COVID-19: UK To Close All Travel Corridors From Monday

FILE: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during his visit to the Tollgate Medical Centre in Becton, east London on July 24, 2020.. (Photo by Jeremy Selwyn / POOL / AFP)

 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday said the country will close all travel corridors from Monday as part of efforts to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

According to the BBC, travel corridors were introduced in the summer to allow people travelling from some countries with low numbers of COVID-19 cases to come to the UK without having to quarantine on arrival.

The closure now means anyone flying into the country from overseas will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before setting off.

READ ALSO: COVID-19 Deaths Exceed Two Million Worldwide

The UK has been one of the hardest-hit countries by the pandemic, with over 84,000 people already dead.

The government imposed partial lockdowns on England in November as the government raced to curb spiking infections, while there were also restrictions in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, restrictions continue to cost the UK economy.

The economy slumped 2.6 percent in November on coronavirus restrictions, official data showed Friday, stoking fears that the current virus lockdown could spark a double-dip recession.

COVID-19: UK Posts Record 1,325 Deaths In 24 Hours

Paramedics unload a patient from an ambulance outside the Royal London Hospital in east London on January 8, 2021. Ben STANSALL / AFP
Paramedics unload a patient from an ambulance outside the Royal London Hospital in east London on January 8, 2021. Ben STANSALL / AFP

 

Britain on Friday reported a record 1,325 deaths over a 24 period from people testing positive for coronavirus, as a surge in cases piled pressure on overstretched health services, forcing London to declare a major incident.

The death toll eclipsed the previous worst of 1,224 recorded on April 21 during the height of the first wave last year, and brings the total number of deaths to 79,833.

The grim milestone also saw another high of 68,053 new cases registered in the past day, nudging the overall number of Covid infections close to three million.

The government earlier announced that all travellers to Britain will need pre-departure coronavirus tests.

Fears are growing about fast-spreading new variants of the virus, particularly from South Africa, with concerns hospitals could be overwhelmed.

The government this week announced new stay-at-home restrictions, which include school closures, that are expected to last until at least mid-February.

In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a major incident, saying the British capital was “at crisis point” and urgent action was required as beds for Covid patients could run out within weeks.

At the same time, the UK regulator approved US firm Moderna’s Covid vaccine — the third to be authorised for use in the country’s mass inoculation programme.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said approval for the jab was a boost to the inoculation drive, which has seen 1.5 million vaccinated since early December and aims to reach 15 million by mid-February.

“This is further great news and another weapon in our arsenal to tame this awful disease,” he said.

“Moderna’s vaccine will allow us to accelerate our vaccination programme even further once doses become available from the spring.”

Mutation concern

UK health officials and ministers have described the vaccination roll-out as a head-to-head race against the virus and the vaccination programme as the best hope of a return to normality.

The government is pinning its hopes on the use of vaccines, particularly one developed by Oxford University and drugs firm AstraZeneca, to cut rising infection rates.

New strains are said to be 50 to 70 percent more transmissible, and have been blamed for the steep rise in cases, amid fears they may be resistant to vaccines.

But researchers at the University of Texas said on Friday that 20 people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech jab were protected against a key mutation found in both the British and South African strains.

In London, though, Khan said Covid cases were now “out of control” running at more than 1,000 per 100,000 people, putting pressure on the state-run health services and emergency services.

Just over 7,000 people were in hospital in the capital in the week to Wednesday — up 27 percent on the previous seven days and 35 percent more than during the first wave peak last April.

Khan urged the public to comply with lockdown measures as “if we do not take immediate action now, our NHS could be overwhelmed and more people will die”.

Urgent change

Britain’s government has faced repeated calls to ensure international travellers to the country presented negative tests.

But it has argued the requirement to quarantine on arrival from high-risk countries was a more effective measure.

From next week travellers to England from abroad, including British nationals, must present a negative test taken within the last 72 hours or risk a fine.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News he expected the rule would “be a UK-wide requirement some time next week”.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which all set their own health and transport policies, backed the move.

“We’re doing this now because there are these variants that we are very keen to keep out of the country like the South African variant,” he added, saying it made testing “much more urgent”.

Direct travel from South Africa to Britain has been suspended temporarily.

International travellers to the UK from countries not on an approved list of “safe” countries will have to quarantine for 10 days as well as provide a Covid test.

John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Britain’s largest airport, Heathrow, told BBC radio this was a “belt and braces approach” and “very few people will travel with this in place”.

 

AFP

UK Bans Travels From 11 African Countries Over South Africa COVID-19 Strain

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 31, 2020, a UK border sign welcomes passengers on arrival at Heathrow airport in west London. Ben FATHERS / AFP

 

The United Kingdom is imposing a ban on travellers entering England from 11 African countries for an initial period of two weeks, the government has said.

In a statement on its website, the government explained that the decision was taken in a bid to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus (COVID-19) variant identified in South Africa.

While Nigeria is excluded from the list, all the affected countries are in the southern region of the continent.

They include Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique and Angola, as well as Seychelles and Mauritius.

The UK stated that new evidence has shown that there was an urgent need to halt travel from the countries, adding that entry into England would be banned to those who have travelled from or through the countries in the last 10 days (as of Thursday).

“The move, in addition to the travel ban imposed on South Africa on 23 December 2020, follows new data on the steep rise in incidence of the new variant, that has vastly increased the risk of community transmission between nine other southern African countries, as well as the Seychelles and Mauritius, which both have strong travel links with South Africa.

“Urgent restrictions are, therefore, now needed to prevent the spread of this strain in the UK. The measures will be in place for an initial period of two weeks while the scientific data and alternative ways to protect the UK and our partners in Africa are reviewed,” the statement read.

The government, however, stressed that the ban does not affect British and Irish nationals, as well as longer-term visa holders and permanent residents in the UK.

It said such persons would be able to enter but would be required to self-isolate for 10 days on arrival along with their household.

Following the ban on the countries, the UK said it has removed Botswana, Seychelles and Mauritius from its travel corridor list, with the changes taking effect from 4am on Saturday.

The statement added,

Any exemptions usually in place – including for those related to employment – will not apply and those British nationals arriving into England from the other southern African countries, Seychelles and Mauritius after 4am on Saturday 9 January cannot be released from self-isolation through Test to Release.

People sharing a household with anyone self-isolating from these countries will also have to self-isolate for 10 days.

Ministers have also removed Israel (and Jerusalem) from the government’s travel corridor list, as data from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and Public Health England has indicated a significant change in both the level and pace of confirmed cases of coronavirus.

The decision to remove Israel (and Jerusalem) has been made following a sustained and accelerating increase in COVID-19 cases per 100,000 of the population, similar in trajectory to the UK.

National restrictions for England introduced on 6 January 2021 remain in place meaning everyone must stay at home unless travelling for a very limited set of reasons, including for work.

This means people can no longer travel to take holidays or travel internationally unless for work or other legally permitted reasons. Those in breach of the rules face penalties starting at £200, rising to a maximum of £6,400.

People in all countries affected by the travel ban are encouraged to follow the local rules and check FCDO travel advice for further information.

All travellers, including those from exempt destinations, will still be required to show a complete passenger locator form on arrival into the UK unless they fall into a small group of exemptions.

UK Launches New £4.6bn Plan To Help Virus-Hit Firms

UK To Boost African Partnership With £30m
UK Flag

 

The UK on Tuesday launched an extra £4.6-billion package for virus-battered businesses as it entered a fresh national lockdown set to last weeks.

The financial support, equivalent to $6.3 billion or 5.1 billion euros, “will help businesses to get through the months ahead — and crucially it will help sustain jobs, so workers can be ready to return when they are able to reopen”, finance minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement.

Sunak announced grants for retail, hospitality, and leisure businesses worth up to £9,000 per property to help businesses through the next several months.

Other impacted businesses would share £594 million, added the chancellor of the exchequer.

The UK government has already pumped out billions of pounds in support since early 2020 when the nation went into a first lockdown over the coronavirus, sending national debt soaring.

At the heart of the support is the state’s furlough scheme paying the bulk of wages for millions of private-sector workers.

The Bank of England is also pumping out vast sums of cash to prop up the devastated economy — and has slashed its interest rate to a record-low 0.1 percent.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve taken swift action to protect lives and livelihoods and today we’re announcing a further cash injection to support businesses and jobs until the spring,” Sunak said Tuesday.

He added that more than 600,000 business properties would benefit from the new support.

The fresh lockdown meanwhile is aimed at containing a severe wave of infections with a new coronavirus strain believed to spread faster.

Similar to a first March-June lockdown last year, schools are shut and there is a ban on leaving home for all but exercise and essential shopping.

It comes despite the UK rolling out vaccines against Covid-19 and as the nation adjusts to finally exiting the EU single market and customs union.

“The new strain of the virus presents us all with a huge challenge — and whilst the vaccine is being rolled out, we have needed to tighten restrictions further,” said Sunak.

– ‘Package for the whole of 2021’ –
While supporting the lockdown, the head of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned that UK businesses together faced losing £2 billion in weekly sales.

“Already, 178,000 retail jobs have been lost in 2020, and with over 250,000 retail staff currently on furlough, that number could increase dramatically in the new year,” said BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson.

Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the new support, while broadly welcomed, would not be enough for many firms.

“We need to see a clear support package for the whole of 2021, not just another incremental intervention,” he said.

UK Set For Tougher COVID-19 Rules As Cases Surge

People queue to enter a novel coronavirus COVID-19 walk-in testing centre in Walthamstow in north east London, on December 15, 2020. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP)

 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday warned the country to expect tougher restrictions to combat spiralling coronavirus cases, as a row flared over whether schools should reopen.

“It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that will be tougher in many parts of the country,” Johnson told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.

“I’m fully, fully reconciled to that.”

Britain recorded 57,725 new cases on Saturday, its highest total of the entire pandemic, with a new strain of the virus tearing across the country.

Health officials are concerned that the surging numbers could overwhelm hospitals during their busiest time of the year.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer urged the prime minister to immediately impose national lockdown measures.

READ ALSO: EU Defends Its Slow COVID-19 Vaccine Roll-Out

“It’s no good the prime minister hinting that further restrictions are coming into place in a week or two or three,” he told British media, adding the virus was “clearly out of control”.

“So I say bring in those restrictions now, national restrictions within the next 24 hours.”

Much of Britain is already under strict regional rules to prevent the spread, although primary schools are set to reopen in most of the country when the Christmas holiday ends on Monday.

However, around one million four to 11 year olds will learn remotely after the government announced primary schools in London, where case rates are particularly high, would remain closed.

Johnson told parents elsewhere that they should “absolutely” send their young children to school when term begins.

“I understand people’s frustrations, I understand people’s anxieties but there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe and that education is a priority.

“We’ve really fought very hard throughout this pandemic across the country to keep schools open,” he added.

But Jerry Glazier, national executive member of the National Education Union, told AFP on Sunday that “schools are now playing a significant part in the spreading of the infection” and called for them all to be closed for at least two weeks.

“Schools are unsafe for the kids and unsafe for the education workers,” he added. “Many teachers are very anxious about going back into the workplace.”

Johnson said that public health experts had highlighted the long term health and social costs of children being kept out of school.

– ‘Tough period ahead’ –

“There are many factors you have to take into account, particularly deprivation in left-behind communities,” he told Marr.

“The issue is how can you stop schools being places the virus can circulate. Weekly lateral flow testing in schools I believe can make a huge difference.”

The government is also concerned that closing schools will lead to further chaos for students sitting their final exams in the May and June.

Johnson, who has been criticised for his handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 75,000 people in Britain, is pinning his hopes on the mass rollout of the recently approved AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine.

Britain will have 530,000 doses of the vaccine available for use from Monday.

“We can see the way ahead in terms of a route forward, we can see how we can get out of this. But we do have a tough period ahead,” he warned.

Britain has already vaccinated around one million people after approving the Pfizer vaccine in early December, Johnson said Sunday.

“We hope to be able to do tens of millions in the course of the next three months,” said the prime minister.

Brexit Becomes Reality As UK Quits EU Single Market

) this file photo taken on January 5, 2020 shows the flags of the United Kingdom and the European Union. According to a British government source a 'deal is done' on post-Brexit trade. Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP
) this file photo taken on January 5, 2020 shows the flags of the United Kingdom and the European Union. According to a British government source a ‘deal is done’ on post-Brexit trade.
Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

 

Britain on Thursday finally severed its turbulent half-century partnership with Europe, quitting the EU single market and customs union to go its own way four-and-a-half years after its shock vote to leave the bloc.

Brexit, which has dominated politics on both sides of the Channel since 2016, became a reality as Big Ben struck 11:00 pm (2300 GMT) in London, just as most of mainland Europe ushered in 2021.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson — the figurehead of the “Leave” campaign — described it as an “amazing moment” for the country and played up his upbeat narrative of a “Global Britain” unshackled from rules set in Brussels.

He vowed that post-Brexit Britain, despite being battered by a surge in coronavirus cases, would be an “open, generous, outward-looking, internationalist and free-trading” country.

“We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it.”

On the front page of its Friday edition, the stridently anti-EU Daily Express showed a picture of the White Cliffs of Dover and the headline “Our future. Our Britain. Our destiny”.

READ ALSO: Manchester United Eye Premier League Summit After Liverpool Stumble

Legally, Britain left the European Union on January 31 but has been in a standstill transition period during fractious talks to secure a free-trade agreement with Brussels, which was finally clinched on Christmas Eve.

Now the transition is over, EU rules no longer apply. The immediate consequence is an end to the free movement of more than 500 million people between Britain and the 27 EU states.

Customs border checks return for the first time in decades, and despite the free-trade deal allowing Britain continued access to Europe’s nearly 450 million consumers, queues and disruption from additional paperwork are expected.

– ‘A bit of a headache’ –

At the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais, French officials began implementing the new formalities at midnight on the dot, starting with a truck coming from Romania carrying post and parcels.

Matt Smith, managing director of HSF Logistics, which ships mainly fresh meat and chilled goods between Britain and Europe, said he was sending around 15 truckloads to the EU on New Year’s Eve ahead of the changes.

The government’s new post-Brexit customs systems are largely untested and Smith was doubtful how his business would fare with the new paperwork.

“We’re not too sure to be honest, it seems to be a bit of a headache,” he told AFP. “There’ll be delays along the line at some stage.”

But for all the new barriers to come, Britain’s government boasted of an immediate Brexit dividend as it announced an end to value-added tax on tampons, making sanitary products cheaper for millions of women after the exit from EU tax rules.

– Lasting wounds –

Britain is the first member state to leave the EU, which was set up to forge unity after the horrors of World War II.

The 2016 referendum opened up abiding wounds between Leavers and Remainers, and ushered in years of political paralysis before Johnson took power last year, vowing to chart a future for Britain built on scientific innovation and new partnerships across the seas.

A parliamentary debate on Wednesday to ratify the trade deal was marked by elegiac farewells from pro-EU lawmakers, and warnings of disruption as Britain dismantles the intricate network of ties built since it joined the EU’s forerunner in 1973.

– Anxious wait for financial services –

While the EU tariff- and quota-free trade deal averted potential business chaos in the immediate future, the divorce will play out in many practical ways.

Changes apply to everything from pet passports, to how long Britons can visit their holiday homes on the continent and an end to British involvement in a student exchange programme.

Potential disruption at ports is stoking fears of food and medicine shortages, as well as delays to holidaymakers and business travellers used to seamless travel in the EU.

British fishermen are disgruntled at a compromise to allow continued access for EU boats in British waters.

The key financial services sector also faces an anxious wait to learn on what basis it can keep dealing with Europe, after being largely omitted from the trade agreement.

– ‘Keep the light on’ –

Northern Ireland’s border with EU member state Ireland will be closely watched to ensure movement is unrestricted — a key plank of a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence over British rule.

And in pro-EU Scotland, where Brexit has given a boost to calls for a new vote on independence, Johnson faces a potential constitutional headache as 2021 dawns.

Scotland’s pro-EU First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised in a tweet: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.”

But opinion polls indicate that most Britons, on both sides of the referendum divide, want to move on and are far more worried about the worsening coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed 73,500 lives.

Johnson, who himself is among nearly 2.5 million struck down by the virus, warned of tough times ahead because of a resurgence of Covid-19 infections but said a UK-developed vaccine offered grounds for hope.

– ‘Friend and ally’ –

“It’s going to be better,” said Maureen Martin, from the port of Dover that lies across the Channel from France. “We need to govern ourselves and be our own bosses.”

Britain is a financial and diplomatic big-hitter and a major NATO power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and in the G7 grouping of the world’s richest economies.

The EU has now lost 66 million people and an economy worth $2.85 trillion, and there is regret that Britain wanted out.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Britain will remain “our friend and ally” but lamented that Brexit was the fruit of “a lot of lies and false promises”.

Britain’s chief trade negotiator David Frost tweeted: “Britain has just become a fully independent country again — deciding our own affairs for ourselves.”

But his EU opposite number, Michel Barnier, was more downbeat. “No one has been able to show me the added value of Brexit,” he told RTL radio.

“It’s a divorce… you can’t celebrate a divorce.”

Boarding a Eurostar train in Paris as the Brexit hour approached, Francois Graffin, 59, said he was going to pack up his life in London and return to live in France.

“It breaks my heart,” he said.

– Can’t blame the EU –

In Britain, Brexit has been the culmination of years of anti-Brussels agitation as the union morphed from a trading community to a more ambitious political project.

However, the 2016 referendum never spelt out what shape Brexit should take.

Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May repeatedly failed to drive through a “soft” separation that would have kept Britain largely bound to the EU.

But he drove a much harder bargain, to the profound unease of UK businesses and opposition parties.

Now after months of stormy negotiations that were repeatedly upended by the pandemic, Brussels, too, is keen to move on.

But UK lawmaker Chris Hazzard, from the Irish republican Sinn Fein party, said Brexit was far from over.

“When all the bluster dies down… it will become depressingly clear that this trade deal is… the beginning of a new trading relationship built on permanent negotiation, disputes and recriminations,” he warned.

The Daily Telegraph, where Johnson made his name as a Brussels-bashing Europe correspondent, said the government faced a new reality shorn of the EU bogeyman.

“Politicians will have to get used to bearing much greater responsibilities than they have been used to while the UK has been in the EU,” it said.

AFP

UK Leaves European Single Market As Brexit Takes Effect

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 22, 2019 EU and Union flags belonging to both anti-Brexit and pro-Brexit activists, fly outside the Houses of Parliament. Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP

 

Brexit becomes a reality on Thursday as Britain leaves Europe’s customs union and single market, ending nearly half a century of often turbulent ties with its closest neighbours.

The UK’s tortuous departure from the European Union takes full effect when Big Ben strikes 11:00 pm (2300 GMT) in central London, just as most of the European mainland ushers in 2021 at midnight.

Brexit has dominated British politics since the country’s narrow vote to leave the bloc in June 2016, opening deep political and social wounds which remain raw.

But both sides are now keen to move on to a new future.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Brexit “a new beginning in our country’s history and a new relationship with the EU as their biggest ally”.

“This moment is finally upon us and now is the time to seize it,” he added. The British pound surged to a 2.5-year peak against the US dollar before the long-awaited departure from the single market.

Legally, Britain left the EU on January 31 but has been in a standstill transition period during fractious talks to secure a free-trade agreement with Brussels, which was finally clinched on Christmas Eve.

Once the transition ends, EU rules will no longer apply, with the immediate consequence being an end to the free movement of more than 500 million people between Britain and the 27 EU states.

Customs border checks will be back for the first time in decades, and despite the free-trade deal, queues and disruption from additional paperwork are expected.

Symbolic departure

Britain — a financial and diplomatic big-hitter plus a major NATO power — is the first member state to leave the EU, which was set up to forge unity after the horrors of World War II.

The EU has lost 66 million people and an economy worth $2.85 trillion, but Brexit, with its appeal to nationalist populism, also triggered fears other disgruntled members could follow suit.

“It’s been a long road. It’s time now to put Brexit behind us. Our future is made in Europe,” Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday, as she signed the trade pact.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L) and European Council President Charles Michel (R) pose in Brussels, on December 30, 2020 as they show the signed Brexit trade agreement due to come into force on January 1, 2021. JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L) and European Council President Charles Michel (R) pose in Brussels, on December 30, 2020 as they show the signed Brexit trade agreement due to come into force on January 1, 2021. JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP

 

British pro-Brexit newspapers hailed the new post-EU era. “A new dawn for Britain,” said the Daily Mail. The Sun said: “The New Year marks a glorious new chapter.”

The Daily Express evoked wartime prime minister Winston Churchill and called 11:00 pm the country’s “finest hour”.

But the Daily Telegraph, where Johnson made his name as a Brussels-bashing Europe correspondent, sounded a note of caution, with the EU having long been blamed for the country’s ills.

“Politicians will have to get used to bearing much greater responsibilities than they have been used to while the UK has been in the EU,” it said.

‘New beginning’

In January, flag-waving Brexiteers led by populist anti-EU former lawmaker Nigel Farage cheered and pro-EU “remainers” mourned.

But no formal events are planned for the end of the transition.

Public gatherings are banned due to the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed more than 72,000 lives and infected more than 2.4 million in Britain, including Johnson himself.

In this file photo taken on November 19, 2019 Britain's Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson wears boxing gloves emblazoned with "Get Brexit Done" as he poses for a photograph at Jimmy Egan's Boxing Academy in Manchester north-west England on November 19, 2019, during a general election campaign trip. Frank Augstein / POOL / AFP
In this file photo taken on November 19, 2019 Britain’s Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson wears boxing gloves emblazoned with “Get Brexit Done” as he poses for a photograph at Jimmy Egan’s Boxing Academy in Manchester north-west England on November 19, 2019, during a general election campaign trip. Frank Augstein / POOL / AFP

 

Johnson is looking not only to a future free of Covid but also of rules set in Brussels, as Britain forges its own path for the first time since it joined the then European Economic Community in 1973.

On Wednesday, he hailed regulatory approval of Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine, and a “new beginning” for a prosperous, more globally focused Britain.

As well as ensuring tariff- and quota-free access to the EU’s 450 million consumers, Britain has recently signed trade deals with countries including Japan, Canada, Singapore and Turkey.

It is also eyeing another with India, where Johnson plans to make his first major trip as prime minister next month, and with incoming US president Joe Biden’s administration.

Practical application

In the short term, all eyes will be closer to home and focused on how life outside the EU plays out in practical terms, from changes in pet passports to driving licence rules.

That includes disruption at the ports, stoking fears of food and medicine shortages, as well as delays to holidaymakers and business travellers used to seamless travel in the EU.

British fishermen are disgruntled at a compromise to allow continued access for EU boats in British waters.

The key financial services sector also faces an anxious wait to learn on what basis it can keep dealing with Europe, after being largely omitted from the trade deal.

Northern Ireland’s border with EU member state Ireland will be closely watched to ensure movement is unrestricted — a key plank of a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence over British rule.

And in Scotland, where most opposed Brexit, Johnson faces a potential constitutional headache from a resurgent independence movement.

China Reports First Case Of UK COVID-19 Variant

A medical worker takes a swab sample from a resident to test for the COVID-19 coronavirus in Shenyang, in China's northeast Liaoning province on December 31, 2020. STR / AFP
A medical worker takes a swab sample from a resident to test for the COVID-19 coronavirus in Shenyang, in China’s northeast Liaoning province on December 31, 2020. STR / AFP

 

China has confirmed its first case of a new coronavirus variant that was recently detected in Britain, health officials said.

The new strain, which experts say potentially spreads faster than the original variant, has prompted travel restrictions on the UK by more than 50 countries — including China, where the coronavirus first emerged late last year.

The first patient in China with the new variant is a 23-year-old woman from Shanghai who arrived from Britain on December 14, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control said in a research note published Wednesday.

She was hospitalised on arrival as she showed mild symptoms. Health experts conducted a genetic sequencing of her test samples on December 24 “due to travel history from the UK and abnormalities in nucleic acid test results”,” the China CDC said.

READ ALSO: China Approves Home-Made COVID-19 Vaccine

The patient was found to have a strain different to those found in Shanghai or Wuhan earlier, and further testing confirmed it was the variant known as B.1.1.7 that has been spreading in the UK since October.

Health authorities have carried out contact-tracing, the CDC statement added.

China suspended direct flights to and from Britain indefinitely on December 24 because of the new strain.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the new variant “may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the original version of the disease”.

But there is no evidence so far to suggest that infection with the new variant is more likely to lead to a severe case of Covid-19 or increase the risk of death.

 

AFP

UK Finally Seals Exit From EU

 In this file photo taken on December 11, 2019 Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative party leader Boris Johnson speaks during a general election campaign rally in East London on December 11, 2019, the final day of campaigning for the general election. Ben STANSALL / AFP
In this file photo taken on December 11, 2019 Britain’s Prime Minister and Conservative party leader Boris Johnson speaks during a general election campaign rally in East London on December 11, 2019, the final day of campaigning for the general election. Ben STANSALL / AFP

 

Britain and the EU signed a post-Brexit trade deal on Wednesday, sealing their drawn-out divorce in the closing hours before the UK definitively ends its half-century European experiment.

Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the heads of the European Commission and European Council, smiled at a brief televised ceremony to put their names to the 1,246-page Trade and Cooperation Agreement in Brussels.

“It has been a long road. It’s time now to put Brexit behind us. Our future is made in Europe,” von der Leyen said.

The leather-bound document was then flown by the Royal Air Force to London for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to add his signature, as the UK parliament held a rushed debate to ratify the deal in the dwindling time left.

Johnson gave a thumbs up after inking what he described as “the beginning of what will be a wonderful relationship between the UK and our friends and partners in the EU”.

Britain will leave the European single market and customs union at 11:00 pm (2300 GMT) on Thursday, the end of a post-Brexit transition period marked by tortuous trade negotiations which culminated in the Christmas Eve deal.

Introducing an 85-page bill to implement the pact, Johnson told the House of Commons that it heralded a new chapter for Britain and the EU as “sovereign equals, joined by friendship, commerce, history, interests and values”.

The lower house voted overwhelmingly by 521-73 to back the deal, despite serious opposition misgivings, and the bill then passed the House of Lords late Wednesday in an unusually rapid one-day procedure.

London and Brussels would work “hand in glove whenever our values and interests coincide, while fulfilling the sovereign wish of the British people to live under their own sovereign laws made by their own sovereign parliament”, Johnson added.

Anxious wait

Michel echoed the sentiment in Brussels, vowing the two sides would work “shoulder to shoulder” on major issues, including climate change and future health pandemics.

Johnson’s government only published the accompanying UK legislation on Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before the debate began in parliament, underscoring the frantic dash to clear the decks in time.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L) and European Council President Charles Michel (R) pose in Brussels, on December 30, 2020 as they show the signed Brexit trade agreement due to come into force on January 1, 2021. JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L) and European Council President Charles Michel (R) pose in Brussels, on December 30, 2020 as they show the signed Brexit trade agreement due to come into force on January 1, 2021. JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP

 

The last-ditch deal averted the prospect of a cliff-edge separation which would have seen quotas and tariffs slapped on all cross-Channel trade, exacerbating strains in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Britain harder than most.

But British fishermen have accused the government of selling them out, while services — accounting for 80 percent of the UK economy — were largely omitted.

The City of London financial hub faces an anxious wait to learn on what basis it can continue dealing with Europe in the future.

Theresa May, whose three-year Brexit-dominated premiership ended in 2019 after she failed to win support for a closer future relationship with the bloc, voiced unease.

“We have a deal in trade which benefits the EU, but not a deal in services which would have benefited the UK,” she told MPs.

‘Thin deal’

However, an influential faction of arch-Brexiteers in Johnson’s ruling Conservatives gave their blessing to the EU agreement on Tuesday, and the main opposition Labour party also gave its reluctant backing.

“This is a thin deal, it’s got many flaws, but a thin deal is better than no deal,” Labour leader Keir Starmer told MPs, accusing other opposition parties of staging an irresponsible protest vote.

Lawmakers from the pro-European Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party voted against — with the SNP using the issue to push for a fresh referendum on independence for Scotland.

In Edinburgh, the SNP-dominated Scottish Parliament declined to give its own consent to the Brexit deal, although First Minister Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged that would not affect passage of the UK bill.

The agreement’s impact will play out in the coming months, with UK businesses braced for customs red tape they have avoided for decades in cross-Channel trade.

Meanwhile from January 1, there will no longer be free movement of people from Britain to the EU or vice versa.

Under the compressed legislative calendar, the European Parliament will debate the Brexit deal after the New Year, but is expected to eventually nod it through.

Pending that, EU member states gave their green light on Monday for the accord to take provisional effect before the New Year’s Eve deadline.

 

AFP

EU Leaders Sign Brexit Deal As UK MPs Debate Ratification

(FILES) In this file photograph taken on January 29, 2020, British members of the European Parliament from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats pose for a group picture wearing scarves depicting the European Union and the Union Jack flags at The Europa Building in Brussels.  (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

 

EU leaders signed their post-Brexit trade deal with Britain and dispatched it to London on an RAF jet Wednesday, setting their seal on a drawn-out divorce just hours before the UK brings its half-century European experiment to an end.

EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the heads of the European Commission and European Council, smiled at a brief televised ceremony to put their names to the 1,246-page Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

“It has been a long road. It’s time now to put Brexit behind us. Our future is made in Europe,” von der Leyen said

Britain will leave the European single market and customs union at 11:00pm (2300 GMT) on Thursday, the end of a difficult year and of a post-Brexit transition period marked by intense and tortuous trade negotiations.

But first the hefty document, bound in blue leather, was flown by the Royal Air Force to London for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to add his signature, as the UK parliament began a rushed debate on the deal before the looming deadline.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: Five Things To Know About Landmark UK Vaccine

Introducing the legislation to ratify it, Johnson told lawmakers it heralded “a new relationship between Britain and the EU as sovereign equals, joined by friendship, commerce, history, interests and values”.

“With this bill we are going to be a friendly neighbour, the best friend and ally the EU could have,” he said.

London and Brussels would work “hand in glove whenever our values and interests coincide, while fulfilling the sovereign wish of the British people to live under their own sovereign laws made by their own sovereign parliament”, he added.

– Anxious wait –

Michel echoed the sentiment in Brussels, vowing the two sides would work “shoulder to shoulder” on major issues, including climate change and future health pandemics.

Johnson’s government only published the accompanying UK legislation on Tuesday afternoon — less than 24 hours before the debate began in parliament and an hour after the EU signing.

The government intends to ram all stages of the 85-page European Union (Future Relationship) Bill through the Commons and the House of Lords in one day, before Queen Elizabeth II formally signs it into law.

The last-ditch deal averted the prospect of a cliff-edge separation which would have seen quotas and tariffs slapped on all cross-Channel trade, exacerbating strains in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Britain harder than most.

But British fishermen have accused the government of selling them out, while services — accounting for 80 percent of the UK economy — were largely omitted.

The City of London faces an anxious wait to learn on what basis it can continue dealing with Europe in the future.

Theresa May, whose three-year Brexit-dominated premiership ended in 2019 after she failed to win support for a closer future relationship with the bloc, voiced her unease at the agreement.

“We have a deal in trade which benefits the EU, but not a deal in services which would have benefited the UK,” she told MPs.

– ‘Thin deal’ –

The legislation is set to pass, however, after an influential faction of arch-Brexiteers in Johnson’s ruling Conservatives gave their blessing to the EU agreement on Tuesday, and the main opposition Labour party signalled its reluctant backing.

Despite misgivings among some of his own MPs, who plan to abstain or vote against the agreement, Labour leader Keir Starmer said neutrality was not an option given the stakes for Britain.

“This is a thin deal, it’s got many flaws, but a thin deal is better than no deal,” Starmer told MPs.

Lawmakers from the pro-European Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party (SNP) said they would vote against it — with the SNP using the issue to push for a fresh referendum on independence for Scotland.

“The only way to regain the huge benefits of EU membership is to become an independent state at the heart of Europe once more,” its leader in the UK parliament, Ian Blackford, said.

The agreement’s impact will play out in the coming months, with UK businesses braced for customs red tape they have avoided for decades in cross-Channel trade.

Meanwhile from January 1, there will no longer be free movement of people from Britain to the EU or vice versa.

Under the compressed legislative calendar, the European Parliament will debate the Brexit deal after the New Year, but they are expected to eventually nod it through.

Pending that, EU member states gave their green light on Monday for the accord to take provisional effect before Thursday’s deadline.

UK Approves Astrazeneca/Oxford COVID-19 Vaccine

 

A coronavirus vaccine developed by drug firm AstraZeneca and Oxford University has been approved for use in Britain, the government said Wednesday, adding the mass rollout will start on January 4.

The vaccine can be stored, transported and handled at normal refrigerated conditions, and is therefore cheaper and easier to administer than the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs that require freezing.

Britain will become the first nation to roll out the jab on January 4, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, amid mounting concerns that another dangerous spike in infections threatens to overwhelm the NHS.

“Brilliant to end 2020 with such a moment of hope,” tweeted Hancock.

“The #coronavirus vaccine is our way out of the pandemic — now we need to hold our nerve while we get through this together.”

The government said in a statement earlier that it had “today accepted the recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to authorise Oxford University/AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for use.

“This follows rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data by experts at the MHRA, which has concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness,” said the Department of Health and Social Care spokesman.

On Sunday, AstraZeneca’s Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said the vaccine provides “100 percent protection” against severe COVID disease requiring hospitalisation.

He predicted trials would show his firm had achieved a vaccine efficacy equal to Pfizer-BioNTech at 95 per cent and Moderna at 94.5 per cent.

Earlier trials had shown varying outcomes in the AstraZeneca shot’s efficacy.

The vaccine intially showed an average 70 per cent effectiveness but that level jumped to 90 per cent depending on the dosage regime.

Behind this average figure from large-scale trials in the UK and Brazil was a 62 percent effectiveness for those who were vaccinated with two full doses of the shot.

For volunteers who received a half-dose first and then a full dose one month later, however, the vaccine was found to have 90 per cent efficacy.

UK COVID-19 Strain Has Been In Germany Since November

A nurse prepares a dose of the Pfizer-Biontech Covid-19 corona virus vaccine at the ‘Am Birkenwaeldchen’ senior citizens’ park in Zeulenroda-Triebes, eastern Germany, on December 27, 2020. (Photo by Bodo Schackow / POOL / AFP)

 

The new coronavirus strain sweeping Britain has been in Germany since November, health officials said Tuesday, after detecting the variant in a patient who died in the north of the country.

Researchers were “able to sequence the variant of the B1.1.7 virus in a person infected in November this year”, the health ministry of Lower Saxony said in a statement referring to the new strain.

This is the same strain “responsible for a large proportion of the infections detected in the south of England,” it said.

The variant was found in an elderly patient with underlying health conditions who has since died. His wife was also infected but survived.

The couple caught the virus after their daughter returned from a trip to Britain in mid-November, where she “in all likelihood” became infected with the new strain, the statement said.

Teams from the Hannover Medical School (MHH) were able to identify the new strain after sequencing the genome.

READ ALSO: US Begins COVID-19 Vaccinations For Troops In South Korea

The results were then confirmed by a team at Berlin’s Charite hospital, which included top German virologist Christian Drosten.

Germany had previously reported only one case of the new strain, in a woman who flew in from London on Thursday.

Britain sounded the alarm earlier this month over the variant, which authorities say is significantly more contagious.

Concerns over the strain have prompted many countries to suspend travel to and from Britain.

It has since been detected in several other nations, including Portugal, France, Jordan and South Korea.

Germany has banned arrivals from the UK by road, sea and air until January 6.