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Russia reports new record high of daily Covid-19 cases

MOSCOW (XINHUA, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) – Russia registered 25,173 Covid-19 cases over the past 24 hours, a new all-time high, as the pandemic worsened in the cold season, said the country’s Covid-19 response centre on Monday (Nov 23).

The national tally of cases has grown to 2,114,502, including 36,540 deaths and 1,611,445 recoveries, the centre said in a statement.

Moscow, the country’s worst-hit region, reported 6,866 new cases over the past day, bringing the city’s total to 560,579.

So far, more than 72.9 million tests have been conducted in the country.

Russia has been working on a coronavirus vaccine and earlier this month said its Sputnik V vaccine is 92 per cent effective at protecting people from Covid-1, based on interim trial results.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which has been backing Sputnik V’s development, said the Russian trial would continue for six months.

Dr Alexander Gintsburg, director of the Gamaleya Institute which developed the vaccine, said the interim results demonstrated that Sputnik V was effective and mass vaccinations would be rolled out in Russia in the coming weeks.

In later comments, aired by Rossiya-24 state TV channel, he said at least 1.5 million people in Russia were expected to receive the shot by the end of the year. He added that around 40,000 to 45,000 Russians had already been vaccinated.

Russia has the fifth-most cases globally, after the United States, India, Brazil and France.

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U.S. FDA authorizes emergency use of experimental antibody drug Trump took

U.S. health officials Saturday agreed to allow emergency use of a second antibody drug to help the immune system fight COVID-19, an experimental medicine that U.S. President Donald Trump was given when he was sickened last month.

The Food and Drug Administration authorized use of the Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. drug to try to prevent hospitalization and worsening disease from developing in patients with mild-to-moderate symptoms.

The drug is given as a one-time treatment through an IV. The FDA allowed its use in adults and children 12 and over who weigh at least 88 pounds (40 kilograms) and who are at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of age or certain other medical conditions.

Emergency authorization allows use of the drug to start while studies are continuing to establish safety and effectiveness. Early results suggest the drug may reduce COVID-19-related hospitalization or emergency room visits in patients at high risk for disease progression, the FDA said.

Regeneron said that initial doses will be made available to roughly 300,000 patients through a federal government allocation program. Patients will not be charged for the drug but may have to pay part of the cost of giving the IV.

Initial supplies will likely be vastly outstripped by demand as the U.S. has surged past 10 million reported cases, with the country facing what health experts say will be a dark winter due uncontrolled spread of the virus.

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Antibodies are proteins the body makes to target and help eliminate viruses, but it can take weeks for the best ones to form after an infection occurs. The drugs are concentrated versions of ones that proved best able to do this in lab and animal tests, and in theory help the body start to fight the virus right away.

The Regeneron drug is a combo of two antibodies to enhance the chances it will prove effective. Earlier this month, the FDA gave emergency authorization to a single-antibody drug from Eli Lilly that also is still being studied.

There’s no way to know whether the Regeneron drug helped Trump recover; he received a host of treatments and most COVID-19 patients recover on their own.

FDA regulators authorized the Regeneron drug using their emergency powers to quickly speed the availability of experimental drugs and other medical products during public health crises.

In normal times the FDA requires “substantial evidence” to show that a drug is safe and effective, usually through one or more large, rigorously controlled patient studies. But during public health emergencies the agency can lower those standards and require only that an experimental treatment’s potential benefits outweigh its risks.

The emergency authorization functions like a temporary approval for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. To win full approval, Regeneron will have to submit additional research to fully define the drug’s safety and benefit for patients.

___

AP health writer Matthew Perrone contributed to this report.

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COVID-19: PM’s ‘winter plan’ at a glance: What to expect when lockdown ends

Boris Johnson is expected to announce his plan for winter on Monday, including a strengthened three-tier system of local restrictions for England.

Ministers will then set out what tier each area will be placed into on Thursday.

MPs are expected to be given the vote to approve the new system in the days before it comes into force when the national lockdown ends on 2 December.

What is the new system going to look like?

The country will move back into a three-tier system of regional restrictions, which was in force from 14 October until 5 November.

While many local measures will be similar to those in place previously, the tiers will be strengthened in some areas to safeguard gains made during the national lockdown.

What is the original three tier system?

Tier 1 (medium): Rule of six if meeting indoors or outdoors; pubs and restaurants shut at 10pm

Tier 2 (high): No household mixing indoors; rule of six applies outdoors; pubs and restaurants shut at 10pm

Tier 3 (very high): No household mixing indoors or in some outdoor spaces; pubs and bars not serving meals are closed

What is expected over Christmas?

Several households – potentially three – could be allowed to create a bubble temporarily between 22 and 28 December.

The plans could cover all four nations of the UK, according to reports.

Restrictions on church services could also be lifted allowing Christmas Day services to be held.

But while plans have not yet been set out, ministers have made clear that the festive season will be different to normal.

How long will the new system last for?

The government is optimistic restrictions can be gradually reduced in the run-up to spring, providing vaccines are approved by regulators, allowing a plan for the rollout to begin next month before a wider programme in the new year.

But with no vaccines having been approved it is still not clear exactly when the rollout will be able to begin.

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Will S'poreans, migrant workers take different roads after pandemic?

You learn new rituals in a pandemic. Before we start our weeknight shifts at the migrant workers’ clinic, we don our personal protective equipment (PPE).

I tug the tight straps of the N95 mask over my head and pinch the metal strip over my nose. Sanitiser. Then the protective gown, closed up at the back with masking tape. More sanitiser. Hairnet, face shield. One pair of gloves, taped around my wrists to form a makeshift seal. Second pair of gloves. More sanitiser.

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Don't get hung up over when phase 3 will happen in Singapore

When will phase three of Singapore’s reopening come around?

Singaporeans, myself included, have been looking forward to a further easing of measures when the country moves into its “new normal” stage amid the pandemic.

There may be a chance that it could take place before the end of this year, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong at a press conference earlier this month.

But he also set out three key conditions that, if not met, could see phase three delayed to January or “some time early next year”.

Of these three conditions, Singapore is “proceeding well” in terms of having sufficient testing capabilities in place, said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force handling the coronavirus outbreak.

Participation in the TraceTogether programme – the other key plank of reopening – is, however, still hovering around 50 per cent, some way from the 75 per cent needed for effective contact tracing.

An ongoing exercise to distribute tokens to residents islandwide is slated to wrap up only by the end of this year, after an unanticipated surge in demand at the start prompted the authorities to stagger distribution at community centres to spread out supply.

For the third condition – complying with and taking safe management measures seriously – the score card is mixed, with some people still flouting the rules.

The Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment recently flagged how a group of 20 people met for a birthday celebration at Labrador Nature Reserve.

In other cases, between 12 and 50 people were found gathering at various parks, birthday celebrations or baby showers, or playing sports at game courts in Housing Board estates.

Such large gatherings in defiance of the rules may not seem like a big deal in an environment where community transmission is low.

The number of Covid-19 cases in the community has been decreasing, from the low single digits to none in the past week.

With the virus situation in Singapore under control at the moment, it is perhaps natural to be lulled into a false sense of security.

But when Singapore further reopens its economy and borders, breaching the rules could well have severe implications.

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Singaporeans have already been warned to be mentally prepared that the number of community cases will rise – possibly up to the 30s – when measures are eased further.

In such a scenario, the number of undetected cases in the community would rise as well.

The danger of the coronavirus is that people appear to be most infectious just before they develop symptoms, and early in their illness. Asymptomatic carriers can easily and unwittingly infect others around them.

All it would take is for one such undetected Covid-19 case who flouts safe distancing rules to spark a large virus cluster.

The experiences of many countries elsewhere in the world provide cautionary tales of how the coronavirus can run rampant in places where it was previously under control.

SECOND WAVES

During the early months of the pandemic in spring, several central European countries won praise for their swift response to contain the coronavirus.

The Czech Republic was one of the first countries to impose a nationwide lockdown and require face masks to be worn. It loosened restrictions over time as the number of daily cases tapered off into the double digits.

On June 30, thousands of people sat at a 500m-long table on the Charles Bridge in Prague for a party to give the coronavirus a “symbolic farewell”.

This celebration proved premature, as the number of daily cases began to surge in September.

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The spike forced the Czech authorities to order a second lockdown, shutting schools and non-essential shops and services. Lawmakers subsequently voted to extend the state of emergency.

Daily cases in the Czech Republic peaked at around 15,700 early this month, and the country reported 5,407 new confirmed cases on Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Europe, countries have registered record numbers of daily Covid-19 infections this month. Many are in full or partial lockdowns to prevent their healthcare systems from being overwhelmed.

Britain hit an all-time high of 33,470 daily infections on Nov 13, while Italy saw a record 40,902 new cases a day later.

Closer to home, Malaysia has been reporting new infections in the high hundreds since the middle of last month. The state of Sabah has been the epicentre of the disease in Malaysia for most of the past two months since the state election on Sept 26.

These examples illustrate how easily the coronavirus can gain a foothold and spread like wildfire once restrictions are eased.

They illustrate the perils when societies let their guard down.

In Singapore, residents have been patient with the pace of reopening, and generally compliant with safe distancing rules. But the desire for a return to old routines and lifestyles is palpable.

The crowds have returned to malls and dining enclaves.

During a recent visit to Dempsey Hill for a weekday lunch, I was struck by how full the carpark was. Every table at the restaurant I went to was occupied.

A colleague from The Straits Times photo desk went to Orchard Road last Saturday, and took photographs of sidewalks packed to the gills, with no safe distancing to speak of.

Crowds are good for businesses reeling from the impact of the pandemic. But they also heighten the risk of contracting an insidious virus that is ever ready to pounce and replicate itself.

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The number of people out and about is set to increase further in phase three, should the Government allow larger group sizes and raise capacity limits at public venues.

This is why we should not rush into the final phase of our reopening till all the pieces of our defence – contact tracing, testing and broad adherence to the rules – are in place.

Don’t get hung up over when phase three will happen. Instead, think about what each of us needs to do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe when it rolls around.

PLAYING DEFENCE

One thing would be to download the TraceTogether app, or collect the token and carry it around.

With more residents on the programme, contact tracers will have an easier time pinpointing people exposed to a Covid-19 case and ring-fencing them before large clusters can form.

Another would be to follow the rules and avoid large gatherings in private or in public.

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It has been a long haul for Singapore to get to a stage where it has only 28 Covid-19 patients being treated in hospitals as at Thursday, with one in the intensive care unit and zero community cases in the past week.

But should the virus resurface in numerous unlinked cases, a return to phase one measures – where most retail outlets had to stay closed and dining out was not allowed – or even a second circuit breaker could well happen.

Closures will be painful and exact a severe toll on an economy that is still struggling to recover.

Thus the need for everyone to play their part in keeping the virus under check, and for the country to reopen carefully, lest it be forced into a premature shutdown.

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Covid-19 Fatigue has Crept into Africans

Africa has surged past two million total COVID-19 cases this week because of large family gatherings, workplace interactions, and gatherings related to elections occurring in several countries. The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the 54-nation continent passed the two million cases mark this week, and, as of Thursday, Africa has 2,013,388 total COVID-19 cases and 48,408 deaths. Its infections and deaths make up less than four percent of the global total. Speaking to a WHO meeting remotely from the Republic of Congo capital, Brazzaville, WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said cases had increased for the past 28 days in 19 countries in the region, including Ghana, Kenya and Angola and Algeria. Moeti said people were starting to relax and not observe restrictions. “There’s a certain level of fatigue around this and the upcoming holiday season may simply exacerbate the situation,” she said. Moeti said WHO was launching a new campaign called “Mask Up Not Down” to urge people to wear face masks and use them properly. She hoped the largely social media campaign would reach some 40 million young people across the continent by the end of the year. South Africa is the continent’s worst-affected country with 750,000 confirmed cases of the virus, while Morocco has more than 300,000, Egypt more than 110,000 and Ethiopia more than 100,000.

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COVID-19: Mass vaccination programme could begin ‘within a matter of weeks’, Hancock says

The health secretary has told Sky News that he hopes a mass vaccination programme for COVID-19 will get under way “within a matter of weeks”.

A coronavirus vaccine has yet to receive official approval, but two US-led treatments have been found to be more than 90% effective.

Live COVID-19 updates from the UK and around the world

The UK government has ordered enough of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to treat 20 million people, while it has also secured five million doses of the Moderna vaccine.

Speaking to Kay Burley, Matt Hancock said “nothing’s guaranteed yet” but there were “encouraging signs of hope”.

He told the programme that the NHS was working towards delivering the flu jab and COVID-19 vaccine “in parallel” and “within a matter of weeks”.

“Normally 15 million people are vaccinated against flu. This year it will be 30 million – the biggest number in history,” Mr Hancock said.

“We hope that we will also have a COVID vaccination programme alongside that. The arrangements are being put in place for the NHS to deliver that at scale.

“It will be a huge effort, and I know that the NHS is up to it.”

The health secretary said he hopes people can be vaccinated in large numbers in 2021.

Derby City Council has said the Derby Arena is being considered as a temporary vaccination centre.

Chris Poulter, the leader of Derby City Council, said: “The potential roll-out of a COVID vaccine is a welcome step in the nationwide effort against the spread of COVID-19 – it’s an honour for Derby to have the opportunity to play such a critical part in any vaccination programme.

“The Arena is a perfect venue – it has plenty of space, parking, and good transport networks to serve Derby, Derbyshire and beyond.”

On the situation with the pandemic generally, Mr Hancock said there were “encouraging signs” that the number of cases is beginning to flatten.

“The lockdown that we brought in earlier this month is working, but in the meantime everyone has got to keep following the rules,” he told Sky News.

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Asked whether people will be able to see loved ones over Christmas, Mr Hancock acknowledged that it would not be a “normal Christmas” like in previous years.

The health secretary said “there will have to be rules in place”, but added: “We hope that they will allow for a bit more of that normal Christmas that people look forward to.”

The UK government and the devolved administrations are in talks over what COVID-19 measures should be in place over Christmas, with the details to be made public shortly.

Mr Hancock said: “I know how important Christmas is. It’s important to my family, it’s important to people right across the country.

“We need to have a set of rules, if at all possible, that’s UK-wide. Not least because so many people travel across parts “of the UK.”

He added: “It of course won’t be like a normal Christmas, there will have to be rules in place, but we hope that they will allow for a bit more of that normal Christmas that people look forward to.”

Mr Hancock said he is planning a small family Christmas within the existing rules because a final decision on the measures is yet to be made.

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US Covid-19 hospitalisations spike, shutdowns take effect with holidays on the horizon

NEW YORK (REUTERS) – The number of patients hospitalised with Covid-19 in the United States has jumped nearly 50 per cent in the last two weeks, forcing states to impose new restrictions to curb the alarming viral spread as Americans face a potentially grim winter and holiday season.

Nearly 79,000 people were being treated for the disease in hospitals across the country on Thursday, a Reuters tally showed, the most at any time during the pandemic.

The country has been recording 161,607 new cases daily on a seven-day rolling average as of Wednesday.

The acceleration has forced a spate of new school and business closings to slow community spread, upending lives of Americans once again.

Suzanna Riordan, a Brooklyn mother, said she burst into tears upon hearing the announcement that New York City public school classrooms would shut beginning on Thursday as the city’s seven-day positive test rate average hit a previously-agreed closure threshold of 3 per cent.

Riordan’s daughter Olivia, seven, had been excited at the prospect of adding one more day of in-person education a week starting next week as part of the city’s hybrid learning plan, Riordan said.

“Since September, she’s gotten maybe seven days in school,” Riordan said.

“And those are the days where… she comes home excited and happy and she gets to see other second graders. And that’s gone again.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his decision to revert to at-home virtual schooling, adding that additional safety standards to reopen the largest US school district would be announced before next Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.

“The schools have been shut temporarily but only temporarily. They will back be and they’ll be safer than ever,”de Blasio told reporters.

The mayor also said he expected the state would shut down indoor dining and gyms in his city within “a week or two” given the current rate of infections.

Stringent measures were going into effect across the country this week as the US Covid-19 death toll passed a quarter million, the highest in the world.

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Michigan began a three-week shutdown on Wednesday that closed gyms, high schools, colleges and entertainment venues.

Minnesota, one of several Midwest states dogged by soaring infection rates per capita, ordered a shutdown of restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues starting on Friday through at least Dec 18. More than 90 per cent of hospital intensive care unit (ICU) beds were already occupied in the eastern half of the state.

In the nation’s capital, the Smithsonian Institution announced it would close its museums and the National Zoo beginning on Monday, with no set reopening date.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has persisted in criticising state efforts to curb the virus by shutting down parts of their economies.

He has also refused to share critical Covid-19 data with President-elect Joe Biden and his transition team, threatening to slow the incoming administration’s pandemic response.

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The soaring rate of infections and shutdowns aimed at reversing that trend portends a bleak winter for the American economy.

Last week, the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly rose as new business closures unleashed a fresh wave of layoffs and further slowed the labour market recovery.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits totalled a seasonally adjusted 742,000 for the week ended Nov 14, compared to 711,000 in the prior week, the Labour Department said on Thursday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 707,000 applications in the latest week.

Limit holiday gatherings

Health and government officials have warned that the sharp rise in hospitalisations could worsen if Americans do not limit their Thanksgiving holiday celebrations to small, single-household gatherings.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “strong recommendation” on Thursday that Americans refrain from travelling for the holiday.

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The Northeast, which for months had successfully held the virus at bay after the pandemic’s crushing first wave in the spring, has experienced the highest percentage jump in hospitalisations at 85.4 per cent over the past 14 days, according to Reuters data. During that same period, hospitalisations in the Midwest have risen by 56.8 per cent, in the West by 50.1 per cent, and in the South by 34.4 per cent.

In Maryland, which reported a record 2,910 new cases in a 24-hour period on Thursday, the Baltimore public school district said it would halt in-person learning the week after Thanksgiving to avoid exacerbating virus spread that may occur over the holiday.

Looking further ahead, officials in Pennsylvania announced that crowds will not be permitted to attend annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney.

Famous furry prognosticator, Punxsutawney Phil, will still come out on Feb 2 to predict when winter will end, but the event will be streamed online, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s website said.

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COVID-19: Supermarkets most common exposure setting for catching coronavirus in England, latest data suggests

Supermarkets are the most frequent common exposure setting for those catching COVID-19 in England, new data suggests.

Public Health England (PHE) collated the data using the NHS Test and Trace app.

By analysing the contacts and retracing the steps of the 128,808 people who’d reported they had tested positive between 9 November and 15 November, PHE has uncovered where transmission is likely to be happening.

During the increased national restrictions in England, supermarkets have remained open for shoppers. The new data set suggests they are now the primary setting where the disease is being transmitted.

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The second most common location reported by those who tested positive for COVID-19 were secondary schools, followed by primary schools, and then hospitals, and then care homes.

Of those who tested positive for COVID-19 in the days analysed by PHE, 18.3% of them said they had visited a supermarket.

Approximately 9,789 common locations were reported in total – of which the below list calculates the percentage of the most frequent.

Proportion of all common locations reported in PHE data:

  • Supermarket – 18.3%
  • Secondary school – 12.7%
  • Primary school – 10.1%
  • Hospital – 3.6%
  • Care home – 2.8%
  • College – 2.4%
  • Warehouse – 2.2%
  • Nursery preschool – 1.8%
  • Pub or bar – 1.6%
  • Hospitality – 1.5%
  • University – 1.4%
  • Manufacture engineering – 1.4%
  • Household fewer than five – 1.2%
  • General practice – 1.1%
  • Gym – 1.1%
  • Restaurant or cafe – 1.0%

In the most recent week, 124 clusters of COVID-19 were recorded in English secondary schools.

The total number of outbreaks in secondary schools in England is 822, while primary schools have recorded 732 clusters since records began.

Shopping, attending childcare educational settings and eating out were among the top three activities reported by people testing positive before experiencing any symptoms, the data showed.

While the number of contacts by exposure was shown to be highest among households and household visitors.

The PHE charts also suggest that infection rates appear to be levelling off or even declining in some parts of England, such as the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.

Cases are lower but are still rising in places such as London, the South East and the West Midlands.

The new data comes as government scientific advisers are warning that mixing at Christmas poses “substantial risks” – particularly for older people – and there is “far too much emphasis” on having a normal festive period.

Professor Andrew Hayward of University College London (UCL) said the country was “on the cusp” of being able to vaccinate older populations and it would be “tragic” to throw away the gains made in suppressing the disease.

Meanwhile, a leading World Health Organisation (WHO) official suggested families could meet for picnics in the park during the festive season, adding that this year will be “a different Christmas but that does not mean it cannot be a merry one”.

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COVID-19: UK visa requirements relaxed for overstayers, NHS workers and entrepreneurs

The British government has relaxed many of its visa requirements, including for those who have overstayed and NHS workers.

In the first update since March, the government has published new advice making allowances for people who have overstayed their visa, overseas NHS workers, students and entrepreneurs.

However, British nationals living overseas will not be able to apply for a passport if their local office is closed.

The Home Office has said “there will be no future adverse immigration consequences” for people whose visa or leave expired between 24 January and 31 August 2020, and who did not apply to “regularise” their stay (legally extend it).

While they will not be penalised if they later apply for another visa, the government said those who did not apply to extend their stay before their visa expired “must make arrangements to leave the UK”.

For those who were meant to leave in November, but are unable to because they cannot get a flight due to lockdown or have tested positive for coronavirus, they can request additional time to stay.

And people whose visas expire any time after 31 October will now be allowed to submit an application to renew or extend it from within the UK instead of from their home country, as they previously needed to.

For employers who are in the UK on a tier one entrepreneur visa, the rules have been greatly relaxed due to the disruption COVID-19 may have had on their businesses.

The visa, for which you have to have £200,000 cash to invest in the UK, stopped being granted in March 2019 but lasts three years so many are still in the UK on this visa.

For people on this visa whose business has been disrupted because of COVID-19, the government has dropped the need to employ at least two people for 12 consecutive months.

The 12 months can now be made up of multiple jobs that do not have to be over consecutive months, and if employees were furloughed this does not count towards the 12 months.

For people on the entrepreneur visa who have not been able to employ staff for 12 months by the time their visa expires, they can extend their stay to give them time to meet the requirement.

NHS workers from overseas will now be allowed to work at any NHS hospital during the pandemic and work in other healthcare jobs at any skill level, while a restriction on the number of hours they can work or volunteer has been lifted.

The new advice says students can now start their studies before their visa comes through, as long as they have confirmation of acceptance at their place of education or submitted an application before another UK visa expired.

People who have applied for tier two general work visas or tier five temporary worker visas can now start work before a decision is made, but they will have to leave the country if it is then rejected, the advice says.

When it comes to British nationals living overseas who need to apply for a passport, the government has said they can do so online.

However, if they are told they must book an appointment at a visa application centre and it is closed, “you won’t be able to apply for a British passport until it reopens”, the government has said.

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