UK Bids To Reassure Over Northern Ireland After Biden Warning

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on June 24, 2020, to attend Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs)a at the House of Commons – ˜ (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)

 

Britain on Thursday reaffirmed its backing for Northern Ireland’s peace accord, after White House candidate Joe Biden warned of potential fallout for a future UK-US trade deal from London’s Brexit manoeuvering.

“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Democrat Biden, who has often spoken passionately of his Irish roots, wrote on Twitter.

“Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said a contentious bill currently being debated by parliament was intended “precisely to make sure that the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is upheld in all circumstances”.

“We continue to remain absolutely committed to no hard border and no border infrastructure between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland,” he told reporters.

The planned legislation — which Britain admits will override parts of the Brexit treaty — has provoked anger and concern among EU officials.

The proposed law would make unilateral changes to regulate trade with Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, if it cannot seal a post-Brexit deal with the EU by the end of this year.

Brussels has threatened legal action if it is not withdrawn by the end of September and reminded Britain of its duty to uphold international treaty obligations.

Northern Ireland is set to remain bound by some EU rules to ensure its border with Ireland remains open — a key part of the 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence.

But Johnson charges that the EU could carry out a food “blockade” between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, which would threaten peace and territorial integrity.

“We will continue to engage with our US partners on a bipartisan basis to ensure that our positions are understood,” Johnson’s spokesman said.

“The whole point of this, as the PM has set out, is to make sure the Belfast Good Friday Agreement is upheld.”

Biden’s strong words came as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab visited Washington to try to allay US concerns about the impact of Britain’s departure from the European Union.

It followed a similar warning from Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced confidence that Britain would find a “good outcome” in its standoff with the EU.

Prior to Biden’s intervention, the prime minister told MPs on Wednesday that his bill would “protect the peace process in Northern Ireland”.

“Possibly the vital importance of protecting the symmetry of the Good Friday Agreement is something that may have been lost so far in the presentation of this matter (in Washington),” he said.

AFP

UK’s PM Urges Britons To Flatten COVID-19 Pandemic’s ‘Second Hump’

A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on July 15, 2020. JESSICA TAYLOR / AFP / UK PARLIAMENT
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on July 15, 2020. JESSICA TAYLOR / AFP / UK PARLIAMENT

 

 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday he could close pubs earlier to “stop the second hump” of coronavirus cases, comparing the country’s trajectory of resurgent transmission to a camel’s profile.

His government is set to unveil new restrictions in England, which could also include greater social curbs, later on Thursday, initially targeting the northeast region where Covid-19 cases are surging.

It already imposed rules across England on Monday limiting socialising to groups of six people or fewer, as daily cases reach levels not seen since early May.

In an interview with The Sun newspaper, Johnson said new measures may be needed as “the only way to make sure the country is able to enjoy Christmas” and an alternative to another full lockdown.

“What I don’t want to be doing is locking down sections of the economy,” he said.

“We can grip it now, stop the surge, arrest the spike, stop the second hump of the dromedary, flatten the second hump,” Johnson told the tabloid, before musing on his metaphor.

“Dromedary or camel? I can’t remember if it is a dromedary or a camel that has two humps? Umm. Please check.”

Dromedaries are Arabian camels which have only one hump.

Johnson had compared Britain’s first wave of virus cases to a sombrero hat, imploring people to “squash it” by obeying the nationwide lockdown in place from late March until June.

But the prime minister has faced stinging criticism this week over the failure to achieve the “world-beating” testing and tracing system he promised by the summer.

The government admits that increasing demand for virus tests is posing problems, after hospital bosses warned delays in the system were jeopardising healthcare services.

 

In this file photo taken on June 15, 2020 Commuters wearing face masks walk through the ticket barriers at Waterloo Station in London on June 15, 2020 after new rules make wearing face coverings on public transport compulsory while the UK further eases its coronavirus lockdown
Niklas HALLE’N / AFP

 

It has blamed people who do not need tests overburdening the system, with ministers vowing to unveil new prioritisation rules in the coming days.

“I really sympathise for those that can’t get the test that they want,” Johnson added, conceding “the system is really struggling with the real weight of demand”.

“Often, and I don’t in any way reproach people for doing this, but it’s a fact, a significant proportion of those people are asymptomatic.”

Johnson vowed to “continue to ramp it up” and has promised to have the capacity to test 500,000 people a day in place by October.

Britain has been the worst-hit country in Europe from the pandemic, with the government registering nearly 42,000 deaths.

The Office of National Statistics, which uses broader criteria for counting Covid-19 fatalities, has said closer to 58,000 Britons have died from the virus.

AFP

UK Inflation Sinks To 0.2 Percent On Virus Stimulus

A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on July 15, 2020. JESSICA TAYLOR / AFP / UK PARLIAMENT
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on July 15, 2020. JESSICA TAYLOR / AFP / UK PARLIAMENT

 

 

British inflation hit a near five-year low in August on state coronavirus stimulus measures for the troubled hospitality sector, including a restaurant discount scheme and tax cuts, data showed Wednesday.

The annual inflation rate, as measured by the UK’s Consumer Prices Index, dived to just 0.2 percent in August, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said in a statement.

That was the lowest level since December 2015 and compared with 1.0 percent in July 2020.

“The cost of dining out fell significantly in August thanks to the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme and VAT cut, leading to one of the largest falls in the annual inflation rate in recent years,” said ONS deputy national statistician Jonathan Athow.

“For the first time since records began, airfares fell in August as fewer people travelled abroad on holiday.

“Meanwhile the usual clothing price rises seen at this time of year, as autumn ranges hit the shops, also failed to materialise,” he said.

The “Eat Out to Help Out” incentive — which was valid Monday to Wednesday throughout August — saw the UK government contribute 50 per cent of the cost of a cafe, restaurant or pub meal, up to £10 ($13, 11 euros) per person.

Britons enjoyed more than 100 million meals under the discount scheme, according to recent data.

The government also slashed valued-add tax on the virus-plagued hospitality sector from 20 per cent to just five per cent.

The tax cut and restaurant scheme were launched by finance minister Rishi Sunak to try to kick-start the British economy, which has been devastated by the pandemic.

Adding to downwards inflationary pressure in August, airlines slashed their ticket prices to attract bargain-hunting Britons, after the deadly Covid-19 pandemic had sparked a global slump in demand for air travel.

The data were published on the eve of a decision from the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, which is not expected to alter its key interest rate from the current level of 0.1 per cent.

Economists predict that inflation will pick up speed in the coming months as temporary factors fall out of the equation.

“The MPC is unlikely to be too concerned about the threat of deflation ahead of tomorrow’s policy decision,” noted Thomas Pugh at research consultancy Capital Economics.

“The Eat Out to Help Out scheme ended in August. Although some restaurants have kept the discount going by themselves, many have not. And the VAT cut for the hospitality industry will expire on 12 January.”

AFP

UK To Sanction Individuals Who Perpetuate Violence In Edo, Ondo Elections

A file photo of the UK High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing
A file photo of the UK High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing

 

The United Kingdom on Tuesday said it will not hesitate to take actions against individuals it identifies as causing violence in the imminent elections in Edo and Ondo states.

According to a statement tweeted via the British High Commission, the UK sees the elections as another opportunity to strengthen Nigeria’s democratic institutions.

“As a friend and partner of Nigeria we are closely following the lead up to the off-cycle governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states scheduled for September 19 and October 10 respectively,” the statement said.

“These elections are important, both as an essential element of effective governance within both states and an indicator of the strength of Nigeria’s democratic institutions.”

The UK’s High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, has met with leaders of two main political parties, APC and PDP, as part of efforts to ensure the elections are held peacefully.

 

“The discussions focused on the need for the parties’ leaders to prevail on supporters to avoid violence before and after the elections,” the statement added.

The UK also said it welcomed the signing of a peace accord agreed to by major political parties and their candidates in Edo state earlier on Tuesday.

“We will be deploying observation missions to both the Edo and Ondo elections and supporting civil society led observation,” the statement continued.

“The UK takes a strong stand against election-related violence and, just as we did in the general election in 2019, will continue to take action against individuals we identify as being responsible for violence during the elections. This could include restrictions on their eligibility to travel to the UK, restrictions on access to UK based assets or prosecution under International law.

“The UK will continue to provide support and engagement as we move towards these elections. We urge INEC, the police and all other agencies involved to work toegether to deliver free, fair and credible elections.”

UK Warned COVID-19 Test Shortages Harming Health System

(FILES) In this file photo Dr. Rhonda Flores looks at protein samples at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Maryland on March 20, 2020, one of the labs developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, COVID-19. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

 

Healthcare services are being jeopardised by lack of access to coronavirus testing, hospital bosses in England warned on Tuesday.

NHS Providers, which represents the heads of hospital trusts in the state-run National Health Service, said there were “current capacity problems with the testing regime”.

Its chief executive Chris Hopson said the government should prioritise health workers, as shortages of tests had caused a slew of staff absences in major cities.

Patients were also struggling to get tests, compounding delays within the NHS that have worsened since the outbreak began.

“We have now got cases where patients who should be being treated, we can’t treat them because they can’t get access to a test,” he told Sky News television in an interview.

“So, for them that’s a real problem.”

Hopson spoke after LBC radio reported on Monday that no coronavirus tests were available in any of the 10 worst hotspots in England.

The revelation followed weekend reports of a backlog of 185,000 swab tests, and that the system was so stretched samples were being sent to labs in Italy and Germany.

The UK government has blamed surging demand for the situation and promised increased capacity while urging people only to get tested if they are showing symptoms.

Interior minister Priti Patel denied claims of acute shortages in England’s hotspots, saying mobile testing units were boosting capacity in areas under local lockdowns.

“Clearly there is much more work that needs to be undertaken with Public Health England and the actual public health bodies in those particular local areas,” she told BBC radio on Tuesday.

Britain, which has been the worst-hit country in Europe registering nearly 42,000 deaths, has seen a resurgence in the virus in recent weeks.

The country recorded more than 3,000 new cases on three consecutive days over the weekend, for the first time since May.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had pledged to have a “world-beating” testing and tracing operation in place by June.

But alongside the faltering testing regime, the tracing system is still failing to reach the required number of people to work effectively.

Meanwhile, a much-touted smartphone app to help trace people is yet to launch in England.

Scotland, which runs health from the devolved administration in Edinburgh, launched an app last week using technology developed by Apple and Google.

AFP

UK Facing One Million Job Cuts In 2020 Due To Virus, Says Study

A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on July 15, 2020. JESSICA TAYLOR / AFP / UK PARLIAMENT
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on July 15, 2020. JESSICA TAYLOR / AFP / UK PARLIAMENT

 

 

Coronavirus could potentially cost one million jobs in Britain this year, with most losses anticipated during the current third quarter, according to a study published on Monday.

Job losses could hit 450,000 between July and September, the Institute for Employment Studies forecast in a report, warning this could worsen to 690,000 positions under a worst-case scenario.

Another 200,000 cuts could follow in the fourth quarter, or three months to December, the research group predicted.

Recent official data showed that Britain has already shed around 240,000 jobs in the first six months of 2020.

The latest IES forecasts, based on official Insolvency Service data, could therefore bring the annual total to more than one million.

“This data lays bare the scale of the jobs crisis that we’re facing in the autumn,” said IES director Tony Wilson in the study.

“The sad reality is that this restructuring cannot be averted entirely, but we can do a lot more to minimise the job losses and support those who are most at risk,” he said.

The dire IES forecasts come amid growing concern about the end of the British government’s jobs retention plan which was launched in the wake of the March 23 nationwide virus lockdown.

In October, the UK government will wind up the so-called furlough scheme, under which it has paid up to 80 percent of private-sector wages for around ten million workers during the pandemic.

Analysts have repeatedly warned this would result in soaring unemployment across Britain.

“There are still many parts of the economy where perfectly viable businesses cannot bring people back because of the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic,” warned Wilson at the IES.

“So we need tightly targeted support to help these firms ride out the next few months, where they can commit to not laying staff off.”

Britain’s economy shrank by a fifth in the second quarter, more than any European neighbour, as the lockdown plunged the country into its deepest recession on record.

AFP

UK MPs Resume Brexit Feuding As New Bill Faces First Commons Vote

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock (central left) giving a statement on coronavirus on September 10, 2020.

 

Britain’s parliament on Monday finds itself in familiar territory — arguing about Brexit — with threats of rebellion and resignations over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s controversial plan for a new law that will break his EU divorce treaty.

The House of Commons holds its first debate and vote over the bombshell new bill from late afternoon, despite a call from Brussels for it to be withdrawn by the end of the month.

The contentious legislation, unveiled last week, would override the divorce deal the UK struck with the EU last year in several key areas related to Northern Ireland.

It would see London unilaterally regulate UK trade and state aid within the British province, ignoring the EU treaty which gives Brussels a continuing say over Northern Ireland’s trading relationship.

If the law passes in the coming weeks, Brussels has warned it could scupper ongoing trade deal talks and threatened court action, leaving the prospects of an orderly Brexit in tatters.

Even some Brexiteer lawmakers were aghast that Britain would wilfully trash an international treaty, threatening the country’s reputation and potentially endangering Northern Ireland’s fragile peace.

Former prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair this weekend openly criticised the action, while David Cameron said Monday he had “misgivings” about the approach.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s pro-Brexit former attorney general Geoffrey Cox said it would be “unconscionable” to override an international treaty.

“I think it is wrong that the British government or our parliament should renege on an agreement on which we gave our solemn word,” he told Times Radio.

– ‘Squabbling days’ –

The latest row revives the bitter wrangling over how to implement British voters’ shock decision in 2016 to quit the bloc, which led to parliamentary deadlock and repeated postponements.

The impasse was broken after Johnson sealed a divorce deal with Brussels and used it to win a thumping victory in a December general election which gave his Conservatives an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons.

Brexit took legal effect the next month, but in practice Britain has remained bound by EU rules under a transition period until the end of this year.

With the clock ticking down, no breakthrough is in sight for regulating cross-Channel trade from January, and Northern Ireland is back as a fiendishly complicated obstacle.

Britain claims it needs the new law as an insurance policy in case no trade agreement is struck, but the EU was left blind-sided, as were many in parliament.

The government nonetheless appears determined to ram the UK Internal Market Bill through as quickly as possible, and senior minister Michael Gove believes it can avert a full-scale rebellion.

“I think we have got the support of our own MPs and MPs in other parties as well,” he told BBC television. “But you’re absolutely right we are reaching a crunch moment.”

On Friday evening, the prime minister held a chaotic Zoom call with about 250 Conservative backbenchers which appeared to do little to mollify the malcontents.

Johnson warned them against a return to the “miserable, squabbling days of last autumn” over Brexit, according to MPs’ accounts to the media afterwards.

Not long after the call, he accused the EU of plotting to break up the UK with a food “blockade” down the Irish Sea, which EU leaders have denied.

– ‘Madman theory’ –

MPs will get their first chance to debate the legislation from mid-afternoon Monday, before voting at around 2100 GMT to continue its passage through parliament.

However, more meaningful votes on attempts to change the draft law will not come until next week.

Commons Justice Committee chairman Bob Neill has filed an amendment to dictate that parliament, not the government, will have the final say on any changes to the EU Withdrawal Agreement.

The bill “is potentially a harmful act for this country, it would damage our reputation and I think it will make it harder to strike trade deals going forward,” he told Channel 4 News.

It remains to be seen whether Tory rebels can muster the numbers to seriously embarrass the government on Monday or whether they could hold their fire until future votes.

The main opposition Labour party, which opposed Brexit, says it is open to negotiation about the bill but would rather be talking about Covid-19.

“We should be getting on with defeating this virus, not reigniting old rows,” Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.

AFP

Judge Orders P&ID To Pay Nigeria Over £1.5 million

A file photo of a court gavel.

 

 

A United Kingdom judge has ordered P&ID to make an interim payment of more than £1.5 million to Nigeria within 21 days to cover legal costs the country incurred as part of its successful application for the extension of time to challenge the arbitration award of $9.6 billion to the company.

The judge gave the order on Thursday when Nigeria appeared before it in a hearing held to decide procedural and costs issues relating to the FRN’s applications to challenge the arbitration award and to determine the short-term directions to trial. 

READ ALSO: UK Court Ruling, A Source Of Huge Satisfaction – Presidency

This latest order follows the major victory it secured on Friday last week when the court allowed the country to bring a fraud challenge against a $9.6 billion arbitration award obtained by vulture-fund-backed P&ID well outside the normal time limits.

“This is another crucial win for Nigeria in our ongoing fight against the vulture-fund-backed P&ID,” a spokesperson for the Attorney General of the Federation said in a statement announcing the latest development.  

“We are pleased that the English Courts have taken our fraud challenge seriously, and awarded us a substantial interim payment in respect of our successful application for an extension of time to challenge the award.”

With the order, Nigeria will now proceed to a full fraud trial, in its quest to avoid paying the arbitration award which is estimated to be one-third of the national budget.

The Nigerian government considers the order a “significant blow” to P&ID as will help speed up the trial and halt what it says are attempts by the company to delay the process.

“To date, P&ID and its financial backer VR Capital have not produced a single document or credible witness to challenge the FRN’s fraud evidence,” it said of the attempts.

“Instead, they continue to resort to disseminating misleading claims, while taking every step possible to delay or obstruct our investigations across multiple jurisdictions.”

The Nigerian government has maintained over time that the contract that led to the arbitration was fraudulent and that it would work relentlessly to overturn it.

After securing two favourable court decisions, it restated the commitment to overturning “the injustice”, saying it “will not rest until we secure justice for the people of Nigeria – no matter how long it takes.  Investigations into the GSPA are ongoing, and we are confident that more of the truth will be revealed over the coming months.”

P&ID, a firm based in the British Virgin Islands, won a $9.6 billion arbitration award against the Nigerian government after the 2010 gas project collapsed.

The award accrued interest since 2013 and is now worth more than $9 billion.

However, Nigeria on September 3, secured a landmark victory in its pursuit to overturn a $10 billion judgment awarded against it in a case against P&ID in a failed gas deal in 2010.

Ross Cranston, a judge of the Business and Property Courts of England and Wales, granted Nigeria’s application for an extension of time and relief from sanctions, in the nation’s bid to overturn a $10 billion judgement awarded against it.

UK Holds Crisis Talks With EU As Pelosi Warns On Brexit Bill

The flags of Britain (R) and the European Union flutter in front of the Chancellery in Berlin, where the British Prime Minister was expected on April 9, 2019. MICHELE TANTUSSI / AFP.

 

Britain held emergency talks with the European Union on Thursday, facing warnings of legal action over a new Brexit bill and a threatening reminder of its obligations to Northern Ireland from leading US Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

Warnings redoubled too within the ranks of the governing Conservative party as former prime minister John Major, who helped lay the foundations for Northern Irish peace in the 1990s, said his successor Boris Johnson risked trashing the UK’s global reputation.

“If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained,” Major said, after the government conceded that the proposed new legislation would breach an EU withdrawal treaty in the countdown to a full Brexit divorce.

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic headed to London demanding “clarifications” over the new UK Internal Market Bill, after it was submitted to a stormy session of parliament Wednesday.

“I came here to express serious concerns the European Union has over the proposed bill,” Sefcovic told reporters before starting the meeting with his counterpart on a UK-EU joint committee, Michael Gove.

The bill would give British ministers unilateral powers to regulate trade among England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, once the force of EU law expires after a post-Brexit transition period at the end of this year.

But under the EU withdrawal treaty, Britain is meant to liaise with Brussels on arrangements for Northern Ireland, which will have the UK’s only land border with the EU, and where 30 years of bloodshed ended with a landmark peace deal in 1998.

– Rushed through? –

EU diplomats — and Johnson’s many critics at home including in the UK’s devolved governments — have ridiculed Downing Street’s argument that the EU treaty was written “at pace” and contained unforeseen problems relating to a protocol on Northern Ireland.

But Johnson’s spokesman, rebuffing the criticism from Major and others, stressed the legislation was needed to create a “safety net” for Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading regime.

“We can’t allow the peace process or the UK internal market to inadvertently be comprised by the ill-intended consequences of the protocol,” the spokesman told reporters.

“We would expect other countries to recognise this and the exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in.”

Sefcovic and Gove met on the last day of a parallel track of negotiations this week in London that have struggled to make headway on a future trading relationship, as Britain unwinds nearly 50 years of European integration.

Johnson’s critics say the new bill is aimed partly at torpedoing that track, so Britain can go its own way and forge other trade pacts free of EU oversight, not least with the United States.

However, House of Representatives Speaker Pelosi gave short shrift to any hopes of Congress ratifying a future trade deal if Britain ploughs ahead with the new Brexit bill.

In a statement, she said London must respect the EU treaty’s Northern Ireland Protocol, which envisages borderless trade with EU member Ireland as a way of upholding the 1998 peace pact.

“If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress,” Pelosi warned.

“The Good Friday Agreement is treasured by the American people and will be proudly defended in the United States Congress.”

– See you in court –

More immediately, the EU’s executive commission circulated a paper setting out legal options against London including recourse to the European Court of Justice — the supreme arbiter of EU law which Brexit, ironically, is meant to escape.

“A breach of the obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement would open the way to the legal remedies,” a draft prepared by EU ambassadors and seen by AFP said.

EU diplomats said that to avoid that, and the possibility of hefty fines against Britain, much hinged on the Sefcovic-Gove committee finding a way out.

Johnson spoke by phone on Wednesday evening with his Irish counterpart, Micheal Martin, who was left unimpressed by British assurances that the internal market bill is aimed in fact at preserving peace in Northern Ireland.

“I pointed out very strongly to him that this was very unsettling for Northern Ireland, that it was dragging Northern Ireland back into the centre stage,” Martin told RTE radio, warning also that Johnson had eroded trust with the EU.

AFP

Tighter Socialising Rules In England After COVID-19 Spike

Workers wear NHS-branded Test and Trace high-vis jackets as they work at an NHS COVID-19 walk-in testing centre in Bolton, northern England on September 9, 2020, as local lockdown restrictions are put in place due to a spike in cases of the novel coronavirus in the city. – The UK government, which controls health policy in England, imposed tougher restrictions on Bolton, near the northwest city of Manchester, after a “very significant rise” in cases. Bolton was found to have 120 cases per 100,000 people — the highest in the country. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP)

 

The UK government on Wednesday sets out tighter rules on social gatherings to curb the spread of the coronavirus, with concern mounting at rising infection rates among the young.

The law in England will change from next week to reduce the number of people who can gather socially from 30 to six, with some exemptions.

A new public information campaign was also launched to emphasise the importance of hand washing, the use of face coverings and maintaining social distancing.

“We need to act now to stop the virus spreading,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in comments before an expected news conference later Wednesday.

More than 41,500 people confirmed to have coronavirus have died in Britain, the worst toll in Europe.

The death rate has now fallen to its lowest level since mid-March.

But as in other parts of Europe, cases are increasing, with almost 3,000 daily infections reported in recent days, and concern the outbreak is slipping out of control.

Johnson’s office said medical and scientific advisers had agreed that “urgent action is needed”, while police had also asked for the rules to be simplified.

Current guidelines stipulate that people must not socialise outside in a group of more than six people from different households.

But the law actually puts that limit at 30 in private spaces.

From Monday, this will be reduced to six, except for large families, weddings, funerals, organised team sports, workplaces and educational settings.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News television in an interview: “Abiding by these rules is absolutely vital to protect life.

“We’ve seen the increase in the number of cases, sadly, in the last few days. We’ve seen that across Europe, there’s a second wave that many countries have experienced.”

– Targeted action –

The UK government, which controls health policy in England, imposed tougher restrictions on Bolton, near the northwest city of Manchester, after a “very significant rise” in cases.

Bolton was found to have 120 cases per 100,000 people — the highest in the country.

Hancock told parliament on Tuesday contact tracing data had shown this was “partly due to socialising by people in their 20s and 30s”.

A number of pubs were identified as hotspots, and curbs were put on opening hours of hospitality venues, and locals were banned from socialising with people outside their household.

The latest targeted local restrictions follow similar action in Caerphilly, south Wales, and East Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire, in the west of Scotland.

The developments come as the UK government is trying to get the economy moving again after nearly three months of lockdown imposed in late March.

It has encouraged people to go back to work and use a government-subsidised restaurant scheme to boost revenues for eateries hit hard by the shutdown.

Critics say such measures have only exacerbated infection rates as young people in particular head out to pubs with scant regard for social distancing.

Hancock warned that although younger people were less likely to develop serious forms of Covid-19, they could easily pass it to those more vulnerable, particularly the elderly.

AFP

UK Under Fire As Brexit Trade Talks Resume With EU

An official hangs a Union Jack next to an European Union flag at EU Headquarters in Brussels on October 17, 2019, ahead of a European Union Summit on Brexit. Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP.

 

UK and EU negotiators on Tuesday resumed Brexit talks, after warnings last-minute changes to domestic legislation risked derailing the process, threatened peace in Northern Ireland and even a showcase UK-US trade deal.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has angered EU officials by insisting there was now an “unforeseen” risk that Northern Ireland would be cut off from the rest of the United Kingdom.

His proposal for “limited” changes to domestic legislation sparked concern London could renege on the treaty it signed with the EU that allowed Britain’s departure from the bloc.

His comments in the Daily Telegraph stood in sharp contrast to his boast that the Withdrawal Agreement was a “fantastic moment” when he signed it in January.

Britain left the 27-member EU on January 31 but remains bound by its rules until December 31 as it tries to thrash out the terms of a new trading relationship.

Both sides agree a deal must be struck by an EU summit in mid-October. But divisions remain on totemic issues such as state subsidies for industry and fishing rights.

Irish prime minister Micheal Martin said he was “concerned about the lateness” of London’s proposed changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key plank of the agreement.

“The Withdrawal Agreement is an international treaty and we expect the UK government to implement and to adhere to what was agreed,” he told the Irish Examiner newspaper.

“We trust them to do so or they would render the talks process null and void.”

– Reopening old wounds –

Martin ruled out the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended 30 years of violence over British rule in the province.

Northern Ireland will have Britain’s only land border with the EU, and the Brexit protocol means the territory will continue to follow some of the bloc’s rules to ensure the frontier remains open.

Johnson’s spokesman insisted the government remained fully behind the Good Friday pact, arguing the planned legislative changes were a “safety net” to ensure a smooth passage for goods going to and from Northern Ireland after January 1.

But the EU, and anti-Brexit parties in Northern Ireland and Britain, fear Johnson is setting the stage to jettison the transition talks and go its own way, whatever the economic cost.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier vowed to interrogate his British counterpart, David Frost, about the plans when they meet from Tuesday afternoon.

“Everything that has been signed must be respected,” the Frenchman said.

Heading into the meeting, which lasts until Thursday, Frost warned: “We need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country”.

Barnier last week underlined that full implementation of prior deals was “the only way to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions”.

“And, of course, it is a precondition for us -– the EU and the UK -– to be able to forge a meaningful partnership built on trust.”

– Shock in US –

The government is due to submit the changes to parliament on Wednesday, with warnings it will breach international law if it overrode the Withdrawal Agreement.

Tim Bale, deputy director of the UK In A Changing Europe research group, suggested the move could be a “negotiating ploy” to put pressure on Brussels.

The Attorney General’s Office though, confirmed the head of the government’s legal department had resigned over the changes, while US politicians also warned of repercussions.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last year that any British backsliding on Northern Ireland would mean no US-UK trade agreement.

Democratic congressman Brendan Boyle on Tuesday agreed, saying it would have “consequences well beyond trust dealings with the EU”.

It would be “very difficult to enter into a trade negotiation with a party that would have just ripped up a very important agreement to us”, he told BBC radio.

“They might just turn around and use the same tactic against you.”

AFP

UK Police Arrest Man Over Mass Stabbings In Birmingham

birmingham
File photo:  A small forensics tent is seen at the junction of Church Street and Barwick Street, following a major stabbing incident in the centre of Birmingham, central England, on September 6, 2020.  Oli SCARFF / AFP

 

 

Police on Monday arrested a man on suspicion of murder following a series of stabbings in Birmingham, Britain’s second city, that left one person dead and three critically injured.

The 27-year-old suspect was held in a pre-dawn raid in the Selly Oak area following the apparently random attacks around the city centre in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The man killed was named as Jacob Billington, 23, who had been on a night out with friends when he was stabbed.

In a statement, his family said they were devastated that “the light of our life” had gone, adding: “He was a funny, caring and wonderful person who was loved by every single person he met.”

Seven people were injured, including one of Billington’s friends, also 23, who is in a critical condition in hospital.

Another man, aged 30 and a 22-year-old woman, attacked in different parts of the city centre, are also critically ill in hospital, police said.

The murder suspect “remains in custody on suspicion of murder and seven counts of attempted murder,” they said, adding that three other people were arrested at the same address on suspicion of assisting him.

The attack occurred at four separate locations in the busy city centre between 12:30 and 2:30 am on Sunday.

One of the areas was in the heart of Birmingham’s Gay Village but officers ruled out a hate crime. They also rejected any links to gang violence or terrorism.

“We are working hard to discover what led to the apparently random attacks,” said police chief Steve Graham.

“We have no suggestion that the motive was either racial, homophobic or gang-related.”

Britain has been on high alert after two mass stabbings in London in the last year that saw armed officers shoot dead both perpetrators — convicted Islamic extremists who had been released early from prison.

In June, a man was charged with murder after three people were stabbed to death in a park in Reading, west of London, in an attack under investigation by counter-terrorism police.

Six people, including a police officer, were then injured at a hotel housing asylum seekers in the Scottish city of Glasgow. Armed police shot dead the suspected attacker.

Stabbings in England and Wales increased six per cent in the year to the end of March, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Birmingham is one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse cities with a population of more than one million and has had an explosive recent history of gang violence.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel both sent condolences to the victims and thanked the emergency services, who declared a “major incident” in response to the attacks.

AFP