Your Friday Briefing
The Westminster subway station in London on Thursday. Credit…Alberto Pezzali/Associated Press
An Omicron wave heads for the U.K.
As Britain braces for a new coronavirus surge, with cases of the Omicron variant doubling every three days, the country’s experience with the new variant may be a harbinger of what other wealthy nations can expect. It is unclear if the surge will be a relatively minor event or a return to the dark days of earlier pandemic waves.
Omicron appears to be the most contagious form of the virus yet, and more able to evade immunity from previous infections or from vaccines. Though it also seems to cause less severe illness than earlier variants, experts warn that a huge surge in cases could nonetheless overwhelm hospitals and cause a spike in deaths.
On Wednesday, Britain introduced new restrictions, including mask mandates and requiring vaccine passports, and urged people to work from home where possible. It was a striking reversal for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had previously opposed the stricter controls that have been adopted around Europe.
Quotable: “I think we are looking at a horrible winter,” said Peter English, a retired consultant in communicable disease control, noting the exponential spread of Omicron.
By the numbers: With just 817 Omicron cases in Britain confirmed yesterday, the figure is small compared with the daily average of 48,000 new coronavirus cases overall. But health officials warned that if the recent growth rate continues, Omicron cases could make up at least 50 percent of all cases in a few weeks.
Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.
In other developments:
Sanna Marin, the prime minister of Finland, apologized for going to a club without a mask after she came in contact with an infected official.
As wealthy nations ramp up their booster campaigns, the W.H.O. is concerned that vaccine equity could be further undermined. These charts examine vaccine access around the world.
Federal regulators in the U.S. authorized booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Ukraine says it would stand no chance against Russia
Ukrainian generals say that if Russia were to invade, they would need military help from the West to fight off the attack. Intelligence services say there is no indication that the Kremlin has made up its mind whether to invade.
New tanks, armored vehicles and ships have been delivered to frontline Ukrainian units fighting Russian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists. But that would not be enough to repel the full-on Russian assault that Ukrainian and Western officials fear Moscow might be preparing.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, dismissed concerns about the troop buildup on the border during a video call with President Biden on Tuesday, and he shifted blame to the U.S. and NATO for supporting Ukraine. Biden has ruled out sending U.S. forces to Ukraine to deter Russia. He held a call with Ukraine’s president on Thursday.
Details: U.S. intelligence officials have found that Russia has devised plans for an offensive involving 175,000 troops. Ukraine has only slightly more troops in its entire military. It is outgunned on land, at sea and in the air.
Uneven progress for women in Saudi Arabia
Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia more than four years ago, Saudi women have had more choices regarding employment, which public spaces they may access and even the color of their abayas, traditional Muslim women’s gowns.
The changes are part of Prince Mohammed’s broad modernization plan, called Vision 2030, which is meant to wean the kingdom away from its historical reliance on oil and shift it toward new industries, including technology, pharmaceuticals and tourism.
But progress has been uneven. The ongoing guardianship system means that women must get permission from men — often their fathers or husbands, but sometimes their sons — to marry and make key decisions. Women’s attire is still far from liberal. And, overall, the culture remains deeply conservative.
THE LATEST NEWS
Around the World
After a year of sustained protests that forced the government to roll back deeply unpopular farm laws, India’s farmers said that they were ending their action.
At least 53 people were killed and dozens injured in a truck accident in southern Mexico yesterday. Most of the victims are believed to have been migrants coming from Central America.
China Evergrande was declared to be in default by Fitch Ratings. The real estate giant is now waiting on a restructuring plan overseen by the firm hand of Beijing.
The Danish prime minister said she did not know that the government lacked legal authority to order the mass slaughter of 17 million minks after infected animals passed Covid-19 to humans.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, made an impassioned call for Europe to be “master of its own destiny.” France will begin its six-month presidency of the E.U. on Jan. 1.
A federal court rejected Donald Trump’s attempt to keep documents related to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack hidden from Congress. He will most likely appeal to the Supreme Court.
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, and his wife announced the birth of a daughter, their second child. Johnson has at least seven children.
What Else Is Happening
New Zealand plans to ban all cigarette sales by gradually raising the legal smoking age.
The Sackler name will be removed from seven galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York over the family’s ties to the opioid crisis. (The museum will leave the name on two.)
The actor Jussie Smollett was convicted of filing a false police report in 2019 claiming he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack.
Dmitri Muratov, the editor of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, will today become the third Russian to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
A Morning Read
In Pittsburgh, Memphis and Los Angeles, huge billboards proclaim, “Birds Aren’t Real.” On Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, Birds Aren’t Real accounts have garnered hundreds of thousands of followers.
The Gen Z-fueled conspiracy theory posits that birds don’t exist and that they are really drone replicas installed by the U.S. government to spy on Americans. But what is it really about?
ARTS AND IDEAS
Best-of lists, simplified
The onslaught of best-of lists in December can be overwhelming. Consider this a guide to the guides.
For music nerds, Pitchfork unveiled its annual list of best songs. It pairs well with The Times’s wide-ranging picks for best albums of the year — or our own take on the best songs. Each of our pop music critics made lists, and two albums overlapped on all of them: Tyler, the Creator’s “Call Me if You Get Lost” and “Sour” from Olivia Rodrigo.
Perhaps you prefer jazz or classical music? We picked the best of each, including the classical composer of the year (Kaija Saariaho, from Finland).
In the Book Review’s list of the 10 best fiction and nonfiction titles, there are ruminations on race in America and generation-spanning sagas. And you’ll also find our recommendations on the top art books, science fiction and fantasy tales and mystery novels of 2021.
We also collated the best TV. Many of our critics’ picks covered subjects like class conflict and pandemics. A personal favorite: “Reservation Dogs,” a meandering, occasionally surreal comedy about four teens desperate to escape their Oklahoma reservation. It’s full of the kinds of details “that can only come from loving the thing you want to leave,” our critic James Poniewozik writes.
Find all of The Times’s best-of-2021 lists here.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
No matter what fish or seafood you use, this bold, briny stew is a winner.
What to Watch
“Sex and the City” returns in the form of “And Just Like That.” Our critic has this review.
What to Listen to
These generation-spanning albums, including seasonal releases from Nat King Cole and Kelly Clarkson, redefine holiday classics.
Now Time to Play
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Talk, talk, talk, talk … (three letters).
And here is the Spelling Bee.
You can find all our puzzles here.
That’s it for today’s briefing. Have a great weekend. — Natasha
P.S. Readers wrote in to share tips and tricks for playing Spelling Bee, one of our most popular games.
The latest episode of “The Daily” is about a Times investigation into a website that shares advice on how to die by suicide.
You can reach Natasha and the team at [email protected].