5.19pm GMT

Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, pays tribute to NHS staff and warns that the new variant is fuelling the spiralling cases.

“Its absolutely vital that this year everyone continues to following the guidance by staying home and not mixing,” he says, referring to New Years Eve. “Covid loves a crowd so please leave the parties for later in the year.”

5.17pm GMT

The NHS hasn’t seen the impact of transmissions which will have occurred recently during households mixing over the festive period, Van-Tam says, and he implores people to play their part to mitigate “this very dangerous situation”.

5.11pm GMT

And he pleads, see in the new year tomorrow within your own households: “Let’s follow the rules, protect the NHS and together, make 2021 the year we leave this tunnel behind us.”

And he passes over the deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam who goes through slides showing case rates doubled from the fortnight after 10 December.

5.09pm GMT

Johnson leaves the door open for further action on schools in the most affected areas and says all secondary school students will be tested upon their return and regularly thereafter.

He says medical courses and others requiring face to face teaching at universities should be prioritised, suggesting others should not return to campuses.

5.07pm GMT

At this critical moment, with the prospect of freedom within reach, we’ve got to redouble our efforts to contain the virus, Johnson says.

No-one regrets these measures more bitterly than I do, but we must take firm action now, and that’s why we must think very hard about schools … Keeping children in education is a national priority and schools are safe, but we must face reality about the pace of the spread of the new variant.

He reiterates Williamson’s announcements earlier, which you can read below.

5.05pm GMT

Johnson heralds the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine following its approval, saying that a first dose will be given to as many vulnerable people as possible with a second dose to follow 12 weeks later. He says the government is working as fast as it can to make the vaccine available.

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5.00pm GMT

Boris Johnson holds Covid briefing in the UK

UK prime minister Boris Johnson is leading a press conference, as millions more people are to have strict tier 4 coronavirus restrictions imposed on their local areas.


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4.56pm GMT

Meanwhile, university students in England who do not need to be on campus for practical learning are also being encouraged to stay at home by the government, though the precise details of the plans remain unclear.

Gavin Williamson told MPs:

We’re also asking universities to reduce the number of students who return to campus at the start of January, prioritising students who require practical learning to gain their professional qualifications. All university students should be offered two rapid tests on return in order to reduce the chance of spread of Covid.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said:

We fully appreciate the public health situation has changed quite dramatically in a very short period of time, and it is therefore right that government and universities should look again at plans for the start of the spring term. For universities, the safety and wellbeing of students and staff is the priority and the sector will implement the new restrictions for England announced by the UK government with fewer students returning for face-to-face teaching, practicals and placements in early January.

Our immediate focus will be communicating with students with as much information as we can, as soon as we can, and reassuring them that universities will be there to support them and provide high-quality online teaching and learning until they can return to campus. Today’s announcement will understandably raise further issues and uncertainty – for students, universities and staff – which will need to be addressed by government over the coming weeks, including the need for financial support, regulatory flexibility and assessment changes.

4.51pm GMT

Williamson is facing criticism already over a failure to publish his plans in step with his announcement, after the main aspects were reported in some detail this morning ahead of the announcement.

In the Commons, shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “This delay and disruption to children’s education is a direct result of the Government’s failure. They’ve lost control of the virus, now they’re losing control of children’s education.”

She said there was a consensus among MPs that the best place for children is in school but the government had “failed to give schools the support they need to make that happen”.

Shadow minister for schools Wes Streeting has tweeted: “The first thing that parents will be doing following this statement is looking online to see if their schools are open. The list isn’t yet online. For crying out loud.”

Shadow further education and universities minister Emma Hardy tweeted: “Why announce in parliament that some schools will not open as ‘normal’ and fail to provide a list on which schools are impacted! What a total shambles.”

School reopenings and closures will vary according to regional tiers and year groups, posing a confusing web of return dates for parents and school leaders.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said:

This is another last-minute mess which could so easily have been avoided if the government had listened to school leaders before the holidays. Instead, back then, schools which wanted to shift to remote learning were threatened with legal action. Now we have a situation where the government is instructing schools to reduce the amount of teaching time available.

If we’d had the freedom to take action before the holidays, we might have been in a position to have more schools open for more pupils. School leaders will be baffled, frustrated and justifiably angry tonight.

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4.35pm GMT

England’s schools return delayed to mid-January in staggered opening

In the House of Commons, education secretary Gavin Williamson has announced that “in a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest”, only vulnerable children would continue to attend primary schools in person following the New Year.

The majority of primary schools will open as planned after the Christmas break, he said, adding that he is working to keep children in school due to the risk to their development and that the overwhelming majority of primary schools would reopen as planned, he added.

All pupils in exam years are to return to secondary schools in England on 11 January while the rest of secondary and college students would go back on 18 January, Williamson announced in a u-turn on the planned reopening.

We’ll be opening the majority of primary schools as planned on Monday, January 4. We know how vitally important it is for younger children to be in school for their education, wellbeing and wider development.

In a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest we will implement our existing contingency framework such as only vulnerable children and children of critical workers will attend face to face.

We will publish this list of areas today on the GOV.UK website. I’d like to emphasise that this is being used only as a last resort. This is not all Tier 4 areas and that the overwhelming majority of primary schools will open as planned on Monday.

He also shed light on new plans for mass testing at schools and colleges, saying that testing would begin “in earnest” in January, with those in exam years at the head of the queue.

During the first week of term on or after January 4, secondary schools and colleges will prepare to test as many staff and students as possible and will only be open to vulnerable children and children of key workers.

The 1,500 military personnel committed to supporting schools and colleges will remain on task providing virtual training and advice on establishing the testing process with teams on standby to provide in-person support if required by schools.

Testing will then begin the following week in earnest with those who are in exam years at the head of the queue. This is in preparation for the full return of all pupils in all year groups on January 18 in most areas.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson delivers his statement on the return of schools after the Christmas break in England. Photograph: House of Commons/PA

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4.10pm GMT

Greece’s government has announced senior officials will no longer be given priority for the vaccine after posts on social media by Cabinet ministers receiving the shot before most healthcare workers led to a backlash from unions and opposition parties.

Aristotelia Peloni, a deputy spokeswoman for the rightwing government, said the vaccination selfies were “wrong” and the plan to vaccinate 126 officials from the government and state-run organisations was being cut short after around half had received the shot.

It had been expected that a small number of senior officials would receive the vaccine publicly, as part of a plan to persuade everyone that it was safe and necessary, but the number of people on the list took many by surprise.

“These [vaccination] selfies were wrong. The symbolism around this issue has been exhausted at the highest level and nothing more was required.” Peloni told Greek radio station Parapolitika.

She said 66 officials had been vaccinated by midday on Wednesday out of a total of 1,128 people who had received the vaccine – meaning politicians received the vaccine before most doctors and healthcare workers.

Greece’s prime minister, president, and the head of the armed forces were all vaccinated at the weekend at the start of a national rollout expected to last months in an effort to ease public concerns over the safety of the programme.

They were followed by opposition party leaders as well as cabinet ministers and other senior government officials – drawing criticism from medical workers’ unions, the Associated Press reported.

“Cabinet ministers and their general secretaries have been lining up for a selfie with the vaccine, while doctors, nurses and other front line workers may have to wait their turn until the end of summer to get vaccinated,” Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the leftwing opposition, said on Tuesday after getting his own vaccine shot.

“That’s not symbolism, it’s favouritism.”

Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis receives a shot of the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against coronavirus in Athens on Sunday. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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4.09pm GMT

UK reports 981 daily Covid-linked deaths

The UK has recorded 981 Covid-related deaths since yesterday, one of the highest daily tolls since April.

The UK also registered 50,023 new cases in the last 24 hours, while 2,430 people were admitted to hospital.

3.49pm GMT

Giuseppe Conte, prime minister of Italy, has said that one of the greatest concerns related to the pandemic facing his government is the plight of workers once a moratorium on firings lifts in March.

Charities have reported a rise in the number of requests from people seeking aid for the first time due to the lockdown in the spring and less severe closures in recent months amid rising coronavirus cases.

Conte defended his government’s actions to protect workers, citing an earmarked €5bn in social funding that the Bank of Italy said had helped to prevent 600,000 people from losing their jobs during the pandemic.

He said the government was working with unions and social services “to confront the very worrying scenarios that we will see after March, because it is clear that the security belt that we have built is more or less working”.

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte during the year-end press conference on Wednesday. Photograph: Press office/AGF/REX/Shutterstock

Charities have also noted that some categories of workers remain uncovered by social programmes while government aid last spring arrived late and proved in many cases insufficient to cover basic expenses, the Associated Press reported.

During a wide-ranging end-of-year press conference, Conte maintained his stance that the vaccine against the virus would remain voluntary in Italy. But he urged people to get it. Surveys show one-quarter to one-third of Italians are sceptical of the vaccine.

“I ask everyone to make an effort, put aside ideology, put aside emotional reactions, and let’s perform an act of solidarity, if we don’t want to call it love, toward the entire national community. Let’s take the vaccine,’’ Conte said.

He said the first phase of the vaccination program reaching at least 10 million people should be complete by the end of April, but that there would still be a long way to go in the country of 60 million.

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3.36pm GMT

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening to all, and thanks to Jedidajah. I’ll be bringing you updates for the next couple of hours and you can contact me on Twitter or via email on mattha.busby.freelance@guardian.co.uk if you’d like to get in touch with any news we haven’t yet covered.

3.30pm GMT

Thanks for following along with me today, I’m now going to hand over to my colleague Mattha Busby.

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