Coronavirus: Facebook accused of forcing staff back to offices

More than 200 Facebook workers from around the world have accused the firm of forcing its content moderators back to the office despite the risks of contracting coronavirus.

The claims came in an open letter that said the firm was “needlessly risking” lives to maintain profits.

They called on Facebook to make changes to allow more remote work and offer other benefits, such as hazard pay.

Facebook said “a majority” of content reviewers are working from home.

“While we believe in having an open internal dialogue, these discussions need to be honest,” a spokesperson for the company said.

“The majority of these 15,000 global content reviewers have been working from home and will continue to do so for the duration of the pandemic.”

In August, Facebook said staff could work from home until the summer of 2021.

But the social media giant relies on thousands of contractors, who officially work for other companies such as Accenture and CPL, to spot materials on the site that violate its policies, such as spam, child abuse and disinformation.

In the open letter, the workers said the call to return to the office had come after Facebook’s efforts to rely more on artificial intelligence to spot problematic posts had came up short.

“After months of allowing content moderators to work from home, faced with intense pressure to keep Facebook free of hate and disinformation, you have forced us back to the office,” they said.

“Facebook needs us. It is time that you acknowledged this and valued our work. To sacrifice our health and safety for profit is immoral.”

This letter gives a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse into what is happening at Facebook – and all is not well.

Mark Zuckerberg’s dream is that AI moderation will one day solve some of the platform’s problems.

The idea is that machine learning and sophisticated software will automatically pick up and block things like hate speech or child abuse.

Facebook claims that nearly 95% of offending posts are picked up before they are flagged.

Yet it’s still easy to find grim stuff on Facebook.

On Monday I published a piece showing the kinds of racist and misogynistic content aimed at Kamala Harris on the platform.

Facebook removed some of the content, however even though I flagged it to Facebook, some of it is still there – a week after I reported it.

What this letter suggests is that AI is simply not working as Facebook execs would hope.

Of course, these are voices of moderators – Facebook will have a different take.

You could also argue that human voices may have a vested interest to say AI doesn’t work.

But clearly, as the spotlight is well and truly on Facebook, there are internal problems that have now spilled out into the open.

Facebook said the reviewers have access to health care and that it had “exceeded health guidance on keeping facilities safe for any in-office work”.

But the workers said only those with doctors’ notes are currently excused from working at home and called on Facebook to offer hazard pay and make its contractors full-time staff.

“Before the pandemic, content moderation was easily Facebook’s most brutal job. We waded through violence and child abuse for hours on end. Moderators working on child abuse content had targets increased during the pandemic, with no additional support,” they said.

“Now, on top of work that is psychologically toxic, holding onto the job means walking into a hot zone.”

The letter is addressed to Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, as well as the chiefs of Accenture and CPL. It was organised by UK law firm Foxglove, which works on tech policy issues. More than 170 of the signatories were anonymous.

Facebook is not the only company to face staff worries about in-person work amid the pandemic.

Amazon has also come under fire for conditions in its warehouses, while outbreaks at firms from manufacturers to finance companies have stirred fears.

It comes just a day after Washington lawmakers grilled Mr Zuckerberg on the firm’s content review policies.

UK military to get biggest spending boost in 30 years

The largest military investment in 30 years is set to be announced by the prime minister – an extra £4bn a year over the next four years.

The money will fund space and cyber defence projects such as an artificial intelligence agency, and could create 40,000 new jobs, the government said.

Boris Johnson said it would help the UK to “bolster our global influence”.

The Ministry of Defence’s annual budget is around £40bn, so the £16.5bn over four years is about a 10% increase.

The extra spending is on top of the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto commitment.

Then, the government pledged to increase defence spending by 0.5% above the inflation rate, which is currently at 0.7%, for every year of the current Parliament.

So based on forecasts of inflation, the government said it expects the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to get a total overall increase of about £24.1bn over four years, compared with last year’s budget.

Mr Johnson said on Wednesday evening that he was making the announcement “in the teeth” of the coronavirus pandemic because “the defence of the realm must come first”.

“The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War,” he added.

The PM said in order for Britain to “be true to our history and stand alongside our allies” it must make improvements “across the board”.

“This is our chance to end the era of retreat, transform our armed forces, bolster our global influence, unite and level up our country, pioneer new technology and defend our people and way of life,” he said.

This is a big win for Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who’s been fighting hard for a significant increase in defence spending and a long-term financial settlement to end what he calls a cycle of overambitious, under-funded defence reviews of the past.

The Treasury had been arguing for a much smaller annual increase. But Mr Wallace found an ally in the PM, who says his first priority is defence of the realm.

Boris Johnson also believes it’ll boost Britain’s place in the world and create jobs.

The extra money will be used to modernise the armed forces with more spent on robots, autonomous systems and meeting new threats in the domains of space and cyber.

Despite the palpable relief inside the MoD it still has to fill a £13bn black hole in its equipment budget. Difficult decisions about cutting old equipment to fund the new are still to be made.

The MoD, which doesn’t have a strong track record of balancing its books, now has to prove it can spend wisely.

And good news for defence might also mean bad news for other government departments – there’s already speculation the international aid budget could be cut.

The prime minister will set out further details in a virtual speech to the House of Commons on Thursday.

He will do so from 10 Downing Street, where he continues to self-isolate after coming into contact with an MP who later tested positive for Covid-19.

As part of the speech, Mr Johnson will announce:

The projects are expected to create up to 10,000 jobs annually across the UK, for the next four years, the government said.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the jobs and business opportunities being created by the investment would bring “prosperity to every corner of the UK”, helping the country to “build back” from the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement is part of the first conclusions of the government’s Integrated Review which looks at security, defence, development and foreign policy.

Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey said the extra money would give “a welcome and long-overdue upgrade to Britain’s defences after a decade of decline”.

He also called for highly trained troops to be “at the heart” of the review, above high-tech weapons systems.

“Ministers must not repeat the mistakes of the last two Conservative defence reviews,” he said.

Alan Shearer still owed £230,000 by ex-financial adviser

Ex-England footballer Alan Shearer is still owed more than £230,000 by a former financial adviser he sued, a court has heard.

The former striker agreed a confidential settlement with Kevin Neal three years ago after alleging he was given “negligent” advice.

But his lawyers told a virtual High Court hearing he had not been paid.

The judge, Master Richard Davison, made an order allowing Shearer to take money from an account belonging to Mr Neal.

Barrister Robert Avis, who represented the ex-Southampton, Blackburn and Newcastle forward, said Mr Neal had not resisted the making of such an order.

Last month, Mr Neal was questioned about his finances at another hearing at London’s High Court.

He described himself as a self-employed business development consultant and said that under the terms of an order made following the curtailment of a 2017 trial, he owed £200,000.

However, he added he could not pay it.

But at the hearing, a barrister representing Shearer suggested it was “more a question of will not pay” than could not pay.

Shearer, 50, from Newcastle and now a football pundit for the BBC, was not at the latest hearing – one of a number held since 2017.

The settlement three years ago was announced shortly before the retired player had been due to give evidence at the High Court.

Lawyers had indicated the case centred on a pension worth around £4m.

Shearer had complained about investment advice he was given and said he had lost millions of pounds. He labelled Mr Neal “careless” and “dishonest”.

Mr Neal had disputed the allegations and told a judge Shearer’s claims were “driven by pure greed and ego”.

Prince William tentatively welcomes new inquiry into BBCs Diana interview

The Duke of Cambridge says a new investigation into how the BBC secured an interview with his mother in 1995 is “a step in the right direction”.

The BBC has promised to “get to the truth” about the events surrounding the Panorama interview with Princess Diana.

Diana’s brother has alleged the BBC’s Martin Bashir used forged bank statements to convince her to do it.

Kensington Palace said in a statement that Prince William “tentatively welcomed the investigation”.

The prince, whose mother died in 1997, added: “The independent investigation is a step in the right direction.

“It should help establish the truth behind the actions that led to the Panorama interview and subsequent decisions taken by those in the BBC at the time.”

On Wednesday, the BBC announced that Lord Dyson, one of the country’s most senior retired judges and a former Supreme Court judge, had been appointed to lead the inquiry.

The BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, said: “The BBC is determined to get to the truth about these events and that is why we have commissioned an independent investigation.

“Lord Dyson is an eminent and highly respected figure who will lead a thorough process.”

Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, called for an independent inquiry earlier this month, saying “sheer dishonesty” was used to secure the interview with the princess.

In a letter to Mr Davie, reported by the Daily Mail, the earl said Bashir had used forged bank statements – which wrongly purported to show that two senior courtiers were being paid by the security services for information on his sister.

Earl Spencer wrote: “If it were not for me seeing these statements, I would not have introduced Bashir to my sister.”

In another Daily Mail interview, he also alleged that the then Panorama reporter made a number of false and defamatory claims about senior royals during a meeting with him, in order to gain his trust and access to his sister.

These claims included that Diana’s private correspondence was being opened, her car tracked and phones tapped – described by the Mail as “preposterous lies”.

Bashir, 57, currently BBC News religion editor, is recovering from heart surgery and complications from Covid-19 and has been unable to comment on Earl Spencer’s allegations.

1. What steps did the BBC and, in particular, Martin Bashir take with a view to obtaining the Panorama interview in 1995? This will include looking at the mocked up bank statements, alleged payments to members of the royal household, and other issues raised by Earl Spencer.

2. Were those steps appropriate, particularly in regard to the BBC’s editorial standards at the time?

3. To what extent did the actions of the BBC and, in particular, Martin Bashir influence Diana’s decision to give an interview?

4. What knowledge did the BBC have in 1995 and 1996 of the relevant evidence, such as the forged bank statements?

5. How effectively did the BBC investigate the circumstances leading to the interview?

These terms of reference for the investigation were set by Lord Dyson and agreed by the BBC.

The BBC said the investigation would start straight away and it was handing over “all of its relevant records”.

Last week, the broadcaster revealed that a previously missing note from Diana, thought to indicate she was happy with the way her interview by BBC Panorama was obtained, had been found and would be handed over to the investigation.

Leading the inquiry will be Lord Dyson, who was Master of the Rolls – the second most senior judge in England and Wales – for four years until he retired in October 2016.

His other influential positions have included being a Justice of the UK’s Supreme Court – the highest court in the country – and a Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales.

Almost 23 million people tuned in to watch the Panorama programme 25 years ago.

In it, the princess famously said “there were three of us in this marriage”, referring to the Prince of Wales’s relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles.

At the time, Princess Diana was separated from Prince Charles but not yet divorced. She died on 31 August 1997, aged 36, in a car crash in Paris.

Covid-19: Family Christmas get-togethers being considered

Ministers are looking at how to relax coronavirus restrictions so families can celebrate Christmas together.

The government’s medical adviser on Covid, Susan Hopkins, said they were working on a plan and wanted Christmas to be “as close to normal as possible”.

She said tough restrictions might be needed before and after the holiday to allow mixing to take place.

BBC health correspondent Nick Triggle said any rule change would be for a limited time, maybe just a few days.

The prime minister’s official spokesman confirmed ministers were “looking at ways to ensure that people can spend time with close family over Christmas at the end of what has been an incredibly difficult year”.

It comes after the Sun reported that families may be able to mix indoors for five days from Christmas Eve.

All four UK nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are trying to work out a common approach to Christmas so families spread across the UK can still meet up.

Our correspondent said any final decisions would not be made for a few weeks while health chiefs wait to see whether cases have started to come down during the lockdown in England.

But, he said, the advice was likely to urge families not to hold big gatherings and to travel by car, rather than public transport.

Scientific advice indicates that for every day that measures are relaxed, five days of tighter restrictions would be needed.

The government has recorded another 19,609 Covid cases in the UK and 529 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

England is expected to come out of its second national lockdown on 2 December and return to the tier system of localised restrictions, with household mixing banned indoors in the top two tiers.

Speaking at a Downing Street briefing, Dr Hopkins, from Public Health England, suggested restrictions could be needed either side of Christmas if curbs were to be eased over the festive period.

She said two days of tighter restrictions would be required for every one day relaxed – although officials later clarified the advice is actually for five days.

People would need to be “very careful” about the contacts they have in the lead-up to Christmas and would have to be “responsible” and reduce contacts again after the festive period, she added.

She said she knew ministers were “working hard to develop an outline” of what the new tiers would look like after 2 December and what Christmas would look like.

The BBC has been told new tougher regional tiers could see pubs and restaurants closed entirely in areas in the top tier throughout the festive period.

Strict rules on meeting up and social distancing have meant millions of people have been unable to hug, or sometimes even see, close family for many months.

Chris, from Norfolk, said he feared this might be the last Christmas his father, who has advanced cancer, has with his three grandchildren.

“I’m not interested in Christmas as a party or celebration. All I want is one day,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

Downing Street said Christmas would not be normal but the prime minister would look at the latest data to make decisions and an update would be given next week.

Earlier, Cabinet minister Alok Sharma said it was too early for “conclusions” but he wanted to see his family for Christmas.

Mr Sharma told BBC Breakfast people needed to keep bearing down on the infection and “do our bit”.

On Tuesday, Prof Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the first lockdown in March, suggested extending support bubbles to up to four households to allow families to celebrate Christmas together.

This year, Christmas Eve falls on Thursday and there is a bank holiday on the following Monday, giving most workers at least a four-day break.

Prof Ferguson also warned that reopening pubs and restaurants in the run-up to Christmas would be likely to lead to rising infection levels.

What to do about Christmas is delicately poised.

On the one hand, allowing mixing over the festive period will undoubtedly lead to an increase in infections.

What is more, there are concerns the impact of lockdown will be more limited than hoped. We are yet to see infections rates start falling – although it is still early days – so there will be no final decision on Christmas yet.

But stamping down on the virus is, of course, not the be all and end all.

Providing an opportunity to meet will bring much needed respite from the hard slog of the pandemic.

But there is also a widespread recognition that even if the government bans mixing at Christmas, significant numbers of people may well ignore it.

The fear is that then starts to normalise breaking the restrictions and will make compliance worse over the rest of winter.

The expectation is that there will be some limited relaxation – in the hope that the psychological boost it will give the public and the longer-term goodwill it will engender will outweigh any cost in terms of virus spread.

That much was clear from the Downing Street briefing when government advisers admitted publicly for the first time that it may be on the cards.

But the pay-off for that could be tighter regional restrictions on hospitality in the areas with the highest rates all through the festive period.

There have been calls for a single approach from the devolved administrations in the UK about Christmas – so families who live in different nations can deal with a single set of rules.

Welsh ministers have said it could be weeks before an announcement on Covid rules is made, and warned this year’s festive period would “not be like normal”.

Ministers in Northern Ireland said they would do all they could to “protect” as much of Christmas as possible.

And Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said new, stricter measures announced on Tuesday were needed, in part, to allow the possibility of people meeting up over Christmas. “We are all desperate for some normality around Christmas and I absolutely include myself in that,” Ms Sturgeon said.

In other developments:

Suspected illegal immigrants arrested on boat off East Anglia coast

Sixty-nine suspected illegal immigrants and three crew members have been arrested after a fishing boat was intercepted off the coast of East Anglia, says the National Crime Agency.

It has launched a people smuggling investigation after Border Force officials intercepted the vessel off Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.

The agency said the 30m (98ft) boat had sailed from near Ostend, Belgium.

British officials accompanied the boat into Harwich harbour on Wednesday.

The three crew members, a Latvian national and two Ukrainian nationals, were arrested on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration.

The 69 passengers, thought to be Albanian nationals, were arrested on suspicion of offences under the Immigration Act and will be dealt with by immigration enforcement officers, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

“This was clearly a significant incident and a significant attempt to breach the UK’s border controls,” said Craig Naylor of the NCA.

“Working with our partners we are determined to do all we can to disrupt and dismantle people smuggling networks, and prevent them from exploiting migrants for profit,” he said.

A search of the boat is ongoing.

Plymouth baby Sawyer Feasey died wedged beside mum on sofa

A baby who was less than a month old died after he became wedged between cushions on a sofa where his mother had fallen asleep, an inquest heard.

Sawyer Feasey was found unresponsive when his mother Jessica woke up in the early hours, in March, at their home in Plymouth, Devon.

Despite her attempts to resuscitate Sawyer he died at the scene, Plymouth Coroners Court heard.

There were no suspicious circumstances around his death, the court was told.

Mrs Feasey’s health visitor spoke of how she “presented as a caring mother” and cared for her children alone.

Devon and Cornwall Police also said there was no evidence of smoking, alcohol or drug use in the house.

The post-mortem report said Sawyer was a “well cared for baby” and there were no suspicious findings.

A pathologist’s report said it was not possible to give a medical cause of death, but that there was an increased risk associated with infants co-sleeping with adults on sofas.

These factors “could have contributed to his death”, the report stated.

A statement from Mrs Feasey indicated how she had gone to bed upstairs but “ended up downstairs” with Sawyer after he woke for a feed.

Her next memory is waking on the sofa at about 05:15 and not knowing where he was.

“He wasn’t there. ‘Where the hell is my baby?’ I sat up and I saw he was down the side of me,” she said.

“When I saw him down the side I knew he was gone”.

She put him on the floor and attempted CPR but “nothing I did was working. I just knew he was gone.”

A statement from a paramedic said Mrs Feasey “picked up Sawyer to cuddle him” before they transferred his body to Derriford Hospital.

Senior Coroner Ian Arrow said it was not possible to give a cause of death, returning an open conclusion and adding his “heartfelt condolences” to Mrs Feasey.

Covid-19: Twins delivered in Birmingham while mother in coma

A Covid-19 patient whose twins were delivered while she was in an induced coma said she struggled to believe they were hers.

Perpetual Uke, a rheumatology consultant at Birmingham City Hospital, began to feel unwell in late March.

She was later admitted to a critical care unit, placed on a ventilator and put in an induced coma to help her recover.

Her babies were delivered by caesarean section at 26 weeks on 10 April.

Sochika Palmer weighed just 770g (27oz) while her brother, Osinachi Pascal, weighed 850g (30oz).

Ms Uke remained in her coma for another 16 days.

“It was really terrifying… every passing day I was hoping my wife was not among those who are dead,” Mrs Uke’s husband Matthew said.

“We are a team, the idea she might not be there was really difficult to accept.”

When Ms Uke regained consciousness, it was the result the family had prayed for, but she said she was suffering “ICU delirium” and was “so confused”.

The mother-of-four said waking up two weeks after the delivery “was unbelievable” and although hospital staff said the twins were hers, she “didn’t believe” it.

“When they showed me the pictures, they were so tiny, they didn’t look like human beings, I couldn’t believe they were mine,” she said.

The twins were discharged after spending 116 days in hospital and are “getting better as the days go by,” Mrs Uke said.

“I had never wanted them to go through this difficult path at the start of their lives. They couldn’t see their mum for two weeks, which obviously made me very sad but, importantly, things had progressed well.”

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