That would be a demoralizing setback for both Mr. Johnson and his party; those are the type of working-class voters who swept Mr. Johnson to power and whom he needs to hold on to if he wants to win again in the next election.

“The Tories are more willing to get rid of their leaders than the other political parties: We do it much more quickly and ruthlessly,” Mr. Hayward said. “But the loss of support is attritional; it isn’t over one particular event.”

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As Omicron Threat Looms, Inflation Limits Fed’s Room to Maneuver

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus comes at a challenging moment for the Federal Reserve, as officials try to pivot from containing the pandemic’s economic fallout toward addressing worryingly persistent inflation.

The central bank has spent the past two years trying to support a still-incomplete labor market recovery, keeping interest rates at rock bottom and buying trillions of dollars’ worth of government-backed bonds since March 2020. But now that inflation has shot higher, and as price gains increasingly threaten to remain too quick for comfort, its policymakers are having to balance their efforts to support the economy with the need to keep price trends from leaping out of control.

That newfound focus on inflation may limit the central bank’s ability to cushion any blow Omicron might deal to America’s growth and the labor market. And in an unexpected twist, the new variant could even speed up the Fed’s withdrawal of economic support if it intensifies the factors that are causing inflation to run at its fastest pace in 31 years.

“In every one of the previous waves of the virus, the Fed was able to react by effectively focusing on downside risks to growth, and trying to mitigate them,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist at Jefferies. “They’re no longer able to do that, because of inflation.”

said in an interview last week.

Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary and a former Fed chair, made similar remarks at an event on Thursday.

“The pandemic could be with us for quite some time and, hopefully, not completely stifling economic activity but affecting our behavior in ways that contribute to inflation,” she said of the new variant.

during congressional testimony last week. “I think the risk of higher inflation has increased.”

Fed officials initially expected a 2021 price pop to fade quickly as supply chains unsnarled and factories worked through backlogs. Instead, inflation has been climbing at its fastest pace in more than three decades, and fresh data set for release on Friday are expected to show that the ascent continued as a broad swath of products — like streaming services, rental housing and food — had higher prices.

Given that, Mr. Powell and his colleagues have pivoted to inflation-fighting mode, trying to ensure that they are poised to respond decisively should price pressures persist.

Mr. Powell said last week that officials would discuss speeding up their plans to taper off their bond-buying program — prompting many economists to expect them to announce a plan after their December meeting that would allow them to stop buying bonds by mid-March. The Fed announced early in November that it would slow purchases from $120 billion a month, making the possible acceleration a notable change.

Ending bond-buying early would put officials in a position to raise their policy interest rate, which is their more traditional and more powerful tool.

nearly four million people are still missing from the labor market compared with just before the pandemic began. Some have most likely retired, but surveys and anecdotes suggest that many are lingering on the sidelines because they lack adequate child care or are afraid of contracting or passing along the coronavirus.

If the Fed begins to remove its support for the economy, slowing business expansion and hiring, the labor market could rebound more slowly and haltingly when and if those factors fade.

But the balancing act is different from what it was in previous business cycles. The factors keeping employees on the sidelines right now are mostly unrelated to labor demand, the side of the equation that the Fed can influence. Employers appear desperate to hire, and job openings have shot up. People are leaving their jobs at historically high rates, such a trend that job-quitting TikTok videos have become a cultural phenomenon.

In fact, the at-least-temporarily-tight labor market is one reason inflation might last. As they compete for workers and as employees demand more pay to keep up with ballooning consumption costs, companies are raising wages rapidly. The Employment Cost Index, which the Fed watches closely because it is less affected by many of the pandemic-tied problems that have muddied other wage gauges, rose sharply in its latest reading — catching policymakers’ attention.

If companies continue to increase pay, they may raise prices to cover their costs. That could keep inflation high, and anecdotal signs that such a trend is developing have already cropped up in the Fed’s survey of regional business contacts, called the Beige Book.

“Several contacts mentioned that labor costs were already being passed along to consumers with little resistance, while others said plans were underway to do so,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta reported in the latest edition, released last week.

Still, some believe that inflation will fade headed into 2022 as the world adjusts to changing shopping patterns or as holiday demand that has run up against constrained supply fades. That could leave the Fed with room to be patient on rate increases, even if it has positioned itself to be nimble.

Lifting rates “before those people come back is a little bit like throwing in the towel,” Ms. Markowska said. “I have a hard time believing that the Fed would throw in the towel that easily.”

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Travelers to U.S.: Can They Get Their Tests Back in Time?

LONDON — Deborah Tudhope was growing anxious. An American lawyer living in London, she was hoping to fly back to the United States in two weeks to see her 96-year-old mother, who lives in a retirement home in Maine. But the Omicron-driven travel restrictions announced on Thursday by the White House have her worrying that the trip may not happen.

Ms. Tudhope, 72, has had to reschedule her required coronavirus test for the day before her flight, which the airline had already pushed back a day. With the rules seemingly shifting by the hour, she said she faced multiple hurdles: getting out of Britain, getting into the United States and visiting her mother in the home.

“I don’t know how this whole thing is going to work out,” said Ms. Tudhope, who described herself as disheartened, if not surprised, by the turmoil. “But I did make sure the flights are re-bookable.”

Such private dramas are playing out all over the world, as thousands of people — Americans living abroad and foreigners hoping to visit the United States — grapple with the new complexities of holiday travel in the age of Covid.

Biden administration shortened the time frame for international travelers to the United States to take a Covid test within a day before departure, regardless of vaccination status.

That has left would-be travelers nervously calculating whether they will get test results back in time to make their flights or worrying that their home countries could impose more stringent travel bans while they are away.

new pandemic strategy that includes hundreds of family-centered vaccination sites, booster shots for all adults, new testing requirements for international travelers and insurance reimbursement for at-home tests.

Officials in Italy said the country was well-prepared to handle a surge in tests for passengers bound for the United States. In the weeks since the government began requiring frequent, negative tests for all unvaccinated Italian workers, pharmacies have processed up to one million rapid tests a day.

“The prospect of more rapid swabs for travelers to the U.S. is not a problem for pharmacies here,” said Marco Cossolo, president of Italy’s largest association of private pharmacies, Federfarma.

South Korea built up the capacity to administer an average of 68,000 P.C.R. tests a day in November, according to Seung-ho Choi, the deputy director of risk communication at the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Center. Results almost always come within 24 hours, he said, though travelers catching early-morning flights when clinics are closed might have to seek out hospitals that administer tests.

Britain is among several countries that have recently required tests for incoming travelers within a day or two after arriving. Randox Laboratories, a British company that provides Covid tests for travel, said on Thursday that since the changes were announced for travelers entering Britain last weekend, it had ramped up P.C.R. testing capacity to its pandemic peak of 180,000 tests per day.

That would also help with processing tests for travelers to the United States, the company said.

For Europeans with ties to the United States, the new rules are merely the latest wild card in a life already lived perpetually in flux.

“What a nightmare — enough!” said Alice Volpi, 28, when told of the impending American restrictions.

An Italian who was living in New York at the outset of the pandemic, Ms. Volpi recounted how she could not return home to Italy for several months because of her country’s travel ban. When she finally got home, a travel ban imposed by the United States prevented her from returning to see her boyfriend in New York.

“The most frustrating part is that you can never make a plan more than one week in advance because everything can change every day,” said Ms. Volpi, who insisted she would press on with plans to visit her boyfriend at Christmas. “That doesn’t allow me to be serene.”

For some Americans living abroad who fear that borders may close again if Omicron proves to be a lethal threat, the solution is to move up their travel timelines. The testing requirements are stressful, they said, but not as much as the possibility that the Biden administration might eventually cut off travel pathways completely.

“That’s what I’m most worried about — not getting to see my family,” said Sarah Little, 25, who moved from New York to London in September to study. She had originally planned to fly home closer to Christmas, but is now trying to book a flight early next week.

“It would just be devastating if I couldn’t get home,” Ms. Little said.

Gaia Pianigiani and Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome; Saskia Solomon and Isabella Kwai from London; Aurelien Breeden from Paris; John Yoon from Seoul and Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington.

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How Omicron Could Knock Economic Recovery Off Track

LONDON — This week, Marisha Wallace finally had to admit that her planned five-day ski holiday in Switzerland in mid-December was not salvageable: The Swiss government’s sudden decision to impose a 10-day quarantine on some international travelers meant she wouldn’t be able to leave her hotel or return home to London on her scheduled flight.

“It’s the way of the world right now,” said Ms. Wallace, an actress and a singer. “You can’t plan anymore.”

That provisional state, amplified across the world, has left the still-fragile economy in a state of suspense as spiking coronavirus infections and the new variant Omicron have popped up around the globe.

“There’s no way to know how bad it will get,” said Ángel Talavera, head of European economics at Oxford Economics.

report released Wednesday from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed, although growth has been uneven, the world economy this year bounced back more quickly and strongly than had been anticipated. The report, compiled largely before the latest coronavirus news, nevertheless warned that growth was projected to slow: in the eurozone, to 4.3 percent next year from 5.2 percent in 2021; and in the United States, to 3.7 percent in 2022 from 5.6 percent.

The organization characterized its outlook as “cautiously optimistic.” But it reiterated how much economic fortunes are inextricably tied to the coronavirus: “The economic policy priority is to get people vaccinated,” the report concluded.

a fourth wave of infections transformed Europe into a Covid hot spot and prompted new restrictions like lockdowns in the Netherlands and Austria.

During earlier outbreaks, trillions in government assistance helped quickly resuscitate the struggling U.S. and European economies. It also brought some unexpected side effects. Combined with pent-up demand, that support helped produce a shortage of labor and materials and rising inflation.

Given how much debt was racked up in the past 18 months, such aid is unlikely to recur even with a sharp downturn — and neither are wholesale closures. Vaccines provide some protection, and many people say they are unwilling to go back into hibernation.

People and business alike have shifted into a wait-and-see mode. “A lot of things do seem like they are on hold, like labor market or overall consumption decisions,” said Nick Bunker, director of economic research for the job site Indeed.

How that will affect unemployment levels and inflation rates is unclear. Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, indicated on Tuesday that concern about stubborn inflation was growing. The O.E.C.D. also warned that inflation could be higher and last longer than originally anticipated.

Omicron’s appearance just adds to the uncertainty, Laurence Boone, the organization’s chief economist, said in an interview.

governments have reacted with a confusing hodgepodge of stern warnings, travel bans, mask mandates and testing rules that further cloud the economic outlook. That patchwork response combined with people’s varying tolerance for risk means that, at least in the short term, the virus’s latest swerves will have a vastly different effect depending on where you are and what you do.

In France, Luna Park, an annual one-month amusement fair held in the southern city of Nice and slated to open this weekend, was called off after the government suddenly requisitioned the massive warehouse where roller coasters, shooting galleries and merry-go-rounds were being set up in order to convert the space to an emergency vaccination center.

“Today I find myself trying to save my company, and I’m not sure that I can,” said Serge Paillon, park’s owner. He feared he would face huge losses, including 500,000 euros (about $566,000) he had already invested in the event, as well as refunds for tickets that had been on sale for several months

Mr. Paillon furloughed 20 employees. Another 200 festival workers who were coming from around the country to manage the 60 games and rides were told to stay home.

“For a year and a half, it was already a disaster,” Mr. Paillon said. “And now it’s starting again.”

Israel’s decision on Saturday to shut its borders to all foreign tourists for two weeks is likely to reduce the number of tourists in Israel and the occupied territories this December by up to 40,000, or nearly 60 percent of what was expected, according to a government estimate.

Wiatt F. Bowers, an urban planner, had planned to leave Jacksonville, Fla., for Tel Aviv on Wednesday but had to cancel — the fifth time in 18 months that he had to scrap a planned trip to Israel. He will rebook, but doesn’t know when.

Foreign tourism, which brought a record 4.55 million tourists to Israel in 2019, had already nearly vanished. Between March 2020 and September 2021, nonresident foreigners were barred from entering Israel — and, by extension, the occupied territories, where entry and exit are controlled by Israel.

In Bethlehem, where tourism is the main industry, income consequently fell more than 50 percent, said the mayor, Anton Salman, in a phone interview.

Elias al-Arja, the chief of the Arab Hotel Association, which represents about 100 Palestinian hotels in the occupied territories, said he was concerned less about the short-term effect of the sudden travel ban than about the long-term message of unpredictability it sent to potential visitors.

“The disaster isn’t the groups who canceled over the next two weeks,” Mr. al-Arja said. “How can I convince people to come to the Holy Land after we promised them that you can come, but then the government closes the border?”

Reluctance to travel, though, could mean an upswing in other sectors if the new variant is not as harmful as people fear. Jessica Moulton, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company in London, said previous spending patterns during the pandemic showed that some money people would otherwise use for travel would instead be spent on dining.

She estimated that the roughly $40 billion that British consumers saved on travel last summer was used for shopping and eating out.

At the moment, Ms. Moulton said, “to the extent that Omicron decreases travel, which will happen as we head into Christmas, that will benefit restaurants.”

In Switzerland, where travelers from Britain and 22 other countries must now quarantine, the effect of the policy change on hotels was immediate.

“The majority of travelers from England — between 80 to 90 percent — have already canceled,” said Andreas Züllig, head of HotellerieSuisse, the Swiss hotel association.

Ms. Wallace, who canceled her trip to the Cambrian Hotel in Adelboden, was one of several people who changed their reservations at the hotel after the Swiss government made its announcement on Friday, just one week before the slopes open.

“This obviously has an impact on our very important winter and Christmas business,” said Anke Lock, the Cambrian’s manager, who estimated that 20 percent of the hotel’s December bookings were at risk.

For now, though, most guests are watching and waiting, Ms. Lock said: “We’ve changed the bookings from guaranteed to tentative.”

Extreme uncertainty about the economy may turn out to be the only certainty.

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting from Jerusalem, Melissa Eddy from Berlin and Léontine Gallois from Paris.

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Business

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The floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) is seen after the close of trading in New York, U.S., March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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NEW YORK, Nov 26 (Reuters) – COVID-19 has resurfaced as a worry for investors and a potential driver of big market moves after a new variant triggered alarm, long after the threat had receded in Wall Street’s eyes.

Worries about a new strain of the virus, named Omicron and classified by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern, slammed markets worldwide and dealt the S&P 500 index its biggest one-day percentage loss in nine months. The moves came a day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday when thin volume likely exacerbated the moves.

With little known about the new variant, longer term implications for U.S. assets were unclear. At least, investors said signs that the new strain is spreading and questions over its resistance to vaccines could weigh on the so-called reopening trade that has lifted markets at various times this year.

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The new strain may also complicate the outlook for how aggressively the Federal Reserve normalizes monetary policy to fight inflation.

“Markets were celebrating the end of the pandemic. Slam. It isn’t over,” said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors. “All policy issues, meaning monetary policy, business trajectories, GDP growth estimates, leisure and hospitality recovery, the list goes on, are on hold.”

The S&P 500 fell by a third as pandemic fears mushroomed in early 2020, but has more than doubled in value since then, though the pandemic’s ebb and flow has driven sometimes-violent rotations in the types of stocks investors favor. The index is up more than 22% this year.

Before Friday, broader vaccine availability and advances in treatments made markets potentially less sensitive to COVID-19. The virus had dropped to a distant fifth in a list of so-called “tail risks” to the market in a recent survey of fund managers by BofA Global Research, with inflation and central bank hikes taking the top spots.

On Friday, however, technology and growth stocks that had prospered during last year’s so-called stay-at-home trade soared, including Zoom Communications (ZM.O), Netflix Inc (NFLX.O) and Peloton (PTON.O).

At the same time, stocks that had rallied this year on bets of economic reopening may suffer if virus fears grow. Energy, financials and other economically sensitive stocks tumbled on Friday, as did those of many travel-related companies such as airlines and hotels.

The new Omicron coronavirus variant spread further around the world on Sunday, with 13 cases found in the Netherlands and two each in Denmark and Australia, even as more countries tried to seal themselves off by imposing travel restrictions.

First discovered in South Africa, the new variant has now also been detected in Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Botswana, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong. read more

Friday’s swings also sent the Cboe Volatility Index (.VIX), known as Wall Street’s fear gauge, soaring and options investors scrambling to hedge their portfolios against further market swings. read more

Reuters Graphics

Andrew Thrasher, portfolio manager for The Financial Enhancement Group, had been concerned that recent gains in a handful of technology stocks with large weightings in the S&P 500, including Apple Inc (AAPL.O), Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O), were masking weakness in the broader market.

“This set the kindling for sellers to push markets lower and the latest COVID news appears to have stoked that bearish flame,” he said.

Some investors said the latest COVID-19 related weakness could be a chance to buy stocks at comparatively lower levels, expecting the market to continue rapidly recovering from dips, a pattern that has marked its march to record highs this year.

“We’ve had numerous days when economic optimism collapses. Each of these optimism collapses were a good buying opportunity,” wrote Bill Smead, founder of Smead Capital Management, in a note to investors. Among the stocks he recommended were Occidental Petroleum (OXY.N) and Macerich Co (MAC.N), down 7.2% and 5.2% respectively on Friday.

One of several wild cards is whether virus-driven economic uncertainty will slow the Federal Reserve’s plans to normalize monetary policy, just as it has started unwinding its $120 billion a month bond buying program.

Futures on the U.S. federal funds rate, which track short-term interest rate expectations, on Friday showed investors rolling back their view of a sooner-than-expected rate increase.

Investors will be watching Fed Chair Jerome Powell and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s appearance before Congress to discuss the government’s COVID response on Nov. 30 as well as U.S. employment numbers, due out next Friday.

Investors held out hope that markets could stabilize. Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Capital Management, said moves may have been exaggerated by lack of liquidity on Friday, with many participants out for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“My first reaction is anything we are going to see today is overdone,” Ablin said.

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Reporting by Saqib Iqbal Ahmed; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak, Megan Davies and Lewis Krauskopf; Writing by Ira Iosebashvili; Editing by Megan Davies, Richard Chang and Alexander Smith

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Markets

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  • European shares on track for worst sell-off in a year
  • Companies benefiting from economic reopening tumble in early U.S. trading
  • Crude prices tumble

WASHINGTON/LONDON, Nov 26 (Reuters) – Shares tumbled on Wall Street on Friday as they reopened after Thanksgiving, while European stocks saw their biggest sell-off in 17 months and oil prices plunged by $10 per barrel as fears over a new coronavirus variant sent investors scurrying to safe-haven assets.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday designated a new COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa with a large number of mutations as being “of concern,” the fifth variant to be given the designation. read more

Unofficially, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (.DJI) closed down 2.53% at 34,899.34 in its largest percentage drop in more than a year. The S&P 500 (.SPX) lost 2.27%, its worst one-day drop since Feb. 25, and the Nasdaq Composite (.IXIC) dropped 2.23%, the biggest one-day route in two months.

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U.S. markets closed early on Friday after being shut all day on Thursday for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The benchmark STOXX 600 index (.STOXX) ended 3.7% lower on the day, leaving it down 4.5% for the week. The volatility gauge (.V2TX) for the main stock market hit its highest in nearly 10 months.

Companies that had benefited from an easing of COVID-related restrictions this year, including AMC Entertainment (AMC.N), plane engine maker Rolls Royce (RR.L), easyJet (EZJ.L), United Airlines (UAL.O) and Carnival Corp (CCL.N) all fell.

Retailers dropped as Black Friday, the start of the holiday shopping season, kicked off as the new variant fuelled concerns about low store traffic and inventory issues. read more

In Europe, the travel and leisure index (.SXTP) plummeted 8.8% in its worst day since the COVID-19 shock sell-off in March 2020.

“Bottom line is this is showing that COVID is still the investor narrative, a lot of today’s movement is driven by the South African variant,” said Greg Bassuk, chief executive officer of AXS Investments in Port Chester, New York.

“We have been talking about four or five factors that have been driving the last couple of months’ activity – inflation fears, some economic data, Fed policy – but what we have seen over the last year is that big developments with respect to COVID really have ended up eclipsing some of those other factors by a substantial degree and that is what is driving today’s market activity.”

Little is known of the variant detected in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, but scientists said it has an unusual combination of mutations and may be able to evade immune responses or make the virus more transmissible.

Britain said the new variant was the most significant variant to date and was one of several countries to impose travel restrictions on southern Africa. read more

A U.S. one dollar banknote is seen in front of displayed stock graph in this illustration taken May 7, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The European Commission also said it wanted to consider suspending travel from countries where the new variant has been identified, though the WHO cautioned against hastily imposing such restrictions. read more

Global shares (.MIWD00000PUS) fell 1.81%, their biggest down day in more than a year. France’s CAC 40 (.FCHI) shed 4.8%. The UK’s FTSE 100 (.FTSE) dropped 3.6%, while Germany’s DAX (.GDAXI) fell 4.2% and Spain’s IBEX (.IBEX) lost 5.0%.

Malaysian rubber glove maker Supermax (SUPM.KL), which soared 1500% during the first wave of the pandemic, leapt 15%.

MSCI’s index of Asian shares outside Japan (.MIAPJ0000PUS) dropped 2.44%, its sharpest fall since late July.

In commodities, oil prices plunged. Gold prices reversed earlier gains seen amid the move away from riskier assets.

U.S. crude was last down 12%, at $69.02 per barrel by 1:21 p.m. EST (1812 GMT). Brent crude dropped 10.5% to $73.59.

Spot gold prices were down 0.09%.

As investors dashed for safe-haven assets, the Japanese yen strengthened 1.87% versus the greenback, while sterling was last trading at $1.3331, up 0.08% on the day.

The dollar index fell 0.757%, with the euro up 1% to $1.1318.

U.S. Treasury debt yields posted their sharpest drop since the pandemic began. Treasuries benchmark 10-year notes last rose to yield 1.4867%. The 2-year note last rose to yield 0.4941%, from 0.644%.

“A flight to safety is underway with the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield down,” said Keith Lerner, co-chief investment officer at Truist Advisory Services. “The proximate cause of the sell-off is yesterday’s announcement of a new COVID-19 variant in South Africa, which investors fear could weigh on economic growth.”

The market swings come against a backdrop of already growing concern about COVID-19 outbreaks driving restrictions on movement and activity in Europe and beyond. read more

Markets had previously been upbeat about the strength of economic recovery, despite growing inflation fears.

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Reporting by Chris Prentice; Editing by Susan Fenton

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Omicron Variant Prompts Travel Bans and Batters World Markets

The world reacted with alarm on Friday to the highly mutated new coronavirus variant discovered in southern Africa, as the United States, the European Union and nations across the globe imposed new travel restrictions, financial markets swooned and visions of finally emerging from the pandemic started to dim.

Just two days after the world learned of the variant, the World Health Organization officially labeled it a “variant of concern,” its most serious category — the first since the Delta variant, which emerged a year ago. The designation means that the variant has mutations that might make it more contagious or more virulent, or make vaccines and other preventive measures less effective — though none of those effects has yet been established.

suffered terribly when Covid first hit Europe early last year.

On Friday, Israel, Singapore, several European nations individually, and then the European Union as a whole, the United States and Canada followed the lead set by Britain on Thursday night, temporarily barring foreign travelers who have recently been in South Africa or any of several neighboring countries. As with past travel bans, countries are allowing their own citizens and permanent residents to return home if they test negative for the virus, with some requiring additional testing and quarantine after arrival.

fights over vaccines and social restrictions have grown increasingly harsh.

world’s highest case rates for their populations are all European — several of them about six times as high as the U.S. rate.

South Africa, whose last coronavirus wave peaked in July, has recently reported case rates far below the worldwide average. But last week the rate more than doubled from the week before.

Reporting was contributed by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Carl Zimmer, Lynsey Chutel and Nick Cumming-Bruce.

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The Holiday Shopping Season Is Here, but Is It Back?

Stephen Arnold, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, a trade group with more than 1,800 members, appeared at only a single tree lighting event last year. It was a frightening time, he said, particularly for a group of elderly men who are often overweight and have diabetes.

But this season, Mr. Arnold said that all five of his tree lighting ceremonies are back, including a splashy event that he loves at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s estate in Mr. Arnold’s hometown, Memphis. He plans to participate in more than 200 appearances, on par with his prepandemic schedule in 2019. At times, he may perform from inside a life-size snow globe like last year, and a sizable chunk of his events will be held virtually, but it’s a world apart from 2020.

“I think almost all of our Santas intend to work a great deal more than they did last year, and a much higher percentage, probably 65 to 70 percent of us, will return to what we consider some kind of normal schedule,” Mr. Arnold, 71, said. “I’m trying to be prepared for a season of relatively close contact.”

This week, Saks Fifth Avenue unveiled its holiday window display and 10-story-tall light show at its New York flagship store. The retailer, which took a pause from its annual tradition of shutting down Fifth Avenue for a musical performance last year, returned to it this year with a performance by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and an appearance from Michelle Obama. About 22 Nordstrom stores will have “immersive” photo booths.

At the flagship Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street, the store is offering fewer events than the 400-plus it held in 2019, but many more than 2020, when its limited activities were held outdoors. There will be more food and drink for shoppers this season, including Champagne and cups of espresso, though they are being handled more carefully than in years past. The store hosted a performance by Bebe Rexha when it unveiled its holiday windows this month, but kept it to roughly 15 minutes and carefully managed capacity and spacing.

“If you would have talked to me in 2019, we would have had elaborate spreads with caterers coming in and passed hors d’oeuvres and Champagne flowing,” said Frank Berman, Bloomingdale’s chief marketing officer. Now, the food is more likely to be prepackaged, and events like cooking demonstrations have been smaller.

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Covid Live Updates: Variant Alert From South Africa Prompts Rush to Halt Flights

ImageIn the town of Parys, South Africa, on Friday. South Africans faced travel restrictions in several countries over growing fears about the new variant.
Credit…Kim Ludbrook/EPA, via Shutterstock

An increasing number of countries — including Britain, France, Israel, Italy and Singapore — were moving on Friday to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region, a day after South African authorities identified a concerning new coronavirus variant with mutations that one scientist said marked a “big jump in evolution.”

In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement — and hours before health officials from the country were scheduled to discuss the variant with the World Health Organization.

Britain, France and Israel announced bans on flights from South Africa and several neighboring countries on Thursday, citing the threat of the new variant. Britain’s flight ban applies to six countries — South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe — and begins at noon local time on Friday.

“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said on Twitter.

“While no cases have been detected so far on French territory, the principle of maximum precaution must apply,” Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, said in a statement, adding that anyone in France who had recently traveled to those countries should get tested and identify themselves to the authorities.

The governments of Croatia, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Japan and Singapore announced on Friday that they would impose similar restrictions. Markets were down in Japan in response to the variant’s discovery, and officials in Australia and in New Zealand said that they were monitoring it closely.

“Our scientists are at work to study the new B.1.1.529 variant,” Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, said in a statement, using the variant’s scientific name. “Meanwhile we err on the side of caution.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, also said in a Twitter post on Friday morning that it would propose restricting air travel to European countries from southern Africa because of concerns about the variant.

In the past two days, scientists detected the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg. So far only a few dozen cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana.

A number of variants have emerged since the onset of the pandemic. One underlying concern about them is whether they will stymie the fight against the virus or limit the effectiveness of vaccines. South African scientists will meet with the World Health Organization technical team on Friday to discuss the new variant, and the authorities will assign it a letter of the Greek alphabet.

In a statement posted on Friday on a government website, South Africa said it would urge Britain to reconsider its travel restrictions, saying: “The U.K.’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the U.K. seems to have been rushed, as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps.”

In December last year, South Africa was the first nation to report the appearance of the Beta variant, which has now spread to nearly 70 countries. Scientists have been concerned that some clinical trials have shown that vaccines offer less protection against the Beta variant. Since then, the more virulent and aggressive Delta variant has spread all over the world and is believed to be fueling the latest surge in cases.

With over 1,200 new infections, South Africa’s daily infection rate is much lower than that in Germany, where new cases are driving a wave. However, the density of mutations on this new variant raises fears that it could be highly contagious, leading scientists to sound the alarm early.

“This variant did surprise us — it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.

Emma Bubola, John Yoon and Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.

Credit…Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

Scientists are still unclear on how effective vaccines will be against the new variant flagged by a team in South Africa, which displays mutations that might resist neutralization. Only several dozen cases have been fully identified so far in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

The new variant, B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with more than 30 in the spike protein alone, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.

On the ACE2 receptor — the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells — the new variant has 10 mutations. In comparison, the Beta variant has three and the Delta variant two, Mr. de Oliveira said.

The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate evasion of immunity, said Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.

“All these things are what give us some concern that this variant might have not just enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” Dr. Lessells said.

The new variant has largely been detected among young people, the cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of those ages between 18 and 34 in South Africa are vaccinated, said Dr. Joe Phaahla, the country’s minister of health.

While cases of the variant are mainly concentrated in the country’s economic hub, particularly in the country’s administrative capital, Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country as schools close and families prepare to travel for the holiday season, Dr. Phaahla said.

Credit…Jerome Favre/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Hong Kong government said on Thursday that it had detected two cases of a new variant identified in South Africa, which scientists have warned shows a “big jump in evolution” and could limit the effectiveness of vaccines.

The infections were detected in a man who had returned to Hong Kong from South Africa this month, and later in another man staying across the hall in the same quarantine hotel. (Hong Kong requires almost all overseas arrivals to quarantine in hotels for two to three weeks.) The virus’s genetic sequence was identical in both men, suggesting airborne transmission, according to the city’s Center for Health Protection. Both men were vaccinated.

Further sequencing by the University of Hong Kong confirmed that the viruses belonged to the new variant from South Africa, officials said, though they acknowledged that information about the variant’s public health impact was “lacking at the moment.”

Some Hong Kong experts have questioned the length and efficacy of Hong Kong’s quarantines, noting that officials have recorded several cases of residents in quarantine hotels apparently infecting people who were staying in other rooms.

In the case of the latest variant infections, the government has blamed the first man for not wearing a surgical mask when opening his hotel room door, as well as “unsatisfactory air flow” in the hotel. As of Friday afternoon there had been no reports of infections in nearby rooms.

The presence of the new variant may complicate efforts to reopen the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. For months, Hong Kong officials have said that resuming quarantine-free travel between the Chinese territory and the mainland — virtually the only places in the world still pursuing a containment strategy that seeks full eradication of the virus — is their top priority, even though the strategy has damaged the city’s reputation as a global finance hub.

Mainland officials have said that Hong Kong is not doing enough to control the virus, even though the city has recorded just two locally transmitted cases in the last six months. The mainland has recently faced new domestic outbreaks; on Thursday, the National Health Commission there reported four new local cases.

On Thursday evening, Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, John Lee, said mainland officials had told him earlier in the day that Hong Kong had “basically fulfilled” the conditions to reopen the border. He said details would still need to be worked out, including the introduction of a mainland-style “health code” app that has raised privacy concerns.

Asked by a reporter whether the new variant would delay reopening with the mainland, Mr. Lee said only that the Hong Kong authorities would “ensure that adequate research and tracking are done in this regard.”

“Of course, we must manage and control any new risks,” he said.

Credit…Focke Strangmann/EPA, via Shutterstock

Nearly 20 months after pandemic lockdowns first began, governments across Europe are beginning to tighten restrictions again amid the latest wave of new coronavirus cases, threatening the gains that the region has made against the pandemic.

France is racing to offer booster shots to all adults and will not renew health passes for those who refuse. Deaths are rising in Germany, with its 68 percent vaccination rate, a worrying trend for a highly inoculated country. Austria has been in a nationwide lockdown since Monday, and made vaccinations mandatory.

In Eastern Europe, where far-right and populist groups have fueled vaccine skepticism, vaccination rates are lower than the rest of the continent. Bulgaria, where a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, is turning back to shutdowns or other restrictive measures.

The quickly deteriorating situation in Europe is worrisome for the United States, where seven-day average of new cases has risen 24 percent in the past two weeks. (The number of new deaths reported in the United States is down 6 percent.) Trends in new cases in the United States have tended to follow Europe by a few weeks.

“Time and again, we’ve seen how the infection dynamics in Europe are mirrored here several weeks later,” Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told reporters on Wednesday. “The future is unfolding before us, and it must be a wake-up call for our region because we are even more vulnerable.”

The White House insists that while new infections are on the rise, the United States can avoid European-style lockdowns.

“We are not headed in that direction,” Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said this week. “We have the tools to accelerate the path out of this pandemic: widely available vaccinations, booster shots, kids’ shots, therapeutics.”

But the chief of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that some countries had lapsed into a “false sense of security.”

He issued a warning during a news briefing on Wednesday: “While Europe is again the epicenter of the pandemic, no country or region is out of the woods.”

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