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Omicron spread prompts new UK rules, NYC mandates worker vaccines

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British Health Secretary Sajid Javid says travellers into the UK will face tougher border checks, as he confirmed community transmission of Omicron.

In the US, New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandate for all private employers – the latest move to combat the spread of the Omicron variant.

Italy has also tightened rules to stop unvaccinated people spreading the coronavirus.

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While both Germany and Austria are moving towards making vaccines obligatory, Italy is instead bringing in requirements that make socialising harder for people who haven’t had a double dose.

Even before the discovery of Omicron, European countries were experiencing another wave of coronavirus cases.

There had been concern among public health experts that countries had let their guard down and were not doing enough to protect citizens and encourage vaccines.

The newest “variant of concern” has now been found in 52 countries across the world.

Meanwhile, one of the scientists behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is warning that the next pandemic may be more contagious and more lethal unless more money is devoted to research and preparations to fight emerging viral threats.

She also warned vaccines could be less effective against the Omicron variant.

Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, said there was a “real risk” existing vaccines may not be effective against the new strain.

“What I don’t know is how substantial that is,” he told ABC News in the US.

Leading infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci said that scientists still need more information on the highly-mutated variant but hospitalisations in South Africa, where Omicron is now the dominant strain, have not risen drastically.

“Thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” he told CNN.

“But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness, comparable to Delta”.

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Here’s the latest coronavirus headlines from around the world on Tuesday morning.

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Omicron spreading

Mr Javid said there are now 261 cases of Omicron in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales.

Twenty-one of the cases have recently been connected to people who travelled from Nigeria.

“We are doing everything in our power to strengthen our national defences so we will be as prepared as possible for whatever this virus brings,” he told parliament early Tuesday morning.

Mr Javid said that, because scientists believe the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter with Omicron, pre-departure testing could play a greater role in stopping the new variant.

New border measures will include making it mandatory for all travellers to show proof of a pre-travel negative PCR or lateral flow test.

The BBC reports the UK is on track to offer all adults an extra vaccine shot by January, with 450,000 third doses administered in the past day bringing the total of booster shots to over 20 million.

“The booster programme itself is steaming ahead at a blistering pace with 2.6 million across the UK were boosted last week and there’s some 3.6 million people booked in,” Mr Javid said.

He estimated five million people in the UK were yet to take up an offer of a vaccine but said about 88 per cent of over-12s have had at least one jab.

New Yorkers must be vaccinated to work in the office

New York’s mayor said new vaccine rules were, which he described as the first of its kind in the nation, was needed as a “pre-emptive strike” to stall another wave of coronavirus cases this Christmas.

Nearly 90 percent of adult New York City residents have had at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

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New York City has already put vaccine mandates in place for government workers and for employees and customers at indoor dining, entertainment and gyms.

Mr de Blasio said about 184,000 private businesses would now require workers to get vaccinated. Anyone working on site at their workplace must have at least one shot by December 27.

“Omicron is here, and it looks like it’s very transmissible,” Mr de Blasio said in an interview on MSNBC.

“The timing is horrible with the winter months.”

Scientist warns world to be prepared for next pandemic

Professor Sarah Gilbert, one of the scientists behind the AstraZeneca vaccine, says the scientific advances made in fighting deadly viruses “must not be lost” because of the cost of fighting the current pandemic.

“This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods,” Professor Gilbert has said during the Richard Dembleby lecture due to air on the BBC.

“The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”

Speaking about the Omicron variant, the professor said its spike protein contained mutations known to increase the transmissibility of the virus.

“But there are additional changes that may mean antibodies induced by the vaccines, or by infection with other variants, may be less effective at preventing infection with Omicron,” she said.

“Until we know more, we should be cautious, and take steps to slow down the spread of this new variant.”

AstraZeneca vaccine scientist Sarah Gilbert says the next pandemic may be more lethal. Photo: Getty

The annual televised lecture features addresses by influential figures in business, science and government.

During the address, Professor Gilbert is set to call on governments to redouble their commitment to scientific research and pandemic preparedness.

“We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through all we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness,” she said, according to excerpts from her speech.

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“The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost.”

No vaccine? No aperitovo

Italy is making life more uncomfortable for unvaccinated people as the Christmas holidays draw near.

New rules exclude unvaccinated people from indoor restaurants, theatres and museums.

Starting on Monday (local time) and running through to January 15, Italian police can check whether diners in restaurants or bars have a “super” green health pass certifying that they are either vaccinated or have recently recovered from the virus.

Smartphone applications that check people’s health pass status will be updated and those who have merely tested negative in recent days for COVID-19 will no longer be allowed into concerts, movies or performances.

The number of new COVID-19 infections in Italy has been on a gradual rise for the past six weeks, even before concerns arose about the new Omicron variant.

That is a worrying trend as Italians plan holiday parties and getaways to spend time with friends and family. Christmas travel and holiday gatherings were strictly limited last year due to a steeper rise in COVID cases.

Italy’s vaccination rate is higher than many of its neighbours, at 85 per cent of the eligible population aged 12 and older and 77 per cent of the total population.

But people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have proved the most reluctant to get vaccinated, with nearly 3.5 million still not having received their first dose.

They are also the same age group that is now being hardest hit by the virus, according to Silvio Brusaferro, head of Italy’s National Health Institute.

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