security Agency.
In a warning that fresh measures may be on the way, he said: "We've been always very clear that we won't hesitate to take further action if that is what is required.
"If anyone has travelled to any of these four countries, or any of the other recently red-listed countries in the last 10 days, then they must self-isolate and take PCR tests."
Boris Johnson is due to take part in a news conference at 5pm with the UK's chief medical adviser Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance "to set out further measures".
Making the announcement, Mr Javid added: "This is a real reminder that this pandemic is far from over. If there is one thing that everyone can be doing, right now, is if they are eligible, please take your vaccine, whether it's your first shot, second shot, or your booster jab."
Omicron was on Friday declared by the World Health Organisation as a variant of concern, putting it in the same category as the Delta variant, which has caused waves of infection to sweep across the globe and forcing several European countries to re-enter lockdown.
The new variant is considered potentially more dangerous because it has around twice as many mutations as Delta, but experts say how much of a concern is still under investigation.
As well as southern Africa, Omicron, also called B.1.1.529, has also been detected in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, and possibly in Germany and the Czech Republic.
Professor Deenan Pillay, director of the Wellcome Trust-funded Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies in South Africa and professor of virology at UCL, told Sky News that he "strongly suspects" there will be more UK Omicron cases than the two detected so far.
He called for 'plan B' - mandatory face masks and work from home where possible - to be put in place in order to tackle it, but also stressed the need for vaccination because "colleagues in South Africa are reporting that of those individuals with this virus going into hospital... all of them are either unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated".
Governments around the world have suspended flights to and from countries in southern Africa as a result of the detection of the variant.
It will increase concerns that further measures could be put in place as Christmas approaches.
Mr Javid said: "We've always been really clear that we will do whatever is necessary to protect the progress that we have made as a country. We've come a long way, especially since the summer, and we keep all of this under review. If we need to take further action we will.
"Everything we know about this variant, our international partners know. We have been very open, and that is the right way of course, to help people know why we are concerned."
Before the addition of the extra four countries, six African countries - South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia - were already on the red list, meaning British and Irish residents who arrive in the country from them nations must quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days.
South Africa said on Saturday it was being punished for its advanced ability to detect new COVID-19 variants early, as AP reported that scientists there are scrambling to combat its lightning spread across the country.

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UK weather: Gusts near 100mph as Storm Arwen batters country, with three men killed by falling trees

27 November

Storm Arwen has battered parts of the UK with gusts of almost 100mph hitting some areas.

Three men were killed by falling trees in separate incidents - one died after a tree fell on his car in Antrim, Northern Ireland, another was crushed by a tree in Ambleside, Cumbria, and a third had his pick-up truck hit by a tree in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
North West Motorway Police said 120 lorries became "stuck in the snow" on the M62.
Storm Arwen: Live updates as second person dies in tree-related incidents amid extreme weather
Northern Powergrid said severe gales had caused power cuts for more than 112,000 customers, mainly in the Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne and Wear areas.
A rare, red "danger to life" weather warning expired in the early hours of this morning - but amber and yellow warnings for wind remain in place across large swathes of the UK.
The amber warnings covering northeast coasts of England and Scotland, and the southwest coasts of England and Wales, will expire at 9am this morning. A further yellow warning applies to most of the UK until 6pm tonight.
Britons are still being advised to only travel if absolutely necessary, with the Met Office describing the gusts overnight as "damaging".
The Met Office says speeds hit 98mph at Brizlee Wood in Northumberland.
Roads were closed by fallen debris in the worst-hit parts of Scotland, while LNER train services north of Newcastle were also ground to a halt, with high winds, heavy rain and snowfall arriving from Friday afternoon.
Cold weather is expected in the North East, North West, Yorkshire, the West Midlands and the East Midlands until Monday.
Friday night's rugby union Premiership game between Newcastle Falcons and Worcester Warriors was postponed until Saturday evening due to safety concerns.
And in North Wales, ITV abandoned plans for a live episode of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! from Gwrych Castle - with Ant and Dec pre-recording their parts of the programme instead.
Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service said it has been dealing with a "large" number of incidents including "fallen trees and roofs being blown off structures".
A Met Office statement said: "People should stay away from the coast as waves and debris are a danger to life."
Arwen is the first named storm of the 2021/2022 season - which started in September.
It is expected to move across the North Sea and into Europe by Sunday.

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Michael Vaughan: Ex-England captain 'sorry for hurt' caused to Azeem Rafiq amid Yorkshire racism sca

27 November

Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan has said he is "sorry for all the hurt" experienced by his former Yorkshire teammate Azeem Rafiq.

Vaughan, who has been dropped as a commentator by the BBC for this winter's Ashes tour, told the corporation he regretted some of the tweets he had posted in the past.
But he continued to deny claims he made racist comments while at Yorkshire.
Rafiq - who told MPs cricket is institutionally racist - accused Vaughan of saying "there's too many of you lot" - in reference to four players of Asian descent in the Yorkshire team - at a 2009 game.
The whistleblower was found to have been a victim of "racial harassment and bullying" while playing for Yorkshire - but no one was punished.
Vaughan told the BBC: "It hurts deeply, hurts me that a player has gone through so much be treated so badly at the club that I love.

"I have to take some responsibility for that because I played for Yorkshire County Cricket Club for 18 years and if in any way shape or form I'm responsible for any of his hurt, I apologise for that."
Vaughan said he did not remember the incident he is accused of or recognise the words it is claimed he used.
He said: "I just remember it clearly that I was proud as punch that we had four Asian players representing Yorkshire County Cricket Club."
Reacting to the question about whether he ever made any racist comments during his time at Yorkshire, he said: "No I didn't. No."
Rafiq's claims have been backed by another player, Adil Rashid, and a third player who was part of the group the comments were allegedly directed at, former Pakistan seamer Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, who told ESPNcricinfo he was a witness to the comments.
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The fourth player in the group - bowler Ajmal Shahzad - previously told the Daily Mail he could not remember the event.
Vaughan, as well as captaining England for five years, spent his entire domestic career at Yorkshire - between 1993 and 2009 - before working for the BBC.
He responded to historical Twitter posts, which included tweeting in 2010 that "not many English people live in London… I need to learn a new language" and answering "yes" to a question following the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, which asked whether England all-rounder Moeen Ali should ask Muslims if they are terrorists.
Vaughan said he was embarrassed by the tweets and was now a different person.
"I apologise deeply to anyone that I've offended with those tweets," he said.
"Times have moved on and I regret those tweets. We all make mistakes and in my life I've made quite a few mistakes on Twitter, I apologise for that."
As part of the interview, Vaughan also admitted cricket had a problem with racism it needed to accept, he would "love" to play a part in helping Yorkshire move forward, alongside Rafiq, and he hoped to return to commentating with the BBC next year.

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COVID-19: Increasing fears over risk of new Omicron variant impacting Christmas

27 November

There are growing fears a newly discovered COVID-19 variant, said to be potentially more dangerous than the one causing waves of infection around the world, could impact Christmas.

With just four weeks to go before millions of families are expecting to get together, the travel plans of thousands have been thrown into disarray.
It comes as the World Health Organization branded the newly named Omicron variant, also called B.1.1.529, a "variant of concern", putting it in the same category as the Delta variant which has spread quickly throughout the world.
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The rapid spread of Delta is current responsible for sending some countries in Europe back into lockdown.
One scientist likened the situation in South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, to the emergence of the Alpha (Kent) variant in the UK last year, which effectively cancelled Christmas for most of the UK.

As vaccine manufacturers say it could be weeks before they could even test any adapted jab against Omicron, there are growing calls among the scientific community to take urgent action quickly.
Professor Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK Genomics UK Consortium and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, describing the situation in the South African province where the variant is being studied, said: "This situation is reminiscent of the epidemiology of Alpha in Kent around a year ago.
"There was a surge in cases, but it was not clear whether this was due to one or more super-spreader events or was associated with a more transmissible virus. The important difference now is that we have effective vaccines, and considerable learning about variants has also accumulated since then.
"There are two approaches to what happens next: wait for more scientific evidence - or act now and row back later if it wasn't required.
"I believe that it is better to 'go hard, go early and go fast' and apologise if mistaken, than to take an academic view that we need to reach a tipping point in evidence before action is taken."
Vaccine manufacturers have expressed confidence that they will be able to rapidly adapt their jabs if the Omicron variant spreads despite early evidence it brings an increased risk of reinfection.
Pfizer and BioNTech said they expect "to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval".
Moderna said it has advanced a "comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern" and Novavax added it has already started creating a COVID-19 vaccine for B.1.1.529 which would be ready for "testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks".
When he was asked on Thursday what the emergence of Omicron would mean with Christmas approaching, as he imposed the new travel restrictions, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: "We've got plans in place, as people know, for the spread of this infection here in the UK and we have contingency plans - the so-called Plan B.
"But today's announcement, this is about a new variant from South Africa - it's been detected in South Africa and Botswana - and this is about being cautious and taking action and trying to protect, as best we can, our borders.
"From what we do know there's a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant."
So far, as of yesterday, Mr Javid said there were no detected cases of the Omicron variant in the UK, but it has been detected in Belgium - after being found in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel and possibly Germany and the Czech Republic.
Other experts said it was inevitable that Omicron, or another variant, would replace the Delta variant and its offshoots, which currently account for almost all UK cases.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: "No one should be surprised by the appearance of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant.
"The Delta variant will be replaced eventually, whether by this latest new variant - B.1.1.529 - or by some other one. Sooner or later we expect to be confronted with a variant that is even more transmissible than Delta, or that is better at evading natural and vaccine-induced immunity, or both."
Not all scientists expressed the same degree of concern, however.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, expressed cautious optimism that the range of currently available vaccines could prevent serious disease from the Omicron variant.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that most of the Omicron's mutations have similarities to those in other variants, adding: "That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we've moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.
"At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.
"It's extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen."

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