Nicola Sturgeon broke Covid rules at funeral

Scotland’s first minister has apologised for breaching Covid rules by taking her face mask off at a wake.

The Scottish Sun has published a photograph of Nicola Sturgeon standing talking to three people at a social distance, but with her face uncovered.

She was attending a wake after the funeral of a Scottish government civil servant who died with Covid.

Ms Sturgeon had been wearing a tartan mask and is said to have taken it off briefly as she was leaving the venue.

The Scottish government’s Covid regulations say that customers in hospitality venues must wear a face covering except when seated – including when they are entering, exiting and moving around.

In a statement released to the BBC, the first minister said: “Last Friday, while attending a funeral wake, I had my mask off briefly.

“This was a stupid mistake and I’m really sorry. “I talk every day about the importance of masks, so I’m not going to offer any excuses.

“I was in the wrong, I’m kicking myself, and I’m sorry.”

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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.

Covid-19: Sinn Féin calls for all-Ireland travel ban from GB

Sinn Féin has called for an all-Ireland-Great Britain travel ban to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

In a late-night vote on Monday, the SDLP also backed the move but Alliance, the DUP and UUP voted against.

The executive unanimously backed plans to issue new guidance against all but essential travel between Northern Ireland, GB and the Irish Republic.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said Northern Ireland was in a “dangerous position”.

Calling for all-island co-operation, she said: “I encourage the taoiseach (Irish prime minister) to work with us and get to the point where the whole island is shut down to inbound travellers.”

“We are the outlier – over 40 countries have decided to bring in a travel ban and here one part of the island is shut down and one is not – we are in a dangerous position.”

First Minister Arlene Foster did not support a full ban on travel, but urged people to show restraint in their travel, adding that a new more infectious variant of coronavirus “necessitated changes to our approach”.

“Our science advisers believe that this variant is already in the Republic of Ireland, as well as London, the south east of England and across Europe,” said the DUP leader.

“People should only travel outside Northern Ireland if essential.”

Some 40 countries, including the Republic, have banned UK arrivals due to concerns about the new variant.

A further 16 coronavirus-related deaths were recorded in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, bringing the total number of deaths recorded by the Department of Health to 1,219.

There were also a further 439 cases of Covid-19 diagnosed. There are 447 people with Covid-19 in hospital. Thirty are in intensive care, with 23 on ventilators.

On Sunday, the executive agreed so-called Christmas bubbles should be limited to one day.

The move followed action in England, Scotland and Wales on Saturday, cutting the previously agreed five days to just one.

At Tuesday’s health committee meeting, Health Minister Robin Swan told Stormont’s health committee the onus to ensure safety fell on those organising and delivering tests such as the transfer test for school children.

Responding to a question from People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll, Mr Swann said: “If anybody is using a school facility or if a school is facilitating testing in regards to the transfer test it’s up the school, the board of governors and those organising and delivering the test to make sure they meet all current regulations.

“The Minister of Education has the responsibility for schools and the delivery of the education programme – we can provide information and guidance and we do and how that is implemented is up through his department, the Education Authority and through schools.”

A paper brought by Mr Swann to the executive said a travel ban could have “serious adverse implications” for the financial viability of aircraft and ferry routes.

The document, seen by BBC News NI, also said that if the new variant of coronavirus was present in Northern Ireland, the benefit of restricting travel would be “somewhat reduced”.

Although it was believed to be present, this had not yet been confirmed, the paper added.

However, Mrs O’Neill said this argument was “like saying if the tap is running let it overflow and flood the bathroom”.

Sinn Féin proposed taking the matter to a vote late on Monday, but it fell by a simple majority.

In Monday’s emergency meeting, the executive supported advice from Mr Swann that people arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland should self-isolate for 10 days.

The medical advice to the executive was that the “relative risk” for travellers from GB having Covid-19 is less than 1 in 100, and “significantly less” for the new variant.

It says there would be “merit in limiting travel” if the variant was not present in NI, but in its absence a precautionary approach is advised including possible limiting of travel from the Republic of Ireland, given the “current disease trajectory” there.

Mr Swann’s paper also called for exploring the use of “locator forms” for travellers arriving in NI.

After the meeting, the health minister tweeted that he was pleased the executive had agreed his paper.

There was so much division around the executive table on this issue that last night’s decision didn’t come until shortly before midnight.

While Sinn Féin wanted an immediate travel ban, what we got was a compromise – with ministers unanimously agreeing to terms on travel guidance.

Robin Swann set out his view that it could have some serious implications for the financial viability of air and ferry routes and costs for supply chains that ministers did not have detail about last night.

The point was also made that if this new variation is present that the benefit of restricting travel would be somewhat reduced.

So it may not be as simple to just impose a ban in law.

However, things have been left slightly ajar and the issue may well crop up today when Robin Swann appears before the health committee.

When you listen to those who have chosen not to come home, you get the sense that people would like to hear more clearly and effectively from Stormont.

While the guidance may be welcomed for some, for others it simply does not go far enough.

Meanwhile, Brian Ambrose, chief executive of George Best Belfast City Airport told BBC NI’s Good Morning Ulster on Tuesday that the airport would normally handle about 10,000 passengers every day in the Christmas period.

That number has fallen to between 1,000 and 2,000 passengers.

It is too early to see the impact of the latest government decisions, he said, but pointed out that government guidance was clear on non-essential travel.

“It has been our experience for most of this year that the majority of our customers have not been travelling. I don’t think we have spent a dollar this year to promote air travel. We have simply facilitated those who need to get from A to B,” said Mr Ambrose.

“Our assumption before last night was that January is going to be a very very quiet month and that we will be facilitating essential travel only.”

Covid-19: Kindness spreads Christmas cheer across the UK

Like many people across the UK, Callum Williamson found his Christmas plans cancelled at the last minute due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 32-year-old, who lives near York, had arranged a festive get-together with his parents and his sister at her home in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

But the government’s announcement of stricter Covid rules around Christmas meant the family had to abandon their plan to see each other.

Callum faced the prospect of Christmas Day being “the same as any other day” – without his family or a festive dinner.

But his kind-hearted neighbour Rebecca texted him out of the blue and offered to make him a Christmas dinner so he isn’t left out.

“It meant a huge amount,” Callum said. “It’s quite emotional knowing someone can, without any real thought, just offer to do something like that.

“I wouldn’t have been having Christmas dinner full stop and it would’ve been the same as any other day if Rebecca hadn’t done that.

“There’s so many people in a worse position than me, but at the same time it was just that little thought that made my day.”

Callum isn’t the only person to have received a good deed from someone this Christmas.

Keith Farquharson, 46, ordered a Belgian chocolate gift shaped like a map for his wife as a Christmas present this year.

When he went to wrap it up, he found a note from the seller saying they had refunded him the cost and asked him to donate it to his charity fundraiser instead.

Keith, who has stage four bowel cancer, raised more than £6,000 for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation during the first coronavirus lockdown.

He set up his road bike as a static bike at his home in Heaton, Newcastle, and cycled the 2,082 miles of the Tour de France 2018 in aid of the charity.

“I was amazed – it’s a really nice gesture,” says Keith.

“They’re a company that I’ve never had any contact with so how on earth did they find out what I was doing?”

Keith describes the kind-hearted note a little “bit of joy” in the middle of a dark time and says it sums up how 2020 has been a year of kindness for many.

His health condition meant he had to shield for three months during the first lockdown and his family had to rely on loved ones and neighbours to help them through.

“We’ve had my brother and my sister-in-law having to do the shopping for us and neighbours on the street looking after us,” Keith said. “It’s been a year when we’ve been reliant on other people and other people have helped. This sort of sums up the year.”

Many people have donated their time and money to help others this Christmas – including mum Jessica Rixon.

She brought together friends to prepare Christmas dinner to give to 14 families who have been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Jessica’s daughter Florence attends a nursery which is part of the London Early Years Foundation – a charitable social enterprise which operates 39 nurseries in some of London’s most disadvantaged areas.

“I just thought it would be really nice for a family to at least have a Christmas dinner, especially if they’ve had a really bad year,” Jessica said.

“It was something that they could look forward to. Whether they liked my cooking or not was another story!”

The 39-year-old raised more than £1,000 to pay for the ingredients to make dinner for 25 adults and 20 children – which were donated to families at another nursery in the network.

She used four turkeys, three ham joints, 16-and-a-half pounds of potatoes, four kilos of Brussels sprouts, and eight kilos of parsnips and carrots for the Christmas meals.

Jessica even had enough money left over to also buy the children Christmas presents which included colouring books, teddies, puzzles, Play-Doh and Lego.

She dropped the meals and presents off at the nursery on Friday and said the manager was “thrilled” with the donations.

“Had it not been for the Covid restrictions we possibly would have given each other a massive, big hug because there’s been so much organisation and chat back and forth over the last month,” said Jessica.

“She said that the parents were delighted. And I said, ‘That’s great. That’s nice to hear’.”

Royal Mail ends two-year dispute with union in landmark deal

Royal Mail has agreed what unions have called a “landmark” deal to settle a long-running dispute over pay and conditions.

Union members will vote on a 2.7% pay increase for this year, a 1% increase next year and a shorter working week.

The Communication Workers Union called it an “excellent” deal, marking the end of an “adversarial” two-year dispute.

Under the agreement, Royal Mail will be able to prioritise its fast-growing parcels for investment.

It will also allow Royal Mail to modernise the business with investment in more automation. This will include replacing the handwritten signing-in sheets at sorting sites with swipe-and-scan technology.

Royal Mail’s interim executive chairman Keith Williams said: “We have a window of opportunity to focus Royal Mail on what our customers want today – an ever-growing need for more parcels, whilst providing a sustainable letters service.

“This agreement provides a framework to do just that, but the proof will be in the pudding. We have been far too slow to adapt in the past and now need to deliver change much more quickly.”

The restructuring plan was proposed by Royal Mail’s former chief executive, Rico Black. Union resistance to the overhaul contributed to Mr Black’s resignation in May.

“This agreement marks the end of our two year dispute with Royal Mail Group and brings closure to one of the most adversarial periods of our history,” CWU said.

The union added that the circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have “massively advanced the change anticipated in our previous agreements in parcel growth”.

Royal Mail’s revenue in the eight months to November was £380m higher, thanks to growth in parcel demand.

On Monday, Royal Mail suspended mail services to mainland Europe. Deliveries to Ireland are unaffected it said.

Parcels it already has will be “held securely” until it can transport them it said.

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”.

Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine clinics to be set up in Wales

Clinics will be set up for people over 80 to have their Covid jabs once the next vaccine is approved for use, the Welsh Government has said.

Priority for the first vaccine has been health and social care workers, care home residents and staff, and over-80s.

More than 25,000 people in Wales had been vaccinated up to 22 December.

Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine said earlier this week its jab was “not too far off” being given the go-ahead by regulators.

So far, only the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine has been approved for use in the UK which became the first country in the world to start using it.

Another vaccine, Moderna, is also seeking approval from UK regulators.

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Many people over 80 would like to have vaccination at their local primary care practice.

“We are making arrangements for clinics to be held in practices using the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, once this has been approved for use.”

Meanwhile, a testing centre is being set up in Newport to provide more appointments over the Christmas period.

The testing unit will be located at the overflow car park at Tredegar House.

Tesco puts buying caps on several products

Tesco has introduced purchasing limits on some products including eggs, rice, soap and toilet roll.

The move is to make sure everyone has access to the products, it said in an email to customers.

Customers are allowed to buy up to three of each item.

The move comes as more than 1,500 lorries remain stranded in Kent as officials try to negotiate a re-opening of the French border.

The supermarket giant also encouraged customers to shop alone to ensure social distancing in stores.

Tesco said it has “good stock levels” and customers should “shop as you normally would”.

Tesco introduced limits on some products in September in a bid to prevent a repeat of the panic-buying that led to shortages in March.

France shut its UK border for 48 hours on Sunday amid fears of a new coronavirus variant. More than 50 countries have now banned UK arrivals.

On Monday, Tesco and Sainsbury’s warned that some fresh items could run short if no way is found to get freight moving again.

Much of the UK’s fresh vegetables come from Continental Europe during winter, including tomatoes and cabbages.

Tesco anticipated that produce such as lettuces and citrus fruit could be hit.

Covid: Can I travel home for Christmas? And other questions

The rules around Christmas bubbles have changed around the UK, while a new tier four has been introduced in parts of England.

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