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Thousands of flights cancelled as Omicron sets infection records in various countries

NEW YORK, Dec 24 (Reuters) – Commercial airlines around the world cancelled more than 4,500 flights over the Christmas weekend, as a mounting wave of Covid-19 infections driven by the Omicron variant created more uncertainty and misery for holiday travelers.

Airlines globally scrapped at least 2,401 flights on Friday, Christmas Eve, typically a heavy day for air travel, according to a running tally on the flight-tracking website FlightAware.com. Nearly 10,000 more flights were delayed.

The website showed that 1,779 Christmas Day flights were called off worldwide, along with 402 more that had been scheduled for Sunday.

Commercial air traffic within the United States and into or out of the country accounted for more than a quarter of all the canceled flights over the weekend, FlightAware data showed.

Covid-19 infections have surged in the US due to the highly transmissible Omicron, which was first detected in November and now accounts for nearly three-quarters of cases in the country and as many as 90 per cent in some areas.

Rising hospitalisations were hitting healthcare systems hard in the US Midwest, with intensive care units in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan bracing for the worst even as they remain under pressure from an earlier wave of Delta variant cases.

In Britain, many industries and transport networks were struggling with staff shortages as sick workers self-isolated.  One in 20 Londoners had Covid-19 last week, a figure that could rise to one in 10 by early next week, according to data released on Thursday by the Office for National Statistics.

Government data showed a record tally of 122,186 new infections nationwide on Friday, marking a third day in which the number of known cases had surpassed 100,000.

While recent research suggests Omicron produces milder illness, and a lower rate of hospitalisations than previous variants, health officials remain cautious.

“There is a glimmer of Christmas hope ... but it definitely isn’t yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat,” Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, told the BBC.

France also hit another Covid-19 infection record on Friday, with its daily tally exceeding 94,000 while hospitalisations from the virus reached a seven-month high.

Australia on Friday narrowed the wait time for people to receive Covid-19 booster shots as another record jump in daily infections resulted in cancelled flights and sent Christmas travel plans into disarray.

From Jan. 4, the country would offer booster shots to every person aged over 18 who had their second shot four months earlier and the interval would be again reduced to three months by the end of the month, said federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Omicron cases reached 9,100 on Friday, up from the previous day’s record of 8,200. While most new cases were previously in New South Wales and Victoria states, neighbouring Queensland and South Australia also clocked sharp increases.

China reported 140 new confirmed coronavirus cases for Friday, up from 87 a day earlier, its health authority said on Saturday (Dec 25).  Of the new infections, 87 were locally transmitted, according to a statement by the National Health Commission, compared with 55 a day earlier. Most of the new local cases were in the northwestern province of Shaanxi.

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