Day: 20 March 2021

Tory MPs Urge Boris Not to Extend Lockdown Restrictions

Mounting pressure is being put on the Prime Minister by his backbenchers not to deviate from his roadmap timetable or impose a blanket ban on foreign travel in response to the resurgence of the virus on the Continent. The Observer has more.

With scientific advisers warning of the risks of overseas holidays in the late spring and summer, figures from across the Conservative party demanded that the prime minister reject an “excess of caution” in reacting to an apparent third Covid wave across the continent.

It comes with cases rising in countries including France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Turkey. Italy has recorded a near-doubling in the past month, while Paris has entered a new month-long lockdown to curb the spread. The government’s roadmap says that overseas travel from England could resume from May 17th at the earliest, should a series of conditions be satisfied. …

With tensions building in the party, a series of Tories said on Saturday that Britain’s successful vaccine programme should allow the government to deploy testing and stricter rules for high-risk countries, rather than prolonging a blanket travel ban. Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, said: “The success of the British vaccination programme should allow international travel to resume safely. It is very likely that Covid is now an endemic virus – there may be variants for years to come. We need to focus on rational mitigation and not keep resorting to disastrous lockdowns.”

Worth reading in full.

Thousands Protest Against Lockdown in London

13 people have been arrested at a protest in London in which thousands marched against the Government’s lockdown. The Guardian has the story.

Thousands marched under a heavy police presence through central London to protest against lockdown on Saturday, with at least 13 arrested.

Demonstrators gathered at Speakers’ Corner by Hyde Park at about midday, where anti-lockdown figurehead Piers Corbyn gave a speech saying he would “never take a vaccine” and falsely claiming that the scale of deaths from Covid was not dissimilar to those from flu each year.

As police surrounded him and detained a handful [sic] people as they ordered demonstrators to disperse, the crowd then marched out of the park and through London from Marble Arch. 

The march came as 62 MPs and peers wrote to the home secretary on Friday saying that allowing the police to criminalise people for protesting was “not acceptable and is arguably not lawful”, in a letter coordinated by Liberty and Big Brother Watch.

They said the right to protest was enshrined in human rights law, amid growing scrutiny of police tactics after officers forcibly dispersed demonstrators at a vigil for Sarah Everard last week.

The specific exemption to coronavirus regulations in England allowing the right to protest was removed in November, but some legal experts have said it remains a “reasonable excuse” for leaving home. It is widely accepted that transmission of coronavirus is far less likely outdoors.

At Saturday’s demonstration, police appeared to apprehend relatively small numbers of people throughout the afternoon as a helicopter hovered above. But at about 4pm officers began stepping in to separate crowds and continued to urge people to disperse, detaining some. The Metropolitan police said there were 13 confirmed arrests by around that time. Scenes back at Speaker’s Corner at 5pm were increasingly fractious.

Other protests were expected to take place elsewhere in the UK.

The BBC notes that “Scotland Yard said the number of people attending Saturday’s demonstrations exceeded expectations”.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland thousands (or, as the Guardian put it, “several“!) formed a “silent protest” against lockdown in the small northern town of Liestal.

The Guardian’s report is worth reading in full.

Isn’t it About Time We Gave Students a Break?

We’re publishing a terrific piece today by Dr John Fanning, a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Liverpool, about the authorities’ heavy-handed treatment of students in Liverpool’s Sefton Park last week. He has every sympathy for these students wanting to have a bit of fun in the sun after being cooped up like rabbits for the best part of a year. But others felt differently.

Naturally, the fun police – by which I mean Merseyside Police – were soon on the case. Dozens of officers alighted from the sort of heavy-duty police vans one might expect to see after a gangland shooting and strode purposefully into the park. They issued more than 40 fines for breaches of the coronavirus regulations, accusing at least one group of students of being part of an ‘organised festival’ before ordering them to pay a £100 fine, which will rise to £200 if unpaid after 14 days. Merseyside Police announced that it “will not tolerate irresponsible individuals” and issued a dispersal order covering a large area of south Liverpool. In a statement tinged with the sort of moral superiority that should have no place in modern policing, Superintendent Mark Wiggins said: “Unfortunately there are people who believe that the rules the rest of us abide by are not for them. We are here to protect our communities”. We can all sleep soundly in our beds, then.

The fallout from this episode is astonishing. I do not use Twitter and I seldom look at comments posted beneath news articles – there be dragons, etc. – but a brief survey of the Liverpool Echo’s website and Twitter this weekend was enough to make me lose any remaining faith I had in humanity. The students were described as a “shower of tramps”, “selfish little rats”, and “idiots” and urged – with a revolting civic nativism – to “Go back home to [their] own cities”. “They’re going to start another wave of the virus with their stupidity”, declared one of many armchair epidemiologists who weighed in with his considered view; “Water-cannon the lot of them”, suggested another.

Worth reading in full.

US Reopening Faster than UK

Despite being ahead of the US in its rollout of the vaccine, the UK is far behind when it comes to unlocking restrictions. Recent reports have suggested that some of the UK’s current restrictions could be in place for more time than was originally expected, not less. The Telegraph has the story.

The US is rapidly casting off Covid restrictions despite trailing the UK in its race to vaccinate their population.

As the UK remains in tight lockdown, wide swathes of America are now almost back to business as usual. Texas is “open 100%” according to its Governor, who has also done away with any requirement to wear a mask.

In Florida this weekend thousands of students packed on to beaches during Spring Break, while families poured into Disney World.

California, one of the most restrictive states during the pandemic, this week allowed restaurants to open for indoor dining, and permitted gyms and cinemas to operate with limited capacity.

On Friday, Joe Biden celebrated reaching his goal of having 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days. The target was surpassed six weeks early.

But the US still lags behind the UK in rolling out vaccines.

The UK has administered about 41 vaccine doses per 100 people. The US effort stands at 35 per 100 people. Both are in the top five nations on this metric.

Around 60,000 coronavirus cases, and over 1,000 deaths, are still being recorded in the US.

The UK totals are less than 6,000 cases and around 100 deaths daily, around one tenth of the US levels.

However, the UK remains glued in lockdown. Schools returned on March 8th, but not until March 29th will up to six people be allowed to meet outdoors.

Only by April 12th will hairdressers and gyms open, along with pubs for outdoor use.

Such restrictions are already unrecognisable in the US.

Clearly, America’s vaccine rollout has been impressive. The question, therefore, is not “why is the US coming out of lockdown so early” but, rather, “why is the UK still in lockdown”?

Worth reading in full.

Holidays Abroad “Extremely Unlikely” This Summer Due to Increase in Covid Cases Across Europe

Government sources fear that an increase in Covid cases on the Continent could prevent Brits from holidaying abroad this summer, and could even cause a “new wave” of infections in Britain. The Times has the story.

Scientific advisers and other senior figures are becoming extremely concerned by an increase in infections that is forcing some regions on the Continent back into lockdown. They fear a rise in cases here within weeks.

European holidays in May – and even in the summer – look doubtful. Scientists are wary of outbreaks of the South African variant in some European countries and some are calling for tougher travel restrictions.

Although the British data is heading in the right direction, with a record 660,276 vaccinations yesterday and the seven-day average of deaths falling below 100 for the first time since October, science advisers are urging caution.

A Government scientist warned there was a danger that travellers could bring back new variants of the virus that are less susceptible to vaccines.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Spi-M modelling group, told Today on Radio 4: “International travel this summer is, for the average holidaymaker, sadly I think, extremely unlikely. I think we are running a real risk if we do start to have lots of people going overseas in July and August because of the potential for bringing more of these new variants back into the country.”

“What is really dangerous is if we jeopardise our vaccination campaign by having these variants where the vaccines don’t work as effectively spreading more rapidly.”

Officials believe that an increase in Covid cases across Europe could also impact Britain’s vaccine rollout.

Rises in cases in France, Italy, Spain and Germany have prefigured similar trends in Britain several times over the pandemic. A surge in cases on the Continent is also likely to complicate Boris Johnson’s attempt to stop the European Union blocking exports of the Pfizer jab to Britain. He is hoping to recruit allies such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland to oppose Brussels, whose threats are backed by Germany, France and Italy.

This morning EU chief Ursula von der Leyen escalated the row over delayed shipments by threatening to halt exports of AstraZeneca vaccines if the bloc did not receive its deliveries first.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: A reader has pointed out the double standards in the Government’s approach to Covid testing. Why, if it’s so important to produce a negative test or to have had the vaccine before attending anything (schools included), is the Government not requiring people to take a test before getting the jab at vaccine centres (attended, until now, by those most vulnerable to Covid)?

If asymptomatic “cases” are numerous and serious – as NHS advertising still tells us they are – surely we would ALL be told to have a Covid test just before booking a vaccine slot (not just those who, for whatever reason, have recently had a test that has been positive)? Then, if positive, the we could self-isolate and wait for the recommended interval, rather than expose other people to possible infection and compromise their vaccine response.

Furlough Scheme Pays Out Millions to Foreign States and Tax Exiles

Firms owned by some of the wealthiest people in the world have benefitted from the Government’s furlough scheme over the past year, new analysis has found. Three million pounds was claimed by the Qatari owners of Harrods and the Ritz in December alone. The Guardian has the story.

Billionaire tax exiles, the British National party, Saudi royals and oil-rich Gulf states have claimed millions of pounds in taxpayer-funded furlough money, the Guardian can disclose.

The revelations, based on analysis of Government information, have sparked dismay among MPs at the use of a scheme designed to support struggling businesses and prevent mass unemployment, with one complaining of public money being scattered “like confetti”. …

The Government first published information about claimants last month, when it released data on the 750,000 businesses using the scheme in December 2020. Since then, details of some claimants have emerged, including Tony and Cherie Blair, and golf courses owned by Donald Trump.

But many of the beneficiaries have remained hidden until now, often due to complex company ownership structures. The Guardian cross-referenced Government data with Companies House filings that reveal who owns a controlling stake in UK businesses.

The analysis shows firms owned by some of the world’s wealthiest people and entities benefited from the scheme. The figures below are just a snapshot of one month. Some companies will have claimed more since the furlough scheme, under which the Government covers 80% of an employee’s wages, began in March last year.

The Guardian’s list of beneficiaries of the coronavirus job retention scheme include (but is not exclusive to) Qataris behind Harrods and the Ritz hotel, the ruler of Dubai, tax exiles and the British National party.

Harrods, owned by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund and the Ritz hotel, owned by the ruler of Qatar’s brother-in-law, claimed up to £3 million between them in December.

Four Saudi royals received up to £55,000 for four companies, one of which manages the 2,000-acre Glympton Park estate in Oxfordshire, owned until this year by Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the US.

The Government of Dubai, and its ruler Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, have also claimed for companies including a “six-star” 24-hour concierge service for VIPs.

And the list goes on. Claims made in January are also expected to have been published by April.

Worth reading in full.

News Round Up