Coronavirus latest news: Cut gap between Pfizer vaccine doses to six weeks, says BMA

The British Medical Association has urged the government to cut the gap between doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from 12 weeks to six, amid concerns that the UK strategy contradicts guidance from the World Health Organization. 

In a letter to England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, the BMA warned that “the UK’s strategy has become increasingly isolated from many other countries.”

The organisation said it supports giving a second dose up to 42 days after the first dose, but that a longer gap is not in line with WHO analysis. 

“We should not be extrapolating data where we don’t have it,” Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the BMA, told the BBC. “I do understand the trade-off and the rationale but if that was the right thing to do then we would see other nations following suit.”

In the letter to Prof Whitty, the BMA said members were also concerned that, “given the unpredictability of supplies, there may not be any guarantees that second doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be available in 12 weeks’ time.”

It urged Prof Whitty to “urgently review” the approach, which was introduced to give the maximum number of people some initial protection. On Friday, Prof Whitty said the gap was based on a belief that the great majority of protection comes from the first jab.

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Crowdfunding breathes life into Malawi’s Covid fight 

A new crowdfunding campaign in Malawi has raised $100,000 in a week and helped provide basic equipment and medicines in state hospitals to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

An appeal launched on Facebook last week has already helped secure oxygen cylinders and essential medicines at the four main public hospitals in the southern African nation, the man spearheading the campaign said.

“A friend was hospitalised for Covid-19. Then he posted an SOS call on social media asking for help as the hospital had no oxygen pressure regulators,” said France-based Malawian Stanley Kenani, who oversees the project.

“Although friends put the money together and bought him one, he still lost his life. I wondered whether friends on social media could come together and contribute a little money for medical supplies and equipment that could save lives,” he added.

Malawians responded enthusiastically, from students donating their pocket money to poor Malawians in the countryside pitching in.

Secretary for health Charles Mwansambo has welcomed the crowdfunding, saying the “government alone cannot meet the health needs of Malawians, let alone Covid-19”.

Unlike the rest of the continent, daily life had been unaffected in Malawi since the High Court barred the government from confining citizens to limit the spread of Covid-19, saying the poor country could not afford a lockdown as people had to venture out to earn money.

But on Sunday President Lazarus Chakwera implemented Malawi’s first lockdown, shutting schools and imposing a curfew as infections began to rise, linked to the new, more infectious variant detected in South Africa. 


Hong Kong ordered into city’s first Covid lockdown after outbreak 

Thousands of Hong Kongers were ordered to stay in their homes on Saturday for the city’s first coronavirus lockdown as authorities battle an outbreak in one of its poorest and most densely packed districts.

The order bans anyone inside multiple housing blocks within the neighbourhood of Jordan from leaving their apartment unless they can show a negative test.

Officials said they planned to test everyone inside the designated zone within 48 hours “in order to achieve the goal of zero cases in the district”.

The South China Morning Post said the measures covered about 150 housing blocks and up to 9,000 people with hundreds of police on standby to enforce the lockdown.

Hong Kong was one of the first places to be struck by the coronavirus after it burst out of central China.

Our foreign  team have more details on this story here.

Government investigators wearing protective suits gather in the Yau Ma Tei area in Hong Kong

Government investigators wearing protective suits gather in the Yau Ma Tei area in Hong Kong

AP Photo/Vincent Yu


Quarantine hotels on the horizon?

British ministers are set to discuss tightening travel restrictions further on Monday, the BBC has reported, adding that people arriving in the country could be required to quarantine in hotels.

Current restrictions ban most international travel, with new rules introduced earlier in this month requiring a negative coronavirus test before departure for most arrivals, as well as a period of quarantine.

But at the Downing Street press conference yesterday, Boris Johnson warned that the UK may need to implement further measures to protect its borders from new Sars-Cov-2 variants.

According to the BBC, one measure being considered by the government is making it mandatory for travellers to spend that 10-day quarantine period in a hotel – for which they would have to pay – as a way to enforce the quarantine rules.


Matt Hancock: ‘I’ve been really inspired by the stories I’ve heard’


Nervtag chair defends decision to share data suggesting variant may be 30% more lethal

Professor Peter Horby also defended the Government’s decision to announce the news about the increased mortality rates from the new variant, which has been criticised by some due to “inconclusive” evidence. 

“I think a very important principle is transparency,” Prof Horby told BBC. “Scientists are looking at the possibility that there is increased severity… and after a week of looking at the data we came to the conclusion that it was a realistic possibility.

“If we were not telling people about this we would be accused of covering it up.”

But he added: “What we need to do is get that message out and put it in context. So instead of headlines saying ‘30% increase in risk’, we need to explain this in terms of the absolute risk we may be seeing and also explain the uncertainties.”

On a more positive note, Prof Horby said it was “encouraging” that B.1.1.7, the variant first found in Kent, did not appear to be more resistant to current treatments or vaccines.

“The encouraging news is that the UK variant is not affecting how the treatments work and it’s not affecting how the vaccines work, so we believe the vaccines and the treatment are just as good against this virus as they’ve always been.”

But a jab isn’t a “free pass”, he added. 

“A vaccine is not a passport to do what you like, especially after one dose… it takes a while for protection to set in,” he said. “We’ve still all got to adhere to the restrictions whether we’re vaccinated or not.”


Keep data suggesting variant is more lethal ‘in perspective’, says chair of Nevtag

Data showing the new variant, B.1.1.7, is linke to increased mortality rates must be put “in perspective”< according to Professor Peter Horby, who chairs the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag).

“Initial data didn’t suggest that this was any more serious than the old virus. But now the data has started to come in, there are a number of streams of data that are coming in that suggest there might be a small increase in risk of death,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“There are some limitations in the data so we need to be cautious with the interpretations but it is important that people understand that we are looking at this and this may be true.

“If you look at it as a relative change like 30 or 40% then it sounds really bad but a big change in a very small risk takes it from a very small number to a slightly bigger, but still very small number, so for most people the risk is very, very small.”

He added that people “need to put it into perspective”.

“This is a risk for certain age groups and that risk may have increased but for most people it is still not a serious disease,” he said – though he acknowledged that the new data should be taken “very seriously”.

“This is an unpleasant virus. It’s throwing things at us that are unpleasant and we’re going to have to manage them,” he said.


Watch: Sebastian Coe confident Tokyo Olympic games will go ahead with help of vaccines


Current restrictions not stringent enough to contain new variant, experts warn

The current lockdown rules are not enough to tackle the more infectious variant of coronavirus, an adviser on the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) has warned.

Professor Susan Michie, director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL, said the new Government advert urging people to stay at home, as well as talks about higher fines for rule-breakers, were made on the basis that people were not adhering to the rules.

“But actually, all the data show that the overwhelming number of people are sticking to the rules with one exception which is self-isolation,” she told Times Radio. “In fact I would say that it’s not so much people not sticking to the rules, but it’s the rules themselves that are the problem.”

She said there were twice as many people going to work and using public transport compared to the first lockdown, and more children in classrooms because the Government “has widened the definition of who’s a key worker”.

She described nurseries and places of worship, which are both allowed to remain open during lockdown, as “super spreading” events and that she has received many emails from people who are “really distraught” about going to work.

On what restrictions she would like to see, Prof Michie said “Do what we did in March but consider are there other things we could tighten. The better the lockdown is now the shorter it will be.

“I think we should throw everything we can at really driving transmission down to a low level.”


‘Lambs to the slaughter’: Royal College of Nurses call for review of PPE

Nursing leaders are calling on the Government to carry out an urgent review of whether standard surgical masks offer enough protection against highly transmissible strains of coronavirus.

One nurse told the PA news agency she feels staff are being treated like “lambs to the slaughter” due to the inadequacy of surgical masks.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has written to the Government and joined forces with the British Medical Association (BMA) to write to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after members raised fears they have inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

The RCN said it was aware that some NHS trusts are using higher grade face masks in all parts of their hospitals, while others use standard face masks, thereby creating a “postcode lottery” for nursing staff.

RCN chief executive and general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said nurses were concerned that the standard face mask may not be effective in protecting against new strains of the virus and possible airborne spread in healthcare settings.

The College is calling for a review of infection control guidance and for all NHS staff to be given the higher grade of PPE as a precaution pending the outcome.


Whether variant is more deadly an ‘open question’ Nervtag adviser says

Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has said it is still an “open question” whether the new variant coronavirus is more deadly.

Prof Medley was co-author of a report by the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which concluded there was a “realistic possibility” that it was associated with an increased risk of death.

However he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that it was not a “game changer” in terms of dealing with the pandemic.

“The question about whether it is more dangerous in terms of mortality I think is still open. There is evidence it is more dangerous but this is a very dangerous virus,” he said.

“In terms of making the situation worse it is not a game changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.”


Sage expert ‘surprised’ by Friday’s briefing and says it’s ‘too soon’ to draw strong conclusions on variant

It is still to early to draw “strong conclusions” about whether the new variant found in Kent last autumn, B.1.1.7, is associated with increased mortality rates, according to a member of Sage subgroup the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M).

Referring to the news about the variant announced by Boris Johnson on Friday, Dr Mike Tildesley told the BBC that he “was actually quite surprised the news had been announced at a new conference”.

“It seems to have gone up a little bit from about 10 people per thousand to about 13 which is quite a small rise but it’s based on a relatively small amount of data,” Dr Tildesley added. 

“I would be wanting to wait for a week or two more, monitoring a little bit more before we draw really strong conclusions about this. I just worry that where we report things pre-emptively where the data are not really particularly strong.”

Related: Are new Covid-19 variants more deadly, and will vaccines work against them? 


UK should follow ‘best practice’ on vaccine schedule, says BMA

The UK should follow “best practice” when it comes to vaccine delivery, according to Dr Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association council chairman.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Dr Nagpual said that he understood the “rationale” behind the decision to delay the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine to 12 weeks. But he  highlighted World Health Organisation analysis which recommends that second doses of the Pfizer vaccine only be delayed “in exceptional circumstances”.

“What we’re saying is that the UK should adopt this best practice based on international professional opinion,” he said.

“Most nations in the world are facing challenges similar to the UK in having limited vaccine supply and also wanting to protect their population maximally.

“No other nation has adopted the UK’s approach. We think the flexibility that the WHO offers of extending to 42 days is being stretched far too much to go from six weeks right through to 12 weeks.”

He continued: “Obviously the protection will not vanish after six weeks but what we do not know is what level of protection will be offered… we should not be extrapolating data where we don’t have it.

“I do understand the trade-off and the rationale but if that was the right thing to do then we would see other nations following suit.”

This comes after the BMA to chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty calling for the gap between vaccine doses to be reduced to six weeks.


Norway tightening restrictions after outbreak of virus variant

Norway’s capital Oslo and nine neighbouring municipalities will impose some of their toughest lockdown measures yet after an outbreak of a more contagious coronavirus variant, first identified in Britain, the government said on Saturday.

Shopping centres and other non-essential stores will be closed from noon local time on Saturday, organised sports activities will be halted and schools must rely more on remote learning, the health ministry said in a statement.

Read more: Are new mutations more deadly, and will vaccines work against them? 


Spanish federation apologises to Tennis Australia over player quarantine

Spain’s tennis federation (RFET) on Saturday apologised to Tennis Australia (TA) after complaining about the treatment of two Spanish players in quarantine before next month’s Australian Open.

More than 70 players have been confined to their rooms after some passengers on three charter flights that brought them to Australia tested positive for coronavirus. Other players are able to train for up to five hours a day.

“We apologise to TA if our statement has at any time been interpreted as a criticism of their working methods, nothing is further from our intention,” RFET said in a statement.

The federation had said on Thursday said two players – Mario Vilella and Carlos Alcaraz – had not been informed they would be strictly confined if they were on a flight with someone who tested positive “regardless of the physical proximity”.

On Saturday RFET said its intention had been “to request the Australian Open, with utmost respect for their skills, the possibility of exploring safe training options for Spanish players affected by isolation for 14 days.”

“This initiative is based on good faith and in no way calls into question the actions of the Australian Government or the Australian Open.”

Read more: Murray ‘gutted’ to miss Australian Open despite recovering from Covid


Not ‘absolutely clear’ new variant more deadly, says PHE medical director 

Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle has said that it is still not “absolutely clear” the new variant coronavirus which emerged in the UK is more deadly than the original strain.

Boris Johnson announced on Friday that scientists had found the variant, which appeared late last year in south-east England, may be associated with “a higher degree of mortality”.

However Dr Doyle said more work was needed to determine whether that was actually the case.

“There are several investigations going on at the moment. It is not absolutely clear that that will be the case. It is too early to say,” she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. “There is some evidence, but it is very early evidence. It is small numbers of cases and it is far too early to say this will actually happen.”

Read more: Kent Covid variant ’30 per cent more deadly’


Parking charges ‘must be cut to help high street recover’ 

Parking charges must be cut to help the high street recover after Covid, the British Independent Retailers Association has said after it emerged that councils have raked in almost £900 million profit from fees.

Research by the RAC Foundation found local aurthorities made £891 million from on and off-street parking in the financial year 2019-20, just five per cent lower than the record £934 million the year before.

The vast sum was generated despite the period covering the early part of the Covid pandemic and the first lockdown.

Read the full story

Read more: Sunak warns MPs that handouts ‘can’t go on forever’


Sri Lankan health minister who endorsed magic potions tests positive

Sri Lanka’s health minister, who publicly endorsed sorcery and magic potions to stop surging coronavirus infections in the island, has tested positive and will self-isolate, officials said on Saturday.

Pavithra Wanniarachchi had publicly consumed and endorsed a magic potion, later revealed to contain honey and nutmeg, manufactured by a sorcerer who claimed it worked as a life-long inoculation against the virus.

She also poured a pot of “blessed” water into a river in November after a self-styled god-man told her that it would end the pandemic.

The island nation of 21 million on Friday approved the emergency use of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University only hours after Ms Wanniarachchi tested positive, officials said.

 A municipal worker has his body sprayed with disinfectant after he carried a coffin of coronavirus related victim to the crematorium at the public cemetery in Colombo, Sri Lanka

 A municipal worker has his body sprayed with disinfectant after he carried a coffin of  coronavirus related victim to the crematorium at the public cemetery in Colombo, Sri Lanka



Call for gap between vaccine doses to be reduced

The British Medical Association has reportedly written to chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty calling for the gap between vaccine doses to be reduced to six weeks.

The private letter, seen by the BBC, said the current plans of people waiting up to 12 weeks for a second dose – which Health Secretary Matt Hancock said is supported by data from an Israeli study – are “difficult to justify”.

It said: “The absence of any international support for the UK’s approach is a cause of deep concern and risks undermining public and the profession’s trust in the vaccination programme.”

Read more: Vaccine rollout is slowest in some of England’s most infected areas


How shops used Covid to kill off real money

His blood sugar levels were dangerously low. James Boswell, 39, had been sitting in a traffic jam on the M25 for three hours. A long-term diabetic, he knew he had to eat something soon. He pulled into a service station, but there was one problem – no one would serve him. Why? He was trying to pay in cash.

Mr Boswell is one of millions of people who have been turned away from shops and restaurants for trying to pay with physical money.

One in three people has been blocked from spending cash because of overzealous “Covid-secure” protections implemented by business across the country, according to research from consumer group Which?. This is despite an in-depth report from the Bank of England that found the risk of banknotes and coins transmitting coronavirus was virtually non-existent.

Read the full story


Mexico lets governors obtain vaccines for their own states

 Mexico’s pandemic cases continued at a high level on Friday as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gave state governors permission to acquire coronavirus vaccines on their own.

Officials reported just over 21,000 newly confirmed virus infections a day after the country listed a record 22,339 cases. Deaths related to virus in the previous 24 hours reached 1,440.

Mexico’s federal government has received about 750,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine so far, with almost 600,000 administered. The country has 750,000 frontline medical personnel, all of whom will need two doses, or about 1.5 million shots.

That points to a long wait for Mexico’s 130 million people, and state governors and the private sector have been pressing the government to allow them to acquire vaccines on their own. Lopez Obrador said on Friday that they will be allowed to do so, as long as they inform federal officials and use only approved vaccines.

Graves are seen at the Xico cemetery, as the coronavirus outbreak continues, in Valle de Chalco, in the State of Mexico

Graves are seen at the Xico cemetery, as the coronavirus outbreak continues, in Valle de Chalco, in the State of Mexico



China reports 107 new mainland cases

China reported 107 new Covid-19 cases on the mainland on Jan. 22, up from 103 cases a day earlier, the national health authority said on Saturday.

The National Health Commission said in a statement that 90 of the new cases were local infections. The number of new asymptomatic cases, which China does not classify as confirmed cases, fell to 99 from 119 cases a day earlier.

The total number of confirmed cases in mainland China now stands at 88,911, while the death toll remained unchanged at 4,635. 

Read more: Wuhan families harassed as they fight for their day in court over China Covid cover-up


Thousands of Hong Kong residents locked down 

Thousands of Hong Kong residents were locked down on Saturday in an unprecedented move to contain a worsening outbreak in the city, authorities said.

Hong Kong has been grappling to contain a fresh wave of the coronavirus since November. Over 4,300 cases have been recorded in the last two months, making up nearly 40 per cent of the city’s total.

Coronavirus cases in Hong Kong’s Yau Tsim Mong district – a working-class neighbourhood with old buildings and subdivided flats – made up about half of the infections in the past week.

Sewage testing in the area picked up more concentrated traces of the Covid-19 virus, prompting concerns that poorly built plumbing systems and a lack of ventilation in subdivided units may present a possible path for the virus to spread.

Read the full story

 Part of the Jordan district is being locked down

 Part of the Jordan district is being locked down



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