FirstFT: Omicron variant poses ‘very high’ risk, WHO says

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The global risk from the Omicron coronavirus variant is “very high”, the World Health Organization warned, as countries including the UK as well as the EU imposed travel restrictions and Japan moved to ban foreign visitors.

Outlining its preliminary findings on the strain first detected in southern Africa, the health body warned of its potentially “severe consequences”, as scientists raced to understand the effect of its multiple mutations on the severity of disease and its effect on natural and vaccine-caused immunity.

Anecdotal reports from South Africa over the weekend appeared to suggest that the disease produced milder symptoms although scientists stressed it was too early to tell.

In the UK, as confirmed Omicron cases rose to 11, officials plan to expand the vaccine booster programme to all adults and a halving of the gap between the second and third doses to three months. Companies, meanwhile, are scrambling to review rules over office working.

Economists generally expect the world economy to weather further waves of infections caused by the Omicron variant relatively easily. However, Robert Armstrong writes in the latest Unhedged newsletter that there are at least three reasons to think this time might be different from the Delta surge.

US and European stocks partially recovered yesterday after news of the Omicron coronavirus variant triggered a sharp sell-off late last week.

Are you changing travel or work plans because of the new strain? Tell me what you think at [email protected]. Thanks for reading FirstFT Europe/Africa. — Jennifer

1. Jack Dorsey resigns as Twitter chief executive The company’s co-founder stepped down as chief executive yesterday. The social network appointed chief technology officer Parag Agrawal as his successor. Dorsey did not give a reason for the move but he said Twitter was “ready to move on from its founders”.

2. Activist calls on Glencore to spin off coal assets Bluebell Capital Partners, a London-based activist hedge fund, has called on the commodities group to spin off its thermal coal business, divest non-core assets and improve corporate governance.

“A clear separation between carbonised and decarbonised assets is needed to increase shareholder value”

3. Berlin to quiz Deutsche Bahn over fraud allegations The German government is to quiz the state-owned railway operator’s executive board over allegations of fraud made by two whistleblowers regarding the €8.2bn construction of a new station in Stuttgart.

4. HMRC blocked only £28m in suspect claims to furlough scheme The UK’s tax authority blocked less than £30m of suspect claims in the first year of the coronavirus job retention scheme compared with an estimated £5.3bn paid out due to fraud and error.

5. Ghislaine Maxwell trial to shed light on Epstein misdeeds Opening arguments began yesterday in the trial of the British socialite and confidant of late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and the manager of his far-flung properties.

For those brutalised — or mesmerised — by Epstein, a New York court may now provide some answers in the form of Maxwell’s trial
For those brutalised — or mesmerised — by Epstein, a New York court might now provide some answers in the form of Maxwell’s trial © REUTERS

Coronavirus digest

  • Joe Biden has ruled out another round of lockdowns in the US this winter despite the risk posed by the new Omicron variant.

  • Stéphane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, has predicted that existing vaccines will be much less effective at tackling Omicron than earlier strains.

The day ahead

Barbados becomes a republic Today’s ceremony will formally end Queen Elizabeth’s period as constitutional monarch, formulated when Barbados gained independence in the 1960s after three centuries as a British colony.

Economic data Turkey’s economy is forecast to have expanded 7.5 per cent in the third quarter, according to a Reuters poll. But rising inflation and the lira’s recent plunge are set to hinder growth later. Eurozone inflation is expected to hit 4.4 per cent this month, the biggest rise in 13 years. Germany, France and Italy are due to publish monthly gross domestic product figures, as is Canada. (Reuters, FT)

  • Go deeper: Check out our inflation tracker, which analyses the rise in consumer prices around the world, and assess how long the trends may last.

UK MPs discuss energy crisis inquiry Lawmakers on the House of Commons business, energy and industrial strategy select committee will discuss an inquiry into wholesale price surges. Jonathan Brearley, Ofgem chief executive, is also due to appear before a House of Lords committee.

US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Jay Powell, Federal Reserve chair, will tell lawmakers that rising Covid-19 cases and the Omicron variant threatens to imperil the economic recovery. Janet Yellen, Treasury secretary, will also deliver testimony at the hearing.

What else we’re reading

Afghan’s perilous journey to the UK by boat A high proportion of Afghan asylum applications in the UK are successful. But they have to make it there first. Now hundreds of migrants who fled the Taliban are attempting to reach the English shore from northern France, after a police crackdown has made clandestine crossings by train, lorry and car too difficult.

AI makes applying for jobs even more miserable Young people today face different but no less daunting interviews, answering questions to webcams with no human to interact with at all. But these “asynchronous video interviews” are bad news for both employers and would-be employees, writes Sarah O’Connor.

The inside story of Pfizer’s vaccine The pandemic has ushered in a massive expansion in state power, from the war footing in economic policy to stay-at-home orders. But governments have been largely dependent on private companies such as Pfizer to provide medical solutions. Does the dominant Covid-19 jab manufacturer have too much power?

Why China’s elite tread a perilous path In China, the rich and powerful are also vulnerable to disgrace, disappearance or worse, writes Gideon Rachman. The phenomenon was highlighted by a Forbes magazine article in 2011: “Friends don’t let friends become Chinese billionaires.”

BT bid hopes look detached from reality It is increasingly hard to penetrate the mix of takeover talk and wishful thinking swirling around BT, writes Helen Thomas. Investors are eager for signs that a quick win is coming after its share price has halved in the past five years.

House & Home

Given that London has become increasingly infernal-looking at night, with all the red aeroplane warning lights, Hampstead Heath offers a biblical metaphor of a bucolic idyll amid the metropolis.

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