Top story: Deal signed to buy 114m more doses
Morning everyone. I’m Martin Farrer and these are the top stories today.
Ministers may allow GPs in England to halt regular monitoring of millions of patients with underlying health problems as part of the urgent new blitz on delivering Covid booster jabs to combat the spread of the Omicron variant. Sajid Javid and NHS bosses are in talks with GPs about relaxing rules which mean family doctors undertake checks on people with diabetes, high blood pressure and other conditions, the Guardian has learned. It came as the health secretary pledged to “future proof” the UK’s vaccine programme and ensure protection for “even more people in the years ahead”. The government has brought forward vaccine deals to secure 114m more doses for the next two years. Under the agreements, the UK will buy 54m more doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and 60m more doses from Moderna. So far, 115m doses have been administered in the UK. There were another 10 cases of Omicron in the UK yesterday, taking the total to 32. Overall, there were 48,374 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, a rise of 2% on the previous week, and 171 more deaths.
An Israeli doctor who was one of the first people in the world to become infected with the Omicron variant says he believes he caught the virus when he was in London for a medical conference last month. Elad Maor’s claims will raise fears that the variant may have been in the UK much earlier than previously realised. The US has recorded its first case of Omicron in California while analysis of data in South Africa shows the strain has spread “exponentially” and accounted for 74% of the virus genomes sequenced in November. And former health secretary Matt Hancock was under pressure last night to set the record straight over £40m of government Covid-related work won by his former pub landlord. Follow updates on the pandemic here.
Abortion debate – Justices on the US supreme court have indicated that they would support curbs on access to abortion during oral arguments in the most important reproductive rights case in decades, threatening the future of abortion access across the country. Campaigners have warned the case poses a direct threat to the legal underpinnings of Roe v Wade, a landmark decision made in 1973 that guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion. The case centres on whether Mississippi can ban abortion at 15 weeks’ gestation, roughly nine weeks before bans are permitted under current law. The court is expected to issue a decision on the case in June next year.
Ploughing on – Farmers will be paid for looking after England’s soils for the first time from next year, when the government’s £900m replacement for the EU’s controversial common agricultural policy begins to be rolled out. Environmentalists criticised the measures as puny and accused ministers of failing in their promises to use the UK’s departure from the EU to strengthen environmental protections and reduce the damaging impacts of farming.
Tennis ban – The Women’s Tennis Association has announced the suspension of all tournaments in China amid concerns about the safety of the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. The player disappeared from public last month after accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault. Amid growing outrage from high-profile players, she was interviewed on video by Olympic chief Thomas Bach, whose organisation declared Peng was “doing fine”. But in a statement last night, WTA chairman Steve Simon said he could not allow athletes to compete in China when Peng Shuai was “not allowed to communicate freely”.
‘Clown’ PM – French president Emmanuel Macron allegedly called Boris Johnson “a clown” in a private conversation, according to reports in France. The remarks came as Macron and Johnson clashed last week over the Channel crossing tragedy. According to Le Canard enchaîné, Macron reportedly said: “It is sad to see a major country with which we could do huge numbers of things being led by a clown.” The prime minister is also under pressure at home to explain why No 10 staff seemingly held two parties during lockdown last winter.
‘Human error’ – A court in Austria has fined a surgeon for amputating the wrong leg of an elderly patient. The 43-year-old surgeon blamed “human error” after she marked the wrong leg of the patient, but the judge in Linz found her guilty of gross negligence and fined her €2,700 (£2,300). The 82-year-old patient died before the case came to court.
Today in Focus podcast: Will Omicron cancel Christmas?
A new Covid variant first identified in South Africa is spreading around the world, with leaders rushing to respond. Our science correspondent Nicola Davis outlines what we know so far about the Omicron variant.
Lunchtime read: Noomi Rapace – from ‘badass’ to Lamb
The actor Noomi Rapace shot to fame in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but says the role trapped her in “pain and sadness”. She tells Ryan Gilbey how starring in weird new thriller Lamb made her feel alive again.
Everton fans turned their fury on the club’s board last night after watching their team swept aside 4-1 at home by Liverpool in the Merseyside derby. Manager Rafa Benitez insisted he does not fear for his job but his team was outclassed by their rivals, for whom Mo Salah scored twice, and Jonathan Wilson writes that the Spaniard cannot be blamed for the malaise at Goodison Park. Liverpool stay third in the Premier League, Manchester City are second after beating Villa 2-1 and Chelsea stayed top by beating Watford by the same score. Former British No 1 tennis player Johanna Konta has decided to retire after struggling with a knee injury for years. She reached as high as fourth in the world in 2017 and bows out knowing she gave everything to her career.
Bryony Frost, Britain’s most successful female jump jockey, told a disciplinary panel that her fellow rider Robbie Dunne subjected her to verbal and physical abuse, and exposed himself to her in the weighing room. Michael Vaughan has been dropped from BT Sport’s Ashes coverage because of his involvement in the ongoing investigation into racism at Yorkshire cricket. He also revealed he had tested positive for Covid-19 but his day improved a bit when he was told by the BBC – which has already stood him down from its Ashes coverage – that it expected to work with him again.
An announcement that rail fares will rise by 3.8% in March was postponed by ministers last week after the furious backlash over downgraded government plans for rail investment in the north. The fare rise for England and Wales, not yet publicly confirmed but contained in leaked papers seen by the Guardian, will be the biggest in nine years. Beijing has urged US business groups with interests in China to “speak out” and lobby the US government in its defence, warning that as bilateral relations deteriorate they cannot make money “in silence”. It was another topsy-turvy day on the markets but the FTSE100 is set to start today up by 0.6%. The pound is on $1.331 and €1.174.
The Guardian leads with “GPs may stop monitoring millions of patients due to Covid jab drive”, while the Times says “Fourth jab to fight variants”. The Telegraph has a similar line with “Two more rounds of booster jabs ordered” and the i reports “Booster jabs until 2023: Britain buys 114m vaccine doses”.
The Mail warns “Stop being Christmas killjoys, ministers” but the Express is feeling upbeat and claims: “Not all gloom and doom! Omicron cases are ‘mild’”. The Mirror has “Booze, nibbles & party games until early hours” and the FT leads with “US delays deal to lift Trump era steel tariffs over N Ireland fears”. In Scotland the Record splashes on “Cops pay £1m to crash mum’s kids”.
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