Covid in Scotland: Sturgeon warns over Christmas meetups

Scotland’s first minister has said she “agonised” over whether to allow people to meet up at Christmas and would rather they chose not to.

A UK-wide deal was agreed on Tuesday to permit people to meet up in “bubbles” for five days over the festive period.

But Nicola Sturgeon said the “default advice” and “safest position” was still that people should avoid contact.

She said she would not be meeting her parents, saying she did not want to put them at risk “for the sake of one day”.

Groups of up to three households will be allowed to form expanded bubbles from 23 to 27 December, but Ms Sturgeon said this was the “outer limit”, adding that “the virus will not have gone away by Christmas”.

The UK-wide plans were announced on Tuesday to lift travel restrictions across the four nations and allow people to visit close friends and relatives.

However, at her coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, Ms Sturgeon urged people to only use the extra flexibility if they really needed to – and suggested the rules were changed because ministers knew people would break them.

She said: “We agonise over all these decisions, and are trying to come to the outcome that balances best all these competing factors and desires people have.

“On this occasion we are trying to reflect the reality that for some people, sticking rigidly to the current rules over Christmas – if that means leaving loved ones on their own – is something people might not be prepared to do.

“Rather than leave everyone to navigate that themselves and decide their own boundaries, we decided to try and set some outer limits and boundaries to ask people to work within.

“That decision does not mean we are positively encouraging people to get together – I want to stress that just because we are allowing people to create a bubble doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “I will continue to ask you to err on the side of caution. If you have been making painful sacrifices for eight months to keep your loved ones safe, then think about whether you want to take a risk with their safety at the eleventh hour in this journey.”

The first minister said she was “desperate” to see her own mum and dad, but said “I don’t want to put my parents at risk for the sake of one day”.

Some advisors have suggested allowing greater socialising over the festive period will cause a spike of new cases in January, with one government science advisor, Prof Andrew Hayward, telling the BBC that it would be like “throwing fuel on the Covid fire”.

And Scottish government advisor Devi Sridhar told Channel Four News that “we are going to pay for Christmas holidays with probably a January national lockdown”.

Opposition parties have pressed for the publication of any government risk assessments or modelling of the number of new infections or deaths which may result from increased mixing.

The Scottish Greens said “the last thing we need is to be sending out mixed signals”, with MSP Alison Johnstone saying “parliament and the people of Scotland deserve to know how many extra infections the Scottish government is comfortable with”.

However Ms Sturgeon and her National Clinical Director Prof Jason Leitch suggested this modelling does not exist.

Prof Leitch said there was not “very specific modelling” charting the number of potential cases, simply noting that “if we mix households we will get more infections”.

And the first minister said there was no “some magic model or piece of analysis” which would answer hard questions for the government.

She said she would “really rather” people not travel and meet up if they can avoid it, saying that “if there was a big scary model I could put in front of you I wouldn’t be deliberately hiding it”.

Johnny Depp libel case appeal bid turned down

Johnny Depp has been refused permission to appeal against a High Court ruling which concluded that he assaulted his ex-wife Amber Heard.

The Pirates Of The Caribbean actor sued the publisher of the Sun, News Group Newspapers (NGN), for libel over a 2018 article labelling him a “wife beater”.

The judge who dismissed Mr Depp’s claim this month said an appeal did not have a “reasonable prospect of success”.

But he gave him until 7 December to apply directly to the Court of Appeal.

Mr Justice Nicol’s ruling on the application to overturn his judgement came last week – and was made public on Wednesday.

He also ordered the actor to make an initial payment to NGN of almost £630,000 for its legal fees.

Mr Depp and Ms Heard both gave evidence during the 16-day case at the Royal Courts of Justice in London in July.

The allegations spanned the period between 2013 and 2016, when the couple’s relationship ended.

Mr Depp, 57, denied the claims and his lawyer called the judge’s ruling “perverse” and announced the actor intended to appeal.

Mr Depp sued the Sun after a column by its executive editor Dan Wootton referred to “overwhelming evidence” that the actor attacked Ms Heard, 34, during their relationship.

Mr Justice Nicol ruled the newspaper had proved what was in the article to be “substantially true”. He found that 12 of the 14 alleged incidents outlined had occurred.

The judge highlighted three incidents where he said Mr Depp had put Ms Heard in “fear for her life”.

In one of those incidents, in Australia in 2015, Mr Depp was allegedly physically and verbally abusive towards her while drinking heavily and taking drugs. Mr Depp accused Ms Heard of severing his finger, but the judge said he did not accept Ms Heard was responsible.

The judge rejected a “recurring theme” in Mr Depp’s evidence “that Ms Heard had constructed a hoax and that she had done this as an ‘insurance policy’,” and that she was a “gold-digger”.

In the April 2018 column, the Sun asked how author JK Rowling could be “genuinely happy” that Mr Depp had been cast in the latest film in the Fantastic Beasts franchise she had written, amid allegations made by Ms Heard.

After losing the case, Mr Depp said he had left the franchise, adding he had been “asked to resign” from his role as Gellert Grindelwald and had “respected that and agreed to that request”.

Vigil for fishermen onboard sunken trawler

A two-minute silence has been held for the crew of a trawler that capsized off the Sussex coast.

Hundreds gathered at Newhaven lifeboat station, which had joined the search for three fishermen who were onboard the Joanna C when it sank on Saturday.

The body of 26-year-old Adam Harper, from Brixham, Devon, was found by divers in the wreckage on Monday.

Robert Morley, 38, from Pembrokeshire, is still missing. Skipper Dave Bickerstaff was rescued on Saturday.

Rev Martin Miller, from St Michael’s Church in Newhaven, said Mr Morley’s parents, who joined the vigil, wanted to “say a big thank you to [Mr Bickerstaff] for his heroic efforts to do what he could to save them”.

He was found clinging to a buoy after spending up to two and half hours in the water.

Rev Miller led a round of applause for the emergency services and fellow fishermen who “without any thought for themselves searched on massively long shifts”.

Alex, a fisherman who had worked with the pair, addressed the crowd through a microphone.

“We all know what we do, we know the risks, but we still love it and we still do it,” he said. “If Rob and Adam were still here they’d be saying the same.”

He said he would “never ever forget” the time he had spent at sea with them, adding: “They will live on forever in all of us.”

The Newhaven lifeboat crew who rescued Mr Bickerstaff joined the vigil, and a nearby lookout tower was “floodlit to respect the lost fishermen, one of whom disliked the dark,” the National Coastwatch Institution said.

An online fundraising campaign to support the families has received more than £32,000 in donations.

Organiser Tony Rowe said he was “overwhelmed” by the response to the campaign from across the world.

Over-55s growing less satisfied with the BBC, Ofcom says

Satisfaction with the BBC among its most loyal audiences is showing “signs of waning” for the first time, broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has said.

Older and more affluent people have traditionally used and valued the broadcaster the most.

But Ofcom said: “For the first time, satisfaction levels among audiences who typically use the BBC the most… are beginning to show signs of waning.”

That was especially true of the over-55s, according to Ofcom.

“Older audiences in particular are starting to show signs of decreasing satisfaction,” the watchdog’s third annual report into the BBC said. But over-55s are still “better served than other groups”, it added.

The report also said the corporation was “still struggling” to reach younger audiences.

“Average time spent with the BBC each week [by young audiences] now stands at just less than an hour a day,” it found.

Young people, the report continued, tend to use BBC iPlayer “when they know what they want to watch, rather than as a destination to browse for new content”.

The report said the BBC’s “overall reach is still very high, with almost nine in 10 adults consuming its content on a weekly basis”.

Yet overall audiences are “in gradual decline”, it said, and the corporation’s reach among adults has fallen by 5%, from 92% to 87%, over the past three years.

“If audiences do not consider the BBC a core part of their viewing, they may not see value in the licence fee,” it suggested.

The report included the BBC’s coverage of Kylie Minogue’s 2019 Glastonbury set and the Gavin and Stacey Christmas special among its highlights from the year.

It covered the period April 2019 to March 2020, before means testing of the TV licence for over-75s began in August.

The BBC said it welcomed Ofcom’s report and its assertion that “audiences value the BBC particularly for distinctive, high-quality, creative programmes, educational content and trusted and accurate news”.

The corporation’s statement added: “We’re committed to delivering great value and meeting the challenges of a fast-changing media landscape.”

Ofcom has also published its annual study of diversity in the TV and radio industry, which calls on the sector to broaden the geographic and social make-up of its workforce.

Paul Lamb: Paralysed Leeds man urges government inquiry

A paralysed former builder has called for an inquiry into assisted dying after losing the latest in a series of bids to challenge the law on the issue.

Paul Lamb, 65, from Leeds, said he was “devastated” after the Court of Appeal refused him permission to bring a legal challenge over assisted dying.

He argued the current law, which bans assisted suicide, is discriminatory and breaches his human rights.

He said he felt “powerless” and urged the government to launch an inquiry.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said any change in the law would have to be considered by MPs.

In an open letter to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, Mr Lamb said he was writing “to urge you to take notice of this decision and launch an inquiry into assisted dying, and ask if you might meet with me to discuss this important matter”.

Mr Lamb, who requires round-the-clock care after being severely injured in a car accident in 1990, has no function below his neck, apart from limited movement in his right arm.

Mr Lamb, who previously lost a right-to-die case in the Supreme Court in 2014, asked the Court of Appeal to allow a fresh challenge of the law on assisted dying to go ahead after being refused permission by the High Court in December last year.

But it has now emerged the bid was rejected by a Court of Appeal judge in May this year.

Humanists UK, which has been supporting Mr Lamb in his case, said it had delayed announcing the outcome at the request of Mr Lamb’s carers and medical staff as he had been taken to hospital shortly after the case was refused permission.

In a statement, Mr Lamb said: “I am devastated by this decision, and the powerless position it has left me in.

“Without the option of a dignified death, I now have no choice if my pain ever becomes unbearable, other than the horrifying prospect I was most afraid of from the start – slowly starving myself to death.

“I cannot understand, in a civilised society like ours, why I should be forced to suffer when millions of people around the world already have the choice I asked for.”

He said the court’s decision “condemns me to a life of constant pain, and removes the small part of my life that I could still have some say over – how I want to die”.

Humanists UK’s chief executive Andrew Copson said: “We are disappointed that the courts have yet again failed to challenge one of the most unethical laws in our country.

“It is time for MPs to confront the compelling evidence favouring assisted dying, and for the government to help by issuing a long-overdue inquiry.”

The MoJ said it had “deep sympathy” for Mr Lamb, but “any change to the law in an area of such sensitivity and importance must be for individual MPs to consider rather than a decision for government”.

Covid: Cardigan coronavirus outbreak linked to two pubs

Two pubs have been linked to a coronavirus outbreak which forced the closure of a number of schools and a college campus in a west Wales town.

Ceredigion council said 55 new cases in the Cardigan area suggested there was “significant community transmission”.

The council called on people who attended the Red Lion and Bell pubs on or after 9 November to be vigilant.

The closure of 13 schools in the area was blamed on “super-spreader events” such as “parties” and “pub crawls”.

There have been 43 new coronavirus cases in the area in the past week, according to Public Health Wales.

In a statement, the council said its contact tracing team had identified in excess of 300 cases and contacts to date, adding the “alarming rate of spread” had affected a number of services in the area.

“We are asking all residents who attended The Red Lion and The Bell Inn public houses on or after 9 November to be extra vigilant and to self-isolate and book a test immediately if you have any symptoms.

“Businesses who have been found not complying with coronavirus regulations have been served with closure or improvement notices and further inspections will continue over the coming days.”

Earlier in the pandemic, Ceredigion council was widely praised for its response, which helped put its death rate second-lowest only to the Isles of Scilly across England and Wales.

But in recent months, the case rate has been creeping up with outbreaks linked to Aberystwyth University and a care home in the town.

Additional testing had been made available at the Fairfield Car Park, Cardigan, which could be booked through the government website or by calling 119.

Both the Red Lion and Bell pubs have been asked to comment.

Spending Review: Row over post-EU Welsh farming cash

A row has broken out over the future of agriculture subsidises in Wales after Wednesday’s Spending Review.

Welsh agriculture will get £242m next year from UK ministers, leading to a farmers union claiming a cut of at least £95m compared to previous EU funding.

UK government ministers insisted they are honouring a commitment to maintain farm incomes.

It comes as the chancellor warned unemployment will rise to 2.6m in 2021.

Rishi Sunak said the Welsh Government will received an increase in cash of £1.3bn next year – he said the review “underlines our commitment to Wales”.

Rebecca Evans, Wales Finance Minister, accused the chancellor of “broken promises” and said a pay freeze for much of the public sector was “unfair”.

Agriculture funding from the EU has been worth £337m to Wales every year, and is paid out by the Welsh Government.

The Farmers Unions of Wales (FUW) said the Conservative government had made a manifesto promise to “guarantee the current annual budget to farmers in every year of the next Parliament”.

FUW president Glyn Roberts said: “The decision to slash the budget is therefore a complete betrayal of the farmers, who have kept producing food and feeding the nation throughout the coronavirus pandemic.”

Ms Evans added: “If you’re looking for a serious failure of management of funding, and if you’re looking for a betrayal of the farming industry, I think that you can find it right there.”

A UK government spokesman said: “We have not broken any promises. Today’s £240m announcement delivers on our commitment to maintain the funding that farmers and land managers in Wales received in 2019.”

EU agriculture funding is split into two – pillar 1 covers direct payments, while pillar 2 is designed to support the development of rural areas.

Pillar 2 payments from the EU are continuing for another three years.

A UK government spokesman said the total the Welsh Government will receive will make up the difference between the £242m and the £337m.

However the Welsh Government say the EU would have provided fresh funding, and said it should not have to rely on funds from old EU programmes.

Simon Hart, Secretary of State for Wales, said the Conservative manifesto had made a commitment to maintain farming incomes: “That is being honoured”.

He said the Welsh Government had committed to spending money on agriculture “they have never had guaranteed”.

Mr Hart claimed Welsh ministers “are now having the nerve to turn around and say in order to pay for them we will have to rob farmers of their direct payments and turn around and blame us for doing so”.

Most of the Welsh Government’s cash to spend on the NHS, education and councils comes from the UK government, apart from a limited amount of tax revenue raised in Wales.

Rishi Sunak’s review said the Welsh Government would receive an “additional” £1.3bn in 2021-22.

But Treasury documents show the Welsh Government will receive £16.6bn in the next financial year, less than the £20.3bn it is getting this year.

That is because this year’s funds were bolstered by £5bn for Covid, spending which is planned to fall after March to around £800m.

However money for normal day-to-day spending will rise from £12.8bn to £13.5bn.

Infrastructure spending will remain the same in 2021-22 at £2.4bn – Rebecca Evans said the infrastructure capital budget would be lower in real terms.

Public sector pay outside of the NHS and the lowest paid will be frozen – but decisions on teachers, doctors and nurses pay in Wales will rest with ministers in Cardiff.

However the Welsh Government, which funds NHS, local government, education and other devolved services in Wales, can choose how to spend the money.

Mr Sunak said: “Today’s Spending Review underlines our commitment to the people of Wales as we look to the future.

“It provides billions of pounds to fight coronavirus, deliver the peoples’ priorities and drive the UK’s recovery

“The Treasury is, has been, and will always be the Treasury for the whole of the United Kingdom. And this is a Spending Review for the whole United Kingdom.”

Simon Hart said Wales as a whole would benefit from the £2.9bn Restart programme, aimed at helping unemployed people find work.

He said Wales would also benefit from “planned improvements to mobile and broadband connectivity and investment in green industries like carbon capture and offshore wind”.

The Spending Review said total domestic UK-wide funding for the new Shared Prosperity Fund will “at least match current EU receipts, on average reaching around of £1.5 billion a year”.

It does not confirm whether or not Wales will receive the same amount per year as it did from the EU.

EU aid programmes previously amounted to £375m in Wales annually.

UK ministers had previously promised Wales would not receive “a penny less” in funding after the Brexit transition period ends.

The review said a portion of the Shared Prosperity Fund will target places “most in need” across the UK such as ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and rural and coastal communities.

It adds that the funding profile for the fund will be set out at the next review.

Ms Evans said there was “absolute silence” on the fund from the UK government and said it was “really disappointing not to have any further information”.

Plaid Cymru’s Ben Lake said: “Today the Chancellor failed to confirm that Wales’s share of the Shared Prosperity Fund will be decided according to need, that it will represent additional investment, and that Wales’s share will not be diminished over time.”

Spending review undermines UK green vision

The UK chancellor’s Spending Review has been accused of undermining the prime minister’s “green” vision by pushing ahead with a £27bn roads programme.

After several speeches in which Boris Johnson pledged to rescue the economy by “building back greener”, Rishi Sunak’s speech on Wednesday barely mentioned the climate.

He said he was pursuing the nation’s priorities.

Mr Sunak put detailed numbers on the PM’s recent green technology plan.

But he offered no increase on the £12bn Mr Johnson says the government has mobilised to tackle climate change – even though the sum is much less than what’s been agreed in France, Germany and others.

Environment groups are most angry at the roads programme. The chancellor said it would ease congestion, improve commute times and “keep travel arteries open.” It was essential, he said, because people are shunning public transport during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Campaigners said it would attract more traffic and increase emissions, when the PM says they should be falling.

Friends of the Earth’s Mike Childs said: “He (Mr Sunak) has completely undermined the Prime Minister.

“With billions of pounds earmarked for a climate-wrecking road-building programme and inadequate funding for home insulation, eco-heating, buses and cycling this strategy falls woefully short.

“We need to head off the climate emergency. Ministers must ensure every major development is in line with meeting the net zero target.”

The union boss Manuel Cortes general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) accused the government of “abandoning all pretence of ambition over decarbonisation”.

He said: “The Spending Review was a moment to unleash the green economic revolution, but Sunak failed.

“Instead of grasping the nettle and resetting our country on an economic course based around green jobs and investment – we had barely a mention on the climate crisis we face.”

Fatima Ibrahim Green, from the campaign group greennewdealuk, said: “Only last week did this government set out its 10-point plan to ‘build back greener’.

“Today it announced road infrastructure. The irony would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. It’s saddling future generations with locked-in carbon emissions, risking our net-zero target and our international commitments.”Now will the Treasury go green?

But Ian Taylor, from the campaign group, Alliance of British Drivers, told BBC News: “We’re glad they appear to have stuck to the roads programme. We don’t object to spending on the railways and underground as well as roads, but the road network is a necessary part of infrastructure on which the economy depends.”

There was, though, a hint that the government’s appetite for further road-building may be on the wane. Road builders have been planning to spend £90bn in the long-term on new tarmac – but the document has not embraced that figure.

Several environmentalists, meanwhile, applauded the chancellor for setting up an infrastructure bank to fund new projects such as offshore wind farms.

Kate Levick, from the think tank E3G, said: “It can play a transformative role in leveraging private sector investment into the green industrial revolution. It must also be given full banking powers, an independent remit, and the capital needed to drive our green recovery.”

Her colleague, Pedro Guertler, was less complimentary about the absence of any new commitment to tackle what many see as the UK’s biggest carbon challenge – refurbishing our buildings.

He said: “The chancellor has confirmed vital extra funding for greening buildings next year but missed the opportunity to set out multi-year funding which is so desperately needed to give the supply chain the confidence to invest.”

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Spending review: Families face agonising uncertainty over benefits decision

Families on Universal Credit face “agonising uncertainty” after Rishi Sunak did not confirm what would happen to their benefits next year, campaigners say.

Universal Credit claimants were given a £20-a-week boost in response to the coronavirus pandemic in April.

The temporary rise is due to come to an end in April 2021.

The chancellor did not say whether the increase would be extended or cut, in his spending review.

Speaking after delivering his statement to MPs, he said the increased payment would continue until next spring.

He added: “Let’s get through winter see where we are with the virus and what the economy looks and decide then how best to support people.

“Everyone can rest assured we remain committed to making sure we look after the most vulnerable in our society.”

Footballer and anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford tweeted: “Is the Universal Credit uplift going to be taken away in April?”

Paul Noblet, from youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, said: “The government’s failure to commit to retaining the current uplift in Universal Credit is hugely disappointing and will weigh heavily on the minds of millions of people for whom the £20 a week increase has made a huge difference.

“There is still time for the government to reflect on this issue between now and the end of March and we urge them to think again.”

The chancellor set out his spending priorities for the year ahead earlier, warning that unemployment is set to peak at 2,6 million next year, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

But he faced criticism from opposition MPs for not mentioning what would happen to benefit rates, in his speech.

Labour MP Stephen Timms, chairman of the work and pensions committee, said: “Millions of people on Universal Credit are now facing the Christmas period in agonising uncertainty, not knowing whether the government will cut their income by £20 a week next April.

“Meanwhile, those on older benefits, who have already missed out on the rise because the DWP’s systems are too old-fashioned, will receive an increase of just 0.5% next year.

“The government must think again.”

Im A Celebrity: Police issue advice over bug use

Police have given “suitable advice” to the producers of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! following complaints about the use of non-native bugs.

The TV series is taking place in north Wales instead of the Australian jungle due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Welsh naturalist and BBC Springwatch presenter Iolo Williams has questioned whether a licence was gained to release bugs into the wild.

The show has defended the use of animals in its trials.

A range of insects have been used on celebrities such as athlete Sir Mo Farah, TV presenter Vernon Kay and journalist Victoria Derbyshire during this year’s trials.

Mr Williams initially raised questions over the programme’s use of the creatures last week when he tweeted: “As well as the moral issue of using wild animals for entertainment, surely there are huge ecological issues here also.”

A spokesman for the show said all the insects used were “non-invasive species” which are only ever released in a “contained area and collected immediately after filming”.

He said: “The bugs are UK bred and are commercially purchased in the UK for birds and exotic animal feed for pets and zoo keepers in normal circumstances.”

The spokesman added the insects were donated to local wildlife sanctuaries, trusts and zoos for feed after filming.

To release a non-native species into the wild, a licence is needed from Natural Resources Wales (NRW) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

NRW’s chief executive Clare Pillman earlier said it had not received any licence applications from ITV “in relation to releasing non-natives as part of their production of I’m a Celebrity”.

A North Wales Police statement said: “North Wales Police and Natural Resources Wales have received information regarding the potential release of non-native species into ‘non studio’ areas, and we have given suitable advice to the production team regarding their set management and biosecurity.”

Earlier this month ITV defended using animals in the trials after concerns raised by the RSPCA over welfare.

Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford has said it would be “right” for police to investigate “if there have been some infringement” of the rules.

He told BBC Breakfast the Welsh Government had “worked carefully” with the production company to make sure that all the rules were being observed and they “would be concerned about non-native species being released”.

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