Brexit: EU-UK trade deal expected, as cabinet briefed

The EU and UK appear close to striking a post-Brexit trade deal, with Boris Johnson briefing his cabinet on the progress of talks in Brussels.

Disputes over fishing rights and future business competition rules have been the major hurdles to agreement during months of often fraught talks.

But BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said Downing Street now seemed “very confident” of a deal.

Negotiators are now thought to be thrashing out the final details.

The deal is expected to be around 2,000 pages long, with both sides having until 31 December – when the UK leaves EU trading rules – get it approved by parliamentarians.

A deal would end the prospect of the two sides imposing widespread import taxes – tariffs – on each other’s goods from 1 January, which could have affected prices.

EU sources said the UK prime minister and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had also been in contact in an attempt to break the deadlock before the expected pause in negotiations for Christmas.

What happens next with Brexit?

The UK has insisted on having control over fishing in its waters from 1 January and retaining a larger share of the catch from them than under the current quota system.

But the EU wanted to phase in a new fishing system over a longer period and retain more of its access to UK waters for boats from France, Spain and other member states.

The sides also disagreed over whether UK firms should continue to follow the same rules as companies within the EU – and on how future trading disputes should be resolved.

UK ministers have repeatedly ruled out any extension to the transition period, under which the UK has continued to follow Brussels’s trade rules since it left the EU on 31 January.

The European Research Group of Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs has promised to reconvene its “star chamber” of lawyers – which was highly critical of previous Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU – to analyse any deal that is reached.

Chairman Mark Francois and deputy chairman David Jones said it would “scrutinise it in detail, to ensure that its provisions genuinely protect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom”.

Covid: Johnson and Starmer thank very best at Christmas

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have thanked the armed forces and NHS staff for their work in dealing with Covid-19.

In a video call with troops in the UK and abroad, the PM saluted those who had helped build hospitals, deliver equipment and organise testing.

“You represent in my view the very best of our country,” he said.

In his Christmas message, Sir Keir said the pandemic had shown the values of “generosity and kindness” in abundance.

While it had been tough year for everyone and a traumatic one for many, the Labour leader said “in every village, every town and every city, we have seen the very best of Britain”.

He paid tribute to the “key workers who have been our country’s rock, the servicemen and servicewomen who have stepped up, and the incredible scientists who have discovered a vaccine”.

While there was “light at the end of the tunnel” in the country’s fight against the virus, he acknowledged the difficulties many families face with “an empty space around the Christmas table” this year.

“I know it hasn’t been easy. I know for many of our key workers they will have to step up again, one more time, this Christmas, as will our armed forces, who have deployed here and across the overseas,” he said.

“Christmas is a time for us to be thankful for what we value most and to care for those who have lost so much.”

And he urged people to capture the spirit shown during the crisis to “rebuild a better future for our country”.

Addressing troops stationed in Mali, Estonia, Somalia and Afghanistan, as well as those deployed in the UK, Mr Johnson thanked them all for being “our number one export”.

“You represent in my view the very best of our country, the thing people really want to see around the world.

“It’s not just abroad that this has been an amazing year for the armed services. So many of you have been responsible for doing extraordinary things here at home, thousands of you helping to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Building the Nightingales, delivering PPE, testing people, and now leading the way and helping the country to get vaccinated.

“Thank you for your sacrifice and your effort. You’re bringing hope and encouragement to the entire country.”

Deepfake queen to deliver Channel 4 Christmas message

This year’s Channel 4 alternative Christmas message will be delivered by a deepfake of the Queen.

While the Queen is delivering her traditional message on the BBC and ITV, her digitally created doppelgänger will be sharing its “thoughts” on Channel 4.

Buckingham Palace told the BBC it had no comment on the broadcast.

Channel 4 said the intention was to give a “stark warning” about fake news in the digital age.

Deepfake technology can be used to create convincing yet entirely fictional video content, and is often used to spread misinformation.

In the message, the deepfake will try its hand at a TikTok viral dance challenge.

The five-minute message will refer to a number of controversial topics, including the decision by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to leave the UK. It will also allude to the Duke of York’s decision to step down from royal duties earlier this year after an interview he gave to the BBC about his relationship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The BBC’s royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell was not impressed: “There have been countless imitations of the Queen. This isn’t a particularly good one.

“The voice sounds what it is – a rather poor attempt to impersonate her. What makes it troubling is the use of video technology to attempt to sync her lips to the words being spoken.”

While current technology does allow for voice deepfakes, the voice of this deepfake will be dubbed by British actress Debra Stephenson.

The TV star was previously the voice of a puppet of the monarch in the 2020 revival of satirical sketch show Spitting Image.

Stephenson said: “As an actress it is thrilling but it is also terrifying if you consider how this could be used in other contexts.”

The deepfake has been created by Oscar-winning VFX studio Framestore.

Deepfakes first rose to prominence in early 2018.

At the time, a developer adapted cutting-edge artificial intelligence techniques to create software that swapped one person’s face for another.

However, the process has since become much more accessible.

There are now numerous apps that require just a single photo in order to substitute a Hollywood actor for that of the user.

Earlier this year, Microsoft unveiled a tool that can spot deepfakes.

The firm said it hoped to help combat disinformation, but experts warned it was at risk of becoming outdated due to advances in technology.

Nina Schick, author of Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse, told the BBC there was growing concern about the other malicious ways deepfake technology could be used.

“While it offers tremendous commercial and creative opportunities, transforming entire industries from entertainment to communication, it is also a technology that will be weaponised.

“Used maliciously, AI-generated synthetic media, or deepfakes, are sophisticated forms of visual disinformation.”

The Alternative Christmas Message will be shown on Channel 4 at 15:25 GMT on 25 December.

Covid-19: Lorry drivers stuck at UK border for another night

Thousands of drivers are facing another night in their lorries, despite France reopening its border with the UK.

Lorries began boarding ferries at Dover on Wednesday after travel restrictions were lifted by the French government on the condition of a negative Covid test.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government was using “every tool we can” to clear the backlog.

Around 170 army personnel are helping to conduct tests, but police and weary drivers have clashed over long waits.

At the temporary lorry park at Manston airfield, drivers complained of limited food supply and inadequate bathroom facilities.

Mr Shapps warned of “a lot of congestion and some, I’m afraid, anti-social behaviour around the ports that the police have been dealing with”.

He said 6,000 lorries were in the area and the government had called in the Army to assist with getting the hauliers who had tested negative on their way – but added it was “not something that could be done instantaneously” and said people should stay away from Kent and the ports.

France closed its border to arrivals from the UK late on Sunday amid concern over a highly-transmissible virus variant that was spreading in the UK.

Latest measures allow French citizens, British nationals living in France and hauliers to travel – if they test negative less than 72 hours before departure.

All drivers, regardless of nationality, are required to take a rapid lateral flow test – with the results sent by text within 30 minutes. Drivers who test positive will be offered Covid-secure accommodation to self isolate, government minister Robert Jenrick said earlier.

Testing will also take place on the French side for hauliers entering the UK.

Mr Shapps said the NHS Test and Trace team were conducting “roving tests of hauliers”.

He added: “They have to do that in many different languages because almost all the hauliers, I think well over 95%, are not UK hauliers. So they’re having to deal with a lot of different things.”

Eurotunnel said around around 700 cars, 50 vans and 20 trucks have been able to cross the Channel since this morning, and a “flow” of trucks has arrived at the British terminal since 16:00 GMT.

Kent County Council leader Roger Gough said tensions between police and drivers had calmed down but added the situation remained “quite fragile”.

He told BBC Radio Kent that the “most difficult” challenge is clearing a route from Manston Airport to Dover, around 20 miles south, because of standing traffic.

“Whilst we’re able, for instance, to get some progress in terms of people travelling via the Eurotunnel, it’s much harder to get vehicles to the port in the current situation,” he said.

One lorry driver complained to the BBC: “Police three days ago told us that testing will start soon, but they don’t know when and that’s why people are protesting.

“We just want to do the test and just go straight home.”

Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association described the situation as “chaos”, saying information given to lorry drivers had been “extremely poor”.

“They’re tired, frustrated, desperately wanting to get home for Christmas,” he said.

A government statement said they were “working tirelessly to provide support to hauliers awaiting testing at Manston and the M20” and free food and water was being provided.

Typically around 10,000 lorries a day travel between Dover and Calais at Christmas, bringing in the fresh produce and the British Retail Consortium has warned the border closure may lead to some temporary food shortages.

It comes as a further 39,237 people in the UK tested positive for virus – an all-time high – and there were 744 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to government figures.

Covid vaccine: Older peoples commissioner warns of confusion

Older people in Wales should be told when to expect a Covid vaccination, a commissioner representing them says.

Helena Herklots says more clarity on the plan for over-80s in Wales would be “helpful” in light of different approaches elsewhere in the UK.

Former MP Ann Clwyd said many feared they were missing out as jabs were being given out in parts of England.

The Welsh Government says health boards are beginning to invite some people over the age of 80 for vaccination.

The priority list puts vulnerable people into nine groups. Priority one is care home residents and staff, with priority two being people over 80 along with front-line health and care workers.

Defending the Welsh Government’s handling of the vaccine rollout, Health Minister Vaughan Gething said on social media the vaccine programme is “not stuttering in Wales” and was ahead of England per-head of population.

Mr Gething said: “I appreciate some people will be concerned but I can say categorically that people in Wales are not being left behind.”

Ms Herklots said older people wanted the vaccine as soon as possible and “a great deal of work” was going into to rolling out the vaccine “quickly and effectively”.

“Given reports in the past few days about the different approaches being taking to deliver the vaccine in different parts of the UK, and the potential confusion this could cause, it would be helpful for the Welsh Government to provide further information to older people about its plans, clearly setting out what the arrangements will be and when they can expect to be vaccinated,” the commissioner said.

Ms Clwyd, 83, who was Labour MP for Cynon Valley for 35 years, has also called for clarity.

“People are very afraid and they want assurances. They want to know what is happening,” she told BBC Wales.

“I know people around me who are more elderly than I am, and ill, and they’ve had no notification at all.

“They’re hearing what’s happening in England and they think everybody’s getting the vaccine apart from them.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “The safety and protection of the most vulnerable people is at the heart of our response to the pandemic.

“Health boards are starting to invite some people over 80 for vaccination now. We are hoping the second vaccine – the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – will be approved by the UK regulator as this will help us accelerate our vaccination programme and provide more clinics in primary care settings, like GP practices.”

Across Wales more than 25,000 people have received the first of two doses of the vaccine.

Currently only one vaccine, BioNTech/Pfizer, has been approved for use in the UK.

We can now see for the first time the breakdown of the numbers of people in Wales on the priority list for vaccines.

They include more than 40,000 people living or working in care homes, thousands of front-line NHS and social care staff and the 174,000 people aged over 80.

Included are 84,000 adults classed as “extremely vulnerable”.

More than 1.4 million people in all belong to one of the nine priority groups – including the overlap of about 192,000 people who may belong to more than one group.

This leaves another one million or so people under 50, without a risk condition, who will be in line eventually to receive a vaccine.

Welsh Conservative health spokesman Andrew RT Davies called on the Welsh Government to “get a grip”.

“The vaccination programme is stuttering into life in Wales with some real concerns around lack of access for care homes and the over 80s compared to other parts of the UK,” he said.

“To keep confidence Welsh Labour ministers need to get a grip. Otherwise, there is a risk, given the scale of the vaccination programme, the public will lose confidence in the Welsh Government’s ability to deliver it, replicating their shambolic handling of the virus to date.”

Plaid Cymru Member of the Senedd Dai Lloyd also criticised “a dearth of information about vaccine rollout for the over-80s, which only adds to the anxiety people are facing over this Christmas”.

Dr Lloyd, who is a GP, added: “Reports suggest that other UK nations are well ahead of us in Wales, which is an unacceptable situation.

“To reflect Wales’s older population, Plaid Cymru had called for vaccines to be allocated according to need, not simply allocated by population. The UK and Welsh Government must urgently reassess whether Wales is getting its fair share.”

Citys cycle lane a complete waste of money

A cycle lane which cost more than £150,000 to install has been branded a “complete waste of money” after a third of it was removed three months later.

Southampton City Council spent £152,419.50 on the cycle lane in The Avenue and Bassett Avenue.

However, traffic problems meant a 2km (1.2-mile) stretch in Bassett Avenue, introduced at the end of May, was gone by early September.

The council said the trial scheme had demonstrated “benefits and challenges”.

In May, the Department for Transport pledged £225m of emergency funding to help councils introduce measures like pop-up cycle lanes and safer junctions in England to take pressure off roads and public transport networks.

Green City councillor Steve Leggett said the Labour-led authority had been asked by the government to introduce measures “immediately” and to assess them using “real time data, rather than modelling”.

He said a number of “amendments” had been made – including the Bassett Avenue stretch between Winchester Road roundabout and Chilworth Road roundabout – but overall the plan had been “successful in encouraging more Southampton residents to walk and cycle”, according to the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

But Royston Smith, Conservative MP for Southampton Itchen, said the cycle lanes “were and are a complete waste of money”.

“They have not, for the most part, increased the take up of cycling and, as far as I am aware, have encouraged not a single driver out of their car,” he said.

Southampton Test MP Alan Whitehead, Labour, praised the council’s “bold action” and added: “There was always an expectation that some of [the traffic schemes] would be temporary and some of them would remain.

“Many of the cycle lanes implemented have stayed.”

Doctor Who Christmas special to be offered in 4K HDR on iPlayer

The BBC is to screen Doctor Who’s Christmas special in 4K resolution and high dynamic range (HDR) colour via iPlayer.

When the programme is broadcast, viewers will be prompted to switch to the higher quality streamed version by pressing the red button.

US video platforms including Disney+, Netflix, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video commonly offer content in this format.

But it is more rare on the BBC and Sky.

To take advantage of the facility, households will need a compatible TV and a relatively fast internet connection.

Ultra-High Definition (UHD) – the other name given to 4K – delivers four times as many pixels as regular 1080p high-definition (HD) video.

The benefits are that images can appear sharper and more detailed, although this is not always apparent if the screen is not large enough or viewers are sitting too far away.

For many people it is HDR that delivers the most notable difference.

Pictures typically appear to be more vivid and colourful.

It takes advantage of the fact screens can go brighter and/or darker than they used to be able to, providing a greater dynamic range.

As a result, the shadows of an image can be made less murky while the highlights – including sparks from special effects – can have more impact.

The BBC first publicly tested 4K HDR on iPlayer in 2016 when it offered four minutes from its Planet Earth II series.

It has subsequently offered a limited range of full-length programmes including Dynasties; His Dark Materials; and Dracula, as well as sport including Wimbledon and Fifa World Cup 2018 matches.

But despite pioneering related technologies – such as developing the hybrid-log gamma format used to stream live action simultaneously in both HDR and normal TV – it has been resistant to deploy it widely.

This had led to odd situations such as Peaky Blinders being offered in HDR on the UK’s Netflix service but only Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) on iPlayer.

The BBC is, however, also providing further shows in 4K HDR over the coming days including:

A spokesman for the corporation added that there would be further content in the new year.

The announcement comes a month after Sky announced it was boosting its library of 4K HDR movies for Christmas, including adding all the Harry Potter films in the format.

However, at present it is limiting this to its  Sky Q satellite service and not its Now TV streaming platform, which is still broadcast in 1080p.

Covid breach jet-skier freed from Isle of Man jail

A man who rode from Scotland to the Isle of Man by jet ski to see his girlfriend has left the island by ferry upon his release from jail.

Dale McLaughlan made the four-and-a-half hour crossing from the Isle of Whithorn to Ramsey on 11 December.

He then walked another 15 miles (25km) to his girlfriend’s home in Douglas.

The 28-year-old – who served part of a four-week sentence for the Covid-19 border control breach – told the BBC he was “happy to be going home”.

Under current Isle of Man coronavirus laws McLaughlan, from Irvine in North Ayrshire, was required to leave the island after his release or face further prosecution.

Speaking to Isle of Man Newspapers, his girlfriend Jessica Radcliffe said: “I don’t understand why he’s been told to leave when he’s isolated for two weeks before he came over with a negative test.

“He had a negative test in jail, he didn’t put any of the public at risk, and he’s done isolation in jail.

“That’s four weeks already, so why does he need to leave the island? To punish him this much, they shouldn’t be doing that.”

McLaughlan was arrested two days after his arrival, having spent time mixing with people in two busy nightclubs, his court case heard.

Douglas Courthouse heard it was the first time he had used a jet ski.

Only non-residents given special permission are currently allowed to enter the island.

McLaughlan’s defence advocate said he suffered from depression and was not coping with being unable to see his partner.

Chief Minister Howard Quayle said the sentence sent “a strong signal” to potential lawbreakers.

Covid vaccine: Chelsea Pensioners receive jab gift

London’s Chelsea Pensioners have said being given the coronavirus vaccine was “the best early Christmas gift we could hope for”.

Some 300 veterans living at the Royal Hospital Chelsea were offered the Pfizer jab earlier.

Bob Sullivan, a 98-year-old D-Day veteran, said being vaccinated had put “a real spring in our step as we head into our locked down Christmas”.

The nurse who carried out the injections called it an “honour”.

The average age of those living at the hospital is 82 which means many are in the highest priority group to receive the vaccine.

The vaccinations were carried out by Pippa Nightingale, chief nurse at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

She described giving the vaccine to the Chelsea Pensioners as “a real honour”.

Ms Nightingale said: “They’ve fought to protect us and now we can return the favour and help protect them from coronavirus”.

Mr Sullivan said the pandemic had “changed life as we know it”, but “getting vaccinated against coronavirus today is the best early Christmas gift we could hope for”.

General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, governor of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, said the vaccinations marked “a new chapter in the hospital’s battle with coronavirus”.

He added that those at the hospital “send their warmest wishes to the nation as they too, batten down the hatches to celebrate a socially distanced Christmas”.

Practising GP and NHS director of primary care Dr Nikki Kanani said it was “down to the efforts of hardworking NHS staff that hundreds of local vaccination services… are now vaccinating their patients, including our veterans at Chelsea Pensioners, with many more due to be vaccinated over the festive period”.

Covid-19: new powers for stay at home message

Health Minister Robin Swann says the Stormont executive’s stay-at-home lockdown message will be made “legally enforceable”.

It comes after a request he made to the executive to ensure people abide by new rules taking effect on Saturday.

It will mean people outside of their homes between 20:00 and 06:00 until 2 January, without a reasonable excuse, could be asked to return home.

Mr Swann said the PSNI would be given “additional” enforcement powers.

Initially the executive agreed the stay at home message would remain guidance rather than law.

However Mr Swann said on Tuesday ministers supported his proposal to toughen this up.

He told BBC Newsline: “The regulations published tonight will see that go into regulation, the executive agreed to that yesterday and it is being worked through by the departmental solicitors’ office to ensure it is legally enforceable.

“From 8pm to 6am that week, the police will have additional powers to enforce things.”

Meanwhile, anyone travelling into Northern Ireland who plans to stay for at least 24 hours will have to self-isolate on arrival, according to the restrictions.

The measures are contained in a newly published paper from the executive.

However, the paper says that people who routinely cross the border for essential purposes will not be subject to restrictions.

In Northern Ireland a further 21 coronavirus-related deaths were reported on Wednesday.

The Department of Health’s death toll is now 1,240. There were also a further 787 cases of Covid-19 diagnosed.

The First Minister Arlene Foster has used her Christmas message to urge people to make “common cause” against the “enemy of Covid” but said there was also cause for hope.

“The United Kingdom has led the way in approving and providing the first vaccine,” she said.

“Right now Northern Ireland has the highest vaccination rate in the UK and the world.

“More vaccines will follow, reinforcements in our fight against COVID.”

The paper due to be published by the executive details the week-long “stay-at-home curfew” coming into force in NI on Boxing Day as well as new guidance around travel.

The new guidance lists what qualifies as essential travel during that period of time including for work and health reasons.

The guidance states that people should only travel within Northern Ireland when it is absolutely necessary.

It says that essential travel includes:

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.

Earlier, the executive decided a new six-week lockdown must be introduced from 00.01 GMT on 26 December, which will be reviewed after four weeks.

Northern Ireland’s politicians are not in agreement on how to best handle the current level of risk.

Sinn Féin called for an all-Ireland-Great Britain travel ban and, in a late-night vote on Monday, the SDLP supported this.

However, Alliance, the DUP and UUP voted against.

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

In the Republic of Ireland, anyone travelling from Britain must self-isolate for 14 days.

That means staying in their room – regardless of negative test results – from the date of their arrival.

There will be an increased Garda presence on Irish roads but road blocks will not be placed on the border to prevent travel between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Northern Ireland’s new restrictions will come on the same day that the Department of Health advised people who are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to no longer attend work if they cannot work from home.

It added that “people are free to make their own judgements… depending on the Covid-security of their working environment”.

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said: “This strengthened advice is intended to offer enhanced protection from Covid-19 to the most vulnerable people in our society.

“It is not a return to shielding as we knew it at the outset of the pandemic.

“We are not advising CEV people to stay permanently indoors, and I would encourage CEV people to continue to go outside for exercise, provided they observe social distancing when they do so.”

The health minister has highlighted the updated guidance for visiting people in care homes over Christmas.

Covid-19 testing is available to one visitor per care home resident per week over the Christmas period and up to Friday 8 January 2021.

More details are available on the Department of Health website.

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