These are the coronavirus morning headlines for Tuesday, February 9, as all travellers arriving in the UK will have to take two coronavirus tests in a fresh attempt to prevent mutant strains entering the country under new rules to be announced this week.
The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the move was designed to provide a “further level of protection” enabling the authorities to track new cases more effectively.
On Monday, Wales Health Minister Vaughan Gething said that stronger border controls and quarantine arrangements were needed to stop variants entering the UK in the first place.
It is expected that people isolating at home will be told they must get a test two and eight days into their 10-day quarantine period.
It comes after it was confirmed last week that UK nationals returning from 33 “red list” countries would be required to quarantine in closely monitored government-designated hotels, where they would have to take two tests.
A DHSC spokesman said: “Throughout the pandemic, the Government has put in place proportionate measures, informed by the advice of scientists, that have led to some of the toughest border regimes in the world.
“Enhancing our testing regime to cover all arrivals while they isolate will provide a further level of protection and enable us to better track any new cases which might be brought into the country, and give us even more opportunities to detect new variants.”
A formal announcement could come as early as today (Tuesday) when Health Secretary Matt Hancock updates MPs in a Commons statement on the pandemic.
New rules on hotel quarantine are due to come into force on next week – although the Government has yet to announce any agreement with any of hotel chains on providing accommodation.
On Monday the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said no formal contracts had yet been awarded after the Government issued commercial specifications last Thursday.
However the Financial Times reported that ministers were said to be close to signing up a series of hotels near Heathrow, and were optimistic of agreeing deals with others around Manchester, Gatwick, Birmingham and London City airports.
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People warned it is too early to start booking ‘elaborate’ summer holidays – even in Britain
Experts also told the Downing Street press conference that it is “too early” to start booking elaborate summer holidays abroad or in the UK.
Jonathan Van-Tam warned that holidays that cross borders or involve several households were in effect a journey into “the unknown”.
England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer was asked if it was too early to book multiple-household holidays, even in the UK.
He replied: “Thanks for the question and I can’t answer it. It’s just too early to say.”
He added: “We don’t yet have the readouts on the success of the vaccine programme, though I expect we could start to see those within one to two weeks.
“Public health counter-measures, non-pharmaceutical interventions, social distancing restrictions – they will have to be released gradually.
“How quickly they can be released will depend upon three things: the virus, the vaccine and the extent to which the public obey the rules that are in place, which thankfully the vast majority always do.
“And then really the more elaborate your plans are for summer holidays, in terms of crossing borders, in terms of household mixing, given where we are now, I think you just have to say the more you’re stepping into making guesses about the unknown at this point.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock – who recently predicted a “great British summer” by the end of July – refused to rule out travel restrictions lasting months or even years.
Public reassured about effectiveness of vaccines
Officials have been seeking to reassure the public that vaccines should provide effective protection against people falling seriously ill from the new South African variant.
South Africa has suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after a preliminary trial suggested it offered a reduced level of protection against infection and mild illness from the variant.
However the deputy chief medical officer for England said that, unlike the variant which emerged last year in Kent, there was no evidence it enjoyed a “transmissibility advantage” so was unlikely to become the dominant strain in the UK in the coming months.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said he believed it was “likely” the AstraZeneca jab – like the other vaccines – would give “substantial” protection against serious illness from the South Africa variant.
He said that it was possible people would need annual or biennial booster jabs as the vaccines were updated to deal with new variants, and that there were “a lot of steps behind the scenes” to ensure that could happen.
The Welsh Government could take further measures after 13 cases of the South African variant were identified in the country.
Health Minister Vaughan Gething told the latest briefing on Monday (February 8) that originally the travel history was uncertain for three of those cases but this had now fallen to two. Read what he had to say here.
“We’re still investigating those cases, Public Health Wales are undertaking that work with the individuals and their contacts,” Mr Gething said. “As we work through that, we’re looking to make sure those people get tested and supported to isolate and to do the right thing.
“When we do have a further update about those cases we’ll of course make sure that’s available, there’s lots of public interest in this I understand, but within the cases we’re reporting those 13 cases are a very small number.
“The dominant strain is still the highly contagious Kent variant and we’re making progress to drive down cases despite that being dominant across Wales.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re complacent about the South African variant, we are still watching and looking very carefully about what’s happening and we have further measures that we may need to take and if we do, we’ll be completely open about them.”
Death toll now more than 5,000
More than 5,000 people have now died with coronavirus in Wales, according to figures released by Public Health Wales.
The NHS trust confirmed on Monday, February 8, that 12 more people had died with Covid-19 to take the overall total since the pandemic began to 5,001.
Meanwhile there were 610 more positive cases reported by PHW in the last 24 hours to bring the total to 196,670.
Following the latest figures the Wales infection rate is 116.4 per 100,000 population for the seven days up to February 3, a decrease from 118.9 on Sunday. It has not been this low for more than four months.
PHW data shows 603,976 people have now received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine as of 10pm on Sunday, up 14,354 on the figure published 24 hours earlier. Some 2,792 people have now received both of their vaccine jabs.
“I’m deeply sorry for every single life that’s been lost, every family who’s been affected,” Vaughan Gething said. “Right from the outset of this pandemic, we made a point of recognising that these aren’t just numbers, these are people who are loved and valued and leave others behind.”
Mr Gething said the Welsh Government had taken “extraordinary measures” to reduce the number of people coming to harm from Covid-19.
What’s stopping Wales from going to alert level 3
On Monday it was revealed that the proportion of people testing positive for coronavirus had dropped below 10% for the first time in many weeks.
The figure (9.8%), for the seven-day average between January 28 and February 3, was a drop on the 10.2% recorded on Sunday and is now way below the 25% seen at the winter peak.
A testing positivity rate below 10% is one of the key markers the Welsh Government has set to move the country from the current alert level 4 (very high risk) restrictions down to level 3 (high risk) which would lead to schools, non-essential retail, hospitality and gyms opening again. Read about the indicators here.
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Anxious children need ‘staggered return to school’
Children with anxiety should be allowed a staggered return to school, Welsh Love Island star Dr Alex George has said.
The A&E doctor and newly-appointed Government adviser said teachers should allow children days off for their mental health as they return to their desks later this year.
Dr George told BBC’s Newscast: “As children are integrated back to schools, we need to be a little bit more flexible about the time of transitioning back.
“You can’t just expect someone who’s very anxious to go back to school, will go back to normal.
“It might be that that child needs a bit of time to integrate slowly back in the classroom, so that rather than chucking them in and exacerbating the problem, we do it gently.”
He told Adam Fleming on the BBC Sounds podcast: “If you’re happy and you feel good, and you’re engaged and you feel supported at school and you’ve been able to take time when you needed to, you’re probably more likely to not only be academically successful but take care of yourself physically as well.”
Dr George, who has spoken publicly about the suicide of his 19-year-old brother, Llyr, added: “We do need to find a way to make sure that children who’ve gone back to school who’ve lost loved ones, who are in trouble, they need to have somewhere to go, somewhere that the teacher can tangibly reach out to to support them.
“Children and adolescent mental health services do an incredible job, but they are utterly overworked and they’ve got too many referrals.”
The youngest children in Wales are due to return to school after the half term holiday on February 22.
App has asked 1.7 million to isolate since September
More than 1.7 million people have been asked to isolate via the NHS Covid-19 app since it launched in September, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
The technology is designed to keep an anonymous log of individuals that people come into close contact with using Bluetooth, as well as allowing users to check into venues by scanning a QR code when restaurants and other indoor public spaces are open.
England and Wales’s app has now been downloaded 21.63 million times, which the Government says equates to 56% of the population. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own apps, though the same underlying technology means isolation alerts can be shared between different apps.
But the technology is automated and does not share details of those told to isolate with Test and Trace, as such the number of people who actually obey warnings from the app is unknown.
Research by The Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University – which is still subject to peer review – suggests that the NHS Covid-19 app has so far prevented 600,000 cases.
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