Covid-19 hospital admissions in England have risen to their highest level since January while the number of NHS hospital staff absent due to virus nearly doubled in a month, new figures show.

The latest data from NHS England, published today, show there were 2,370 Covid-19 hospital admissions in England on 29 December, up 90% week-on-week and the highest number since 29 January.

But it is still well below the second wave peak of 4,134 admissions on 12 January, despite more record case numbers being reported.

Government figures show a further 189,846 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases had been recorded in the UK as of 9am this morning, another new record for daily reported cases.

It comes after new Office for National Statistics (ONS) data showed an estimated 2.3 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending 23 December.

This is up from 1.4 million in the week to 16 December and the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020.

Meanwhile, separate NHS England data showed 24,632 staff at NHS hospital trusts were ill with coronavirus or having to self-isolate on St Stephen's Day, up 31% from 18,829 a week earlier and nearly double the 12,508 at the start of the month.

South Africa lifts curfew as Omicron wave subsides

People wait to get vaccinated outside an ambulance that has been converted to facilitate vaccinations in Manenberg

South Africa, where the Omicron variant was detected in November, has said that the country's latest coronavirus wave had likely passed its peak without a significant increase in deaths and that restrictions would be eased.

The highly contagious Omicron variant, which contains a number of mutations, has fuelled an end-of-year global pandemic resurgence.

However, mounting evidence, including in South Africa, has given rise to hope it may be less severe than other strains.

"All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave," the South African presidency said in a statement that announced the end of the nightly curfew.

Infections dropped by almost 30% last week compared to the preceding seven days, according to the presidency, while hospital admissions also declined in eight of the nine provinces.

During the spike, only a marginal increase in Covid-19 deaths was noted, it added.

"While the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, there has been lower rates of hospitalisation than in previous waves," the presidency said.

"This means that the country has a spare capacity for admission of patients even for routine health services."

Omicron was first identified in South Africa and Botswana in late November.

It quickly became the dominant strain in South Africa, causing an explosion of infections with a peak of about 26,000 daily cases recorded by mid-December, according to official statistics.

The variant is currently present in more than 100 countries, according to the World Health Organization, and affects vaccinated people, as well as those who have already had coronavirus.

Passengers queue outside a Covid-19 testing centre at Cape Town International Airport

South Africa has been the hardest hit by coronavirus on the continent, recording more than 3.4m cases and 91,000 deaths. But fewer than 13,000 infections had been recorded in the past 24 hours.

"The speed with which the Omicron-driven fourth wave rose, peaked and then declined has been staggering. Peak in four weeks and precipitous decline in another two," Fareed Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council posted on Twitter.

While many Omicron-affected countries are reimposing virus countermeasures, South Africa announced it was reversing course just ahead of New Year's Eve celebrations.

Calls for the midnight to 4am curfew to be lifted had been mounting in the hospitality sector, with owners launching an online petition addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

"The curfew will be lifted. There will therefore be no restrictions on the hours of movement of people," the presidency's statement said.

Alcohol sales would be permitted after 11pm for licensed premises.

Mask-wearing remains compulsory in public spaces and public gatherings are limited to 1,000 people indoors and 2,000 outdoors.

The government continued to stress the need for caution and vaccination, however.

"The risk of increased infections remains high given the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant," the presidency warned.

Israel offers second Covid booster to older people

Israel is extending its offer of a fourth vaccine dose to elderly people in care facilities, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said, citing their high exposure and vulnerability to infections.

Yesterday, the Health Ministry's director-general, Nachman Ash, approved fourth doses for people with weakened immune systems and the administering of those shots began on Friday.

An Israeli hospital administered fourth shots to a test group of health workers on Monday, in what it called the first major study into whether a second round of boosters will help contend with the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Results are expected within two weeks.

A medic prepares a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at Sheba Medical Centre in Ramat Gan

A Health Ministry expert panel last week recommended that Israel offer a fourth shot of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to medical workers and those over 60 or with compromised immune systems.

Israel was the fastest country to roll out initial vaccinations a year ago and became one of the first to launch a booster programme after observing that immunity waned over time.

Its policies on boosters have been closely watched by other nations, including the United States, that are considering when to offer additional doses.

UK approves Pfizer's Covid pill

Britain has approved Pfizer's Covid-19 pill for patients over the age of 18 years who have mild to moderate infection and are at high risk of their illness worsening.

The approval comes as the country scrambles to build its defences as cases hit a daily record yesterday.

Based on data, the pill, Paxlovid, is most effective when taken during the early stages, Britain's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said, recommending that the drug be used within five days of the onset of symptoms.

Pfizer this month said Paxlovid showed near 90% efficacy in preventing hospitalisations and deaths in high-risk patients.

Pfizer's Paxlovid Covid pill

Recent lab data suggests the drug retains its effectiveness against the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

"We now have a further antiviral medicine for the treatment of Covid-19 that can be taken by mouth rather than administered intravenously. This means it can be administered outside a hospital setting," MHRA chief June Raine said in a statement.