The Queen’s humiliating removal of Prince Andrew from military and royal roles over his sexual assault case dominates the front pages today.
Using a photograph of a grim-looking Duke of York being driven to Windsor Castle to face his defenestration, the Telegraph headline says “Queen freezes out Andrew”.
The Mail also goes with the same haunting picture and the headline “Driven out” after the showdown meeting at Windsor Castle, and claims that it was his older brother Prince Charles “who demanded his exile over US sex case”. Prince Andrew strongly denies the assault accusations brought by Virginia Giuffre.
The Guardian says “Queen strips Andrew of military and royal roles” alongside a large picture of the prince in full military garb.
The Times goes with “Andrew humiliated as Queen strips his titles” under a picture of the prince and his mother at a state occasion in happier times.
In a drama that seems tailor-made for an episode of The Crown, the Express reckons that the Queen has acted to safeguard the wider interests of the royal family. “Queen casts Andrew adrift… for sake of the monarchy”, proclaims its headline.
Never ones to see the chance for a good pun wasted, the Sun’s splash head is “Throne out”, and says that the Queen’s “favourite son” is now merely a private citizen.
The Metro can’t resist the play on words either …
The main head in the Scotsman is “Queen strips Prince of his titles as sex case looms”, while the i has “Prince Andrew cast out by the Queen”.
The Mirror does not lead with the Andrew story, relegating it to a picture tease on the front . However, its main story does have a royal angle, claiming “No 10 ‘parties on eve of Philip funeral’” while the Queen mourned the death of her husband alone last year.
Nearly a quarter of the world’s population experienced a record hot year in 2021, as the climate crisis continues to unleash escalating temperatures around the globe, according to new data from leading US climate scientists.
“Science leaves no room for doubt: climate change is the existential threat of our time,” said Bill Nelson, administrator of Nasa. Nelson said that eight out of the top 10 hottest years have occurred in the past decade, which “underscores the need for bold action to safeguard the future of our country – and all of humanity”.
There were record-high temperatures in parts of northern Africa, south Asia and parts of South America last year, Arctic sea ice continued its decline and the oceans recorded yet another record year for heat content. “The oceans are storing a heck of a lot of heat,” said Russell Vose, a senior climate scientist at Noaa. “If it weren’t for the large heat storage capacity of the oceans, the atmosphere would’ve warmed a lot more rapidly.”
Gavin Schmidt, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said the changes under way in the Arctic, which is warming at about three times the rate of the global average, are “extremely dramatic” and will affect the rest of the world through, among other things, sea-level rise from melting glaciers. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” he said.
While 2021 did not top the record heat set in 2020, which was only fractionally hotter than 2016, scientists said last year was yet another demonstration of the long-term global heating that is being caused by human activity, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at levels not seen on Earth in the past 4m years.
“It doesn’t matter how you do the analysis, it shows you the Earth has warmed quite dramatically,” said Vose. Noaa and Nasa undertake their own temperature analyses in slightly different ways, using data from weather stations, ships and ocean buoys.
“It’s clear that each of the past four decades has been warmer than the one preceding it,” he added. “It’s certainly warmer now than at any time in the past 2,000 years, and probably longer.”
Earlier this week, the European climate agency Copernicus said 2021 was the fifth hottest year on record, with the last seven years the hottest ever documented. A slight edge was taken off last year’s temperatures by a La Niña, a periodic climatic event that cools the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Despite not being the hottest individual year on record, 2021 did contain a number of extraordinary signs of climate breakdown. July last year was the world’s hottest month ever recorded, with Death Valley in California recording what may be the hottest temperature ever reliably measured during this month, at 54.4C (130F).
A total of 1.8 billion people, approaching a quarter of the world’s population, live in countries that did experience the hottest year on record, according to a separate analysis released on Thursday by Berkeley Earth. A total of 25 countries, including China, Nigeria and Iran, recorded a record warm annual average in 2021.
“No one lives at the global average temperature,” said Robert Rohde, lead scientist at Berkeley Earth. “Most land areas will experience more warming than the global average, and countries must plan their responses to this.”
Last year also saw a cascade of disasters that scientists have determined were worsened by the world’s excess heat. Floods devastated parts of Germany and China, while the Pacific north-west of North America saw an unprecedented, and deadly, heatwave that scientists said would have ben “virtually impossible” without climate change.
“What terrifies me … is that these facts and figures are no longer surprising or shocking,” said Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Rising temperatures are already triggering dire impacts worldwide, and will only worsen as the planet warms.”
The world’s governments agreed in the Paris climate accords to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial times to avoid disastrous climate change but this threshold is now in view, Vose said, with a 50% chance at least one year this decade will hit 1.5C and the average temperature to reach this level “sometime in the 2030s and certainly by the 2040s” if planet-heating emissions are not cut.
2022 will probably be in the top 10 hottest years, with a small chance of it being the hottest year on record “without something like a volcano erupting or a comet slamming into Earth”, Vose said.
Schmidt said the impact of global heating will continue to worsen as the world warms further. “We are already seeing the impacts in local weather events and extremes such as heatwaves and intense precipitation,” he said.
“We’ve reached a point where this is not just an academic measure of what’s going on. It’s now being reflected in weather and events we are seeing.”
You start the day with the best intentions, determined to be productive and efficient. Yet, before you’ve even had your mid-morning coffee, you’re derailed by a chaotic procession of interruptions, distractions and poor project management. Before you know it, you are stressed, tired and brain fog has descended.
But don’t worry – help is at hand. Dr Sahar Yousef, a leading expert on productivity and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, has partnered with the work management company Asana to offer expert tips on how to improve your concentration and efficiency at work.
Treat emails as laundry Many workers feel pressure to respond to emails and other messages immediately, but this constant monitoring comes at a cost. It can take as long as 25 minutes to regain momentum after an interruption, so Yousef says we should treat email, texts, and other chat tools like we would laundry. “Let messages build up and then do a ‘load’ every one or two hours, as opposed to having everything always accessible and trying to process in real-time,” she says.
Schedule focus time Yousef says a major enemy of concentration while working is “context switching”. This happens when you suddenly shift your attention to a different context, such as when you interrupt what you’re working on to join an unexpected call, or to respond to a message about an unrelated project. “Every time we switch tasks, we pay a fine in terms of both time and energy,” says Yousef. “And by energy, I mean our brains literally need blood glucose and oxygen to perform the switch”.
So, instead of switching between different tasks throughout the day, schedule dedicated time to focus on one specific project. Two good ways of doing this are timeboxing and time-blocking.
With timeboxing, you estimate the amount of time a task will take and dedicate a certain amount of time to complete it. During that time you should ignore all other tasks. Time-blocking is similar – but instead of boxing out time for a single task, you group similar tasks together and complete them all in one “time block”. For example, you might schedule a time block to answer your emails or to catch up on those nagging admin tasks.
Plan virtual meetings better Online meetings have become much more common during the pandemic, but they aren’t always helpful. According to research by Asana, despite increased face time with colleagues through virtual meetings, teams have less clarity about what needs to be done and when. On top of that, Yousef says: “Video conferencing is actually physiologically more draining and requires more neurological effort to stay alert and maintain attention.” So make sure you approach your next video call carefully.
First, you can consider if you actually need a meeting at all. If you do, then share an agenda and any materials ahead of the call, so that everyone is prepared. If you have a series of virtual meetings scheduled, make sure you take at least a few minutes’ break between each one, to help your brain reset.
Yousef also suggests turning off self-view during video meetings, or cover the image of your face with a sticky note on your screen. She says that seeing your own face during a video call activates the part of your brain responsible for facial recognition and is an extra drain on your focus.
Change default settings on hardware There has been an “explosion” in digital tools whose business models are based on getting you to look at their screen, says Yousef. These tools are naturally designed to be “as addictive as possible and to hijack your attention away from the present moment”.
So if you have chat windows open, and notifications switched on for emails, messengers and social media, you’re going to have a tough time concentrating. Close any programs you do not need open and switch off notifications on as many apps as possible. “Until we push back and don’t accept the default settings, these technologies will continue to make it difficult to focus for long periods of time,” says Yousef.
Create triggers to help focus Having trouble concentrating? Try using cognitive associations to let your brain know it’s time to focus. You might want to clear your desk before you start work, or light a candle or listen to a specific type of music while you’re at your desk. If you work from home, wearing specific clothes for work can also act as a helpful trigger.
“Our brains rely on cognitive associations to help us figure out what is appropriate – and inappropriate – behaviour in a certain situation and to save us time and energy,” says Yousef. “If, for example, we have clear associations between our work environment and getting into a ‘focus mode’, whenever we enter that work environment specific neural networks fire and our brain knows what to do.”
Look, I am aware of how this will sound, but it’s true: there’s a problem with the youth of today. They do not listen. They can not be reasoned with. They are afraid to meet you in the marketplace of ideas. They’d rather cry and whinge than actually do anything to solve their problems. And yes, I can already hear the counter-argument that the youth that I am talking about is specifically seven weeks old and is simply not capable of the kind of debate I’m seeking.
Frankly, I am as tired of this excuse as I am just, in general, tired – which is to say very, very, very tired.
When the task was put to me to come up with an argument for Guardian Australia’s summer series, I toyed with a number of takes on a variety of topics, all the while knowing that there was truly only ever one argument in my heart. And since I cannot have that argument with the very small person who deserves to hear it, I will air it out here.
The thesis is simple and applies to all ages: you need to go to sleep.
Everyone needs sleep and “everyone” includes you. I don’t care how adorable you look with your big eyes looking up at me, the fact that they’re open is a problem. You don’t need me to yammer on about the health benefits of sleep. You weren’t born yesterday. You were born seven weeks ago. Do you know how you turn seven weeks into seven weeks and one day? You go to sleep.
I know it’s tempting to stay up late. I’ll admit there are times when I stay up far later than I should. Like you, it feels almost spiteful when I do it. It’s as if I’m protesting against how much of our time is taken up by work and other responsibilities.
Did you know the modern person works more than a medieval peasant? That’s ridiculous! It’s understandable that you would try to scrape back whatever leisure time you can, even if it means staying up late into the night doing vaguely nothing.
But you are not protesting against capitalism by sitting up for a few extra hours at night. Rather, you are taking away your own ability to endure it. And furthermore, you are a baby. You do not have to go to work tomorrow. I do. Go to sleep.
Anyway, who are you trying to impress? No one thinks it’s cool you’re staying up late. We’ve all stayed up late before. Staying up late is out. It’s very pre-pandemic. Late nights are over. All the best television is on demand. Young people drink less alcohol, hopefully zero in this case. Brunch is the new dinner.
Nightclubs are banned and only the most incompetent bouncer would believe your fake ID. Stay in. Go to sleep.
Do you think you’re missing out on something? Let me tell you a harsh truth that helps keep me from doing one last doom scroll. I’ve never, ever received an email or seen a tweet in those last moments before sleep that I was happy to have read.
Trust me, it can wait until the morning.
Your problems will still be there on the other side. You’ll need your rest to deal with them. You’ll sleep better if you don’t check in the first place. Not to mention, and I cannot stress this part enough, you are a baby. You have no deadlines.
Of course you’re tired. We’re all tired. I can tell that you’re cranky, too. Something about the constant screaming tipped me off. Yes, I’m very perceptive. Hey, do you think you’d find it easier to regulate your emotions if you, oh, I don’t know, went to sleep? Just a thought.
Think of it this way, my very small friend: there will come a time when all you want in life is to take a little nap. Sleep is an incredibly sought-after commodity. It’s so badly needed that millennials take pride in talking about how tired they are, as if that isn’t a tedious premise for a chat or, god forbid, a whole article.
You can sleep whenever you want! How lucky are you? There is nothing I would like more than a little snooze. If someone was offering to pop me on their knee, give me a burp, then tuck me in, why, I would jump at the opportunity and be very grateful. I’d say you should grasp it with both little hands.
Has this convinced you? Is it getting through at all? You know what, it’s too late for us to argue like this. Let’s sleep on it, and we’ll have this same chat tomorrow night.
Ronnie Spector, the singer who defined the sound of mid-century girl groups as the frontwoman of the Ronettes, has died aged 78.
A statement on her website states:
Our beloved earth angel, Ronnie, peacefully left this world today after a brief battle with cancer. She was with family and in the arms of her husband, Jonathan.
Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor and a smile on her face. She was filled with love and gratitude.
Her joyful sound, playful nature and magical presence will live on in all who knew, heard or saw her.
With her towering beehive hairdo and powerfully melancholic, melodramatic voice, Spector is among the most distinctive figures in American pop. Her hits with the Ronettes include the vastly influential Be My Baby – whose distinctive drum beat has been recreated countless times – as well as Baby I Love You, Walking in the Rain and a series of enduring Christmas cover songs. She also survived an abusive marriage to the group’s producer, Phil Spector, who was later imprisoned for murder.
Spector was born Veronica Bennett in New York in 1943, her heritage spanning African American, Native American, and Irish American. “When you don’t look like everyone else, you automatically have a problem in school,” she told the Guardian in 2019, saying her peers “would beat me up because I was different-looking”.
She formed the Ronettes in 1957 and the lineup quickly coalesced with her elder sister, Estelle Bennett, and cousin Nedra Talley. The trio earned a residency at a local club and a record deal, but early singles failed to chart. Estelle arranged an audition with Phil Spector, who signed the group, and whose co-written song Be My Baby became their first hit, reaching No 2 in the US in 1963, and No 4 in the UK.
With striking style based on form-fitting dresses and heavy makeup – “We weren’t afraid to be hot. That was our gimmick,” Spector later wrote – and backed by Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production, the group had seven further US chart hits and contributed three songs to the 1963 compilation A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. They toured the US in 1966 as a support act to the Beatles; the Rolling Stones supported them on a Ronettes tour of the UK. “They could sing all their way right through a wall of sound,” Keith Richards later said, as the Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. “They didn’t need anything. They touched my heart right there and then and they touch it still.”
The Ronettes split in 1967, Ronnie started a solo career, beginning with the George Harrison-penned single Try Some, Buy Some in 1971. She didn’t reach the chart highs of her previous group and an attempt to reform the Ronettes with new members failed in the early 1970s, but she continued to release music throughout her life.
In 1976 she duetted with Southside Johnny on the Bruce Springsteen-penned duet You Mean So Much to Me. “It was an honour to produce her and encourage her to get back on stage where she remained for the next 45 years,” said Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band, who produced the song, paying tribute in the wake of her death.
She returned to the US top five in 1986 as a guest singer on Eddie Money’s Be My Baby-interpolating song Take Me Home Tonight. In 1999, she collaborated with the Ramones frontman Joey Ramone, who produced her EP She Talks to Rainbows. Her most recent album was English Heart, in 2016.
Her romantic relationship with Phil Spector began in 1963 as an affair while Phil was married. He divorced his wife in 1965 and married Ronnie in 1968, becoming controlling, paranoid and abusive during their relationship. Notorious behaviour included making Ronnie drive with a life-size dummy of Phil alongside her; he kept her imprisoned in their house and threatened her with murder. She eventually escaped in 1972, fleeing in bare feet as Phil refused to let her own shoes.
She spent 15 years battling Phil with her bandmates for royalties they were owed, eventually successfully – in 2000 a New York court ruled that Phil owed them $2.6m. This decision was reversed in 2002 after judges found that the record deal the group initially signed meant that Phil Spector had rights to the recordings, but in 2006 the New York state supreme court awarded the group a lump sum, and ordered Phil to continue paying them yearly royalties. There were further legal complaints later that decade, with Phil accused of withholding royalty payments.
In 1982, Ronnie married her manager Jonathan Greenfield, with their marriage lasting until her death. She is survived by him and their two sons, Jason and Austin.
The Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson was among those paying tribute, saying: “I loved her voice so much and she was a very special person and a dear friend. This just breaks my heart. Ronnie’s music and spirit will live forever.”
Prince Andrew faces the prospect of giving evidence in a high-profile trial after a New York judge refused to throw out a civil case over allegations he sexually assaulted Virginia Giuffre when she was 17 years old.
Legal experts said the Duke of York has “no good options left” after he failed to have Giuffre’s case against him dismissed, with Manhattan federal court judge Lewis Kaplan rejecting his motion “in all respects”.
The ruling could see Andrew, who strenuously denies the allegations, divulging aspects of his personal life in open court this autumn.
One option of avoiding such a sensational trial would be for the duke to reach an out-of-court settlement with Giuffre, possibly costing him millions, though there are suggestions she would want her day in court.
Such an agreement could cause monumental reputational damage for the monarchy, however, with the duke already forced to step back from public life.
The news is a very unwelcome development for the royal family, coming just three days after full details of the celebrations for the Queen’s platinum jubilee in June were revealed. Buckingham Palace declined to comment, saying: “We would not comment on what is an ongoing legal matter.”
In his 46-page detailed ruling, Kaplan rejected the argument put by Andrew’s legal team that Giuffre had waived her right to sue him under a previously secret $500,000 (£360,000) settlement she made with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Giuffre alleges Epstein trafficked her to have sex with several people, including Andrew.
In the conclusion of his written ruling, Kaplan said: “For the foregoing reasons, defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint or for a more definite statement is denied in all respects.
“Given the court’s limited task of ruling on this motion, nothing in this opinion or previously in these proceedings properly may be construed as indicating a view with respect to the truth of the charges or counter-charges or as to the intention of the parties in entering into the 2009 agreement.”
Outlining his reasons for denying the motion, Kaplan said the court was not able at this stage to consider the duke’s efforts to cast doubt on Giuffre’s claims or whether he was covered by the settlement agreement, suggesting these were issues for a trial.
He said: “The 2009 agreement cannot be said to demonstrate, clearly and unambiguously, the parties intended the instrument ‘directly’, ‘primarily’, or ‘substantially’, to benefit Prince Andrew.”
Andrew’s options now are stark and unattractive, according to legal observers.
Nick Goldstone, head of disputes resolution at Ince, said: “The ruling dismissing Prince Andrew’s strike-out applications is very thorough and comprehensive. The applications appear to have done the prince more harm than good.”
The duke can seek a settlement out of court, though a settlement with no admission of liability could be costly, and Giuffre may not wish to settle. He can also contest the case, but that means giving a deposition under oath – possibly giving oral evidence – during which he will be quizzed on highly personal matters.
He can also default, effectively ignoring the court case, but that would lead to a finding against him.
Media lawyer Mark Stephens, of Howard Kennedy, told the BBC: “Andrew’s got no good options now. He can’t make things better so, essentially, I think he’s either going to have to engage in the trial process or he’s going to have to settle, and that may well be his least worst option.”
If he decides to contest, legal observers said the duke would be advised to testify, though he cannot be compelled to do so. If he were to decline, “from a presentational perspective, that would not look good”, said Goldstone.
Andrew could file for a motion of reconsideration on Kaplan’s ruling, or he could take an appeal straight to the second circuit court of appeals. Any appeal would delay proceedings.
If the case proceeds to full trial, it could see him forced to call witnesses, which could include members of the royal family, in particular his daughter Princess Beatrice. He maintained in his disastrous 2019 BBC Newsnight interview that, on the evening cited by Giuffre, he went with Beatrice to a late-afternoon children’s party at a Pizza Express in Woking. After the party, he claims, he was at home with his children all night.
The ruling deals yet another blow to the embattled prince, whose reputation and standing within the royal family has already been tarnished by his friendships with Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.
He withdrew from public duties soon after the Newsnight interview, which failed to draw a line under his relationship with Epstein, a convicted sex offender who counted former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump in his circle. Epstein killed himself in a Manhattan jail after his July 2019 arrest on sex trafficking charges.
Maxwell, 60, the daughter of the late British press titan Robert Maxwell, was found guilty of five counts for luring girls as young as 14 into Epstein’s world for him to sexually abuse.
Giuffre has claimed that the prince was “sweating profusely all over me” at a London nightclub on a night when they allegedly had a sexual encounter.
Andrew said in his BBC interview that Giuffre’s statement about his perspiration could not be true, claiming: “I have a peculiar medical condition which is that I don’t sweat or I didn’t sweat at the time.”
As part of Giuffre’s suit, her legal team has requested documents that would prove whether or not Andrew can sweat.
Here is a quick recap of some of the main developments from today so far:
Quebec’s announcement that it will impose a healthcare tax on unvaccinated residents has prompted a fierce debate, as the province looks to salvage its crumbing healthcare system amid the latest Covid wave. Story here.
A Chinese woman became an overnight sensation after she posted video diaries documenting her life after being stuck at a blind date’s house when the city was put under lockdown. Story here.
The Omicron variant of Covid-19 is dangerous – and especially so for those who have not been vaccinated against the disease, the World Health Organization said. “While Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus, particularly for those who are unvaccinated,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference. “We mustn’t allow this virus a free ride or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the remain unvaccinated.” The “overwhelming majority” of people admitted to hospitals around the world were unvaccinated, he added.
Sweden will cut the recommended time interval between the second and third Covid vaccine shot to five months from six. “The purpose of the shorter time interval is for more people to be able to be vaccinated earlier. The regions should not have to stand idle with unused capacity,” the health agency chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, said in a statement. A number of other countries, including the UK, Denmark and France, have already reduced the interval between the second and third shots of the vaccine for at least some sections of their populations, sometimes to as little as three months.
Greece will extend restrictions by a week at restaurants and bars to help curb the Omicron variant. The country imposed curbs on bars, restaurants and nightclubs over the Christmas holidays last month, which were due to end on 17 January. The restrictions, which have forced bars, nightclubs and restaurants to close at midnight, with no standing customers and no music, will be extended to 24 January, health authorities said on Wednesday. A double mask will still be mandatory in supermarkets and transport.
The UK reported 129,587 new Covid cases and 398 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test. The figures compare with Tuesday’s total of 120,821 cases and 379 deaths. The latest data shows 398 deaths were recorded today – the second day in a row that the daily figure has hit an 11-month high. Wednesday’s number is the highest since 24 February 2021, when 442 deaths were reported.
Germany should make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for all adults, chancellor Olaf Scholz told parliament, brushing off heckling from opposition lawmakers who accused him of fomenting social divisions. Scholz credited his new government’s measures to tighten curbs on public life and step up booster doses for preventing an even worse onslaught. But as Omicron increases its spread, infections would likely continue to rise and measures such as mandatory vaccination will be needed, he said, adding: “With the decision not to get vaccinated, one ultimately is not just making a decision for oneself but also for 80 million others.”
Doctors in Spain will be awarded up to €49,000 (£40,882) each in compensation for working without proper personal protection gear in the first few months of the pandemic. A doctors’ union in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, took the region’s government to court for failing to protect its health workers in the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Denmark is to offer a fourth coronavirus vaccination to vulnerable citizens as it faces record infection numbers from the Omicron variant, the health minister said. The move comes as lawmakers agreed to reopen theatres, cinemas, museums, entertainment parks and botanic gardens, as well as allowing spectators at indoor and outdoor sports events, albeit with limited attendance, as hospitalisation rates and deaths have stabilised despite the surge in cases. The European Union’s drug regulator has expressed doubts about the need for a fourth dose and said there was currently no data to support this approach as it seeks more data on the fast-spreading variant. [see 3.13pm.].
The Biden administration has announced a new set of measures to keep classes open, including doubling Covid testing capacity in schools with 10 million more tests, as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly through the US.
An estimated 4.3 million people in the UK had Covid in the week ending 6 January, figures from the ONS showed. [see 2.41pm.].
The UK government’s operation of a “VIP lane” for suppliers of personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic was illegal, a judge ruled. In a written judgment, Mrs Justice O’Farrell said the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor, which together had challenged the lawfulness of the way billions of pounds worth of contracts were awarded through the high priority lane, had established that its operation was “in breach of the obligation of equal treatment”. More than 32bn items of PPE with a value of £14bn were bought through directly awarded and negotiated contracts. Story here.
Switzerland will halve its quarantine time to five days to help tackle a wave of Covid infections that threatens to hamstring the economy. The reduction in the self-isolation requirement will go into effect from Thursday. This could be done because the Omicron variant had a shortened time between infection and transmission to other people, the government said. The government also proposed extending until the end of March curbs on public life that were tightened last month. It is trying to avoid not only another lockdown but also mandatory vaccinations, a route neighbouring Austria has taken.
Tunisia will reimpose a night curfew and ban all gatherings for two weeks from Thursday to counter the rapid spread of Covid, the government has said in a move critics decried as aimed at stopping protests. The ban on gatherings and a request to avoid travel within the country except for emergencies comes two days before a planned demonstration against the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, called by major political parties. A senior official in the main opposition Ennahda party, Mohamed Goumani, told Reuters on Wednesday the protest would go ahead in defiance of the new ban.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, admitted attending a gathering in the Downing Street garden during the first lockdown and apologised to the nation while arguing it was a work event and “technically” broke no rules. Johnson said he went into the garden of Downing Street on 20 May 2020 to thank staff before going back into his office 25 minutes later. He said at the time he believed it was a “work event” and in hindsight he should have sent everyone back inside. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, rejected Johnson’s version of events and called on the prime minister to resign. “The only question is: will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?” Starmer said. Story here.
Quebec’s announcement that it will impose a healthcare tax on unvaccinated residents has prompted a fierce debate, as the province looks to salvage its crumbing healthcare system amid the latest Covid wave.
The Canadian province’s premier, François Legault, said on Tuesday that those who had chosen to remain unvaccinated would pay a “health contribution”, acknowledging growing friction in the province as the unvaccinated draw on a greater share of the scarce medical resources.
The Quebec news site La Presse warned the tax could target vulnerable members of society who often lack the resources or information needed to access vaccines. Minorities, including Black and Indigenous residents, also have a long history of discrimination in the province’s healthcare system.
“They must not become the scapegoats of the collective fed up,” the paper wrote.
But La Presse concluded the tax was necessary tool in the fight against the virus.
“In this exceptional context, asking non-vaccinated people to pay a reasonable price can be explained. It’s a question of fairness. Everyone must contribute to the war effort.”
The province has not released a timeline for when it could impose the tax – the first of its kind in North America – or how much it might charge. Austria, which rolled out a similar tax in November, requires residents over 14 years of age pay €3,600 (US$4,100) every three months they remain unvaccinated.
In case you missed it earlier, I’d like to highlight once again the story we all deserve – of a Chinese woman who became an overnight sensation after she posted video diaries documenting her life after being stuck at a blind date’s house.
Ms Wang went for dinner on Sunday at her blind date’s residence in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, where a recent outbreak of Covid cases sent thousands into quarantine in parts of the city. As she was finishing her meal, the area was put under lockdown.
She was unable to leave her date’s house as result, she told the Shanghai-based news outlet the Paper this week, saying she had gone to the city for a week-long trip to meet potential suitors from the southern province of Guangdong.
Omicron remains ‘dangerous’, especially for the unvaccinated – WHO
The Omicron variant of Covid-19 is dangerous – and especially so for those who have not been vaccinated against the disease, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.
The WHO said the huge global surge in cases was being driven by Omicron but insisted there should be no surrender to the variant of concern.
“While Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus, particularly for those who are unvaccinated,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference.
He went on:
We mustn’t allow this virus a free ride or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the remain unvaccinated.
In Africa, over 85% of people are yet to receive a single dose of vaccine. We can’t end the acute phase of the pandemic unless we close this gap.
Tedros said he had wanted every country to have 10% of their population vaccinated by the end of September 2021, 40% by the end of December, and 70% by mid-2022.
But 90 countries had still not reached 40%, 36 of them still short of the 10% mark, he said.
The “overwhelming majority” of people admitted to hospitals around the world were unvaccinated, he added.
And while vaccines remain very effective at preventing death and severe Covid-19 disease, they do not fully prevent transmission, and so the risk of a more deadly variant emerging was real, he said.
More transmission means more hospitalisations, more deaths, more people off work – including teachers and health workers – and more risk of another variant emerging that is even more transmissible and more deadly than Omicron.
On the news that the number of deaths worldwide had stabilised at around 50,000 per week, Tedros said:
Learning to live with this virus does not mean we can, or should, accept this number of deaths.
The WHO emergencies director, Michael Ryan, added:
This is not the time to declare this is a welcome virus.
Sweden will cut the recommended time interval between the second and third Covid vaccine shot to five months from six, Reuters reports.
The decision will affect people between the age of 18 and 64. People above 65 were already eligible to get their booster shot five months after the second. Children aged 12 to 17 will still have to wait six months.
A number of other countries, including the UK, Denmark and France, have already reduced the interval between the second and third shots of the vaccine for at least some sections of their populations, sometimes to as little as three months.
“The purpose of the shorter time interval is for more people to be able to be vaccinated earlier. The regions should not have to stand idle with unused capacity,” the health agency chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, said in a statement.
Sweden has vaccinated 86% of the population aged 12 and up with one shot and 82% with two shots or more.
The country stood out early in the pandemic by opting against lockdowns, instead focusing on a mostly voluntary strategy based on social distancing and good hygiene.
It has an official Covid death toll of over 15,000, several times higher per capita than its Nordic neighbours but lower than most other European countries.
Greece will extend restrictions by a week at restaurants and bars to help curb the Omicron variant, which has dominated the country and has driven a surge in Covid infections in recent weeks, Reuters reports.
The country imposed curbs on bars, restaurants and nightclubs over the Christmas holidays last month, which were due to end on 17 January.
The restrictions, which have forced bars, nightclubs and restaurants to close at midnight, with no standing customers and no music, will be extended to 24 January, health authorities said on Wednesday. A double mask will still be mandatory in supermarkets and transport.
Authorities have said that Omicron variant, which is highly contagious, is dominant in the community, after it was first detected in early December.
Greece reported 32,694 new infections and 80 related deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total official number of infections since the pandemic began to 1,568,215 and the death toll to 21,559.
It registered a record of 50,126 coronavirus infections in a day on 4 January.
UK reports nearly 400 Covid-related daily deaths, with 129,587 new cases
The UK has reported 129,587 new positive Covid-19 cases and 398 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the ONS.
The figures compare with Tuesday’s total of 120,821 cases and 379 deaths.
The latest data shows 398 deaths were recorded today – the second day in a row that the daily figure has hit an 11-month high. Wednesday’s number is the highest since 24 February 2021, when 442 deaths were reported.
The new data also showed that 139,584 people had received their booster or third dose, bringing the total number of booster or third doses administered in the UK to 35,953,243.
Germany’s Scholz urges compulsory Covid-19 jabs for all adults
Germany should make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for all adults, chancellor Olaf Scholz told parliament on Wednesday, brushing off heckling from opposition lawmakers who accused him of fomenting social divisions, reports Reuters.
It comes the same day Germany reported a record of 80,430 coronavirus infections, where the previous record was 65,000 in November. The Robert Koch Institute, the country’s national disease control agency, said 384 people had died in the previous 24 hours, bringing the death toll from coronavirus in Europe’s most populous country to about 115,000.
Scholz credited his new government’s measures to tighten curbs on public life and step up booster doses for preventing an even worse onslaught.
But as Omicron increases its spread, infections would likely continue to rise and measures such as mandatory vaccination will be needed, he said, adding:
With the decision not to get vaccinated, one ultimately is not just making a decision for oneself but also for 80 million others.
Schools going virtual, airlines canceling flights, pharmacies and testing centres closing temporarily, shelves emptying in grocery stores because of transportation delays, blood donations dropping to crisis levels for the first time ever and the country’s hospitals are becoming stretched. This is the US in the grip of the Omicron variant.
Omicron may cause milder symptoms in some people, but its effects are ricocheting throughout America and creating some of the greatest challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We have supply shortages, we have transportation shortages, that are a result of people being out because of Covid, and especially Omicron being so infectious. And that is obviously limiting the workforce, and limiting the workforce is creating some of the havoc that we’re all experiencing,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, vice-provost at the University of Pennsylvania.
Joe Biden has vowed to keep businesses and schools open, but some experts wonder if that’s possible given the nature of Omicron and the lack of adequate measures to combat it.
“The economy cannot stay open and schools cannot stay open when so many people are getting sick,” said Margaret Thornton, an educational researcher at Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. “We must take action to slow the spread in order to keep schools running, to keep businesses running,” she said – but much of that action has been slow to happen.
Doctors in Spain will be awarded up to €49,000 (£40,882) each in compensation for working without proper personal protection gear in the first few months of the pandemic.
A doctors’ union in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, took the region’s government to court for failing to protect its health workers in the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Associated Press reports:
The lawsuit brought by a doctor’s union is the first of its kind to be won in Spain, whose health care system was pushed to the brink when COVID-19 first struck.
The judge ordered compensation between €5,000 – 49,000 (£4,171 – 40,882) to be paid to the 153 doctors who formed part of the suit, adding the lack of personal protection suits created a “serious safety and health danger for all health workers, especially for doctors due to their direct exposure”.
“This ruling is groundbreaking in Spain,” said Dr. Victor Pedrera, secretary general of the Doctors’ Union of Valencia CESM-CV, told AP.
Pedrera, a family doctor, said he got ill with Covid-19 shortly after it hit Spain in March 2020 and spent two months at home “quite badly off and with no idea of what was being done for treatment.”
Those doctors who were forced to work without proper protection but did not get infected nor were forced to isolate will receive 5,000 euros. The compensation increases to 15,000 euros for those who were forced to isolate, 35,000 euros for those who were infected but did not need hospital care, and to 49,000 euros for those who needed hospital treatment.
Valencia’s government will appeal the ruling. Regional chief Ximo Puig apologised to the medical workers, adding that the initial impact of the pandemic was “completely unexpected”.
As families grieving for lost loved ones call on authorities for answers, there are likely to be similar legal proceedings on the horizon. France’s former health minister Agnès Buzyn was charged in September with “endangering the lives of others”, according to the prosecutor in a special court that deals with ministerial accountability. In the UK, a public inquiry is due to begin in the spring.
Hello, it’s Georgina Quach here, taking over from Lucy Campbell.
Denmark to offer fourth Covid jab while easing restrictions
Denmark is to offer a fourth coronavirus vaccination to vulnerable citizens as it faces record infection numbers from the Omicron variant, the country’s health minister said on Wednesday.
The move comes as lawmakers agreed to ease restrictions at the end of the week including the reopening of cinemas and music venues, as hospitalisation rates and deaths have stabilised despite the surge in cases.
“We are now embarking on a new chapter, namely a decision to offer the fourth jab to the most vulnerable citizens,” the health minister, Magnus Heunicke, said.
The European Union’s drug regulator has expressed doubts about the need for a fourth dose and said there was currently no data to support this approach as it seeks more data on the fast-spreading variant.
Fellow EU member Hungary has said it is considering deploying a fourth shot. Chile and Israel have already begun a rollout.
Denmark saw a surge in daily infections in mid-December, prompting new restrictions including the closure of theatres, cinemas, entertainment parks and conference centres, as well as measures to limit large crowds in stores and shops.
However, even as infection rates remain near record levels above 20,000 a day, hospital admissions and deaths have stabilised at levels below those seen a year ago.
“We are not in a worst case scenario,” Heunicke told reporters. “We have the epidemic under control again. It’s a feat of strength by the entire society.”
Lawmakers agreed to reopen theatres, cinemas, museums, entertainment parks and botanic gardens, as well as allowing spectators at indoor and outdoor sports events, albeit with limiting attendance.
Denmark is helped by high support for Covid vaccination, with four out of five having received two jabs and just over half of the population with three jabs.
Data from the country’s top infectious disease authority, Statens Serum Institut (SSI), show that unvaccinated people are five to six times more likely to be hospitalised after getting the virus compared with those vaccinated.
The Biden administration has announced a new set of measures to keep classes open, including doubling Covid testing capacity in schools with 10 million more tests, as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly through the US, Reuters reports.
The United States reported 1.35 million new coronavirus infections on Monday, shattering the global record for daily cases in any one country. Omicron is now estimated to account for 98.3% of total new cases circulating in the country, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) said.
The gigantic wave of infections has disrupted plans for students and teachers to return to school and for workers to go back to the office.
In response, the number of Covid tests available to schools will be increased by 10 million per month, the White House said in a statement on Wednesday, adding this will help schools more than double the volume of testing compared to November 2021.
Half of the new free rapid tests will be distributed each month to help kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12) schools remain open, the statement said, while lab capacity will be available to support five million monthly PCR tests for schools.
Critics have accused president Joe Biden of not focusing enough on testing in the fight to control surging Omicron cases and hospitalisations, amid growing reports of acute shortages of test kits around the country.
The White House and top health officials have defended the response, including announcing earlier this month that 500 million rapid tests would be available free to all Americans in January.
The new steps come as some school districts move to virtual classes again to escape the Omicron wave. The politics over how to keep schools open is also expected to be a significant issue in the upcoming midterm elections and has already been a subject of intense debate, with Republicans saying the administration has not done enough on the issue.
Other steps announced on Wednesday include CDC and states working together to meet demand for additional tests for school districts. The first such deliveries will be made later this month, the administration said.
Federal agencies will ensure federal testing sites can support K-12 schools, connecting local school districts with testing providers and offering full reimbursement to schools that set up diagnostic and testing programs.
The administration said it had so far distributed $10 billion in resources to states for testing at schools, funding that was included in the coronavirus legislation signed into law last year.
The White House said those efforts have resulted in 96% of schools being able to open in-person classes this month, up from 46% of schools in January 2021.
Last year, the CDC endorsed a test-to-stay strategy, which allowed schools to use frequent testing to keep students in class after exposure to someone with Covid, as an alternative to mandatory quarantine. The agency will release additional materials later this week to help schools implement this strategy, the White House said.
Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, said on Wednesday that China would be donating another 10 million doses of its Covid vaccine over the course of 2022, Reuters reports.
Zimbabwe, like most African countries, is struggling with low rates of vaccination, due to availability issues and also to vaccine hesitancy or public apathy.
The country has so far fully vaccinated just over a fifth of its population of 15 million people, mostly using vaccines either purchased from or donated by China.
Nearly a third of Zimbabweans have received at least a single dose of the Chinese vaccine.
“The assistance, comprising four million Sinopharm doses and six million Sinovac doses, is in addition to the two million doses Zimbabwe has received as donations since February 2021 from the People’s Republic of China,” Mnangagwa said.
China’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, Guo Shaochun, said the 10 million doses would be delivered in batches throughout 2022.
To date, the southern African country has officially recorded 223,765 Covid infections and 5,201 deaths, according to health ministry data.
4.3m people in the UK had Covid last week, official estimates show
The percentage of people testing positive for Covid continued to increase in all four nations of the UK in the week ending 6 January, according to new data from the Office for National Statistics.
Covid infections compatible with the Omicron variant continued to increase across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the ONS said, adding that Delta variant compatible infections have fallen to very low levels and Omicron is now the dominant variant across all UK countries.
In total, the ONS estimates showed about 4.3 million people in the UK had Covid that week.
The ONS estimates that 3,735,000 people in England had Covid that week, equating to around 1 in 15 people. While the estimate for the previous week had also been around 1 in 15 people, the estimated number of infected people was 3,270,800. The latest figure therefore marks an overall increase in the number of infections.
In England, the percentage of people testing positive has increased among age groups aged 50 years and over, the ONS said. However, infections remain lowest in those aged 70 years and over; in all other age groups, the percentage of people testing positive has increased over the most recent two weeks, but the trend is uncertain in the most recent week.
Covid infections continued to increase across all regions of England except the East of England, and London, the ONS found. The percentage of people testing positive has decreased in London in the most recent week and in the East of England, the trend is uncertain, it said.
In Wales, the percentage of people testing positive also continued to increase in the week ending 6 January. The ONS estimates that 169,100 people in Wales had Covid, equating to around 1 in 20 people.
In Scotland, the percentage of people testing positive continued to increase in the week ending 7 January. The ONS estimates that 297,400 people in Scotland had Covid, equating to around 1 in 20 people.
And in Northern Ireland, the percentage of people testing positive continued to increase in the week ending 6 January. The ONS estimates that 99,200 people in Northern Ireland had Covid, equating to around 1 in 20 people
France’s Institut Pasteur said in a report published on Wednesday that it expected to see a peak of new Omicron infections in mid-January, followed by a peak in hospital admissions in the second half of the month.
On Tuesday, France registered a record daily high of nearly 370,000 infections and a seven-day average high of more than 283,000. The number of people in intensive care units with Covid rose by 65 to 3,969.
Here is my colleague Peter Walker’s story on the UK prime minister’s apology for attending a “bring your own booze” event in the No 10 garden during the first lockdown in May 2020. BorisJohnson insisted it was a “work event” which “technically” broke no rules.
Use of ‘VIP lane’ to award Covid PPE contracts unlawful, high court rules
The UK government’s operation of a “VIP lane” for suppliers of personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic was illegal, a judge has ruled.
In a written judgment, Mrs Justice O’Farrell said the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor, which together had challenged the lawfulness of the way billions of pounds worth of contracts were awarded through the high priority lane, had established that its operation was “in breach of the obligation of equal treatment”.
Describing the allocation of offers to the VIP lane as “flawed”, the judge said:
There is evidence that opportunities were treated as high priority even where there were no objectively justifiable grounds for expediting the offer.
The claimants have established that operation of the high priority lane was in breach of the obligation of equal treatment under the PCR [public contract regulations] … the illegality is marked by this judgment.
More than 32bn items of PPE with a value of £14bn were bought through directly awarded and negotiated contracts.
Switzerland will halve its quarantine time to five days to help tackle a wave of Covid infections that threatens to hamstring the economy, Reuters reports.
Health authorities had given their blessing on Tuesday for the move, which comes as tens of thousands more people a day are infected with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Officials worry that the healthcare system could be overwhelmed, with two-thirds of the Swiss population having had two doses and just 30% having had a booster.
The government also proposed extending until the end of March curbs on public life that were tightened last month. It is trying to avoid not only another lockdown but also mandatory vaccinations, a route neighbouring Austria has taken.
“The epidemiological situation is critical and remains difficult to assess,” the government said.
It added that although Omicron seemed to be less deadly than other Covid variants, it expected an increase in hospitalisations because of the very high number of infections, which rose to 32,881 new cases on Wednesday.
The reduction in the self-isolation requirement will go into effect from Thursday. This could be done because the Omicron variant had a shortened time between infection and transmission to other people, the government said.
Measures introduced in December included the need for people to prove they have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid to gain entry to many indoor venues, as well as making working from home mandatory.
National authorities have reported more than 1.6m confirmed infections on Switzerland and tiny neighbour Liechtenstein since the pandemic began in early 2020. More than 12,000 have died of the respiratory ailment.
The eastern canton of the Grisons ordered all residents with nursing training to register in case they were needed to relieve pressure on hospitals.
“It can be assumed that the sharp increase in coronavirus cases will push medical care, or rather the human resources in the nursing professions, to their limits,” the regional government said.
Tunisia to restore curfew and ban all gatherings
Tunisia will reimpose a night curfew and ban all gatherings for two weeks sfrom Thursday to counter the rapid spread of Covid, the government has said in a move critics decried as aimed at stopping protests.
The ban on gatherings and a request to avoid travel within the country except for emergencies comes two days before a planned demonstration against the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, called by major political parties.
A senior official in the main opposition Ennahda party, Mohamed Goumani, told Reuters on Wednesday the protest would go ahead in defiance of the new ban.
A curfew was imposed during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 and again for much of last year, but was lifted in September as cases dropped.
The new curfew will be in place for at least two weeks and run from 10pm to 5am each night.
The government’s perceived poor response to the pandemic, including a botched vaccine rollout, raised the political pressure before Saied dismissed parliament and seized broad powers in July, moves his critics said was a coup.
Leaders of another two parties that had joined the call for protests on Friday accused the government of restoring the health restrictions for political reasons.
“We will be on Revolution Street to protest whatever the cost,” Ghazi Chaouachi, the head of the Democratic Current, which had 22 MPs in the 217-seat in the now-suspended parliament, told reporters, using a nickname to describe Tunis’s Avenue Habib Bourguiba.
The measures were intended “to prevent a wave of popular anger that they can only confront by citing health conditions”, said the leader of the smaller Al Joumhouri party, Issam Chebbi.
Imagine being on a first date you couldn’t end? That is what happened to a woman in China whose video blogs about going into a citywide lockdown during a blind date have gone viral, AFP reports.
More than 100 cases have been reported in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou since last week, as China tries to contain multiple local outbreaks of the Delta and Omicron variants.
A woman was having dinner at the homes of her date when parts of the city were abruptly placed under lockdown last Wednesday.
“Just after I arrived in Zhengzhou, there was an outbreak and his community was put under lockdown and I could not leave,” she told the Shanghai-based outlet the Paper on Tuesday, adding that she went there for a week-long trip to meet potential suitors.
“I’m getting old now, my family introduced me to ten matches … The fifth date wanted to show off his cooking skills and invited me over to his house for dinner.”
Since then, she posted short videos documenting her daily life in lockdown, which show her date cooking meals for her, doing household chores and working at his laptop while she sleeps in, according to clips published by local media.
So far it seems romance has yet to blossom during their prolonged date.
“Besides the fact that he’s as mute as a wooden mannequin, everything else [about him] is pretty good,” the woman told the Paper. “Despite his food being mediocre, he’s still willing to cook, which I think is great.”
She said the recent surge in online attention had prompted her to remove the videos. She added:
Thanks everyone for your attention … I hope the outbreak ends soon and that my single sisters also find a relationship soon.
Vladimir Putin has said Russia has two weeks to prepare for a fresh wave of Covid infections driven by the Omicron variant after the WHO warned of a surge in Europe, AFP reports.
Russia has lifted nearly all the restrictions designed to limit the spread of the virus, despite an increasing caseload and growing Omicron infections. It is the worst-hit country in Europe in terms of Covid-related deaths.
“We see what is happening in the world,” Putin told a meeting of cabinet ministers on Wednesday. “We have at least a couple of weeks to prepare.”
Regional and federal authorities should take steps with businesses to limit the impact of the new variant, he added.
Russia found itself in an “extremely difficult situation”, said Putin.
He urged the prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, to increase domestic vaccination rates, including with Sputnik V, which the Kremlin chief claimed was “perhaps more efficient” than other vaccines used globally.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said more than half of people in Europe were likely to catch Omicron by March. Russia has only recently emerged from a deadly wave of the Delta variant.
Russia’s statistics agency said in December that about 87,000 people had died from the coronavirus in November alone, bringing the country’s total pandemic related deaths to more than 600,000, which is nearly twice the official figure given by a government Covid website.
There is widespread vaccine scepticism in Russia. Despite several domestically produced jabs being available for free for months now, fewer than halfthe country’s 146 million has been inoculated as of Wednesday, according to a government tally.
Following a strict – but brief – national lockdown in the beginning of the pandemic, Russia has held back on introducing measures to restrain the virus in the hopes of protecting its struggling economy.
The pandemic is also driving a demographic crisis in Russia. In 2020, the population shrank by 510,000 people – the biggest decline in 15 years, Rosstat calculated.
With a sense of smell up to 100,000 times more sensitive than humans’, dogs have been employed in the service of sniffing out everything from contraband to crop molds to cancer.
Yet while researchers first began exploring whether canines could be effective agents in the fight against Covid early in the pandemic, only in recent months have conclusive, peer-reviewed studies begun verifying the hypothesis that dogs know Covid when they smell it.
In late 2021, scientists at Florida International University published a double-blind study of canine Covid detection in which the four participating pups demonstrated a 97.5% accuracy rate in identifying biomarkers associated with Covid-19.
“It’s one of the highest percentages I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been doing this work for over 25 years with all kinds of detector dogs,” says FIU’s Dr. Ken Furton, a leading scholar in forensic chemistry specializing in scent detection. “It’s really remarkable.”
Another study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found dogs could identify Covid 82%-94% of the time, whereas recent German research put their success rate at 95%.
Boris Johnson apologises for attending No 10 garden party
The British prime minister has apologised for attending a garden drinks event during the first lockdown in May 2020.
Johnson said he went into the garden of Downing Street on 20 May 2020 to thank staff before going back into his office 25 minutes later. He said at the time he believed it was a “work event” and in hindsight he should have sent everyone back inside.
He told MPs:
I know the rage they [the public] feel with me over the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.
For more, Andrew Sparrow’s live blog is here:
The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, is about to face the most difficult PMQs of his premiership, where how he decides to address the partygate affair will determine his political future.
My colleague Andrew Sparrow will be covering the session over on the UK politics live blog. You can read along here:
A senior minister has said Ireland should be in a position to start easing restrictions to slow the spread of Covid from next month once the number of people requiring critical care remains stable, Reuters reports.
Ireland has the second highest incidence rate of Covid in Europe but also one of the continent’s highest uptake of booster vaccines, helping keep the number of patients in intensive care stable and well below the peak of previous waves of the disease.
The daily increase in the number of hospital admissions has also slowed in recent days and the communications minister, Eamon Ryan, said that if the critical care figure holds steady, the economy would emerge from the current curbs.
“I am very confident we will be able to ease restrictions as we go into February. The science says that this will be a short wave, if we can get through it with our hospital numbers down, then we will be able to start lifting restrictions,” Ryan, the leader of the junior coalition Green party, told reporters on Wednesday.
The government closed nightclubs and cut capacity at indoor events in early December, before widening the constraints on crowds and ordering bars and restaurants to shut at 8pm two weeks later as the Omicron variant spread rapidly.
The deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said on Tuesday that restrictions would likely be eased on a phased basis. Previously the government has lifted the most recently imposed curbs first and further reopened the economy every two to three weeks.
Good morning from London. I’m Lucy Campbell, I’ll be bringing you all the latest global developments on the coronavirus pandemic for the next eight hours. Please feel free to get in touch with me as I work if you have a story or tips to share! Your thoughts are always welcome.
Russia has confirmed it has 698 Omicron cases. While total numbers of daily cases of Covid hover around 17,000-18,000 each day, down from a peak of 41,335 registered in early November, deputy prime minister Tatiana Golikova said the government will prepare new measures to combat Covid by the end of the week.
Hungary’s daily tally of new Covid-19 cases has risen to 7,883, up from 5,270 reported a week earlier, but the number of patients treated in hospital declined over the week, the government has said.
In Bulgaria, more than 5,200 people were in hospitals with Covid, including 580 in intensive care. In the capital, Sofia, planned operations have been suspended as hospitals prepared to expand wards for Covid-19 patients.
Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi has left isolation just over a week after testing positive for Covid without symptoms, the government has said.
In the UK, the day’s Covid news has been dominated by allegations that a party took place at the British prime minister’s residence during the March 2020 lockdown. Boris Johnson has refused to either confirm or deny he attended the alleged party. He will face opposition leader Keir Starmerin parliament today.
Saudi Arabia has registered its highest daily number of new Covid infections, breaking through 5,000 new cases in a single day for the first time.
Kyrgyzstan’s healthcare ministry has said it had confirmed the Central Asian nation’s first cases of the Omicron variant.
China is battling coronavirus outbreaks in several cities, severely testing the country’s strict “zero-Covid” strategy just weeks before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics. The northern city of Tianjin has ordered a second round of Covid testing on all 14 million residents after the discovery of 97 cases of the Omicron variant during initial screenings that began Sunday.
Andrew Sparrow is following Covid and politics developments in the UK, which are extremely intertwined at the moment. You can find his live blog here. I’m now handing you over to my colleague Lucy Campbell to bring you the rest of the day’s international coronavirus news.
As the pandemic’s second, gruelling year drew to a close and Covid rates in Rio de Janeiro plunged to levels unseen since it began, the Brazilian city’s health secretary, Daniel Soranz, celebrated a desperately needed respite.
“We’ve been through such painful, difficult months … this is now a moment of hope,” the 42-year-old doctor said last November as carioca life regained some semblance of normality, hospitals emptied and the city’s effervescent cultural scene was reborn.
But the new year, and the arrival of the highly contagious Omicron variant, has brought Soranz and many others crashing back down to Earth as coronavirus cases surge across Latin America with consequences that remain unclear.
“It’s really tiring,” Soranz admitted this week as infections in his beachside city soared to their highest ever levels and plans for Rio’s rumbustious annual carnival were cast into doubt.
“This pandemic has been going on for almost two years. It’s exhausting. But there’s nothing to be done,” Soranz said, noting how 20% of Rio’s health workers – about 5,000 people – had been infected since December.
Similar angst is being voiced around South America, which, having witnessed some of the pandemic’s bleakest moments – with bodies dumped in mass graves and patients starved of oxygen in overwhelmed hospitals – had been enjoying a long-awaited moment of optimism after becoming one of the world vaccination champions. Nearly 65% of South Americans have been fully vaccinated, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project, compared with about 62% in Europe and the US, and less than 10% in Africa.
Saudi Arabia confirms over 5,000 daily Covid cases for first time in new record
A quick snap from Reuters that Saudi Arabia has registered its highest daily number of new Covid infections, health ministry data showed, breaking through 5,000 cases for the first time.
Cases in the kingdom, which has the Gulf’s largest population at about 35 million, have risen dramatically since the start of the year with the global spread of the Omicron variant.
The country on Wednesday reported 5,362 new cases and two deaths, rising above the previous peak of daily infections in June 2020 of 4,919.
Here is some more, this time from Associated Press, on events in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, which has ordered a second round of Covid testing on all 14 million residents after the discovery of 97 cases of the Omicron variant during initial screenings that began Sunday.
Residents were asked to remain where they are until the results of all the nucleic acid tests are received, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Xinhua said authorities have carried out almost 12m tests so far, with 7.8m samples returned. The city that about an hour from Beijing. High-speed rail service and other forms of transportation between the cities have been suspended, leading to some disruptions in supply chains, including for packaged food items sold in convenience stores.
Tianjin’s Covid prevention and control office said all who have tested positive in the initial testing round were found to have the Omicron variant, of which China has so far only reported a handful of cases. The source of the outbreak is still unknown and many who are spreading the strain may be doing so unwittingly because they show no symptoms.
Andrew Sparrow is live with his Covid and politics blog for what is going to be a very busy and turbulent day in Westminster. You can follow that here.
I’ll be continuing with international and global Covid news here.
Boris Johnson faces a make-or-break session of prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, with furious Conservative MPs awaiting his explanation of the “bring your own booze” garden party in May 2020.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “He has an opportunity now to come clean to the British public, who are devastated by these allegations.”
More than 10 Conservative MPs have publicly criticised the gathering, details of which emerged in a leaked email from Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds.
The Amber Valley MP Nigel Mills said Johnson’s position would be “untenable” if he attended the party. “If the prime minister knowingly attended a party, I can’t see how he can survive having accepted resignations for far less,” he told BBC News.
“He accepted the resignation of his spokesperson [Allegra Stratton] for not attending a party but joking about it at a time of much lighter restrictions. I just think that’s untenable.”
Many more Tory MPs are expressing anger in private, though some are prepared to await the findings of an inquiry by the civil servant Sue Gray into a string of parties in Downing Street.
China is battling coronavirus outbreaks in several cities, severely testing the country’s strict “zero-Covid” strategy just weeks before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics.
In the northern port city of Tianjin, two confirmed cases of the highly transmissible variant were discovered over the weekend. Local virus prevention official Zhang Ying said on Saturday that the strain of virus identified had been transmitting for “at least three generations” – indicating weeks of earlier spread – with the source unclear. “We are highly concerned about whether the virus has spilled over to areas outside Tianjin… especially Beijing,” Zhang said.
Xi’an is in its third week of a strict lockdown as it races to stamp out a 2,000-case outbreak, one of the largest in China for months. Residents may not leave their homes or travel out of the city, famed for its Terracotta Warriors.
Agence France-Presse also report that several cities in the central province of Henan – which lies near Xi’an – have strengthened virus controls in response to hundreds of new infections since late December. The province on Wednesday reported 87 new local cases. The provincial capital, Zhengzhou, has imposed a partial lockdown and ordered its nearly 13 million residents to get tested.
After logging a handful of cases in recent days, the southern tech hub Shenzhen just across the border from Hong Kong locked down some housing compounds, launched mass testing of residents and truckers, and shuttered some long-distance bus stations and ferry routes.
Beijing last week sealed off its Winter Olympics “closed loop”, which will cocoon thousands of athletes and Games staff for weeks without direct physical access to the outside world.
Anyone entering the bubble must be fully vaccinated or face a 21-day quarantine when they arrive. Everyone inside will be tested daily and must wear face masks at all times.
Another little update from Russia here, where Reuters report that the deputy prime minister, Tatiana Golikova, said that the government will prepare new measures to combat the rise in Covid cases by the end of the week.
Cases in Russia have generally been declining from a peak of 41,335 registered in early November, although the government today confirmed there are 698 Omicron cases.
The line of questioning for Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme has touched on the technicalities of whether the 20 May party that is at the centre of the UK politics news today really counted as a party.
Rayner said she did not accept that Downing Street staff should have been able to meet up outside during the first lockdown because they were key workers or that the alleged gatherings could have been for work reasons. PA Media quote her saying:
I don’t accept that sending out invitations to ‘bring your own booze, the weather is lovely, come out into the garden’ to 100 staff as work, to be honest.
Asked whether she thought the garden of No 10 constituted a workplace, added:
Many key workers are NHS staff who were working very heavy shifts, 12-hour shifts with full PPE on – they didn’t break out into the garden with cheese and wine and bring your own booze scenarios.
They were working incredibly hard watching people’s loved ones die, holding smart phones and iPads in front of them so they could say goodbye to their loved ones – it is not acceptable to say: “This is a workplace garden, so we all cracked open the bubbly because it was a really nice day.”
Many people at the time understood the rules, and the rules were very clear.
Austria reports record case numbers
A couple of quick snaps from Reuters here. Austria appears to have set a new record of 18,427 daily Covid cases – according to newspaper Kronen Zeitung. Russia, meanwhile, has confirmed that it has 698 cases of the Omicron virus. The country recorded 17,946 new daily Covid cases, up slightly from the day before.
PA Media have confirmed that Keir Starmer will attend PMQs today at noon. There’s been a little bit of stirring up by some conservative voices that NHS guidelines suggest you should work from home if possible on the seventh day after coming out of isolation, suggesting that Starmer might be breaking those rules if he attended Westminster today. However, that has been very quickly slapped down by people pointing out that Jacob Rees-Mogg ended remote attendance of parliament, so it isn’t possible for MPs to attend PMQs remotely anymore.
Keir Starmer to end Covid isolation and face Boris Johnson at PMQs – reports
There’s a flurry of tweets from political journalists that Labour leader Keir Starmer has tested negative again for Covid this morning and so will be in parliament to face Boris Johnson at PMQs.
Assuming Boris Johnson also attends, of course …
As I mentioned earlier, this morning’s Covid UK news has been rather more about the politics of the pandemic than the actual disease itself, although PA Media have highlighted today a recent blog post by Dr Richard Cree, an intensive care consultant at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, which has an optimistic outlook that he country can “ride out the Omicron wave”. He writes:
Across the country, the number of people being admitted to hospital following infection remains high. However, the number of people being admitted hasn’t risen as high as I feared it might and it may even be starting to plateau. I will admit that I thought things might be worse by now but I’m all too happy to be proved wrong. It’s looking increasingly likely that we may be able to ‘ride out’ the Omicron wave after all.
While stressing that people would still die from Covid during this phase of the pandemic, he also said:
There is now no doubt that the Omicron variant is far less severe than its predecessors. In many respects, this fourth wave feels like it is due to a different virus. Most of the patients who have required admission to the Covid Intensive Care Unit are relatively young and unvaccinated. The few vaccinated patients that we are admitting have either not received a booster dose or have significant existing medical problems that cause them to be immunosuppressed.
Here’s a little bit more from Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader in the UK, being interviewed on Sky News. She said:
The frustration is, not only is it around the fact that Boris Johnson shouldn’t have been breaking the law and breaking the rules, and he should come to the house and speak to the British people as quickly as possible about that.
But it’s the fact that for time and time again now he said that nothing happened, no rules were broken.
And the allegation essentially now is that he was actually attending this party during lockdown. So it shows that he’s not only broken the rules, but he’s lying to the British public. And I think that makes this position completely untenable.
I think he should go, but I think more crucially now is MPs, his Conservative MPs, have to ask themselves the question: “Why are we propping up this man, who has lied to the British public, and who broke the rules and broke the law.
Hungary’s daily tally of new Covid-19 cases has risen to 7,883, up from 5,270 reported a week earlier, but the number of patients treated in hospital declined over the week, the government has said.
The government said 29% of the new infections were caused by the Omicron variant, although Krisztina Than reports for Reuters that some private labs have reported much higher figures.
Away from UK political shenanigans for a moment, Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi has left isolation just over a week after testing positive for Covid without symptoms, the government has said.
“His medical team has assessed his health status and subsequently cleared him because he continues to have no Covid associated symptoms,” government spokesman John-Thomas Dipowe said.
Reuters report that new coronavirus infections have risen in the southern African country since the detection of the Omicron variant late last year, from fewer than 300 every three days before Omicron to an average of more than 2,500.
But health officials say there has not been a feared surge in hospitalisations. Botswana has fully vaccinated nearly three quarters of its eligible population of around 1.3 million people.
The suggestion doing the rounds from journalists on Twitter is that we should have been enjoying the company of transport secretary Grant Shapps this morning. The government has instead opted not to put a minister forward.
Here’s more from Angela Rayner on Sky News. Labour’s deputy leader said:
If you look at our death rates they have been pretty shocking. We’ve seen that waste in terms of public procurement contracts. While there has been, you know, the vaccination programme that the NHS works on, and our great scientists in the UK with great success, there have been failings that the government has shown throughout the pandemic.
But this is the number one critical one for me. Is that the prime minister, the allegation is that he’s lied and he’s broken the rules and broken the law, and that is the most serious allegation to put to a prime minister at a time of crisis.
Some speculation from political journalist Paul Waugh here about how Boris Johnson might attempt to defuse the situation today.
Here are some of the early quotes from Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner on Sky News. She said:
I think it’s shameful that Boris Johnson over the last couple of days hasn’t answered the central question yes or no. Were you at a party at 10 Downing Street when everyone else was in lockdown? He could have cleared this up within the last couple of days.
I think it’s not unsurprising that no one can turn up today to answer to it, because quite frankly, to anyone who lost a loved one who was not able to visit them and see them in their last hours, it’s pretty despicable to find that they were partying at number 10.
She said that Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, had tested negative for Covid yesterday, and so, provided he tested negative again this morning, would be taking PMQs against Boris Johnson rather than her.
There’s been a rather weird interlude on Sky News in the UK where they were trying to interview a part-time GP Fui Mee Queck who wanted to explain why she didn’t want to take the vaccine, but she appeared to cut the interview abruptly short over the line of questioning that Kay Burley was taking. So they then immediately went to an improvised sofa chat with Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, who started talking about the British prime minister’s failure to come clean over 10 Downing Street parties as “shameful”. I’ll have some quotes from that in due course.
Angela Rayner: Johnson’s ‘position is untenable’ if he attended party
In the UK, the opposition Labour deputy leader has said Boris Johnson’s position would be “untenable” if it is proved that he had attended parties in contravention to lockdown rules.
Angela Rayner told BBC Breakfast: “It is very simple for me, I’ve been asking the prime minister for the last couple of days, you just have to say, were you at this party or not on 20 May?”
“He can clear this up very quickly and he has refused to do so, so far, and he has really undermined the office of prime minister by letting this carry on and continue because he refuses to tell the British public what they deserve to hear, and that’s whether or not he broke the lockdown rules and whether he was at this party or not.”
Asked whether Labour would call for Johnson to resign, Rayner said: “Boris Johnson has to account for his actions and the ministerial code is very clear that if he has misled Parliament and he has not abided by that code, then he should go.”
She added that if it proved he had “lied to the British public, lied to parliament and he has attended parties during lockdown, then his position is untenable”.
In Australia, state and territory leaders will consider relaxing isolation requirements for the trucking and logistics sector, as the prime minister, Scott Morrison, calls for patience over the country’s disrupted supply chains.
With estimates from industry that between 20% and 50% of the transport and logistics workforce is currently out of action as a result of Covid exposure, the government is also pushing for national cabinet to agree to scrap testing requirements for border crossings.
After urgent talks with industry groups and unions on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Morrison convened a meeting of the national coordinating mechanism on Wednesday, which was also attended by senior ministers and the heads of the infrastructure, treasury and health departments.
Morrison said that the challenge being posed by escalating case numbers linked to the Omicron outbreak was “keeping things moving”.
“That’s what riding this wave of Covid means, and of course … with so many cases appearing every day and that expected to continue until its peak, this will have an obvious impact right across our supply chains,” he said.
A very quick snap from Reuters here, that Kyrgyzstan’s healthcare ministry has said it had confirmed the Central Asian nation’s first cases of the Omicron variant.
PA Media are carrying some slightly more detailed quotes from Conservative MP Huw Merriman on the BBC’s Today programme. Here’s what he said:
I’m the type that doesn’t go around calling for people to resign until evidence is known, and that includes opposition MPs.
I think from the Prime Minister it’s what took place, what did he attend, more clarity is needed because we’re back where we were a month ago before the inquiry was set up where people are demanding answers.
We’re all in the dark – and that includes me.
As a reminder, we aren’t expecting to hear from any UK government minister this morning – none appear to have been willing or been selected to do any media appearances.
Last time the government was in this sort of mess – when the video emerged showing No 10 aides laughing about a Christmas party during Covid restrictions – it was Sajid Javid who cancelled his appearances, later saying the “upsetting” video was a factor.
The front pages of newspapers in the UK make grim reading for Boris Johnson and his government this morning. And even the New York Times strikes a slightly exasperated tone over the story. Their daily briefing newsletter this morning includes this snippet:
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, is accused – yet again – of violating his government’s own lockdown rules over a May 2020 garden party at 10 Downing Street.
Before the emergence of the Omicron variant, one of the main areas of interest of the pandemic was the rising case numbers in eastern Europe. That story became kind of subsumed into the broader Omicron wave. Yesterday coronavirus infections in Bulgaria reached a record high of 7,062, largely fuelled by Omicron.
Reuters report the virus has killed 89 people in the past 24 hours in the Balkan country, according to official figures, bringing the total death toll to 31,761.
More than 5,200 people were in hospitals, including 580 in intensive care. In the capital, Sofia, planned operations have been suspended as hospitals prepared to expand wards for Covid-19 patients.
At present, Bulgarians have to wear masks indoors and on public transport and show a health pass, given to people who are vaccinated, recovered or who have tested negative for the virus, to get into restaurants, cafes and shopping malls and gyms.
A new government that took office last month has appealed to vaccine-sceptic Bulgarians to get inoculated and offered a one-time cash reward of 75 levis ($43.50 USD/£32 GBP) to pensioners who opt to get fully vaccinated or take a booster.
In an attempt to lead by example, lawmakers voted to make the health pass mandatory for entry to parliament from 24 January.
There’s been a whisper of defence for the embattled British prime minister on Radio 4 this morning from at least one Conservative MP, Huw Merriman.
Ed Davey: Boris Johnson is ‘now incapable of leading’ country through Covid
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has already been on the airwaves in the UK, and he has called directly for the British prime minister Boris Johnson to resign. He told BBC Breakfast:
One of my constituents, a neighbour, Andrew, emailed me yesterday. And when he saw the headlines of a party at 10 Downing Street, he said “Please don’t let it be on 20 May, because that was a day of my dad’s funeral.”
And he was very emotional and angry to know that it was 20 of May. And I think there are hundreds and thousands of people like Andrew across the country, who are really hurting, you know, extremely emotional about this, and I think they want the prime minister now to resign.
And I agree with them.
Boris Johnson is now incapable of leading our country through this public health crisis. I think he’s actually now a threat to the health of the nation, because no one will do anything he says. He’s shown to have been deceitful. So Boris Johnson must now resign.
Hello from London, it is Martin Belam here taking over from Samantha Lock. I suspect that the morning media round in the UK is going to offer us a lot more heat about Boris Johnson and lockdown parties than it is going to offer light about the current status of Covid in the country. I’ll bring you the key lines from those TV and radio interviews as they emerge. As far as I can tell, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner will be appearing, the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford will be doing the rounds, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has already been on, but Sky News say that the government has put no minister forward to face questions this morning.
Returning briefly to the unfolding Djokovic saga, Guardian reporter Paul Karp has written a handy timeline covering the tennis star’s diagnosis and movements before his travel to Australia.
What did Djokovic say before arrival in Australia?
On 1 January, Djokovic’s agent submitted an Australian travel declaration on his behalf, declaring “no” when asked: “Have you travelled or will you travel in the 14 days prior to your flight to Australia?”
Djokovic had obtained an exemption to vaccination requirements from the Tennis Australia chief medical officer, approved by a Victorian government independent review board, stating that he had received a positive PCR test to Covid-19 “recorded on” 16 December.
What did Djokovic say in court documents?
Djokovic’s affidavit to the federal circuit court challenging his visa cancellation set out this timeline:
18 November – the Australian government granted him a visa
16 December – he “was tested and diagnosed with Sars-CoV-2”
22 December – his second PCR test returned a negative result
1 January – he authorised his agent to submit his travel declaration
2 January – he received a border travel permit from the Victorian government
4 January – he flew from Spain to Melbourne via Dubai
Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, suffered its deadliest day of the pandemic, with surging Omicron infections leading to staff shortages that have disrupted supply chains and hampered the economy’s recovery.
People in NSW, Australia are to report all positive rapid antigen test (RAT) or face a $1,000 fine.
One in seven could still be infectious after five-day Covid isolation
According to work previously released by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the proportion of people estimated to remain infectious five days after the onset of Covid symptoms, or a positive Covid test, is 31%. A small Japanese study has similarly suggested a substantial proportion of those infected with the Omicron variant remain infectious at five days.
The world No 1 released a statement on Wednesday in a bid to address what he called “continuing misinformation” about his activities in December before he came to Australia in a bid to retain his Australian Open crown.
But Djokovic’s statement, posted to Instagram, did not address reports by Der Spiegel claiming apparent anomalies with his 16 December PCR test result. The reporting has raised questions about the positive Covid diagnosis that forms the basis of his exemption to travel to Australia.
Wednesday’s statement claims he wasn’t notified of his positive result until 17 December despite Djokovic’s affidavit to the federal circuit court that he was both “tested and diagnosed” on 16 December.
India is reporting almost 200,000 new Covid infections in a single day.
The Asian nation recorded 194,720 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, the most since late May, health ministry data shows.
Another 442 deaths were also reported.
Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan has written to chief secretaries of all states to take immediate measures to ensure optimal availability of medical oxygen at health facilities, the Times of India reports.
The origin of the Omicron outbreak in Tianjin, China is eluding authorities, who have warned of the need to prepare for a “worst case scenario”.
Health officials are investigating how the new strain of Covid-19 arrived in the city after genomic sequencing showed the current cases had a different source to earlier imported cases.
China’s first imported cases of Omicron arrived in Tianjin in early December, but Zhang Ying, deputy director of Tianjin’s CDC told state media on Monday they did not match the source of the current cases.
We cannot directly rule out that the virus is imported directly, because the spread of virus is not only through humans, but it can be spread via objects or environmental [contamination].
We are still investigating other possibilities for the virus to be imported to Tianjin directly…There is another option – would it be possible that it is not imported but came from other areas [in China] and spread to Tianjin? We are tracing this simultaneously and we have found some clues already.”
China has frequently attributed infections to imported cold chain goods, despite it being generally considered a slim chance of infecting people by international scientists.
Tianjin today launched a second round of testing among the population of 14 million. The first round detected 77 cases among the first 7.9 million tests.
Germany reports more than 80,000 new cases in new daily record
Germany has reported more than 80,000 new daily Covid-19 infections, marking a new daily record.
A total of 80,430 coronavirus cases and 384 deaths were recorded for Tuesday, according to figures from the Robert Koch Institute.
In Norway, the country also set a new daily record with 9,622 new infections registered in the last 24 hours, This is 3,000 cases more than the average of the previous seven days (6,622), local media reports.
And a big thank you to very alert reader Francisco Javier Torres Tobar who brought these figures to my attention.
Indonesia has kicked off its Covid-19 booster campaign for the general public on Wednesday, prioritising third shots for the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
The government hopes to provide 21m booster shots in January to people who received their second jabs at least six months ago. Some 117 million people in Indonesia have already received two doses of the vaccine. The Moderna vaccine was provided as a booster for healthcare workers in July last year.
President Joko Widodo said:
“This effort is important to increase the immunity of society, considering the Covid-19 virus keeps mutating.”
Indonesia has reported more than 4.2 million cases and more than 144,000 deaths since the pandemic began.
Indonesia’s Food and Drug Authority on Monday approved emergency-use authorisation for the Sinovac, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Zifivax vaccines, all of which will be used as booster shots. Several other vaccines are also being examined for emergency-use authorisation.
New Zealand’s navy has conducted an unusual mercy mission to retrieve two people stranded in Singapore for 18 months due to Covid-19.
A medical condition meant the two could not fly to New Zealand, and their shrinking bank balance made staying in Singapore difficult.
According to documents released under the Official Information Act, the mission occurred after an adviser to New Zealand’s high commission to Singapore interceded on the pair’s behalf, saying their position was “very unique” and he feared “their situation could turn into one that is even worse”.
The couple, whose case was first reported by Stuff, received a special exemption to travel on board the HMNZS Canterbury, which was being refurbished in Singapore at the time. The ship left Singapore in November 2021. The journey took 19 days, meaning the couple did not need to quarantine upon arrival in New Zealand.
Colombia is set to reduce the waiting period for a Covid-19 booster vaccine from six to four months, president Ivan Duque has said.
The country previously mandated that people wait six months for their booster shots after completing their initial vaccinations.
Duque made the announcement in a video message that he later uploaded to Twitter.
Everyone aged 18 and over who has had both doses, or one dose in cases like Janssen, can now have their booster doses after four months instead of six.”
Those who are infected with Covid-19 are now able to have their vaccines 30 days after their isolation ends, rather than six months after, Duque added.
Colombia has also reduced quarantine times for those who test positive and show symptoms, regardless of vaccination status, to seven days, from 14 days previously.
Similarly, unvaccinated people who have been in contact with an infected person must isolate for seven days, Duque said.
However, those who have been vaccinated and have had contact with an infected person who do not show symptoms will not have to isolate, though they should continue to use masks and observe sanitary measures, he said.
Colombia has so far recorded more than 5.3 million coronavirus infections and 130,460 deaths, according to government figures.
Tianjin, China, begins testing 14m residents
The Chinese city of Tianjin has started a new round of Covid-19 testing today among its 14 million residents to block the spread of Omicron.
Tianjin reported 33 domestically transmitted coronavirus infections with confirmed symptoms for Tuesday, up from 10 a day earlier, national data showed.
The city ordered a half-day off for employees at companies and other institutions on Wednesday and required them to remain at home to comply with the city’s second round of mass testing, the local government said in a statement, Reuters reports.
In the central city of Anyang, where Omicron has also been detected in the community, local symptomatic cases number surged to 65 on Tuesday from just two a day earlier.
The two cities have restricted residents’ movement within the cities and made it harder for people to leave town as mass testing campaigns are ongoing.
Including infections in Tianjin and Anyang, mainland China reported a total of 166 local symptomatic cases for Tuesday, more than 110 a day earlier. There were no new deaths, leaving the death toll at 4,636.
Premier François Legault announced the new “contribution” for the unvaccinated on Tuesday, adding that it will apply “in the next few weeks”.
“A health contribution will be charged to all adults that don’t want to get vaccinated,” he said. “Those who refuse to get the shot bring a financial burden to hospital staff and Quebecers. The 10% of the population can’t burden the 90%.”
Repeated boosters not viable strategy against new variants, WHO warns
World Health Organization experts have warned that repeating booster doses of the original Covid vaccines is not a viable strategy against emerging variants.
the WHO Technical Advisory Group on Covid-19 Vaccine Composition (TAG-Co-VAC) said:
A vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable.
Covid-19 vaccines that have high impact on prevention of infection and transmission, in addition to the prevention of severe disease and death, are needed and should be developed.”
The group said there could be a need to update the existing vaccines to better target emerging Covid variants such as Omicron and called for the development of new jabs that not only protect people who contract Covid against falling seriously ill but also better prevent people from catching the virus in the first place.
It also suggested that vaccine developers should strive to create jabs that “elicit immune responses that are broad, strong, and long-lasting in order to reduce the need for successive booster doses”.
Until new vaccines have been developed, the group said, “the composition of current Covid-19 vaccines may need to be updated”.
According to the WHO, 331 candidate vaccines are currently being worked on around the world.
Hello it’s Samantha Lock back with you on the blog, ready to take you through all the Covid news this Wednesday.
Let’s dive right in with the news that World Health Organization experts have warned that repeating booster doses of the original Covid vaccines is not a viable strategy against emerging variants.
“A vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable,” the WHO Technical Advisory Group on Covid-19 Vaccine Composition (TAG-Co-VAC) said.
The group said there could be a need to update the existing vaccines to better target emerging Covid variants such as Omicron. According to the WHO, 331 candidate vaccines are currently being worked on around the world.
Premier François Legault announced the new “contribution” for the unvaccinated on Tuesday, adding that it will apply “in the next few weeks”.
“A health contribution will be charged to all adults that don’t want to get vaccinated,” he said. “Those who refuse to get the shot bring a financial burden to hospital staff and Quebecers. The 10% of the population can’t burden the 90%.”
Here’s a quick summary of all the latest developments:
People in NSW, Australia are to report all positive rapid antigen test (RAT) or face a $1,000 fine.
German police have drawn criticism for using an app to trace Covid contacts from bars and restaurants.
Bolivia’s vice president and six cabinet ministers are in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus, the government said Tuesday.
UK former health secretary Matt Hancock tests positive for Covid after contracting the virus for a second time.
About three-quarters of teachers in France plan to strike on Thursday to protest against the government’s shifting rules on Covid forcing the closure of half the country’s primary schools, a union has warned.
France’s health ministry is expected to announce a record of more than 350,000 new Covid infections over a 24-hour period, according to the health minister, Olivier Véran.
Novak Djokovic’s defence of his Australian Open title remains in doubt after reports that he might have given misleading information to Australian immigration officials. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke is still considering whether to cancel Djokovic’s visa.
Sweden announced a record 70,641 new Covid cases since Friday. It also said there were a 54 new deaths from Covid.
The US recorded a record number of hospitalisations due to Covid-19, as the daily infection rate soared to more than 1.35m. There were 145,982 people hospitalised with coronavirus on Monday, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
More than half of people in Europe could contract the Omicron in the next two months if infections continue at current rates, the World Health Organization has warned.
The WHO also warned that it is too too soon to treat Omicron as a flu-like endemic illness. Senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, said: “We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges. We are certainly not at the point where we are able to call it endemic.
The central Chinese city of Anyang has ordered five million people to begin home confinement in a new lockdown to curb the spread of Omicron variant.
Joe Biden called on the US Senate to eliminate the filibuster rule in order to pass the two voting rights bills stalled by Republicans. The US president took the bully pulpit, using a speech in Atlanta, Georgia, the cradle of the civil rights movement, to give an impassioned plea for Congress to pass his bills to ensure Americans’ access to the ballot box. Biden said he was “tired of being quiet”. (But has he left it too late?)
Kamala Harris, accompanying the president and speaking first, argued that Senate Democrats should not allow the filibuster to prevent them from advancing national voting rights legislation. The vice-president said: “The American people have waited long enough. The Senate must act.” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York, said earlier that the Senate would act on voting rights “as soon as tomorrow”.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, once again clashed with the Republican senator Rand Paul. Members of the White House pandemic response team testified before the Senate committee on health, education, labor and pensions. The top US public health official accused the rightwinger of using the Covid pandemic for his political benefit.
The House select committee investigating the 6 January insurrection has issued a subpoena to Trump’s policy adviser Ross Worthington. Worthington helped draft the speech that Donald Trump delivered prior to the attack on the capitol. The committee has also subpoenaed two advisers to Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr, Andy Surabian and Arthur Schwartz.
– Joanie Greve, Joanna Walters, Maanvi Singh
Martin Luther King III, a civil rights leader and son of Martin Luther King Jr, reflected on Joe Biden’s speech in Atlanta, calling on the president to “use the full power of his office” to eliminate the filibuster:
President Biden was clear in his call for eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights, and we’re grateful he has taken this bold step to support the change that we need. But he can’t rest this call at the feet of the Senate and walk away – he must use the full power of his office to ensure this Jim Crow relic finally falls.
The president cited his pedigree of dealmaking to pass voting rights legislation as a senator – we know he has the power and influence to do the same today. When we met with the president today, we reiterated that we expect strong action, not just words. We need to see a plan. We will be watching closely and mobilizing to ensure his speech is backed by the full power and influence of his office.”
Andrea Waters King, a civil rights advocate, added:
We won’t be satisfied until the president signs both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act into law. We are hopeful to see him heed our call and begin putting his full force behind the legislation now. But we intend to hold him accountable until we see him deliver for voting rights.”
An Indiana state senator has backtracked on his remarks that teachers must be impartial when discussing nazism in classrooms after he sparked widespread backlash.
During a state senate committee hearing last week about Senate Bill 167, a proposed bill that would ban “concepts that divide”, the Republican senator Scott Baldwin, who co-wrote the bill, said teachers should remain unprejudiced when teaching lessons about fascism and nazism.
“Marxism, nazism, fascism … I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those ‘isms’,” Baldwin said, adding, “I believe we’ve gone too far when we take a position … We need to be impartial.” He went on to say that teachers should “just provide the facts” and that he is “not sure it’s right for us to determine how that child should think and that’s where I’m trying to provide the guardrails”.
Baldwin has since walked back on his remarks. In an email to the Indianapolis Star last Thursday, he said that his intention with the bill was to make sure teachers are being impartial when discussing and teaching “legitimate political groups”.
“When I was drafting this bill, my intent with regard to ‘political affiliation’ was to cover political parties within the legal American political system,” Baldwin said. “In my comments during committee, I was thinking more about the big picture and trying to say that we should not tell kids what to think about politics.”
He went on to denounce the aforementioned ideologies, saying, “nazism, Marxism and fascism are a stain on our world history and should be regarded as such, and I failed to adequately articulate that in my comments during the meeting. I believe that kids should learn about these horrible events in history so that we don’t experience them again in humanity.”
SB 167 was filed in recent weeks in response to the fierce debates that have emerged across Indiana and the rest of the country in the past year regarding the ways schools should teach children about racism, history and other subject matters.
‘He’s a punchline’: ‘laughable’ pick for Greece envoy puts pressure on Biden
Joe Biden has styled himself as a defender of democracy but, critics say, is setting the worst possible example with his choice of envoy to Athens.
The US president nominated George Tsunis, a hotel developer and Democratic donor with no diplomatic experience, as US ambassador to Greece.
When Tsunis seeks confirmation at a Senate foreign relations committee hearing on Wednesday, he will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the train wreck that was his last appearance there eight years ago.
On that occasion Tsunis was Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Norway. Bumbling and ill-prepared, he admitted that he had never been to Norway and referred to the country as having a president when, as a constitutional monarchy, it does not.
Tsunis also claimed that Norway’s Progress party was among “fringe elements” that “spew their hatred” and was criticized by Norway’s government. In fact, the Progress party was part of the governing coalition.
The hapless nominee withdrew from consideration after causing dismay among Norwegian Americans and earning ridicule on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Now he is getting a do-over that, critics maintain, he does not deserve.
Brett Bruen, who was global engagement director of the Obama White House and recalls Tsunis’s first foray as a “debacle” in which he was “torn to shreds” by Senator John McCain, said: “The notion that he gets a second chance just utterly shocks me because in serious circles of international affairs he’s a punchline.
“So why in the world would you send someone to a significant country like Greece – at a dangerous time – to represent us there who in the eyes of most foreign policy hands can’t keep some fundamental facts straight and does not deserve to be ambassador to Ulaanbaatar, let alone Athens?”
A lawyer, developer and philanthropist, Tsunis has donated to both Democrats and Republicans, including more than $1.3m to Obama in 2012.
The House Select Committee probing the 6 January insurrection have issued subpoenas to policy adviser Ross Worthington, who helped draft the speech that Donald Trump delivered prior to the attack on the capitol.
The committee has also subpoenaed two advisers to Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr, Andy Surabian and Arthur Schwartz.
Today so far
Thanks for tuning into the US politics news live blog, we’re handing over from the east coast to the west now, where Maanvi Singh will take you through the next few hours as things continue to develop.
Here’s where things stand:
Joe Biden called on the US Senateto eliminate the filibuster rule in order to pass the two voting rights bills that are crucial to his legislative agenda but are stalled there by Republican opposition and a lack of will to change the rules to work around them.
The US president is at the bully pulpit, using a speech in Atlanta, Georgia, the cradle of the civil rights movement, to give an impassioned plea for Congress to pass his bills to ensure Americans’ access to the ballot box. Biden said he is “tired of being quiet”. (But has he left it too late?)
Kamala Harris, accompanying the president and speaking first, argued that Senate Democrats should not allow the filibuster to prevent them from advancing national voting rights legislation. The vice president said: “The American people have waited long enough. The Senate must act.”
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York, said earlier today that the Senate will act on voting rights “as soon as tomorrow”.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, once again clashed with Republican Senator Rand Paul today, as members of the White House pandemic response team testified before the Senate committee on health, education, labor and pensions. The top US public health official accused the right-winger of using the Covid pandemic for his political benefit.
Joe Biden argued that the Republican minority in the Senate should not be allowed to use the filibuster to prevent the Democratic majority from enacting its agenda.
“Today, I’m making it clear,” the president said in Atlanta, to protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed, to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.”
Biden’s speech represented his most direct appeal yet to change Senate rules, but his strong words still may not be enough to get voting rights bills across the finish line.
Because the Senate is evenly divided between the two parties, majority leader Chuck Schumer needs all 50 Democratic senators’ support to move forward with rule changes.
At least one of those senators, Joe Manchin, has made it clear that he will not support any rule changes unless they can attract bipartisan support, which seems virtually impossible given Republicans’ unified opposition to filibuster reform.
Joe Biden encouraged election officials to decide whether they want to be on the right side of history when it comes to protecting voting rights for all Americans.
“History has never been kind to those who have sided with voter suppression over voters’ rights,” the president said in Atlanta.
“Do you want to be on the side of Dr King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide.”
Biden calls on the Senate to eliminate filibuster to pass voting rights bills
Joe Biden said the Senate had been “rendered into a shell of its former self” because the filibuster has been “weaponized and abused” by the Republican minority.
The president argued Democrats should use every tool at their disposal to protect American democracy and strengthen voting rights.
“Let the majority prevail,” Biden said. “And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.”
However, it remains unclear whether Democrats have the votes to amend the filibuster, as some centrists — namely Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — have expressed skepticism of the idea.
Biden delivers impassioned pitch for voting rights: ‘I’m tired of being quiet’
Joe Biden is now speaking in Atlanta, Georgia, calling on Congress to pass national voting rights legislation to ensure Americans’ access to the ballot box.
The president argued this is a fragile moment for democracy and said America could set an example for the rest of the world by strengthening voting rights and election integrity.
“We must be vigilant, and the world is watching,” Biden said. “They’re watching American democracy and seeing if we can meet this moment.”
The president noted he has been having conversations with lawmakers about voting rights for months and now wants to see action, telling the Atlanta crowd, “I’m tired of being quiet.”
‘The Senate must act’ on voting rights, Harris says
Kamala Harris argued that Senate Democrats should not allow the filibuster to prevent them from advancing national voting rights legislation.
“The American people have waited long enough. The Senate must act,” the vice-president said in Atlanta, Georgia.
Harris warned that future generations would one day ask us what we did to protect democracy, framing this moment as a crucial inflection point in American history.
“They will ask us not about how we felt. They will ask us, what did we do?” Harris said. “We cannot tell them that we let a Senate rule stand in the way of our most fundamental freedom.”
Kamala Harris acknowledged America’s long history of passing laws to make it more difficult for certain voters, particularly people of color, to access the ballot box.
“Anti-voters laws are not new in our nation, but we must not be deceived into thinking they’re normal,” Harris said. “There is nothing normal about a law that makes it illegal to pass out water or food to people standing in long voting lines.”
The vice-president urged Americans not to be complacent about the enactment of voting restrictions, warning that Republicans were trying to “interfere with our elections to get the outcomes they want”.
“Do not succumb to those who would dismiss this assault on voting rights as an unfounded threat,” Harris said. “If we stand idly by, our entire nation will pay the price for generations to come.”
The sun beamed down over the area where the stage was set up, with the weather peaking at 50 degrees.
Attendees included students wearing maroon-colored Morehouse face masks and members of Vice President Kamala Harris’ Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Outside nearly a dozen people waved signs in protest of the administration’s appearance on campus.
Prior to the event beginning, Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were seen riding through a crowd of attendees on a golf cart.
Despite being inaccurately introduced as Martin Luther King High School, the drum line from Southwest Dekalb High School performed. The band had been silently practicing for its big moment for more than an hour before the event began.
The event took place at the Atlanta University Center consortium on the Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College’s campus in southwest Atlanta’s West End neighborhood. The AUC consortium is comprised of four HBCUS, including Spelman and Morris Brown college.
Spelman college SGA president Jillian Jackson invoked the activist legacies of Julian Bond, Raphael Warnock and Stacey Abrams who attended schools within the Atlanta University Center consortium while introducing the president and vice president.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now delivering remarks on the need to pass national voting rights legislation at the Atlanta University Center Consortium.
The president and vice-president were introduced by Jillian Jackson, the student body president at the historically Black Spelman College.
Jackson recounted her pride when she registered to vote at an NAACP drive, and she lamented the challenges that many Americans face in trying to access the ballot box.
As Harris stepped up to the podium, she told Jackson, “I can’t wait to see what you do next.”
Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, described the upcoming vote to amend the filibuster to clear the way for passing a voting rights bill as “the most important vote that I will ever take in my life”.
“I have been very reluctant since being here to talk at all about changing the filibuster, and if we were here today talking about a policy issue, I wouldn’t be at this podium,” King said at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
“But we’re not talking about a policy issue. We’re talking about a structural issue. we’re talking about how our system works.”
The Maine senator quoted the British historian Arnold Toynbee, who once said, “Civilizations commit suicide; they’re not murdered.”
“I don’t want to see that happen in the United States of America,” King said.
As Joe Biden arrived at the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was once a pastor, reporters shouted questions at the president.
One journalist asked Biden for his message to supporters who are disappointed that Democrats have not already done more on voting rights. Another reporter asked Biden whether he has the votes necessary to pass a bill.
“Keep the faith,” Biden replied.
As of now, it appears that Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer does not have the votes necessary to amend the filibuster, which would clear the way for Democrats to pass a voting rights bill.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have just visited the crypt of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights icon, and his wife, Coretta Scott King, in Atlanta, Georgia.
The president and the vice-president laid a wreath at the crypt after meeting with members of the King family, including Dr Bernice A King and Martin Luther King III, two of Dr King’s children.
Biden and Harris are now visiting Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr King was once a pastor, before they deliver their speeches on voting rights this afternoon.
In a statement released earlier today, Martin Luther King III said, “We are hopeful that after tomorrow’s trip to our home state, the President will honor my father’s legacy by traveling back to Washington and using every political chip he has to ensure the filibuster doesn’t obstruct the right to vote for Black and Brown Americans.”
Although Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have attracted the most attention in the debate over filibuster reform, some other Senate Democrats appear to be on the fence as well.
Mark Kelly is not yet committed to a change in the Senate rules that would allow elections reform legislation to pass by a simple majority. A centrist who is up for reelection in November, Kelly said Monday he is still undecided just days before he may have to vote on proposals to weaken the filibuster. …
For a caucus that prides itself on unity, there’s plenty of nuance in Democrats’ views.
Some, like Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) like a talking filibuster but are ‘not crazy’ about making an exception for voting rights. Meanwhile, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) says reform is needed but is promoting more modest changes. She cites the near-impossible odds the party faces in getting all 50 Democrats on board for changing the filibuster unilaterally, also known as the ‘nuclear option.’
As a reminder, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer cannot afford any defections if he wants to amend the filibuster because the upper chamber is evenly divided, 50-50, between Democrats and Republicans.
Joe Manchin is insisting that any changes to Senate rules must attract bipartisan support, which is virtually impossible given Republicans’ unified opposition to filibuster reform.
And if Democrats cannot change Senate rules, they almost certainly cannot pass voting rights bills, as Republicans have repeatedly used the filibuster to block those proposals.
Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, urged lawmakers to prioritize the fate of American democracy over their desire for bipartisanship.
“Bipartisanship is wonderful when it works. But it must never come at the cost of democracy,” Johnson said on Twitter. “Getting voting rights legislation to the president’s desk has got to be the top priority above anything else.”
Senate will act on voting rights ‘as soon as tomorrow,’ Schumer says
Chuck Schumer, the senate majority leader, is pledging swift action on voting rights after Joe Biden’s forthcoming speech on the topic in Georgia later today. The New York Democrat is saying the senate could act as soon as tomorrow to take up voting rights legislation.
That means Schumer could bring up either the Freedom to Vote Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act for a vote in the US senate. Both bills still will require the support of at least 60 senators to proceed because of the longstanding senate rule called the filibuster.
If Republicans again block the bill, which they are expected to do, Schumer will likely move to have a vote to change the rules around the filibuster.
Fellow Democrats have discussed a number of possible tweaks to the rule to overcome Republican obstruction. It’s still not clear if Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, two key Democrats who support keeping the filibuster in place, would support those measures.
Schumer has pledged a vote on the voting rights measure no later than 17 January, a federal holiday in the US to celebrate the life and work of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Meanwhile, Joanna Walters writes:
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s high-stakes visit to Atlanta today is in danger of backfiring horribly after exasperated voting rights activists in Georgia first warned them not come there just for more speeches without a “concrete plan” to get the relevant legislation passed in the Senate and then, when no signal was forthcoming about such a plan, basically decided to boycott the event.
The president and vice president are both with the family of Martin Luther King III now, the son of civil rights icon Dr Martin Luther King Jr, for a private meeting, having laid a wreath at the civil rights icon’s tomb in Atlanta moments ago.
Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, has acknowledged that high inflation has emerged as a serious threat to the central bank’s goal of getting more Americans back to work and that the Fed will raise rates further if needed to stem surging prices.
“If we have to raise interest rates more over time, we will,” Powell said during a hearing of the Senate banking committee, which is considering his nomination for a second four-year term.
The Associated Press reports:
Fed officials have forecast three increases in the their benchmark short-term rate this year, though some economists say they envision four rate hikes in 2022.
The stark challenge for Powell if he is confirmed as expected for a new term was underscored by the questions he faced from both Democratic and Republican senators. Powell and the central bank are under rising pressure to rein in inflation without ramping up interest rates so high that the economy tumbles into another recession.
Today, Powell took pains to rebuff suggestions from some Democratic senators that rate increases would slow hiring and potentially leave many people, particularly lower-income and Black Americans, without jobs. Fed rate increases typically lead to higher rates on many consumer and business loans and have the effect of slowing economic growth.
But Powell made clear that he is now more worried about the damage that rising inflation could inflict on the job market.
“High inflation is a severe threat to the achievement of maximum employment,” he said.
The economy, the Fed chair added, must grow for an extended period to put as many Americans back to work as possible. Controlling inflation without raising rates so high as to choke off the economic recovery is critical to lowering unemployment, Powell said.
“We know that high inflation exacts a toll, particularly for those less able to meet the higher costs of essentials like food, housing, and transportation,” he told the committee.
Today so far
Here’s where the day stands so far:
Joe Biden is traveling to Atlanta, Georgia, to deliver a speech on the need to pass national voting rights legislation. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has set a deadline of 17 January, Martin Luther King Day, to vote on rule changes to clear the way for passing voting rights bills. Speaking to reporters before flying to Atlanta, Biden said, “People are going to be judged – where were they before and where were they after the vote. History is going to judge us. It’s that consequential.”
But Senator Joe Manchin has indicated he still wants bipartisan support for any changes to the filibuster, which Republicans have repeatedly used to block voting rights bills. Republicans are unified in their opposition to amending the filibuster, and Democrats cannot move forward without Manchin’s support, making it virtually impossible to pass a voting rights bill right now.
Dr Anthony Fauci accused Republican Senator Rand Paul of trying to politically benefit from the pandemic, as the president’s chief medical adviser testified before the Senate committee on health, education, labor and pensions. “In usual fashion, you are distorting everything about me,” Fauci told Paul. “You keep coming back to personal attacks on me that have absolutely no relevance to reality.”
The blog will have more coming up, so stay tuned.
Fauci accuses Paul of attempting to politically benefit from the pandemic
Dr Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, once again clashed with Republican Senator Rand Paul today, as members of the White House pandemic response team testified before the Senate committee on health, education, labor and pensions.
During his questioning, Paul accused Fauci of using government resources to attack other health experts who disagreed with him on coronavirus-related policies.
“In usual fashion, you are distorting everything about me,” Fauci told Paul. “You keep coming back to personal attacks on me that have absolutely no relevance to reality.”
Fauci argued that Paul’s attacks had distracted from the work necessary to get the pandemic under control, while also endangering him and his family.
“That kindles the crazies out there,” Fauci said. “I have threats upon my life, harassment of my family and my children with obscene phone calls because people are lying about me.”
Fauci also noted that Paul has fundraised off calls for his resignation, encouraging supporters to donate to his campaign if they believe the expert should be fired.
“Go to Rand Paul website and you see ‘Fire Dr. Fauci’ with a little box that says contribute here,” Fauci said. “So you are making a catastrophic epidemic for your political gain.”
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell warned that Republicans would retaliate against Democrats if they move forward with amending the filibuster to pass voting rights bills.
“Fifty Republican senators, the largest possible minority, have been sent here to represent the many millions of Americans whom Leader Schumer wants so badly to leave behind,” McConnell said in a floor speech moments ago.
“So if my colleague tries to break the Senate to silence those millions of Americans, we will make their voices heard in this chamber in ways that are more inconvenient for the majority and this White House than what anybody has seen in living memory.”
Republicans could theoretically throw up more procedural roadblocks to delay the confirmation of Joe Biden’s nominees and block the passage of routine bills.
“What would a post-nuclear Senate look like? I assure you it would not be more efficient or more productive,” McConnell said. “I personally guarantee it.”
The Republican who memorably resistedDonald Trump’s attempt to overturn his election defeat in Georgia has said he will run for re-election on a platform of “integrity and truth”, against an opponent who as a churchman “should know better” than to advance the former president’s lies.
Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, became a household name after he turned down Trump’s demand that he “find 11,780 votes” in order to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the southern state. It was the first victory by a Democrat in a presidential race in Georgia since 1992.
The call is among subjects of an investigation by the district attorney of Fulton county into whether Trump and others committed crimes in their push to overturn election results in the state.
On Monday, Fani Willis told the Associated Press she expected to make a decision in the case in the first half of this year.
“We’re going to just get the facts, get the law, be very methodical, very patient and, in some extent, unemotional about this quest for justice,” she said.
Another reporter asked Joe Biden whether he was insulted that Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams will not be attending his speech in Atlanta.
“I spoke to Stacey this morning. We have a great relationship,” Biden said, adding that their teams got their scheduling “mixed up”. “We’re all on the same page.”
A number of influential political activists in Georgia are refusing to attend Biden’s speech because they say the event is a “waste of time” when it appears Democrats do not have the votes in the Senate to pass a voting rights bill.
Jewel Wicker has more details on that dust-up:
‘History is going to judge us,’ Biden says ahead of voting rights speech
Joe Biden has just left the White House to start the trip to Atlanta, Georgia, where he will deliver an afternoon speech on the need to pass national voting rights legislation.
As he left the White House, a reporter asked Biden what he is risking politically by making the speech when it remains very unclear whether the evenly divided Senate can pass a voting rights bill.
“I risk not saying what I believe. That’s what I risk. This is one of those defining moments, it really is,” Biden said.
“People are going to be judged — where were they before and where were they after the vote. History is going to judge us. It’s that consequential. And so the risk is making sure people understand just how important this is.”
As of now, it appears that Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer does not have the votes necessary to amend the filibuster and allow voting rights bills to advance. Schumer has set a deadline of 17 January, Martin Luther King Day, to vote on the matter.
In his Atlanta speech, Biden is expected to say, “The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation. Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch.”
Before traveling to Atlanta to address voting rights, Joe Biden congratulated the University of Georgia Bulldogs for their victory in last night’s national college football championship game.
“Congratulations @GeorgiaFootball on your national championship! Your skill, grit, and determination show us what is possible – and how to win your school’s first title in 41 years. I’m proud of you, Bulldogs,” the president said on Twitter.
The Bulldogs scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to defeat the Alabama Crimson Tide 33 to 18.
Manchin still wants Republican support for filibuster reform
Senator Joe Manchin reiterated that he wants bipartisan support for any changes made to the filibuster, which is extremely unlikely to happen given Republicans’ vehement opposition to Democrats’ proposals.
“We need some good rule changes to make the place work better, but getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better,” Manchin told reporters on Capitol Hill moments ago.
Because the Senate is evenly divided between the two parties, majority leader Chuck Schumer needs the support of all 50 Democratic senators to get rule changes approved.
Many Democrats have called for amending the filibuster with a simple majority, but Manchin once again made clear that he wants the vote to occur under regular order, which would require a two-thirds supermajority for passage.
“We need some good rules changes, and we can do that together,” Manchin said.
“But you change the rules with two-thirds of the people that are present, so it’s Democrats and Republicans changing the rules to make the place work better. Getting rid of the filibuster does not make it work better.”
Manchin’s comments come hours before Joe Biden is set to address the need for filibuster reform to pass voting rights bills in a speech in Atlanta, Georgia.
“There is nothing more urgent than securing the foundations of our democracy,” NAACP president Derrick Johnson said in a statement ahead of Biden’s trip to Atlanta.
“This administration and this Congress must use all the tools at their disposal to get voting rights across the finish line. We need to see outcomes.”
Of course, it remains unclear whether Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer can convince all 50 members of his caucus to support changing the filibuster, which would allow voting rights bills to advance.
Senate Republicans have repeatedly used the filibuster to block the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
The attorney general of New York state is acting unconstitutionally and in an un-American way in investigating the Trump Organization, Eric Trump has insisted, claiming a civil inquiry into his father’s financial and tax affairs is politically motivated.
“This is what you would expect from Russia,” Trump told Fox News on Monday. “This is what you would expect from Venezuela. This is third-rate stuff.”
The investigation run by Letitia James is looking into questions including whether the Trump Organization altered property valuations for tax purposes. A separate, criminal investigation in Manhattan is covering similar ground.
Such alleged behavior has been widely reported. In 2016, as Donald Trump ran for the White House, the Guardian reported on a golf club outside New York City. The headline: How Trump’s $50m golf club became $1.4m when it came time to pay tax. Trump denies wrongdoing.
The family has sued, alleging the investigation is politically motivated – a delaying tactic the New York Times said “Mr Trump has deployed in the past when faced with scrutiny by law enforcement and others”.
As the Times put it, “there is no constitutional protection against a prosecutor harboring a political bias”. Experts believe the Trump suit will not succeed.
Eric Trump’s remark about Russia raised eyebrows. He is reported to have told a golf writer, in 2014, that the Trump Organization did not “rely on American banks” because it had “all the funding we need out of Russia”. He denies the remark.
Joe Biden will meet with Martin Luther King III, the son of the celebrated civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, before delivering his speech in Atlanta.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to meet with the President to express our deep concerns for the state of our democracy, and convey that his visit cannot be a mere formality. We see his speech as a critical first step in a series of actions to move voting rights legislation forward,” King said in a statement.
“We also support the Georgia groups who have decided not to attend the President’s speech today — they’re frustrated after a year of inaction and we are too. We’re in communication with them and stand in solidarity to ensure voting rights get done.”
While in Atlanta, Biden will lay a wreath at the crypt of Dr King and visit the church where he was once a pastor.
King noted in his statement, “We are hopeful that after tomorrow’s trip to our home state, the President will honor my father’s legacy by traveling back to Washington and using every political chip he has to ensure the filibuster doesn’t obstruct the right to vote for Black and Brown Americans.”
A coalition of influential political activists in Georgia that boosted turnout in a state crucial to Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 is refusing to attend the visit planned on Tuesday by the US president and Kamala Harris to speak on voting rights.
The group had warned the president and vice-president that they needed to announce a specific plan to get national voting rights legislation passed or risk their high-profile trip to Atlanta being dismissed as “a waste of time”.
On Monday evening, the coalition of activist groups – Black Voters Matter, Galeo Impact Fund, New Georgia Project Action Fund, Asian American Advocacy Fund, Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council – along with James Woodall, the Georgia NAACP president, announced that “we will not be attending” when Biden and Harris speak.
“Instead of giving a speech tomorrow, the US Senate should be voting tomorrow. What we need now, rather than a visit from the president, vice-president and legislators is for the White House and Senate to remain in DC and act immediately to pass federal legislation to protect our freedom to vote,” the groups said in joint statement.
Biden to travel to Georgia to demand action on voting rights
Greetings from Washington, live blog readers.
Joe Biden will travel to Atlanta, Georgia, today to call on Congress to immediately pass national voting rights legislation, which has stalled in the Senate due to Republican filibustering.
“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation. Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice?” Biden is expected to say.
“I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic. And so the question is where will the institution of United States Senate stand?”
Of course, the key question is whether Democrats will be able to amend the filibuster to lower the 60-vote threshold needed to pass voting rights bills.
As of now, it remains unclear whether centrists Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would support changes to the filibuster, and majority leader Chuck Schumer needs all 50 Democratic senators on board in order to move forward.
Regarding what Biden will say on the filibuster, a White House official said, “After the GOP’s support for state attempts to undermine the rule of law based on simple majority votes around the country, he supports – as an institutionalist – changing the Senate rules to ensure it can work again and be restored and this basic right is defended.”
The Kremlin has said it sees “no significant reason for optimism” about diplomatic solutions for the Ukraine crisis, ahead of a meeting in Brussels between Russia and Nato’s 30 member states.
As Moscow was playing down the chances for success at the negotiating table after initial US-Russian talks in Switzerland on Monday, Russian forces deployed near Ukraine conducted a live-fire military exercise involving 3,000 troops and tanks, in a clear rejection of US demands for a de-escalation in the region.
A Russian delegation will hold talks with Nato’s 30 member states on Wednesday, in the first Nato-Russia Council meeting to be held since 2019. The idea behind the talks is to broaden the bilateral discussion begun by the US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, in Geneva.
Sherman and Ryabkov pointed to the “useful” and “professional” nature of the Geneva talks, in which the US proposed reciprocal confidence-building measures limiting missile deployment and military exercises in Europe.
But Ryabkov said the negotiations made no progress towards fulfilling Vladimir Putin’s central demand: for a guarantee that Ukraine will never become a Nato member, and that US troops and equipment would be withdrawn from former Soviet bloc countries in eastern Europe which are now in Nato.
“So far, let’s say we see no significant reason for optimism,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters, adding that Russia was looking for quick results and would make an assessment of progress at the end of the week, following the Nato talks and a meeting on Thursday, of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is due to hold a press conference on Friday.
“There are no clear deadlines here, no one is setting them. There is just the Russian position that we will not be satisfied with the endless dragging out of this process,” Peskov said.
The US has firmly rejected the key Russian demands on Nato enlargement and troop withdrawals from eastern European countries which joined the treaty after 1997 as “non-starters”. Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to Nato, said Russia would get the same response from all members of the alliance on Wednesday.
“In our prior consultations and meetings with allies … it has become crystal clear that not a single ally inside the Nato alliance is willing to budge or negotiate anything as it relates to Nato’s open door policy,” Smith told reporters. “I cannot imagine any scenario where that is up for discussion.”
As for Nato returning to its old posture before it began its eastern enlargement in 1997, the ambassador said: “I think we’re operating in today’s world with Nato as it stands today, and I don’t think anyone inside the Nato alliance is interested in going back in time to revisit an era where Nato looked a lot different than it does today.”
Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the approaches followed by the US and Russia were fundamentally incompatible, with the US seeking to reduce the talks to technical arms control issues while Russia wanted to use them to redefine Europe’s whole security order.
“In Moscow’s view the arms control agreements should follow the logic of the newly agreed order, not substitute for it,” Liik said.
Whatever the outcome of this week’s diplomacy she predicted it would “likely shape Europe’s strategic landscape for many years to come”.