Britain has shuttered its embassy in North Korea and all its diplomats have left the country, its ambassador said Thursday as Pyongyang maintains strict entry controls to try to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.
The North has closed its borders and insists it has not had a single case of the virus that emerged in neighbouring China late last year and has since swept the world.
The closure was a temporary move and came because Pyongyang’s “restrictions on entry to the country have made it impossible to rotate our staff and sustain the operation of the Embassy”, a Foreign Office spokesperson said.
Ambassador Colin Crooks tweeted: “The #BritishEmbassy in #Pyongyang closed temporarily on 27 May 2020 and all diplomatic staff have left the #DPRK for the time being.”
The Swedish embassy — which remains open — replied that they would miss him and his team “and hope they can return soon”.
The specialist news site NK News said the British diplomats crossed the border into China overland on Wednesday.
Britain intends to maintain diplomatic relations with the North “and will seek to re-establish our presence in Pyongyang as soon as it is possible to do so”, the Foreign Office said.
Early in the outbreak, Pyongyang imposed tight quarantine restrictions on all resident foreigners, including a virtual lockdown in their own premises that Russian ambassador Alexander Matsegora described as “morally crushing”.
Those rules were later eased and dozens of diplomats and other foreigners were allowed to leave the country in March, when several missions in Pyongyang closed, among them the German embassy and France’s representative office — Paris does not maintain full diplomatic relations with the North.
Hundreds of foreigners remain in the country.
Analysts say that the North is unlikely to have avoided infections, and that its ramshackle health system could struggle to cope with a major outbreak.
Britain has suffered the highest death rate from the novel coronavirus among the most-affected countries with comparable tracking data, according to Financial Times research published Thursday.
Official numbers from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released earlier this week show Britain has registered almost 60,000 more deaths than usual since the week ending March 20.
Subsequent analysis by the FT, which looked at data from 19 countries, indicate the virus has directly or indirectly killed 891 people per million in the UK, the highest comparable figure.
According to this measure, the UK death rate exceeds those in other countries also badly affected by the pandemic, including the US, Italy, Spain and Belgium.
Counting how many people died above a running average for the previous five years is considered by many experts to be the best way to give international comparisons, due to a lack of uniformity in the way countries collect data.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s public support has suffered the sharpest fall for a Conservative party leader in a decade following the Dominic Cummings scandal, according to an opinion poll published Wednesday.
As the prime minister prepares to be quizzed by senior MPs later Wednesday over his handling of the coronavirus crisis and the scandal, a YouGov poll for The Times newspaper showed the Conservative lead over the main opposition Labour party has been cut by nine points in a week.
The survey put the Tories on 44 percent — down four points — and Labour on 38 percent, up five points over the past seven days.
The last Tory leader to see his lead fall by the same amount was David Cameron during the 2010 general election campaign.
A poll in the Daily Mail newspaper showed Johnson’s approval rating had plummeted from 19 percent to minus one percent in just a few days — despite leading his party to a comprehensive general election victory just six months ago.
It adds to a sense of growing revolt over the government’s handling of Cummings, with nearly 40 Tory MPs demanding he lose his job, while one minister has quit in protest.
However, Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick, the housing, communities and local government secretary, backed the PM’s top adviser on Wednesday.
“I think, is the time for us all to move on,” he told the BBC, adding that Cummings had not broken any government guidelines.
Britain’s official coronavirus death toll is at least 41,000 with almost 10,000 dead in care homes in England and Wales alone, according to a statistical update released on Tuesday.
Some 41,020 deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate were registered across the UK by May 8, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
With hundreds of deaths still being reported each day, it means the current toll, already the highest in Europe and second only to the United States in the global rankings, is likely to be even higher.
The government’s official rolling tally only records deaths after positive tests, and on Tuesday stood at 35,341, up 545 on the day before.
The ONS figures show a sharp fall in coronavirus deaths in the week up to May 8, reinforcing ministers’ claims that Britain is past the peak.
Deaths in care homes fell at a slower rate than the population at large, and the total number of deaths in care homes in England and Wales now stands at 9,975.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has come under intense criticism for its handling of the outbreak, notably for the time it took to introduce widespread testing.
A cross-party parliamentary committee on Tuesday criticised the decision to initially concentrate testing in a limited number of laboratories.
“From it followed the decision on March 12 to cease testing in the community and retreat to testing principally within hospitals,” it said, warning this left care home residents untested.
At the government’s daily media briefing, England’s deputy chief scientific adviser, Angela McLean, admitted that limited capacity had driven strategy on testing.
“It was the best thing to do with the tests that we had. We could not have people in hospital with Covid symptoms not knowing whether or not they had Covid,” she said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier told parliament he was encouraged that care home deaths were falling.
A total of 62 percent of care homes in England had no reported cases of COVID-19 at all, he added.
Just over a quarter (27 percent) of all deaths in England from the virus were in such places, compared with a European average of about half, he told MPs.
“We will not rest from doing whatever is humanly possible to protect our care homes from this appalling virus,” he said.
British health officials added loss of taste and smell to their coronavirus symptoms list on Monday after experts warned cases were being missed.
“From today, all individuals should self-isolate if they develop a new continuous cough or fever or anosmia,” Britain’s chief medical officers said in a statement.
“Anosmia is the loss or a change in your normal sense of smell. It can also affect your sense of taste as the two are closely linked.”
Anyone noticing a distinct change in their sense of taste or smell should now self-isolate for seven days to reduce the spread of infection, England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam told reporters.
The symptoms will now feature with fever and cough as main indicators of the virus, with Van-Tam saying it would mean a two percent rise in picking up cases.
A major study by King’s College London last week found that people with a positive test result were three times more likely to report loss of smell and taste than those returned a negative test.
Report author Tim Spector said that Public Health England’s (PHE) previous insistence on only including fever and cough as major symptoms meant thousands of cases were missed.
The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group concluded last month that loss of smell or taste should not be added to the symptom list, although The World Health Organisation and other countries including the United States now count it as a symptom.
Britain’s economy shrank two percent in the first three months of the year, rocked by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, official data showed Wednesday, with analysts predicting even worse to come.
Gross domestic product shrank in the first quarter compared with the prior three months in the largest slump since the global financial crisis in the fourth quarter of 2008, the Office for National Statistics revealed.
Economic output dived by a record 5.8 percent in March from the previous month, the ONS noted in especially grim news which sent the London stock market down more than one percent in early deals.
“March’s GDP figures showed that the UK economy was already in freefall within two weeks of the (coronavirus) lockdown going into effect,” said Capital Economics analyst Ruth Gregory.
“And with the restrictions in place until mid-May and then only lifted very slightly, April will be far worse.”
Britain implemented its COVID-19 lockdown — which is only just starting to be slowly eased — on March 23.
– ‘Widespread disruption’ –
“This release captures the first direct effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and the government measures taken to reduce transmission of the virus,” the ONS said in a statement.
“There has been a widespread disruption to economic activity,” it added.
The first-quarter performance was better than France and Italy, which shrank by 5.8 percent and 4.7 percent in the same period. Both nations were hit hard by the pandemic — but they began lockdowns earlier than the UK.
The Bank of England (BoE) had already warned last week that the economic paralysis could lead to Britain’s worst recession in centuries.
“With the arrival of the pandemic, nearly every aspect of the economy was hit in March, dragging growth to a record monthly fall,” said Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician for economic statistics at the ONS.
“Services and construction saw record declines on the month with education, car sales and restaurants all falling substantially.”
“The pandemic also hit trade globally, with UK imports and exports falling over the last couple of months, including a notable drop in imports from China.”
The BoE had forecast last week that UK output was likely to crash by 14 percent this year.
– Furlough extended –
As the nation’s coronavirus crisis deepened, finance minister Rishi Sunak has unveiled a series of massive packages to help those affected.
The government stepped in to back up employee wages in a so-called “furlough” jobs retention plan, while it also gave tax holidays to businesses and boosted welfare payments.
Sunak on Tuesday announced a four-month extension to the furlough scheme, which will now run until the end of October.
The government says 7.5 million jobs have already been supported by the plan, which ensures employees can receive 80 percent of their pay up to £2,500 ($3,100, 2,800 euros) a month.
The BoE has also been at the forefront of economic firefighting, slashing its main interest rate to 0.1 percent and pumping £200 billion ($244 billion, 226 billion euros) into the UK economy to get retail banks lending.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson began this week to relax some of lockdown measures in order to help the economy, despite the rising death toll, but he has also stressed that great caution is needed.
Changes in the lockdown guidelines — which come into force Wednesday — will allow people in England to spend more time outside, meet a friend at the park and view property for sale. However, they remain unable to visit relatives or friends at their homes.
Britain has seen more than 32,000 deaths in the outbreak — the worst in Europe and second only to the United States — although there are indications that the true toll is higher.
Lower skilled workers in parts of Britain appear at greater risk of dying from coronavirus than white collar employees, according to an analysis of official figures published Monday.
The finding by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday that construction and manufacturing workers could return to work but recommended office staff still work from home.
The move is the first change to a seven-week-old nationwide lockdown introduced to curb the spread of the virus, which the government hopes to introduce in phases.
More details are expected when Johnson addresses parliament at 1430 GMT.
But opposition parties, unions and business leaders said there was a lack of clarity about the new recommendations — and voiced concerns about the safety of people returning to work.
The devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have also said they would keep the lockdown in force because of continued fears about high transmission rates.
Britain has been one of the worst-hit countries in the global pandemic, with the government officially recording nearly 32,000 deaths of people who had tested positive for COVID-19.
The actual number of deaths from the virus is far higher, with the ONS — which tallies all deaths and releases weekly updates for periods up to two weeks prior — finding the 32,000 toll was reached in late April.
– ‘Raised rates’ –
The ONS reviewed nearly 2,500 deaths in England and Wales linked to COVID-19 up to April 20 and discovered “men working in the lowest skilled occupations had the highest rate of death”.
The assessment indicated taxi drivers and chauffeurs, bus and coach drivers, chefs, and sales and retail assistants had died in greater proportions to those in other occupations.
Men and women working in social care, which includes care workers and home carers, both had “significantly raised rates of death” involving the virus.
But healthcare workers such as doctors and nurses were not found to have higher death rates.
The ONS cautioned that the study was too small and narrow to draw any definite conclusions.
“This analysis does not prove conclusively that the observed rates of death involving COVID-19 are necessarily caused by differences in occupational exposure,” it said.
“We adjusted for age, but not for other factors such as ethnic group and place of residence.”
The assessment is the latest to highlight significant disparities in the impact of COVID-19 in Britain based on socio-economic criteria, including ethnicity.
The ONS reported last week it had found black men and women are more than four times more likely to die with coronavirus than white people in England and Wales.
– ‘Foolish’ –
The leader of the main opposition Labour party, Keir Starmer, said Johnson’s plan left many questions unanswered and called for more guidelines for workplaces to operate.
“What about sanitation, protective equipment, these were things that were discussed in a consultation document last week-end but not resolved yet,” he told LBC radio.
The general secretary of the Trades Union Congress umbrella group, Frances O’Grady, said the announcement gave employers and employees little time to prepare.
“How can the prime minister –- with 12 hours’ notice -– tell people they should be going back to sites and factories? It’s a recipe for chaos,” she said.
The leader of the London Chamber of Commerce, Richard Burge, advised businesses in the capital not to change their plans until there was more detail.
“You have not been given sufficient information on how to get your employees safely to work nor how to keep them safe while they are there,” he said.
“At the moment it would foolish for any business leader to encourage staff not already undertaking essential work to do anything but to continue to work from home (on Monday) if they can do so.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Wednesday make his first appearance in parliament since being hospitalised for coronavirus, the day after Britain became the European country worst hit by the global pandemic.
He faces a new adversary in Keir Starmer, who was elected leader of the main opposition Labour party on April 4 and has called for a “national consensus” on how Britain tackles the outbreak.
Health ministry figures show 29,427 people with COVID-19 have died in Britain, while broader official data put the toll above 32,000 — making the country second only to the United States in world rankings.
Johnson is expected to be quizzed on why things have gone so wrong during his first weekly prime minister’s questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons since March 25.
MPs are also likely to ask about how Britain will end a nationwide stay-at-home order introduced six weeks ago, which has successfully slowed the spread of the virus.
A formal review is due by Thursday, although Johnson is not expected to outline his plans for the future until Sunday.
The 55-year-old announced on March 27 that he had tested positive for coronavirus, and was later admitted to hospital, spending three nights in intensive care.
Johnson returned to work last week but missed PMQs on April 29 after his partner, Carrie Symonds, gave birth to a baby boy that morning.
Britain begins post-Brexit trade talks with the United States on Tuesday, with 100 negotiators on each side joining via videoconference.
Many in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government hope for a free trade agreement with Washington as one of the biggest benefits of leaving the European Union.
Officials said the first round of talks would last two weeks and cover issues such as goods and services trade, digital trade, investment and how to support small businesses.
The US ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, said the deal could “jumpstart the economy after we conquer coronavirus” — a message repeated by British officials.
“The US is our largest trading partner and increasing transatlantic trade can help our economies bounce back from the economic challenge posed by coronavirus,” International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said.
Bilateral trade was worth £220.9 billion ($275 billion, 252.6 billion euros) in the last year, and a free trade deal could increase this by £15.3 billion on 2018 levels, in the long run, the British government says.
Truss and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will kick off the talks before officials take over, with further rounds due at six-week intervals.
Britain voted in a referendum in June 2016 to leave the EU, and after years of politically wrangling finally quit on January 31 this year.
Its departure allowed Britain to start trade talks with other countries, including the US.
Britain’s death toll from the coronavirus outbreak jumped to 26,097 on Wednesday — the second-highest in Europe behind Italy and third-highest in the world — as the government took into account fatalities outside hospital, including care homes, for the first time.
The increase came after surprise news that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had become a father again at age 55, several months earlier than expected, and just weeks after he was taken to hospital with COVID-19.
Downing Street announced that his partner, Carrie Symonds, 32, gave birth to a healthy baby boy, prompting messages of congratulation from across the political spectrum at home and abroad.
The rare good news was soured however by the additional 4,419 deaths in the overall coronavirus death toll, just as Johnson, who returned to work on Monday, is under pressure to ease a month-long lockdown.
Until now, Britain had reported only deaths of people who had tested positive for COVID-19 in hospital but there has been mounting concern about high numbers of unreported victims in the wider community.
On Tuesday, the Office for National Statistics said deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending April 17 were running at roughly double the five-year average and were the highest weekly total since 1993.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Wednesday said there were an additional 3,811 deaths included in the outbreak since the start of March, on top of figures from the last 24 hours.
“They don’t represent a sudden surge in the number of deaths,” he told reporters.
According to an AFP tally from official sources at 1300 GMT on Wednesday, Britain has now leapfrogged the tolls in France and Spain and is the second-worst affected country in Europe, behind Italy’s 27,359 deaths.
The United States has the world’s worst death toll with 58,355.
Britain has widened its testing regime for COVID-19 to care homes, the over-65s and people unable to work from home, as part of increased measures to curb the outbreak.
A total of 85 frontline workers in the state-run National Health Service (NHS) have died from the coronavirus, and 23 in social care, according to the government.
There remain questions about the provision of personal protective equipment to medics and others dealing with patients, and the availability of testing.
Raab, who has deputised for Johnson during his illness and recovery, warned the government is not yet ready to ease lockdown restrictions.
“This issue of a second spike and the need to avoid it, it’s not a theoretical risk,” he said.
“Having relaxed restrictions in Germany over the last week, they’ve seen a rise in the transmission rate of coronavirus.
“We’re in a delicate and dangerous moment. We’re coming through the peak, but we’re not there yet.”
‘Relief and joy’
Britain shut non-essential shops and services, and ordered people to stay at home except to shop for groceries and medicines, on March 27.
A review of the measures is expected on May 7, amid dire warnings about the economic impact and indications of frustration at the continued confinement.
Johnson held a lunchtime telephone call with the leader of the main opposition Labour party, Keir Starmer who has called for more clarity on the lockdown exit plan.
Starmer earlier joined well-wishers in congratulating Johnson on becoming a father again, particularly after his recent experience. Symonds also displayed COVID-19 symptoms but was not tested.
“Whatever differences we have in this house, as human beings we all recognise the anxiety the prime minister and Carrie must have gone through in these past few weeks,” he told parliament.
“I really hope this brings them incredible relief and joy.”
Johnson had to spend three nights in intensive care, and later admitted his illness “could have gone either way”.
He was present for the birth at an unnamed NHS hospital in London and would be taking some paternity leave later in the year, his spokesman said.
Johnson has at least five other children, including four with his second wife, Marina Wheeler, from whom he split in 2018.
He also had a daughter as a result of an extra-marital affair while he was mayor of London, according to a 2013 court case.
The news of his youngest child’s birth came as a surprise, as Symonds was not thought to be due for several weeks.
Both she and the baby were said to be doing “very well”.
Britain on Thursday said another 616 people had died in hospital from the novel coronavirus, as the government detailed a new testing regime that could allow the country to ease its lockdown.
The latest death count — recorded in the 24 hours to 1600 GMT on Wednesday — was lower than the 759 from the previous day and follows other signs the virus may have hit its peak.
It takes Britain’s hospital death toll to 18,738, according to the health ministry.
The actual number of deaths from the COVID-19 illness is likely to be far higher once officials count fatalities at care homes and in the community, which take longer to be included in the official statistics.
Britain remains one of the worst-hit by the pandemic and has been under stringent social distancing rules for a month.
The government has been criticised for its response to the outbreak, with claims it was slow to impose restrictions and introduce widespread testing.
Health officials have also faced repeated questions about the supply of personal protective equipment to frontline health and social care workers dealing with virus patients.
The government is under growing pressure to explain how it will lift the lockdown, which has led to the economy grinding to a virtual halt.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon published her devolved government’s plans on Thursday, saying they could be eased in a phased manner north of the border with England.
But British health minister Matt Hancock again refused to disclose the UK government’s proposals at the daily Downing Street briefing.
He instead detailed expanded testing for the virus in the coming weeks, following criticism of the country’s sluggish sampling and a failure to use the growing available capacity.
“Our ultimate goal is that everyone who could benefit from a test gets a test,” Hancock said.
‘Test, track, trace’
Hancock vowed earlier this month that 100,000 tests would be carried out every day by the end of April, and insisted the target would be met.
Capacity for testing was currently at 51,000 tests per day, he told reporters.
He said the government would now make it “easier, faster and simpler” for so-called essential workers to get tested, through an online booking system, and expanded regional and mobile sampling sites.
Meanwhile, it will reintroduce within weeks a “test, track and trace” strategy, which was first used at the outset of the outbreak before it became uncontrollable.
Health officials are hiring 18,000 people, including 3,000 clinicians, to spearhead the scheme.
“This test, track and trace will be vital to stop a second peak of the virus,” Hancock said.
But he warned there was “no automatic link” between the programme’s rollout and lifting the lockdown, which would be contingent on lower rates of transmission and other factors.
“You’ve got to get it down first for test, track and trace to be effective,” he added.
Britain’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned on Wednesday that some of the tough social distancing measures could be in place for the rest of the year until a vaccine is found.
Oxford University began a human trial of a potential coronavirus vaccine on Thursday, with the aim of making it available to the public later this year if successful.
The university is also involved in a nationwide survey with the Office for National Statistics of 25,000 people to determine the extent of the virus’ spread in the community.
The scheme is expected to be expanded to up to 300,000 people in 12 months to help deepen scientific understanding of the virus, Hancock said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tentatively began his return to work on Tuesday after being hospitalised for coronavirus, as parliament returned and criticism grew over the government’s response to the outbreak.
Johnson spoke on the phone to US President Donald Trump about the international response to COVID-19, and officials said he would speak to Queen Elizabeth II in the coming days for the first time in three weeks.
However, his spokesman said the 55-year-old, who spent several days in intensive care, was not yet “formally doing government work” as he recuperated at his official countryside retreat of Chequers.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab remains in temporary charge and will take prime minister’s questions on Wednesday during a semi-virtual session of the House of Commons.
MPs returned on Tuesday from their Easter break and immediately approved new measures to allow the vast majority of the 650-seat house to stay away.
Social distancing rules mean only 50 MPs can attend safely, and Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has instead asked MPs to dial in via Zoom, an internet video conferencing service.
Hoyle said it was a “historic moment” for the 700-year-old parliament, adding: “In times of crisis, we must find new ways of working.”
Many MPs have been keen to get back to work amid growing questions and criticism about the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Britain is currently one of the worst-hit countries in the pandemic, with 17,337 deaths in hospital according to Tuesday figures — an increase of 828 on the previous day.
Raab last week announced that a nationwide lockdown requiring people to stay indoors would continue for another three weeks.
But debate is growing about how the measures might be eased, with questions about its economic impact.
Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said on Tuesday the outbreak had peaked in London but the picture was far more mixed for the rest of the country.
“We remain in a situation of danger that we must take very seriously indeed,” he told the government’s daily media briefing.
Johnson’s Conservatives have been blamed for years of underfunding the state-run National Health Service.
Ministers are forced daily to explain a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare staff, while testing for the virus remains limited.
NHS Providers, which represents hospital bosses, said it was concerned about a potential lack of equipment for frontline medical staff if a government review led to advice for the public to wear face masks.
The British Dental Association meanwhile said its members were facing “critical shortages”.
The concerns came as media reports suggested that British firms were exporting much-needed equipment to other European countries, despite shortages in the UK.
Care home deaths rise
The health ministry currently only gives details for the deaths of people in hospital who have tested positive for the virus.
But there have been repeated concerns about under-reporting as deaths outside hospital, particularly in care homes, have not been included.
In its weekly bulletin, the Office for National Statistics said 18,516 deaths were registered in the seven days to April 10.
This is 7,996 more than the five-year average and the highest weekly total since the start of January 2000.
A total of 6,213 or 33.6 percent mentioned COVID-19, including suspected cases, on the death certificate, up from 3,475 (21.2 percent) the previous week.
Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said without widespread testing, the increase in deaths may be directly linked to COVID-19.
“But it is also likely that at least some of these were indirectly involved, such as through inability to access typical medical care for other conditions because of COVID-19 activities,” he added.