Brexit: Boris Johnson urges MPs to back historic trade deal

Boris Johnson will urge MPs to “open a new chapter in our national story” by backing his post-Brexit trade deal with the EU in a Commons vote on Wednesday.

Parliament is being recalled to put the deal into law, a day before the UK severs ties with the European Union.

In a speech to MPs, the prime minister will say the deal – agreed on Christmas Eve – allows the UK to take “control of our laws and our national destiny”.

But he will also stress the UK intends to be the EU’s “best friend and ally”.

The deal hammered out with Brussels over nine tortuous months sets out a new business and security relationship between the UK and its biggest trading partner.

The EU (future relationship) Bill – which puts it into UK law – is expected to receive the backing of Parliament, thanks to Mr Johnson’s large Commons majority and the support of the opposition Labour Party.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – who campaigned against Brexit – has said the “thin” agreement does not do enough to protect jobs, the environment and workers’ rights.

But – despite objections from leading members of his own party – he will order his MPs to vote for it, as the only alternative at this stage would be a no-deal exit, which he argues would be even more damaging to the UK economy.

All other opposition parties, including the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and all Northern Ireland parties that take seats at Westminster, have indicated they will be voting against the deal.

But the prime minister received a boost from a powerful group of backbench Tory Brexiteers and serial rebels, who have indicated they will back the deal.

The European Research Group (ERG) said it had examined the text in detail and concluded that it “preserves the UK’s sovereignty as a matter of law”.

In a speech opening five hours of Commons debate, Mr Johnson is expected to say: “The central purpose of this bill is to accomplish something which the British people always knew in their hearts could be done, but which we were told was impossible – namely that we could trade and cooperate with our European neighbours on the closest terms of friendship and goodwill, whilst retaining sovereign control of our laws and our national destiny.”

He will claim the deal – which comes four and half years after Britain voted to leave the EU and a year after it officially left – had been reached in record time, when compared to other trade treaties.

“We have done this in less than a year, in the teeth of a pandemic, and we have pressed ahead with this task, resisting all calls for delay, precisely because creating certainty about our future provides the best chance of beating Covid and bouncing back even more strongly next year,” he is expected to tell MPs.

And he will stress that the UK intends to be “a friendly neighbour – the best friend and ally the EU could have – working hand-in-glove whenever our values and interests coincide while fulfilling the sovereign wish of the British people to live under their own laws, made by their own elected Parliament”.

“That is the historic resolution delivered by this bill,” he will add, calling it a “a new chapter in our national story” that will reassert Britain as “a liberal, outward-looking force for good”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel are due to sign the international treaty ratifying the deal on Wednesday morning in Brussels.

The document will then be flown across the Channel in an RAF plane for Mr Johnson to sign it in Downing Street, a No 10 spokesman said.

The European Parliament has begun its scrutiny of the agreement but will not get a chance to ratify it before the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union at midnight on Thursday.

The deal has, however, been given the unanimous backing of ambassadors from the 27 nations and the member states gave their written approval on Tuesday.

MPs are set to debate the bill for five hours, starting at 09:30 GMT, before a vote.

It will then move on to the Lords, which is also expected to back it, before receiving Royal Assent.

Labour has called on the government to provide help to British businesses facing upheaval in the new year, including “clear communications”, an acceleration in the recruitment of customs officials, forbearance for firms coming to terms with new rules, commitment to British supply chains and financial support for affected firms.

Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodd’s said: “The fact that a catastrophic no-deal scenario has been avoided means that many businesses across the country are now breathing a sigh of relief.

“But the government’s irresponsible, eleventh-hour approach to the negotiations means there are many questions still unanswered with just days to go until the end of the transition period.”

The deal comes as the UK government announced it has signed a deal that will allow British businesses to continue trading with Turkey on the same terms after Brexit.

The tariff-free arrangements underpin a trading relationship which the UK government said was worth £18.6bn last year.

The UK has rolled over dozens of trade deals with countries around the world since deciding to leave the EU’s trading arrangements.

The vast majority of the 63 trade deals the UK has signed over the past two years have retained the same terms as before Brexit.

Michael Sheen gave OBE back to deliver monarchy lecture

Hollywood actor Michael Sheen handed back his OBE so he could air his views about the monarchy without being a “hypocrite”, he has revealed.

Mr Sheen, 51, from Port Talbot, said the decision came after researching the history of his native Wales for his 2017 Raymond Williams lecture.

He received the OBE in 2009 for services to drama.

The actor said he decided not to announce his decision in 2017, fearing some people would find it insulting.

He revealed it in an interview with newspaper columnist Owen Jones this week when asked about it.

“Raymond Williams famous wrote a piece called Who Speaks For Wales in 1971 – and I took that as my starting point for the lecture as in who speaks for Wales now?”, he said.

“And in my research, to do that lecture, I learnt a lot about Welsh history.

“By the time I finished typing that lecture… I remember sitting there and thinking ‘well I have a choice’ either don’t give this lecture and hold on to my OBE or I give this lecture and give the OBE back.

“I wanted to do the lecture so I gave my OBE back.”

Mr Sheen said he meant “absolutely no disrespect” in returning the OBE, and that he had felt “incredibly honoured” to have received it, noting it had helped his career both inside and outside of acting.

He added: “I just realised I’d be a hypocrite if I said the things I was going to say in the lecture about the nature of the relationship between Wales and the British state.”

Murder investigation after 80-year-old found dead in Essex

A murder investigation has been launched after an elderly man was found dead in an Essex village.

Police said officers were called to a property on Halstead Road, Aldham, shortly after 13:00 GMT on Tuesday where they found a man unresponsive.

The victim, who was in his 80s, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Detectives have appealed for any doorbell, dashcam or CCTV footage of the area, particularly after 15:00 GMT on Monday.

Brexit: UK sausage makers face EU export ban

Raw sausages and other minced meats can no longer be exported to the EU from 1 January, according to new rules.

The guidance is part of the post-Brexit trade deal agreed between the UK and the EU last week.

Meat industry bodies attended a conference call with ministers on Tuesday to seek clarification about the issue.

The British Meat Processors Association said it was one of several issues causing concern.

New EU rules on exports dictate that from 1 January, the following animal products cannot be exported into the EU:

However, these new rules do not affect exports of raw minced meats to Northern Ireland.

The British Meat Processors Association’s (BMPA) chief executive Nick Allen said: “This was just one of the issues that was causing us some concern, but I guess towards the end we sort of knew that wasn’t going to come through in the negotiations, the way they were going.

“We hope they will be carrying on talking to the EU and that they will push through and create an export health safety certificate for these products so they can go through.

The BMPA is hoping that more clarity on what businesses need to do will help it to prepare their members ahead of the new year.

Mr Allen added that the call was also to decide the wording on the new export health certificates.

“That wording tells us what we have to comply with and we hope we are not going to hear that there are things we’re not expecting to be on there,” he said.

Wilfred Emmanuel Jones is a British Devon-based farmer and founder of The Black Farmer line of meat products, including raw sausages.

Since he will no longer be allowed to export fresh sausages to the EU, he has decided to send them frozen instead.

“There’s a really big opportunity to do premium frozen sausages for the continent,” he explained. “One problem we have with sausages is that in this country at least, anything frozen is seen as down-market, not a premium product.”

The UK is the only country in Europe that makes and exports raw sausages. Other countries, as well as the US, all produce pre-cooked sausages, as they have a longer shelf life than raw ones, said Mr Jones.

But rather than give up on British traditions and make pre-cooked sausages, he thinks that sausage makers need to bring in freezing equipment.

“I think we should have a British sausage mark, so if you’re going to be selling sausages to any part of the world, it’s unique to any of the sausages around the world,” he added.

A government spokeswoman said: “We have agreed a deal based on friendly cooperation between sovereign equals, centred on free trade and inspired by our shared history and values.

“It takes the UK completely out of the EU’s customs union and single market – which means businesses should continue their preparations for changes next year.”

Harry and Meghan say love wins in first podcast from Spotify deal

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have released their first podcast, in which they reflect on 2020 with a string of celebrities and activists.

Singer Sir Elton John, presenter James Corden, author Matt Haig, tennis player Naomi Osaka and others feature on the first episode of Archewell Audio.

It is the first fruit of Prince Harry and Meghan’s podcast deal with Spotify.

“No matter what life throws at you guys, trust us when we say, love wins,” Meghan tells listeners.

The couple do not directly discuss their personal experiences of 2020, which started with them announcing they would step back as “senior” royals, before moving to the US.

Instead, Meghan explains that they decided to enlist “a few friends and a lot of other folks” who “we admire, and get their thoughts on what they learned from 2020”.

First is Sir Elton, who describes 2020 as “the worst year I’ve ever known”, but who says he hopes when the pandemic passes “that we have become better people – and I hope for healing”.

US actor Tyler Perry talks about laying on food for 5,000 underprivileged families at his studio in Atlanta, Georgia, while chef Jose Andres also discusses distributing meals in the US during the pandemic.

The other guests include 17-year-old activist Christina Adane, alternative health guru Deepak Chopra, US politician Stacey Abrams and British spoken word artist George the Poet.

Prince Harry and Meghan did not interview them, instead asking the guests to record themselves to avoid what the duke describes as “the awkward dance of a video chat”.

Meghan says their responses “all came back to one thing – to the power of connection”.

She adds: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.”

Prince Harry says he wants to pass on a lesson from 2020 “about how important it is to take care of one another and how meaningful our connections are, even when they’re physically impossible”.

The couple’s one-year-old son Archie also appears, ending the half-hour episode by wishing listeners a happy new year with a hint of an American accent.

When the couple announced their intention to step back as senior royals, they said they would work to become “financially independent”.

The Spotify deal followed a separate deal to make a range of documentaries, docu-series, feature films, scripted shows and children’s programming for Netflix.

For the Sussexes, 2020 was also the year that Meghan suffered a miscarriage, and of legal action against the Mail on Sunday and the Splash News and Picture Agency.

Covid-19: Significant rise in new cases among young adults in NI

There has been a “significant rise” in Covid-19 cases, particularly in younger adults aged from 20 to 39, Northern Ireland’s health minister has said.

A further 14 coronavirus-related deaths have been recorded and 1,566 people tested positive in the past 24 hours.

It is the highest daily total of new cases since tests began but may include samples taken over the past week.

Robin Swann said a month ago the 20-39 age group accounted for 27.5% of cases but this has now risen to 41.5%.

“The rise in this age group may be linked to behaviour and although young adults may think they are immune to Covid-19, their relatives and loved ones are not,” the minister said.

“We must all redouble our efforts to push down infection rates. That does not mean some people must make sacrifices and restrict their lives while others do not.”

The 14 deaths reported on Tuesday take the Department of Health’s overall death toll to 1,305.

Thirteen of those deaths occurred from Monday while the other death happened on another date.

Mr Swann warned that Northern Ireland’s health service is going to be “under severe pressure” over the next few weeks and he called on people not to bring the infection home to their loved ones.

Separately, a third surge of Covid-19 cases is expected in the middle of January, according to the chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland.

Dr Tom Black warned that more cases of a new variant of coronavirus are likely to be seen in the next few weeks, as is now happening in parts of England.

But he said that as more people are vaccinated, there should be some improvement in February and March.

“We would expect to see a peak of hospital admissions and demands in probably the second and third week in January,” Dr Black told BBC News NI.

“Hopefully, we will keep the pressure off the intensive care units because that’s a real bottleneck with patient care and with the vaccination hopefully we’ll see some improvement in February and March.”

Wendy Magowan, director of operations at the Northern Health Trust, said it had been “quite a difficult Christmas weekend”.

She said Antrim Area Hospital, with 99 Covid-19 inpatients, had the highest number in NI, while there were 25 in Causeway Hospital.

“The Covid inpatient numbers really have not abated, particularly on the Antrim site, since early November, so we are not seeing a downturn,” she said.

Ms Magowan told BBC News NI that staffing levels had been depleted due to community transmission of the virus and track-and-trace self-isolation directives.

“We have had to call on other colleagues over the last couple of days,” she said, including help with ambulance call-outs from other health trusts.

“All acute hospitals are planning for this further surge in activity which we probably expect in mid-January, so for us, what we can expect is actually up to double the figures that we have currently.”

Roisin Coulter, the lead director for the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine programme for the South Eastern Trust, said the rollout “has given us hope for managing the third surge of Covid which we all know is going to come in mid-January”.

“This is one of the key enablers to help us protect the most vulnerable, our patients and our clients and our staff, therefore hopefully reducing the demand on our hospital services.”

On Monday, Mr Swann warned the public that house parties to mark New Year’s Eve could be “super-spreader” events for coronavirus.

Northern Ireland is currently in a six-week lockdown, with strict restrictions in place.

During the first week of the lockdown, which started on 26 December, no gatherings – indoor or outdoor – are permitted between 20:00 GMT and 06:00 each day.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which is helping to enforce the restrictions, confirmed on Tuesday that 394 of its officers and staff are off work due to Covid-19, 314 of whom are self-isolating.

Meanwhile, in the Republic of Ireland, 79-year-old Annie Lynch has become the first person in the country to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.

The grandmother of 10, from Dublin, said she was “very privileged” and felt like “there is a bit of hope there now”, Irish national broadcaster RTÉ reported.

The Department of Health in the Republic of Ireland has been notified of nine more coronavirus-related deaths and 1,546 new cases of the disease.

This is the highest number of new infections reported in a single day since the pandemic began.

FTSE 100 index of leading shares hits highest since March

Britain’s index of leading shares closed at its highest since the pandemic sparked a market rout in March as investors on Tuesday cheered the post-Brexit trade deal.

In the first day of trading since markets closed on Christmas Eve, the FTSE 100 ended up 1.6% at 6,603 points.

It was the Footsie’s best day since 9 November, and only falls in bank shares stopped the index from rising further.

US shares also rose in the first few hours of trading.

Wall Street was buoyed by US President Donald Trump agreeing to release hundreds of billions of dollars in pandemic spending support. He had previously refused to sign off on the deal.

On the FTSE 100, international companies such as Unilever and Diageo gave the biggest boost to the index, while drugmakers AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline also added to the gains.

“The [Brexit trade] deal should see sentiment towards the FTSE indices recover just as the dividend payout ratio improves, vaccines are rolled out and overseas revenues accelerate. We lift UK equities to Bullish,” analysts at brokerage Jefferies wrote in a note.

Banks accounted for three of the five biggest fallers on the FTSE 100, with worst-hit Lloyds suffering a near 5% drop.

One analyst, Shanti Keleman from Brown Shipley, put the falling UK bank shares down to “no agreement on financial services equivalency in the Brexit deal”.

However, Simon French of Panmure Gordon pointed out that trading was thin even by the usual standards of this time of year. “The usual market narratives are even shakier than normal,” he added.

After four years of uncertainty, the deal made it a lot more clear what the UK’s relationship with its closest neighbours is likely to look like in the years ahead. It also removed the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, which had put downward pressure on markets.

Among the biggest risers in London was drug firm AstraZeneca, which gained 3.3% on reports that the government is poised to approve its Covid-19 vaccine, paving the way for UK citizens to receive it as early as next week.

Travel shares also benefited from market optimism, led by Intercontinental Hotels Group, which climbed 3%.

London’s rise on Tuesday followed gains on Monday for the main markets in Frankfurt and Paris, as well as on Wall Street.

The Paris Cac-40 continued its rally on Tuesday, adding 0.4%. However, Frankfurt’s Dax index took a sudden turn for the worse late in the afternoon, dipping 0.2%.

Earlier, shares in Asia surged in Tuesday trading, with Japan’s Nikkei closing more than 2.6% higher.

Deepfake queen prompts 200-plus complaints to Ofcom

More than 200 people have complained to the UK’s media watchdog Ofcom about Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message, which featured a deepfake of the Queen.

The broadcaster said its intention had been to give a “stark warning” about fake news in the digital age.

But commentators said the jokes made in the show were “disrespectful” and in “poor taste”.

The watchdog is now deciding whether to take action.

In the video, the deepfake referred to rumours of rifts in the Royal Family, toilet roll shortages and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s number of children.

The computer-generated version of the monarch also gyrated to music while dancing on top of a desk to show off “moves for TikTok”.

While the message did not carry a warning that it had been faked, its ending revealed the conceit: an actress was shown seated in front of a greenscreen, having her face mapped to create the digital replica.

Deepfakes use technology to create what can be convincing digital copies of real people, which can be used to spread misinformation.

But in this case, Channel 4 said it should have been obvious this was not the real Queen.

“It is very clear in the four-minute film that it is a parody of the Christmas Day address and viewers were left in no doubt that it was not real,” a Channel 4 spokeswoman said.

“However, while the film is light-hearted, affectionate and comedic in tone, it carries a very important and timely message about trust and the ease with which convincing misinformation can be created and spread.”

The video forms part of a series of programmes examining the spread of misinformation, she added.

Some viewers expressed their distaste on social media, with some labelling the video as being “disgusting”.

Making “cheap jokes” about the Royal Family was in “poor taste”, Penny Junor, a royal biographer and commentator, told the BBC.

“The Queen has had a tough year and making those things into a national joke is tasteless.

“She has been extraordinary during the pandemic and shown real leadership and courage, stepping up at a time when many had lost trust and faith in politics.”

Ofcom confirmed it had received 214 complaints about the episode and was now consulting the Broadcasting Code to decide whether a formal investigation is required.

But this represents a relatively low number of complaints compared to:

A review in the Telegraph noted that Channel 4 had a remit to take creative risks, but criticised the script for its “toothless satire” rather than for being offensive.

Daniel Appleton guilty of murdering wife and pensioner

A man has been found guilty of beating an elderly woman to death with her own walking stick, before using it to murder his wife.

Daniel Appleton, 38, admitted the manslaughter of Sandy Seagrave, 76, and Amy Appleton, 31, in Crawley Down, West Sussex, on 22 December 2019.

However he denied murdering the women, claiming he had a psychotic episode.

Jurors at Hove Crown Court found him guilty on Tuesday and he will be sentenced on 25 January.

Appleton, of Hazel Way, Crawley Down, chased his wife out of their home and attacked her on their driveway, the court heard previously.

Ms Seagrave, who was passing by, saw what was happening and tried to intervene.

But Appleton turned his aggression towards the pensioner and murdered her with her own walking stick.

He then returned to his schoolteacher wife and bludgeoned her to death with the same stick, the court had been told.

Appleton had claimed he experienced a psychotic breakdown that was out of his control and brought about by stress.

However samples of his hair and nail clippings revealed traces of a psychoactive substance similar to LSD were in his system at the time of the murders.

Covid: Military back-up for pupil testing as heads urge delay to start of term

Members of the armed forces are to give remote support to secondary schools and colleges in England setting up mass Covid testing as the new term begins.

Military personnel will hold webinars and give phone support to school staff.

But head teachers say they need support on the ground and more time to make the plan workable. They are calling for a delay to the start of term.

The government wants pupils to go back in the first two weeks of January, but is keeping the situation under review.

Under the current plans, the majority of secondary school pupils in England are due to start term on 4 January studying remotely, to give head teachers time to implement a round of coronavirus testing for students and staff.

Primary school students will return as normal during the same week and will not be tested for Covid-19.

Those in exam years and vulnerable pupils will return in person first, with the rest expected to go back on 11 January.

But this entails 5.5 million secondary pupils being tested in schools in the space of a week.

Several media reports suggest ministers are considering delaying the start of term, with potentially only exam year pupils starting remotely in the first week of January.

In response to the reports, a spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health.

“But as the prime minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of head teachers’ union, the Association of School and College Leaders, said it seemed a “sensible and prudent approach” to delay the return to school, given the rising incidents of Covid and the new strain of the virus.

He added: “What is vital is that schools are given clear guidance as soon as possible so they can make the necessary arrangements.”

The Ministry of Defence said 1,500 personnel will form local response teams, providing support and phone advice to institutions on setting up and running Covid testing facilities.

Support would be offered “predominantly through webinars and individual meetings”, it said, but teams would also be on standby to provide in-person support at short notice.

Mr Barton said schools had been hoping for “boots on the ground” in schools and colleges to help run testing centres.

“Instead, it appears that there will be 1,500 personnel available for more than 3,400 secondary schools in England, and that the support will be mainly in the form of webinars and meetings.

“This is not remotely sufficient to support schools in the huge task they are being asked to undertake by the government.”

And head teacher of Royal Wootton Bassett Academy in Wiltshire, Anita Ellis, reiterated that schools needed “bodies on the ground to help deliver the testing”.

“We don’t know where we are going to get the volunteers from, we don’t know how we are going to get the vetting done in time,” she said. “Really what we need is on the ground support.”

There is also pressure from other teaching unions for schools to move to online learning for all pupils except those deemed vulnerable or children of key workers.

A meeting was held between ministers, Downing Street officials and the Department for Education on Monday to discuss the plan further, but the department would not comment on its outcome. Some teaching union leaders are understood to be meeting DfE officials this afternoon.

The military has previously helped organise mass testing in Liverpool and more recently in Kent to clear the backlog of lorries caused by France shutting its UK border.

Students will swab themselves in the vast majority of cases, under the supervision of school staff or a volunteer who has been trained for the role, and teachers are not expected to take a role in the testing process.

The idea in schools is that following one round of testing all pupils, school staff would be offered a test every week. Then anyone who is a close contact of someone testing positive would be offered tests every day for seven days.

This would cut the amount of school pupils miss due to self isolation, and help keep the virus out of schools.

Schools in all the UK nations are remaining open for vulnerable children. England, Wales and Scotland have also committed to maintain face-to-face teaching for children of key workers.

Early research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggests schools and universities might need to close on top of existing tier four restrictions to bring the new fast-spreading coronavirus variant under control.

However, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Commons Education Committee, said keeping children in schools must be the government’s “priority”.

He said: “What needs to happen is volunteers – perhaps the armed forces, perhaps mobile units outside schools or in school playgrounds – making sure pupils and teaching staff are tested and also rolling out vaccinations as a priority for all those in schools.”

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