Covid: Calls for clarity amid post-Christmas Wales lockdown claim

A senior Conservative has demanded clarity from Welsh ministers after reports they are considering severe Covid restrictions from 28 December.

LBC radio cited an industry source saying Wales will be placed into lockdown-equivalent rules after Christmas.

Andrew RT Davies said first minister Mark Drakeford should make an “urgent statement”.

The Welsh Government said ministers are keeping all measures under review.

Rules will be relaxed for five days during the Christmas period, 23-27 December, across the UK to allow three households to meet.

However ministers have disclosed discussions about further restrictions after Christmas have already taken place.

The number of patients in Welsh hospitals is the highest ever recorded, and case rates in more than half of council areas in Wales reached their highest levels yet during the pandemic.

Plaid Cymru Adam Price claimed the Welsh Government “seems to have lost its grip on the situation”.

Welsh Conservative health spokesman Mr Davies said demanded “a full and frank disclosure” from the Welsh Government’s plans to control the rise. 

LBC reported that a final decision had not been made, but that the Welsh Government was considering a tiered system similar to other parts of the UK.

The broadcaster said an “industry source” had said it is likely Wales would go into a lockdown equivalent to Tier 4 from 28 December.

It comes after the Welsh Government announced all secondary schools and further education colleges in Wales will move classes online from Monday.

Plaid’s Adam Price called for a regional approach if a tiered system is to be introduced, “where local restrictions reflect local virus transmission levels”.

“Rather than blaming the public, ministers should be asking themselves where they’ve gone wrong,” he said.

“With furlough being reviewed in January, the Welsh Government must give urgent assurances that there will be further financial support if the hospitality sector has to close completely for a period of time.”

A spokeswoman said the public has a “key role” to play in limiting the spread of the virus.

“How we all act – and the choices we all make over the coming days and weeks – will define the course of this virus,” she said.

“We have recently introduced new restrictions to control the spread of the virus, but this will take some time to have an impact.

“Ministers keep all measures under review, including whether additional actions are needed to help further control the spread of the virus.

“However, the Welsh Government cannot control the spread of the virus alone. The people of Wales have a key role to play in stopping the virus from spreading.”

Brexit: NI supermarkets to receive funding for import costs

Supermarkets and other businesses are to receive government support towards the costs of moving food products across the new Irish sea border.

The government has announced a ‘Movement Assistance Scheme’ (MAS) which will take care of “reasonable costs”.

It is mainly aimed at Export Health Certificates (EHCs), which must accompany products like meat and milk.

EHCs must be signed off by vets and can cost up to £200 a time.

The news comes after it was announced Northern Ireland is to receive a further £400m to deal with the effects of Brexit and the Irish Sea border.

Northern Ireland will stay in the EU single market for goods at the end of the Brexit transition on 1 January, while the rest of the UK will leave.

The EU has strict rules on which food products can enter its single market.

EHCs are central to enforcement of the rules; products of animal origin – meat, milk, fish and eggs – need an EHC to enter the single market.

Supermarkets had warned this would lead to an increase in prices in NI and a reduction in the range of goods on sale.

On Wednesday, it emerged that NI supermarkets will be given extra time to phase in new checks, ensuring food supplies from GB do not face disruption from 1 January.

This so-called grace period will allow supermarkets to adapt their systems to deal with new Brexit controls required by the EU.

It is part of the agreement reached between the UK and EU on how the new Irish Sea border will operate.

The rules will apply whether or not the two sides can agree a trade deal.

The MAS was announced in a government ‘command paper’ published on Thursday.

It said businesses could be assured that, “where new requirements may be imposed, new direct costs will not be”.

The scheme is due to open in the coming days.

The command paper also has further details of a trusted trader scheme which will be used to make sure goods being sent from GB to NI do not have to pay tariffs.

This will be particularly important in the event of the EU and UK failing to reach a trade deal and imposing tariffs on each others products.

Earlier on Thursday, the government said the extra £400m of funding will be used for things such as developing systems that will help supermarkets and small firms to manage the new trading arrangements.

It said it will also be used to help businesses “seize trade and investment opportunities ahead”.

The BBC understands it will also help a project aiming to digitise and streamline export health certificates.

This is the piece of administration central to the movement of food products across the Irish Sea.

The extra £400m comes on top of £300m which has already been allocated for a system to help firms with GB-NI customs declarations.

According to the government, the new money will also be used to:

The Northern Ireland secretary, speaking on a visit to Wrightbus in Ballymena as the extra funding was announced, insisted that unionism is in a “strong place”, despite NI unionist parties expressing concerns over the new Irish Sea border.

Brandon Lewis said: “Fostering economic growth and social cohesion is key to building a stable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland.

“This additional £400m will support Northern Ireland after the end of the transition period enabling NI businesses and its people to innovate and invest.”

He rejected claims of unionist unease about the plans, and said unionism “has a lot to celebrate”.

He said the NI protocol meant businesses would be in a “unique position” and able to trade in a way “no other country in the world will have the opportunity to do”.

He added that the four nations’ approach to Covid-19 had shown the strength of the UK, which he said the government was committed to ensuring would continue.

On Thursday morning, the EU published contingency plans in case Brexit trade talks collapse without a deal.

The plans aim to ensure basic UK-EU air and road connectivity, as well as allowing the possibility of fishing access to each other’s waters.

Call for full inquest into Shana Grice stalker killing

The parents of a Brighton teenager killed by her ex-boyfriend have called for a full inquest into her death.

Shana Grice, 19, reported Michael Lane five times for stalking before she died but was fined for wasting police time.

Her parents, Sharon Grice and Richard Green, have begun a legal challenge over a decision against a full hearing.

The family claim several inquiries have not satisfied the public interest. The coroner argues the previous inquiries discharged the function of an inquest.

Lane cut Ms Grice’s throat before attempting to set fire to her body on 26 August 2016.

He was jailed for life in 2017 and ordered to serve at least 25 years.

At a remote High Court hearing, lawyers for the family argued a “full, independent and focused inquest” was necessary to consider whether Ms Grice’s death could have been avoided and “how to prevent a similar tragedy happening again”.

In written submissions, Kirsty Brimelow QC said previous inquiries – including Lane’s trial, a domestic homicide review, an Independent Office for Police Conduct investigation, police misconduct proceedings and an inspection into Sussex Police’s handling of stalking cases – had not satisfied the “overwhelming public interest” in the case.

She said Ms Grice was vulnerable and “lost her life in a brutal and violent way”.

She said: “Her death was avoidable if Sussex Police had not acted as they did and had actually acted to protect her life.

“There are recorded failings by Sussex Police but little scrutiny of those in a senior position or of the culture of Sussex Police towards young women suffering stalking and harassment.”

Jonathan Hough QC, representing senior Brighton and Hove coroner Veronica Hamilton-Deeley, said: “The coroner understands the desire of the claimant to have her own advocate confront and challenge the officers who she reasonably considers failed her daughter.

“However, she did not consider that that was enough in law to justify resuming the inquest.

“Furthermore, if there were to be an inquest, there would inevitably be features of the process which would be acutely painful to the claimant.”

Mr Justice Garnham said he would give his ruling at a later date.

Investors mob Airbnb listing giving it $100bn value

Shares in holiday booking platform Airbnb have surged on their first day of public trade, giving the firm a valuation of more than $100bn.

The massive listing – the biggest of the year in the US – raised $3.5bn (£2.6bn) for the firm.

The firm said it would use the money to help it survive the pandemic, which has devastated travel.

The flotation comes as investor appetite for tech firms has sent US markets soaring.

Demand for Airbnb shares was so hot, prices in opening trade more than doubled from the $68 apiece fetched ahead of the listing. That figure was already more than the firm had initially targeted.

Chief executive Brian Chesky told the BBC the firm planned to use the unexpectedly large windfall to help navigate the crisis.

“We are still in a storm,” he said. “We don’t know how long the storm is going to last so we hope for the best but we plan for the worst.”

“We’re going to be very prudent and very thoughtful about our investment, especially in a world of a huge amount of uncertainty, which is clearly where we still are right now,” he added.

Bookings at the firm crashed this spring, forcing it to slash staff numbers by 25% and raise $2bn in emergency funds.

Last month, Airbnb said bookings had since recovered somewhat, as people looked to escape locked down cities with long-term rentals within driving distance. And the company reported a surprise profit for the July, August and September months.

But the firm has warned it remained at risk, as officials in many places re-impose lockdowns.

Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell, said the money Airbnb raised despite the turmoil was a sign of hope that the travel industry will rebound quickly.

“Investors are clearly looking to [Airbnb] for a company that is a long term disruptor but at the same time a short-term winner if and when people start to travel in greater numbers in 2021,” he said.

He added: “You’ve also got very, very enthusiastic stock markets right now… Some people think they may be running a little bit too hot but we shall find out.”

More companies have raised more money by floating on US exchanges this year than any year since 2014, according to Renaissance Capital, a Connecticut-based firm that offers investments focused on initial public offerings.

In addition to Airbnb, US restaurant delivery company DoorDash raised $3.3bn just this week.

The listing has cemented the billionaire status of the firm’s three founders, who started the company as a home-sharing site in 2008.

Since then, it has grown into a global juggernaut, with more than four million people listing properties on the platform in countries around the world.

Last year, roughly 54 million people reserved stays through the company, which takes a cut of each booking.

“When they launched they put a lot of pressure on hotel rates and I think they inspired consumers to really create their own travel experience,” said Rebecca Crook, chief growth officer at UK-based digital product agency Somo.

“Because of that they became quite renowned in terms of disrupting what consumers really wanted and expected from travel brands.”

Airbnb’s growth has challenged hotel rivals and causing headaches for cities worried about an influx of tourists to new areas.

Those complaints have subsided since the pandemic, but the threat of more regulation is still a “major risk that Airbnb are going to have to tackle,” Ms Crook said.

The company has also lost money every year since its founding – with losses of roughly $696m in the first nine months of this year.

As of September, bookings remained more than 20% lower than in September 2019. And the firm warned they could fall farther again as officials in some places re-imposed lockdowns.

In Kenya, much of the tourist trade has dried up, said Karen Fraser, who hosts guests in a double decker bus in her garden.

“We’re still getting our weekend bookings… but it’s totally empty during the weeks,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, the business was doing so well she gave up her day job.

She says she’s hopeful the pandemic has created pent-up demand that will make next year better than ever.

“We’re all hoping for a bumper year,” she said. “Whether that happens or not, we’ll have to wait and see.”

TV Host Ellen DeGeneres tests positive for Covid-19

US chat show host Ellen DeGeneres has announced that she tested positive for Covid-19. “Fortunately, I’m feeling fine right now,” she posted online.

Her daytime programme – the Ellen DeGeneres Show – will pause production until January, according to a statement from her producers.

The show returned in September amid allegations of misconduct by senior staff. Three top producers were fired.

DeGeneres, 62, herself apologised on air, pledging “necessary changes”.

On Thursday, DeGeneres wrote that she was following the government’s Covid guidelines, and had notified those with whom she had been in close contact.

“I’ll see you all again after the holidays,” she wrote. “Please stay healthy and safe.”

Her last guest, who appeared in-person with her on Wednesday, was Hamilton musical actor Leslie Odom Jr.

In October, the programme became one of the first in the US to resume filming in-studio, according to USA Today. Forty audience members – rather than the normal capacity of 300 seats – have been allowed to attend tapings each day.

Other December guests to her studio included singers Justin Bieber and Lil Nas X, and actors Bryan Cranston and Diane Keaton.

Over the summer, DeGeneres faced criticism on social media amid reports that she had created a toxic work environment for her staff.

Appearing for her 18th season premiere in September, she addressed the allegations of racism, sexism and bullying made by her employees.

“I am so sorry to the people who were affected,” she said into the camera. “I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power. I realised that with that comes responsibility and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”

In the aftermath, she has continued to apologise to her staff and has increased leave time and health insurance packages for her employees, according to Entertainment Weekly.

Leatherhead man convicted of murdering father of two

A man has been found guilty of murdering a father of two who let him stay at his home during lockdown.

Daniel Styles, of Leatherhead, Surrey, was convicted at Guildford Crown Court of killing Phillip Bagwell, 54.

After the hearing, Det Ch Insp Chris Friday, from Surrey Police, said Mr Bagwell had let Styles stay with him but he took advantage of his kindness.

Styles, 32, attacked Mr Bagwell in Leatherhead town centre before he left him in a lift on 10 June, he said.

Det Ch Insp Friday said neighbours later found Mr Bagwell’s body in the communal lift of the block of flats in North Street where he lived.

He said Styles, known locally as Daniel Hopper, had carried out an unprovoked attack in the early hours while the pair were out together.

Styles punched and kicked Mr Bagwell about the head and body, causing fatal injuries, he added.

“Phillip had allowed Styles to stay at his home during lockdown, where Styles went on to take advantage of his kindness, tormenting him, bullying him and treating Phillip’s home as his own,” he added.

“After the assault, Styles returned to Phillip’s flat where he went to sleep.”

Mr Friday said Mr Bagwell had been a well-known figure in the community, and Styles “took advantage of his good nature and sought to exploit it”.

Styles, of Clare Crescent, is due to be sentenced on Friday.

Airbnb value predicted to surge after share sale

Holiday booking platform Airbnb is expected to raise as much as $3.5bn (£2.6bn) on Thursday when it first sells shares to the public.

The shares are set to surge, giving a much higher valuation than planned, according to pre-market trading data.

The listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange was expected to give it a market value of more than $42bn.

The flotation – the biggest of the year in the US – is a sign of hope that travel will bounce back quickly.

It also comes as investor appetite for tech firms has sent US markets soaring.

While Airbnb sold the shares at about $68 each, they may start trading at double that price, according to data collected by Reuters.

More companies have raised more money by floating on US exchanges this year than any year since 2014, according to Renaissance Capital, a Connecticut-based firm that offers investments focused on initial public offerings.

In addition to Airbnb, US restaurant delivery company DoorDash raised $3.3bn just this week.

The money raised by Airbnb in the offering was more than the firm had initially hoped – despite the upheaval the pandemic has caused its business, which saw bookings crash this spring, forcing it to slash staff numbers by 25% and raise $2bn in emergency funds.

Last month, Airbnb said bookings had since recovered somewhat, as people looked to escape locked down cities with long-term rentals. And the company reported a surprise profit for the July, August and September months.

“Investors are clearly looking to [Airbnb] for a company that is a long term disruptor but at the same time a short-term winner if and when people start to travel in greater numbers in 2021,” said Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell.

He added: “You’ve also got very, very enthusiastic stock markets right now… Some people think they may be running a little bit too hot but we shall find out.”

Since the firm started as a home-sharing site in 2008, Airbnb has grown into a global juggernaut, with more than four million people listing properties on the platform in countries around the world.

Last year, roughly 54 million people reserved stays through the company, which takes a cut of each booking.

“When they launched they put a lot of pressure on hotel rates and I think they inspired consumers to really create their own travel experience,” said Rebecca Crook, chief growth officer at UK-based digital product agency Somo.

“Because of that they became quite renowned in terms of disrupting what consumers really wanted and expected from travel brands.”

Airbnb’s growth has challenged hotel rivals and causing headaches for cities worried about an influx of tourists to new areas.

Those complaints have subsided since the pandemic, but the threat of more regulation is still a “major risk that Airbnb are going to have to tackle,” Ms Crook said.

The company has also lost money every year since its founding – with losses of roughly $696m in the first nine months of this year.

As of September, bookings remained more than 20% lower than in September 2019. And the firm warned they could fall farther again as officials in some places re-imposed lockdowns.

In Kenya, much of the tourist trade has dried up, said Karen Fraser, who hosts guests in a double decker bus in her garden.

“We’re still getting our weekend bookings… but it’s totally empty during the weeks,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, the business was doing so well she gave up her day job.

She says she’s hopeful the pandemic has created pent-up demand that will make next year better than ever.

“We’re all hoping for a bumper year,” she said. “Whether that happens or not, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Covid-19 tests for secondary school pupils in parts of London, Kent and Essex

Mass testing will be rolled out to secondary school children in the worst-affected areas of London, Kent and Essex, Matt Hancock has said.

The health secretary said “by far” the fastest rise in coronavirus infection rates was among 11-18-year-olds.

He said all children in this age group should get tested, irrespective of whether they had symptoms.

“We need to do everything to stop the spread in school-age children now,” Mr Hancock said.

More details would be set out on Friday, he added.

Speaking at a Downing Street press briefing, Mr Hancock said the government was “particularly concerned” about coronavirus cases in “London, Kent and Essex”, which are rising and “in many areas already high”.

He said the government must not wait until the next review of coronavirus measures, on 16 December, to take action.

“We need to take targeted action immediately,” he said, so the government has “decided to put in place an immediate plan to test all secondary school-age children in the seven worst affected boroughs in London, in parts of Essex that border London and parts of Kent”.

Coronavirus: Ministers warn against reckless Christmas behaviour

Stormont ministers have appealed to people in NI not to “get caught up in the Christmas spirit” with Covid-19 lockdown restrictions set to be eased.

A two-week lockdown ends at 23:59 GMT, meaning hairdressers, shops and some hospitality businesses can reopen.

First Minister Arlene Foster urged people to be “sensible” about limiting their social contacts.

She said the executive was “disappointed” that transmission of the virus had not reduced significantly.

Another 14 coronavirus-related deaths were recorded by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health on Thursday.

It brings the total number of deaths to 1,099. A further 441 people have also tested positive for the virus.

Speaking at a press conference at Stormont, Mrs Foster said in the past week all 11 councils in Northern Ireland had seen a rise in the number of recorded cases of Covid-19.

She warned that an easing of restrictions did not mean “any easing of the need to follow public health guidelines”.

“We are disappointed to see the number of hospital admissions where they are, people need to cut down their contacts and take personal responsibility,” she added.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill warned: “If people want to have a nice Christmas, don’t ruin it by being reckless over the next couple of weeks.

“We need people to be so careful, this is a crucial period.”

Ministers said Northern Ireland’s R-number – which measures the coronavirus infection rate – is around one.

R represents how many extra people each infected person passes the virus onto: the goal is to keep it below one.

Last week the executive was advised that if the R-number rises sharply in the next few weeks, restrictions would need to be reimposed before the new year.

Mrs Foster said just because restrictions were being eased, it did not mean people needed to take advantage of them.

The first minister added that Covid “ambassadors” would be appearing on the High Streets to provide advice on queuing and ensuring people can safely shop in the run-up to Christmas.

While Ms O’Neill said she accepted that some businesses unable to open under the new regulations still faced challenges.

“We’ve tried to mitigate but it can’t replace all the financial loss that businesses have experienced,” she said, adding that she recognised it would not be enough for all those sectors affected.

With the easing of the restrictions, many hospitality businesses, including restaurants, cafes and hotels, can reopen their doors on Friday but must be closed at 23:00 each day.

Pubs that do not serve food will have to remain shut.

The end of the lockdown also means:

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Naomi Long has said restrictions on visiting arrangements at prisons will be relaxed for Christmas.

However, she said a scheme to allow some prisoners leave to return home over the holiday season would remain paused to “help protect the entire prison community”, with more than 2,000 virtual visits scheduled between now and the New Year.

“People in custody will also be able to receive Christmas packages from their loved ones, and additional support will be provided to those who remain in the care of the Prison Service,” she added.

Bars that offer meals – that have been cooked in their own kitchen – can reopen from Friday, but the owners of some venues have decided to keep their premises closed until next year.

The family which owns Belfast’s well-known Lavery’s Bar and the Pavilion Bar said they made that decision “with the greatest regret”.

“This has been an incredibly difficult decision to make and we are so sorry for any disappointment it causes,” they added.

The owners of the John Hewitt Bar in the city said that although “this time of year is the time we look forward to the most” the safety measures the hospitality sector must adhere to under the terms of reopening were “just too heavy for us to operate”.

Three bars in Omagh, County Tyrone, have also decided to remain closed after 11 December.

Bogan’s, Sally’s of Omagh and the Blind Cobbler, which all offer meals, said they would not be reopening for the festive period.

In a post on facebook, Bogan’s said the decision was “incredibly difficult to make, but ultimately we feel this is the right thing to do, for the safety of our staff and for our customers”.

The Blind Cobbler team said they realised the announcement would be “disheartening and disappointing”, but looked “forward to brighter times ahead”.

Sally’s said it looked forward to 2021 “when we can reopen and provide everyone with a night out free from restrictions”.

Ciaran Breslin, who owns the Primrose café on the Quay in Londonderry, has said he, like many other businesses in the city, has a number of safety measures in place in order to re-open safely on Friday.

“Like all hospitality industries and restaurants we make customer safety the number one focus.

“We have made it a really safe environment and it will be fantastic to have the doors back open again.

“There is 2m distancing, we have got screens in place, track and trace in place, sanitiser stations, and we have all customers and staff wearing face coverings,” Mr Breslin said.

The Derry business owner said he cannot rule out any potential future closures and said he can only focus on the here and now.

“We will take it every day as it comes, we have pivoted a few times and all we can do is make a safe environment for our staff and our customers.”

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