Covid: Priti Patel urged to explain border security stance

Home Secretary Priti Patel should explain the UK’s coronavirus border policy to MPs, Labour has said.

It came after Ms Patel said the borders should have been closed in March 2020 to slow the virus.

The UK did not impose a ban or quarantine restrictions on travellers arriving into the UK from abroad between mid-March and June.

Asked about her comments, Boris Johnson said the UK had “instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world”.

He also accused Labour of “looking backwards, playing politics and sniping from the side-lines”.

However in a letter to Ms Patel, Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds expressed concern that “the government’s chaotic border policy led to vital opportunities to stop the spread of the virus being missed.”

“Conservative incompetence meant ministers were too slow to take action on securing our borders against Covid and have failed to enact a clear strategy throughout this crisis, including on border testing.”

He called on the home secretary to urgently update the House of Commons “on what has been learned from these critical mistakes”.

In video obtained by the Guido Fawkes website, Ms Patel told a meeting of the Conservative Friends of India group on Tuesday night that she had been “an advocate of closing them [the borders] last March”.

Quarantine rules were introduced in June for all arrivals to the UK and in July “travel corridors” were introduced exempting travellers from certain countries from having to quarantine.

A report from the Home Affairs Committee of MPs previously described the failure to implement border measures earlier in the pandemic as “a serious mistake”.

At the time, the Home Office insisted all government decisions had been “been guided by the science, with appropriate measures introduced at the right time to keep us all safe”.

Asked about Ms Patel’s comments on the call, a Home Office spokesman said: “We have strong measures at the border in place which are vital as we roll out the vaccine.”

Stapleford stabbing: Woman charged after death of 16-year-old boy

A woman has been charged after a 16-year-old boy died following a stabbing on Boxing Day.

Nottinghamshire Police said Joe Whitchurch was stabbed at about 05:30 GMT in Hickings Lane, Stapleford, in Nottinghamshire.

He was taken to hospital but died from his injuries on 29 December.

Lorna Richardson, 25, of Blake Road, Stapleford, has been charged with perverting the course of justice and remanded in custody.

She is due to appear at Nottingham Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.

Jake Rollinson, 20, of Hickings Lane, has already been charged with attempted murder and is due at Nottingham Crown Court on 25 January.

In a tribute to her son after he died, Lisa Kilkenny said Joe was studying engineering at Nottingham College and was “full of hope for the future”.

“We are heartbroken that he has been taken from us,” she added. “But we will always cherish his memory – especially his famously broad smile that really did have the ability to light up any room.”

Ellen Raffell: Family hopes teenagers allergy death helps save others

The family of a teenage girl who died after a severe allergic reaction hopes her death will prevent other young people dying from unknown allergies.

Ellen Raffell, from Blyth, who also had asthma, had eaten snacks unaware she was allergic to one of the ingredients.

The 16-year-old suffered a brain injury brought on by anaphylaxis and died in hospital in October 2019.

Her family described her as a “kind” and “generous girl” and have set up a charity in her memory.

Ellen’s mum, Delyth, hopes her daughter’s death will form part of a national programme allowing information about allergies to be combined with asthma plans for children.

“I hope that will help save lives in the future,” she said.

Her mum said her daughter’s asthma had been “very well controlled” and she had only just had a check-up.

“She certainly didn’t have a history of allergies, this was something that was completely out of the blue.

“We knew she was allergic to nuts but she was also allergic to fish and crustaceans and it was that, we think, that was actually the ultimate cause of her death.”

Ellen, who has a twin sister called Abbey, collapsed at home after eating some crisps bought from an Asian supermarket and spent four days in Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary but passed away on 31 October, 2019.

Her family made the decision to donate her organs.

A charity, called Ellen’s Gift of Hope, has been set up in her memory to help disabled children in Northumberland, Newcastle and North Tyneside. Hope is the middle name of her twin sister.

“Not only did Ellen donate her organs but she has been almost the inspiration to get something else done for other children who may suffer unfortunately the same tragedy,” her mum said.

“She touched so many lives and you don’t realise just how loved she was. She wanted to help the world and she was so happy. The day that she died she was her usual happy self.”

The teenager’s dream was to become a space scientist and work for Nasa.

She met Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2015, who sent her family a tribute, saying: “I can only be thankful to have met Ellen, shaken her hand, and shared in the inspiration that the exploration of ideas and the universe can bring.”

Ellen was planning to study a space engineering course at the National Space Academy in Leicestershire. To honour her passion for astronomy, her ashes were sent into space.

“I can hear her now, saying ‘I’m so excited’ and I thought that was a nice way to commemorate her first anniversary and her birthday, which were very close together,” her mum said.

“I hope that Ellen’s charity will give all those vulnerable children in the North East a better life, that’s what the ultimate aim is.”

Social media giants grilled on hate content

Social network executives have been grilled by MPs on the role their platforms played in recent events in Washington which saw a mob break into Congress.

All said that they needed to do more to monitor extremist groups and content such as conspiracy theories.

But none had any radical new policies to offer.

The government has recently set out tough new rules for how social media firms moderate content.

Facebook said it had removed 30,000 pages, events and groups related to what it called “militarised social movements” since last summer.

“We have a 24-hour operation centre where we are looking for content from groups… of citizens who might use militia-style language,” said Facebook’s vice president of global policy management, Monika Bickert.

She added: “We had teams that in the weeks leading up to the [events in Washington] were focused on understanding what was being planned and if it could be something that would turn into violence. We were in touch with law enforcement.”

Despite its efforts, half of all designated white supremacist groups had a presence on Facebook last year according to a study from the watchdog Tech Transparency Project.

Julian Knight MP, who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, which is also scrutinising the big tech firms, asked Google’s global director of information policy Derek Slater what it was doing to fight conspiracy theories.

“Do you think that it would be wise for you to adopt a new policy where you kept money on your platforms in escrow prior to its distribution so that any cause in which disinformation to found to have taken place… you could perhaps withhold that money?” he asked.

Mr Slater replied that it was an “interesting idea” and that Google was always “re-evaluating its policies”, but he made no commitment to the idea.

MPs also quizzed Twitter on its decision to permanently ban President Donald Trump.

The firm’s head of public policy strategy Nick Pickles was asked if doing so undermined its insistence that it was a platform rather than a publisher.

It was, he said, time to “move beyond” that debate to a conversation about whether social networks were enforcing their own rules correctly.

Questioned why it had banned Mr Trump while still allowing other politicians to “sabre-rattle” on its platform, Mr Pickles added: “This is the complexity and challenge of these issues but generally content moderation is not a good way to hold governments to account.”

Mr Trump’s tweets were inciting violence “in real-time”, he added.

TikTok’s director of government relations Theo Bertram said that the video-streaming app had played less of a role in the violence in Washington and hosted fewer banned groups.

But that view was challenged by Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Home Affairs Committee.

It was, she said, in contrast to the Anti-Defamation League which found a significant amount of anti-Semitic content on the platform when it studied it last summer.

Saga cruises says all customers must be vaccinated

Anyone going on a Saga holiday or cruise in 2021 must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, the firm has said.

Saga, which specialises in holidays for the over-50s, said it wanted to protect customers’ health and safety.

The firm said it would delay restarting its travel packages until May to give customers enough time to get jabs.

People over 50 in the UK have been rushing to book holidays as vaccinations boost confidence.

“The health and safety of our customers has always been our number one priority at Saga, so we have taken the decision to require everyone travelling with us to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19,” Saga said in a statement.

“Our customers want the reassurance of the vaccine and to know others travelling with them will be vaccinated too.”

The firm’s holidays were due to restart in March and its cruises in April but they will both now be delayed.

Saga said that meant all cruises prior to May would no longer go ahead as planned, which it acknowledged would be “a huge disappointment” to customers.

“We will be contacting all guests affected to discuss their options,” it said.

These include requiring customers to take a Covid-19 test before their trip and have a full medical screening.

Capacity on its cruise ships will also be kept to a maximum of 800 people, and more cleaning will be done on board.

Some of the most prominent early outbreaks of Covid-19 occurred on cruise ships where viruses are known to spread easily.

British registered ship the Diamond Princess, owned by the company Carnival, was quarantined for nearly a month in Japan.

More than 700 of its 3,711 passengers and crew were infected, and 14 died.

The UK has embarked on a mass vaccination programme as Covid-19 cases surge.

People in England are being vaccinated at a rate of 140 jabs per minute, NHS England boss Sir Simon Stevens said this week.

In a letter to customers, Saga said: “The latest government guidance suggests that the roll out of the vaccine is progressing well, but to allow our customers time to get vaccinated, we are moving the restart date for our travel businesses to May.”

Troubles pension: Stormont must not play games

Stormont’s Finance Department must not “play games” over the funding of a pension scheme for Troubles’ victims, the NI secretary has said.

Stormont and Westminster have been involved in a long-running row about how payments should be funded.

Executive ministers argue that as the scheme was passed by Westminster, it should produce the funding.

But Brandon Lewis warned against called “red herrings”, insisting it had to come from Stormont’s block grant.

The block grant is the amount of money given to the executive by the Treasury each year.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mr Lewis said: “We must make sure progress is not diverted – this is a devolved matter and devolved matters are funded by the block grant.

“The Department of Finance and NI Executive also needs to step forward and get the Independent Fiscal Council (IFC) organised to provide advice and the scrutiny and to help them on these kinds of budgetary matters.”

He said there was a “moral and ethical duty” to ensure victims could access the scheme as quickly as possible.

“The Department of Finance need to ensure they do not play games with victims and their pensions and ensure money is made available to the Department of Justice to get on with delivering the programme,” he added.

Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long said Mr Lewis’s comment was “disappointing and disingenuous”.

The Victims’ Payment Scheme was set up to offer money to people who were badly injured during the Troubles, with payments of between £2,000 and £10,000 a year for the rest of their lives.

Upon their death a spouse or carer will get the payments for a further 10 years.

The scheme is a recognition that criminal injuries awards from decades ago were largely inadequate.

Applications for the process are expected to open in March and the scheme has previously been estimated to cost up to £800m.

Read more: What’s the trouble with the Troubles pension?

Speaking later on Wednesday in the House of Lords, Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey described the stalemate as “intolerable”.

He said the UK government had a responsibility to ensure the pension was paid on time to victims.

Other Northern Ireland peers – Lord Dodds of the DUP and Baroness Ritchie of the SDLP – also raised their concerns about the delay in resolving the funding dispute.

Speaking on BBC Radio Foyle’s News At One programme, Baroness O’Loan – a former Police Ombudsman for NI – accused the UK government of a “dereliction of duty”.

“This is not a huge ask for the UK government in terms of the national economy but it is a burden the NI budget cannot meet,” she said.

“A solution is really required now, and that solution must be that the British government accepts that it is responsible for paying these payments.”

The scheme has been delayed by the row about how it should be funded, prompting criticism and legal actions from Troubles victims and their representatives.

On Tuesday the victims’ group the Wave Trauma Centre said it was “outraged” by the dispute between Stormont and Westminster.

Alan McBride from the group said victims had been treated “disgracefully” due to a “long, long road of delay and deny” by politicians.

Last year a judge ruled that Stormont’s Executive Office was acting unlawfully in delaying the introduction of the scheme.

The judge said it was deliberately stymieing the commencement of payouts in order to pressurise the government into funding it.

The ruling came after legal challenges by two victims – Jennifer McNern, who lost both legs in an IRA bomb attack in 1972; and Brian Turley, one of the so-called Hooded Men detained and subjected to special interrogation methods by the British military in the 1970s.

Meghan letter: Royal aides wont take sides, High Court told

Four royal aides say they do not wish to “take sides” over a letter from the Duchess of Sussex to her father, the High Court has been told.

In a letter lawyers for the four said they believed their clients could “shed some light” on the letter’s drafting but the four were “strictly neutral”.

Meghan is suing the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online publisher over articles that reproduced parts of the letter.

She claims her privacy and copyright were breached by the newspaper group.

Her lawyers are asking for summary judgement – a dismissal of Associated Newspapers’ (ANL) defence instead of a trial.

The five articles, published in February 2019, were a “triple-barrelled invasion” of the duchess’s privacy, correspondence and family, the lawyers claim.

She is seeking damages from the newspaper group for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act over the articles.

ANL claims Meghan wrote her letter “with a view to it being disclosed publicly at some future point” in order to “defend her against charges of being an uncaring or unloving daughter”, which she denies.

On the second day of the hearing on Wednesday, ANL’s barrister Antony White QC told the court that a letter from the so-called “palace four” showed that “further oral evidence and documentary evidence is likely to be available at trial which would shed light on certain key factual issues in this case”.

He said it was “likely” there was also further evidence about whether Meghan “directly or indirectly provided private information” to the authors of an unauthorised biography of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Finding Freedom.

The four aides are: Jason Knauf, former communications secretary to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Christian Jones, their former deputy communications secretary, Samantha Cohen, formerly the Sussexes’ private secretary, and Sara Latham, their ex-director of communications.

“None of our clients welcomes his or her potential involvement in this litigation, which has arisen purely as a result of the performance of his or her duties in their respective jobs at the material time,” their lawyers said in a letter sent on their behalf.

“Nor does any of our clients wish to take sides in the dispute between your respective clients. Our clients are all strictly neutral.

“They have no interest in assisting either party to the proceedings. Their only interest is in ensuring a level playing field, insofar as any evidence they may be able to give is concerned.”

Their letter said that their lawyers’ “preliminary view is that one or more of our clients would be in a position to shed some light” on “the creation of the letter and the electronic draft”.

It also said they may be able to shed light on “whether or not the claimant anticipated that the letter might come into in the public domain” and whether or not the duchess “directly or indirectly provided private information, generally and in relation to the letter specifically, to the authors of Finding Freedom”.

But Justin Rushbrooke QC, representing the duchess, said the letter from the four “contains no information at all that supports the defendant’s case on alleged co-authorship (of Meghan’s letter), and no indication that evidence will be forthcoming that will support the defendant’s case should the matter proceed to trial”.

Meghan, 39, sent a handwritten letter to her father in August 2018, following her marriage to Prince Harry in May that year, which Mr Markle did not attend. The couple are now living in the US with their son Archie.

The full trial of the duchess’s claim had been due to be heard at the High Court this month, but last year the case was adjourned until autumn 2021.

At the conclusion of the hearing on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Justice Warby reserved his judgement, which he said he would deliver “as soon as possible”.

Senedd alcohol row: PM expects above and beyond on Covid

Boris Johnson expects everybody to go “above and beyond” in following Covid rules, his spokeswoman has said after Conservative Welsh politicians were seen drinking during a pub alcohol ban.

Senedd Tory leader Paul Davies, Darren Millar and Labour’s Alun Davies have apologised for drinking in the Welsh Parliament days after the ban started.

They are not thought to have broken the rules, but the two Tories admitted it would not be seen as in their spirit.

Senedd authorities are investigating.

A fourth Senedd Member Nick Ramsay has denied being part of the gathering.

On 8 December, a group of Members of the Senedd and staff drank alcohol in the Ty Hywel building in Cardiff Bay, which houses the Senedd’s offices.

A ban on the sale, supply and consumption of alcohol in licensed premises came into force in Wales at 18:00 GMT on 4 December – four days before the politicians were seen drinking together – although hospitality businesses could sell alcohol to take away after 18:00.

Catering company Charlton House has the licence for serving alcohol on Senedd premises.

The Welsh Government stated on Tuesday that the alcohol ban applied to the person running the licensed premises, rather than customers.

Speaking at a journalists’ lobby briefing Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson’s press secretary, said she had not spoken to the prime minister about whether Welsh Conservative Senedd leader Paul Davies should remain in post.

But she added: “The prime minister needs everybody – no matter their status, no matter their position in life – to be going above and beyond in following the rules on Covid.”

The former chairman of a Westminster standards watchdog questioned whether the three involved should be put up for election at the next Welsh Parliament polls on 6 May.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said if the allegations were proven “then both parties are bound to ask questions” ahead of the election.

“Do they want such people, who have shown such a lack of leadership, standing for election?,” he said.

He told BBC Radio Wales: “I think it’s very serious, poor behaviour by a group of politicians who we expect to give a lead about the spirit of the rules never mind the precise detail.”

He said the action by the Labour Party – to suspend Alun Davies – was appropriate and the Conservatives “should have done the same”.

Mr Ramsay was deselected by his local Conservative group last month after 13 years.

A statement from his solicitor, Tim Gir, said Mr Ramsay was at the tea room on his own at the Senedd, without an invitation from anyone else, after work.

“He was hungry and he wanted to get something to eat. He was working on an article for the Argus [newspaper]. He sat on his own and was socially distanced,” said Mr Gir.

“He attended the tea room at approximately 6pm. He had a chicken curry. He left at about 8pm. Others came in whilst he was there but it was not a ‘gathering’ Mr Ramsay was part of.”

On Wednesday afternoon the health minister said the “last thing” that should happen at the end of an investigation was that “it’s only staff who essentially get thrown under the bus, everyone needs to look what they’ve done”.

At a press conference, Vaughan Gething refused to be drawn on whether the Tory members should stand down or be suspended.

But he said the Labour group’s decision to suspend Alun Davies “was the right thing” to do.

He said he himself had been subject of press stories “where some people made comments, without wanting to understand the facts or not being interested in them so I don’t think I should then lay in on an issue like this”.

But, he added: “Any sense of people not all being in this together, isn’t helpful in terms of the message that we all need to follow.”

A senior Conservative source has told BBC Wales they were “totally flabbergasted” that the party Senedd members involved have not stood down pending the investigation.

“There’s a lot of anger and I don’t know how they can continue,” the source added.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to in the party is just completely baffled by this.

“This is a complete own goal.”

David Fouweather, a Conservative councillor in Newport, said the Tories involved should “stand aside and go”.

One senior Conservative grassroots official who contacted BBC Wales said: “I’m furious. The party messaging is trying to break up the Cardiff Bay cartel and they’re having nice drinks with Alun Davies who, let’s not forget, has been really vicious in public against us.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of Conservatives and they’re not happy at all.

“Nobody is going to put their head on the line for Paul Davies. I’ll be very surprised if he continues to the end of the week.”

The official also referred to Mr Millar’s call at the start of the pandemic for the first minister to sack Health Minister Vaughan Gething over claims he broke Covid rules at the time when he sat and ate chips while on a walk with his family.

The grassroots activist said: “Darren Millar talking about Vaughan Gething having his chips – well, what on earth is he doing?”

Another Conservative councillor said: “Paul’s position as leader is now untenable, especially when you consider the strain that hardworking people are under.”

A senior Welsh Government minister also joined calls for the Conservative Party to take action of its own.

Eluned Morgan, mental health minister, said she had written to the party asking it suspend those involved while “investigations continue into this alleged incident”.

Labour has suspended Alun Davies from the party’s Senedd group pending an investigation.

Plaid Cymru MS Rhun ap Iorwerth said politicians failed to set “the best example that’s something that should be regretted by all of us”.

“I want to be talking about how we can push government to deliver better in its response to this pandemic,” he said.

“It’s a matter of concern to me that distractions like this move the focus from where it should be and where you then have questions about the role of political leaders – and I count all of us, whether in government or in opposition, in that bracket.”

Charlton House said it was “aware of an alleged breach of public health regulations at the Senedd estate” and took its “responsibilities and obligations to restrictions and public health regulations across the UK very seriously”.

“We are currently undertaking a full investigation into this matter,” the firm added.

Wales’ chief medical officer Dr Frank Atherton said it was “important that everybody follows the rules”.

“I don’t know the details of what may or may not have happened down there, I’m sure that will come out in the fullness of time,” he told BBC Wales Live on Tuesday.

A statement on behalf of Paul Davies, Darren Millar and Welsh Conservative chief of staff Paul Smith, who was also at the meeting, said they were “profoundly sorry”.

“While we did not break the rules, we recognise that what was part of a day’s work would not be seen to be following the spirit of them, especially given the tough time the country has been going through,” the statement said.

A spokesman for the Senedd Labour Group said a member had been suspended from the group “while an investigation takes place into this alleged incident”.

In his statement, Labour’s Alun Davies said: “I am very sorry if my actions have given the impression that I am in any way not committed to upholding the regulations which I have consistently supported throughout the last year.”

He said the purpose of the meeting “was to seek to persuade the Welsh Conservatives to support my proposal for a Welsh Hearts Bill, which the Senedd endorsed on 21 October, and to make a commitment to enact this life-saving legislation in their manifesto for May’s election”.

Alun Davies added: “The Senedd Commission has already confirmed to me that I did not breach the coronavirus regulations on the consumption of either food or alcohol that were in force at that time.”

A spokesman for the Senedd Commission said: “We are aware of an incident on the Senedd estate last month which may have been contrary to public health regulations in force at the time.

“The Senedd Commission takes the public health regulations in Wales very seriously and is currently investigating the matter in order to establish an accurate account of what took place and to determine whether action may be required.”

Covid: UK reports 1,820 deaths as Johnson warns tough weeks to come

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned there will be “tough weeks to come” as the UK reported another all-time high of daily coronavirus deaths.

A further 1,820 people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test, according to government figures.

It means the total number of deaths by that measure is now 93,290.

Mr Johnson said there was now a “race against time” to vaccinate the vulnerable but he hoped there would be a “real difference” by spring.

In an interview with broadcasters, he said the high number of deaths was “appalling” and a reflection of the peak infection rates seen a couple of weeks ago.

He said: “I must warn people there will be tough weeks to come, but as the vaccine goes in and that programme accelerates, there will be, I think, a real difference by spring.”

Just under half of the newly reported deaths occurred on Tuesday, while a further quarter took place on Monday or Sunday with the remainder last week or even earlier.

The previous highest number of daily deaths was the 1,610 reported on Tuesday.

Some 4,609,740 people have now received the first dose of a vaccine – a rise of 343,163 from yesterday.

There were also a further 38,905 cases, with 3,887 more patients admitted into hospital.

A total of 3,505,754 have now tested positive for coronavirus in the UK.

It is the second consecutive day deaths have hit a new high.

That, sadly, was to be expected as it is a reflection of the surge in cases seen during December.

It takes a week or two from the point of infection for someone to become seriously ill – and they can then spend some time in hospital. The high number is also a result of delays reporting deaths – a quarter happened last week or even before.

But make no mistake the death toll is going up. If you look at the average over the course of a week, the numbers being reported at the moment are twice what they were just two weeks ago.

However, we also know they should soon start coming down. Daily infections are falling, with signs lockdown is taking effect. For four days in a row new diagnoses have been below 40,000 – after averaging 60,000 at the start of year.

It could be another week or so before we start to see the impact of that in the death figures. The hope then would be that within a few weeks we could start seeing a more rapid fall as the impact of the vaccination programme begins to bite.

But before that happens the daily totals reported could, sadly, go even higher.

New coronavirus cases are down by 21.5% over the last seven days. But the number of patients being admitted into hospital in the same period has not yet fallen (up by 0.5%).

The prime minister said it looked as though infection rates across the country overall might now be peaking or flattening, but he cautioned that “they’re not flattening very fast”.

Asked if daily deaths would continue to rise, he said it was “difficult to predict”.

He added: “We must hope that by getting the numbers of daily infections down in the way that perhaps has been happening since the lockdown that will feed through into a reduction in deaths as well.

“But I must stress that we have tough weeks to come now as we roll out the vaccine.

“The light will only really begin to dawn as we get those vaccination numbers up.”

Earlier, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, warned parts of the NHS were like a “war zone”.

Speaking on Sky News, he said: “This is very, very bad at the moment, with enormous pressure, and in some cases it looks like a war zone in terms of the things that people are having to deal with.”

He said there was “light at the end of the tunnel” in the form of the vaccination programme.

But he said vaccines were “not going to do the heavy lifting for us at the moment, anywhere near it”.

Military personnel have been deployed to a number of hospitals to help staff cope with high numbers of cases, including in Northern Ireland and Exeter.

And this week 10 hospital trusts across England consistently reported having no spare adult critical care beds.

In other developments, Home Secretary Priti Patel said ministers were working to ensure police and other frontline workers were moved up the priority list for the Covid vaccine.

Mr Johnson said the government must rely on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, but wanted front-line workers to be immunised “as soon as possible”.

He also said the vaccination programme remained “on track” despite “constraints on supply”.

Covid: Close courts in England and Wales or face strikes, union warns

A union has warned of industrial action unless courts in England and Wales close while improvements are made to staff coronavirus safety.

The PCS said “escalating” infection numbers were putting workers at “unnecessary risk”.

Cases could be dealt with virtually for the time being, it argued.

But the Ministry of Justice said it was “simply untrue” to suggest people attending courts or tribunals were at “elevated risk”.

A spokesperson added that it was “clear that justice must continue to be done”.

The PCS’s demand for court closures comes amid a growing backlog of cases in England and Wales due to the pandemic.

In the crown courts, 54,000 cases have yet to be heard, with the inspectorates for policing, prisons, probation and prosecutions expressing “grave concerns” about the impact on criminal justice.

But the PCS – which represents ushers, security staff and Crown Prosecution Service employees – said 600 Covid cases had been confirmed on the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) estate since 24 November.

It called for lateral flow testing at every court and for every prisoner attending hearings.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “It is obvious that Covid cases are at unacceptable levels and HMCTS staff are being put at unnecessary risk while courts remain open.”

He added: “Our members do an invaluable job keeping the justice system going during this global pandemic but their safety is our union’s number one priority.

“The technology exists for crucial cases to be heard virtually and this is what now needs to happen.

“We are not ruling out industrial action if HMCTS management fail to act.”

A source told the BBC there was a “strong likelihood court staff would be balloted for strike action” unless the situation changed.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors, agreed with the PCS.

Chief executive David Greene said closing courts appeared to conflict with “the imperative to mitigate” the growing backlog of cases, but argued there was “almost certain to be a significant loss of capacity due to court closures following outbreaks of coronavirus, and due to staff, lawyers, judiciary and parties falling sick”.

“We believe the measures we propose represent the least bad option for ensuring that courts can continue to operate safely,” he added.

Government coronavirus guidelines state that fulfilling a legal duty – such as attending court as a duty lawyer or jury member – is a reasonable excuse for leaving home.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Throughout this pandemic the government has been clear that justice must continue to be done.”

Every building the department operated met government Covid guidelines, which remained “sufficient to deal with the new strain of the virus”.

“Positive test numbers are consistent with the wider community and it’s likely that the vast majority contracted the virus outside courts,” the spokesperson said

“It is simply untrue to suggest people are at an elevated risk of infection when at a court or tribunal.”

During the first lockdown, which started in March last year, fewer than half of the courts in England and Wales were kept open, contributing to the current backlog.

1 2 3 8