Covid: William and Kate board royal train for UK tour

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are embarking on a three-day tour on board the royal train to thank community workers and frontline staff in the UK.

The royal couple will meet care home staff, teachers, pupils and volunteers to learn about the challenges they have faced during the coronavirus pandemic.

A spokeswoman said they were “looking forward to shining a spotlight on the incredible work that has been done”.

The 1,250 mile-journey will include stops in England, Scotland and Wales.

The duke and duchess will board the royal train on Sunday, for what is believed to be Kate’s first official journey on board.

Prince William has used the train a number of times, including on the day of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales’ funeral, in 1997 – when the prince travelled from London to the princess’s ancestral home in Northamptonshire for her burial.

A Kensington Palace spokeswoman said the morale-boosting tour, which ends on Tuesday, would give the royal couple the chance to “share their gratitude on behalf of the nation” for all those supporting their local communities ahead of the Christmas holidays.

The UK’s arts sector, which has been badly hit during the pandemic, will also be celebrated, with a number of festive performances.

All visits and official events will be conducted in line with government’s coronavirus guidance.

At the request of the royal couple, the forthcoming trip has been immortalised in a drawing by schoolboy artist Joe Whale, better known as the “doodle boy”, who found worldwide fame during lockdown with his YouTube tutorials.

Stonehenge tunnel: Protest staged at monument

Protesters have taken part in a “mass trespass” at Stonehenge to oppose plans to dig a tunnel near the monument.

The group, made up of local residents, ecologists, activists, archaeologists and pagans, gathered at the Wiltshire site at about 12:00 GMT on Saturday.

English Heritage closed the site until Sunday and said it was an offence to enter without permission.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps approved the £1.7bn scheme against the recommendations of planning officials.

Campaigners are worried that the work will have a detrimental impact on the wider Stonehenge world heritage site.

They said they gathered in support of Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site, which has launched a legal challenge against Mr Shapps’ decision.

Environmental activist Dan Hooper, known as Swampy, said: “This is the coming together of people who are saying we have had enough.

“The Stonehenge tunnel is just one scheme in a £27bn roads programme.

“As road transport is the single largest source of carbon emissions in the UK, this is insane.”

He added: “Building more roads simply leads to more traffic and carbon. We need to put a stop to these road schemes as we did before.”

In a statement issued on Saturday evening, Wiltshire Police said no arrests had been made and the event had “passed peacefully”.

The tunnel is part of a £1.7bn investment in the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down.

The A303, which is a popular route for motorists travelling to and from the South West, is often severely congested on the single carriageway stretch near the stones in Wiltshire.

Highways England said its plan for the two-mile (3.2km) tunnel will remove the sight and sound of traffic passing the site, and cut journey times.

However, Unesco previously said the scheme would have an “adverse impact” on the surrounding landscape.

Simon Bramwell, a pagan, described the site as “hallowed ground” and said the cost of the scheme would “be better spent elsewhere”.

A spokeswoman for English Heritage said: “It is an offence under the Ancient Monuments Act (1979) for people to enter the monument area without English Heritage’s permission..

“Whilst we respect people’s right to demonstrate peacefully, we do not condone behaviour that disrupts and endangers the site and the people who visit or work here.”

Brexit: UK-EU trade talks to resume despite critical issues

The UK and EU have decided to return to the negotiating table to try to agree a post-Brexit trade deal.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen made the decision during a phone call on Saturday.

Negotiating teams will reconvene in Brussels on Sunday, and the leaders will speak again on Monday evening.

A joint statement from Mr Johnson and Ms Von der Leyen said “significant differences” remain between them.

The “three critical issues” that need to be agreed are fishing rights, competition rules and how any deal is enforced, with the statement adding: “Both sides underlined that no agreement is feasible if these issues are not resolved.”

But the leaders continued: “Whilst recognising the seriousness of these differences, we agreed that a further effort should be undertaken by our negotiating teams to assess whether they can be resolved.”

The UK left the EU on 31 January but remains under EU trading rules until the end of the year.

If a deal is not agreed by that point, tariffs – or taxes on goods – could come into force.

The two sides have been holding talks since March in an attempt to secure a deal before the transition period ends on 31 December.

But the same three sticking points have stopped negotiating teams coming to an agreement.

The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, said it “feels like a last roll of the dice, rather than ironing out a few last minute glitches”, and the next 48 hours would be “critical”.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, tweeted after the statement was published, saying: “We will see if there is a way forward.”

Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheal Martin also took to Twitter, welcoming the news that the teams would resume trade talks.

He said: “An agreement is in everyone’s best interests. Every effort should be made to reach a deal.”

What happens next with Brexit?

If an agreement is reached it will need to be turned into legal text and translated into all EU languages, then ratified by the European Parliament.

The UK government is likely to introduce legislation implementing parts of any deal reached, which MPs will be able to vote on.

And the 27 EU national parliaments could also need to ratify an agreement – depending on the actual contents of the deal.

Railway: Why one remote station lost 90% of its passengers

Train stations are quieter because of Covid-19 – but among the beautiful rolling hills of deepest, darkest Wales, it is always pretty serene.

You won’t find a coffee shop or wifi at the remote Sugar Loaf station – in truth, you won’t get a car park, ticket machine or even a mobile phone signal.

But this Powys outpost has had one of the biggest drops in passenger numbers to become Wales’ quietest station.

As 87 million commuters braved London Waterloo last year, just 156 came here.

While the UK’s busiest station was herding people into London from its 24 platforms in 2019-20, Sugar Loaf welcomed a passenger almost every two-and-a-half days.

And next year it’ll be even quieter.

Firstly, the single-track stop was temporarily shut by operators Transport For Wales in July because of coronavirus. Trains can’t squeeze onto Sugar Loaf’s short platform and provide a “safe social distance” between passengers and conductor.

Now the southern section of the picturesque Heart of Wales line between Swansea and Shrewsbury – on which Sugar Loaf is one of 17 request stops – has been shut after a freight train derailed and caught fire in August, damaging the track.

But nonetheless, the 152-year-old station a few miles north of Llandovery once again has the dubious honour of being Wales’ quietest station – and eighth quietest in the UK – because of a drop in “tourists”.

Its previous, ahem, surge in passengers to an eye-watering 1,824 people a year was because it held cult status among railway enthusiasts who wanted to say they’d been to the Sugar Loaf – and no not the mountain overlooking Rio’s famous Copacabana beach.

Its reputation as a deserted railway retreat made it so popular that a few years ago Sugar Loaf saw the biggest passenger number hike in the UK.

So much so that two lovebirds made the 10-hour round-trip from Didcot to Sugar Loaf in 2018 so Mark could propose to Lindsey as chronicled in its visitor book.

Visitors came from as far afield as the United States just to get a round-ticket to Sugar Loaf.

But the fad of visiting the railway frontier is over, ironically because more people visited. Passenger numbers dropped 90% to 156 from 2017-18 levels.

Confirming Sugar Loaf as Wales’ quietest station, The Office of Rail and Road said the “return to normal levels of demand” was after a “substantial increase caused by the station being highlighted as one of Wales’ lowest-utilised stations”.

Sugar Loaf, which doesn’t have one regular passenger to speak of, was opened as part of the Central Wales Extension Railway in 1868 and built to serve the nearby railway worker cottages so their children could get to nearby Llanwrtyd Wells.

The rural branch line survived the infamous railway cuts of Beeching Axe in the 1960s as it passed through six marginal constituencies and politicians feared they’d lose their seats if the route shut.

Nowadays, the etiquette to stopping the train at Sugar Loaf is from a bygone age, with passengers waving when the single carriage comes into view to flag it down.

If you’re on the train, you’ve got to politely ask the conductor for it to stop at Sugar Load as it trundles towards Cynghordy Viaduct.

The fact only 156 people got on or off the train there means that Sugar Loaf has been Wales’ least used station for 21 of the last 22 years, with Dolgarrog on the Conwy Valley Line taking the quietest crown in 2018.

Meredith Kercher: Rudy Guede to finish term doing community service

The man convicted of killing 21-year-old UK student Meredith Kercher will finish his sentence doing community service, an Italian court has ruled.

Born in London in 1985, Ms Kercher went to the University of Perugia in 2007 as an exchange student.

On 1 November that year she was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death in her flat, accommodation she shared with American student Amanda Knox.

Rudy Guede was convicted in 2008. He denies murdering Ms Kercher.

Ms Knox and her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were separately convicted of Ms Kercher’s murder in 2009.

Their arrests and the guilty verdicts generated international media attention. The pair served four years behind bars before those convictions were overturned.

After a number of appeals and retrials Italy’s highest court acquitted them both for good in March 2015.

Guede left Perugia and travelled to Germany in the days after her killing. After his extradition back to Italy he chose a fast-track trial, held in a closed session without journalists present, and was subsequently convicted of the murder after his DNA was found at the scene.

The Ivory Coast-born 33-year-old has repeatedly claimed he is innocent. He was initially jailed for 30 years, later reduced to 16, on appeal.

On Friday, a court ruled that Guede could now complete that term doing community service.

He had already been given partial prison release in 2017, and his lawyer told local media after the ruling that his client was “calm and socially well integrated”.

Covid: Second phase of mass testing starts in Lower Cynon Valley

Mass coronavirus testing has started in one of the areas hardest-hit by Covid-19 in Wales in a bid to bring the virus under control.

People living or working in the Lower Cynon Valley – which includes Abercynon, Penrhiwceiber and parts of Mountain Ash and Aberaman – will be offered tests.

Test centres will run from Saturday until 20 December.

It is the second place in Wales to have mass testing after Merthyr Tydfil.

Residents in Mountain Ash East and West, and Aberaman South residents, are also eligible for the tests, which give results in 30 minutes.

Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board public health director, Dr Kelechi Nnoaham, said: “The rate of Covid-19 infection is still very high in our communities, and by engaging with this testing programme, people in the Lower Cynon Valley can play a major role in protecting everyone in our communities.”

The main test centres are at Cynon Valley Indoor Bowls Centre, Mountain Ash and Abercynon Sports Centre.

John Collins, 88, from Penrhiwceiber, who took a test at the bowls centre, said: “At my age you have to try and avoid getting this virus.”

The testing programme will use so-called lateral flow devices which can get results in about 20-30 minutes.

If a person tests positive, they will be asked to return home so they can self-isolate immediately.

Concerns have been raised by some experts that people who are declared negative could have a misplaced sense of reassurance.

If someone tests negative, they should still follow the rules, and maintain social distancing, hand hygiene and mask wearing.

Rhondda Cynon Taf council leader Andrew Morgan said about 27,000 people could be tested in the Lower Cynon Valley.

“Unfortunately, over the last week or so, we are seeing our cases starting to increase at quite a concerning rate,” he told BBC Radio Wales Breakfast with Oliver Hides.

He said the area had seen 300 positive cases in the last two days so it was “important” to identify and isolate those who were asymptomatic within communities to break “chains of transmission”.

“This is an integral part of our fight against the virus, as it gives us a greater understanding of the prevalence and level of transmission within our communities,” he said.

Health Minister Vaughan Gething said: “I would encourage the people of Lower Cynon Valley to get tested.”

The Merthyr pilot for mass testing, which launched last month, will run until 11 December.

The case rate in Rhondda Cynon Taf (RCT) is 368.5 per 100,000, reporting 889 new positive tests in the past week.

The south Wales valleys had been dominating for highest case rates and having fallen back early in November, the rates have now started to move up again.

In the most recent comparable week, Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent and Neath Port Talbot have been among the 10 highest case rate areas in the UK.

Worlds biggest iceberg captured by RAF cameras

An RAF aircraft has obtained images of the world’s biggest iceberg as it drifts through the South Atlantic.

The A400m transporter flew low over the 4,200-sq-km block, known as A68a, to observe its increasingly ragged state.

The pictures reveal multiple cracks and fissures, innumerable icy chunks that have fallen off, and what appear to be tunnels extending under the waterline.

The Antarctic berg is currently bearing down on the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia.

A68a is now just 200km from the island and there is a real possibility it could become stuck in shallow coastal waters.

The British Forces South Atlantic Island (BFSAI) reconnaissance flight was sent out to assess the situation.

“Guided by satellite tracking, the A400M can get under the weather and closer to the iceberg, enabling more detailed observations,” Squadron Leader Michael Wilkinson, Officer Commanding 1312 Flt, said in a BFSAI Facebook posting.

“I know I speak on behalf of all of the crew involved when I say this is certainly a unique and unforgettable task to be involved in.”

Satellite images acquired in recent weeks have also suggested that A68a’s edges are crumbling rapidly.

Relentless wave action is breaking off countless small fragments, so-called “bergy bits” and “growlers”. But some of the pieces being calved are significant objects in their own right and will need tracking because of the additional hazard they will now pose to shipping.

The A400m’s new imagery – stills and video – will be analysed to try to understand how the berg might behave in the coming weeks and months.

Although currently heading straight at South Georgia, A68a is being carried in fast-moving waters that should divert the bloc in a loop around the southern part of the island.

There is considerable interest in whether the berg might then ground on the territory’s continental shelf.

Should that happen, it could cause considerable difficulties for the island’s seals and penguins as they try to get out to sea to forage for fish and krill.

When A68a broke away from an ice shelf in Antarctica in July 2017, it measured nearly 6,000 sq km – about a quarter of the size of Wales. At 4,200 sq km, it now has an area closer to that of an English county like Somerset.

Experts are surprised the iceberg hasn’t lost more of its bulk. Many thought it would have shattered into several large pieces long before now.

Covid in Scotland: First vaccine arrives in Scotland

The first Covid-19 vaccine has arrived in Scotland, the health secretary has confirmed.

Jeane Freeman said the vaccination programme would begin on Tuesday.

The first vaccinations will be given to priority groups included care home residents and staff, the elderly and frontline health workers.

The news comes as it was announced a further 22 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in the last 24 hours.

There are currently 965 people in hospital with a positive Covid test and 64 of those are in ICU.

Scottish government figures show the total number of positive cases in Scotland has risen by 777 since Friday, which is 4.5% of those tested.

NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde has 210 new cases, while there are 149 in NHS Lothian and 117 in NHS Lanarkshire.

The remainder of the positive cases are split between the other eight mainland health boards.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said the new Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – which offers up to 95% protection against Covid-19 illness – is safe to roll out, and immunisations for people in priority groups will start within days.

Ms Freeman said: “I am pleased to announce that the vaccine is now in Scotland and being stored safely in order for vaccinations to begin on Tuesday. Science has given us hope and we are starting on a journey which will eventually allow us to escape this terrible virus.

“Following clinical advice from the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation (JCVI) we will begin with those groups which have been prioritised to address 99% of preventable deaths associated with Covid-19. These include the elderly, care home residents and staff, and frontline health and social care workers.

“I ask everyone to be patient as we work through these groups as vaccine supply allows. I urge you to go for the vaccine when it’s your turn, but continue to follow the rules as set out in FACTS. And we will eventually reach the end of this pandemic by working together.”

The UK government has already ordered 40 million doses – enough to vaccinate 20 million people, with two shots each.

About 800,000 doses of the vaccine are expected to be available in the UK next week, with about 65,500 being made available for Scotland.

Half of the initial supplies of the vaccine that arrive in Scotland in December will be held back for the second dose.

The Scottish government has bought 23 ultra-low temperature freezers to store the vaccine.

They will be based at all major acute hospitals across the country and on Scotland’s islands.

It has been confirmed care home residents in Scotland will be able to receive the vaccine from 14 December.

There had been fears that homes would not be able to receive the first batch of doses due to logistical challenges caused by the vaccine having to be stored at -70C.

But Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said on Thursday that confirmation on how the vaccine can be transported and stored meant it would now be possible to deliver them to care homes.

Dr Carey Lunan, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs in Scotland, hopes the over-80s can start receiving the Oxford-Astrazenica vaccine from GP from 21 December.

She told BBC Scotland: “GPs will have a really crucial role to play in vaccinating the over-80s.

“We recognise that for that group of people, who’ve also got underlying health conditions or are more frail, it’s not as appropriate for them to be going to the mass vaccination centres and they will be invited to come into their GP practices.”

She added that vaccination uptake was lower in areas of higher social deprivation and among some ethnic groups.

“There’s a lot of thinking and planning that needs to be done to make sure that everyone is able to get this vaccine,” she said.

Bird flu: All captive birds in Britain to be kept indoors amid outbreak

Hens, turkeys and other captive birds in Britain will have to be kept indoors from 14 December to prevent the spread of bird flu, the government has said.

The chief vets for England, Scotland and Wales made the decision after a number of cases were detected among both captive and wild birds.

The risk to humans is “very low”, the government said, and should “not affect the consumption of poultry products”.

But in a joint statement, veterinary chiefs said “swift action” was needed.

“Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands, from 14 December onwards you will be legally required to keep your birds indoors, or take appropriate steps to keep them separate from wild birds,” read the statement.

“We have not taken this decision lightly but it is the best way to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.”

There are numerous strains of bird flu. Most either do not affect humans, or are not easily caught and spread by humans.

Deaths have been recorded outside of the UK related to some strains, but the H5N8 strain – which makes up the bulk of the UK’s current cases – has not infected any humans worldwide to date, the NHS said.

A turkey farm in Norfolk is among those to found to have had an outbreak of the H5N8 bird flu strain. The birds will now be slaughtered to prevent the spread.

While the news will be of particular concern to poultry farmers in the run-up to Christmas, the new rules will apply to all bird owners in Britain.

However, despite the concern, the Department for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs said poultry products – including eggs – are still safe to consume.

Poultry includes chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, pigeon (bred for meat), partridge, quail, guinea fowl and pheasants.

No end date for the measures has been given, but Defra said they would be kept under “regular review”.

Farmers forced to move their birds indoors in circumstances such as these may continue to market the meat as “free range” as long as the measures do not last longer than 12 weeks.

For eggs, this deadline is slightly longer – 16 weeks. After this point, the eggs must be downgraded to “barn produced”.

Aimee Mahony, chief poultry adviser for the National Farmers’ Union, said the new rules were “a logical next step”.

“These new measures mean that every poultry keeper, whether you have one hen in the garden or a large poultry business, must house their birds indoors and I would urge everyone with poultry to take these measures seriously,” she said.

Sir Keir Starmer self isolates after staff member tests positive for virus

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is having to self isolate after a member of his staff tested positive for coronavirus.

In line with government advice, Sir Keir will now have to stay at home for 14 days since his last contact with the affected person.

A spokesman for Sir Keir said this means he will come out of self-isolation on Wednesday 16 December.

They added the party leader was “well and not showing any symptoms”.

It is the second time Sir Keir has had to isolate because of coronavirus. In September, a member of his family showed symptoms of the virus.

But they later tested negative, allowing Sir Keir to get back to Westminster.

It also comes a week after Prime Minister Boris Johnson came out of his own isolation period, having had contact with an MP who tested positive with the virus.

Sir Keir’s spokesman said during this latest period of self-isolation, the Labour leader will continue to work from home.