A medical worker takes a swab from a man at a drive-through COVID-19 test centre in western Sydney on December 21, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

The world is confronting the prospect of a second straight holiday season with COVID-19 as families and friends begin to gather while the new Omicron variant quickly spreads. The variant took only a few weeks to live up to dire predictions about how hugely contagious it is.

Key developments from around the world:

UK reports over 100,000 new cases

The UK reported a record 106,122 new coronavirus cases on December 22, according to government data.

Amazon requires masks for warehouse workers

Amazon warehouse employees in the US will be required to wear face masks at work beginning Wednesday, CNBC reported, citing a notice sent to employees on Tuesday and confirmation from a company spokesperson.

Booster focus may prolong pandemic, WHO says

The focus of immunisations must remain on decreasing deaths and severe disease and blanket booster programs are set to exacerbate vaccine inequity as about 20 per cent of all daily doses currently administered are booster shots or an additional dose, according to the World Health Organization. "Blanket booster programs are likely to prolong the pandemic rather than end it by diverting supply to countries that already have high levels of vaccination coverage, giving the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate," Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing on Wednesday.

New York public hospitals to ban most visitors

New York City's public hospitals said on Wednesday that the system would begin banning most visitors amid the Covid spike, spurred by a recent outbreak in one of the hospitals. The visitation rules won't be as restrictive as they were during the height of the pandemic in 2020 as women in labor, children and hospice patients will still be able to receive visitors.

Austria's Curbs Seek to Save Ski Season

Austria will restrict quarantine-free travel from the UK, Netherlands, Norway and Denmark and only allow in select travelers as it balances between containing the pandemic and salvaging its ski season. Only people who've had a booster shot and can show a negative coronavirus test will be allowed to enter the Alpine nation from those countries without self-isolation, Austria's coronavirus task force said on Wednesday. The measure stops short of a de facto entry ban that has applied to other high-risk countries, and leaves a window for travel to support winter tourism.

UK backs shot for at-risk

The UK vaccines panel cleared the Pfizer shot for use in vulnerable young children to widen vaccination coverage against the omicron variant. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation changed its advice to allow at-risk children aged 5 to 11 years old to become eligible for two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Each inoculation will be one-third of the adult dose.

Denmark demands negative tests

Denmark's government is planning to require all travelers to present a negative test to enter the country, joining Finland, Italy and Greece in unilaterally limiting free movement within the European Union. While provisional data from the Nordic country suggests that those catching the omicron strain have a smaller risk of being hospitalised, the picture changes when adjusted for age and vaccination status, according to Henrik Ullum, head of Statens Serum Institute, SSI, the body under the health ministry in charge of Denmark's response to infectious diseases.

World Economic Forum set for Davos in Summer 

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, which was set to take place in January before being postponed to summer, will happen in Davos, founder Klaus Schwab said in an interview with Swiss newspaper Blick. The WEF had attempted to host this year's annual meeting in the Swiss town of Lucerne and then in Singapore, though the virus meant neither happened.

France fears over 100,000 daily cases by year end

The number of daily COVID-19 cases in France is set to exceed 100,000 by the end of December due to the faster-spreading Omicron variant, Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Wednesday.

"This is what the modelling is showing," he told BFM-TV in an interview, also announcing that France would from Wednesday open vaccinations to five- to 11-year-olds for the first time.

France recorded almost 73,000 new infections on Tuesday, with an average of over 54,000 over the last seven days. But officials fear that the emergence of Omicron has changed the nature of the pandemic.

Veran said that Omicron cases accounted for 20 per cent of new infections in France but up to 35 per cent in the Paris region.

Case drop may show South Africa's peak has passed

South Africa's noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country's dramatic Omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say.

Daily virus case counts are notoriously unreliable, as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuations. But they are offering one tantalizing hint - far from conclusive yet - that omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike.

South Africa has been at the forefront of the Omicron wave and the world is watching for any signs of how it may play out there to try to understand what may be in store.

After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide on Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday.

Biden says US 'prepared' for Omicron

US President Joe Biden on Tuesday told Americans worried about the rapidly spreading Omicron coronavirus variant that the country was "prepared" to fight it.

In Washington, Biden announced a raft of new measures as the United States battles the latest surge in COVID-19 cases, including shipping half a billion free home tests - starting in January - in the wake of a serious Christmastime testing crunch.

"We should all be concerned about Omicron but not panicked," Biden said from the White House, reassuring the public that the variant would not set the country back to March 2020.

"We're prepared, we know more," he added.

Biden said his administration would deploy military personnel to hospitals, ship supplies to hard-hit states and get new free testing sites up and running.

No new restrictions before Christmas in UK: PM

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that he will not introduce any further COVID restrictions in the UK before Christmas, but warned that the situation remains "finely balanced" ahead of the new year.

In a video posted on social media by Downing Street, the Prime Minister said: "People can go ahead with their Christmas plans". However, he urged caution and suggested people should take a test before meeting elderly relatives.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister warned that the rapid spread of the Omicron variant meant curbs could still be imposed after Christmas.

Australia PM urges pushing on with reopening

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is urging Australia's state and territory leaders to move ahead with reopening plans as omicron outbreaks push daily coronavirus infections to record levels, causing havoc ahead of the nation's summer vacation period.

"The idea that you're going to suppress it at any extreme level or you're going to eliminate it, that's nonsense," Morrison said of the omicron variant in a television interview on Wednesday. "We have to live with it and we have to just stay calm."

Omicron is putting pressure on Australia's push to fully reopen, after New South Wales and Victoria recently removed months-long lockdowns and other restrictions which the prime minister says are now unnecessary due to the vaccination rate.

Israel imposes new restrictions

Israel's coronavirus cabinet has decided to tighten coronavirus-related restrictions amid concerns over the Omicron variant.

The "Purple Ribbon" restrictions will be imposed on shopping malls, meaning the capacity in these shops will be limited to one person for every 15 square meters, Xinhua news agency reported, citing a statement issued by the Prime Minister's office after the meeting.

The office said that the "Green Pass" scheme, which allows entry to public venues only to fully vaccinated people, will be imposed on shops larger than 100 square meters.

Only places in malls and shopping centres that provide "essential services" will not require a Green Pass, the statement added.

In schools located in "red" and "orange" communities, where infection rates are high, classrooms in which fewer than 70 per cent of the pupils have been vaccinated, will be required to learn from home via video link.

The new restrictions are expected to come into effect in the next few days, after the parliament's approval.

India tells states to be on the alert

India told state governments on Tuesday to be proactive and on the lookout for surges of the Omicron COVID-19 variant after cases nearly doubled within a week across a dozen states.

India, whose already creaking health system became overwhelmed by COVID cases in the summer, has recorded more than 200 Omicron infections, mostly in the western state of Maharashtra and the nation’s capital New Delhi, the health ministry said.

States were allowed to impose restrictions if the rate of new infections reached 10% or higher in a week or 40% of oxygen or ICU beds were occupied. But given the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, the health ministry told states to impose such measures even if the surge was not that high. Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya told parliament on Monday that 80% of Omicron cases were asymptomatic.

Edinburgh scraps New Year celebrations

Edinburgh's famous Hogmanay street celebrations at New Year were canceled again after a surge in cases of the omicron variant in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.

The government will also limit the number of fans at soccer matches to 500 from December 26 for three weeks. More money will also be made available to support businesses after an increase in funding from the UK Treasury, albeit falling short of what Scotland would like to spend, she said.

Sweden, Iceland tighten restrictions

Sweden will introduce new measures, as hospitalizations increase in the Nordic country. From Dec. 23, large events will have to require proof of vaccination for entry, restaurants may only serve seated patrons and events that take no safety measures will be capped at 20 participants.

After daily infections reached a record, Iceland cut the number of people allowed at gatherings to 20 from the current 50. If rapid tests are used, 200 people will be allowed to gather, down from the current 500. The new rules take effect at midnight.

Germany bans fireworks sale for New Year

Germany has banned the sale of fireworks over the New Year period to try to ease the burden on emergency medical staff already overstretched dealing with Covid-19 cases. The move, which follows a similar ban a year ago, was agreed at talks between former Chancellor Angela Merkel and regional leaders at the start of this month.

Swiss, German boosters speed up

Germany will reduce the recommended minimum gap for an mRNA booster vaccine to three months from the previous six for people over the age of 18. In Switzerland, authorities now recommend boosters for everyone aged 16 years and older as early as four months.

Israel approves travel ban on US, Canada

Israel's parliamentary law committee gave its final approval to add the US, Canada and eight other countries to a list of banned travel destinations due to the spread of the omicron variant. The decision is to take effect at midnight Tuesday.

South Africa cases drop

South Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified, saw daily coronavirus infections drop 44 per cent to the lowest in two weeks. Daily hospital admissions and deaths rose.

Man dies in US after Omicron infection

An unvaccinated man in his 50s died in Texas after contracting the omicron strain of COVID-19, local officials said.

The man is one of the first ""- if not the first ""- person to die from the highly-mutated strain of the pathogen in the US He had underlying health conditions that put him at increased risk, despite surviving an earlier bout of COVID, according to a release from Harris County Public Health.

Anna press conference, county Judge Lina Hidalgo urged residents to get vaccinations and boosters.

Oman reports 15 new Omicron cases in one day

With Oman recording 15 new omicron cases on Monday, the Supreme Committee sounded the alarm, urging those aged 18 and above to take the booster dose.

The Sultanate’s Ministry of Health announced yesterday that 15 new cases of the mutant omicron variant have been detected in the country.

Kuwait imposes 10-day home quarantine on all arrivals

All arrivals in Kuwait will have to self-quarantine at home for 10 days starting from December 26, local media reported.

According to the country’s cabinet, all incoming passengers must have a negative PCR test done 48 hours ahead of arrival in Kuwait. They shall be subject to a 10-day home quarantine, but can end the quarantine before this period if they have a negative PCR test 72 hours after their arrival.

The cabinet also approved a decision making booster dose of the vaccine mandatory as of January 2 for those who got vaccinated nine months earlier.

The Cabinet also advised both citizens and expats not to travel, unless necessary, and to follow all health guidelines and precautions to overcome this phase

Thailand halts quarantine-free entry

Thailand is suspending its quarantine-free entry program until January 4 amid rising imported cases of the new virus strain.

The tourism-dependent country waived the requirement for more than 60 jurisdictions last month provided travelers were fully vaccinated and had negative tests for the virus both before and immediately after arrival in the country.

Biden to offer 500 million at-home tests

Joe Biden plans to increase support for hospitals, improve access to COVID-19 testing through hundreds of millions of rapid at-home tests and expand the availability of vaccines that can reduce the risks from the omicron variant. The Joe Biden administration’s response is based on three principles: more hospital resources, more testing and more vaccines.

The federal government will mobilise 1,000 doctors, nurses and military medical personnel to be deployed across the country as needed in January and February. The government is also preparing emergency transport and equipment, including protective gear and respirators, for hospitals that may need them. Biden’s administration will also take action in an area where it has been heavily criticised — COVID screening — by purchasing 500 million at-home rapid tests. The COVID tests will be delivered free of charge to Americans who request them via a dedicated website, starting in January. The government is also promising to open new vaccination centers.

France, Germany push back on lockdown

France sees no need for a lockdown or more COVID restrictions at the moment even as countries like the Netherlands preemptively put more curbs in place, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said. He said limits have been announced on gatherings during Christmas and New Year's celebrations, and the government will monitor the situation.

In Germany, Justice Minister Marco Buschmann struck a similar tone. He said the country can currently do without a strict lockdown, and is relying on accelerating booster shots and limiting social contact. "The situation remains serious, I don't want to pretend otherwise, but the infection numbers are clearly falling," Buschmann said on Deutschlandfunk radio.

India has 200 Omicron cases across 12 states

India has recorded 200 cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant across 12 states, mostly in the western state of Maharashtra and the nation’s capital New Delhi, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

The country’s tally of Omicron cases has nearly doubled within a week, but there have been no deaths reported so far. In less than 40 per cent of cases, patients either fully recovered or were discharged, the data showed. 80 per cent of Omicron cases were asymptomatic, the ministry said.

Clusters at Hotels in Taiwan

Local governments aim to complete comprehensive checks on quarantine hotels by Jan. 3 with a focus on air-conditioners, after two cluster infections were found at quarantine hotels recently, according to a statement from Taiwan Centers for Disease Control.

The government will establish detection and response mechanism for suspected cluster infection at quarantine hotels. Seven imported cases of COVID-19 were reclassified as local cases earlier due to infections at quarantine hotels.

Spain adds restrictions

Spain's Catalonia regional government on Monday night announced restrictions to stem the spread of omicron, including limiting the size of meetings to 10 people.

The rules, to be in force for an initial 15 days, also include limiting interior restaurant capacity to 50%, and 70% for stores, gyms and cultural spaces. It also plans a curfew from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. The restrictions will take effect from Friday.

Omicron now dominant variant in US

The fast-spreading Omicron variant is now the main coronavirus strain in the United States, accounting for 73.2 per cent of new cases over the past week for which data is available, health authorities reported Monday.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported the spike for the week ending on Saturday. Over the same time period in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, Omicron accounted for 96.3 per cent of new cases.

Singapore's Omicron cluster

Singapore reported its first suspected local Omicron cluster, a group of three COVID-19 infections traced to a gym, the health ministry said in a statement late Monday.

The potential within the community is likely to prompt further concerns about new reversals in the city-state's reopening as its worst virus surge yet subsides. Singapore maintains vaccinated travel lanes with several countries where Omicron has spread rapidly, including the US and Europe's largest travel hubs.

The city-state also announced that bookings for vaccination appointments for kids age 11 and under will start tomorrow.

New Zealand delays border reopening

New Zealand is pushing back the phased reopening of its border until the end of February due to the threat of the Omicron variant.

"Waiting till the end of February will increase New Zealand's overall protection and slow Omicron's eventual spread," COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said Tuesday in Wellington.

Previously, the government said vaccinated New Zealand citizens could return from Australia without undergoing managed isolation from Jan. 17. Hipkins said the rapid spread of Omicron, particularly in Australia, has forced a rethink.

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Australia won't lockdown

Australia's Prime Minister reiterated that the country is not going back to lockdowns despite surging case numbers, instead calling for individuals to take personal responsibility for their health by getting vaccinated and taking precautions like wearing a mask.

"We're not going back to lock downs. We're not going back to shutting down peoples' lives," Scott Morrison told reporters Tuesday. "We're going forward to live with this virus with common sense and responsibility."

The country's most populous state, New South Wales, reported a record 3,057 new cases on Tuesday, with 284 people in hospital and 39 in intensive care. In the second-biggest state, Victoria, cases remained relatively steady at 1,245, with 329 people hospitalized and 73 active ICU cases.

London cancels celebration

London Mayor Sadiq Khan canceled the New Year's Eve celebration in Trafalgar Square, which was set to welcome 6,500 people, due to a surge of Omicron infections. He urged residents to instead to stay at home and watch a live broadcast planned for the night.

"With infections of COVID-19 at record levels across our city and the UK, I'm determined to work closely with partners in our city to do everything we possibly can to slow the spread of the new variant," Khan said in a statement.

Thailand mulls stricter entry rules

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha has called an urgent meeting of the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration this afternoon to discuss a proposal to cancel quarantine-free entries amid climbing Omicron variant infections.

A jump in imported Omicron cases has cast doubt on the nation's program for vaccinated tourists from more than 60 jurisdictions.

A suspension or cancellation of the quarantine-free entry would threaten the nascent recovery of tourism-reliant Thailand, where the government forecasts as many as 15 million tourists in 2022 can provide revenues of up to 1.8 trillion baht ($53.8 billion).

China's outbreak creeps higher

China's local COVID-19 outbreak is growing, with the epicenter now in the central city of Xi'An, which had 42 cases on Tuesday, according to the National Health Commission. Only eight cases were found in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, which had previously detected over 300 cases.

With the winter Olympics about two months away, Beijing has temporarily suspended road passenger transportation to the city for people who traveled from cities or counties with one or more cases within 14 days, a transport ministry official said at a press conference on Monday.

Indonesia mulls tougher quarantine

Indonesia could further extend the mandatory quarantine period to 14 days for incoming foreign travelers to stem the spread of the contagious Omicron strain in the country.

The period is currently set at 10 days, which was already extended from the initial seven days earlier this month.

The government is preparing a new quarantine facility to accommodate the longer quarantine and widening its travel ban to foreigners coming from the UK, Denmark and Norway.

Quebec closes schools

Quebec is closing schools, gyms and bars and making work-from-home arrangements mandatory to stem a wave of coronavirus infections that has reached record levels.

The province recorded 4,571 new infections in 24 hours, far above the levels of last winter, when the provincial government imposed a curfew and closed all restaurants. Nearly 400 people are in the hospital with COVID-19, an increase of 76% in two weeks.