Coronavirus: No increase in severe child cases, paediatricians say

Doctors have sought to reassure parents that there has been no increase in the severity of Covid-19 cases among children because of the new variant.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said children’s wards are not seeing any “significant pressure” from Covid-19.

It comes after London hospital matron Laura Duffel told BBC Radio 5 Live that wards were full of children with coronavirus.

Doctors have denied this is the case.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the RCPCH, said: “Children’s wards are usually busy in winter. As of now we are not seeing significant pressure from Covid-19 in paediatrics across the UK.

“As cases in the community rise there will be a small increase in the number of children we see with Covid-19, but the overwhelming majority of children and young people have no symptoms or very mild illness only.

“The new variant appears to affect all ages and, as yet, we are not seeing any greater severity amongst children and young people.”

Dr Ronny Cheung, a consultant paediatrician at Evelina Children’s Hospital, in London, added: “I’ve been the on-call consultant in a London children’s hospital this week. Covid is rife in hospitals, but not among children – and that is corroborated by my colleagues across London.”

Prof Calum Semple said that he spoke to colleagues on intensive care units and “not one of them has seen a surge in sick children coming into critical care and we’re not hearing of a rise in cases in the wards either”.

“We’re not seeing a different spectrum of disease in children, certainly we’re not seeing a surge in cases,” Prof Semple told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.

Dr Liz Whittaker, a consultant paediatrician at St Mary’s Hospital London, said “only small numbers” of children who test positive for Covid develop severe disease and these are “within expected levels” at the moment.

“I continue to worry for my elders, not my kids,” Dr Whittaker added.

Meanwhile, Dr Lee Hudson, from Great Ormond Street Hospital, said that none of his paediatric colleagues at hospital across London were reporting higher rates of sick children because of Covid but said that parents should never be afraid to seek medical help if they are worried about their children.

Covid: NASUWT and NAHT threaten action over Wales school return plan

Unions representing teachers and heads in Wales have called for face-to-face teaching to be suspended in response to the new coronavirus variant.

The NASUWT has threatened “appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk”.

Head teachers’ union NAHT Cymru said it had taken legal action against the Welsh Government to obtain scientific evidence it said it was “withholding”.

The Welsh Government said it had agreed an approach with local authorities.

The National Education Union Cymru had already called for in-person learning to be delayed until at least 18 January.

According to councils, many secondary schools aim to return from 11 January, with some fully open on 6 January.

Welsh schools have been asked to make provision for vulnerable children and children of key workers from this week.

All pupils will be expected to take part in remote learning before their schools reopen for face-to-face teaching.

But teachers’ unions have said more time is needed to understand the new Covid-19 variant.

While “completely committed” to ensuring children return to school as soon as possible, NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach said it was now “abundantly clear that the pandemic is seriously impacting on the ability of all schools to continue to operate normally”.

“The NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk as a result of the failure of employers or the Welsh Government to ensure safe working conditions in schools.”

Neil Butler, the union’s official for Wales, said there was “chaos and confusion” in the Welsh education system, and that “the buck has effectively been passed to local authorities and some authorities have passed it down to individual schools”.

Mr Butler said a suspension of face-to-face teaching would allow schools to review their risk assessments in light of the new variant.

A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “We have agreed with local authorities a common approach to schools returning in January with some flexibility built in over the first two weeks of term.

“It is our expectation that pupils, when not in school, will continue to benefit from remote learning.”

Secondary schools in England will stagger their return with pupils taking exams in 2021 starting on 11 January, and other year groups returning in person on 18 January. Most primary schools in England will return on 4 January, but in London and some surrounding areas they will not open for most pupils until 18 January.

In Northern Ireland, primary school pupils will be taught online until 11 January. In secondary schools, years 8 to 11 will be taught online throughout January. Years 12 to 14 will return to school after the first week of January.

In Scotland, the Christmas holidays have been extended to 11 January, and the following week will be online learning only. A full return to face-to-face learning is planned for 18 January.

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Laura Doel, director of NAHT Cymru, said “control of infection has been lost” in large parts of Wales, which had created an “intolerable risk to many school communities”.

“It is simply unacceptable for schools to remain open when there is such a question mark over the impact the new variant will have and we will not sit back and let this happen without calling the Welsh Government to account, for the sake of the whole school community,” she added.

Ms Doel said the union had taken legal action “to force” the Welsh Government “to disclose the scientific information they are withholding” which has guided its policies.

In England, pressure is growing on the government to keep all schools closed for two weeks after the Christmas break amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

Covid: NASUWT threatens action over Wales school return plan

Unions representing teachers and heads in Wales have called for face-to-face teaching to be suspended in response to the new coronavirus variant.

The NASUWT has threatened “appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk”.

And headteachers’ union NAHT Cymru said it was “simply unacceptable” for schools to reopen.

The Welsh Government said it had agreed an approach with local authorities “with some flexibility built in”.

The National Education Union Cymru had called for in-person learning to be delayed until at least 18 January.

According to councils, many secondary schools aim to return from 11 January, with some fully open on 6 January.

Welsh schools have been asked to make provision for vulnerable children and children of key workers from this week.

All pupils will be expected to take part in remote learning before their schools reopen for face-to-face teaching.

But teachers’ unions have said more time is needed to understand the new Covid-19 variant.

While “completely committed” to ensuring children return to school as soon as possible, NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach said it was now “abundantly clear that the pandemic is seriously impacting on the ability of all schools to continue to operate normally”.

“The NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk as a result of the failure of employers or the Welsh Government to ensure safe working conditions in schools.”

Neil Butler, the union’s official for Wales, said there was “chaos and confusion” in the Welsh education system, and that “the buck has effectively been passed to local authorities and some authorities have passed it down to individual schools”.

Mr Butler said a suspension of face-to-face teaching would allow schools to review their risk assessments in light of the new variant.

Laura Doel, director of head teachers’ union NAHT Cymru, said “control of infection has been lost” in large parts of Wales, which had created an “intolerable risk to many school communities”.

“It is simply unacceptable for schools to remain open when there is such a question mark over the impact the new variant will have and we will not sit back and let this happen without calling the Welsh Government to account, for the sake of the whole school community,” she added.

A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “We have agreed with local authorities a common approach to schools returning in January with some flexibility built in over the first two weeks of term.

“It is our expectation that pupils, when not in school, will continue to benefit from remote learning.”

In England, pressure is growing on the government to keep all schools closed for two weeks after the Christmas break amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

Covid-19: Anti-lockdown protesters arrested at Hyde Park demo

Police have made arrests at an anti-lockdown demonstration in central London.

Crowds of between 200 to 300 people began to gather in Hyde Park, which is in a tier four coronavirus area, at about 13:30 GMT on Saturday, the Metropolitan Police said.

Seventeen people were arrested on suspicion of breaching public health regulations.

Most demonstrators had left the park by 16:45, police said.

The Met tweeted: “Officers continue to engage with groups of people who have gathered in the Hyde Park area.

“A number of people have been arrested under health protection regulations and taken into custody.

“We urge those in the area to leave immediately.”

More than two people are generally not allowed to meet in public under tier four rules.

The police force added: “Officers will take enforcement action where we see clear breaches of the tier four rules.

“It’s up to all of us to make the right choices and slow the spread of the virus.”

A group called The People’s Lockdown, Stand For Your Human Rights, had said it was going to hold a event at Hyde Park on Saturday afternoon.

In an online post, it called on people to “stand with your loved ones”.

Covid in Scotland: Restrictions could continue amid rising cases

Scotland should be prepared for Covid restrictions to be extended as infection rates continue to rise, a public health expert has said.

The latest government figures show a further 2,137 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Scotland on Friday.

Prof Linda Bauld described it as a “fragile situation”, despite the rate dropping below Thursday’s 2,539 cases.

The latest figures for hospital admissions and deaths will not be published until Tuesday.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned on Friday that the next few weeks could be the most dangerous period for Scotland since March in the fight against Covid as the new variant of the virus was “accelerating spread” across Scotland.

Daily confirmed cases reached record highs on the last three days of 2020, rising to to 2,622 on Thursday.

The percentage of positive cases also reached 14.4% on Wednesday – the highest it has been since the second wave of the pandemic began in the summer.

It had dropped to 10.8% on Friday. A percentage of lower than 5% is needed to show the virus is under control, according to the WHO.

Prof Bauld, from the University of Edinburgh, said there were no signs yet that the infection rate was levelling off, having risen suddenly from a daily rate of fewer than 1,000 to more than 2,000 per day in recent days.

She told BBC Scotland: “It definitely is a fragile situation and you can see that we have more cases than we would expect at the current time.

“We may be starting to see some of the impacts of the Christmas mixing, but also we know around four in 10 cases, from recent data, are of the new variant.

“I would imagine that the new variant is playing a role in these higher rates of infection and if these numbers continue to sit at where they are we are going to have more people in hospital in a week or two’s time, and that is very worrying.”

This would bring “real challenges” for hospitals, especially in the central belt, Prof Bauld said, adding that it was “absolutely imperative that we do not see these number rise more than they are now”.

She said it would take some time to see the impact of level four restrictions introduced in mainland Scotland on Boxing Day.

“Mentally we just need to be prepared for the fact that we may be living with the level four restrictions for longer than the Scottish government currently plans,” Prof Bauld said.

She said the new, more transmissible coronavirus variant would make it harder to get the R number below one in Scotland and schools may not be able to fully reopen on 18 January.

The government’s education recovery group was preparing with schools for blended learning to go on longer if necessary, she added.

All of mainland Scotland is under level four restrictions in an attempt to slow down the rate of virus spread.

A new study by London’s Imperial College has found that the new variant of Covid-19 is “hugely” more transmissible than the virus’s previous version.

It concludes that the new variant increases the Reproduction or R number by between 0.4 and 0.7.

The Scottish government’s most recent estimate of the R number in Scotland has put it between 0.9 and 1.1. It needs to be below 1.0 for the number of cases to start falling.

The government has described the vaccination programme as a “light at the end of the tunnel” and has urged people to stay at home as much as possible in the meantime.

Coronavirus: Medics complain of bureaucracy in bid to join Covid vaccine effort

When dentist Andy Bates offered to help administer the coronavirus vaccine, he hadn’t bargained for the “overload of bureaucracy” he says came his way.

Dr Bates, from North Yorkshire, is one of a number of health staff to criticise the paperwork needed to gain NHS approval to give the jabs.

Some medics have been asked for proof they are trained in areas such as preventing radicalisation.

The NHS said training and checks were needed.

A spokesman for the NHS told the BBC: “Regardless of a person’s background in healthcare, appropriate training and checks are necessary to handle the vaccine.

“[This] is why important processes are in place to make sure that former members of staff are up to speed on protocols and delivery, so that vaccinators are fully equipped with the skills to safely vaccinate patients in line with Public Health England standards.”

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first jab approved in the UK, and 944,539 people have had their first jab.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has also been approved for use in the UK, with the first doses due to be given on Monday.

Dr Bates, a 56-year-old dentist based in Skipton, says he was met with layers of “bureaucracy” when he applied to be an NHS vaccinator – a role that requires healthcare experience.

He told BBC Radio’s 5 live programme: “I am a working dentist with a dental practice. I work four days a week which gives me a day off and the weekend, so I thought I could probably help out [with] explaining things to people, being able to use a needle, being able to relax people in an environment where you’re giving them a jab.

“It’s part and parcel of the job of being a dentist.”

But he says he and two of his dental staff who also applied for roles have been asked to upload a “huge list of documents” and complete online modules proving they are trained in certain areas to progress their applications.

Recognising and managing anaphylaxis

Resuscitation, level 2

Safeguarding adults, level 2

Safeguarding children, level 2

Vaccine administration

Vaccine storage

Health, Safety and Welfare, level 1

Infection Prevention and control, level 2

Introduction to Anaphylaxis

Legal aspects of vaccination

Moving and Handling, level 1

Preventing radicalisation, level 1

Conflict resolution, level 1

Core knowledge for Covid-19 vaccinators

Covid mRNA vaccine BNT162b2 (Pfizer BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine)

Data security awareness, level 1

Equality, Diversity and Human rights, level 1

Fire safety, level 1

Dr Bates says: “Some of the things are really quite sensible – like resuscitation, and recognising and managing anaphylaxis – but then you get things like preventing radicalisation, level 1 certificate required [or] safeguarding children level 2.”

“Children aren’t a priority for vaccination, [so] I really don’t think we’re going to be seeing children.”

“To be a registered dentist and CQC registered dental practice, which you have to be, these are things that we have to prove to the CQC and declaring to the General Dental Council (GDC) every year that we have done and kept up to date various trainings.”

But he said separating all these skills out according to the website’s requirements “would be really quite a task” given his other work commitments.

“I must admit, I gave up at the second hurdle, because I’m very busy as a dentist and I do get home quite tired at night. I thought ‘good grief, If I have to go through all this’, I’m not [doing it].”

Dr Bates believes that registered healthcare practitioners should be able to apply through their registration details, with a thorough identity check that would fast-track them through the necessary training.

It comes as batches of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine have started arriving at hospitals. Some 530,000 doses of the jab will be available for rollout across the UK, with vulnerable groups already identified as the priority for immunisation.

The UK now hopes to accelerate its vaccination rollout, amid a rise in cases driven by a new variant of coronavirus, by giving both parts of the Oxford and Pfizer vaccines 12 weeks apart, having initially planned to leave 21 days between the Pfizer jabs.

The UK’s chief medical officers have defended the Covid vaccination plan, after criticism from a doctors’ union, insisting that getting more people vaccinated with the first jab “is much more preferable”.

Dr Phil Clarke and wife Sheelagh, a nurse practitioner, retired from their local GP practice in Southampton two years ago. But when the pandemic struck in March and the government appealed for retired medics to help out, they answered the call and returned.

Sheelagh and Dr Clarke, both 67, say they have already been administering the Pfizer vaccine to the over-70s and 80s, care home residents and other vulnerable groups through their old practice.

But when the couple recently applied to become NHS vaccinators, Sheelagh says they feel that despite their skills and relevant experience, that the NHS was asking them to “jump through 101 hoops”.

She told the BBC: “You kind of feel like you’re trusted and have quite major responsibility to go in and do vaccinating, and then a very belittling application tells you that they don’t trust that you’ve got the skills and abilities to do it.”

She said although they had done a lot of the required e-learning for their own practice, some of the other modules they’d been asked to do had left them “flabbergasted”.

“We don’t have time to do any more e-learning, we’ve already done a lot – probably about 10-12 hours- some of which are perfectly reasonable, like infection control, it’s the unreasonable demands” such as “awareness of radicalisation and conflict resolution”.

Prof Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said recently retired medics and other healthcare professionals have “huge amounts of skill and experience” to offer the vaccine effort and called for “bureaucratic barriers” to be kept to “the bare minimum”.

He added: “Requiring people to submit more than 20 pieces of documentation, some of which have low relevance to the task they will be doing, and some of which some retired medics and returners to the profession won’t even have, is a deterrent for them getting involved at a time when we need all hands on deck.”

An NHS spokesman said “tens of thousands of people have already completed their online training” which “are being processed as quickly as possible and vaccinators will be deployed as and when they are required”.

He added: “It is categorically untrue that there are any delays in Covid vaccination caused by accrediting volunteers or returners.”

Bitcoin value surges past $30,000 (£22,000) for first time

Bitcoin has passed $30,000 (£22,000) in value for the first time, continuing a recent sharp rise.

The virtual cryptocurrency hit $30,823.30 at 13:13 GMT on Saturday, just weeks after soaring above $20,000 for the first time.

In the past year Bitcoin has almost quadrupled in value thanks to interest from large investors looking for rapid profits.

Some analysts think it could rise even further as the US dollar drops further.

While the value of the US currency rose in March at the start of the coronavirus pandemic as investors sought safety amid the uncertainty, it has since dropped due to major stimulus from the US Federal Reserve. The currency ended last year with its biggest annual loss since 2017.

Bitcoin is traded in much the same way as real currencies like the US dollar and pound sterling.

Recently it has won growing support as a form of payment online, with PayPal among the most recent adopters of digital currencies.

But the cryptocurrency has also proved to be a volatile investment.

A previous rally in 2017 saw it come close to breaking through the $20,000 level. But it has also hit extreme lows and has fallen below $3,300 previously.

It passed $19,000 in November last year before dropping sharply again.

Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey cautioned over its use as a payment method in October.

“I have to be honest, it is hard to see that Bitcoin has what we tend to call intrinsic value,” he said. “It may have extrinsic value in the sense that people want it.”

Mr Bailey added that he was “very nervous” about people using Bitcoin for payments pointing out that investors should realise its price is extremely volatile.

Bristol stabbings: Police not ruling out link between New Year attacks

Police say they are “keeping an open mind” over whether two stabbings are related.

On New Year’s Day a 15-year-old boy was stabbed several times in Fishponds in Bristol.

The incident happened the day after a 17-year-old was attacked in the city centre.

Avon and Somerset Police say they are stepping up patrols after the incidents.

The latest attack happened around 12:20 GMT on 1 January when two men approached the boy as he rode a scooter on Downend Road.

According to police the teenager “sustained a number of stab wounds” before the two men fled.

The victim remains in hospital and his injuries are not thought to be life-threatening.

Acting Det Insp Mark Newbury said the force was keen to hear from witnesses or anyone with dashcam footage

He said: “Thankfully incidents of this nature are rare, but we’re conscious a similar assault occurred in Bristol city centre in which a 17-year-old sustained a number of stab wounds on New Year’s Eve.

“At this time the two incidents are separate investigations, but we are keeping an open mind as to whether they may be linked.”

Irish Eurovision singer Liam Reilly dies aged 65

Irish Eurovision singer and frontman of the rock band Bagatelle, Liam Reilly, has died aged 65.

A family statement confirmed that Mr Reilly “passed away suddenly but peacefully at his home” on 1 January.

Mr Reilly fronted Bagatelle for more than 40 years and they had success with songs including Summer in Dublin and Second Violin.

He also came joint second at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1990 with the song Somewhere in Europe.

The song finished on 132 points, joint with France’s entry sung by Joëlle Ursull, in the contest in Zagreb.

Italy’s entrant – Insieme: 1992, sung by Tuto Cutugno – won with 149 points.

Mr Reilly, from Dundalk, County Louth, also composed Ireland’s Eurovision entry for the contest in Rome in 1991, when Kim Jackson performed his song Could It Be That I’m In Love, which was placed 10th.

“We know that his many friends and countless fans around the world will share in our grief as we mourn his loss, but celebrate the extraordinary talent of the man whose songs meant so much to so many.” the family statement added.

Joe Gallagher, the band’s promoter from Strabane, County Tyrone, told BBC Radio Ulster “the talent that Liam brought to the music industry in Ireland is second to none”.

“Some of the songs that he has written are up there with some of the better songs written in Ireland,” he said.

“He is one of the best singer-songwriters Ireland has ever seen or produced.”

Mr Reilly also wrote songs for others, including The Wolfe Tones. The Irish group paid tribute to him on social media, describing him as “a master songwriter”.

Stephen Travers, a member of the Miami Showband, said Mr Reilly was a “national treasure”.

Covid-19: NI records 26 more virus-linked deaths

Northern Ireland has recorded a further 26 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 48 hours and more than 3,500 positive cases.

It comes as a week of stricter regulations, including a “stay-at-home curfew” from 20:00 GMT to 06:00, came to an end.

Non-essential retail and close-contact services remain closed.

Households are not allowed to mix indoors outside of their respective bubbles.

However, essential retailers and takeaway food outlets can once again trade after 20:00.

The six-week lockdown, which began on Boxing Day, is due to be reviewed after four weeks.

The latest figures from the Department of Health cover the last two days and the 26 deaths bring the total number of deaths in Northern Ireland to 1,348.

Of the 26 deaths, 25 happened in the last 48 hours.

Another 3,576 people have tested positive in the same time period, bringing the total number of positive cases to 76,410.

The figures come after Northern Ireland recorded its highest ever daily number of coronavirus cases last Wednesday.

In the past seven days the Department of Health has recorded 10,850 cases, an increase of more than 6,000 compared to the previous seven days.