Vaccine manufacturers have expressed confidence that they will be able to rapidly adapt their jabs if the Omicron variant spreads.
The new strain – previously known as B.1.1.529 – features some “concerning” mutations, and early evidence suggests it brings an increased risk of reinfection.
There are also fears that the variant could be more resistant to the vaccines that have now been rolled out to billions of people around the world.
If this is the case, Pfizer and BioNTech expects “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” since early 2021 – including three levels of response if the immunity offered by its jabs wanes.
Novavax added it has already started creating a COVID-19 vaccine based on the known genetic sequence of B.1.1.529 “and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks”.
Yesterday, the World Health Organisation designated B.1.1.529 as a “variant of concern”, meaning it has now officially been given the name Omicron, a letter from the Greek alphabet.
The strain was first detected in South Africa, and a number of countries – including the UK, Australia and the US – are now temporarily restricting travel to a number of European countries.
Although no infections linked to the Omicron variant have been detected in the UK or the US so far, there has been a case in Belgium involving an unvaccinated person who had travelled abroad.
Salim Abdool Karim, one of South Africa’s top epidemiologists, told Sky News he “would expect it to be in the UK” by now.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has warned that there is a “possibility it might have a different impact on individuals” who get coronavirus.
However, he stressed the UK remains in a “strong position” due to the high vaccination take-up – adding that Omicron’s presence means getting a booster jab is even more important now.
British scientists first became aware of the new strain on 23 November after samples were uploaded on to a COVID variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana. A total of 59 samples have been uploaded so far.
Amid the concerns, flights to the UK from South Africa and five other southern African countries – Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe – have been suspended until 4am on Sunday.
These nations have now been added to the red list, and from Sunday, British nationals returning from these destinations will be required to quarantine in government-approved hotels for 10 days.
Mr Javid confirmed the government is still following Plan A for managing COVID-19 this autumn and winter but warned “if we need to go further, we will”.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has said his “greatest worry” is whether the public would accept fresh restrictions if they were required.
Rishi Sunak says ‘racism must be confronted’ after Buckingham Palace row
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said whenever we see racism “we must confront it” following the race row engulfing Buckingham Palace.
A black domestic abuse campaigner from London said she was repeatedly asked where she “really came from” by Prince William‘s godmother during a reception at the palace this week.
Although he refused to comment directly on the incident or anything to do with the monarchy, Mr Sunak said he has experienced racism but does not think what he experienced as a child would happen today – however, there is still work to be done.
“Our country’s made incredible progress in tackling racism,” he said.
“But the job is never done. And that’s why whenever we see it, we must confront it.
“And it’s right that we continually learn the lessons and move to a better future.”
Lady Susan Hussey, who was the Queen’s lady-in-waiting for more than 60 years, resigned from her role in the royal household and apologised over the incident during an event held on Tuesday by the Queen Consort.
Ngozi Fulani, chief executive of charity Sistah Space, said Lady Hussey moved her hair to see her name badge and asked her “what part of Africa” she was from after she told her several times she was British.
The charity boss earlier today told Sky News she felt abused, verbally attacked and “trapped” when Lady Hussey kept asking her where she was “really from”.
Ms Fulani described the exchange with Lady Hussey, who was made a lady of the household after the Queen’s death, as a “violation” and said it was abuse when she moved her hair.
“I was not giving the answer that she wanted me to give. And so we could not move on,” Ms Fulani told Sky News.
“And it was when she said ‘I knew you’d get there in the end’ – that proved to me, you were determined to prove that I had no right to British citizenship.
“Now, that reminds me of the Windrush conversation, where 50 or 60 years on people who were born here, worked here or you know, have given so much, can just be thrown out.
“Now, abuse doesn’t have to be physical. But if you move my hair without permission, to me, that’s abuse.
“When you verbally attack, because that to me is what it is – you are determined that the answer that I gave you is not one you want to hear, you do not recognise me as British.
“And until I acknowledge that I’m not, you’re not going to stop. What do I do? What do I do at that point? So I become silent. And I hoped she would go away and she eventually did.”
Prince William, who is on a three-day US visit with his wife Kate, is understood to agree it was right for Lady Hussey to step down from her honorary role as Lady of the Household with immediate effect.
A Kensington Palace spokesman told reporters in the US before the Prince and Princess of Wales’ Boston trip – which has been overshadowed by the palace controversy – that Lady Hussey’s comments were “unacceptable” and “racism has no place in our society”.
Later, during an NBA game William and Kate attended, the royal couple were booed by some members of the crowd, and at an Earthshot Prize event, they heard a speech on race equality by a black reverend.
Germany knocked out of World Cup in Qatar after failing to qualify from Group E
Germany have been knocked out of the World Cup, with a win against Costa Rica not enough to secure them a place in the last 16.
Hansi Flick’s side came from behind to beat Costa Rica in their final group game 4-2.
On a thrilling night in Qatar, Japan beat Spain 2-1 in the other group game, meaning Germany’s World Cup journey was over.
It means Japan top Group E, and Spain come second, with Costa Rica also failing to qualify.
Unions could coordinate strike action across NHS for ‘maximum impact’, GMB boss says
Union leaders could coordinate industrial action across the NHS this winter to cause “maximum impact”, the head of the GMB has suggested.
Andy Prendergast, the GMB national secretary, said health workers have had enough of “public school boys who run the government and simply don’t care” about their pay demands.
More than 10,000 ambulance workers from the GMB voted to strike yesterday, following in the footsteps of nurses in opting to walk out.
Asked if there will be a “coordinated strike” in the health service, Mr Prendergast told Sky News: “We will be talking to the other unions.
“We know that the nurses have got their first ballot in over 100 years. We know that our colleagues in Unite, in Unison are currently delivering ballots.
“So we’ll be looking to make sure this has the maximum impact.”
It was put to Mr Prendergast that the safety of patients could not be guaranteed if there is coordinated strike action between unions and the NHS.
He argued their safety is not being guaranteed now due to the staffing crisis, with poor pay driving many out of the profession.
“One third of our members in the ambulance service believe that they have been involved in a delay that has led to a patient dying, so this isn’t a situation where this is a service that runs perfectly well,” he said.
NHS ‘dying on its feet’
“This is a service that’s dying on its feet and our members are actually standing up and the public of Britain should support them. This is a matter of a life or death situation.”
Mr Prendergast said NHS workers “work extremely hard, often for wages that a lot of people wouldn’t get out of bed for”.
He added: “Ultimately they are saying enough is enough. It’s time for them to take action. This is the one thing that they can do to try and improve patient safety, to try and improve the terms conditions, to try and deal with 135,000 vacancies that we have among a service that we rely on.”
Paramedics, emergency care assistants, call handlers and other staff are set to walk out in nine trusts:
- South West Ambulance Service
- South East Coast Ambulance Service
- North West Ambulance Service
- South Central Ambulance Service
- North East Ambulance Service
- East Midlands Ambulance Service
- West Midlands Ambulance Service
- Welsh Ambulance Service
- Yorkshire Ambulance Service
The industrial action is due to take place before Christmas, with the union planning to meet reps in the coming days to discuss dates.
Thousands of ambulance workers in Unison, the UK’s biggest trade union, also intend to take industrial action before Christmas.
Up to 100,000 nurses from the Royal College of Nursing are also set to stage a mass walkout in December, one of the busiest months for the NHS.
The army has been placed on stand by in case it is needed to fill roles of NHS workers on strike days.
Coordinated strike ‘can speed up negotiations’
Dr Emma Runswick of the British Medical Association told Sky News that coordination between unions will help protect patients as they can discuss between themselves how to cover urgent and emergency care.
She added that an effective coordinated strike “will help to speed up negotiations”.
“We want there to be an impact on the employers and on the government to bring them to the table to negotiate with us. And if we coordinate and if we’re effective, the government and employers will negotiate faster. And that’s better for us and better for patients in the long term.”
The UK is facing a wave of strikes this winter as workers from different industries are set to walk out over pay and conditions
Rail workers, civil servants, firefighters and teachers are among the tens of thousands expected to take industrial action as a recession grips the UK and the cost of living rises.
Wage price spiral ‘nonsense’
Ministers have been criticised for refusing to negotiate with unions, with Business Secretary Grant Shapps saying meeting their pay demands would lead to a wage inflation “spiral”.
Eddie Dempsey, assistant general secretary of the RMT, which covers the transport sector, rubbished that argument.
“This idea that there’s going to be a wage spiral is nonsense because wages have been falling as a share of wealth in this country – what goes to wages and what goes to profits,” he said.
Mr Dempsey said that now, wages only account for around 8% to 12% of unit costs.
He pointed to a study from the Bank of England which found there was no risk of wage-induced inflation across Western economies because people have got less money.
He claimed what the government is actually worried about “is a shift in class power”.
“They’re worried about trade unions and ordinary working people having the ability to bargain for better wages. That’s what they’re worried about.”
Rail union ‘hopeful’ of deal to end strikes
Mr Dempsey said his union has been in negotiations for longer than six months and “every time we feel like we are making headway it has felt like the rug has been pulled out from under our feet”.
However he said there is “definitely a change of tone” with the new Transport Secretary Mark Harper and the RMT is “hopeful” a deal can be reached.
Royal Mail workers are also locked in a bitter dispute over pay and conditions, with the CEO Simon Thompson accusing union leaders of “trying to destroy Christmas” by walking out.
He claimed striking workers had demonstrated “extraordinary behaviours” and that he has heard allegations of racism, sexism and violence.
Royal Mail CEO accused of ‘lying’
Speaking during Sky’s Q&A with union leaders, Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) accused Mr Thompson of “lying”.
He said the union “welcomes an independent look at behaviours” of his members but the CEO’s behaviour should also be investigated.
“He goes on (social media) every single day, including weekends. and he goads our members,” Mr Ward said.
“He’s brought in a team of union and worker busters and they’re deliberately creating a psychological attack on every single worker.
“Go out and ask postal workers how they feel about this particular CEO.”
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