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Johnson imposes COVID-19 ‘Plan B’ in England to contain Omicron

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed tougher COVID-19 restrictions in England on Wednesday, ordering people to work from home, wear masks in public places and use vaccine passes to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Undermined by accusations that his staff partied at Downing Street during a Christmas lockdown last year, Johnson said Omicron was spreading rapidly and he had no choice but to move to “Plan B” while a vaccine booster program rolls out.

While still a long way from the full lockdowns imposed earlier in the pandemic, the new measures were described as a “hammer blow” for city center restaurants, cafes and shops that are desperate for Christmas trade to rebuild their finances.

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Many lawmakers in Johnson's own party are also angry with the new restrictions, fearing the impact they will have after the economy shrank by a historic 10% last year.

“While the picture may get better, and I sincerely hope that it will, we know that the remorseless logic of exponential growth could lead to a big rise in hospitalizations and therefore, sadly, in deaths,” Johnson told a news conference.

Sterling fell sharply when news first emerged on Wednesday that 'plan B' measures were imminent and investors pared back their bets on a Bank of England interest rate hike next week.

Johnson, who lifted most COVID restrictions in England in July following a rapid vaccine rollout, had vowed to navigate the winter without resorting to a fourth COVID-19 lockdown, but had kept a so-called Plan B in reserve.

Part of those measures, such as reintroducing masks on public transport and in shops, had already been brought in, but on Wednesday Johnson said people should also now work from home.

Face masks will be required in public venues such as theatres and cinemas and a COVID pass will be mandatory for access to nightclubs and venues with large crowds.

Johnson said the new measures were needed after 568 cases of Omicron were found in the country, with data suggesting its doubling time of infections could be between two and three days.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said officials estimated that the number of Omicron infections was actually around 20 times higher than the number of confirmed cases, meaning they could be closer to 10,000.

Hammer blow

Businesses reacted with incredulity.

“The renewed 'work from home' order during the most important trading period of the year is a hammer blow for our retail and leisure tenants,” said Jace Tyrrell, CEO of New West End Company.

While many businesses adapted well to working from home, sectors such as hospitality, entertainment and travel have been hit by huge losses. Unlike previous lockdowns, a furlough job support scheme is also no longer available.

A poll from Savanta ComRes also suggested some people may be less willing to follow new restrictions following the revelations around the Downing Street party.

A leaked video showed senior staff laughing and joking over how to explain a gathering in Downing Street during a Christmas COVID-19 lockdown last year. Johnson has apologised.

The prime minister also said COVID restrictions could not last forever and the country may need to have “a conversation” about what to do when a substantial proportion of the population refuses to get a vaccine.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own COVID restrictions and had already set tougher rules.

Read more:

Omicron may pose higher reinfection risk but could be milder than Delta: WHO

Omicron reported in 57 countries, hospitalizations set to rise: WHO

Pfizer vaccine shot provides partial Omicron shield in early study

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Saudi Arabia sees slight increase with 4,838 new COVID-19 cases

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Saudi Arabia saw a slight increase in the number of daily new COVID-19 cases after 4,838 new infections were recorded over the past 24 hours, the Ministry of Health announced on Monday.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

Two COVID-19-related deaths were also reported, raising the death toll to 8,922 as of January 24.

Meanwhile, 6,296 people who had previously tested positive for the virus recovered, raising the recovery total to 606,130. A total of 657,192 infections have been reported in the Kingdom since the pandemic first started.

Despite Monday's cases being higher than the 4,535 reported on Sunday, Saudi Arabia has seen a decrease in daily infections after daily COVID-19 infections reached nearly 6,000 earlier this month.

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Saudi Arabia marks further drop in daily COVID-19 infections with 4,608 new cases

‘Wuhan, I Am Here’: Film follows volunteers in Chinese sealed city due to COVID-19

US to suspend 44 China-bound flights in response to restriction on American carriers

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Saudi Arabia records 4,535 COVID-19 cases, two deaths in 24 hours

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Saudi Arabia has recorded 4,535 new COVID-19 cases and two virus-related deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Ministry of Health.

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A total of 652,354 cases of coronavirus and 8,920 related deaths have been recorded in the Kingdom since the start of the pandemic.

There were also 5,072 recoveries in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number to 599,834.

Saudi Arabia has administered 55,226,399 vaccine doses to its population of around 34 million.

Daily case numbers peaked on January 19, when 5,928 were recorded.

Read more:

Saudi Arabia marks further drop in daily COVID-19 infections with 4,608 new cases

UAE reports 3,020 COVID-19 cases, four new deaths in 24 hours

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‘Wuhan, I Am Here’: Film follows volunteers in Chinese sealed city due to COVID-19

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The homeless, the sick, the elderly: For people who fell through the cracks of the official system, the then-unprecedented decision to isolate the central Chinese city of Wuhan and its 13 million people was a matter of life or death at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Film director Lan Bo hopes to sound the alarm with a documentary, “Wuhan, I Am Here,” about volunteers who helped neighbors get food and medical care following the lockdown in early 2020 of the city where the coronavirus pandemic began.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

The documentary comes as China has renewed similar lockdowns in three other cities since mid-December to contain COVID-19 outbreaks. The number of people confined to their homes totaled some 20 million people in early January.

The government’s decision to commandeer Wuhan’s hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients meant many people with other problems were turned away.

The film begins with a woman in tears outside a hospital that wouldn’t admit her husband for treatment of lung cancer. Volunteers secured a bed for him by talking with a Beijing hospital and working medical connections.

Other families struggled to get treatment for children with severe conditions.

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“At that time, medical resources focused on COVID-19 patients, so it wasn’t their turn” to be treated, said Lan.

“Those who needed dialysis, those who had cancer and AIDS patients who needed medicine,” said Lan. “In addition, patients in critical condition and needed to be hospitalized — what were they going to do? We were all thinking about these questions.”

The government sent truckloads of food daily to apartment compounds. But elderly people who couldn’t leave their homes and the homeless relied on volunteers to get food for them.

Lan chronicles the hurdles volunteers encountered. They needed permits to drive in different areas of Wuhan. They were stopped by local officials who said they lacked permission to distribute food and other supplies.

The lockdown of Wuhan, which spread to other Chinese cities, was later imitated by some Asian and Western governments as the virus spread.

China’s unusually stringent “zero tolerance” strategy that aimed to find and isolate every infected person helped to keep the country’s case numbers relatively low.

The National Health Commission has reported a total of 4,636 fatalities — and none since early 2021 — out of 105,484 confirmed cases.

In the latest lockdown, most access to Xi’an in the west and its 13 million people was suspended in mid-December.

The city government has been criticized for food shortages and the severity of anti-disease measures imposed under pressure from Beijing to bring down case numbers.

A pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage after being turned away from a hospital, reportedly for lacking current COVID-19 test results.

Xi’an failed to learn from Wuhan about the importance of volunteers, Lan said.

Especially the pandemic in Xi’an, what I saw is the government’s neglect of civilian forces, which resulted in the lack of adequate treatment at the grassroots level,” Lan said.

“Why was Wuhan able to get through this?” Lan said. “I think in addition to our country and the government’s huge input into resources, it was also because of the contributions of the tens of thousands of volunteers that worked in obscurity.”

Lan has applied for government approval to release the “Wuhan, I Am Here” in China. It was screened at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan last year.

Under a lockdown, “it is this kind of daily life that sometimes determines the life and death of a person and determines the destiny of the person,” Lan said.

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