South Africa lifts curfew as Omicron peak subsides

As COVID-19 cases surge across much of the world, South Africa says its Omicron-driven fourth wave appears to have peaked.

Healthcare workers assist patients being treated at a makeshift hospital in Johannesburg.
South Africa made the changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination in the country and available capacity in the health sector [File: Sumaya Hisham/Reuters]

South Africa has lifted a midnight curfew with immediate effect, saying the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant has subsided.

In a statement, a minister in the South African presidency said the country made the changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination and available capacity in the health sector.

Meanwhile, Israel’s top health official has approved a second coronavirus booster jab for people with weakened immune systems, with a final decision on wider usage still pending.

The number of daily new COVID-19 cases worldwide has crossed one million for the first time since infections were first recorded two years ago, according to a tally by the Reuters news agency. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a pandemic in March 2020.

In the United States, new infections have soared to their highest level on record, driven mainly by Omicron.

This live blog is now closed. Here were Thursday’s updates:

Canada’s Quebec announces curfew

Canada’s second-most populous province has announced a nighttime curfew will be put in place as coronavirus infections continue to surge.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said the local time 10pm-5am curfew would begin on New Year’s Eve on Friday.

In addition, restaurants will no longer be allowed to offer in-person dining, most private gatherings will be prohibited, and all indoor sports activities will be suspended, among other measures.

“Our experts tell us that there’s a risk that we won’t be able to treat all those who need it in the coming weeks. I know we’re all tired, but it’s my responsibility to protect [us] from this,” Legault told reporters during a news conference.

New York’s Times Square show will go on, mayor says

New York City will ring in 2022 in Times Square as planned despite record numbers of COVID-19 infections in the city, the state and around the nation, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday.

“We want to show that we’re moving forward, and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this,” de Blasio, whose last day in office is on Friday, said on NBC’s “Today” show.

After banning revellers from Times Square a year ago due to the pandemic, city officials previously announced plans for a scaled-back New Year’s bash with smaller crowds and vaccinations required.

Premier League postpones 17th game this season

The Premier League has postponed an upcoming match between Leicester City and Norwich City – the 17th game of the season to be called off because of COVID-19.

The league said on Thursday that it accepted a request from the visiting team, Norwich, to postpone the match because the club did not have enough available players due to COVID-19 cases and injuries.

The Premier League did not announce a new date for the fixture which was originally to be held on January 1.

“The League is aware that the recent decisions to postpone matches will disappoint supporters, and understands their frustrations at a special time of year when fans look forward to attending and watching football games,” the league said in a statement.

Canada’s WestJet to cancel 15 percent of January flights

Canada’s WestJet Airlines will cancel 15 percent of scheduled flights in January because the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of coronavirus has left the airline unable to fully staff its operations, the company said on Thursday.

The announcement from privately owned WestJet, whose headquarters are in Calgary, Alberta, comes after a slew of North American flight cancellations due to surging coronavirus cases and brutally cold northern winter weather.

“Schedule changes will be implemented over the coming days, and while consolidation is a last resort, it demonstrates the reality of the service we planned versus that we can now realistically deliver,” Harry Taylor, WestJet interim president and CEO, said in a statement.

UK reports record 189,213 cases

The United Kingdom recorded 189,213 new cases of COVID-19, a daily record, and 332 deaths, government data showed.

Case numbers were up from the previous record of 183,037 on Wednesday.

Deaths in Eastern Europe surpass 1 million

Coronavirus deaths in Eastern Europe topped one million since the start of the pandemic, according to a Reuters news agency tally, as the Omicron variant threatens to batter the region.

Three out of the five European countries reporting the highest number of daily deaths are from the East, including Russia, Poland and Ukraine, Reuters data through Thursday showed.

“I am scared because it is a huge number of daily deaths – huge, unimaginable,” said Bozena Adamowicz, a pensioner from Warsaw, the Polish capital.

Avoid cruise travel as Omicron cases surge: CDC

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says people should avoid travelling on cruise ships regardless of their vaccination status, as daily COVID-19 cases in the country climb to record highs.

“The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships, and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose,” the CDC said.

The move delivers another blow to the cruise industry, which started returning to the seas in June after a months-long suspension of voyages due to the pandemic.

“The decision by the CDC to raise the travel level for cruise is particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard,” the Cruise Lines International Association said.

Ship Cruises Revive During The Coronavirus Pandemic
The CDC said passengers already on cruise ships should get tested three to five days after their trip ends, and self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms for 14 days [File: Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images)

Germany to drop quarantine, negative COVID-19 demand for UK arrivals

Germany will drop its demand for travellers from the UK to quarantine and provide a negative COVID-19 test on January 4.

The German embassy in London said on Twitter that the requirements would be dropped from midnight CET on January 4 (23:00 GMT), meaning that people who are fully vaccinated or have an important reason to travel will be allowed to enter Germany.

The requirements had been imposed earlier in December amid a surge in the Omicron cases.

South Africa lifts curfew as it says fourth wave had peaked

South Africa lifted a midnight to 4am curfew on movement with immediate effect, saying the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the Omicron variant.

“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” a statement from a special cabinet meeting held earlier on Thursday said.

Data from the Department of Health showed a 29.7 percent decrease in the number of new cases detected in the week ending December 25, compared to the number of cases found in the previous week, at 127,753, the government said.

France reports 200,000 new daily cases for second day

France reported 206,243 new confirmed coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period, the second day in a row that the country has surpassed the 200,000 mark.

A record of 208,099 new cases was set on Wednesday, as Health Minister Olivier Veran warned of a “tsunami” of infections.

People wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19 walk in Paris
Nations across Europe have moved to reimpose tougher measures to stem a new wave of COVID infections spurred by the highly transmissible Omicron variant [File: Michel Euler/AP Photo]

Greece reports new daily record cases

Greece reported a single-day record high of 35,580 COVID-19 infections, as the highly contagious Omicron becomes the dominant variant in the country.

It was the third successive daily record of cases, with infections more than tripling since the beginning of the week.

“It seems that the raid of Omicron is very intense,” Deputy Health Minister Mina Gaga said during a press briefing, adding that more than 60 percent of new cases relate to the new variant.

Top Israeli health official approves second booster for immunocompromised

Israel’s top health official announced that he has approved a second COVID-19 vaccine booster shot for people with weakened immune systems but a decision on its widespread use is still pending.

On Monday, an Israeli hospital administered fourth shots to a test group of health workers, in what it said was the first major study into whether a second round of boosters will help contend with the Omicron variant.

The results are expected within two weeks.

A man receives his third dose of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Jerusalem, August 15, 2021 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Italy reports new pandemic high of 126,888 coronavirus infections

Italy reported a record 126,888 COVID-19 related cases, against 98,030 on Wednesday, the health ministry said, while the number of deaths rose to 156 from 148.

Italy has registered 137,247 deaths linked to COVID-19 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 5.98 million cases to date.

Several Canadian provinces report new daily highs for coronavirus

Coronavirus infections set new one-day highs in at least four Canadian provinces, prompting several provinces to impose more restrictions.

The biggest jumps were seen in Ontario and Quebec, which are the country’s most populous provinces. Quebec reported 14,188 daily cases, while Ontario had 13,807.

Manitoba reported a record 947 new infections, which broke the previous high of 825 set just a day earlier. Meanwhile, Newfoundland recorded 349 new COVID-19 cases, with officials saying schools would shift to remote learning after the holiday break.

Canada has reported more than 2.1 million COVID cases to date [File: Cole Burston/Bloomberg]

Coronavirus patients in English hospital beds up nearly 10 percent

The number of patients with COVID-19 occupying beds in English hospitals rose to 11,452, official data from NHS England showed, up by 990 from a day earlier.

The number has risen by more than 4,000 in the last week, the figures showed.

Turkey’s cases surge to near 40,000

Turkey recorded 39,681 new COVID-19 cases, the highest number of daily infections since April 28, as Health Minister Fahrettin Koca warned about the growing prevalence of the Omicron variant.

The number of daily cases has doubled in the last week and Koca said the situation required people to be much more careful than they have been in the past. Turkey also recorded 139 deaths as a result of the virus on Thursday, down from 142 a day earlier.

Nurse Ayse Ozdemir Peksert treats a five-year-old boy suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Basaksehir Cam and Sakura City Hospital in Istanbul
Turkey has reported more than 9.4 million cases to date [File: Murad Sezer/Reuters]

Scientists to test high dexamethasone doses in severely ill patients

UK scientists will be studying whether higher doses of the cheap and widely used steroid called dexamethasone could work better for patients with severe coronavirus compared to the standard low doses.

Last year, the same scientists conducting the large trial, dubbed RECOVERY, showed that dexamethasone was able to save the lives of COVID-19 patients in what was called a “major breakthrough” in the coronavirus pandemic.

They had found that a 6 mg daily dose of dexamethasone, which is used to reduce inflammation in diseases such as arthritis, cut death rates by about a third among the most severely ill COVID-19 patients in hospitals.

“Given how quickly the Omicron variant is spreading, we can expect to see patients admitted to hospital with severe COVID-19 for a while to come,” said Peter Horby, an Oxford University professor co-leading the trial.

Russia’s death toll climbs to world’s second-highest

Russia has overtaken Brazil to have the world’s second-highest death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, behind the United States, data from Russia’s state statistics service and Reuters news agency calculations showed.

The statistics service, Rosstat, said 87,527 people had died from coronavirus-related causes in November, making it the deadliest month in Russia since the start of the pandemic.

Medical staff members walk past ambulances at a hospital for COVID-19 infected patients at Kommunarka outside Moscow [File: Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

CDC isolation time shortening raises concern: Academic

The Centre of Disease Control’s latest guideline of shortening isolation time for COVID positive people that remain asymptomatic from 10 to five days is a matter of concern, Bruce Y. Lee of City University of New York told Al Jazeera.

“Studies have shown that people can remain infectious, you know, up to 10 days or even potentially beyond,” he said from New York.

“So the concern is … you might have some cases that escape isolation where people continue to be infectious.”

Lee added the country was in the middle of winter and one of the goals was to “be a little more conservative” in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible.

Israel receives first shipment of Pfizer anti-COVID drug

Israel received a first shipment of Pfizer’s anti-COVID pill, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hailing it as critical amid a surge of cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant.

“Thanks to our rapid action, the drugs have arrived in Israel quickly and will assist us in getting past the peak of the coming Omicron wave,” Bennett said.

The US Food and Drug Administration last week authorised Pfizer’s Paxlovid pill for high-risk people aged 12 and up.

Germany eases travel curbs from Omicron-hit countries

Germany has announced it would lift in early January strict travel rules for people arriving from countries hardest hit by the Omicron coronavirus variant.

All countries currently listed in the “virus variant” category, including the UK and several southern African nations, will be reclassified as “high risk” from January 4, said a government health agency, the Robert Koch Institute.

The change eases a ban on entry for travellers who are not German residents or citizens, instead allowing anyone to enter as long as they observe quarantine and testing rules.

Child infections rising in the US: AJ correspondent

Coronavirus cases in US children, particularly those under the age of five who are unable to get vaccinated, is rising, Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna reported.

“Figures are showing an increase of some 58 percent in terms of childhood admission to hospitals,” he said from Washington, DC.

In New York City, data shows children under the age of 5 now account for almost half of the total new hospital cases.

Read more here.

Amy McCoy signs to a baby about food as a toddler finishes lunch behind at her Forever Young Daycare facility, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. Child care centers once operated under the promise that it would always be there when parents have to work.
Children under the age of 5 are not yet eligible for a coronavirus vaccine [File: Elaine Thompson/AP Photo]

JetBlue cuts about 1,280 flights through mid-January

JetBlue Airways Corp is reducing its schedule through January 13 by about 1,280 flights due to a surge in crew members falling sick from the Omicron coronavirus variant, a spokesperson for the airline told Reuters news agency.

Carriers have been cancelling hundreds of flights every day in the United States since Christmas Eve as they grapple with staff shortages due to COVID-19 infections and bad weather in parts of the country.

Over 1,000 flights were cancelled within, into, or out of the United States as of Thursday morning, according to flight-tracking website

Russia reports 103 Omicron cases

Russia has now confirmed 103 cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, Anna Popova, the head of state consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, said in an interview on state television.

Popova said Omicron coming to Russia was inevitable and that all new arrivals from risk zones were being tested.

Russia has reported more than 10.3 million COVID infections to date [File: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters]

New Year’s show will go on despite virus surge: NYC mayor

New York City will ring in 2022 in Times Square as planned despite record numbers of COVID-19 infections in the city and around the nation, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

“We want to show that we’re moving forward, and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this,” de Blasio, whose last day in office is Friday, said on NBC’s “Today” show.

After banning revellers from Times Square a year ago due to the pandemic, city officials previously announced plans for a scaled-back New Year’s bash with smaller crowds and vaccinations required.

OPINION: Too many COVID-19 vaccine doses are being wasted

Since the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was detected, the stark global inequities that have characterised this pandemic have once again come to the forefront. From discriminatory travel bans to limited access to vaccines, African countries are bearing the burden of this inequity.

Almost one year after vaccine rollout began, donations of COVID-19 vaccine doses by wealthy countries that no longer need them are getting ramped up. But many of the donations are due to expire shortly.

This leaves African countries to reluctantly reject these much-needed vaccines or try to increase vaccine uptake rapidly, despite the challenges that may entail and the pressure it puts on healthcare systems that are already stretched to the limit.

Read more here.

A truck offloads expired AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines at the Gosa dumpsite in Abuja, Nigeria, December 22, 2021 [Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

World tops one million new daily COVID cases: AFP tally

More than 7.3 million new COVID-19 cases were detected around the world in the last seven days, an average of 1,045,000 infections every day, according to a tally by news agency AFP.

The figures for 23-29 December, the highest since the virus first emerged at the end of 2019, are based on tolls given daily by health authorities in each country.

More than 85 percent of the new infections occurred in two regions worst hit by Omicron – Europe, which recorded 4,022,000 cases in the last seven days, up 36 percent over the preceding week, and the United States and Canada which had a combined 2,264,000 cases in the same period, up 83 percent.

Barcelona’s COVID-19 outbreak swells to 10 players

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the Barcelona squad swelled to 10 on Thursday, potentially jeopardising the team’s return to league play after Spain’s winter break of nearly two weeks.

Sergino Dest, Philippe Coutinho and Abde Ezzalzouli are the latest players to contract COVID-19, Barcelona said. They are self-isolating at home and the team said they were “in good health”.

The club already announced this week that Ousmane Dembélé, Samuel Umtiti, Gavi, Jordi Alba, Alejandro Balde, Clement Lenglet and Dani Alves had tested positive and were isolating.

La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid also announced five new cases on Thursday, including coach Diego Simeone and forward Antoine Griezmann. 

Finland’s Nobel Peace Prize winner hospitalised with COVID

Martti Ahtisaari, Finland’s former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been hospitalised after testing positive for COVID-19 for a second time, his foundation said on Thursday.

“President Ahtisaari is doing well under the circumstances, but is being treated in hospital,” the Martti Ahtisaari Peace Foundation said.

The 84-year-old former mediator was awarded the prestigious peace prize in 2008 for his work to end conflicts. He was president of Finland from 1994 until 2000, and announced his withdrawal from public life in September after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

He first contracted the coronavirus in March 2020.

Mumbai bans New Year’s celebrations amid surging COVID cases

New Year’s parties and gatherings of more than four people in public places have been banned in the Indian city of Mumbai, officials said on Thursday.

Gatherings of four or more people will be banned until January 7, under Section 144 of the Indian penal code.

No rules had been specified for house parties, but Mumbai’s governing civic body has appealed to citizens to be cautious and responsible.

The number of daily new cases in the city has risen from 1,769 on December 14 to 5,803 on Wednesday.

UK health officials prepare for Omicron surge at hospitals

England is building temporary structures at hospitals around the country to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients as the Omicron coronavirus variant fuels a new wave of infections.

The National Health Service (NHS) said on Thursday it will begin setting up “surge hubs” this week at eight hospitals, each with the capacity to treat about 100 patients. Staff are preparing plans to create as many as 4,000 “super surge” beds should they be needed.

The UK reported a record 183,037 confirmed new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, 32 percent more than the previous day.

French politician’s residence attacked in suspected anti-vaccination protest

French officials on Thursday decried an act of vandalism committed against a ruling party politician by suspected anti-vaccination protesters in Chambly, north of Paris.

The house of Pascal Bois, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling LREM party, was targeted overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday.

The garage was set on fire and an adjacent wall spray-painted with phrases including “Vote No”.

“Such criminal acts of intimidation are not acceptable in a democracy,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on his Twitter account on Thursday, adding that police had opened an investigation.

Xi’an residents complain of food shortages as lockdown drags on

Residents in the locked-down Chinese city of Xi’an have told AFP they were struggling to find enough food, despite Beijing insisting that there were now adequate supplies.

All 13 million residents of Xi’an were placed under lockdown eight days ago. Initially, one resident was allowed out every two days to stock up on supplies. This was then reduced to every three days before residents were no longer allowed out.

State TV showed footage of workers in hazmat suits sorting eggs, meat and vegetables, before delivering food to residents door to door. AFP received complaints that the supplies were low and the vegetables were not fresh.

Local officials admitted that there had been trouble providing essential supplies. But commerce ministry spokesman Gao Feng said at a press briefing on Thursday that “the total supply of daily necessities in Xi’an is sufficient.”

Masks to be mandatory outdoors in Paris

Residents and tourists in Paris will be required to wear face masks outdoors starting from Friday as France this week reported a daily record of 208,000 new COVID-19 cases.

The Paris police prefecture said the mask rule will apply to people aged 12 and over, although individuals will be exempt while riding bicycles or motorcycles, travelling in vehicles and doing exercise.

Those who do not comply face fines of 135 euros ($153).

Masks already are mandatory in shops, public facilities and office buildings and on public transportation in France.

Italy tightens restrictions for access to public places

Italy approved a new decree on Thursday restricting access to an array of public places to people who are unvaccinated or whose second vaccination took place more than 120 days ago.

The measures, which will be enforced from January 10, will restrict access to hotels, congress centres, local and long-distance public transport, ski lifts and festivals, among other places.

The new rules will stay in place until the end of the state of emergency on March 31.

In the decree, the government also decided to suspend precautionary quarantine for people who were vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 and who had close contact with a person who had tested positive.

J&J booster effective against hospitalisation in South Africa, early results suggest

A booster dose of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) single-dose COVID-19 vaccine was 84 percent effective at preventing hospitalisation in South African healthcare workers who became infected as the Omicron variant spread, researchers said on Thursday.

The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, was based on a second dose of the J&J vaccine administered to 69,092 healthcare workers between November 15 and December 20.

The trial has been evaluating the efficacy of the J&J vaccine in the field after it was temporarily suspended due to concerns over extremely rare cases of blood clots.

Several studies have suggested that a booster dose provides significant protection against severe illness.

US cases soar to highest levels ever

New COVID-19 infections in the US have reached their highest level on record, at more than 265,000 per day on average.

The number of new daily cases has more than doubled over the past two weeks, eclipsing the old mark of 250,000 set in mid-January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Omicron has cast a pall over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, forcing communities to scale back or call off their festivities.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said that there is no need to cancel small home gatherings for those who have received two or three vaccine doses.

Australia relaxes testing rules

Australia has hit a new record, with daily cases topping 20,000 for the first time in the pandemic.

This came as the government narrowed its definition of “close contacts” of coronavirus cases as people who live in the same household with an infected person. They would have to isolate for seven days and would only have to get a PCR test if they have COVID-19 symptoms.

The rules are being relaxed to stop asymptomatic people from being forced into isolation, especially in healthcare, hospitality and airlines, and cut long lines of people forced to get PCR tests for interstate travel or because they have been at a public site with a confirmed case.

The country’s medical association criticised the government’s redefinition of close contacts, saying it would further accelerate the outbreak.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies