Lockdown: The road to recovery just got longer

Business leaders reacted with dismay to the new lockdown, saying more state aid was vital to avoid firms collapsing.

Unions said without government help more mass job cuts were inevitable, while hospitality firms said their fight for survival was now harder.

The embattled pub and beer sector said its “road to recovery just got longer”.

And British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said it was baffling no new financial support measures were announced.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown in an address to the nation on Monday evening. He said the move was in response to a new coronavirus variant that is spreading throughout the UK, raising the risk of overwhelming the National Health Services.

Many business leaders said companies would understand why the prime minster felt compelled to act on the growing threat to public health.

But, said Mr Marshall, they will be “baffled and disappointed by the fact that he did not announce additional support for affected businesses alongside these new restrictions.”

He said companies have been plunged into another period of hardship and difficulty just as the vaccine rollout “provides light at the end of the tunnel”.

Billions of pounds has been spent helping good firms survive and they should not be allowed to fail now, Mr Marshall said.

His call was echoed by the manufacturing group Made UK, whose chief executive Stephen Phipson said: “It is now critical government revisits the business support packages.”

This was the worst possible way to end the first full working day of 2021 but it was not a surprise to most business groups. The CBI, British Chambers of Commerce, the British Retail Consortium and the TUC acknowledged that a response to soaring cases was appropriate but they were also unanimous that business support measures needed to be ramped up.

Some businesses forced to close in the last lockdown were spared this time around. Garden centres and builders were allowed to remain open. But while restaurants can continue delivery and pick up, takeaway alcohol sales will be banned – a blow to many small breweries and village pubs who have used this as a lifeline.

The other main plea from business was to turbo-charge the vaccine roll out and enhanced testing. They, like the government, recognise this may ultimately be the only way to save their businesses.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the government’s financial support package isn’t good enough to cope with the renewed restrictions.

“Without more support, jobs will be lost and businesses will close,” she said. “Ministers must act quickly by providing targeted help for hard-hit industries, boosting sick pay to a real living wage so that people can afford to self-isolate and increasing Universal Credit.”

The hospitality industry, among the hardest-hit sectors from the pandemic, said that after dismal or no trade this Christmas, it would be the final nail in the coffin for many firms.

“The road to recovery for the pub sector just got longer,” said Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association.

“Given the circumstances, a wave of business failures is imminent unless a greater package of financial support from the government is given to secure pubs and the brewers that supply them.

“That means grants in line with those in the first lockdown and support beyond April when the business rates holiday, lower VAT rates and furlough scheme all end,” she said.

The Institute of Directors added to calls for more financial help from the government, saying it was “crucial to smooth the cliff-edge in support that’s fast approaching in the spring”.

Roger Barker, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, said: “The Treasury must now bolster support for the worst affected sectors. In particular, it should seek to reinforce the discretionary grant scheme allocated through local authorities, which has helped to reach those who have fallen through the gaps.”

Coronavirus: Extended period of remote learning for NI schools

There will be an “extended period of remote learning” for schools in Northern Ireland, the executive has said.

Ministers met on Monday night as other parts of the UK tightened their coronavirus restrictions.

The executive also plans to give its stay at home message legal force, with new restrictions on travel.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said plans would be formalised on Tuesday.

The health and education ministers will bring separate papers on the issues to the executive at the meeting, she added.

Northern Ireland’s Education Minister Peter Weir had previously announced a staggered return to school for pupils during the month of January.

The first transfer test, used by many grammar schools to select pupils, is due to take place on Saturday but there have been calls from some teaching unions and political parties for the test to be cancelled this year, in light of the uncertainty with the pandemic.

In England, all schools and colleges will close to most pupils and switch to remote learning until the middle of February.

The prime minister said that the devolved administrations shared his conviction that that this is a “pivotal moment”.

First Minister Arlene Foster said she regretted the situation, but that “more action” was necessary.

While Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said NI was “not in a good place”.

On Monday, the Department of Health reported that a further 1,801 people had tested positive for the virus in the past 24 hours.

There have also been 12 more Covid-19 related deaths.

These latest figures from the Department of Health bring the total number of deaths to 1,366, while 79,873 people have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic started.

More than 12,000 cases have been reported in the past seven days, more than double the week before.

The seven-day rate per 100,000 people is now 660 positive cases, compared to 200 per 100,000 two weeks ago.

In the Republic of Ireland on Monday, an additional 6,110 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were announced, with six further deaths linked to the virus.

The Irish government is considering a proposal to close schools for the rest of January.

Medical experts believe that is down to the two-week easing of restrictions over the Christmas period.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already announced a fresh lockdown there from midnight, with schools closed until February.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme, Dr Michael McBride said Scotland’s measures were “prudent and sensible”.

Meanwhile, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine rollout has begun in Northern Ireland.

Up to 11,000 people aged over 80 across Northern Ireland are set to receive the this week, with some of the first doses delivered at a GP surgery on the Falls Road in West Belfast on Monday afternoon.

The SDLP has called for the assembly to be recalled on Tuesday to discuss the rolling out of the vaccine.

It can be recalled if at least 30 MLAs sign a petition.

On Monday, Justice Minister Naomi Long welcomed the opening of Northern Ireland’s first Nightingale venue, which will be used for courts and tribunals business.

The facility was approved by a meeting of the executive on 17 December, and will sit in the International Convention Centre in Belfast (ICC).

Activity at the centre will be phased in, in line with Covid-19 regulations.

In other coronavirus-related developments on Monday:

Covid: Derby County players test positive for Covid-19

Championship side Derby County has said “several first-team staff and players” have tested positive for Covid-19.

In a statement, the club said it had closed its Moor Farm training ground and was speaking to the EFL and the Football Association about forthcoming fixtures.

The club said it would not reveal the names of those who had tested positive, due to medical confidentiality.

It added they would be isolating in line with government guidelines.

Covid: New lockdown for England amid hardest weeks

Everyone in England must stay at home except for permitted reasons during a new coronavirus lockdown beginning at midnight, Boris Johnson has announced.

All schools and colleges will close to most pupils and switch to remote learning until the middle of February.

In a televised address, the PM urged people to follow the rules immediately amid surging cases and patient numbers.

He said those in the top four priority groups would receive a first vaccine dose by mid-February.

Speaking from Downing Street, Mr Johnson said the weeks ahead would be the “hardest yet”.

But he added that he believed the country was entering “the last phase of the struggle”.

Scotland earlier issued a stay-at-home order and joined Wales in closing classrooms for most pupils.

Northern Ireland’s Stormont Executive are also meeting to discuss possible new measures.

On Monday, the UK recorded more than 50,000 new confirmed Covid cases for the seventh day in a row.

A further 58,784 cases and an additional 407 deaths within 28 days of a positive test result were reported, though deaths in Scotland were not recorded.

Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable will be contacted by letter and should now shield once more, Mr Johnson said.

Support and childcare bubbles will continue under the new measures – and people can meet one person from another household for outdoor exercise.

The government has published a 22-page document outlining the new rules in detail.

Mr Johnson spoke after UK chief medical officers recommended the Covid threat level be increased to five – its highest level.

They warned of a “material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed” in several areas over the next 21 days.

Level five means the NHS may soon be unable to handle a further sustained rise in cases, the medical officers said in a joint statement.

NHS Providers, which represents health service trusts, say hospitals are at a “critical point” and that “immediate and decisive action” is needed.

A new variant – first identified in Kent and since seen across the UK and other parts of the world – has been found to spread much more easily than earlier variants.

Announcing tougher measures in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “It is no exaggeration to say that I am more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year.”

The new restrictions in Scotland mean it will be a legal requirement to stay at home except for certain essential purposes, similar to the first lockdown last March. Schools will be closed to pupils until February.

In Wales, all schools and colleges will move to online learning until at least 18 January.

Mr Johnson’s pledge on vaccinations comes after an 82-year-old retired maintenance manager became the first person in the UK to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 jab.

The new target to vaccinate all those in the top four priority groups with at least one dose of a vaccine by mid-February covers everyone in England over the age of 70 and people of any age who are clinically extremely vulnerable.

Brexit: Calais traffic slow as new border controls face first test

New border controls between the UK and the EU faced their first real test today, but traffic was slow following the New Year break.

A post-Brexit trade agreement signed last month means there are no tariffs on goods sent across the English Channel to France.

But new regulatory and customs checks do apply.

More than €50m (£45m; $61m) have been spent on preparing the French side of the Channel for this moment.

The money was spent on new buildings to carry out the checks, more staff, more car parks and a so-called smart border system designed to keep traffic moving.

But by midday on Monday, customs officials at the port of Calais were still waiting to check their first vehicle of the day.

It was a similar story at the Channel Tunnel. France’s new smart border system – designed to move most of the customs process online – appeared to be working smoothly. Only lorries that require extra checks are stopped.

“Brexit is not synonymous with congestion!” the president of Calais port, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, told me.

But it is too soon to cry victory. Commercial traffic across the Channel was less than 20% of normal levels on Monday, and the major test will come in the next few weeks when smaller companies return and volume begins to grow.

Border controls here would be a lot more cumbersome if the UK government had not signed a trade agreement with the EU last month.

France’s junior minister for trade relations, Franck Riester, told the BBC the agreement was based on a mixture of good faith and concrete checks. He also questioned what the UK’s new trade freedom amounted to.

“The idea that, in the future, we are going to trade with countries on the other side of the world rather than with our neighbours is, in my opinion, completely out of date,” he said.

“We believe that [they] will be weaker in negotiating good trade deals in the future than when they were in the EU,” he added.

“It is important that the UK does not become an unfair competitor,” Mr Riester continued. “We want it to remain a great partner of France and not a partner who would use unfair means, with state aid, or with divergent standards to the EU.”

So, after years of preparation, both the politics and the logistics of Brexit have been rehearsed many times. Now they’re being put to the test.

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

UK expats prevented from returning home to Spain

About 10 UK nationals resident in Spain say they were wrongly turned back when their flight landed in Barcelona.

They left Heathrow on the Saturday morning British Airways flight, but were refused entry on arrival.

They were stopped by border police and ultimately flown back to the UK.

Spain has banned all but Spanish nationals and residents flying from the UK to Spain since 22 December in the hope of containing the spread of the new UK strain of Covid-19.

One passenger on the flight, who did not wish to be named, said that those on board had been told repeatedly that only Spanish nationals or residents would be allowed to enter the country and that their residency certificates, also known as green certificates, were shown to airline staff several times.

However, on arrival, British passengers with green residency certificates were prevented from entering Spain.

BA has confirmed that about 10 people were denied entry into Barcelona, as they did not meet the Spanish authorities’ required criteria.

Other British expat passengers have also said that they have been stopped from boarding planes to Spain.

One passenger on board said that seven British citizens were prevented from boarding a British Airways/Iberia flight from Heathrow to Madrid on Saturday evening, despite having their green residency certificates, as well as negative Covid tests.

The exact number of flights and passengers affected has not been released by the Foreign Office.

In a statement on Monday, Iberia said that on 1 January, it received an email from the border police saying that registration as a European citizen was no longer considered to be a valid document to prove legal residency in Spain as a British citizen.

However, by 19:30 on 2 January, the airline received a second email, confirming that the document could be used if it had not expired.

A British Airways spokesperson said: “In these difficult and unprecedented times with dynamic travel restrictions, we are doing everything we can to help and support our customers.”

The Spanish Embassy in London tweeted a letter stating it was aware that during the current travel restrictions, there had been some problems for British nationals resident in Spain who had not been allowed to return.

The embassy clarified that green certificates were valid proof of residency.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “We have worked closely with the Spanish government to resolve these issues.

“The Spanish Embassy in London has re-confirmed today that both the green residence certificate and the new residence TIE card [Photo-ID card] are equally valid in terms of proving residence in Spain, as set out in the [Brexit] Withdrawal Agreement.”

Julian Assange: UK judge blocks extradition of Wikileaks founder to US

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the United States, a court in London has ruled.

The judge blocked the request because of concerns over Mr Assange’s mental health and risk of suicide in the US.

Mr Assange, who is wanted over the publication of thousands of classified documents in 2010 and 2011, says the case is politically motivated.

Expressing disappointment at the ruling, the US justice department noted that its legal arguments had prevailed.

Its position is that the leaks broke the law and endangered lives.

“While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s ultimate decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised,” the justice department said.

The US authorities have 14 days in which to lodge an appeal and are expected to do so.

Mr Assange will now be taken back to Belmarsh Prison – where he is being held – and a full application for his bail will be made on Wednesday.

His lawyer Ed Fitzgerald QC told the court there would be evidence to show Mr Assange would not abscond.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that while US prosecutors had met the tests for Mr Assange to be extradited for trial, the US was incapable of preventing him from attempting to take his own life.

Outlining evidence of his self-harm and suicidal thoughts, she said: “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man fearful for his future.”

She said: “Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the US will not prevent Mr Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge.”

Mr Assange, who wore a blue suit and green face mask in the dock, closed his eyes as the judge read out her ruling on Monday.

His fiancee Stella Moris, with whom he has two young sons, wept and was comforted by Wikileaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson, who sat next to her in court.

Speaking outside court after the ruling, she called on the US president to “end this now”.

“Mr President, tear down these prison walls,” she said. “Let our little boys have their father. Free Julian, free the press, free us all.”

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly concluded that Mr Assange should answer allegations that he aided and abetted hacking, theft and the disclosure of the identities of informants working for the US security agencies – disclosures that endangered their lives.

In English law, that would be enough for him to be charged with a crime here – and so the route was open for Mr Assange to face trial for the same in the United States.

But British extradition law also requires a judge to consider Mr Assange’s health.

And it’s the effect of his possible detention in near-solitary confinement in a “supermax” prison that proved decisive.

The US, in the judge’s conclusion, can’t stop a mentally unwell man taking his own life in those conditions.

And so the legal requirement to treat Mr Assange humanely trumps the seriousness of the case that the judge acknowledges he should answer.

When the US appeals – it’ll have to convince more senior judges otherwise.

If convicted in the US, Mr Assange faces a possible penalty of up to 175 years in jail, his lawyers have said. However the US government said the sentence was more likely to be between four and six years.

Mr Assange faces an 18-count indictment from the US government, accusing him of conspiring to hack into US military databases to acquire sensitive secret information relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which was then published on the Wikileaks website.

He says the information exposed abuses by the US military.

But US prosecutors say the leaks of classified material endangered lives, and so the US sought his extradition from the UK.

Extradition is the process under which one country can ask another to hand over a suspect to face trial.

Following the judgement, several politicians and organisations welcomed the news, although some expressed dismay that the ruling was made on health grounds:

Mr Assange was jailed for 50 weeks in May 2019 for breaching his bail conditions after going into hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

He sought refuge in the embassy for seven years from 2012 until he was arrested in April 2019.

At the time he fled to the embassy, he had been facing extradition to Sweden on allegations of sexual assault which he denied. That case was later dropped.

Google workers form tech giants first labour union

More than 200 workers at Google-parent Alphabet have taken steps to form a labour union in a rare development for an American tech giant.

They said the organisation will give staff greater power to voice concerns about discriminatory work practices at the firm and how it handles issues like online hate speech.

The move follows walkouts and other actions by staff in recent years.

Google said it would “continue engaging directly with all our employees”.

“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce,” Kara Silverstein, director of people operations, said in a statement.

“Of course our employees have protected labour rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees”.

The announcement of the Alphabet Workers Union comes weeks after Google’s firing of a high-profile black artificial intelligence and ethics researcher generated uproar.

The US National Labor Relations Board also recently ruled the firm had unlawfully fired employees for attempting to organise a union.

Staff have also mobilised against the firm’s “Project Maven” work with the Department of Defense and the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

“This union builds upon years of courageous organizing by Google workers,” Nicki Anselmo, program manager, said in the announcement.

“From fighting the ‘real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multi-million dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively.

“Our new union provides a sustainable structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after the headlines fade.”

The group was organised by software engineers but is open to all ranks at the company’s US and Canadian workforce, including temporary workers and contractors.

It is affiliated with the larger labour group, Communication Workers of America, but is not seeking formal recognition from the federal government, limiting its bargaining power.

It represents a small fraction of Alphabet’s workforce, which includes more than 130,000 people as of September and roughly as many contractors, vendors and temporary staff.

Members who join will contribute about 1% of their salary to the effort.

“We want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in,” organisers wrote on Twitter.

Zara Holland faces court for breaking Covid rules in Barbados

Love Island star Zara Holland is to be prosecuted for allegedly breaking Covid rules on holiday in Barbados.

Island police say the former Miss Great Britain is expected to appear in court on Wednesday, accused of “breaching quarantine”.

Station Sergeant Michael Blackman told Newsbeat she was “intercepted” at the airport and later presented herself at a police station.

It’s not clear whether she will appear in court in person or by video link.

An apology from the 25-year-old for what she described as “a massive mix-up and misunderstanding” was published by the Barbados Today website.

She told the publication: “I have been a guest of this lovely island in excess of 20 years and would never do anything to jeopardise an entire nation that I have nothing but love and respect for and which has treated me as a family.”

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Ecclestone burglary: Four cleared over £26m celebrity raids

Four people have been cleared of being involved in a plot to raid the luxury homes of celebrities in west London.

Items belonging to Frank Lampard, Tamara Ecclestone and the family of tycoon Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha were among the items taken during three burglaries in December 2019.

Prosecutors said Maria Mester, 48, Emil Bogdan Savastru, 30, Sorin Marcovici, 53, and Alexandru Stan, 49, were a “supporting cast” for the burglars.

But a jury found all four not guilty.

Watches and jewellery worth about £26m were taken during the raids, Isleworth Crown Court heard.

The four Romanian nationals were cleared of all charges apart from Savastru, who was convicted of one count of attempting to conceal criminal property.

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