Did we see a Christmas coronavirus spike?

It is almost a month since Christmas was “downsized” across the country. But in most parts of the UK, people did meet in Christmas “bubbles” if only for just one day. So what impact did this have? The overall picture shows a sharp increase in cases around this time.

However, a closer look at the numbers suggests this trend was already happening and was probably caused by the new, more infectious variant of the virus rather than increased contact between people.

Firstly, a quick reminder of the rules.

Initially, the plans for the UK would have allowed up to three households to mix indoors between 23 December and 27 December.

But on 19 December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson scaled back these Christmas bubbles because infections were beginning to rise sharply, driven in part by a new variant of Covid-19, across south-east England.

Gatherings were banned in most of this area, including London, Essex and Kent, (except for people in support bubbles), while in the rest of England, people were allowed to meet only two other households on Christmas Day.

Decisions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland saw the window for gatherings reduced too, and in Wales only two households were allowed to gather.

A survey from the Office for National Statistics suggests that roughly half the population in Great Britain who were allowed to hold gatherings did so.

However, this doesn’t tell us about where in the country gatherings happened or who they involved.

Research into social contact across the UK, conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), suggests there was a decline in contact to mid-November levels over the Christmas period, driven by closed schools and workplaces.

This means contacts, which are defined as face-to-face meetings of around five minutes or more, were roughly the same as during the second English lockdown.

It was also a big decline from contacts seen in the three weeks up to Christmas.

This is important when looking for spikes because the virus thrives on close contact between people so less contact means fewer infections.

“I was expecting to see a reduction in contacts because of the closure of schools and workplaces, but potentially an increase in risky contacts,” says Prof John Edmunds, from the LSHTM’s faculty of epidemiology and public health and a member of the government’s scientific advisory body, Sage.

He says the research did not show an increase in contacts with more vulnerable groups, such as elderly people, as expected. This suggests people may have decided not to spend Christmas with those at higher risk from the virus.

Across the UK, cases continued to rise over and after the Christmas period.

However, whether this was influenced at all by the Christmas bubbles is very difficult to say.

Looking at the data, we might expect to start seeing the impact of a Christmas spike in the first week of the New Year. This is because the typical incubation period – the time for symptoms of the virus to appear – is, on average, about five days.

That means the sharp increases seen between the 20 and 30 December cannot be attributed to the holiday.

In the first few days of 2021, cases continued to rise at the same pace as before Christmas and, in early January, appear to have peaked, although it is too early to tell if the decrease will be sustained.

“I actually can’t see any convincing evidence that Christmas actually did anything to make things worse at all, but trying to prove it definitely, one way or another, is not necessarily that easy,” says Paul Hunter, a professor at the University of East Anglia’s medical school.

His mathematical modelling suggests cases have increased in line with trends that were happening before households starting mixing over Christmas.

And clear analysis on case rates around Christmas is affected by a number of things, including:

When we look specifically at parts of the country where gatherings were allowed, and the new variant was less prevalent, the trend is fairly similar to the country as a whole, albeit with a time lag of a few days.

In north-east and north-west England, Scotland and Wales, we see cases rising around the holiday.

But those rises start happening before or a couple of days after Christmas Day. This makes it unlikely that the upward trend is sparked by festive bubbles, because there wouldn’t have been enough time for people to start exhibiting symptoms if they caught it during the holiday.

Data from the Office for National Statistics infection survey highlights that these increases start happening around the same time the new more infectious variant increased in those areas.

So, it could be that the new strain helped steepen an upward trend that was happening before the holiday.

The fact that there hasn’t been a specific spike after Christmas doesn’t mean that people didn’t catch the virus at festive gatherings.

“I am sure that there were some additional cases as a result of contact over Christmas,” says Prof Edmunds. “That is almost inevitable with the very high levels of infection that we have at the moment.

“However, the major spike that we saw [around Christmas] was most likely due to the new strain not increases in contacts.”

There is limited official data on where people actually catch the virus, but the test-and-trace programme in England does ask those who test positive where they have been in the days up to developing symptoms.

In the week ending 3 January, around 20,000 people said they had visited friends or family in the run-up to testing positive. This was roughly double the number on the week before.

This data doesn’t mean they caught the virus there but gives an indication of where people had been. It also represents a relatively small proportion of all events people recorded.

For example, in the same week 80,000 people said they had been shopping, before testing positive.

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Nóra Quoirin: Compelling evidence of abduction

An inquest into the death of a teenager who went missing during a holiday in Malaysia has left several questions unanswered, her family has said.

Nóra Quoirin, whose mother is from Belfast, disappeared from her room at the Dusun resort on 4 August 2019.

Her body was found 10 days later about 1.6 miles (2.5km) away.

Earlier this month a coroner ruled that she died as a result of misadventure, but her family said they were “utterly disappointed” with the verdict.

In an interview with Irish broadcaster RTÉ, Nóra’s mother Meabh said there is “compelling evidence” that her daughter was abducted.

Nóra, who was born to Irish-French parents, lived with her family in London and was understood to be in Malaysia on an Irish passport.

She was born with holoprosencephaly, a disorder which affects brain development.

Since her disappearance, her parents have believed that she was abducted. They have always maintained that wandering off was not something they could imagine their daughter doing.

Meabh Quoirin told RTÉ: “One of the most compelling things that we found out was that in a relatively small area, the plantation where Nóra was eventually found, there was vast numbers of specialist personnel deployed to find Nóra.

“Not only that, on four different occasions, trained personnel went to the plantation area and searched it and, in fact, some officers were even in the precise location Nóra’s body was recovered.

“They had all reported that there were no signs of human life at any point. That for us is compelling evidence to say that she was not there by herself.”

Mrs Quoirin added that “there was a lack of evidence around DNA and prints”.

She said that when the family went to the inquest, “we had a lot of unanswered questions and while many of those questions cannot be answered, we actually found out a great deal about what went on during those 10 days when Nóra was missing”.

“In fact we felt it really strengthened our case, our belief, that Nóra was abducted and we found some compelling evidence to support our view on that.”

Mrs Quoirin added that her daughter “was not physically or mentally capable” of leaving the chalet via the window.

“Not only that – we also learned that none of her fingerprints could be found on the window and yet other unidentifiable prints were found on that window.”

Coronavirus doctors diary: Karen caught Covid from the hospital – and took it home

Everyone has heard about doctors and nurses catching Covid-19 but some of the worst affected hospital staff have been cleaners and porters. Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary tells the story of a cleaner who became ill while doing her job, and is now stricken with guilt for taking the virus home.

The first person I see early each morning when I arrive at the hospital is our cleaner, Karen Smith. During 10 months of uncertainty, Karen has been the one constant, apart from a few weeks in spring, when she was ill with Covid-19.

Usually Karen cleans the offices of the hospital’s Institute for Health Research, but in the first wave of the pandemic she was called to the Covid wards. It was a frightening time for everyone, but Karen volunteered for an extra shift on Good Friday as there was a staff shortage – and on that day she thinks she was infected.

We know that working in hospitals increases your risk of infection by a factor of three, but this risk is not evenly spread. Antibody tests carried out in many NHS hospitals over the summer showed it was not the ICU consultants or infectious “red zone” clinical staff who had the highest rate of infection, but porters and cleaners working in those areas. Their risk of infection was double that of their clinical colleagues.

This heightened risk for hospital staff also applies to their household contacts.

As she cleaned the hospital in April, Karen was scared not for herself, but for her family. She and her husband, Mal, had moved into a caravan in Mal’s parents’ garden, while his mother was ill with cancer – and they stayed on after she died, to support Mal’s 80-year-old father, Malcolm. Mal, a hospital porter, was shielding because he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Malcolm senior was clearly vulnerable because of his age.

Stopping work, however, was not a luxury Karen could afford. And unlike some hospital staff who were housed in hotels to protect their families, she went back home every night.

She became ill towards the end of April, followed by Mal at the beginning of May. The weather was hot, she remembers, as they coughed and wheezed in the caravan.

“It was like being in a tin box,” she says. “I got Covid and couldn’t get over it properly. And then Mal got it and his was on another level compared to mine – and then his dad got ill, and that was a different ball game altogether.”

Prof John Wright, a doctor and epidemiologist, is head of the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and a veteran of cholera, HIV and Ebola epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. He is writing this diary for BBC News and recording from the hospital wards for BBC Radio.

The couple had to go inside the house to cook and to use the bathroom but did their best to keep away from the elderly Malcolm, who would go into a different room whenever they entered.

“We tried so, so hard not to give it to him – but then he got ill and he just went to his bed. Honestly, he was just like a little child, under the quilt looking all bewildered. He started with the shivers and we rang 111. They said to bring him to Accident and Emergency to get him tested, and we couldn’t believe it when it came back positive,” Karen says.

Later, he was brought into hospital. I have fond memories of meeting Malcolm on the ward after he was admitted, acutely struggling with symptoms of cough and shortness of breath from his Covid infection. He was a kind and gentle man, stoical and patient.

He was adamant that he had been careful to keep his distance from Karen and Mal in the house, but admitted wandering over to show them articles in the Telegraph and Argus – Bradford’s daily newspaper – whenever I was mentioned in it. I felt strangely culpable that I might have been the cause of the transmission.

Malcolm made a good recovery and was eager to be discharged. But Covid is an unpredictable illness, and it can happen that improvements in a patient’s condition are followed by a sharp deterioration. And this is what happened with Malcolm soon after he arrived home.

“He didn’t want to go back into hospital – he said to get him some Tunes because they would help him breathe,” says Karen. “But nothing could help him, he was so, so ill. We had to say to him, ‘No, you’ve got Covid and you need proper medical care.’ He was such a lovely man, bless him.”

Malcolm was readmitted after two nights at home and died on 28 May.

Karen returned to work. But like many people who have had this illness, she has been suffering the after-effects, both physically and mentally. She’s now on an inhaler for breathlessness, can barely taste anything seven months later, and is constantly tired. She is also receiving medication for anxiety because of the fear that she will have to return to the Covid wards, where potentially she could get ill again.

And in her case there is the added pain of having lost a loved one, mixed with feelings of guilt.

“When I start to think about him the tears come and sometimes I’ll be crying almost all day – cleaning and crying. If I’m having a bad day, I won’t be able to talk,” she says.

“The guilt is always there, as I’ll never know for sure where he picked it up. Mal’s dad didn’t set foot out of the door, and so in my head I feel such guilt, because we had to go into the house, we didn’t have any choice. I go over it all but it’s hard to escape from, because I got it, Mal got it and then his Dad got it. Deep down I think that’s what’s happened, and it will take time to come to terms with.”

Karen has been referred for counselling, but there is a long waiting list.

Both Karen and Mal also had to wait for the vaccine, though both had it on Wednesday. This was a huge relief for Karen, as anything that reduces her chance of reinfection also helps her cope with her anxiety. If NHS trusts are serious about following the science then arguably they should be vaccinating cleaners and porters first.

The fear of transmitting the virus to our loved ones at home is the ghost that haunts all front-line staff. Many went into isolation during the first wave, but this was never a sustainable approach, and with a virus that is so contagious and an environment in which it is so prevalent, transmission to family members is unfortunately common.

Karen and Mal personify this occupational risk, and its potential deadly impact.

Follow @docjohnwright and radio producer @SueM1tchell on Twitter

To poll or not to poll? That is still the question

Anyone watching Parliament this week would have been left in little doubt that ministers want the local elections in England to take place as planned in early May.

Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith told MPs that while the date is officially under review, she’s not in favour of delay, saying voters have a right to be heard and the bar for moving the poll is “very high”.

But that’s unlikely to be the end of the story.

In some quarters of local government, there is a growing push for postponement, not least from some Conservative councillors who’ve been setting out their concerns and urging the government to make an early call.

These are a significant and complex set of elections which – depending where you live – could determine who runs your council, who oversees your police force or who is your decision-making mayor.

As well as the votes already planned for this year, the polls that were postponed from last year are due to take place in May, making this a big set of elections – and a crucial test for political parties.

Few in local government welcome the idea of delaying such an important democratic exercise, but some are now saying it’s the most practical option.

I’ve been shown a summary of concerns set out by returning officers – council officials who are responsible for running the elections.

Key among them are the availability of safe venues for ballots to be cast and counted, and finding enough willing staff to take on public-facing roles with back-up plans for any Covid outbreaks.

Typical polling stations, such as village halls and community centres, have in many cases been closed for the best part of a year.

One council leader said they were struggling to get hold of the people who manage them, adding: “Even if we get them open we’ll have to deep clean the dust and spiders before we even start making them Covid-safe.”

Police and crime commissioner, council and mayoral elections had been due to take place in 2020 but were postponed due to Covid.

Another questioned how many sports halls would be needed for socially-distant ballot box counts.

In several places the expectation is, if the elections go ahead, it will take a few days to count the votes, perhaps even over the weekend after the Thursday poll.

Nicholas Rushton, the Conservative leader of Leicestershire County Council, thinks a delay until autumn would be sensible, saying: “The health of the public and candidates outweighs the need to vote.”

He added: “People are saying to me, ‘we’ve got enough on our plates at the moment dealing with the pandemic, without having to deal with the election’.”

That’s a view echoed elsewhere. Councils have taken on some crucial roles during this pandemic, from supporting the most vulnerable to helping test and trace efforts, and resources are thin.

The Cabinet Office said it’s been working closely with electoral teams and public health bodies to put a strong set of measures in place to make the elections safe, pointing to the fact polls have happened elsewhere during the pandemic.

One local election official told me they had been offered support by government and were confident they could address the practicalities, but added: “It is tricky on every level.”

What’s worrying some is the impact on campaigning, public confidence and turnout.

Traditional door-to-door canvassing and leafleting is likely to be curtailed for fear of spreading the virus, with an increased focus on digital campaigns.

Councillor John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council and chairman of the District Councils Network, advocates a delay until early summer or autumn, saying there’s more to an election than placing an ‘X’ in the box.

“Elections should be informed and opportunities for candidates to meet the electorate,” he said.

“With so many elections, and candidates in a series of local and regional races, effectively subcontracting the campaign to Twitter or Facebook isn’t the sort of election that anyone should welcome.”

It isn’t a universal view. One senior local government figure said the May date was a viable option given the time there’s been to prepare, adding there should be no “delay to democracy” unless there was absolutely no way to avoid it.

Steve Rotheram, the Labour Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, said elections had taken place safely around the world.

He said: “The government should be putting every conceivable measure in place to ensure that this May’s elections can run as safely and smoothly as possible – including a mass campaign to encourage postal voting.

“People deserve clarity, so at a later date, should government plans change, it should say so as soon as possible before money is wasted in preparation for something that won’t take place.”

The Cabinet Office, clear that preparations are already well underway, pointed out the government’s plans to vaccinate the most vulnerable at pace, as well as options for postal and proxy votes, with additional measures expected to be put in place for those who can’t make it to a polling station.

But one Conservative council leader is still convinced ministers will budge, saying their position was “more crumbly” after a blunt call this week in which some local authorities made clear their concerns.

“I wouldn’t rule out an announcement soon,” they said, adding: “For the sake of clarity we need a decision sooner rather than later.”

The government has made clear it’s working to the May date – unless the pandemic or the vaccine roll out takes an unpredictable turn.

With that in mind, councils are pressing on with plans. But they’re definitely not printing the ballot papers just yet.

Boris Johnson says girls education key to ending poverty

Boris Johnson says it is his “fervent belief” that improving girls’ education in developing countries is the best way to “lift communities out of poverty”.

The prime minister has announced MP Helen Grant as a special envoy for efforts to support girls’ education.

It is expected to be a key theme of the UK’s presidency this year of the G7 group of major industrial countries.

“It can change the fortunes of not just individual women and girls, but communities and nations,” says the PM.

Even before the pandemic, millions of children in developing countries did not have any access to school – and girls from disadvantaged families are particularly vulnerable to missing out on education. whether through poverty or prejudice.

The Covid pandemic has created even more barriers to education, with a peak of 1.6 billion children around the world having faced school closures.

Mr Johnson, as foreign secretary and prime minister, has previously highlighted girls’ education as a key to improving the health, wealth and security of the poorest countries.

He once described it as the “Swiss army knife” of development, as getting girls to stay in education could avoid early marriage, improve their chances of getting a job and provide more income for children to be better fed.

The prime minister said the international target of ensuring all girls can have 12 years of good quality education would be the “simplest and most transformative thing we can do” to tackle poverty and to “end the scourge of gender-based violence”.

“The benefits of educating girls are enormous – a child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to live past the age of five and twice as likely to attend school themselves. With just one additional school year, a woman’s earnings can increase by up to a fifth,” said Mr Johnson.

Helen Grant, now the special envoy for girls’ education, said: “High quality female education empowers women, reduces poverty and unleashes economic growth.

“I will be making it my mission to encourage a more ambitious approach to girls’ education from the international community.”

There has been a series of pledges from the international community over the past three decades to provide at least a primary school education for all children – all of which have been missed.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said hosting the G7 should be a chance for the UK to act as a “moral force for good in the world”, but accused the Conservatives of engaging in “a decade of global retreat”.

“We need to seize this chance to lead again, just as Blair and Brown did over global poverty and the financial crisis.”

Irish hauliers bypassing Welsh ports because of Brexit, say bosses

Irish hauliers are bypassing Welsh ports to avoid Brexit bureaucracy, industry leaders say.

So called “teething problems” with new export rules are causing “enormous strain on staff”, according to one haulage company.

But others warn of a longer-term shift by truck firms from using Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock.

Gwynedd Shipping said it was operating at 65% normal volumes and the pressure of extra paperwork was challenging.

Andrew Kinsella, the firm’s managing director, said: “It’s an enormous strain on our staff in terms of processing bookings.

“We process around 400 or 500 bookings a week, the reality is we’re operating at 65-70% of previous volumes.

“Whilst we see recovery in the number of clients and we’re starting to get to a better pattern in terms of shipments I still think it’s going to take several weeks for things to return to normal. Whether things return to pre-Christmas, pre-Brexit volumes remains to be seen.”

Mr Kinsella thinks there will be long-term consequences for the ports.

“You can already see the shift in terms of the number of sailings,” he said.

“I think you’re seeing a shift away from Holyhead particularly in terms of weekend, off-peak traffic. I think longer term, the viability of all of these services will be something those ferry services will continue to scrutinise.”

This week Stena Line moved its new ship to the Rosslare – in the Republic of Ireland – to Cherbourg route.

It also intends to sail the Belfast-to-Liverpool route.

“Due to the current Brexit-related shift for direct routes and increasing customer demand, Stena Line has decided to temporarily deploy the Stena Embla on Rosslare-Cherbourg,” Stena Line said.

At Rosslare Europort, business is booming, says general manager Glen Carr.

“We’ve seen unprecedented demand in the first two weeks of trading compared to last year,” Mr Carr said.

“On our European routes there’s a 500% increase in freight volume going through the port compared to last year.”

“Eighteen months ago we would have had three sailings a day directly to mainland Europe from Rosslare Europort, today we have 15.”

Mr Carr says his customers want to bypass the UK because of Brexit.

“I think that’s testament to demand, particularly from our exporters and importers, on the island of Ireland and the need to unfortunately bypass the UK because of Brexit to trade directly with the EU,” he added.

He believes this change in operations will not be temporary.

He said decisions by ferry companies and businesses who trade with the EU to re-direct freight, have been made based on market analysis.

“The business case for the extra services out of Rosslare, were not based on the first two weeks of this year,” Mr Carr said.

“They were based on analysis of the market and conversations with our exporters and importers who were switching.

“So there is a genuine switch and we foresee services being maintained out of Rosslare.”

UK Government ministers have played down concerns about the long term viability of Welsh ports.

Giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee this week, Wales Office Minister David TC Davies MP, said former haulage industry colleagues referred to the issues as “teething problems”.

Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart MP, said: “There is some evidence that things aren’t looking necessarily, permanently bleak.

“It’s one of those areas where we have to keep a very wary eye it on, but I think and hope that it is a temporary dip in the graph.”

But transport expert Prof Stuart Cole, of the University of South Wales, thinks Brexit delays will be the incentive Irish companies needed to switch permanently to trading directly with the European mainland.

Prof Cole said the EU wanted to reduce congestion and pollution in parts of Europe.

One solution was to move freight by sea rather than road.

Until now there was no reason for Irish hauliers to move from using Welsh ports and Dover, Prof Cole said.

“The route worked perfectly, there was a predictable journey time and that’s important for food and component parts going to factories,” he said.

“That kind of change required a significant shift, and that’s what’s there now.”

Bangor University economics lecturer, Dr Edward Thomas Jones, believes it is too soon to predict longer term changes.

“Because businesses stockpiled before Christmas in anticipation of Brexit, there is of course less use of the port [at Holyhead] since Brexit,” he said.

“On top of that, coronavirus means there are fewer tourists going on holiday to Ireland.

“We’ll have a better idea of the future of the port in six months when these businesses who have stockpiled start buying again.

“Hopefully, by the second half of the year coronavirus will have been resolved and tourists will once again be able to travel back and forth.”

Covid: Will mass community testing be offered across Wales?

People queued around the side of a leisure centre to be mass-tested for Covid when Merthyr Tydfil was considered a hotspot in November, and the Army was drafted in to help.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has credited this method of “lateral flow” testing for asymptomatic people with lowering case rates in Liverpool, another Covid hotspot.

He has since announced these regular rapid tests would be used in communities across England.

But are they likely to be rolled out across Wales?

It is a quick way of testing for coronavirus symptoms and returns a result in about 30 minutes.

This means those who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive will not have to self-isolate if their test comes back negative.

Instead of having to self-isolate, they could remain at work or in the classroom if they tested negative with a lateral flow test each morning.

An article in the BMJ medical journal raised concerns about the effects of rapid testing in Liverpool, where a pilot scheme was carried out.

The lateral flow tests, which do not require processing in a laboratory, were reported to have missed half of all cases and a third of those with a high viral load who were likely to be the most infectious.

Angela Raffle, a consultant in public health at the University of Bristol medical school, also said increasing lateral flow testing was “very worrying” and warned the benefits of finding symptomless cases “will be outweighed by the many more infectious cases that are missed by these tests”.

However Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to NHS Test and Trace in England, said the lateral flow tests could identify many cases of infection in people without symptoms.

While she admitted there were “false” negatives” and the method had “limitations”, Dr Hopkins said its use was a “gamechanger”.

Mass testing pilots were run in two Covid hotspots in Wales at the end of last year.

On the first day of testing in Merthyr Tydfil in November, 977 people were tested and nine of them were positive.

Mass testing followed in the Lower Cynon Valley in December.

Across both areas, a total of 1,100 positive Covid cases were identified after 50,000 lateral flow tests were carried out.

The Welsh Government also started a four-week pilot of routinely testing asymptomatic South Wales Police officers on 23 December.

Its aim was to reduce the numbers off work self-isolating, despite not being infected, following contact with a person who has tested positive.

While the trial is still ongoing, the Welsh Government said results so far showed a steady decline in Covid-related absences.

Regular testing of asymptomatic health and social care workers has also begun, and a pilot scheme is under way at the Tata Steel site in Port Talbot.

There were also plans to roll it out in schools and colleges across Wales in January, if they had opened as originally planned.

Lateral flow tests have been made available in all 317 of England’s local authority areas from this week as part of a community testing regime.

Councils have been encouraged to prioritise tests for those people who cannot work from home during the lockdown.

The Scottish government is also offering community testing in areas that have high prevalence of coronavirus.

A Welsh Government spokeswoman said officials were evaluating the results of pilots and initiatives, and looking at what was happening in other parts of the UK as it develops its approach to community testing.

However, a number of more targeted schemes are currently operating.

“We have announced regular asymptomatic testing of health and social care workers, in education and daily contact testing in South Wales Police,” the spokeswoman added.

“A pilot has also started at the Tata Port Talbot site.

“We are also exploring other opportunities for regular testing to support critical services.”

The Welsh Conservatives have called for lateral flow testing to be “ramped up” in hospitals.

Health spokesman Andrew RT Davies said in December: “Hospitals are reporting high percentages of staff self-isolating, and therefore putting increasing strain on services and remaining staff.”

Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price has raised the need for “Covid Support Areas” – saying research from the north of England suggested post-industrial communities may be disproportionately affected by the virus.

In line with this, he called for mass testing as well as more financial support in areas such as Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent and Rhondda Cynon Taf.

Part of rail bridge collapses near fatal Stonehaven derailment site

Part of a rail bridge has collapsed near the site of the fatal Stonehaven train derailment.

A 24m (79ft) section of the side wall has fallen from the bridge, about a mile north of where three people died when a train left the track and crashed last August.

Network Rail said it was a “structural fault” and not caused by a landslip.

The line between Aberdeen and Dundee remains closed while structural engineers assess the fault.

The structure is located three miles north of Carmont signal box. The collapse was discovered just before 10:00 on Friday.

The rail company said the damage to the parapet was “extensive” and that the line was expected to be closed for a “significant” period of time while repairs to the bridge take place.

The Network Rail Twitter account told followers engineers would be working around the clock to complete repairs.

Specialist staff are also checking similar bridges as a precaution.

The line between Aberdeen and Dundee had just reopened in November, nearly three months after the Stonehaven derailment.

The driver, a conductor and a passenger died when the Aberdeen to Glasgow service derailed near Stonehaven on 12 August after heavy rain.

An interim report said the train hit washed-out rocks and gravel.

A Network Rail spokesman said: “The line is currently closed while our engineers repair a damaged side wall on a bridge between Carmont and Stonehaven.

“Specialist structural engineers are currently assessing the fault and putting plans in place for its repair.

“Our engineers will be working around-the-clock to complete this work as quickly as possible.”

Joanna Lumley shocked at claims disabled workers unpaid

Disabled workers at one of the UK’s oldest social enterprises, Clarity, have allegedly been denied £200,000 in wages by the new owner.

The company produces toiletries and beauty products under the Clarity, Beco and Soap Co brands.

Actress Joanna Lumley and Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP have spoken out strongly over the claims.

Nicholas Marks, who bought the company last year, says all currently employed staff have been paid.

Community, the union which represents Clarity’s workers, claims that a number of disabled employees at the firm have not been paid wages and furlough payments.

Steven Steppens, 60, has been blind since birth, and has worked at Clarity since 1985. He is officially on furlough until his redundancy is completed at the end of January.

He says he has received no money since September and has been relying on his savings to get by.

“I loved it,” he says of working there. Losing the job, and the fight over the organisation’s future, have taken a toll on his mental health, he says.

“I want to see justice done, not just for me, but also for my friends who are visiting food banks.”

A number of employees have brought successful employment tribunal claims for unauthorised deduction of wages against Clarity, including Mr Steppens. Clarity was ordered to pay him £706. A number of other employment tribunal claims are ongoing, according to Community.

Joanna Lumley, who had been a supporter of Clarity, called it “the best of the best” and said she was “shocked” to learn of the allegations over treatment of workers. “Justice must be done as soon as possible,” she told BBC News.

Clarity was founded in 1854 by a wealthy blind woman, Elizabeth Gilbert, as the Association for Promoting the General Welfare of the Blind, to provide opportunities for workers whom other employers overlooked because of their disabilities. Before the takeover, three-quarters of its staff were disabled people.

Its supporters and patrons in the past have included Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria.

Clarity went into administration last year, as it was losing money and unable to fund the hole in its pension scheme, according to a spokesman for the administrators, FRP. In January, it was bought by Nicholas Marks.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, whose London constituency is home to Clarity’s headquarters, raised the issue in the House of Commons on 12 January.

“Staff have failed to receive national insurance contributions, with many failing to receive their wages or support while undertaking childcare,” he told MPs.

“The total amount that these decent but very vulnerable people have failed to receive is now around £200,000. They cannot claim benefits because they are essentially employed.”

Community estimates that about 60 former employees of Clarity are still awaiting payment of their wages and furlough payments, most of them disabled workers.

A spokesman for Nicholas Marks said that Sir Iain’s remarks were “highly inaccurate” and the company “does not recognise” the £200,000 figure.

“The grievances echoed by Sir Iain Duncan Smith simply reflect disgruntled ex-employees. All employees currently working have been paid in full up-to-date and the company is dealing with redundancies and gross misconduct of former employees,” he said.

Community says it is not aware of any staff who have been accused of gross misconduct.

The spokesman for Mr Marks said that Mr Marks had “saved this historic company from permanent failure”.

However, other bids for Clarity were made, including one from the well-known social entrepreneur, Cemal Ezel, who runs the Change Please coffee business, which creates opportunities for homeless people.

He is still interested in buying the brands, he told BBC News.

Though Mr Ezel’s final bid was slightly higher, the administrators’ report says they chose to sell to Mr Marks because he was in a better position to complete the deal by 31 January.

Mr Marks’s spokesman said that he had to make “some sensible commercial decisions to place it on to a proper business footing and regrettably some staff had to be let go”.

On Wednesday, Clarity’s website was still running the Certified Social Enterprise mark, denoting an organisation devoted to “creating positive social change”.

The spokesman said Clarity Products was not a social enterprise and was not “purporting to clients” that it was, though it retained the “social enterprise ethos through the continued employment of fully paid disabled staff”.

Wrongly using the logo for nearly a year was “simply an oversight”, and it is being removed. On Thursday morning, the website was unavailable – the company spokesman said he was not aware why.

In a response to Sir Iain’s query, Treasury Minister Jesse Norman wrote that he had “specifically asked HMRC to note the circumstances you describe, and to consider whether and how there may be a case for early intervention”.

Another company owned by Mr Marks, a Preston-based caravan maker called Lunar Automotive, was reported to HMRC by the local MP, Sir Mark Hendrick, for allegedly refusing to pay wages and pension contributions for its workers.

This company was also bought out of an administration run by FRP.

Mr Marks’s spokesman was not able to comment in detail on the Lunar Automotive case, but said the company had not heard back from HMRC.

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