Portrait of the week

A new Covid variant, a Labour reshuffle and a Twitter resignation

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM


In a nervous response to the entry into Britain of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 — B.1.1.529 — the wearing of face coverings in shops and public transport was made law again, though by statutory instrument not by an Act of Parliament. Anyone deemed to have been in contact with a Covid sufferer faced ten days’ house arrest. MPs voted in support of the measures after their introduction. Pubs and restaurants were exempt, but schoolchildren over the age of 12 had to wear masks in communal areas. ‘If we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay,’ said Dr Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency. But the government said people could go on with Christmas plans. All adults would be offered a booster vaccination by the end of January, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister said; 17 million booster doses had already been given. Children aged 12 or more would be offered a second dose, 12 weeks after their first. Severely immunocompromised people will be offered a fourth dose. In the seven days up to the beginning of this week, 858 people had died with coronavirus, bringing the total of deaths (within 28 days of testing positive) to 144,724. (In the previous week, deaths had numbered 1,031.) Numbers remaining in hospital fell from about 8,000 to about 7,600.

The long-awaited White Paper on social care was presented to parliament. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, was disinvited from a meeting of EU ministers on the migrant crisis after the Prime Minister published on Twitter a letter to President Emmanuel Macron of France proposing a mechanism to return failed asylum-seekers from Britain to France and the use of British troops in France to help prevent crossings in small boats. The French government’s official spokesman called the letter ‘mediocre in terms of the content, and wholly inappropriate as regards the form’. The letter followed the death of 27 migrants off Calais when their inflatable craft failed.

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, shuffled the shadow cabinet, but could do nothing about Angela Rayner, whose position as deputy leader is determined by the party. He made Yvette Cooper shadow home secretary and David Lammy was promoted to shadow foreign secretary, replacing Lisa Nandy, who will shadow Michael Gove. Wes Streeting became shadow health secretary. More than 20,000 in Scotland were left for at least five days with no electricity after a snowstorm. Radio 4’s Today went off the air for 25 minutes because of a fire alarm; there was no fire.


South Africa, despite bringing Omicron to the world’s attention, was penalised by being cut off from international travel. A couple who escaped from a Covid-quarantine hotel were arrested by Dutch police on a plane at Schiphol before it took off for Spain. President Joe Biden of the United States said the Omicron variant was ‘a cause for concern, not a cause for panic’. Japan barred all foreigners from entering, as did Israel for a fortnight. President Vladimir Putin of Russia called for recognition of the Sputnik V vaccine, which is not approved by the WHO or the European Medicines Agency. The Omicron variant could add pressure to a worldwide shortage of microchips used in car manufacturing, Makoto Uchida, the head of Nissan, warned. The total in the world reported to have died with coronavirus reached 5,212,793 by the beginning of the week.

Diplomats from Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain held talks in Vienna on limiting Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions; American representatives participated indirectly. Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter in 2006, stepped down as its chief executive. Magdalena Andersson became Sweden’s first woman prime minister, resigned hours later when her coalition broke up and returned as prime minister four days after that. Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist of musicals, died aged 91. Seven people on Pemba, one of the Zanzibar islands, died after eating turtle, in a kind of food poisoning called chelonitoxism.

Dozens of former members of the Afghan security forces had been killed by the Taliban, despite an amnesty, according to Human Rights Watch. Taha al-Jumailly, 29, an Iraqi member of the Islamic State group, was convicted of crimes of genocide against Yazidis by a German court asserting universal jurisdiction. Barbados became a republic. A man filmed doing a brisk trade selling fried grasshoppers to passengers on a Ugandan Airlines plane was arrested. CSH

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments