Apple event: AirTag, iPad and iMac lead line-up

Apple has shown off its latest product line-up in its first big event of 2021.

The firm is increasing the number of products which will contain its own in-house developed M1 chip, as the sector struggles with a global semiconductor shortage.

It finally unveiled its much-anticipated tracker tile, the AirTag, which will launch at the end of April.

And it announced its first significant update to the iconic iMac desktop computer in recent years.

It also showcased a new iPad Pro, complete with M1 chip and 5G connectivity.

What was not discussed, but was later shared by Apple, was the roll-out of the latest version of its operating system, iOS 14.5, which will include a controversial update limiting what app owners can see about user activity outside of their own apps without permission.

It’s a popular business model for “free” internet services, including Facebook, which use the data they gather on their members’ online habits to target advertising.

AirTags have been highly-anticipated by Apple fans. They are small round disks which can be attached to anything, and transmit a Bluetooth signal to a home gadget – an iPad or iPhone – to alert the user to their location.

The original Tile tracker, a rival product, launched following a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014.

AirTags will cost £29 ($29 in US) and are due to launch on April 30, said Apple engineering program manager Carolyn Wolfman-Estrada. They work with all devices containing the U1 chip, which includes the iPhone 11 (which launched in 2019) and later models.

She also said they were designed to “track items not people”, with features such as rotating identifiers and audible alerts from unknown tags built in to protect privacy.

Colleen Novielli showed off new super-thin iMacs in seven different colours, built with Apple’s new M1 chip, and a 24in, 11.3 million pixel screen, along with a revamped camera and other upgrades. One of Apple’s older products, the iMac has not seen a significant revamp for years.

However, it only has a top RAM (the device’s short-term memory) of 16GB, putting it on a par with the older Mac Mini.

“It is little surprise Apple has resisted updating the iMac over the last few years, given the transformational impact the M1 architecture has had on the overall design,” commented Leo Gebbie from CCS insight.

“This is an endorsement of Apple’s multi-year, multi-billion-dollar investment in creating its own silicon platforms which now power all its key devices.”

The M1 chip, an ultra-wide camera and 5G data connectivity are all coming to the new iPad Pro, said product manager Raja Bose.

The M1 chip will make the latest version’s graphics performance 1,500 times faster than the original, he said, in a presentation which focused on the iPad’s graphics and gaming benefits.

The new model will also feature up to 2 terabytes of storage.

According to analysts IDC, the tablet market overall grew in 2020 for the first time in seven years, with sales driven by consumers and education providers during the global pandemic.

“Tablets emerged as a reliable alternative for consumers to meet their needs for content consumption and provide access to remote schooling during the lockdown,” said Daniel Goncalves from IDC.

Mr Goncalves added that many households had bought extra tablets in the last 12 months, in order to keep up with their increased use.

Apple also announced a new subscription podcast platform, in keeping with its move towards streaming services, first announced in 2019.

And it showed off a new 4K Apple TV, with a re-designed Siri remote and HDR (High Dynamic Range). HDR offers a greater range of colours, making pictures more vivid and realistic. Sky launched an HDR service last year for a selection of its nature documentaries – but only to customers with specific premium subscriptions.

This launch wasn’t exactly chock-a-block with surprises.

The move to Apple’s own silicon has so far been a success.

The new M1 chip Macbooks have had rave reviews – so it was only a matter of time before Apple switched its other products over to the new design.

The new iMacs and iPads will be the fastest and most powerful ever – though it would of course be preposterous if they weren’t.

Interestingly Apple also announced its much speculated AirTags.

You’ll be able to attach it to your keys or your dog’s collar, anything. If you lose them, you’ll be able to find it using your phone.

This looks very much like a product already on the market, Tile – though AirTags appears at first view to have a different tracking system.

This is another example in the long line of Big Tech companies borrowing/copying ideas from smaller companies, and it’s these kinds of moves that many US lawmakers don’t like.

And this launch was interesting too for what wasn’t discussed.

It was speculated that Apple might launch its new app tracking transparency feature – and we now know the latest version of its operating system, iOS 14.5, is due out next week.

Apple wants to limit how companies follow you on the internet on Apple devices. It says it wants to protect its customer’s privacy.

Platforms like Facebook, that relies heavily on ad revenue, is against the move.

However this evening’s event was all about the products.

TikTok sued for billions over use of childrens data

TikTok is facing a legal challenge from former children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield over how it collects and uses children’s data.

The claim is being filed on behalf of millions of children in the UK and EU who have used the hugely popular video-sharing app.

If successful, the children affected could each be owed thousands of pounds.

TikTok said the case was without merit and it would fight it.

Lawyers will allege that TikTok takes children’s personal information, including phone numbers, videos, exact location and biometric data, without sufficient warning, transparency or the necessary consent required by law, and without children or parents knowing what is being done with that information.

In response, the video-sharing app said: “Privacy and safety are top priorities for TikTok and we have robust policies, processes and technologies in place to help protect all users, and our teenage users in particular. We believe the claims lack merit and intend to vigorously defend the action.”

TikTok has more than 800 million users worldwide and parent firm ByteDance made billions in profits last year, with the vast majority of that coming via advertising revenue.

The claim is being launched on behalf of all children who have used TikTok since 25 May 2018, regardless of whether they have an account or their privacy settings. Children not wishing to be represented can opt out.

Ms Longfield told the BBC she was focusing on TikTok because, while all social media platforms collected information, TikTok had “excessive” data collection policies.

“TikTok is a hugely popular social media platform that has helped children keep in touch with their friends during an incredibly difficult year. However, behind the fun songs, dance challenges and lip-sync trends lies something far more sinister.”

She alleges the firm is “a data collection service that is thinly veiled as a social network” which has “deliberately and successfully deceived parents”.

She added that those parents have a “right to know” what private information is being collected via TikTok’s “shadowy data collection practices”.

The case is being represented by law firm Scott and Scott. Partner Tom Southwell said he believed the information collected by TikTok represents “a severe breach of UK and EU data protection law”.

“TikTok and ByteDance’s advertising revenue is built on the personal information of its users, including children. Profiting from this information without fulfilling its legal obligations, and its moral duty to protect children online, is unacceptable.”

The case is not without precedent.

In 2019, the Chinese firm was given a record $5.7m fine by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), for mishandling children’s data.

The firm has been fined in South Korea over how it collects children’s data, and in the UK, it has been investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

That action revolved around, which was incorporated into TikTok, knowingly hosting content published by users under the age of 13.

TikTok was ordered to delete the data and set up an age verification system.

According to Ofcom, 44% of eight to 12-year-olds in the UK use TikTok, despite its policies forbidding under-13s on the platform.

The legal action against TikTok was first brought by an anonymous 12-year-old girl last year, supported by Ms Longfield.

At the time, Ms Longfield said she was waiting to see the result of another case before proceeding with suing TikTok.

The case in question was brought by Which? director Richard Lloyd on behalf of four million iPhone users who, he alleges, were illegally tracked by Google.

Despite being launched in 2017, the case has still not had the go-ahead and is due to be heard by the Supreme Court soon.

“It could be difficult for similar cases to succeed if the Supreme Court dismisses Mr Lloyd’s ability to bring his claim,” said Richard Leedham, partner at law firm Mishcon de Reya.

Higher petrol prices drive up cost of living in March

The UK inflation rate rose to 0.7% in the 12 months to March, up from 0.4% in February, pushed up by the increased cost of fuel, transport and clothes.

The figure from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was slightly below economists’ forecasts, with lower food prices offsetting other price rises.

Fuel prices in March showed their biggest annual increase since January 2020, the ONS said.

Inflation is forecast to rise further due to higher energy and oil prices.

The Bank of England has forecast that inflation could reach 1.9% by the end of 2021, with other experts saying it will exceed 2% before the end of year.

The March inflation figure would have been higher without a fall in food prices, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

ONS deputy national statistician Jonathan Athow said: “The rate of inflation increased with petrol prices rising and clothes recovering from the falls seen in February.

“However, food prices fell back on the year, as prices of some staples were lower than at the start of the pandemic.”

Inflation had unexpectedly eased in February, in part because of the biggest annual fall in clothing and footwear costs since 2009.

Discounting, which had been commonplace in February, eased somewhat in March, the ONS said, however it was still unseasonably high.

Pantheon’s chief UK economist, Samuel Tombs, believes the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) will reach the Bank of England’s 2% target rate as early as May.

“Looking ahead, CPI inflation looks set to jump to about 1.7% in April, driven primarily by a large semi-annual increase in electricity and natural gas prices, as well as the anniversary of the collapse in oil prices at the start of the pandemic,” he said.

“April’s data also will be collected after shops reopened and hospitality businesses resumed outdoor service, so the inflation rates for clothing and food service activities probably will both rise.”

And Paul Craig, at Quilter Investors, said that with the UK economy opening from lockdown, inflation had reached a turning point.

“Price growth is now on an upward trajectory, and should remain so for some time to come,” he warned. “From here, inflation may tick markedly higher if the steady drip of consumer spending morphs into a waterfall as lockdown restrictions are lifted and households spend some of their accumulated pandemic savings.”

Inflation fell in the early months of lockdown last year, with petrol hitting as low as 106.2p per litre in May. The ONS said on Tuesday that pump prices hit 123.7p a litre in March.

Domestic energy bills are also rising. Regulator Ofgem’s price cap on household bills rose from the beginning of this month.

Laith Khalaf, financial analyst at AJ Bell, said: “The big question is whether the economic recovery, combined with fiscal and monetary stimulus, will start to foster a more sustained, inflationary trend that has the potential to get out of hand.”

But he added: “This risk isn’t likely to come home to roost anytime soon, with unemployment expected to rise later this year, thereby acting as a drag on rising wages.”

Meanwhile, the Retail Price Index (RPI), used to calculate train ticket price rises and student loan interest, rose from 1.4% to 1.5%.

Asda takeover could lead to higher petrol prices

Asda’s sale to forecourt tycoons the Issa brothers could raise petrol prices in some parts of the UK, the competition watchdog has warned.

The Competition and Markets Authority found “local competition concerns” regarding fuel in 37 areas in the UK.

Zuber and Mohsin Issa, and TDR Capital, agreed to buy Asda for £6.8bn last year. However, they also own 395 UK petrol stations while Asda owns 323.

The Issa brothers said they would work with the CMA to find a solution.

The deal to buy the UK’s third-largest supermarket chain from its US owner Walmart was announced in October last year.

However, the CMA launched an initial inquiry into the takeover in December to see if it would lead to a “substantial lessening of competition”.

Following the competition body’s initial findings, the buyers now have five working days to address its concerns and avoid a more in-depth investigation.

Joel Bamford, CMA senior director of mergers, said: “Our job is to protect consumers by making sure there continues to be strong competition between petrol stations, which leads to lower prices at the pump.

“These are two key players in the market, and it’s important that we thoroughly analyse the deal to make sure that people don’t end up paying over the odds.

“Right now, we’re concerned the merger could lead to higher prices for motorists in certain parts of the UK. However, if the companies can provide a clear-cut solution to address our concerns, we won’t carry out an in-depth Phase 2 investigation.”

A spokesperson for the Issa brothers and TDR Capital said: “We will be working constructively with the CMA over the course of the next 10 days in order to arrive at a satisfactory outcome for all parties within Phase 1.

“This would provide welcome certainty for our colleagues, suppliers and customers, and allow us to move forward with our exciting plans for investment and growth at Asda.”

UK government intervenes in Nvidia takeover of chip designer Arm

The UK government is to examine the sale of computer chip designer Arm Holdings to a US company on national security grounds.

Japan’s SoftBank intended to sell the UK tech company to Nvidia for about $40bn (£29.5bn).

But Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said he wanted the UK’s competition watchdog to assess its implications.

“Following careful consideration of the proposed takeover, I have today issued an intervention notice,” he said.

“As a next step and to help me gather the relevant information, the UK’s independent competition authority will now prepare a report on the implications of the transaction, which will help inform any further decisions.”

Arm’s technology is at the heart of most smartphones and smart devices worldwide.

But there were concerns when the Cambridge-based designer – which licenses its tech to the likes of Apple, Samsung and Huawei – accepted the offer from Nvidia, a US graphics chip specialist.

In January, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced it was looking into the deal amid worries it could lead Arm to withdraw, raise prices or reduce the quality of its services to Nvidia’s rivals.

Mr Dowden has now ordered it to begin a “phase one” investigation, which will decide whether a full “phase two” investigation is needed that could lead to the deal being blocked.

A spokesperson for Nvidia said: “We do not believe that this transaction poses any material national security issues.

“We will continue to work closely with the British authorities, as we have done since the announcement of this deal.”

Last year, more than 2,000 business leaders signed an open letter calling on the prime minister to stop the merger, saying UK jobs and influence could be lost.

Nvidia has promised to keep Arm based in the UK, to hire more staff, and to retain its brand.

It said that the deal would create “the premier computing company for the age of artificial intelligence”.

Nvidia could face barriers from other regulators around the world.

China, in particular, has already made clear that it is not happy about a deal which gives so much power to an American giant at a time when the US has sought to deny Chinese firms access to chip technology.

The CMA will have until 30 July to submit its findings to the digital secretary.

When Arm was sold to Japan’s SoftBank just after the 2016 EU referendum, the government celebrated the deal as a vote of confidence in the UK. Some had misgivings about what they saw as the jewel in the crown of 21st Century British technology falling into foreign hands, but guarantees that research and development would be strengthened in Cambridge seemed to allay ministers’ concerns.

Then when SoftBank sold Arm on to the American chip giant Nvidia last year, there were even louder complaints from the likes of Hermann Hauser who had been instrumental in the founding of the company more than 30 years ago. But it seemed there was even less likelihood of an intervention – what business of the Competition and Markets Authority was a deal between a Japanese and an American company?

But much has changed since 2016. Arm being bought by Nvidia is, it appears, a national security concern now in a way that the Softbank deal was not. Why? Well the vital importance of the semiconductor industry has become clear in recent months, with chips at the centre of a US-China trade war and chip shortages halting production at car plants.

There has also been a major shift in the UK’s attitude towards industrial policy. After three decades of a laissez-faire approach from both Conservative and Labour governments there’s a new willingness to intervene – witness the move to spend taxpayers’ money on a controlling stake in the failing satellite business OneWeb.

With other governments and regulators around the world not convinced that Nvidia owning Arm will be good for competition in the chip industry, it is far from certain that this deal will go through.

Amazon: How one cancer patients story helps explain the Alabama union vote

Carla Johnson turned 45 on Tuesday, a milestone she thought she might not reach.

On 12 July, she walked up to a manager at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and said she felt unwell.

Shortly afterwards, she had a seizure on the floor. She was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with brain cancer.

She’s exactly the type of person you might expect to have supported a recent vote to create the first trade union of Amazon workers, in order to safeguard her job post-surgery.

But despite having been in a union in her previous career, she was one of a majority of employees – two-to-one, in fact – to vote the proposal down.

“Amazon has been a godsend for me,” she says.

Carla was a teacher for 14 years in Birmingham, Alabama. She taught 12 and 13-year-old children science.

In 2019 she decided to work for a contractor – preparing students for exams. Then the pandemic hit. With pupils no longer in school, the work dried up.

She looked around for other jobs and found a company that was actually hiring – Amazon. Her first shift was in May.

“I first started out packing. Depending on the item, I would pack it in the box, give it an address and put it on a conveyor belt to be shipped out to the customers. It wasn’t anything that was hard.”

Then one Sunday in July her world fell apart. After her seizure, she remembers telling the paramedics to ring her mum, but little else.

She had surgery to remove a brain tumour, and chemotherapy. Her treatment has cost around $170,000 (£123,000) so far. She says she would never have been able to pay without insurance.

To understand labour relations in the US is impossible without looking at healthcare.

A job isn’t just a pay cheque, it’s a ticket to a longer, healthier life – for workers and their families.

Crucial then to Amazon’s strategy to win a union vote was its healthcare plan for workers. “Starting pay of at least $15 per hour and comprehensive healthcare from day one” was the oft-said message.

Amazon’s tactics had a darker side though. The union wanted to talk about excessive workload, bathroom breaks and pay. Amazon pushed the narrative that the union might take away worker benefits, including healthcare.

Workers were bombarded with messages, including texts, which claimed workers’ benefits might be bargained away by the union.

“You may end up with more, the same, or less” is the message from a union info-website set up by Amazon.

In practice, it would be highly unusual for a union to negotiate away existing perks – and of course it would be Amazon taking away the benefits.

“The only way that happens is if the employer decides to take them away. The union’s not going to argue: ‘Let’s cut benefits for the workers'” says Stuart Appelbaum, head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that is pushing for Amazon workers to unionise.

Mr Appelbaum is angry. He believes Amazon played dirty – that the messaging given to Amazon workers at “union education meetings” for example, known by the union as “captive audience meetings”, was misinformation dressed up as fact.

The Amazon centre itself was cloaked in anti-union messaging – in the bathrooms, the break rooms and the entrance, for example.

Darryl Richardson voted for the union. But while trying to persuade others, he realised Amazon’s messaging was working: “They were scared that healthcare was going to be taken away. That’s why a lot of them voted “no” against the union. We got the outcome we have now because they threatened them, that benefits and wages were going to drop.”

Darryl himself had been laid off from his job in a car plant during the pandemic. He’s thankful for the job he has and doesn’t want to leave. But he believes Amazon’s characterisation of the union was inaccurate – particularly when it came to wages and healthcare.

Another area of controversy were union subs, or dues. Critics say that much of Amazon’s narrative was based around the idea that workers would have to pay the union money. However, Alabama is a Right To Work state. No worker has to pay subs. So did Amazon break the law in their messaging?

“It’s not clear” says Prof John Logan, a labour expert at San Francisco State University.

“They are very skilled in operating in the grey areas, that’s why they’re so effective. You know some of what they say is clearly legal. Other things are kind of pushing the boundaries of the law – and the weakness of the law.”

Amazon says: “It was important that all employees understood the facts of joining a union… If the union vote passed, it would impact everyone at the site and it’s important all associates understood what that meant for them”.

But whether the messaging was on the right side of the law or not, one thing was overlooked by many observers who thought the union could win.

The pandemic has caused unemployment which has disproportionately affected black communities.

Around 85% of the workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer are black.

And that means this was a workforce acutely sensitive to arguments around pay, benefits and the future of their jobs.

The union argues that Amazon’s tactics amount to “intimidation” of workers and are mounting a legal challenge. Amazon denies the allegations.

“Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us”, said a spokesperson.

Carla started working again at Amazon in November. “I felt the things the union were offering, I was already getting,” she says.

She spent her birthday having a spa day, and then watched her youngest son play baseball. She is now in remission, and firmly believes she wouldn’t be alive if she hadn’t been working for an employer with good healthcare. She may well be right.

And as for unions? Well, union membership has been falling since the 1980s. Only 6% of Americans working in the private sector are members of a union.

And unless unions can find a way of convincing people like Carla that they can make a positive impact on healthcare, benefits and wages, that’s not going to change.

James Clayton is the BBC’s North America technology reporter based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @jamesclayton5.

M&S hits back at Aldis Cuthbert the Caterpillar cake revival

Marks & Spencer has stepped up its caterpillar rights wrangle with Aldi after the discounter said its Cuthbert cake was returning for charity.

Aldi had stopped selling the cake in February, two months before M&S accused the supermarket of infringing its Colin the Caterpillar trademark.

But now sales of a limited edition version will benefit Teenage Cancer Trust and Macmillan Cancer Support.

M&S said it loved a charity idea, but Aldi should use its own character.

Unveiling the idea on social media, Aldi said: “Let’s raise money for charity, not lawyers.”

M&S replied that a cake based on Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot commercials would be better, adding: “That idea’s on us.”

Last week, M&S lodged an intellectual property claim with the High Court. It said Cuthbert’s similarity with its own Colin cake led consumers to believe they were of the same standard and “rides on the coat-tails” of M&S’s reputation.

The retailer has three trademarks relating to Colin, which it believes means Colin has acquired and retains an enhanced distinctive character.

Rival supermarkets, which all sell caterpillar cakes of their own, remained tight-lipped in the face of the action by M&S, which said it had “not ruled out” pursuing other retailers as well.

M&S said it wanted Aldi to agree not to sell anything similar in the future, but it clearly had not bargained on Aldi’s latest cheeky charity-related move.

“Hey Marks and Spencer we’re taking a stand against caterpillar cruelty. Can Colin and Cuthbert be besties?” said Aldi on social media.

“We’re bringing back a limited edition Cuthbert next month and want to donate all profits to cancer charities including your partners Macmillan Cancer Support and ours Teenage Cancer Trust,” it said, using the Twitter hashtag #caterpillarsforcancer.

Aldi said it was calling on other supermarkets to join it in raising money for cancer charities through the sale of caterpillar cakes.

M&S tweeted back: “Hey @AldiUK we love a charity idea (Colin’s been a BIG fundraiser for years). We just want you to use your own character.

“How about #kevinthecarrotcake ? That idea’s on us… and we promise we won’t do Keith.”

Colin the Caterpillar was launched by M&S about 30 years ago. His appearance has been substantially unchanged since around 2004, except for adaptations for events such as Halloween and Christmas, and related products such as Connie the Caterpillar.

Colin is central to M&S’s partnership with cancer charity Macmillan, and the retailer has created a Colin product for the annual World’s Biggest Coffee Morning fundraising event.

The cake is a sponge with milk chocolate and buttercream, topped with chocolate sweets and a smiling white chocolate face.

M&S was the first retailer to sell a caterpillar cake, but many supermarkets have since created their own similar products.

Other cakes include Waitrose’s Cecil, Sainsbury’s Wiggles, Tesco’s Curly and Asda’s Clyde the Caterpillar.

“Aldi is known to sail close to the wind on creating products which look and/or sound incredibly similar to other brands,” said Gary Assim, an intellectual property specialist at law firm Shoosmiths.

“M&S may find their case against Aldi difficult, since there are other caterpillar cakes on the market. They should have taken a zero-tolerance approach from the start if they felt that Colin and Connie were so important to them.”

Labour: Save Liberty Steel before it goes bust

The government should step in to save Liberty Steel before, not after, it collapses to save thousands of supply chain jobs and millions of pounds, the Labour Party has said.

Liberty Steel and its parent firm GFG Alliance have been in distress since its main financial backer Greensill Capital went bust in early March.

The government has pledged to preserve Liberty Steel in some form.

It said it was “closely monitoring developments” around the firm.

Labour drew parallels between Liberty Steel and British Steel, which collapsed before being bought by Chinese firm Jingye.

The government’s decision to wait until British Steel was insolvent cost the company’s supply chain £500m in unpaid bills, Labour said.

“Labour is calling on ministers to intervene early before liquidation to save workers jobs, terms and conditions, and give customers and suppliers confidence that orders will be fulfilled, bills paid, and domestic steelmaking capacity will be safeguarded,” said shadow minister for business and consumers Lucy Powell.

British Steel was run on government life support by the Official Receiver for five months at an additional cost of £500m to the taxpayer before being sold to Jingye for £50m.

The government said that its intervention enabled British Steel to continue to trade, customers to receive orders, and key suppliers to maintain their services, safeguarding more than 3,000 jobs in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East.

Regarding Liberty Steel, the government said it “continues to engage closely with the company, the broader UK steel industry and trade unions”.

This is not a straightforward situation. Greensill’s spectacular and rapid disintegration, despite the controversial efforts of former Prime Minister David Cameron to lobby on its behalf, have left a complicated Greensill carcass for administrators to pick through.

Invoices issued by Liberty and GFG, which were bought by Greensill for a discount and then sold on to investors, have left many of them billions out of pocket.

Swiss bank Credit Suisse, whose customers indirectly bought the invoices, have issued claims for billions against companies in the GFG group for repayment.

The question for Labour may be, if you rescue Liberty before it goes bust – are you suggesting the taxpayer should pay off those debts?

The government is also keen not to be seen supporting steel tycoon Sanjeev Gupta, who was once known as the saviour of steel thanks to his rescue of many loss making steel plants across the UK. Mr Gupta bought a £42m house in London before asking the UK government for a £170m taxpayer bailout.

The lobbying efforts of Mr Cameron and the access of his banker boss Lex Greensill to Number 10, government departments and the senior ranks of the civil service has provoked widespread outrage and charges of cronyism.

That will not be uppermost in the minds of 5,000 workers at Liberty and other GFG companies who face a nail-biting wait to see if Mr Gupta can find another financier to replace Greensill – or see the company fall into some form of public ownership.

The government has pledged to preserve the company in some form. For the Labour Party, sooner is better to avoid the collateral damage of an insolvency – but this is a very tangled and potentially expensive web to untangle.

HSBC boss Noel Quinn scraps executive floor at London HQ

Banking giant HSBC has confirmed that top managers in its Canary Wharf HQ have lost their offices and will have to hot-desk on an open-plan floor.

It comes as HSBC pursues plans to shrink its office space by 40% in a post-pandemic shake-up.

Boss Noel Quinn said the whole bank was embracing “hybrid working” and he would no longer come in five days a week.

“My leadership team and I have moved to a fully open-plan floor with no designated desks,” he said on Linkedin.

Up to now, senior managers have been based on the 42nd floor of the building in east London in their own private offices.

But in future, they will be jostling for workspaces two floors down, while their old offices have been transformed into client meeting rooms and other communal spaces.

Mr Quinn told the FT that the old arrangement had been “a waste of real estate”, adding: “Our offices were empty half the time because we were travelling around the world.”

In a separate post on LinkedIn he said that after more than a year working from home, being based in an open plan office would allow him to “reconnect with colleagues and friends [and] be able to speak to them informally”.

He added that most staff at the bank would be able to work part-time from home in future.

“A minority of roles can be done wholly remotely. We estimate, though, that most of our roles could be done in a hybrid way – and that includes myself and the executive team of the bank.”

At the same time, HSBC is pushing ahead with one of the banking industry’s most drastic responses to the pandemic, including cost-cutting plans that will reduce its workforce by about 35,000.

Other firms in the sector have announced plans to embrace hybrid working as employees signal their desire to commute less.

One big UK employer, the Nationwide building society, has indicated that it does not intend to force people to return to the office if they have been successfully able to work from home during the pandemic.

It said about two-thirds of its 18,000 employees had been working from home for the past year.

No new smart motorways without additional safety measures

No more smart motorways without hard shoulders will be able to open without additional safety measures in place, the government has said.

It said any new “all lane running” roads would need radar technology installed first to detect stopped cars.

Smart motorways use technology and other measures to cut congestion, such as opening the hard shoulder.

But there are fears about their safety after fatal accidents involving stationary cars being hit from behind.

In a written statement to Parliament, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that for every hundred million miles driven there were fewer deaths on all-lane motorways than conventional ones.

But he added: “We are determined to do all we can to help drivers feel safer and be safer on our roads – all our roads.”

He said Highways England would now accelerate the introduction of a number of safety measures set out last year.

“Most significantly, radar-based stopped vehicle detection technology will now be installed on all operational all lane running (ALR) motorways by September 2022, six months earlier than planned,” he said.

“Highways England has also made a commitment that no ALR motorways will open without radar technology to spot stopped vehicles, enable lanes to be closed where necessary and get help to drivers quickly.”

Other measures include upgrading cameras so motorists ignoring closed lanes indicated by red X signs can be caught and prosecuted, and putting more signs up about distances to emergency refuge areas.

The RAC’s head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, said the motoring organisation was “concerned that drivers will still need to wait up to 18 months before all cameras are enforcing red X lane closed signs”.

He said: “Enforcement is vital in getting all drivers to obey these signs as anyone who disregards them is at a much greater risk of being in collision with a stranded vehicle.”

Smart motorways, which use technology to maintain the flow of traffic and give information on overhead displays, have existed in England since 2002.

The “all lane running” versions – which involves opening the hard shoulder permanently to drivers – began in 2014.

But a coroner in Sheffield found in January that such roads “present an ongoing risk of future deaths” after two people were killed when a lorry ploughed into their vehicles while they were stationary on the M1 in South Yorkshire.

Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason Mercer died in the accident in June 2019, and who now campaigns against smart motorways, said: “It’s all compromises. Nothing is new. Nothing short of giving back the hard shoulder in every single instance will be acceptable.”

She said she was sitting in a coffee shop with her husband Jason just before he was killed.

“We were sat chatting. At 8 o’clock he got up to leave, kissed me goodbye, told me he loved me, and apparently he was dead by 8:15,” she said.

Her husband and another motorist, Alexandru Murgeanu, had stopped after a minor collision.

She said over the past few months support for her campaign had grown exponentially.

“I just don’t understand why they [the government] are digging in against accepting public opinion… People are starting to get really angry about being ignored.”

In 2019, 15 people were killed on “all lane running” and “dynamic hard shoulder” motorways. This is four more deaths than in 2018.

The number of people being killed on motorways without hard shoulders increased each year from 2015 to 2019, and totalled 39 deaths.

By contrast, on so-called “controlled motorways” – a type of smart motorway which have variable speed limits and a hard shoulder – there were 24 deaths in that period.

On conventional motorways, which cover more of the UK than smart motorways, there were 368 fatalities from 2015 to 2019.

The Highways England report found that crashes between moving and stationary vehicles were more likely on such motorways.

But collisions between two or more moving vehicles – which is how more people die – were less likely due to speed regulation.

The Commons’ Transport Select Committee has launched an inquiry into smart motorways, with chairman and Tory MP Huw Merriman warning there are “genuine worries” about the roads.

And the AA and RAC have raised concerns that vehicles that break down on sections of road with no hard shoulder face greater dangers than before.

Reacting to the Department for Transport’s update, AA president Edmund King said: “It is encouraging that progress has been made on our demands to make ‘smart’ motorways safer. The objective should be to create the safest roads we can.

“The number one improvement advocated by the AA and our members is to increase the number of emergency refuge areas (ERAs) and retrofit them to older schemes to ensure they are placed at approximately 0.75 miles apart.

“More ERAs, together with improving the accuracy of stopped vehicle detection radar, should be the urgent priorities.”

There are plans for about 800 miles of smart motorway in the UK by 2025 – up from just under 500 miles currently.

At the moment parts of the smart motorway network are not monitored by radar technology, but by human observation from watch centres.

It’s the nightmare scenario. Breaking down on a motorway, without a hard shoulder to take refuge on, and with cars and lorries whizzing past inches away.

The government says smart motorways are safer than conventional ones. And it points out that hard shoulders themselves are far from safe. People get killed waiting there, too.

Many motorists will find all this hard to accept, especially when they see other drivers ignoring speed limits or lane closures when incidents occur.

But the government needs to convince them. It’s cheaper to have smart motorways than bigger roads.

That’s why it says it’s going all out to improve safety on roads it claims are already very safe. It wants to reassure people.

The question is, will critics be persuaded?

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