US sues Walmart for alleged role in opioid crisis

The US Department of Justice has accused Walmart of helping to fuel America’s opioid crisis.

In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, prosecutors said the retail giant filled hundreds of thousands of questionable prescriptions, “knowingly” violating vetting rules.

Walmart revealed in October that it had been threatened with such a suit.

At the time, Walmart said the US was imposing “unworkable requirements that are not found in any law”.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, operates more than 5,000 pharmacies at its stores across the US and for years has also acted as a drug distributor.

According to the lawsuit, the company pressured staff to fill prescriptions as fast as possible and withheld information from pharmacists, collected by its compliance unit, which indicated such orders did not have valid medical purposes.

Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice’s civil division, said Walmart’s actions “contributed to the epidemic of opioid abuse throughout the United States”.

“As one of the largest pharmacy chains and wholesale drug distributors in the country, Walmart had the responsibility and the means to help prevent the diversion of prescription opioids,” he said.

“Instead, for years, it did the opposite — filling thousands of invalid prescriptions at its pharmacies and failing to report suspicious orders of opioids and other drugs placed by those pharmacies.”

The goverment is seeking financial penalties for the misconduct, which it said dated to 2013. It said the fines could amount to “billions of dollars”.

Walmart did not immediately comment. In anticipation of the lawsuit, it filed its own legal action against the US in October, asking the court to clarify the responsibilities of pharmacists.

Roughly 450,000 people have died from overdoses related to prescription painkillers and illegal drugs since 1999.

The lawsuit against Walmart is the latest effort by the Department of Justice to respond to the public health crisis.

In October, it announced that Oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma would pay more than $8bn and admit to enabling the supply of drugs without legitimate medical purpose.

Theatre company pulls out of Black Joy season over venues court deal

One of the UK’s leading black theatre companies has pulled out of a season of plays about “Black Joy” in protest at the venue’s role as a temporary court.

Talawa Theatre Company had been due to stage the Black Joy season at the Birmingham Rep theatre next year.

But Talawa said that was “no longer tenable” after the venue signed a deal to become a Nightingale Court.

The Birmingham Rep said it had made a “financially-based decision” to make the transformation during the pandemic.

But Talawa said the decision “does not align with Talawa’s commitment to Black artists and communities, the communities most affected by this decision”.

A statement added: “It has threatened the integrity of the Black Joy season; regrettably the partnership is no longer tenable under current circumstances.”

However, the company did acknowledge that venues were being forced to make “difficult calls” and that it was “vital that we don’t see buildings close”.

Talawa was founded in 1986 and has worked with actors including Don Warrington, Sharon D Clarke, Nonso Anozie and Michaela Coel.

Birmingham Rep declined to comment on Talawa’s decision, but has previously said it is “doing our utmost to fight for the survival of The Rep and we sincerely wish we weren’t in these extraordinary circumstances”.

On Friday, it said in a statement: “We made a decision that we believe to be in the best interests of the theatre facing a very serious situation to which there are no easy answers.

“That such passionate voices have been raised against this decision demonstrates to us that we have alienated some of the individuals and communities that we are trying so hard to protect the theatre for…

“In no way have we wished to put any artists or partners of ours in a compromised position – either now or in the future – and recognise that this very difficult decision has impacted on that wish.”

It has also said that 50 staff members have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic. It is one of a number of venues chosen by the Ministry of Justice to become a temporary Nightingale Court to help clear a backlog of cases.

It will hear non-custodial cases as well as civil and family hearings and tribunals in two of its three auditoria until June 2021.

The Black Joy season was described as “an artistically ambitious body of work” including three new plays, six “seed commissions” and backstage training and work opportunities.

Talawa said it was “exploring our options” to still bring the season “to the audiences it was intended for”.

Peter Cruddas: PM overrules watchdog with Tory donor peerage

Boris Johnson has nominated businessman Peter Cruddas for a peerage, despite his rejection by the honours watchdog.

The Lords Appointments Commission did not support ennobling the businessman, who quit as Tory co-treasurer in 2012 following cash-for-access allegations.

Mr Cruddas later won a libel case against a newspaper over its claims.

Mr Johnson rejected the commission’s recommendation, becoming the first PM to ignore its advice on a nomination since it was set up in 2000.

Labour accused Mr Johnson – who received £50,000 from Mr Cruddas for his campaign to become Conservative leader in 2019 – of “cronyism”.

Former Archbishop of York John Sentamu and ex-MI5 boss Sir Andrew Parker are also among those given peerages in the political honours list.

Mr Cruddas, who has donated more than £3m to the Conservatives since 2007, resigned as party co-treasurer in 2012 after a newspaper story suggested he was offering access to then Prime Minister David Cameron for a donation of £250,000 a year.

But the following year he won £180,000 in damages in a libel victory against the Sunday Times, which had published the claims. The damages were later reduced to £50,000 on appeal.

In a letter to the Lords appointment commission, Mr Johnson said its rejection, earlier this month, of Mr Cruddas’s nomination for a peerage related “to historic concerns in respect of allegations” made during his time as co-treasurer.

But he added that the allegations had been found to be “untrue and libellous” and that an internal Conservative Party investigation had discovered “no intentional wrongdoing” on Mr Cruddas’s part.

Mr Johnson also said the committee had found “no suggestion of any matters of concern” before or since the 2012 allegations.

Mr Cruddas, the founder of financial services company CMC Markets and a prominent Brexit supporter, had a “long track record of committed political service” and was one of the UK’s “most successful business figures”, the prime minister argued.

His decision to go against the commission’s recommendations was a “clear and rare exception” to the norm, he added.

The commission provides advice but appointments to the Lords are ultimately a decision for the prime minister.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “After months of revelations about the cronyism at the heart of this government, it’s somehow appropriate the prime minister has chosen to end the year with a peerage to Peter Cruddas.”

She added that there was “one rule for the Conservatives and their chums, another for the rest of the country”.

Former environment minister Sir Richard Benyon; former MEPs Dame Jacqueline Foster, Syed Kamall and Daniel Hannan; Cerebral Palsy Scotland chief executive Stephanie Fraser; and Dean Godson, director of the Policy Exchange think tank, have also been nominated for Conservative seats in the Lords.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer chose Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake; former MPs Jennifer Chapman and Vernon Coaker; former MEP Wajid Khan; and Gillian Merron, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a former Labour MP.

As well as Mr Sentamu and Sir Andrew, the nominations for crossbench – non-party – peerages are former judge Sir Terence Etherton and Sir Simon, former permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office.

The Lord Speaker, Conservative peer Lord Fowler, criticised the number of new peers, which will bring the total membership of the House of Lords to more than 830, accusing Mr Johnson of a “massive U-turn” on his predecessor Theresa May’s policy of reducing it in size.

It added “insult to injury” that the appointments had been announced while Parliament was in recess, he said.

“It may also now be the time to review the role and the powers of the House of Lords Appointments Commission,” Lord Fowler added.

Richard Osman beats Barack Obama to UKs Christmas number one book

Pointless co-host Richard Osman’s debut novel The Thursday Murder Club was the UK’s best-selling book in the last full week before Christmas.

The murder mystery sold 134,500 copies in the week up to Saturday.

That’s more than double the next biggest seller – Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, which sold 66,500.

David Walliams, who has been at number one for three of the past four Christmases, is at number three with Code Name Bananas, on 55,000 sales.

Osman’s book had the highest sales for a Christmas number one since Jamie Oliver a decade ago, according to The Bookseller, and is the first debut novel to be Christmas number one since current records began in the late 1990s.

The Thursday Murder Club has sold almost 700,000 copies in less than four months, according to publishers Penguin, making it the third best-selling hardback novel after Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

“Lots of celebrities have written novels in the past, but his book has been cheered by literary critics and the public alike,” The Bookseller’s managing editor Tom Tivnan said.

“It crosses all parts of the industry. Celebrity novels generally do well in supermarkets and on Amazon, but it’s been the best-selling book in independent book shops since it’s been on sale. It’s been selling massively since day one, for four months straight, which is really rare.”

Osman has a combination of celebrity name recognition and word-of-mouth success, Mr Tivnan said.

“He has a wide appeal – from university kids who watch him during the afternoon to pensioners. The main thing, though, is the book is good. It’s a cracking read. It would have sold well if the book was just a passable thriller. But everyone who reads it presses it on to other people.”

UK top 10 books

Source: Nielsen Book Research. Week ending 19 December.

The Thursday Murder Club tells the story of four elderly friends in a retirement village who investigate unsolved murders. Osman has signed a deal to write two follow-ups, and Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights.

Osman is also known as the question-master on TV quiz show Pointless and the host of House of Games.

On Monday, he announced that he is leaving his day job as creative director of TV production company Endemol UK.

UK shoppers spent £90m on 9.6 million books last week, according to Nielsen Book Research.

Total book sales this year are likely to be down by around 6%, according to Mr Tivnan, which he said was “a decent result” given how long book shops have been closed because of lockdowns.

Brexit: 40 lorries a day to receive Irish Sea border checks

About 40 lorries a day will be subject to new Irish Sea border checks when they enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain, NI’s chief vet has said.

Robert Huey’s staff in the Department for Agriculture will be responsible for carrying out these checks.

Dr Huey has been outlining new guidance for traders about what they need to be prepared for when the changes come.

The checks will start on 1 January when the Brexit transition period ends.

At that point Northern Ireland will still be in the EU’s single market for goods while the rest of the UK leaves.

That will mean new paperwork, processes and checks for moving food products from GB-NI, although some of these will be phased in.

Dr Huey urged anyone involved in food or animal trade to read the guidance published by his department.

He said: “While some of the new processes will be phased in over time, many of them start immediately – therefore people should read these guides as soon as they can.

“It is clear how complex the food, animal and plant supply chains are and these documents explain how to navigate the changes.

Dr Huey had already indicated that the food industry will not face penalties for non-compliance with new rules during the first week of 2021.

But he has reiterated that after that, the approach to compliance will be tougher.

Legal action anticipated against police over M9 crash deaths

Legal proceedings against Police Scotland are anticipated following the deaths of a couple whose car left the M9 near Stirling in 2015.

John Yuill, 28, died at the scene of the crash and his partner Lamara Bell, 25, died later in hospital.

It took police three days to respond to the incident, despite a call being made to them.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC is understood to have notified Chief Constable Iain Livingstone of the move.

Mr Livingstone was not in charge of Police Scotland at the time.

The move was first reported in the Daily Record newspaper.

Mr Livingstone said: “Lamara Bell and John Yuill’s deaths were a tragedy and my thoughts and condolences are with their families and loved ones.

“Police Scotland has fully assisted the Crown Office throughout their inquiries and will continue to engage in due process.”

A spokesperson for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said: “The case team and staff from our Victim Information and Advice service have communicated with family members and their legal representatives throughout, and will continue to keep them informed of any significant developments in relation to the investigation.

“In order to protect any potential proceedings the Crown will not comment further at this stage.”

In a statement released by solicitors Digby Brown, Ms Bell’s family said: “We will not comment on any new or ongoing proceedings until they have all concluded.”

Ilkley River Wharfe is first in England to become bathing site

A river in West Yorkshire is to become the first in England to be designated a bathing site.

A stretch of the River Wharfe in Ilkley will have its pollution levels monitored by the Environment Agency to ensure it is safe for swimming.

The move follows a campaign by local residents who said they had seen “human solid waste” on the river bank.

Becky Malby, from the Ilkley Clean River Group, said she was “absolutely over the moon” at the news.

Ms Malby said the group had been campaigning over pollution levels for over two years after human sewage was seen where people were “picnicking and playing”.

She said she was “delighted” the designated bathing area encompassed the nearby sewage treatment works.

“That is going to have to trigger a major clean-up of the system,” she added.

From 2021, samples will be taken from the popular swimming and paddling spot between May and September.

If bacteria levels are too high then action will be taken to reduce pollution.

Bathing water sites on the coast and on certain lakes have been monitored by the Environment Agency since the 1990s and have seen a significant improvement in water quality.

There are currently 12 inland bathing waters in England – all lakes.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “Unfortunately, we all know the water quality won’t change overnight. It will take time and we need farmers and businesses to commit to achieve the necessary improvements.”

The announcement came as Yorkshire Water confirmed a new multi-agency partnership had been formed to improve water quality in the River Wharfe.

It plans to reduce storm overflow discharges by 20% and increase the use of smart tech to predict and prevent pollution incidents.

Milton Keynes house party murder accused convicted

Two men and two youths have been convicted of murdering two 17 year olds in a “ferocious” attack at a party.

Charlie Chandler, 22, Clayton Barker, 20, a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old killed Dom Ansah and Ben Gillham-Rice at the house party in Milton Keynes.

Armed and wearing masks, three stormed the rear of the house while one, armed with a large machete, blocked the front door, Luton Crown Court heard.

They were each convicted of two counts of murder, on 19 October 2019.

A fifth man, Earl Bevans, 23, admitted the charges at the start of the trial.

Jurors heard the accused were all connected to the B3 gang based in west Bletchley, Milton Keynes.

After a tip-off that people associated with rival M4 group were at the party, they went to Archford Croft.

Ben was stabbed six times, including through the heart, causing him to die almost immediately, the prosecution said.

Jurors were told his friend Dom was chased out on to the street but slipped, and was “repeatedly sliced and stabbed as he lay on the ground”.

He sustained 47 injuries and died later in hospital.

Two other people were seriously injured in the attack.

Chandler and Barker, both from Bletchley, and the two teenagers, who cannot be identified because their age, were also found guilty of two counts of wounding with intent

Bevans, of no fixed address, also pleaded guilty to the same charges.

Prosecutor Rebecca Waller, said: “It is tragic that two young men lost their lives as a result of this vicious attack which has destroyed the boys’ families and had a lasting impact on them and those that witnessed it.”

The case was adjourned and the defendants are due to be sentenced on 6 January.

Southport couple find 4ft python behind tumble dryer

A couple were left hiss-terical after finding a 4ft (1.2m) royal python curled up behind their tumble dryer.

It was a case of snakes and larders when the reptile was found in the utility room of their home in Southport, Merseyside.

“I was shocked, it’s not what you expect when you want to do a bit of laundry,” the woman told the RSPCA.

The charity collected the snake and is hoping to find its owner soon – serpently by Christmas.

“I was quite surprised at the size of the snake,” said RSPCA rescue officer David Hatton, who attended the home in Beecham Road on Sunday.

“The fact it is in such good condition makes me suspect it is a pet that has escaped.

“I am not sure how it managed to get into the utility room but it was probably attracted by the warmth from the drier when it was on.”

The couple, who preferred not to be named, had been trying to fix the faulty tumble dryer when the snake was found.

“My husband pulled the drier out and seemed taken aback, and then said ‘there’s a snake here’,” the woman said.

“I thought it would be a small grass snake not a 4ft-long royal python.”

It is currently being looked after by reptile keepers from volunteer group Beastwatch UK.

Spokesman Mike Potts said the species is harmless and a relatively small python, usually growing to about 5ft.

Source: RSPCA