Oxford vaccine - NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images
Oxford vaccine – NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

University of Oxford scientists expect to report results from the late-stage trials of their Covid-19 vaccine by Christmas, a key researcher said today as he discussed the team’s latest findings.

Dr. Andrew Pollard, an expert in pediatric infection and immunity at Oxford, said research was slowed by low infection rates over the summer, but the Phase III trials are now accumulating the data needed to report results as a renewed surge of the pandemic hits countries around the world.

“I think we’re getting close, and it’s definitely going to be before Christmas based on the progress,” Pollard said in an interview with the BBC.

Pollard discussed progress in the late-stage trials as Oxford released a study based on earlier research that found the vaccine was well tolerated and produced a strong immune response in people over 70. This is important because vaccines often don’t work as well in older people, Pollard said.

“The reason that we’re so delighted is the we’re seeing the immune responses look exactly the same, even in those who are over 70 years of age,” Pollard said.

The findings were based on a so-called phase II trial of 560 people, including 240 over the age of 70. The results of the peer-reviewed study were published today in the Lancet, an international medical journal.

Two other drugmakers, Pfizer and Moderna, this week reported preliminary results from late-stage trials showing that their vaccines were almost 95 per cent effective.

Pollard said there is no competition between the various research teams, because several vaccines will be needed to bring the global pandemic under control and allow life to return to normal.

Follow the latest updates below.

03:48 PM

Woman wins first stage of legal challenge over protecting care homes from Covid

A woman whose elderly father died in a care home in April has won the first stage of a legal challenge over measures taken to protect those living in care homes from Covid-19.

Dr Cathy Gardner claims there was a failure to implement “adequate” measures to protect residents from the “ravages” of coronavirus and this was “one of the most egregious and devastating policy failures of recent times”.

She is pursuing a High Court claim against the Government and two health bodies over decisions and measures taken in relation to care homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Gardner argues certain key policies and decisions led to a “shocking death toll” of care home residents – which she puts at more than 20,000 people between March and June – particularly an alleged policy of discharging patients from hospital into care homes without testing and suitable isolation arrangements.

Dr Gardner, who is bringing her case with another individual, Fay Harris, alleges the measures breached human rights and equality laws.

At a remote hearing on Thursday, Mr Justice Linden granted Dr Gardner permission for a full hearing of her challenge.

03:38 PM

Funeral held for mother and sons who died from coronavirus over five days

The triple funeral of a mother and her two sons who died from coronavirus within five days of each other has taken place.

Grandmother Gladys Lewis, 74, from Pentre, South Wales, died at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital on October 29.

Her son Dean Lewis, 44, was found unresponsive at his home in nearby Treorchy the following day and pronounced dead a short time later.

Younger brother Darren, 42, died on November 2 following treatment in intensive care at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital.

All three had tested positive for coronavirus before they died, and their death certificates state Covid-19 as the cause.

Mourners today socially distanced and wore masks as they lined the streets outside St Peter’s Church in Pentre to listen to the funeral through loudspeakers.

Undated family handout photo of the Lewis family from Pentre in South Wales - PA
Undated family handout photo of the Lewis family from Pentre in South Wales – PA
The coffin of Gladys Lewis is placed into the hearse during the funeral  - PA
The coffin of Gladys Lewis is placed into the hearse during the funeral – PA

03:20 PM

Non-essential department store fined £17,000 for breaching rules

A department store has closed after it was issued with £17,000 in fines for breaching lockdown rules on non-essential retailers.

Middlesbrough Council did not name the town centre store which was issued with several fixed penalty notices and a prohibition notice for failing to close as required under Covid-19 regulations.

According to the council, the business has now said it will no longer trade while the restrictions are in place.

The local authority said some of the company’s other stores elsewhere in the country could face enforcement action.

Four town centre phone retailers have also received £1,000 fixed penalty notices after they were observed selling directly from their premises.

03:12 PM

Vaccine boss suggests ‘return to normal life’ by second half of 2021

The boss of one of the companies leading the charge for a coronavirus vaccine has expressed hope that there is “a light at the end of the tunnel”.

Albert Bourla, chief executive of pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which has announced results of 95 per cent efficacy in its vaccine, said that if vaccination was successful, normal life would return.

Speaking to Sky News he said: “As things (are) going on, until we reach herd immunity, people need to be very careful.

“They need to wear a mask, social distance. There is light at the end of the tunnel, it’s real. We never believed to have a vaccine of this efficiency so people need to be patient.

“I believe that the second half of 2021 will be a very different experience for a lot of us.

“I think if we will be able to vaccinate, we can go back to normal life.”

02:55 PM

Video: Christmas with family or a shorter lockdown?

People in London react to possible plans being put in place by the Government to allow families to spend Christmas together in exchange for a January lockdown.

02:48 PM

New Covid cases in India rise by almost 50 per cent in two days following Diwali festivities

The number of new daily Covid-19 cases in India has risen by almost 50 per cent in two days, in the week following the major Hindu festival of Diwali, with a record number of fatalities in the capital of New Delhi.

On Wednesday, India reported 45,576 new Covid-19 cases, a significant increase from the 29,154 infections recorded on Monday.

Public health experts had warned there would be a surge in India after Diwali, with many people ignoring advice to stay at home and instead meeting with family and friends to celebrate.

In the lead up to the festival, markets across the country were also rammed as large groups of shoppers gathered to purchase gifts. Diwali was celebrated on Saturday and on average, it takes four to five days for symptoms of the deadly virus to develop.

Joe Wallen has the full story here.

A relative performs rituals for a man who died of Covid-19 before his cremation in New Delhi   - Reuters
A relative performs rituals for a man who died of Covid-19 before his cremation in New Delhi – Reuters

02:42 PM

Numbers of refugees being resettled has plummeted during Covid-19 crisis, UN reveals

The world is set to hit a record low for resettling refugees this year, the UNHCR, the refugee branch of the United Nations, has warned.

Figures show only 15,425 refugees had been resettled by the end of September, compared to 63,726 for the whole of 2019. In 2016 the number was eight times higher, at 126,291.

The low numbers are down to the Covid-19 pandemic forcing border closures, resettlement pauses and flight cancellations.

Gillian Triggs, the UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, said: “We are dealing with a disappointingly low resettlement ceiling to begin with – a quota of less than 50,000 for the entire year – and this was further impacted by Covid-19 delaying departures and pausing some states’ resettlement programmes.”

Harriet Barber has more here. 

02:35 PM

Rugby union to receive almost half of the Government’s new £300m sports bailout package

Rugby union will receive almost half the Government’s new £300 million bailout, it emerged today as ministers also confirmed they were leaving the “door ajar” for the potential return of fans by Christmas.

Premiership Rugby clubs get the biggest support pot, at £59 million, the RFU receives £44 million, Championship rugby clubs get £9 million, while clubs in the tiers below will receive £23 million.

Horse-racing is due to be handed a £40 million lifeline, while non-league men’s football receives £25 million, with £3 million for the Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship.

Rugby league receives £12 million, motorsport gets £6 million, the LTA have been promised £5 million, while ice hockey and basketball get £4 million each. Badminton gets £2 million, while £1 million has been set aside for greyhound racing.

Tom Morgan has more here. 

02:29 PM

Wales reports 1,048 new cases and 23 further deaths

The cases are up from 867 cases and but down from 34 deaths last Thursday.

The new figures take Wales to a total of 69,497 confirmed infections and 2,307 deaths.

02:27 PM

487 new cases and 12 further deaths in Northern Ireland

The figures are down on the 548 cases and 15 deaths recorded last Thursday.

Now 48,716 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland and 901 people have died.

02:21 PM

Arthritis drug ‘effective in treating critically ill Covid patients’

A drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis can improve clinical outcomes of critically ill patients with Covid-19, early results suggest.

Tocilizumab, a medicine that suppresses the immune system and reduces inflammation, has been shown to be effective in treating patients in intensive care units (ICU) with severe Covid-19.

This was when compared with patients who did not receive any immune-modulating drugs, which help to activate, boost or restore normal immune function.

The early findings are yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The researchers also said that tocilizumab’s effect on survival, and the length of time patients need to spend in ICU, has not yet been analysed and further data is expected in the coming weeks.

02:12 PM

Hospital deaths in England up by 346

A further 346 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in hospital in England, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths reported in hospitals to 37,470, NHS England said today.

Patients were aged between 35 and 102. All except nine, aged between 54 and 99, had known underlying health conditions.

The deaths were between October 19 and November 18, with the majority being on or after November 16.

Nineteen other deaths were reported with no positive Covid-19 test result.

02:07 PM

Sports arena could host one of UK’s first mass Covid vaccination centres

Derby City Council confirmed talks were under way with the Government to use Derby Arena as a temporary facility to help administer the vaccine, developed by Pfizer.

The vaccine, said to be 95 per cent effective, is currently awaiting national approval from the UK medicines regulator following successful clinical trial testing on 43,500 people.

But it was hailed at the daily Government press conference at Downing Street on Monday as a “very important scientific breakthrough” by deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam.

Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director in England, said on Wednesday the NHS was “working incredibly hard” to ensure it is ready to deliver coronavirus vaccines as soon as they get approval.

01:55 PM

Farmed mink in Ireland to be culled

Farmed mink in Ireland are due to be culled to halt the spread of Covid-19, after mutations in coronavirus triggered the cull of millions of the animals in Denmark after authorities found genetic changes they said might undermine the effectiveness of vaccines for humans.

Testing of the mink herd in the country had detected no positive results of Covid-19 to date but a recommendation has been made by the Department of Health that the mink should be culled to minimise any risk of the virus spreading.

The agriculture department said it has been “working closely” with the operators of the country’s three mink farms to address any potential risks.

“Mink farmers continue to operate in full compliance with all legislative and animal welfare requirements and have co-operated fully with these efforts,” a statement from the department said.

“Testing of the mink herd in Ireland detected no positive results to Covid-19 to date.

“The Department of Health has indicated that the continued farming of mink represents an ongoing risk of additional mink-adapted Sars-CoV-2 variants emerging and, therefore, it has recommended that farmed mink in Ireland should be culled to minimise or eliminate this risk.”

01:46 PM

Holidaymakers travelling around Christmas warned about Covid test delays

Travel companies have warned clients about travelling immediately after Christmas to destinations that require arrivals to provide evidence of a recent negative PCR test.   

Fears have been raised that UK passengers departing on Boxing Day and the days following may not receive the results of their Covid tests in time for travel, due to potential delays in processing results over the Christmas holiday. There is concern it could lead to holidaymakers having to pay hundreds of pounds for quick turnaround tests.   

Nick Van Gruisen, the managing director of luxury tour operator The Ultimate Travel Company, described the situation as “a muddle” and has been advising clients on what to do next. 

Emma Beaumont has more here. 

01:39 PM

Scotland: ‘Concrete’ plans for Christmas gatherings could be revealed next week

A “concrete” plan for gatherings to take place at Christmas could be revealed as early as next week, Nicola Sturgeon has said.

The First Minister told MSPs today that the chief medical officers of all four UK nations have been asked to compile a proposal for how the easing of some restrictions would work.

It comes after discussions were held between Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and the devolved administrations on Wednesday,

Speaking at First Minister’s Questions, she said: “We discussed the Christmas period and how we could come to a sensible – and I stress sensible – and safe plan that would allow people, not 100 per cent normality, but a greater degree of normality – in particular the ability to spend some time with loved ones.

“From that meeting yesterday, we charged our officials – advised by our respective chief medical officers – to put together a concrete proposal that we will then consider and hopefully announce the detail of in the coming days.

“I would hope … we could share that with the public over the course of next week.”

01:33 PM

First Minister confirms drop in Scotland’s R number

The R number in Scotland is likely to be “very slightly below one”, Nicola Sturgeon has said.

The fall in the number indicates the “current tough measures” to tackle the virus are working, the First Minister said, but regional variations across the country justify the need for the more restrictive measures that will be implemented from Friday.

“In those parts of the country with the highest prevalence we’ve not yet seen as significant or as rapid a fall in cases as we need to,” she said.

“That is why we have taken the decision to move 11 local authority areas into Level 4 from 6pm tomorrow until Friday December 11.”

01:28 PM

Results from late-stage Oxford vaccine trials expected by Christmas, says key researcher

University of Oxford scientists expect to report results from the late-stage trials of their Covid-19 vaccine by Christmas, a key researcher said today as he discussed the team’s latest findings.

Dr. Andrew Pollard, an expert in pediatric infection and immunity at Oxford, said research was slowed by low infection rates over the summer, but the Phase III trials are now accumulating the data needed to report results as a renewed surge of the pandemic hits countries around the world.

“I think we’re getting close, and it’s definitely going to be before Christmas based on the progress,” Pollard said in an interview with the BBC.

Pollard discussed progress in the late-stage trials as Oxford released a study based on earlier research that found the vaccine was well tolerated and produced a strong immune response in people over 70. This is important because vaccines often don’t work as well in older people, Pollard said.

“The reason that we’re so delighted is the we’re seeing the immune responses look exactly the same, even in those who are over 70 years of age,” Pollard said.

The findings were based on a so-called phase II trial of 560 people, including 240 over the age of 70. The results of the peer-reviewed study were published today in the Lancet, an international medical journal.

01:22 PM

One person dies every 17 seconds from Covid-19 in Europe, WHO warns

Europe is once again the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, with one person dying from the disease every 17 seconds, the World Health Organization has warned.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, delivered the sobering message at a briefing today.

“Europe accounts for 28 per cent of global cases, and 26 per cent of deaths cumulatively in the region,” he told the briefing.

“Last week, Europe registered over 29,000 new Covid-19 deaths. That is one person dying every 17 seconds.”

In the last week deaths jumped by 18 per cent, he said.

Jordan Kelly-Linden has more here. 

01:14 PM

Government’s care home response ‘devastating policy failure’, court told

A “failure” to introduce “adequate” measures to protect care home residents from the “ravages” of Covid-19 is “one of the most egregious and devastating policy failures of recent times”, the High Court has been told.

Dr Cathy Gardner is pursuing a legal challenge against the Government and others over decisions and measures taken in relation to care homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

She claims certain key policies and decisions led to a “shocking death toll” of care home residents – which she puts at more than 20,000 people between March and June – particularly an alleged policy of discharging patients from hospital into care homes without testing and suitable isolation arrangements.

Dr Gardner, who is bringing her case with another individual, Fay Harris, alleges the measures breached human rights and equality laws.

Her father, Michael Gibson, died in an Oxfordshire care home on April 3 after it readmitted without Covid testing a former resident who had been in hospital. Mr Gibson’s death was recorded as “probable Covid”, according to documents before the court.

01:07 PM

UK debt could reach 105pc due to Covid spending

National debt levels might reach 105 per cent as a result of Government spending to support the UK through the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Treasury’s senior civil servant.

Sir Tom Scholar told MPs his team was still waiting to see official forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) but that the UK economy was likely to see the worst annual contraction for the past three centuries.

Ministers have borrowed heavily to support the furlough scheme, taking on 80 per cent of employee wages up to a limit of £2,500 per month if they could not work, and handing out loans to businesses hit by the restrictions designed to slow the spread of Covid-19.

According to HM Revenue and Customs data, a total of 9.6 million jobs were furloughed, with £41.4 billion of claims made by October 18.

But the Treasury’s permanent secretary said the Government, despite the heavy costs involved, would press on with providing short-term support to the economy to avoid a wider fallout, supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

12:57 PM

Vaccine row intensifies between Hungary and EU

Hungary’s plans to import and possibly use Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine raise safety concerns and could damage trust in potential shots, the European Commission has warned.

A new showdown is expected when EU leaders hold a video conference today that may address the bloc’s Covid rescue plan and seven-year budget, which Hungary and Poland’s nationalist governments are blocking because they make access to money conditional on respecting the rule of law.

Hungarian plans to conduct trials of and possibly produce the Russian vaccine, an unprecedented step for an EU member state, add to existing frictions with Brussels.

Asked about these plans, a spokesman for the Commission, the EU’s executive, said: “The question arises whether a member state would want to administer to its citizens a vaccine that has not been reviewed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

“This is where the authorisation process and vaccine confidence meet. If our citizens start questioning the safety of a vaccine, should it not have gone through rigorous scientific assessment to prove its safety and efficacy, it will be much harder to vaccinate a sufficient proportion of the population.”

12:50 PM

Scotland reports another 1,089 cases and 50 further deaths

In the past 24 hours 1,089 people tested positive for Covid-19 in Scotland, taking the total number of confirmed infections to 85,612.

There are 1,212 people in hospital with COVID-19 – 29 fewer than yesterday.

And there are 85 patients with the virus in intensive care units – 29 fewer than yesterday.

A further 50 people were reported to have died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus – bringing total deaths to 3,427.

12:45 PM

Denmark: mink mutation ‘most likely extinct’

A new, mutated strain of the coronavirus stemming from mink farms in Denmark is “most likely” extinct, the health ministry said, amid fears the new strain could compromise Covid-19 vaccines.

“No further cases of mink variant with cluster 5 have been detected since 15 September which is why the State Serum Institute assesses that this variant has most likely become extinct,” the ministry said in a statement.

Two weeks ago, Denmark ordered all farmed mink in the country culled to curb widespread outbreaks of Covid-19 on farms, a situation exacerbated by the discovery of a mutated variant, which authorities said showed reduced sensitivity to antibodies.

12:39 PM

Downing Street defends Test and Trace after latest figures revealed

Downing Street has defended the “colossal” achievements of Test and Trace but acknowledged improvements could be made.

It comes as latest figures show that just 60.5 per cent of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England were reached through the Test and Trace system in the week ending November 11 (see post at 11.52am).

A No 10 spokesman said: “We are testing more people per head of population than any other European country and that will grow thanks to our increased testing capacity.”

But “we accept there are still improvements to be made, and we will continue to work on it”.

12:31 PM

1 in 3 hotels and restaurants fear they may not survive

More than one in three restaurants and hotels fear they might have to shut for good within the next three months as the sector is badly hit by a second lockdown.

The Office for National Statistics said 34 per cent of businesses in the accommodation and food services sector have “little or no confidence” they will last beyond the end of January.

Overall, one in seven (14 per cent) British businesses fear the same fate, a survey carried out in the first two weeks of November shows.

Only about one in five (21 per cent) accommodation and food businesses said they are highly confident about their future, 36 per cent said they are moderately confident, while 10% said they are not sure.

It casts a strong light on the struggles many businesses are facing across the UK, as a wave of second lockdown measures were implemented by central and devolved governments.

12:19 PM

Government announces £300 million Sport Winter Survival Package to help spectator sports in England

Major spectator sports in England will receive a combined £300 million cash injection to protect their immediate futures over the winter period, the Government has announced.

The Sports Winter Survival Package will support sports – from national governing bodies through to clubs – impacted by coronavirus restrictions.

The Government has claimed that the funding, which will be largely composed of loans, is “the most generous of any Government for its domestic sport sector in the world, and will focus on sports severely impacted over the winter”.

Support will be provided to rugby union, horse racing, women’s football and the lower tiers of the National League. Rugby League, motorsport, tennis, netball, basketball, ice hockey, badminton and greyhound racing are also in line to benefit.

12:16 PM

Five things to read this lunchtime

Good afternoon. If you’re just joining us, here’s some news, comment and analysis from across our website for your lunchtime reading:

12:03 PM

Coronavirus around the world, in pictures

A health worker checks the body temperature from a shopkeeper during a Covid-19 test at a flower market in Mumbai - AFP
A health worker checks the body temperature from a shopkeeper during a Covid-19 test at a flower market in Mumbai – AFP
A Palestinian clown wears a protective mask while entertaining children at their home during a lockdown after the outbreak of the coronavirus in Jabalia Refugee Camp in the northern Gaza Strip -  ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Live News
A Palestinian clown wears a protective mask while entertaining children at their home during a lockdown after the outbreak of the coronavirus in Jabalia Refugee Camp in the northern Gaza Strip – ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Live News
Long lines of motorists wait to take a coronavirus test at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles - AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
Long lines of motorists wait to take a coronavirus test at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles – AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

11:58 AM

WHO: Lockdowns could be avoided if mask-wearing was higher

Fresh lockdowns in Europe are avoidable, including through near-universal mask-wearing, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Europe office said today.

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, told a press conference: “Lockdowns are avoidable, I stand by my position that lockdowns are a last resort measure. If mask use reached 95 per cent, lockdowns would not be needed.”

Primary schools should be kept open, he said, adding that children and adolescents are not driving spread of the new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 and school closures are “not effective”.

11:56 AM

Viruses shown to evolve as a result of different immune responses in different ethnic populations

New research from Oxford University into the HIV-1 virus has shed light on an important factor in the evolution of viruses, which is likely also to affect SARS-CoV-2 (the virus which causes Covid-19).

This new insight could have important implications for vaccine development, researchers say.

Differences in the cellular immune system in different human populations are now known to influence a virus’s evolution. A virus will adapt and may ultimately form subtypes to escape common antiviral immune responses.

For the first time, in a paper published in Virus Evolution, Professor Astrid Iversen of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford and collaborators have shown a strong link between ethnic diversity in African countries and the diversity of HIV-1 p24Gag and HIV-1 subtypes.

By analysing the HIV-B epidemic in the USA, they also reveal that viral evolution is ongoing and is affected by the continuously increasing proportion of African Americans in the HIV-infected population over time. This result underscores how inequalities in health care can affect pathogen evolution if a specific ethnic group is disproportionately disadvantaged.

11:52 AM

Just 60pc of close contacts reached by Test and Trace

Some 60.5 per cent of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England were reached through the Test and Trace system in the week ending November 11, the latest figures also revealed.

This is unchanged on the previous week, and is also just above the all-time low of 60.1 per cent for the week to October 14.

But for cases managed by local health protection teams, 98.9 per cent of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate in the week to November 11.

For cases managed either online or by call centres, 58.9 per cent of close contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate.

Meanwhile a total of 38 per cent of people who were tested for coronvirus in England at a regional site, local site or mobile testing unit that week received their result within 24 hours. This is up slightly from 37.5 per cent in the previous week.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged that, by the end of June, the results of all in-person tests would be back within 24 hours.

11:45 AM

Highest number of positive cases in England since May

A total of 167,369 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England at least once in the week to November 11, according to the latest Test and Trace figures.

This is the highest weekly number since Test and Trace was launched at the end of May and is an increase of 11 per cent in positive cases on the previous week.

Coronavirus UK Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus UK Spotlight Chart – Cases default

11:44 AM

Christmas can still be merry, says WHO’s Europe director

Dr Hans Kluge, who is the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) regional director for Europe, said that this year’s festive season will be “a different Christmas but that does not mean it cannot be a merry one”.

He said that during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, community-based groups formed safe solutions of breaking their fast, which involved celebrating virtually or delivering meals to homes for “distance celebrations”, while a “virtual Diwali” – the Hindu festival of light – involved free online events run by municipalities across Europe for “short, safe revelries”.

Speaking at a press briefing on today, Dr Kluge said: “Cherish the festive season with those close to you.

“If it’s a large gathering of vulnerable people, you may postpone that gathering until you can safely gather.

“Despite the cold, if local restrictions permit, gather outside with loved ones for picnics in the park.”

Santa Claus speaks to two-year-old Leo via live video stream to launch the Virgin Media virtual grotto experience - PA
Santa Claus speaks to two-year-old Leo via live video stream to launch the Virgin Media virtual grotto experience – PA

11:40 AM

Santa gets detained in Moscow over Covid restrictions protest

A man dressed as Santa has been detained on Red Square where he was picketing against Moscow’s new coronavirus restrictions that ban all major public gatherings, including Christmas and New Year parties for children that provide livelihoods for thousands of entertainers during the holiday season, reports Nataliya Vasilyeva.

The Russian capital, which reported over 6,600 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, has so far eschewed a second lockdown but recently adopted a flurry of restrictions on public gatherings which are expected to stay in force until mid-January, hitting hard the entertainment industry heavily reliant on seasonal festivities.

The man dressed as Father Frost, which is the Russian name for Santa, came out on Moscow’s Red Square on Wednesday with two young women wearing elves’ costumes to protest the new restrictions.

“I’m really worried about New Year’s Eve and I want to make sure we have it,” bearded Father Frost, dressed in the traditional ankle-length coat, was seen in a video telling a police officer who approached him. He was holding a poster saying: “Father Frost is against canceling holiday parties.”

Attorney Alexander Aldayev, who provided legal aid to the unnamed man, said that the elves were released without charges but Father Frost will have to face the court for breaking rules on public gatherings, punishable with a fine or 40 hours of community work.

11:33 AM

South Australia enters severe lockdown to combat Covid cluster

South Australia has begun one of the world’s toughest lockdowns as the state battles a cluster linked to a quarantine hotel.

For six days even outdoor exercise and dog walking will be banned, as only one person from a household will be allowed to leave home each day, and only for essential reasons, authorities said.

Schools, universities, cafes and restaurants are closed, weddings and funerals are banned and mask-wearing is mandatory.

“We want to go hard, go early, but get out of it as quickly as we can,” State Premier Steven Marshall said of the measures.

The short, sharp, “circuit breaker” follows the discovery of a cluster of 23 people in the state capital Adelaide have been infected after a cleaner at a hotel used to quarantine people arriving from overseas was exposed to the virus.

An empty street on the first day of lockdown in Adelaide - Shutterstock
An empty street on the first day of lockdown in Adelaide – Shutterstock

11:28 AM

US deaths surpass a quarter of a million

More than 250,000 Americans have now died from the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University show.

The United States passed the grim milestone with the number of deaths expected to keep rising sharply.

Wednesday marked the deadliest day for the nation’s coronavirus outbreak since May with some 1,900 deaths reported.

Epidemiological models forecast America will soon be logging daily tolls of more than 2,000 dead and could have tallied close to 400,000 dead by February.

Coronavirus USA Spotlight Chart - deaths default
Coronavirus USA Spotlight Chart – deaths default

11:21 AM

Calls for governments to support suspending patents on Covid vaccines and medicines

The MSF, sometimes known in English as Doctors Without Borders, is calling on governments to support a landmark proposal from India and South Africa that would suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines and medicines, which is being discussed at informal World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks tomorrow.

The proposal is already backed by 99 countries, but the MSF is calling on wealthy nations such as the UK to “step up”.

The intellectual property waiver would allow all countries to choose to neither grant nor enforce patents and other intellectual property related to Covid-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic, until global herd immunity is achieved.

“Not even a global pandemic can stop pharmaceutical corporations from following their business-as-usual approach, so countries need to use every tool available to make sure that Covid-19 medical products are accessible and affordable for everyone who needs them,” said Dr. Sidney Wong, executive co-director of MSF’s Access campaign.

“All Covid-19 health tools and technologies should be true global public goods, free from the barriers that patents and other intellectual property impose. We’re calling on all governments to urgently throw their support behind this groundbreaking proposal that puts human lives over corporate profits at this critical moment for global health.”

11:11 AM

Poll: Majority of Britons support suspending benefit sanctions during pandemic

A majority of adults (59 per cent) in the UK support a call from Rethink Mental Illness for the Government to suspend sanctions on claimants of Universal Credit for the next six months.

Only 13 per cent of adults opposed the move.

The YouGov polling revealed that more than twice as many UK adults who voted Conservative in 2019 (49 per cent) support a pause to sanctions compared to those who oppose it (22 per cent).

The charity, supported by 18 leading organisations, including Mind, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Disability Benefits Consortium, is calling on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to bring back the emergency pause on benefit sanctions and conditionality for six months to support social security system claimants through the challenging months ahead by “providing the reassurance and clarity they need”.

The call follows the news last week that the Department for Work and Pensions extended benefit sanctions as England entered a new lockdown, meaning sick or disabled people are at risk of lost or capped benefits if they miss a benefits assessment on the telephone, the charity warns.

Sanctions were reintroduced at the start of July after a three-month pause at the outbreak of the pandemic, despite rising levels of unemployment and an increasing number of people reporting a deterioration in their mental health.

11:00 AM

Worry for businesses

Around one in seven (14 per cent) of companies in the UK worry that they might not survive the next three months after England entered a second Covid-19 lockdown.

A survey from the Office for National Statistics conducted between November 2 and November 15, showed that 13 per cent of businesses had paused trading and did not intend to restart within the next two weeks.

Only around two in three (63 per cent) accommodation and food service businesses were still trading, the worst-hit sector. A third of accommodation and food businesses said they had low or no confidence that they could survive for three months.

This theme is picked up in the new Planet Normal podcast (below).

Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan are responding to reader comments now.

10:55 AM

Places of worship must open during lockdown, Government told

The Government is facing growing calls to reopen places of worship during the lockdown.

Co-op Funeralcare said its research shows the “devastating impact” the closure of places of worship has on people, resulting in feelings of guilt and isolation.

During the first lockdown in spring, more than half of 1,700 people surveyed had to worship privately at home as venues closed, the Co-op said.

Sam Tyrer, managing director of Co-op Funeralcare, said: “Over the past year, we have seen just how important it is that communities come together and support one another during these devastating times.

A volunteer walks by coffins at Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham - Jacob King/PA
A volunteer walks by coffins at Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham – Jacob King/PA

“This research shows that, for many, places of worship are an incredibly important part of that and their closure is having a real impact on people’s wellbeing.”Whilst it is clear that tough decisions have been made to curb the spread of Covid-19, the closure of places of worship may have unintended consequences on the wellbeing of those that rely on them, particularly the bereaved.”We urge government to consider the health and wellbeing of individuals for whom places of worship and collective worship are critical and consider allowing such venues to fully reopen safely during lockdown.”

10:41 AM

Cases rising in South Korea ahead of exam season

South Korea has kicked off a special two-week coronavirus prevention period after the country’s daily infection tallies mounted ahead of highly competitive annual college entrance exams.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 343 new coronavirus cases by midnight on Wednesday, bringing the country’s total infections to 29,654, with 498 deaths.

The daily tally has topped 200 for five consecutive days and surpassed 300 on Wednesday for the first time since August after a large outbreak at a church political rally.

High school students wearing face masks prepare for classes, with plastic covers placed on desks to prevent infection - YONHAP /via REUTERS
High school students wearing face masks prepare for classes, with plastic covers placed on desks to prevent infection – YONHAP /via REUTERS

Rising case numbers have fuelled worries among students and parents ahead of the annual college entrance exam, which plays a decisive role in education and career prospects.

Almost 500,000 high school seniors will sit for this year’s exam on December 3.

The ministry called on all high schools nationwide to return to online classes a week prior to the exam and said it will temporarily disclose names of any cram schools and study cafes that experience infections during the period.

The ministry has secured 120 hospital beds in 29 medical facilities for students with Covid-19 ahead of exam day.

For students in quarantine, including those who had contacted Covid-19, the ministry has secured at least 113 test centres and 754 individual test rooms, enough to accommodate 3,800.

10:25 AM

Warning to families ahead of Christmas

Family gatherings at Christmas will “throw fuel on the fire” of the pandemic and there is “far too much emphasis” on having a normal festive period, a Government scientific adviser has said.

Older people face “substantial risks,” said Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London. 

Prof Hayward, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the country was “on the cusp” of being able to vaccinate older populations and it would be “tragic” to throw away the gains made in suppressing coronavirus.

He also attacked the Government for “inconsistent” messages over what to do, saying it was clear that if people wanted to avoid Covid-19 they should not mix indoors.

Read what he said in the story here.

09:49 AM

Moderna and Pfizer vaccines set a ‘high bar’ for the AstraZeneca study

One Oxford vaccine trial volunteer said the results of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines set a “high bar” for the AstraZeneca study.

Sarah Hurst, 47, from Oxfordshire, told the PA news agency: “It could be a bit disappointing if it got 80%, and you feel, ‘oh, those other ones are better’. I am not biased in favour of a particular vaccine but people are going to prefer to have the one that’s the most effective and it depends on what’s available.

“I am really concerned about the Brexit end of the transition period, I have no confidence at all that we are going to get supplies, so if our result wasn’t as good as the other two and we got 80%, I’d be happy to have that vaccine if that was all that was available. It would still be good. But I hope it’s 90% or more.”

Sarah Hurst - Sarah Hurst /  PA
Sarah Hurst – Sarah Hurst / PA

Ms Hurst said she did not experience any adverse side-effects during the trial, adding: “I was so surprised.

“I said to them, ‘I feel like I am in the placebo group because I feel nothing at all, no raised temperature, nothing’, and they said, ‘well we chose meningitis as the placebo because we thought it would provoke a reaction so that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference’.

“But I treated it as if I’d had the placebo anyway, so not going out and feeling confident just because I had it.”

She said she signed up to the trial because she “wanted a vaccine as quickly as possible so we can live our lives again”.

09:27 AM

Heartwarming tale about loneliness

Yesterday on Radio 4, there was a touching interview with an 86-year-old from Walsall.

Ron lost his wife, and to counter loneliness he became a ‘befriender’.

The week after the clocks went back saw Britain’s highest levels of loneliness since the pandemic began, according to Office for National Statistics figures.

The start of November saw 4.2 million adults always or often lonely, compared with 2.6 million before the pandemic.

This is Ron’s story.

09:16 AM

Rules on Christmas gatherings will not be announced imminently

A decision on whether families can gather at Christmas must be made as close to the end of England’s national lockdown as possible, the Defence Secretary has said.

Ben Wallace told BBC Breakfast: “The best time to make those decisions about how we can get together for Christmas, how we can get through this festive period, is when we have seen the impact of this lockdown on the figures.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace - AARON CHOWN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace – AARON CHOWN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

“The best time for me to give you better advice, for the Government to make that decision, is as close to the 2nd of December as possible.

“I know some people would wish to know earlier, but if we were to do it now, and the facts were changing on the ground, we’ll end up having to change it again.”

09:10 AM

No competition with other vaccines, says Oxford scientist

Professor Andrew Pollard, the head of Oxford’s vaccine trial team, said there is “no competition” between different vaccines because “we need multiple vaccines to be successful”.

He added that the Oxford vaccine, which studies suggest would not need to be kept at temperatures as low as those made by Pfizer and Moderna, is being developed for distribution “everywhere” including places with limited infrastructure for ultra-cold storage.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “We’re really looking globally, we want to be able to get to every corner of the world if indeed the vaccine is shown to work.

“The thing that matters with vaccines is the impact it can have, and that is, can you get it to people and are they being vaccinated, so until you’ve got high coverage and you’re able to prevent the disease in those who are most vulnerable, we won’t get there.”That’s why we need multiple vaccines to be successful. It’s fantastic news that Pfizer and Moderna have got there, and clearly will be getting themselves prepared for their regulatory submissions.”But there’s no competition between them and the other vaccines, we need all of them to be successful, because we’ve got a lot of people to protect all around the globe.”

08:05 AM

Oxford vaccine could be a ‘game changer’

Dr Michael Tildesley, who sits on a Sage sub-group, said the vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford is “going to be hopefully one of the key game changers” because the number of doses acquired by the Government will allow the UK to “hopefully reach that magic herd immunity”.

The latest trial results for the vaccine suggest it produces a strong immune response in older adults, which Dr Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling (SPI-M) group, told BBC Breakfast is “the really key thing” for preventing deaths.

Dr Tildsley told BBC Breakfast that there had been some “reluctance” in the general public towards a new vaccine but stressed the importance of high uptake as soon as one became available.

“We do need to make sure that when vaccines are available they are available for everybody,” he said.

“We do know that among some people there has been a bit of reluctance to have a vaccine, given the speed of development.

“I would say that it is really important that we get a large, high level of uptake when it is available so we can reach herd immunity, that’s really crucial at this point.”

Dr Tildsley added that both long and short-term costs needed to be considered when deciding on an “optimal” vaccine strategy.

07:55 AM

What is the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine?

If you want to dig down into the science – the results have been published in the Lancet.

We have also just published an all-you-need-to-know Q&A, which you can read below.

07:14 AM

There are limitations to the results

The authors note some limitations to their study, including that the participants in the oldest age group had an average age of 73-74 and few underlying health conditions, so they may not be representative of the general older population, including those living in residential care settings or aged over 80.

Phase three trials of the vaccine are ongoing, with early efficacy readings possible in the coming weeks.

The study has found the vaccine, being developed with AstraZeneca, was less likely to cause local reactions at the injection site and symptoms on the day of vaccination in older adults than in the younger group.

Adverse reactions were mild – injection-site pain and tenderness, fatigue, headache, feverishness and muscle pain – but more common than seen with the control vaccine.

vaccine lab - JUAN MABROMATA / AFP
vaccine lab – JUAN MABROMATA / AFP

Thirteen serious adverse events occurred in the six months since the first dose was given, none of which were related to either study vaccine.

UK authorities have placed orders for 100 million doses of the vaccine – enough to vaccinate most of the population – should it receive regulatory approval.

The Oxford findings come after Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their vaccine candidate has shown 95% efficacy, with a 94% effectiveness in those aged 65 and over.

Forty million doses of that vaccine have been bought by the UK, with rollout potentially starting in early December if the jab is given the green light by regulators.

Earlier in the week US biotech firm Moderna released data suggesting its vaccine is almost almost 95% effective.

07:11 AM

Scientists ‘pleased’ with results

Dr Maheshi Ramasamy, investigator at the Oxford Vaccine Group and consultant physician, said: “Older adults are a priority group for Covid-19 vaccination, because they are at increased risk of severe disease, but we know that they tend to have poorer vaccine responses.

“We were pleased to see that our vaccine was not only well tolerated in older adults, but also stimulated similar immune responses to those seen in younger volunteers.

“The next step will be to see if this translates into protection from the disease itself.”

Study lead author Professor Andrew Pollard, from the University of Oxford, said: “Immune responses from vaccines are often lessened in older adults because the immune system gradually deteriorates with age, which also leaves older adults more susceptible to infections.

“As a result, it is crucial that Covid-19 vaccines are tested in this group who are also a priority group for immunisation.”

Duke of Cambridge wears a mask as he meets scientists - Steve Parsons/PA 
Duke of Cambridge wears a mask as he meets scientists – Steve Parsons/PA

Researchers say their findings are promising as they show that the older people are showing a similar immune response to younger adults.

Dr Ramasamy added: “The robust antibody and T-cell responses seen in older people in our study are encouraging.

“The populations at greatest risk of serious Covid-19 disease include people with existing health conditions and older adults.

“We hope that this means our vaccine will help to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society, but further research will be needed before we can be sure.”

07:06 AM

Big vaccine news this morning

There is significant news coming out of Oxford this morning, where the coronavirus vaccine the university is developing  with AstraZeneca has disclosed  trial results suggesting it produces a strong immune response in older adults.

The ChAdOx1 nCov-2019 vaccine has been shown to trigger a robust immune response in healthy adults aged 56-69 and people over 70.

Phase two data, published in The Lancet, suggests one of the groups most vulnerable to serious illness and death from Covid-19 could build immunity, researchers say.

According to the researchers, volunteers in the trial demonstrated similar immune responses across all three age groups (18-55, 56-69, and 70 and over).

The study of 560 healthy adults – including 240 over the age of 70 – found the vaccine is better tolerated in older people compared with younger adults.

Volunteers received two doses of the vaccine candidate, or a placebo meningitis vaccine.

No serious adverse health events related to the vaccine were seen in the participants.

06:39 AM

Half of Londoners ‘considered leaving over virus’

The virus crisis has made Londoners more disillusioned with city life than people in other major European centres, new research suggests.

A survey of over 5,000 residents across London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin and Milan by engineering firm Arup showed that half of those questioned in the UK capital complained that amenities were too far away.

Arup’s survey was based on the concept that city dwellers enjoy a better quality of life when essential facilities are within a 15-minute walking or cycling distance from home.

Londoners are furthest from this ideal, as on average, they live a 23-minute walk or cycle away from essential services, such as parks, grocery shops, schools, medical facilities, leisure centres, gyms and cafes, said the report.

Arup said the distance was just 13 minutes in Madrid and Milan and around 16 minutes in Berlin and Paris.

Londoners also have to travel the farthest to get to a park, field or playing area, compared with their European counterparts, the study indicated.

Three in five Londoners questioned said they have considered leaving the capital due to Covid-19, more than Paris (41%), Milan (39%), Madrid (37%) and Berlin (30%), said Arup.

05:12 AM

Tokyo issues highest alert amid coronavirus surge

Tokyo raised its coronavirus alert to the highest of four levels on Thursday, as the Japanese capital – and the nation as a whole – is seeing record numbers of new cases.

The higher alert comes as Tokyo was set on Thursday to record more than 500 new cases for the first time, according to broadcaster TV Asahi. Confirmed infections in the city leaped by 493 on Wednesday, overtaking the record set in August, while nationwide cases hit a new high of more than 2,000.

Tokyo and its neighbouring prefectures account for about a third of the nation’s gross domestic product, so any limitations on businesses in the capital introduced to control the infection will have an outsize effect on the economy.

Commuters wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk on a street in Tokyo - AP
Commuters wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk on a street in Tokyo – AP

Tokyo had lowered the alert from its highest level in September, prompting the city to end voluntary restrictions on operating hours for bars and restaurants.

The spread comes amid debate over generous government subsidies for travel and eating out, meant to support businesses, which some have blamed for fuelling the third wave of virus cases. 

Despite the higher alert level, harsh lockdown measures aren’t expected, as the government lacks the legal means for such actions and is anxious to get the recessionary economy back on track. The country has gained attention for keeping the virus under control without mass-testing or heavy restrictions.

03:43 AM

Xi promises openness to combat virus

President Xi Jinping pegged China as the pivot point for global free trade on Thursday, vowing to keep his huge economy open and warning against protectionism.

Buoyed by the signing of the world’s largest trade pact at the weekend, Mr Xi said the Asia-Pacific is the “forerunner driving global growth” in a world hit by “multiple challenges” including the pandemic.

He vowed “openness” to trade and refuted any possibility of the “decoupling” of the world’s second largest economy – in his only comments nodding to the hostile trade policy of Donald Trump’s US administration, which has battered China with tariffs and tech restrictions.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, held online this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, brings together 21 Pacific Rim countries including the world’s two biggest economies, accounting for about 60 per cent of global GDP.

Xi Jinping addressing the Apec summit in Malaysia - REUTERS
Xi Jinping addressing the Apec summit in Malaysia – REUTERS

03:22 AM

Record rise in cases in Japan

Japan will not immediately declare a health emergency following a record rise in coronavirus cases, and will continue to monitor infection rates and the capacity of hospitals to cope, the government’s chief spokesman said on Thursday.

“We will respond appropriately based on conditions,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a regular press briefing.

Coronavirus infections in Japan hit a record daily high of 2,201 cases on Wednesday, public broadcaster NHK reported. Almost a quarter of those were in Tokyo, which is expected to raise its pandemic alert level on Thursday, according to local media reports.

Cases have leapt up in Japan - GETTY IMAGES
Cases have leapt up in Japan – GETTY IMAGES

02:09 AM

Students will know exam topics in advance

Students are to be told in advance which topics will appear on 2021 exam papers, under plans being considered by the regulator.

The proposals would involve exam boards telling schools which subject areas will be covered in GCSE and A-level papers, meaning that teachers can prepare pupils to answer particular questions.

Revealing the topics ahead of exams would allow teachers to concentrate on making sure pupils are familiar with those areas rather than attempting to make their way through the entire curriculum.

It is seen as a way of compensating for the amount of disruption that pupils have faced due to the pandemic which could put them at a disadvantage when it comes to exams.

Read more: Exclusive: Students to be told in advance which topics will appear on 2021 exams

Last summer's exam results were a fiasco - PA
Last summer’s exam results were a fiasco – PA

02:00 AM

US hits 250,000 deaths

The number of coronavirus deaths in the US has burst through the 250,000 barrier.

According to an analysis by NBC, Americans are dying at the fastest rate in three months.

Fears are growing that the death rate, which has accelerated rapidly in recent months, could spike over the winter months. Some experts fear more than 2,000 Americans could die every day before Covid-19 is brought under control.

“It all depends on what we do and how we address this outbreak,” said Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University epidemiologist who has tracked the spread of the disease, told the New York Times.

Mr Shaman estimates that 3.6 million people are already infected with the virus in the US and the number could rise sharply over the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of the month.

Read more: Soon 2,000 Americans could die every day

12:18 AM

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