Brexit: New era for UK as it completes separation from European Union

A new era has begun for the United Kingdom after it completed its formal separation from the European Union.

The UK stopped following EU rules at 23:00 GMT, as replacement arrangements for travel, trade, immigration and security co-operation came into force.

Boris Johnson said the UK had “freedom in our hands” and the ability to do things “differently and better” now the long Brexit process was over.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the UK remained a “friend and ally”.

UK ministers have warned there will be some disruption in the coming days and weeks, as new rules bed in and British firms trading with the continent come to terms with the changes.

Officials have insisted new border systems are “ready to go” amid fears of hold-ups at ports.

The UK officially left the 27-member political and economic bloc on 31 January, three and half years after the UK public voted to leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

But it has stuck to the EU’s trading rules for the past 11 months while the two sides negotiated their future economic partnership.

After trade talks went down to the wire, a landmark treaty was finally agreed on Christmas Eve. It became law in the UK on Wednesday after it was approved by Parliament.

Under the new arrangements, which came into force at 24.00 CET, UK manufacturers will have tariff-free access to the EU’s internal market, meaning there will be no import taxes on goods crossing between Britain and the continent.

But it does mean more paperwork for businesses and people travelling to EU countries while there is still uncertainty about what it will happen to banking and services, which are a major part of the UK economy.

It a moment that some will regard with huge optimism, others with deep regret.

And while this historic move happens at a moment in time, the impact, in some areas, may be less instant or obvious than others – for example, it’s expected there’ll be relatively little traffic at Dover on the first day of 2021 as new border checks kick in.

Nevertheless, significant changes are here – whether on trade, travel, security or immigration.

And while coronavirus continues – for now – to shut down much of society those changes could well become more apparent in the months ahead.

Mr Johnson – who was a key figure in the Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum and who took the UK out of the EU in January six months after becoming prime minister – said it was an “amazing moment” for the UK.

In his New Year message, the PM the UK was now “free to do things differently, and if necessary better, than our friends in the EU”.

“We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he said.

Lord Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, tweeted that Britain had become a “fully independent country again” while veteran Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash said the outcome was a “victory for sovereignty and democracy”.

But opponents of Brexit maintain the country will be worse off than it was while in the EU.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose ambition it is to take an independent Scotland back into the EU, tweeted: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.”

In Brussels, there is a sense of relief the Brexit process is over, but there is regret still at Brexit itself.

Basically, the European Union thinks that Brexit makes it – the EU – and the UK weaker.

But they think this is less bye-bye Britain and more au revoir, because there are so many loose ends between the two sides.

The two sides still need to talk about the practicalities. We still have to find out what access Brussels is going to give to UK financial services to the single market, there’s that cooperation on climate change, and in this new trade deal there is a renewal clause every five years.

For all of those reasons and more, the EU thinks this is not an end to its conversation with the UK for the foreseeable future.

The culmination of the Brexit process means major changes in different areas. These include:

British firms exporting goods to the continent will have to fill out customs declarations straight away.

But checks on goods entering Britain from the continent will be phased in over a six-month period up to July 2021, although some new customs procedures have already come into force, on imports of alcohol, tobacco, chemicals and controlled drugs.

In other major breaks from the past, the European Court of Justice will cease to have any role in deciding disputes between the UK and EU.

And the UK will gradually be able to keep more of the fish caught in its own waters.

Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland will continue to follow many of the EU’s rules, as its border with the Republic of Ireland remains all but invisible. The UK government said on Thursday online retailers in Britain will not have to make customs declarations when sending parcels to customers in Northern Ireland.

Intensive preparations have been taking place over the past two weeks to ready the UK for the coming changes, although concerns remain many small business are not ready.

The UK’s Countdown Plan has involved operational testing of infrastructure at the border and close co-operation with France, Holland and Belgium.

A government spokesman said: “The border systems and infrastructure we need are in place, and we are ready for the UK’s new start.”

Vehicles trying to take goods across the channel without the correct documentation face being turned back while drivers of HGVs weighing more than 7.5 tonnes who do not have permits to enter Kent risk being fined.

Traffic volumes are expected to be lower than normal on 1 January due to the pandemic but are expected to pick up from Monday, when the new procedures and the UK’s contingency measures are expected to be tested.

The government said 450 “Kent access” permits had been issued to HGV lorries intending to cross the channel at Dover on 1 January and hauliers arriving without them would be identified and subject to a £300 fine.

Meanwhile, the UK and Spain have reached an agreement meaning the border between Gibraltar and Spain will remain open.

Covid: 12-week vaccine gap defended by UK medical chiefs

The UK’s chief medical officers have defended the Covid vaccination plan, after criticism from a doctors’ union.

The UK will give both parts of the Oxford and Pfizer vaccines 12 weeks apart, having initially planned to leave 21 days between the Pfizer jabs.

The British Medical Association said cancelling patients booked in for their second doses was “grossly unfair”.

But the chief medical officers getting more people vaccinated with the first jab “is much more preferable”.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first jab approved in the UK, and has been used since early December.

The first person to get the jab on 8 December, Margaret Keenan, has already had her second jab.

Pfizer has said it has tested the vaccine’s efficacy only when the two vaccines were given up to 21 days apart.

But the chief medical officers said the “great majority” of initial protection came from the first jab.

“The second vaccine dose is likely to be very important for duration of protection, and at an appropriate dose interval may further increase vaccine efficacy,” they said.

“In the short term, the additional increase of vaccine efficacy from the second dose is likely to be modest; the great majority of the initial protection from clinical disease is after the first dose of vaccine.”

The UK is seeing a surge in the number of daily cases, with a record 55,892 reported on Thursday.

As well as approving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday – the second approved for use in the UK – regulators also said that doctors could wait longer between the two courses.

This means more people will get the first jab sooner, even if they have to wait longer for their second jab.

Experts advising the government, including the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said the focus should be on giving at-risk people the first dose of whichever vaccine they receive.

Defending the move, the UK’s four chief medical officers – including England’s Prof Chris Whitty – said in a statement released on New Year’s Eve: “In terms of protecting priority groups, a model where we can vaccinate twice the number of people in the next two to three months is obviously much more preferable.”

They said they recognised that rescheduling second appointments was “operationally very difficult” and would “distress patients who were looking forward to being fully immunised”.

However, they said that for every 1,000 patients booked in for a second dose, which will “gain marginally on protection from severe disease”, that would mean 1,000 more people missing out on “substantial initial protection”.

The chief medics said that, while one million people had already been vaccinated, approximately 30 million UK patients and health and social care workers eligible in the first phase “remain totally unprotected and many are distressed or anxious about the wait for their turn”.

They added that the JCVI was “confident” 12 weeks was a reasonable interval between doses “to achieve good longer-term protection”.

“We have to follow public health principles and act at speed if we are to beat this pandemic which is running rampant in our communities, and we believe the public will understand and thank us for this decisive action.”

Earlier, the BMA’s Dr Richard Vautrey said GPs were unhappy they were being asked to cancel appointments that had already been made for second doses.

He said the BMA would support practices who honour the existing appointments for the follow-up vaccination, calling for the government to do the same.

Covid-19: Londons NHS Nightingale ready to admit patients

London’s Nightingale Hospital is ready to admit patients as hospitals in the capital struggle, the NHS has said.

The Excel Centre site in east London has been “reactivated” amid a rise in the number of Covid-19 patients.

Other Nightingale hospital sites across England are also being readied, with the UK recording a record daily rise in coronavirus cases.

An NHS spokesman said hospitals in London remain under “significant pressure”.

He said: “In anticipation of pressures rising from the spread of the new variant infection, NHS London were asked to ensure the London Nightingale was reactivated and ready to admit patients as needed, and that process is under way.”

Several NHS hospitals in London and the south-east are now reporting they are under extreme pressure as a result of a surge in the number of people falling seriously ill with Covid-19.

An email to staff at the Royal London Hospital says they are operating in disaster medicine mode – warning they can no longer provide high-standard critical care.

Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Bristol and Harrogate are in use currently for non-Covid patients, the spokesman added.

The Exeter site received its first Covid patients in November when it began accepting those transferred from the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, which was described as “very busy”.

He said: “Covid inpatient numbers are rising sharply so the remaining Nightingales are being readied to admit patients once again should they be needed, in line with best clinical practice developed over the first and second waves of coronavirus.”

Senior intensive care doctor Prof Hugh Montgomery warned those who fail to follow the rules on social distancing, hand washing and wearing a face covering “have blood on their hands”.

NHS England medical director Stephen Powis has described the Nightingale hospitals as “our insurance policy, there as our last resort”.

He told a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday: “We asked all the Nightingale hospitals a few weeks ago to be ready to take patients if that was required.

“Indeed, some of them are already doing that, in Manchester taking step-down patients, in Exeter managing Covid patients, and in other places managing diagnostics, for instance.

“Our first steps though, in managing the extra demands on the NHS, are to expand capacity within existing hospitals – that’s the best way to use our staff.”

London’s Nightingale Hospital was opened on 3 April and placed on standby weeks later after fewer than 20 patients were treated there.

Staffordshire couple rearrange wedding before tier 4 move

A couple rearranged their wedding in three hours so they could marry before Covid-19 restrictions came into force.

Joe Robertshaw and new wife Rhiannon, from Burton-upon-Trent, had been due to tie the knot on New Year’s Eve.

But after it was announced Staffordshire would be put into tier four, they asked their vicar if he’d open the church, while family hastily travelled down from Yorkshire.

Mr Robertshaw, 26, said it was “a great way to end the year”.

Under government guidelines, weddings in tier four areas must only take place “in exceptional circumstances” and with a maximum of six guests.

The couple had chosen the date of their wedding at St Giles Church in Cheadle, for the third anniversary of their first meeting.

But when the tiers were announced at 15:00 GMT on Wednesday, they would not be able to continue as planned.

“Within 20 minutes, we had been on the phone to the vicar, the photographer and the guests to ask them to make it to the wedding in two-and-a-half hours,” Mr Robertshaw said.

Mrs Robertshaw was at work on Wednesday at Prince and Bates opticians, but was allowed to leave early for the ceremony.

Mr Robertshaw admitted it was a “bit of a push” as his family had a two-hour drive to get to the church from Halifax, West Yorkshire.

“We have always been on that border point all the way through the year, over whether it would be allowed to go ahead,” he said.

“So we decided we would just do it while we could.”

They had a “quick toast in the church car park” before the attendees went their separate ways, he said.

The newlyweds hope to have a larger blessing ceremony when it is safe to do so.

Brexit: Johnson hails UKs freedom moment as EU era draws to close

Boris Johnson has said the UK has “freedom in our hands” and must make the most of it as the country prepares to leave EU trading rules at 11pm.

Historic changes to rules on travel, trade, immigration and security are to come into force as the UK enters a new era of relations with the continent.

UK officials have insisted new border systems are “ready to go” amid concerns about possible delays at ports.

The PM said the UK could now do “things differently and if necessary better”.

The trade deal agreed by the two sides on Christmas Eve, and passed by MPs on Wednesday, avoids the need for import taxes – tariffs – after the UK leaves the EU’s internal market and customs union on 1 January.

While fears of giant tailbacks of lorries at Dover have receded, uncertainty remains about new customs rules and the government has warned there will be “some disruption” in the coming days and weeks.

To reduce the risk of delays, the UK is phasing in checks on goods entering the country from the continent over a six-month period up to July 2021.

But some new customs procedures will come into force on the UK-side immediately from 11pm, such as on imports of alcohol, tobacco, chemicals and controlled drugs.

EU member states are introducing full customs declarations and other controls on UK exports from 11pm.

Among the other things that will change from 23:00 GMT:

Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland will continue to follow many of the EU’s rules, as its border with the Irish Republic remains all but invisible.

And the UK will gradually be able to keep more of the fish caught in its own waters, while the European Court of Justice will cease to have any role in deciding disputes between the UK and EU.

If you are Boris Johnson this is huge, and exciting.

If you are a business that’s affected it might mean a big new opportunity, but it might also mean really big disruption and lots of extra hassle.

The fact that there is a trade deal doesn’t take all of the risk away.

The treaty contains lots of uncertainty, not least for the biggest part of the economy: the service sector. Getting the agreement finalised in the time was a big achievement for both sides but there is a lot that it just doesn’t cover that will, in time, have to be worked out somehow.

Read Laura’s blog

Mr Johnson – who led the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum and took the UK out of the EU in January six months after becoming prime minister, said the UK was on the verge of an “amazing moment”.

In his New Year message, the PM said he wanted the UK to be an “open, generous and outward looking” country that was a global leader in new technologies, fighting climate change and promoting free trade.

“We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it.”

And he urged the four nations of the United Kingdom to put the Brexit divisions of recent years behind them and focus on their common bonds.

“I think it will be the overwhelming instinct of the people of this country to come together as one United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – working together to express our values around the world.”

Intensive preparations have been taking place over the past two weeks to prepare the UK for the coming changes.

The UK’s Countdown Plan has involved operational testing of infrastructure at the border and close co-operation with France, Holland and Belgium.

A government spokesman said: “The border systems and infrastructure we need are in place, and we are ready for the UK’s new start.”

But concerns remain that many small businesses are not prepared for the changes and that with lorries without the correct paperwork set to be turned back at Dover and other ports, delays are inevitable.

Traffic volumes are expected to be lower than normal on 1 January due to the pandemic but are expected to pick up from Monday, when the new procedures and the UK’s contingency measures are expected to be tested.

The government said 450 “Kent access” permits had been issued to HGV lorries intending to cross the channel at Dover on 1 January and hauliers arriving without them would be identified and subject to a £300 fine.

One logistics firm told the BBC it would not send any trucks across until 10 January due to congestion fears although Channel Tunnel Operator Getalink has said it expects the new systems to work smoothly.

Brexit happened on 31 January 2020, but the UK has continued to follow Brussels’ trade rules until now, while the deal was thrashed out.

It completes the process set in motion in June 2016, when, in a referendum, UK voters chose by 52% to 48% to leave the EU.

The free trade deal – agreed on Christmas Eve after nine months of negotiations – finally passed into UK law early on Thursday morning – having also been backed by Brussels.

But opponents say the country will still be worse off than it was while in the EU – and there is still uncertainty about what it will happen to banking and services, which are a major part of the UK economy.

Meanwhile, the UK and Spain have reached agreement on a political framework for Gibraltar which will pave the way for a separate UK-EU treaty regarding the British overseas territory, which was not covered by the trade deal.

Thursday’s agreement means the border between Gibraltar and Spain will remain open.

Covid: UK will bounce back this year, says Johnson

Boris Johnson has said the UK faces months of “hard struggle” as it tries to overcome the Covid pandemic.

But, in his New Year message, the prime minister predicted that the release of vaccines would end the crisis and that the country would “bounce back”.

He said people would do “normal things” like hold hands and visit pubs again.

Mr Johnson also promised the completion of the post-Brexit trade deal with the EU would leave the UK “free” to do more business with the rest of the world.

Covid cases continue to surge across the UK, with another 55,892 daily cases of coronavirus reported on Thursday, up from 50,023 on Wednesday. It also recorded a further 964 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

Three-quarters of England’s population begin the new year in the highest level of restrictions, while Northern Ireland, Wales and all of mainland Scotland are in lockdown.

But the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been given the go-ahead for use next week, on top of the Pfizer-BioNTech injections which began in early December.

In his message, Mr Johnson said that “with every jab that goes into the arm of every elderly or vulnerable person, we are changing the odds in favour of humanity and against Covid”.

He added: “And we know that we have a hard struggle still ahead of us for weeks and months, because we face a new variant of the disease that requires a new vigilance.

“But as the sun rises tomorrow on 2021 we have the certainty of those vaccines.”

The prime minister, who was himself hospitalised with Covid in April, said: “I can imagine that there will be plenty of people who will be only too happy to say goodbye to the grimness of 2020.”

But he argued that people had “rediscovered a spirit of togetherness, of community”, in the struggle against the disease.

“I believe 2021 is, above all, the year when we will eventually do those everyday things that now seem lost in the past – bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia, going to the pub, concerts, theatres, restaurants, or simply holding hands with our loved ones in the normal way,” he said.

“We are still a way off from that. There are tough weeks and months ahead.

“But we can see that illuminated sign that marks the end of the journey, and even more important, we can see with growing clarity how we are going to get there.”

The prime minister said the UK’s bioscience and artificial intelligence industries, and its “world-leading battery and wind technology”, would help the country “bounce back” in 2021 and “in the years to come”.

He looked forward to the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow in November as a chance to show the world “an open, generous, outward-looking, internationalist and free-trading global Britain”.

In his New Year message, released on Wednesday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the UK’s “best years are still to come”.

But it was “our duty to stay safe, to look after neighbours, keep up the national effort that has got us this far”, he added.

Scotsman owner JPI Media sold to National World for £10.2m

Regional newspaper publisher JPI Media has been bought for £10.2m by National World, a media takeover vehicle led by industry veteran David Montgomery.

JPI Media, previously known as Johnston Press, is the UK’s third largest local news publisher.

Its titles include The Scotsman, The Yorkshire Post, Belfast News Letter, Sheffield Star, Portsmouth News and Lancashire Evening Post.

The takeover is expected to complete on Saturday.

In 2005, The Scotsman newspaper and other titles, including the Edinburgh Evening News and Scotland on Sunday, were bought by Johnston Press in a deal worth £160m.

In a statement, National World said the JPI acquisition would provide a platform for it to “implement its strategy of creating a sustainable local online news publishing model”.

JPI is estimated to have posted £85m in revenues and £6m in earnings for the past year.

The regional newspaper group has been seeking a buyer since 2018 and sold The i newspaper to Daily Mail owner DMGT last year for almost £50m.

Mr Montgomery, a former chief executive of the Mirror Group and News of the World editor, has targeted a deal for JPI since National World was launched with a stock market float last year.

National World said it had funded the deal from its cash resources and by issuing £8.4m in loan notes.

It added that it planned to issue further loan notes during January.

Mr Montgomery, who chairs National World, said: “JPI’s historic publishing brands represent the best in journalism and have reliably served their communities and supported local businesses, in some cases for centuries, and never more than in the last year.

“National World will uphold this tradition and implement modern technology to grow the business across a wider footprint based on high quality, unique content.”

National World states on its website that its objective is “to create a modern platform for news publishing by implementing a new operating model, powered by the latest technology”.

It adds: “National World will jettison legacy systems and archaic industrial practices to create efficient dissemination of news, monetising it by matching content to audience.”

Joe Anderson: Liverpool mayor in police probe will not seek re-election

Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson says he will not fight for re-election in May due to an ongoing bribery and witness intimidation investigation.

Mr Anderson made the announcement after Merseyside Police said he had been rebailed until February following his arrest earlier this month.

He tweeted he was “disappointed” with the police decision as he had “provided all of the information they asked for”.

He said it was in the Labour Party’s best interests to pick a new candidate.

Mr Anderson was arrested on 4 December, along with four other men, on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation.

The year-long investigation, Operation Aloft, has focused on a number of building and development contracts in Liverpool.

Mr Anderson’s statement said he would “continue to fight to demonstrate that I am innocent of any wrongdoing but also to protect my legacy as mayor of this city of which I am proud”.

He said the timing of the police investigation “means it would be in the best interests of the Labour Party to select a new candidate for the mayoral election”.

Mr Anderson also wrote: “I have dedicated my life to this city with loyalty and passion and I am not prepared to throw that away.”

Richard Kemp, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition on Liverpool City Council, called on Mr Anderson to immediately resign from the local authority.

Mr Anderson has been on unpaid leave since his arrest.

Mr Kemp said his Labour opponent was a “lame duck mayor” who was “preventing the city from moving on”.

Earlier, Merseyside Police said five men had been rebailed until 19 February.

The Labour Party, which has been contacted for a comment, has previously suspended Mr Anderson pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.

A councillor since 1998, Mr Anderson became Liverpool’s first directly elected mayor in 2012 and earned a second term in 2016.

Covid-19: UK reports a record 55,892 daily cases

The UK has reported another 55,892 daily cases of coronavirus, setting a new record.

And another 964 people died within 28 days of a positive test, only slightly down on the 981 on Wednesday.

The true numbers are likely to be higher as some parts of the UK are not reporting data over Christmas.

Hospitals in London, Essex and Buckinghamshire are reporting they are under extreme pressure because of increasing numbers of Covid patients.

The record case numbers come as 20 million more people in England are placed under the toughest restrictions and told to stay at home.

The new restrictions mean a total of 44 million people, or 78% of the population of England, are now in tier four, where non-essential shops, gyms, cinemas and hairdressers have to stay shut.

Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said Christmas week had seen a worrying rise in cases particularly among adults in their 20s and 30s, adding “we must not now add further fuel on the fire” by meeting in groups for New Year’s Eve.

“We have all had to make huge sacrifices this year, but please ensure that you keep your distance from others, wash your hands and wear a mask,” she said.

“A night in at new year will mean you are significantly reducing your social contacts and can help stop the spread of the virus.”

The 981 deaths recorded on Wednesday was the highest daily figure since April.

The latest NHS Test and Trace figures show 232,169 people tested positive for Covid in England at least once in the week to 23 December, up 33% on the previous week and the highest weekly rise on record.

Covid case rates are continuing to rise in all regions of England – with London’s rate at 735.5 per 100,000 people in the seven days to 27 December, up from 711.9 the previous week, the latest Public Health England (PHE) surveillance report showed.

Eastern England saw the second highest rate, 551.3 up from 510.8, followed by south-east England at 450.6, up from 427.4.

Meanwhile, Scotland recorded 2,622 new Covid cases in the past 24 hours – a record high for the third day in a row, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned against gatherings and house parties this Hogmanay.

Public Health Wales reported a further 1,831 cases in Wales, with the highest case rates in Bridgend (825.6 for every 100,000 people) and Merthyr Tydfil (754.2).

And Northern Ireland has seen another 1,929 cases in the last 24 hours, as hospitals come close to capacity with latest figures showing only six empty beds.

Gateshead girl, 3, praised for saving drowning dad

A three-year-old girl has been praised for raising the alarm to save her father from drowning when he passed out in a bath.

Craig Pearce, 36, slipped beneath the surface while in the bath with his daughter Lucy and 18-month-old son Euan at their Gateshead home.

Lucy’s cries of “daddy daddy” called her mother Sarah who was able to pull Mr Pearce to safety and perform CPR.

The family have been reunited with the paramedics who came to his aid.

It is not clear what caused Mr Pearce to lose consciousnesses and stop breathing on 30 July, the North East Ambulance Service said.

Mrs Pearce said as she pulled her husband out of the bath, “quick-thinking” Lucy pulled the plug out.

“I don’t know how I did it,” she said.

“I knew the kids were safe but the screams were horrific. He wasn’t taking a gasp. I found the phone but I couldn’t get it on speaker – my hands were shaking that much.”

Ambulance service call handler Hannah Watson said it was an “emotional call” but Mrs Pearce saved her husband’s life, adding: “No doubt she is one of the reasons he is still here today.”

Lucy, who turned four three days after the incident, has been given a certificate by the North East Ambulance Service.

On arrival at Gateshead Queen Elizabeth hospital, doctors prepared Mrs Pearce for the worst but the next day he started to improve and within two days he was awake and talking.

Mr Pearce said: “I don’t remember anything about what happened but the more people I talk to in the medical profession, the more I realise how close I was to dying.”

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