Italy is set to make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for people aged 50 and above in an attempt to ease pressure on its health service and reduce fatalities.

This is according to a draft decree shown today as a cabinet meeting on new curbs was still ongoing.

According to the draft seen by Reuters, the measure would be immediately effective and run until 15 June. If confirmed, it would make Italy one of very few European countries to take similar steps.

Greece has already pledged to make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for people aged 60 and over.

Austria is thus far only country in Europe to announce that Covid-19 vaccines would become mandatory for all eligible residents. It comes into effect in February.

The Italian draft plan states that from the start of February until the end of March only people with proof of vaccination or recent infection will be able to enter public offices, non-essential shops, banks, post-offices and hairdressers.

Italy has registered more than 138,000 coronavirus deaths since its outbreak emerged in February 2020, the second highest number in Europe after Britain.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi's government had already made vaccination mandatory for teachers and health workers, and since October last year all employees have had to be vaccinated or show a negative test before entering the workplace.

Today's draft toughens this up for over-50s by removing the option of taking a test rather than vaccination. Those flouting the rule risk a fine of €600 to €1,500.

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Hong Kong bans flights from 8 countries after outbreak

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has said the government will introduce a series of new measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, as she warned the global financial hub was on the verge of another outbreak.

The new rules include a ban on flights from eight countries for two weeks from 8 January - the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia, Pakistan, Philippines, France and India.

Ms Lam was speaking as Hong Kong authorities launched a city-wide search for the contacts of a Covid-19 patient and ordered a Royal Caribbean "cruise to nowhere" ship to return to port early, as health officials feared a fifth wave of infections.

Nine people on the cruise ship carrying 3,700 people were found to be close contacts in an Omicron variant outbreak.

Like mainland China, Hong Kong pursues a zero-Covid policy and maintains some of the world's strictest measures - including virtually closed borders, weeks-long quarantines, targeted lockdowns and mass testing.

The city has recorded 114 Omicron cases, with the vast majority identified at the airport or during the 21-day hotel quarantine that is mandatory for most arrivals.

But a small community outbreak traced to Cathay Pacific airline staff has sparked mass testing and contact tracing in recent days.

Today, those tracing efforts reached the Spectrum of the Seas, one of the vessels offering cooped-up Hong Kongers a "cruise to nowhere" that sails into international waters for short trips.

Health authorities said nine people on the cruise, which left on Sunday, were classified as close contacts and ordered the ship back to port a day early.

All on board - 2,500 passengers and 1,200 crew - must test negative before they can disembark.

Austrian police raid suspect vaccine pass forgers

Austrian police said they had raided several homes, seizing equipment and placing 22 people under investigation on suspicion of forging vaccine certificates, weeks before Covid vaccines become mandatory.

Investigators suspect the 22 people were forging documents not just for themselves but for friends and acquaintances, the interior ministry said in a statement.

"Organised trade and use of forged vaccine certificates is no trivial matter, but a criminal offence," said Interior Minister Gerhard Karner.

A unit specialising in tracking forged Covid-19 documents was tipped off by the suspects discussing their business on social media, said the statement.

A recent protest against mandatory vaccination in Innsbruck, Austria

Some 100 police officers involved in the operation confiscated "numerous vaccine certificates, mobile phones and computers". They were now being helped in their investigation by the EU police agency Europol.

Austria is currently in a lockdown for the unvaccinated, which make up about 30% of the population - among the highest in western Europe.

Police say they are checking about 30,000 vaccine passes per day.

Israel records highest daily rise in Covid infections

Israel's health ministry has announced nearly 12,000 new coronavirus cases, constituting the largest daily rise in infections since the beginning of the pandemic nearly two years ago.

According to the figures, 11,978 new Covid cases were detected over the course of yesterday, surpassing the country's previous record high of 11,344 cases recorded on September 2 last year.

While there were currently nearly 60,000 people with Covid in Israel, the number of serious cases today was only 125, according to the health ministry.

Nearly 4.3 million of Israel's 9.4 million inhabitants have received three shots of coronavirus vaccine. In recent days, authorities began administering fourth shots to at-risk groups.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett predicted a continued rise in cases and encouraged people to get vaccinated.

"The wave now is really increasing and we expect to have tens of thousands of verified cases already in the next few days," he said during a tour of a hospital in central Israel.

"The good news is that the vaccines work, so anyone who gets vaccinated and properly wears a mask will probably not get seriously ill, and it will pass in a few days," he said.

The country has officially recorded more than 1.4 million cases of Covid-19 infection, including 8,247 deaths.

China to test 12 million people for Covid in Zhengzhou

The city of Zhengzhou ordered its 12 million residents to take Covid-19 tests after a handful of cases were detected, as China fights to stamp out virus clusters ahead of the Winter Olympics.

Everyone in Zhengzhou, which has been placed under a partial lockdown, must be tested to "thoroughly uncover infections hidden among the public", the city's government said in a statement.

Zhengzhou has detected 11 cases in recent days.

The mass-testing order came as case numbers in the locked-down city of Xi'an fell to their lowest in weeks, with officials saying that outbreak had been "brought under control".

Xi'an's 13 million residents have been under stay-at-home orders for the last fortnight.

China has stuck to a rigid approach of stamping out Covid cases when they appear, with tight border restrictions and targeted lockdowns since the virus first emerged in the country in 2019.

But, with less than a month to go until the Winter Olympics, a series of small outbreaks across the country has put the strategy under pressure.

Although the number of reported cases in China is very low compared with other nations, infections in recent weeks have reached a high not seen in the country since March 2020.

China recorded 91 cases today - including 35 in Xi'an, the city's lowest tally since mid-December.

The Zhengzhou outbreak is tiny by comparison, but officials are taking no chances.

State media said about 500 close contacts had been traced from the outbreak's two symptomatic cases, linked through mahjong rooms and family gatherings.

Eight residential communities were locked down.

On Monday, one million people in Yuzhou city - in the same province as Zhengzhou - were put under stay-at-home orders after three asymptomatic cases.

China will host the Winter Olympics from 4 February, under some of the strictest rules for a mass sporting event since the pandemic started.

All athletes, officials, staff and volunteers will be within a "closed loop" system for the duration of the Games that separates them from the public.

Covid-19 cases in Australia hit new highs

Australia's daily Covid-19 cases hit a record high for the third consecutive day, further straining hospital resources and testing facilities as public anger grows over the handling of the fast-moving Omicron outbreak.

Many Australians, already unhappy about long queues at public testing centres and a shortage of at-home tests, were further angered when news broke that tennis world number one Novak Djokovic had been given a medical exemption to enter the country.

Tennis Australia and the Victorian state government said Djokovic did not receive any special treatment in a blind review process that involved a panel of health experts.

When asked his opinion, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the decision was the remit of the Victorian government.

People wait in line for a Covid-19 test at Southport on the Gold Coast in Australia

Mr Morrison, under pressure at the start of an election year, has sought to reassure voters that his Liberal-National Party coalition has the situation under control, while keeping tight control on the purse strings.

"There are no silver bullets here," Mr Morrison told reporters ahead of a meeting of national cabinet, the group of federal and state and territory leaders tasked with handling the pandemic.

"You've just got to work the problem, work it together and push through."

Officials reported a record 64,774 new cases, the majority in New South Wales and Victoria, the country's most populous states. That easily exceeded the previous day's national tally of around 47,800.

Total infections have surged more than 50 times from around 1,200 since late November, when the first Omicron case was detected in the country.

People admitted to hospitals in New South Wales and Victoria rose 10% over the previous day, and authorities warned those numbers would rise further over the next several weeks.

Australia has recorded more than 612,000 cases and 2,290 deaths since the coronavirus pandemic began, with more than half of those infections reported over the past two weeks.