Happy Christmas to All Our Readers

Just a quick message to wish all our readers a Happy Christmas.

It’s been a year of hopes raised, hopes dashed, then hopes raised again – and I’m praying they’re not smashed again. We’ll know in a few days whether Boris has been able to keep his nerve in the face of the latest onslaught of pro-lockdown propaganda. I put the chances of a happy ending to this particular drama no higher than 50:50.

The site recorded its second-highest number of page views in its history on Thursday, clocking in at 121,287. I want to say thank you to all those readers who’ve stuck with us, and a hearty welcome to all the new ones. We’ve done our best to keep an even keel in these turbulent seas, maintaining a healthy scepticism about the official Covid narrative, while not embracing the wilder claims of the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine activists. Call it trying to stay between two Piers – Piers Morgan and Piers Corbyn.

A special thank you to all those readers who’ve donated to the site in the past 12 months. Without your generosity we wouldn’t have been able to keep it going. Many of you have told us that the site has helped to keep them sane. I think I speak for all of us when I say that maintaining this site and keeping up a steady flow of sceptical analysis – laced with humour, where appropriate – has kept us sane, too.

Please excuse a lower-than-average output over the next few days. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Stop Press: The above post and the two below were written on Christmas Day. The reason they’re included in the today’s daily update is because the site went down shortly after it appeared and didn’t go up again until around 6pm on Boxing Day.

WHO Tells Public to Cancel Christmas Holiday Plans

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended that members of the public across the world abandon some of their Christmas plans, following concerns that the Omicron variant “is spreading significantly faster” than the previous Delta strain. In hammering home the message, the WHO’s Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled”. BBC News has the story.

Dr. Tedros’ comments come as a number of countries, including France and Germany, have tightened Covid restrictions and imposed travel curbs to try to halt the spread of the new variant. The Netherlands has introduced a strict lockdown over the Christmas period.

The White House said on Monday that President Joe Biden was not planning on “locking the country down”. The country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, earlier warned that Christmas travel would increase the spread of Omicron even among the fully vaccinated.

In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that the Government needed to “reserve the possibility” of bringing in new rules in England as Omicron cases surged, but did not announce further restrictions.

New Year’s Eve celebrations in London’s Trafalgar Square have been cancelled “in the interests of public safety”, Mayor Sadiq Khan said.

Omicron, first detected in South Africa in November, has been classed as a “variant of concern” by the WHO.

Speaking at a briefing on Monday, Dr .Tedros said: “All of us sick of this pandemic. All of us want to spend time with friends and family. All of us want to get back to normal.

“The fastest way to do this is for all of us, leaders and individuals, to make the difficult decisions that must be made to protect ourselves and others.

“In some cases, that will mean cancelling or delaying events… it’s better to cancel now and celebrate later than to celebrate now and grieve later.”

Dr. Tedros also stressed that the pandemic could be ended in 2022 by ensuring that 70% of the population in every country of the world was vaccinated by the middle of next year.

He also said China, where the outbreak is believed to have started in 2019, must be forthcoming with relevant data and information.

“We need to continue until we know the origins, we need to push harder because we should learn from what happened this time in order to [do] better in the future,” Dr. Tedros said.

Worth reading in full.

Dominic Raab Refuses to Rule Out Imposing Further Restrictions before Christmas Day

Although Dominic Raab has insisted that Brits will experience a “much better Christmas than last year”, he also mentioned that there are no “hard, fast guarantees” that additional Covid restrictions won’t arrive before Christmas Day. Meanwhile, Government advisers have said that “significant action” needs to be taken to curb the spread of the Omicron variant and save the NHS from “real collapse”. Sky News has more.

Raab told Kay Burley: “I think we will have a much better Christmas than last year because of the vaccination level – both the overall vaccination level and particularly the impact of the booster campaign.

“People will need to be careful and cautious.

“But I do think, again subject to the data – and it’s always under review – that we’re in a better position to enjoy Christmas with loved ones this year.”

Asked if more restrictions would be imposed between now and Christmas Day, Raab said: “I just can’t make hard, fast guarantees.”

Twelve people infected with Omicron have died – Raab said 104 people with the variant are in hospital.

He added he did not anticipate parliament being recalled to vote on new restrictions before Christmas.

The Cabinet Minister said there was a time lag in the data and “we don’t yet know the severity” of the Omicron variant, adding that “it comes through day-by-day”.

He said regardless of modelling by scientific advisers, the government would “test the data in real-time against real cases”.

Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of NERVTAG which advises the Government on the threat posed by new and emerging respiratory viruses, said “significant” action needs to be taken to tackle the growing number of Covid cases.

He said: “It is of serious concern. We have an escalating number of cases that really has reached levels that we haven’t seen before in terms of the rate of increase.

“The action that’s needed really is going to be quite significant.”

Dr. Gupta added: “The sheer numbers that are going to be infected because of the increased transmissibility of this virus is going to potentially overwhelm our health service.

“So that’s a really critical situation that we’re facing.”

Worth reading in full.

Wales to Tighten Covid Restrictions Immediately After Christmas

On December 27th, the Welsh Government will introduce a series of new Covid restrictions which include shutting nightclubs, mandating that shops abide by social distancing protocols for both staff and customers, as well as bringing back work from home requirements. First Minister Mark Drakeford has declared that the spread of the Omicron variant necessitates this course of action, calling it “the most serious development in the pandemic to date”. MailOnline has more.

Until December 27th, the Welsh Government is encouraging people to follow five steps: getting vaccinated, making sure to have a negative lateral flow test result before going shopping or meeting people, meeting in well-ventilated areas (preferably outdoors), spacing out socialising to allow test days in between, and adhering to social distancing, wearing a face covering and washing hands.

It is also urging people to reduce contact with others over the coming days, especially if Christmas plans include seeing older or more vulnerable people.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “Delta will continue to be the main cause of Covid infections in Wales up to Christmas. But we are seeing cases of Omicron increasing rapidly every day in Wales, and across the U.K.

“We need a plan to keep us safe this Christmas and we need stronger measures to protect us afterwards, as we prepare for a large wave of Omicron infections.

“Omicron poses a new threat to our health and safety. It is the most serious development in the pandemic to date.

“It is one we must take seriously. We will continue to put in place proportionate measures to protect people’s lives and livelihoods.

“This is a virus which thrives on human contact. Every contact we have is an opportunity for us to spread or catch the virus.”

The changes for businesses comes with the announcement that up to £60 million will be available to support those affected by the new measures.

He added: “This year a smaller Christmas is a safer Christmas. The fewer people we see, the less chance we have of catching or passing on the virus.

“Please enjoy Christmas with your nearest and dearest, and think about meeting up with wider circles of friends when the threat posed by the Omicron variant has passed over.

“I also want to thank the many thousands of people who will be working this Christmas to keep us safe, especially all those who have cancelled their plans to work in the vaccination centres across Wales to increase our protection against this awful virus.”

The restrictions come after Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted today that the Government does not want to “lock stuff down” in England. 

Instead, he urged Britons to “prioritise” social events, get a booster and do a lateral flow test before meeting people. 

Worth reading in full.

One Million Brits May Spend Christmas Day in Self-Isolation

Due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, combined with the rules put in place to tackle its spread, the Government suspects that up to four times as many people will have to self-isolate on Christmas Day compared with last year. Furthermore, current statistical forecasts predict that close to one million Brits will be forced to stay at home come December 25th. RT has more.

Anyone in the U.K. who tests positive for Covid from Wednesday onwards will have to spend Christmas Day in isolation under current Government regulations. The rules issued by the U.K. Health Security Agency demand that anyone who gets a positive test goes into quarantine for 10 days. If that person then develops any Covid symptoms during this period, they will have to spend another 10 days in isolation, starting from the day the symptoms first appeared.

The Government believes there might be four times as many people self-isolating this Christmas Day than on December 25, 2020. The total number of Omicron cases reported in the U.K. rose from 4,713 to 5,346 over the past 24 hours, with 633 new infections linked to the highly transmissible new strain.

The overall number of new daily infections amounted to 59,610 and has gone up by more than 30% in just a week. This is the highest such figure since January, when almost 60,000 new cases were reported. At this rate, the U.K. may see some 100,000 people infected with Omicron on Christmas Eve, and around one million Brits isolating the next day, media projections say, using the Government data.

Omicron appears to be “the most significant threat we have had since the start of the pandemic”, Dr. Jenny Harries, CEO of the U.K. Health Security Agency, told MPs on Wednesday, adding that the time taken for the number of new Omicron infections to double “is shortening”. Earlier, England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, also warned that the new strain is spreading “unbelievably fast”.

Worth reading in full.

‘Work From Home’ Guidance Spells Disaster for Hospitality Industry, Pub Boss Warns

Clive Watson, the owner of The City Pub Company, has said that the Government’s ‘Plan B’ work from home guidance is “turning off the life support machine yet again” for the hospitably industry, and will negatively impact the trade of businesses located in city centres due to the lack of commuters. Watson also noted how vital the Christmas period is to hospitality firms, mentioning that his company brings in a third of its annual profits during December, which helps it stay afloat during the quiet months of the year when there is less demand. BBC News has the story.

Hospitality firms have warned they face a collapse in demand at their busiest time of year due to the Government’s new work-from-home guidance.

The measures, designed to slow the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, come in from Monday.

One trade body called them a “body blow” to already-struggling pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues.

Pub chain boss Clive Watson said some pubs could “run out of cash” without extra help from the Government.

However, the Government is not planning any new economic support measures.

Watson said the City Pub Company, which has 44 sites in England and Wales, was just starting to get back on its feet after a rough 18 months.

But he said the Government was “turning off the life support machine yet again” by bringing back home-working.

“From about 10 days ago office parties started to get cancelled [because of Omicron]. Going forward after yesterday’s announcement that is only going to accelerate,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.

“What Government has got to appreciate is for businesses, particularly in our sector, Christmas is always a key time.”

The City Pub Company makes about a third of its annual profits in December, which tides it over in the quiet months of January and February.

Hospitality firms fear losing vital passing trade as more people work from home. Businesses from dry cleaners to coffee houses depend on an office crowd, particularly in city centres.

By contrast, those that cater to people in their homes, such as takeaways and supermarkets stand to gain from the new guidance.

We talked to firms that rely on commuters about how the new home-working guidance will affect them.

David Abrahamovitch runs Grind, a chain of nine café restaurants in London, employing 250 staff. He also has a successful online store selling compostable coffee pods for Nespresso machines, and says he can “fall back” on that side of the business if things get tough.

“A lot of other hospitality businesses won’t have that, so we’re lucky,” he told the BBC. “But it will still be painful to watch the company go into reverse gear again.”

Grind relies on people coming into central London and has also has seen a big drop-off in Christmas party bookings since Omicron emerged, which Abrahamovitch thinks will get worse.

He is nervous about how the landlords he rents his shops from will react if things really slow down.

Worth reading in full.

Sajid Javid Says the U.K. Is “Nowhere Near” a Return to Full Lockdown Measures

Sajid Javid has said that the Government is “nowhere near” bringing back full lockdown restrictions in the U.K., saying that the measures “carry a very heavy price”, such as economic damage and negative mental health outcomes. The Health Secretary also said that “people should continue with their plans as normal for Christmas” despite the emergence of the Omicron variant. The Sun has the story.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said “we’re nowhere near” reintroducing working from home or social distancing measures to combat Covid.

He told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday: “We know now those types of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socially, in terms of non-Covid health outcomes such as impact on mental health.

“So, if one was to make decisions like that they would have to be done very, very carefully and we’re not there yet, we’re nowhere near that.”

He added that people should plan for Christmas as “normal”.

“I think it’s fair to say that the nature of this pandemic is it would be irresponsible to make guarantees,” Javid said.

“As for Christmas, I think people should continue with their plans as normal for Christmas, I think it’s going to be a great Christmas.”

It comes as compulsory mask-wearing is set to return next week in a bid to save Christmas from a super-mutant coronavirus.

Boris Johnson ordered the move after at least two cases of the fast-spreading Omicron variant were found in the U.K.

He also urged people to get booster jabs, saying: “It’s more vital than ever.”

Mask-wearing will again be compulsory in shops and buses, trains and taxis in England from Tuesday.

Overseas travel and self-isolation rules have been tightened after the first two cases of the super-strain were detected in Britain.

Scientists will explore how the booster programme can be extended, including to those as young as 18 years-old.

Omicron, discovered only days ago in southern Africa, has been declared the worst variant yet by one expert, while there are fears it might reduce vaccine protection over time.

The Prime Minister’s measures, outlined at a Downing Street briefing, aim to slow down its spread until scientists know just how dangerous it is.

But Johnson stopped short of imposing a devastating shutdown of pubs and restaurants in the run-up to Christmas.

He insisted that if the public stick to the rules and get their jabs, there will be no need for another last-gasp festive lockdown…

Despite the reassurances, the mere prospect of fresh Covid curbs will send shockwaves through the hospitality industry which saw takings fall by almost 80% in the festive period last year.

Johnson refused to give any guarantees but he is clear that there will be no lockdown like last year, and people were not being asked to work from home.

In a further move, he announced plans to step up the pace of the jabs programme.

Worth reading in full.

Sajid Javid Rules Out ‘Plan B’ – For Now

Sajid Javid has said that the Government does not need to trigger ‘Plan B’, which would see the return of mask mandates and the introduction of vaccine passports for certain venues, but instead urged members of the public to take up the offer of a booster jab so the country can “look forward to Christmas together”. However, the Health Secretary insisted that the Government will “take further measures” and implement ‘Plan B’ if it needed to. MailOnline has the story.

The Health Secretary said that the country is “not at that point” of needing restrictions to be re-imposed. 

But he said “if we needed to take further measures with ‘Plan B’ then we would do so” as he stressed the Government is “not complacent in any way”.

Bookings for Covid booster jabs are opening this week for people aged 40 years-old and over. 

Ministers have faced fresh questions over whether they will push the button on ‘Plan B’ after a Covid surge across Europe prompted some countries to return to lockdown measures. 

The Netherlands has confirmed a three-week partial lockdown while Austria is set to impose a lockdown on unvaccinated people.

A further 40,941 Covid cases were confirmed in the UK as of yesterday morning while a further 150 people had died within 28 days of testing positive. 

The Government’s ‘Plan A’ for tackling Covid is to rely on the vaccination programme and testing to limit the spread of the disease. 

‘Plan B’ would see vaccine passports required for attending certain events and the return of face masks being compulsory in certain settings.            

Javid was asked during an interview on Sky News this morning if people should brace themselves for a return of restrictions before Christmas. 

The Health Secretary said: “As we all look forward to Christmas, it is very sad to see cases rising, surging, in certain parts of Europe.

“We have always known that this virus, it loves the winter, it likes the cold, darker days that winter brings and we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect ourselves against that.

“What has made a real difference here in the UK is our booster programme, our hugely successful booster programme.

“Almost 15 million booster jabs given already, covering some quarter of the population over the age of 12 years-old, almost 400,000 a day across the U.K.

“That is making the difference and we know that because just this week there was more data published after more studies that shows that the protection you get from your booster… it almost doubles from 50% to over 90%

“I will be extending the booster programme starting tomorrow to 40 to 49 year-olds.

“But we have all got a role to play in this, in our national vaccination programme and if you are eligible, whether it is your first shot, second shot or your third shot, please come forward and let’s look forward to Christmas together.”

Worth reading in full.

Businesses Cancel ‘Super-Spreader’ Christmas Office Parties

Catering services have reported that the demand for office Christmas parties has declined, as businesses want to avoid the risk of spreading Covid to staff. On the other hand, companies which have decided to host a traditional Christmas celebration have implemented safety measures to reduce the risk of contracting Covid, such as requiring attendees to show a negative PCR test. The Times has the story.

The Times approached every company in the FTSE 100 to ask whether they were organising an office Christmas party this year. Of those that responded there was an even split between cancelling and proceeding, although most of those that were going ahead said they would be hosting multiple smaller events rather than one big party.

Evraz, the mining group, said that it was cancelling festivities in order to “keep our people safe”. Anglo American, another mining group, and IAG, which owns British Airways, chose to cancel.

Experian, the credit reference agency, said that it was not having one big staff party but that employees would be offered “smaller group get-togethers” if they felt comfortable doing so.

Aviva, the insurance company, said that it was going ahead. A spokesman said: “we want everyone at Aviva to have the chance to celebrate the festive period with their colleagues. This will be a mix of events at our offices and at other locations. We are encouraging all colleagues to do everything they can to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, including taking a lateral flow test before and after the event and following external venues’ Covid measures.”

Hospitality businesses that rely on the Christmas season fear they will struggle this year. Philip Inzani, who owns the Polo Bar near Liverpool Street in the City of London, said that Christmas party bookings were down 30% on a normal year and that the bookings he had taken were for smaller groups on average.

“We’re finding that there are inquiries but for a lot less people. So where we would have had an inquiry for 30 people previously, we’re now finding that it’s 10 people or something like that”, he said. “One issue is that a lot of staff are flexi-working so fewer are in central London offices, and of course some people are still nervous about gatherings because of Covid”.

Inzani, 50, also offers catering for office-based Christmas parties but demand for that has slumped even further. He said: “We’d probably end up doing about 15 to 20 events throughout the pre-Christmas period normally. But so far this year we’ve just got two inquiries.”

Worth reading in full.

Unvaccinated Set to Be Banned from Berlin Christmas Market

German officials have given the green light to prohibit the unvaccinated public from attending the Berlin Christmas Market. Those looking to gain access will have to provide proof that they are double-jabbed or have recovered from Covid, with the only exception being children under the age of 12, who have not been offered the vaccination. Although venues can set their own rules, thereby permitting the unvaccinated to enter (albeit with a negative Covid test), a number of Berlin Christmas Markets have already pledged to bar the unvaccinated from the premises. The MailOnline has the story.

Under a strict ‘2G’ model, those over the age of 12 must be double vaccinated or recovered from the virus and would be denied entry even if they have a negative Covid test, reports German newspaper Tagesspiegel.  

But organisers of the markets, which return on November 22nd would be able to opt for a less strict ‘3G’ model which would allow unvaccinated people to attend – but only if they show proof of a negative test.

Yet with the more lenient rules, visitors to the Christmas markets in Berlin must wear face masks and social distancing will be enforced. 

A number of the German capital’s famous Christmas markets – including the WeihnachtsZauber market at Gendarmenmarkt – have confirmed that only vaccinated people over the age of 12, or those who have recovered from Covid, will be allowed entry, reports the Local

The only exception to the rules is for children under the age of 12, who are currently unable to get vaccinated. But the youngsters will still have to show a negatives [sic] test, although children under the age of six will not have to provide proof.   

The move is the latest example of countries in Europe banning unvaccinated people from public events. 

Last week, Austria’s Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announced that the country is considering a Covid lockdown which would only restrict those who are not fully jabbed. 

Schallenberg announced that if the number of Covid patients in intensive-care units reaches 500, or 25% of the country’s total ICU capacity, entrance into businesses such as restaurants and hotels will be limited to those who are vaccinated or recovered from the virus.    

If the number reaches 600, or one-third of total ICU capacity, the Government plans to impose restrictions on unvaccinated people. In this case, they would only be allowed to leave their homes for specific reasons. Currently, the number of Covid patients in ICUs stands at 220. 

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the French Government announced it would be extending the requirement for a ‘health pass’ for people to access restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums and tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower. 

The pass means that only those who are fully vaccinated, recovered from the virus in the last six months, or a negative test result in the past 48 hours are allowed to visit the public venues or access long-distance transport.

The Government also announced that for those who are unvaccinated, Covid tests will no longer be free and those who have not been jabbed will have to pay for a test each time they want to travel to the venues.

Worth reading in full.