Your Friday Briefing – The New York Times

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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