Covid tests for Channel hauliers to continue until further notice

Lorry drivers crossing the Channel continue to need a recent negative Covid test result, the UK Department for Transport has said.

Hauliers have been required to prove they have tested negative since the border with France reopened last month.

The French government has now decided to keep the requirement until further notice, the DfT added.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged “all hauliers to get tested before getting to the border”.

The decision comes as the introduction of new trading rules between the UK and European Union prompts disruption for some businesses and hauliers.

Mr Shapps said the government was “offering support to businesses to set-up testing facilities at their own premises, assisting the smooth passage of trucks and good across the border, as well as setting up testing at information and advice sites around the country”.

Drivers and crew of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), drivers of large goods vehicles (LGVs) and van drivers are advised to obtain a negative test before arriving in Kent or at other Channel crossing points.

There are now 34 testing sites for hauliers situated in key “stopping spots” across the UK, with further sites being set up, the DfT said.

Tests must be authorised and taken 72 hours before entry into France.

In addition to a negative Covid test result, some hauliers require a new 24-hour permit to enter Kent since the introduction of the new UK-EU rules.

France reported 21,703 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, while the UK reported 52,618.

Last month, the border crisis saw France refuse arrivals from the UK for 48 hours between 20 and 22 December due to a new virus variant initially discovered in Kent.

Passenger ferries and lorry freight bound for France were suspended from Dover, Portsmouth and Newhaven.

An emergency procedure devised as part of post-Brexit preparations allowed lorries to be “stacked” – leaving thousands of foreign drivers stranded throughout southern England.

Boeing to pay $2.5bn over 737 Max conspiracy

Boeing has agreed to pay $2.5bn (£1.8bn) to settle US criminal charges that it hid information from safety officials about the design of its 737 Max planes.

The US Justice Department said the firm chose “profit over candour”, impeding oversight of the planes, which were involved in two deadly crashes.

About $500m will go to families of the 346 people killed in the tragedies.

Boeing said the agreement acknowledged how the firm “fell short”.

Boeing chief executive David Calhoun said: “I firmly believe that entering into this resolution is the right thing for us to do—a step that appropriately acknowledges how we fell short of our values and expectations.”

This resolution is a serious reminder to all of us of how critical our obligation of transparency to regulators is, and the consequences that our company can face if any one of us falls short of those expectations.”

Of the total penalty, the majority – $1.77bn – is due to go the firm’s airline customers, who were affected by the subsequent grounding of the planes.

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Muted response as Clap for Heroes returns

A revived initiative to applaud the heroes of the pandemic has returned – but much more quietly than last year.

It comes after the founder of Clap for Carers distanced herself from its return after facing online abuse.

Annemarie Plas wanted to bring back the weekly applause under a new name of Clap for Heroes to lift spirits in the new lockdown but it fell a little flat.

Some health workers have said they would rather people stay at home and wear a mask than clap for them.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he participated at 20:00 GMT on Thursday, but clapping “isn’t enough”.

“They need to be paid properly and given the respect they deserve,” he tweeted., of the health workers.

The idea of clapping and banging pots from doorsteps originally began as a one-off to support NHS staff on 26 March – three days after the UK went into lockdown for the first time.

After proving popular it was expanded to cover all key workers and continued every Thursday for 10 weeks last year, with millions of people across the UK taking part.

Members of the Royal Family and politicians including Prime Minister Boris Johnson also joined in with the show of support.

However, the event faced criticism for becoming politicised, with some suggesting the NHS would benefit more from extra funding than applause.

Thursday’s newly-revived event drew fewer supporters than previously.

People in some streets stood on doorsteps and leaned out windows to clap for the pandemic’s heroes, and landmarks in London were illuminated blue for the occasion – but reports suggested the applause was noticeably quieter than last year.

On Wednesday, Ms Plas, a 36-year-old mother-of-one, announced the return of the initiative, saying she hoped to “lift the spirit of all of us” including “all who are pushing through this difficult time”.

But some NHS workers were less than enthusiastic. Ami Jones, an intensive care consultant from Wales, tweeted: “No thanks. I’d rather you obey the rules, stay at home, wear masks and wash your hands.”

And palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke said: “Please don’t clap us. Just wear a mask, wash your hands and respect lockdown.”

In a tweet posted hours before the weekly clap was due to return, Ms Plas, a Dutch national living in south London, said she had been targeted with personal abuse and threats against her and her family by “a hateful few” on social media.

“I have no political agenda, I am not employed by the government, I do not work in PR, I am just an average mum at home trying to cope with the lockdown situation,” she said, in a statement.

She said the newly revived clap could and should still happen at 20:00 GMT.

“It’s up to each person to decide how relevant or worthwhile they feel it is to participate,” she said.

Somerset cattle grid mistaken for wall by car sensors

Cars have come off the road trying to cross a cattle grid after sensors mistook it for a wall and slammed on the brakes.

Somerset County Council said the grid had been “causing a very real danger to road users” on Hill Road in Minehead.

The grid, which was cut into the steep hill, “appeared to be an obstruction” to modern car sensors which automatically applied the brakes.

The county council has spent £70,000 “ironing out the problem”.

A spokesman said the grid had to be replaced following a “number of incidents of cars leaving the road” but “thankfully there have been no serious collisions”.

To create a “virtually smooth ride across the grid”, highways teams spent a month raising about 90ft (27.4m) of road and redesigning the “carriageway approaches”.

Dave Peake, the council’s highways service manager, said the issue was something that would “never ever have been considered” when the grid was put in “many years ago”.

“It’s quite a steep hill and the cattle grid’s got to be reasonably level,” he said.

“But the problem was this sudden change in gradient. Some of the car’s sensors were detecting this as a wall so automatically applied the brakes.

“So we’ve actually re-profiled it to take out the sudden change in gradient.”

Prof Andrew Graves, automotive analyst at the University of Bath, said technology like “assist brake” had been around since the 1980s but “a lot of this technology is not clever enough at the moment”.

“If you’re following something too closely or if there’s a barrier in front of you, suddenly the car will apply its brakes,” he said.

“Modern cars are pretty good at doing this but they’re still not perfect and sometimes they send out a very confused message.”

Catford care home resident accused of murdering woman

A man has appeared in court accused of murdering a 93-year-old woman with a walking stick at a care home.

Eileen Dean died in hospital on Monday after she was assaulted at the home on Canadian Avenue in Catford, south-east London.

Fellow resident 62-year-old Alexander Rawson appeared at the Old Bailey earlier.

Mr Rawson was remanded in custody to next appear at the same court on 25 March.

Two more life-saving Covid drugs discovered

Two more life-saving drugs have been found that can cut deaths by a quarter in patients who are sickest with Covid.

The anti-inflammatory medications, given via a drip, save an extra life for every 12 treated, say researchers who have carried out a trial in NHS intensive care units.

Supplies are already available across the UK so they can be used immediately to save hundreds of lives, say experts.

There are over 30,000 Covid patients in UK hospitals – 39% more than in April.

The UK government is working closely with the manufacturer, to ensure the drugs – tocilizumab and sarilumab – continue to be available to UK patients.

As well as saving more lives, the treatments speed up patients’ recovery and reduce the length of time that critically-ill patients need to spend in intensive care by about a week.

Both appear to work equally well and add to the benefit already found with a cheap steroid drug called dexamethasone.

Although the drugs are not cheap, costing around £750 to £1,000 per patient, on top of the £5 course of dexamethasone, the advantage of using them is clear – and less than the cost per day of an intensive care bed of around £2,000, say experts.

Lead researcher Prof Anthony Gordon, from Imperial College London, said: “For every 12 patients you treat with these drugs you would expect to save a life. It’s a big effect.”

In the REMAP-CAP trial carried out in six different countries, including the UK, with around 800 intensive care patients:

Prof Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “The fact there is now another drug that can help to reduce mortality for patients with Covid-19 is hugely welcome news and another positive development in the continued fight against the virus.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “The UK has proven time and time again it is at the very forefront of identifying and providing the most promising, innovative treatments for its patients.

“Today’s results are yet another landmark development in finding a way out of this pandemic and, when added to the armoury of vaccines and treatments already being rolled out, will play a significant role in defeating this virus.”

The drugs dampen down inflammation, which can go into overdrive in Covid patients and cause damage to the lungs and other organs.

Doctors are being advised to give them to any Covid patient who, despite receiving dexamethasone, is deteriorating and needs intensive care.

Tocilizumab and sarilumab have already been added to the government’s export restriction list, which bans companies from buying medicines meant for UK patients and selling them on for a higher price in another country.

The research findings have not yet been peer reviewed or published in a medical journal.

Isle of Wight prison officer jailed over affair with murderer

A prison officer who had an affair with a convicted double murderer and allowed him to assault one of her colleagues has been jailed for three years.

Lauren McIntyre, 32, from Ryde, had a four-month relationship with Andrew Roberts at HMP Isle of Wight in 2018.

Roberts, who had murdered his girlfriend and their baby daughter, inflicted “significant head injuries” on the other officer, prosecutors said.

McIntyre pleaded guilty to four charges of misconduct in a public office.

The mother of three was “drawn into Roberts’ world” after initially trying to gather intelligence, her defence barrister said.

She failed to warn colleagues about Roberts’ plan to attack a prison officer, Isle of Wight Crown Court heard.

The inmate was later prosecuted for causing actual bodily harm to the officer, who was knocked unconscious from blows to the head, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said.

McIntyre, of St John’s Wood Road, also knew the prisoner unlawfully had a mobile phone, prosecutors added.

She gave him the fellow officer’s phone number as part of a plan to cause trouble by planting a phone containing the number on another inmate, the court heard.

Judge Roger Hetherington told the defendant: “Even if you initially gained his confidence as a means of exploring other corruption in the prison, you quickly moved on to… [passing] on intelligence information to him and at the same time there developed a passionate sexual relationship.

“The effect of this sort of misconduct… has a corrosive effect on everyone within the prison system.

“You had no regard for that, only for your own selfish interests.”

Ian Harris from the CPS said: “McIntyre behaved in a way which completely contravened the training she had received, which constitutes a wholly unacceptable breach of trust.”

Roberts was previously jailed for life in 2003 for strangling Louise L’Homme and their 10-month-old daughter Tia Roberts at their home in Tylorstown, Rhondda.

Consultation launched over gene edited food in England

The UK government has launched a consultation on using gene editing to modify livestock and food crops in England.

Gene editing alters the DNA of organisms and, until now, its use had been tightly restricted under EU law.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the approach could be used to develop crops that are more resistant to disease and extreme weather.

He said it could also lead to the production of healthier food, but some are opposed to the technology.

Critics say it creates entirely new organisms, and maintain that stringent regulation is vital.

Gene editing involves making precise changes to the DNA of one particular species and many scientists regard it as distinct from genetic modification (GM), where DNA from one type of organism is introduced to another.

However, in 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that it did, in fact, count as genetic engineering. And, in the EU, both technologies are currently under strict regulation.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, Mr Eustice said the UK no longer had to “slavishly follow” European law, which was “notoriously restrictive and politicised”.

The Environment Secretary said the technology mimicked the natural breeding process, speeding up what farmers have done for centuries by picking the strongest and healthiest animals or plants to breed from.

Mr Eustice said that gene editing raised far fewer ethical or biological concerns than other forms of genetic engineering. He said the organisms created by gene editing could have been created naturally and so “respected the laws of nature”.

Many scientists have welcomed the public consultation. Denis Murphy, professor of biotechnology at the University of South Wales said it would be broadly supported by UK farmers and crop scientists.

He explained: “Genome editing is already used in medicine and has immense potential for tackling major agricultural challenges related to food security, climate change, and sustainability.”

Prof Katherine Denby, from the University of York, described genome editing as a “powerful tool” that could help tackle a range of challenges in the UK and food system.

Along with helping to increase resistance to pests and disease in crops and animals, it could reduce the use of antibiotics and chemical pesticides, enhance animal welfare, make food more healthy, and reduce waste, for example by lengthening the shelf life of fruit and vegetables.

She said: “Its impact depends on how it is used, what specific changes are made in what organism. But its precision and speed have the ability to transform the development of new crop and animal breeds, and help drive more sustainable food production.”

The creators of the first gene editing tool, known as Crispr-Cas9 “genetic scissors”, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, were awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery in 2020. The development was hailed as “revolutionary”.

Prof Ian Crute, former Chief Scientist of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and director of Rothamsted Research, said: “Genetic improvement of crops and livestock is a vitally important activity to counter threats posed to productive agriculture by climate change and the emergence of new pests and diseases.

“Adoption of gene editing, alongside established practices deployed by crop and livestock breeders, has the potential to add speed and precision to this vital and continuous endeavour.”

The Soil Association (SA) said it welcomed technological innovation, but that Brexit shouldn’t be used “to pursue a deregulatory agenda”.

Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy at the SA, said: “Gene editing is a sticking plaster – diverting vital investment and attention from farmer-driven action and research which could be yielding results, right now.”

He added: “Consumers and farmers who do not want to eat or grow genetically modified crops or animals need to be offered adequate protection from this. The focus needs to be on how to restore exhausted soils, improve diversity in cropping, integrate livestock into rotations and reduce dependence on synthetic nitrogen and pesticides.”

Some scientists warned that any change in approach towards genetic engineering should proceed with great caution.

Dr Adrian Ely, reader in technology and sustainability at the University of Sussex, said that allowing gene editing in the UK “would require us to open up indiscriminately to GE (gene edited) food imports from around the world”.

He said: “Claims about gene editing’s benefits for the UK’s nature and the environment are subject to numerous assumptions and uncertainties. We need to take the time to consider these carefully, rather than accepting them without interrogation.”

The animal welfare charity the RSPCA is concerned at the move, with chief executive Chris Sherwood saying: “Claims that gene editing is the same as natural selection or plant grafting are disingenuous and potentially misleading.”

He said: “Gene editing is an unproven technology which does not take into account animal welfare, ethical or public concerns. It involves procedures that cause pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm and is an inefficient process, using large numbers of animals to produce a single individual with the desired result.”

Groups campaigning against the deregulation of gene editing were alarmed at the announcement. Dr Helen Wallace, the director of GeneWatch UK, said: “Removing some new GM technologies from regulation would mean they are not traced or labelled or assessed if they are safe.

“There would be massive implications at borders since many markets won’t accept unlabelled GM food, so English crops and foods might simply be refused.”

The UK government has said it will adhere to the strongest health and safety standards. The consultation will run for 10 weeks, until March 17.

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US backs down from tariffs over French tech giant taxes

America’s top trade negotiator said it would not move forward with tariffs on French goods planned as punishment for new taxes on US tech firms.

The decision comes less than three weeks before US President Donald Trump is due to leave office.

The president has embraced increasing border taxes as part of his trade strategy, but incomer Joe Biden is expected to take a different approach.

This is the second time the US has put off plans for the French tariffs.

The US also agreed to postpone plans for the duties in 2020, after France said it would delay any collection of the new tax on tech giants.

At the time, the two sides said they would work with other countries toward an international agreement about how money made by tech firms should be treated.

Those negotiations have stalled.

On Thursday, the US said it was suspending its plans for the 25% taxes, which had been due to go into effect on 6 January, on French goods such as handbags and cosmetics, valued at about $1.3bn (£958m) in annual trade.

The office of the US Trade Representative explained its wider review of the so-called “digital services” taxes that many countries, including the UK, are moving to impose on tech companies.

“Given that these… investigations are ongoing and have not yet reached any determinations on what, if any, trade action should be taken, the US Trade Representative has determined that it is appropriate to suspend the action in the France DST investigation indefinitely,” the department said.

In investigations spanning France, India, Italy and Turkey so far, the department has concluded such measures unfairly target American firms.

Reviews of laws in the UK, European Union, Brazil and other places are still ongoing.

Meat factories warn Covid absences could hit supplies

The UK meat industry has called for the early vaccination of workers to keep food supplies running smoothly during the coronavirus crisis.

It warned that absences during the pandemic, coupled with disruption at ports, could hit food supply chains.

An early vaccination call for supermarket staff was also made by the boss of Sainsbury’s on Thursday.

The government said the food industry remains “well-prepared” to make sure people have the food they need.

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said coronavirus and disruption at ports due to new systems brought in after the Brexit transition period were “a severe challenge to the industry and to the smooth running of the nation’s food supply chain”.

It argued frontline workers in meat factories should get early vaccinations due to the risk of a rapid spread of the new strains of the virus among key workers.

The government has set out who will get vaccinated first, which starts with care home residents and the oldest and most vulnerable people.

But Nick Allen, chief executive of the BMPA, said it would be logical to also prioritise key workers in the food industry.

“As the new coronavirus variant takes hold across the whole of the UK, we are hearing widespread reports of rapidly rising absences in the food supply chain,” he said.

Some firms supplying supermarkets “are seeing a tripling of staff having to take time off work through illness or enforced self-isolation”, he added.

Pressures on staff during the lockdown include illness, having to self-isolate, and childcare while some schools are closed under England’s lockdown.

Due to the specialised nature of meat production, if even a few key factory personnel such as the foreman or managers are absent, production can stop, Mr Allen said.

Early vaccinations should not be restricted to the meat industry, according to Mr Allen. All key workers in the food industry should get early vaccinations, he said.

Even supermarkets themselves are having problems with absences, he suggested.

“The key food supply chains ought to be prioritised,” he said. “All food industry key workers should be prioritised [for vaccination]”.

The government is advised on vaccinations by a group of experts called the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 Chair for the JCVI, said the committee’s advice on vaccine prioritisation “was developed with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible.”

“As the single greatest risk of death from Covid-19 is older age, prioritisation is primarily based on age,” he said.

“It is estimated that vaccinating everyone in the priority groups would prevent 99% of deaths, including those associated with occupational exposure to infection,” the professor added.

Sainsbury’s boss Simon Roberts also called for early vaccinations for key workers on Thursday.

“My view is that priority has to be given to those that need it first,” he said. “Those on the frontline should be part of that as and when capacity becomes available.”

Absence rates for Sainsbury’s staff are lower than at the peak of the crisis, but are rising, and have stepped up in the last few days, he said.

The Sainsbury’s absence rate is currently 8%. The business has 172,000 employees.

Asda said that it had seen an increase in employees self-isolating and shielding in line with the rising UK infection rate.

However, it said that absence rates were still lower than at the peak of the pandemic.

“We are taking proactive steps to manage colleague absences by retaining temporary colleagues hired over the Christmas period and are bringing in additional temporary colleagues in those stores that need them the most,” and Asda spokesman said.

Tesco has asked clinically vulnerable staff to stay at home.

Morrisons, meanwhile, is also seeing more absences, but the rate is still more than half that of the peak of the pandemic. It is also a bigger business having taken on 26,000 extra staff during the crisis.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium said: “While absence rates are currently rising, retailers are closely monitoring the situation in stores and distribution centres and supply chains continue to run smoothly.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs said: “As we have seen in recent months, the UK has a large, diverse and highly resilient food supply chain.

“We continue to closely monitor the situation and are working closely with the food industry on the workforce and absence related challenges presented by the pandemic.”

They added that the food industry remains “well-prepared” to make sure people across the country have the food they need.

UK ports have seen disruption due to the effects of coronavirus on trade and new systems brought in after the Brexit transition period.

Mr Roberts of Sainsbury’s said that, so far, the flow of goods from Europe is in decent shape, but there had been some problems in sending food to Northern Ireland.There is still some backlog in general merchandising, he added.

However, Scottish seafood exporters warned on Thursday that they had been hit by the “perfect storm of Brexit disruption”.

“Weakened by Covid-19, and the closure of the French border before Christmas, the end of the Brexit transition period has unleashed layer upon layer of administrative problems, resulting in queues, border refusals and utter confusion,” said Donna Fordyce, chief executive of Seafood Scotland.

She said IT problems in France meant consignments were diverted from Boulogne-sur-Mer to Dunkirk, “which was unprepared as it wasn’t supposed to be at the export frontline.”

There have also been IT issues on the UK side with HMRC, she added.

“These businesses are not transporting toilet rolls or widgets,” she said. “They are exporting the highest quality, perishable seafood which has a finite window to get to markets in peak condition. If the window closes these consignments go to landfill.”

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations also warned of delays to fish exports due to “a brick wall of bureaucracy”.

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