PM talks to Biden in first call since inauguration

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has spoken to Joe Biden for the first time since the new US president was inaugurated.

Mr Johnson said on Twitter that he looked forward to “deepening the longstanding alliance” between the UK and the US as they drove a “green and sustainable recovery from Covid-19”.

Mr Biden was sworn in as president and Kamala Harris as vice-president in a ceremony in Washington on Wednesday.

The PM said their inauguration was a “step forward” for the US.

A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Johnson “warmly welcomed” the president’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change and the World Health Organization – both abandoned by Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

“The prime minister praised President Biden’s early action on tackling climate change and commitment to reach net zero by 2050,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman added that, in building on the two nations’ “long history of cooperation in security and defence, the leaders “re-committed to the Nato alliance and our shared values in promoting human rights and protecting democracy”.

The two leaders also talked about “the benefits of a potential free trade deal” between the UK and the US, with Mr Johnson reiterating his intention “to resolve existing trade issues as soon as possible”.

Mr Johnson and Mr Biden “looked forward to to meeting in person as soon as the circumstances allow” and to working together during the forthcoming G7, G20 and COP26 summits, the spokesman added.

Congratulating Mr Biden and Ms Harris – who is the first woman and first black and Asian-American person to serve as vice-president – the PM said earlier that their inauguration was a “step forward” for the US, which had “been through a bumpy period”.

Mr Johnson said it was a “big moment” for the UK and the US and their “joint common agenda”.

The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg has said the Biden Presidency “brings some hope to government” because No 10 believes “there is a lot of overlap” between what Mr Biden and Mr Johnson want to do.

The US president has previously said that he does not want a “guarded border” between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland following Brexit, and that any UK-US post-Brexit trade deal had to be “contingent” on respect for the Good Friday Agreement.

The PM and Mr Biden have never met in real life, but the new US president once referred to Mr Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of Mr Trump.

After winning the presidential election, Mr Biden phoned Mr Johnson ahead of other European leaders and expressed his desire to strengthen the historic “special relationship” between the two countries.

Brexit: Can Irish Sea border teething problems be solved?

As Joe Biden was being inaugurated on Wednesday members, of the UK’s shadow cabinet were hosting a less happy gathering.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow cabinet office minister, was chairing a meeting of Northern Ireland haulage firms.

Each of them had a story about the difficulties they are facing with the new Irish Sea border.

Since New Year’s Eve, getting goods across that border has involved a range of new processes and documentation.

The first speaker was Chris Slowey, managing director of Manfreight.

He told of underprepared customers, inexperienced customs agents and clunky systems.

Mr Slowey moves goods for major global brands and said they have a dim view of what is happening.

“Those global brands believe Northern Ireland and Ireland are bad places to do business at the moment because of the additional costs.”

He said that while Northern Ireland’s supermarkets are still well stocked, in future consumers can expect higher prices and reduced choice.

Earlier Mr Slowey told politicians at Stormont that he was going to have to put up his prices.

The major reason was that while he had full loads going out of Northern Ireland, many of his trailers were coming back empty, as some GB firms have reduced their trade into NI.

“We have done our figures for the first 20 days of January and we’re going to have to go to our customer base and ask them for a 12% rise on the current rate structure,” he said.

Haulage firms are clamouring for financial help, grace periods and easements which they say are needed to make the new border arrangements commercially sustainable.

They are not the only ones.

In the last week, a major UK health food firm warned that shipping organic food from GB to Ireland is now “virtually impossible at scale”.

The horticulture industry said that new plant health processes required as a result of the sea border were causing “incredible frustration”.

The standard response of the UK government has been that trade is mostly flowing normally from GB to NI and that teething problems can be overcome.

And it is the case that some difficulties have been solved.

This week HMRC was able to remedy an anomaly that meant NI businesses importing steel were facing tariffs of 25%.

Problems with the transport of mixed loads of food, known as groupage, are also being tackled with a successful test run from Liverpool to Belfast last week.

A VAT issue for the second-hand car trade has also been resolved.

But UK ministers and officials know there is more to do.

More effort is now being directed at educating GB businesses, many of which have been woefully underprepared for the new trade rules with NI.

There is also work looking at what more can be done to help hauliers, but the government is very wary of raising expectations.

The new EU-UK joint bodies which are managing the deal should begin their work in earnest next month.

It is possible that they can find easements for some of the trickiest customs issues relating to Northern Ireland goods moving in and out of Dublin port.

The government is also pointing to some signs of confidence in parts of the Northern Ireland economy.

Two major manufacturers, Wrightbus and Terex, announced job creation plans this week.

One of the potential upsides of Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal is that, unlike other parts of the UK, manufacturers will retain frictionless access to the EU’s single market.

The inward investment agency Invest NI is already quietly talking about this but the message may be more forcefully pushed later this year.

But frictionless trade from GB to NI is not coming back.

There are no more set-piece negotiations which will allow that to happen.

That is likely to lead to changes in patterns of trade with businesses seeking out new suppliers in the Republic of Ireland or the wider EU.

That was emphasised to me by Steve Tomkins, one of the GB organic food wholesalers who is now having difficulties selling to NI.

He said: “Were I based in Dublin I would be making every effort to establish a market in the north.”

Covid vaccine: Betsi Cadwaladr boss warns against queue jumping

A health board boss has criticised council staff for potentially sharing Covid vaccine invites with colleagues.

The board meeting in North Wales heard some council staff, not within groups currently being vaccinated, booked appointments by following a link in an email only intended for the recipient.

Betsi Cadwaladr health board’s chairman Mark Polin said such actions could deprive someone else of a jab.

Denbighshire council said it had warned staff the emails were not to be abused.

It is not clear if anyone not entitled succeeded in getting a Covid jab, the Local Democracy Reporting Service said.

Only front-line social care and health workers, those over 80 and 70 years old, care home residents and their carers are currently being vaccinated.

Independent member Jackie Hughes spoke about the matter at Thursday’s monthly health board meeting.

Answering her query, Dr Chris Stockport, the health board’s executive director of primary care and community services, said: “We are very clear with our local authority partners and teams of what frontline means in the same way we are elsewhere.

“When you arrive [for a vaccine] there’s a process of validation.

“The likelihood is they will experience some difficulties working through the booking system [if they try to get into a higher vaccination cohort].

“It adds complications for a busy team and I would ask them not to do that when it’s a clear effort to circumvent the cohort.”

At Thursday’s daily press briefing the UK Government Home Secretary Priti Patel said people who jumped the queue for the vaccine were “morally reprehensible” as they were putting the lives of vulnerable people at risk.

She said all the UK Government’s measures were under review but “our focus is getting that vaccine to the most vulnerable to make sure we can protect them and obviously protect others in the community”.

Mr Polin added: “Whilst we understand the concerns people should not be doing what they are doing.

“The priority groups have been identified with clear medical guidance and sound reasoning behind it.

“So people jumping the queue are depriving someone else, potentially, of receiving the vaccine at the point at which they should.”

He said it was a temporary problem, adding: “We are changing the booking system, so this opportunity is not going to last much longer.”

He said staff were looking out for any inappropriate bookings.

Covid: Four vaccine centres shut amid snow alert for Wales

Four vaccination centres have been shut as Wales braces for more snowy weather.

Appointments at the Bridgend, Rhondda, Abercynon and Merthyr Tydfil centres for Sunday will be rescheduled for safety reasons, the Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board said.

Forecasters have issued a yellow weather warning that runs from 03:00 and 21:00 on Sunday for all of Wales apart from Anglesey.

Snow and ice could lead to further disruption on the roads, said police.

Up to 3cm of snow is forecast to fall in most areas, with 10 to 15cm expected in the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia.

The health board urged anyone with queries about Sunday’s vaccination appointments to call the number on their appointment letters.

North Wales Police has advised people to take care, saying several vehicles had already encountered problems.

The drop in temperatures is likely to exacerbate problems after widespread flooding caused by Storm Christoph.

Traffic Wales said there were “poor conditions” on the A55 dual carriageway in Denbighshire on Saturday, after a previous weather warning for snow and ice was lifted.

North Wales Police also warned people to stay away from Llandudno’s Great Orme due to the conditions.

The Met Office warned travellers that “longer journey times by road, bus and train services” could be expected, although Wales is in a level four lockdown with all but essential travel banned.

It also said the snow could lead to power cuts and other services, such as mobile phone coverage, may be affected.

Those going out for daily exercise have been warned there could be icy patches on some untreated roads, pavements and cycle paths.

Meanwhile, three flood warnings issued by Natural Resources Wales remain in place, meaning flooding is expected.

These cover the River Wye at Monmouth, the River Ritec at Tenby in Pembrokeshire, which could affect the Kiln Park caravan site, and the community of Bangor on Dee in Wrexham, where 30 people were forced to leave their homes when Storm Christoph struck.

Krystina Arielle: Star Wars supports High Republic host after racist abuse

The official Star Wars Twitter account has tweeted in support for Krystina Arielle, the host of the upcoming Star Wars: The High Republic Show, after she received online harassment.

Tweets by Arielle surfaced of her speaking about the role white people play in upholding racism.

She then started receiving racist abuse, and accusations of being racist.

But Star Wars tweeted in support of her, stating: “Our Star Wars community is one of hope and inclusivity”.

Ms Arielle was recently announced as the host of The High Republic Show, an upcoming web series about Star Wars: The High Republic, a new subseries of the Star Wars media franchise.

She came under attack after social media users resurfaced numerous old tweets, mostly from last year when protests where taking place around the world in support of Black Lives Matter.

In some of her past tweets, Arielle references white people while giving opinions on systemic racism. In one, she states: “Just a reminder that white women are just as complicit in upholding and enforcing white supremacy.”

“The last 24 hours have been … not the greatest,” she tweeted on Saturday, along with screenshots of highly offensive, racist messages.

But many have spoken out in support of Arielle, while the hashtag #IStandWithKrystina started trending on Twitter.

Matthew Mercer, host of the Critical Role podcast, which has featured her, said: “There are few as bright, badass and altogether wonderful as [Krystina Arielle], and anyone who tries to step into her ring better know we’re right there beside her.”

This is not the first time someone involved in the Star Wars franchise has reported receiving racist abuse.

Actor John Boyega said his casting in The Force Awakens elicited a blatantly racist backlash from some fans.

“Nobody else had the uproar and death threats sent to their Instagram DMs and social media, saying, ‘Black this and black that and you shouldn’t be a Stormtrooper,'” he told British GQ last year.

“Nobody else had that experience. But yet people are surprised that I’m this way. That’s my frustration.”

Covid: Number of patients on ventilators passes 4,000 for first time

The number of coronavirus patients on mechanical ventilation in the UK has passed 4,000 for the first time in the pandemic.

A total of 4,076 Covid patients were on hospital ventilators as of Friday, according to government data.

That is higher than during the first wave, when the peak was 3,301 on 12 April.

It comes as another 1,348 deaths and 33,552 new infections were reported on Saturday.

The UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, told a Downing Street news briefing on Friday: “The death rate’s awful and it’s going to stay, I’m afraid, high for a little while before it starts coming down.”

Meanwhile, new figures show that a record number of seriously-ill Covid patients are being transferred from over-stretched hospitals because of a lack of bed space.

About 1 in 10 patients admitted to intensive care are being sent to a different site, according to the body which audits critical care services.

It comes as some scientists said that signs a new Covid variant is more deadly than the earlier version should not be a “game changer” in the UK’s response to the pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday that there was “some evidence” the variant that emerged in the UK may be associated with “a higher degree of mortality”.

But the co-author of the study the PM was referring to said the variant’s deadliness remained an “open question”.

Another adviser said he was surprised Mr Johnson had shared the findings when the data was “not particularly strong”. A third top medic said it was “too early” to be “absolutely clear”.

Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle also said it was not “absolutely clear” the new variant was more deadly than the original.

“There is some evidence, but it is very early evidence. It is small numbers of cases and it is far too early to say,” she told the Today programme.

Meanwhile, senior doctors are calling on England’s chief medical officer to cut the gap between the first and second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

The British Medical Association told Prof Chris Whitty an extension to the maximum gap between jab from three weeks to 12 weeks, to get the first dose to more people, was “difficult to justify”.

Chelmsford diabetic alert dog is a miracle lifesaver

The mother of a 12-year-old diabetic girl said their dog was a “miracle lifesaver” after she warned them her daughter was seriously ill.

Chloe Johns, from Chelmsford, Essex, who has type 1 diabetes, had a sickness bug on 11 January.

Her family realised Chloe’s blood sugar was at a dangerously high level when Ruby the flat-coated retriever refused to leave her side.

Her mother Kathy Johns said it “could have been fatal if left untreated”.

She thought her daughter was recovering from the bug but Ruby continued to lick Chloe, pace restlessly and scratch at the bathroom door when she was sick.

Chloe was in fact becoming seriously dehydrated with high blood sugars.

Ms Johns checked Chloe’s ketone levels, which were so high that the machine displayed ‘maximum’, meaning she was in danger of entering a diabetic coma.

They took her to Broomfield hospital, where she was put on a drip and spent an evening on the high dependency unit.

“This was the most serious episode we’ve encountered”, Ms Johns said.

Ruby came to the family through the charity, Hypo Hounds.

Jane Pearman, its founder and chief executive, said the dog’s sense of smell is so acute “it can detect one teaspoon of blood in two Olympic-sized swimming pool – which is why certain breeds of dogs make such good Hypo Hounds”.

She said: We are super proud of Ruby’s intelligence and training, as well as the whole Johns family, for trusting Ruby when she was trying to tell them something was wrong.”

Chloe added: “Ruby is my best friend, she makes me happy and feel safe”.

Covid in Scotland: Food bank volunteers get vaccine before over 80s

Volunteers at a food bank in Midlothian have said they have received Covid vaccinations – ahead of the majority of those over the age of 80.

On Friday, Nicola Sturgeon said 34% of over 80s had received their first dose.

Mark Wells, manager of the Food Facts Friends food bank in Penicuik, said he and six volunteers had received jags in the past week.

NHS Lothian said it had not received detailed guidance on what counts as a priority health and social care worker.

A spokesperson for the health board said health and social care workers who work with the very vulnerable were eligible for vaccination at this stage.

This group can include those who work in the voluntary sector – with workers able to book vaccines “on a self-triage basis”.

The spokesperson added: “At present, we do not have further or more detailed national guidance to help quantify what is meant by priority health and social care workers.”

NHS Lothian said it can be “more prescriptive” within the the health board, and only encourage staff who are eligible – for example because they are patient-facing – to book appointments.

They added that individuals who are not currently volunteering, or do not have interaction with the very vulnerable, may choose to wait until they are eligible as part of the mass vaccination programme.

Phil Doggart, a Scottish Conservative councillor on Edinburgh City Council, said: “There is frustration among residents that family members, particularly in care homes, have not been vaccinated while the vaccine roll out to others appears to be testing the definitions of the priority groupings.”

About 95% of care home residents and 77% of staff have now had the vaccine, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the daily coronavirus briefing on Friday.

Pauline Winchester, a Scottish Conservative councillor on Midlothian Council, said booking vaccines “should be policed at either the telephone stage or the vaccination stage”.

She added: “One volunteer told them that he was indeed a volunteer who worked in a foodbank – and was still told that he is eligible.

“It appears that anyone who has the relevant freephone number and calls will get an appointment for the Covid vaccination.”

She added: “Scotland is well behind the rest of the UK for vaccinations of over 80 years old.”

Scotland’s latest official vaccination figures, published on Wednesday, showed that 13% of the 80-and-over age group had received their first dose by last weekend.

However on Friday, Nicola Sturgeon said this figure had increased to more than a third of over 80s.

The figure for England, published on Thursday, reported that 56.3% of the 80 and over age group had been vaccinated.

Cllr Winchester added: “If there are spaces, which there plainly are, then why are others, such as the police, not now being called forward?

“On the one hand we are hearing from the Scottish government that there aren’t enough vaccine doses and then on the other we have a system whereby anyone can call, make an appointment and get a vaccination.”

The Scottish government has been asked to comment.

Meanwhile on Saturday, more than 5,000 health and social care staff are receiving vaccines at the NHS Louisa Jordan Hospital as part of a mass vaccination drive by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

Across 65 vaccination stations, 500 doses of the Pfizer vaccine can be delivered per hour at the site.

Vaccinations are scheduled to continue until 19:30 on Saturday.

On Wednesday, official figures said 137,005 healthcare workers and 19,482 social care workers had already received their first injection.

Larry King: Veteran US talk show host dies aged 87

Larry King, giant of US broadcasting who achieved worldwide fame for interviewing political leaders and celebrities, has died at the age of 87.

King conducted an estimated 50,000 interviews in his six-decade career, which included 25 years as host of the popular CNN talk show Larry King Live.

He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to Ora Media, a production company he co-founded.

Earlier this month, he was treated in hospital for Covid-19, US media say.

The talk show host had faced several health problems in recent years, including heart attacks.

“For 63 years and across the platforms of radio, television and digital media, Larry’s many thousands of interviews, awards, and global acclaim stand as a testament to his unique and lasting talent as a broadcaster,” Ora Media said in a statement.

King rose to fame in the 1970s with his radio programme The Larry King Show, on the commercial network Mutual Broadcasting System.

He was then the host of Larry King Live on CNN, between 1985 and 2010, carrying out interviews with a host of guests.

He also wrote a column for the USA Today newspaper for over 20 years.

Most recently, King hosted another programme, Larry King Now, broadcast on Hulu and RT, Russia’s state-controlled international broadcaster.

Paul Davies: An understated Tory Senedd leader

Paul Davies has been something of an understated figure leading the Welsh Conservative group in Cardiff Bay since he won the race to succeed Andrew RT Davies in September 2018.

The Senedd member for Preseli Pembrokeshire tried to move the party group in the direction of being more sceptical of devolution.

But a row over drinking on Senedd premises ended his ambitions to be the first Conservative first minister of Wales.

Born in 1969, Paul Davies grew up in the village of Pontsian in Ceredigion.

He attended Llandysul Grammar School and Newcastle Emlyn Comprehensive School before working for a bank for 20 years.

Mr Davies entered Cardiff Bay politics in 2007 when he was elected to the then National Assembly for Wales. He was appointed deputy leader of the Welsh Conservative group in 2011 before becoming interim leader and then leader in 2018.

Presented as a safe pair of hands during his leadership campaign he has, at times, almost appeared to have been overshadowed by his predecessor Andrew RT Davies, who sometimes seems to enjoy media appearances more than his leader.

Faced with the potential rise of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, Paul Davies attempted to steer the Welsh Tories towards a more devo-sceptic, if not anti-devolution, approach.

He pledged a future Conservative Welsh Government would not “tread on Westminster’s turf”, and “respect what is not devolved” by “unpicking” the Welsh Government’s international relations department.

There were also promises to halve the current number of Welsh ministers to seven, freeze civil servant recruitment and not increase the budget of the body which runs the Senedd if he became first minister.

But the coronavirus pandemic has, arguably, made it even harder for opposition party leaders in the Senedd to cut through to the wider electorate.

The crisis has given Labour First Minister Mark Drakeford a much bigger profile, on a Wales and UK stage, making it more difficult for other Welsh party leaders to get onto the news agenda.

Last July, there were raised eyebrows when Paul Davies suggested “a dose of Dom” was needed in Wales to “shake up” its governance.

The reference to the prime minister’s now departed chief advisor and brutal political operator Dominic Cummings was interesting, given the criticism heaped on Mr Cummings a couple of months earlier for driving his family 260 miles from his London home to Durham during lockdown, and a subsequent 25-mile trip to check his eyesight before a return trip.

Backing Remain at the 2016 referendum on EU membership, Paul Davies aimed to steer a steady course during a fractious period for a Conservative Party dealing with the polarising issue of Brexit.

He has been loyal to the UK party leader of the day, and often stuck to the Westminster line rather than try to carve an independent stance.

Despite this, Mr Davies had wanted the Tory Senedd group leader to be given the title Welsh Conservative leader.

It is something the party has never formally agreed to do despite a review of its Welsh structures.