UK PM Johnson's close aide Cummings broke lockdown rules: newspapers

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, travelled more than 400 km from his London home after showing symptoms of coronavirus, breaking the government’s lockdown rules, the Guardian and Mirror newspapers reported on Friday.

Cummings, a polarising figure in Britain since he masterminded the successful campaign to leave the European Union in 2016, travelled to Durham in northern England in late March, when a strict lockdown was already in place, the reports said.

A spokesman for Johnson’s Downing Street office said it would make no comment. Cummings could not immediately be reached.

The opposition Labour Party said Downing Street should explain his actions. “The British people do not expect there to be one rule for them and another rule for Dominic Cummings,” a spokeswoman said.

Johnson imposed a national lockdown on March 23, asking Britons to stay at home. Non-essential travel was not allowed.

On March 27, Johnson announced that he had tested positive for the virus. On the weekend of March 28-29, Cummings also developed symptoms of the virus. Downing Street said he was self-isolating at home. He returned to the office on April 14.

The Guardian and the Mirror reported that on March 31, police in Durham received a report that Cummings was staying at an address in the city.

“Officers made contact with the owners of that address who confirmed that the individual in question was present and was self-isolating in part of the house,” a spokesman for Durham police was quoted as saying in both newspapers’ reports.

“Officers explained to the family the guidelines around self-isolation and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.”

No comment from Durham police was immediately available.

The two newspapers said that the property where Cummings stayed in Durham was his parents’ house.

The BBC’s political editor quoted a source close to Cummings as saying he did travel to Durham during lockdown but did not breach the rules as he needed his parents’ help with childcare while he was ill. Cummings and his wife have a young son.

The reports could put Cummings in a difficult position, after several senior people involved in the country’s response to the coronavirus outbreak were forced to resign when it emerged that they had broken the lockdown rules.

Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson resigned from his role as a government advisor on May 5 after the Daily Telegraph reported he had met his girlfriend.

Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood resigned on April 5 after she broke her own advice to stay at home by visiting her second home on two weekends.

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UK, EU urge each other to give ground in trade talks or risk no deal

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) – Britain and the European Union urged each other on Friday to give ground in talks over a post-Brexit trade deal or risk

failure in tetchy exchanges after the latest bout of bargaining ended with scant progress.

The United Kingdom left the European Union on Jan. 31 but the main terms of its membership remain in place for a transition period until the end of this year, giving it time to negotiate a new free trade deal with the bloc.

Failure to reach a deal would convulse global trade just as the world aims to exit the coronavirus lockdown. But so far the talks have not gone well.

“We made very little progress towards agreement on the most significant outstanding issues between us,” UK chief negotiator David Frost said after a week of talks.

The main sticking point has been so-called “level playing field” rules to harmonise regulation, which the EU says are needed to ensure Britain does not undercut its standards, but which Britain rejects as binding it to European laws.

Frost said the major obstacle to a deal was the EU’s insistence on including a set of “novel and unbalanced” proposals on the level playing field.

“As soon as the EU recognises that we will not conclude an agreement on that basis, we will be able to make progress,” Frost said. “We very much need a change in EU approach for the next round beginning on 1 June.”

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Britain had refused to engage in full conversation about a level playing field and fisheries in a “very disappointing” third round of talks.

“There will be no agreement with the UK without a balanced agreement on fisheries and a proper, balanced agreement on level playing field,” Barnier said.

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He said he was not optimistic on the chances for a deal this year.

“We will not bargain away our values for the benefit of the British economy,” he said.

London was failing to comprehend the consequences of its own Brexit choices when it came to its ability to access the EU’s cherished single market, he said.

He said London had to budge or there would be “a stalemate”.

Sterling weakened on Friday as Brussels and London dug their heels in ahead of a key deadline at the end of June.

Both sides are then due to assess progress so far and agree on whether to extend the talks, which London has refused to do.

BREXIT NO DEAL?

After years of Brexit political chaos in London, investors and companies are trying to work out if London and Brussels are simply ratchetting up the rhetoric or are so far apart that there could be a cliff-edge at the end of 2020. Time is ticking and the EU has a strict timetable.

With no extension, the EU says any talks would need to wrap up around October to allow enough time for ratification of any new deal by the bloc’s parliament and the 27 national capitals.

The EU says fundamental disagreements persisted on the level playing field guarantees of fair competition, fisheries and oversight role of the EU’s top court, among other issues.

Goldman Sachs said it still expected a minimalistic trade deal to be sealed this year, which would give Johnson the opportunity to publicly declare his mission of leaving the EU’s orbit accomplished.

However, the investment bank also said unresolved issues could be pushed into a new “implementation phase” of any new trade deal, meaning some EU rules would continue applying to Britain beyond the end of this year. Negotiations on many aspects of a broader new relationship would de facto continue.

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England tiptoes out of lockdown as economy dives

LONDON (Reuters) – England tentatively began easing its coronavirus lockdown on Wednesday, with some people who cannot do their jobs at home urged to return to work, as stark economic data showed the disastrous impact of the pandemic.

The worst-hit country in Europe with more than 40,000 deaths from COVID-19 according to official data, Britain has been in extensive lockdown since March 23. As of Wednesday morning, people in manufacturing and certain other sectors were being asked to return to work if they could.

GDP data on Wednesday showed the economy shrank by a record 5.8% in March from February, and the April data is likely to be even worse as the country was under lockdown for the entire month.

“We are seeing one (quarter of GDP contraction) here with only a few days of impact from the virus so it is now, yes, very likely that the UK economy will face a significant recession this year and we are in the middle of that as we speak,” finance minister Rishi Sunak said.

The government is loosening restrictions only gradually, for fear of triggering a second peak of infections. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described the process as a “supremely difficult” balancing act.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have semi-autonomous governments, are sticking with a “stay at home” message for now, leaving England, the most populous UK nation, to take the lead in sending some people back to work.

In London, commuter trains appeared busier than in past weeks, though still very far from pre-pandemic overcrowding. Many people wore face masks, and made noticeable efforts to observe distancing.

At Stratford, a usually busy hub in east London, a one-way system for entering and exiting the station was in place, with loudspeakers telling passengers on where to walk.

Road traffic into the city was steady, though also well below traditional rush hour levels. Digital information panels said: “Stay home, essential travel only, save lives”.

‘STAY ALERT’

Mayor Sadiq Khan posted a message on Twitter to tell Londoners not much had changed.

“Lockdown has not been lifted. Please keep social distancing and stay at home as much as possible,” he wrote. “If you have to make an essential journey by public transport, wear a non-medical face covering to protect others.”

The government has faced a barrage of criticism that its new guidance – “stay alert, control the virus, save lives” – was confusing and that people were being given mixed messages about how safe it was to have contact with others.

Appearing on Sky News TV, transport minister Grant Shapps was asked why estate agents were being allowed to resume house viewings when people could not have relatives to visit.

“The truth of the matter is, you have to start somewhere. The lockdown message was very straightforward – it was just stay at home. Now as we start to unlock, of course, there have to be decisions made,” Shapps said.

“There is no perfect way of doing this, and we’d ask people to use their common sense … Right now, there has to be a cut-off somewhere.”

Workers were being advised to avoid public transport if possible, and schools remained closed, prompting questions about how parents and people who could not get to work by other means should apply the new guidance.

Employers faced the daunting task of creating safe environments for staff, with detailed guidance on one-way systems at entry and exit points and in stairwells, spacing out workstations and other minutiae.

For those working from home or unable to work, there was little change. People were now allowed out to exercise more than once a day, and two people from separate households were allowed to meet outdoors if they kept 2 metres apart.

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Fines for transgressions have been increased.

Anyone hoping to alleviate the tedium by planning a summer holiday would be taking a risk, Shapps told the BBC.

“Right now you can’t travel abroad. If you are booking it then you are clearly, by the very nature, taking a chance on where the direction of this virus goes and therefore where the travel advice is in the future,” he said.

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Britain would not support Israeli West Bank annexation: minister

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain would not support an Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank as it would make a two-state solution with the Palestinians more difficult to achieve, junior Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said on Monday.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said it is up to Israel whether to annex parts of the West Bank.

But Cleverly told parliament: “Our long-standing position is that we do not support the annexation of parts of the West Bank, and … doing so could make a sustainable two-state solution harder.”

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Factbox: What lockdown changes did UK prime minister Johnson announce?

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday announced there would be no immediate end to lockdown in Britain, but he outlined plans to begin gradually easing some of the measures which have shut down much of the economy for nearly seven weeks.

Following are some of the changes he announced, with further details due to be announced to parliament on Monday:

SLOGAN

The government is replacing its main “stay at home” slogan with “stay alert”. Government officials have said, however, that people will still be told to stay at home as much as possible.

CONTACT WITH OTHERS

In a government poster published by Johnson on Twitter on Sunday, the new guidelines included “limit contact with other people”.

A government official said there was no change in the advice for the most vulnerable people, who have been asked to shield themselves, but others could, for example, sit next to a friend in the park as long as social distancing measures were respected.

Johnson said fines for breaking social distancing measures would be increased. The fine is now expected to be 100 pounds, halved to 50 pounds if paid within 14 days.

EXERCISE

From Wednesday, people will be allowed to take unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise, sit in the sun in a local park, drive to other destinations and play sports, such as golf, tennis or angling, but only with members of their household.

RETURN TO WORK

Johnson said those who can work from home should continue to do so but anyone who cannot, such as those working in construction and manufacturing, “should be actively encouraged to go to work”.

SCHOOLS/SHOPS

Johnson said that at the earliest by June 1, Britain might be in a position to begin the phased reopening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages, beginning with the youngest and oldest year groups.

A government official said the government would want to see the other years going back to school before the summer holidays.

“Our ambition is that secondary pupils facing exams next year will get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays. And we will shortly be setting out detailed guidance on how to make it work in schools and shops and on transport,” Johnson said.

Other year classes in secondary schools are not expected to return to school before the summer holidays.

HOSPITALITY

At the earliest by July and if the numbers on infection rates support it, Johnson said there could be the re-opening of at least some of the hospitality industry and other public places, provided they are safe and enforce social distancing.

Some of the hospitality industry could include restaurants or cafes with outside seating and public places could include places of worship.

TRANSPORT

The requirement for buses, trains and underground rail services to maintain social distancing rules means they will only be able to carry vastly reduced passenger numbers, with public transport capacity expected to drop by around 90%.

Johnson urged those returning to commuting to consider cycling, walking or driving to work instead.

WARNING SYSTEM

Johnson said the government was establishing a new Covid Alert System run by a new Joint Biosecurity Centre. The Covid Alert Level will be determined primarily by the reproduction rate of the disease, or R, and the number of coronavirus cases.

There will be five alert levels. Level One means the disease is no longer present in Britain and Level Five is the most critical and be used to flag the risk in different areas, allowing the government to tighten restrictions where necessary.

QUARANTINE ARRIVALS

Johnson said to prevent re-infection from abroad “it will soon be the time … to impose quarantine on people coming into this country by air.”

In a joint statement issued following a conversation between Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, France and Britain said no quarantine measures would apply to travellers coming from France for now and “any measures on either side would be taken in a concerted and reciprocal manner”.

SCOTLAND

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the only change she would be making to lockdown measures in Scotland would be to allow people to exercise more than once a day from Monday.

“We do not, at this point, want to see more businesses opening up or more people going to work,” she told a news conference. She added that her government would assess over the coming week whether it was possible to extend the range of permitted outdoor activities, reopen garden centres and allow some outdoor work to resume.

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Queen Elizabeth to address Britain as it commemorates VE Day

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Queen Elizabeth will give a televised message to her nation on Friday to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day, as the coronavirus outbreak overshadows nationwide celebrations to commemorate the end of World War Two in Europe.

Plans for extensive events to herald the anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, when allied forces accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, were scaled back in March after the government banned social gatherings to curb the coronavirus.

That meant a procession by veterans through the capital and other events involving crowds were scrapped.

However, Royal Air Force jets will still fly over the four capitals of the United Kingdom and Prime Minister Boris Johnson will deliver a message to mark the occasion, a holiday in Britain, and speak to a veteran via a video call.

“Today we must celebrate their achievement, and we remember their sacrifice,” said Johnson, who will also recite a recently discovered poem called “V Day” by World War One poet Edmund Blunden.

“We are a free people because of everything our veterans did –  we offer our gratitude, our heartfelt thanks and our solemn pledge: you will always be remembered.”

The 94-year-old queen’s address will be particularly symbolic, coming exactly 75 years after her father George VI gave a victory speech over the radio to the nation.

Elizabeth, a teenager when the war broke out, learned to drive military trucks and to be a mechanic while serving in the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, and she was in Buckingham Palace when it was bombed in September 1940.

Since becoming queen 68 years ago, Elizabeth has rarely made broadcasts to the nation except her annual Christmas Day message, but her VE Day speech will be the third such address since the coronavirus shut down much of Britain in March.

Last month, she invoked the spirit shown during World War Two, calling for the public to show the same resolve and echoing the words of the famous song “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn which became a symbol of hope for Britons during the conflict.

As part of Friday’s celebrations, after the queen’s address is aired at 2000 GMT, Britons are being encouraged to open their front doors and join in a nationwide singalong of Lynn’s song.

The commemorative events will start hours earlier with a two-minute silence at 1000 GMT led by the queen’s son and heir, Prince Charles, and at 1400 GMT, extracts from the victory speech of wartime leader Winston Churchill will be broadcast.

Before the lockdown, street parties were due to be held across the country, and people are now being encouraged to decorate their houses and throw a 1940s-themed afternoon tea in their own homes.

Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins will give a solo performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, in what will be the first concert behind closed doors in its 150 year history.

“As we stay home to protect the NHS (National Health Service) and save lives, I know the British people will mark this historic occasion in new ways to show our deepest gratitude and respect for those that gave so much to bring peace, freedom and prosperity to Europe,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said.

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UK overtakes Italy with Europe's highest official coronavirus death toll

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom has overtaken Italy to report the highest official death toll from the new coronavirus in Europe, figures released on Tuesday showed, increasing pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his response to the crisis.

Weekly figures from Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) added more than 7,000 deaths in England and Wales in the week to April 24, raising the total for the United Kingdom to 32,313.

Only the United States, with a population nearly five times greater, has suffered more confirmed fatalities from the virus than Britain, according to the data so far.

Tuesday’s figures are based on death certificate mentions of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including suspected cases.

While different ways of counting make comparisons with other countries difficult, the figure confirmed Britain was among those hit worst by a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 worldwide.

“The UK has been hit very hard in this wave of COVID-19 and each death will (have) brought sadness to families,” said Professor James Naismith of Oxford University, who is director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute of medical research.

Opposition politicians said the figures proved the government was too slow to provide enough protective equipment to hospitals and introduce mass testing.

“I’d be amazed if, when we look back, we don’t think: yep we could have done something differently there,” the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in response to lawmakers’ questions on testing.

Responding to the ONS figures, a Downing Street spokesman pointed to Johnson’s recent comments that Britain had passed the peak of the disease but remained in a “dangerous phase”.

He also cited the advice of England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty: “Different countries are recording different things in relation to deaths.”

Italy and Spain, the next worst-hit European countries, have smaller populations than Britain, further complicating comparisons.

“Putting a graph out with the United States at the top and UK second is not helpful, but once you start to break it down by looking at the population we should be seriously asking questions about what’s different,” said Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University.

“Why are six countries disproportionately affected?” Heneghan added, referring to a list dominated by Europe.

Ministers dislike comparisons of the headline death toll, saying that excess mortality – the number of deaths from all causes that exceed the average for the time of year – is more meaningful because it is internationally comparable.

EXCESS DEATH

But early evidence for excess mortality suggests Britain will be one of the hardest-hit on this measure, too.

ONS statistician Nick Stripe said excess deaths for the United Kingdom were running about 42,000 higher than average at this point in the year.

However, only about 80% of these excess deaths have been linked specifically with COVID-19.

The weekly ONS data also showed the peak in COVID-19 deaths has likely passed, although the week to April 24 was still the second-deadliest since comparable records began in 1993.

The overall decline also masked a worsening picture in care homes.

The ONS said 7,911 deaths from all causes were registered in care homes in the week ending April 24, three times higher than a month previously.

“These figures show that talk of being ‘past the peak’ of this awful virus simply does not hold true for social care,” said Labour opposition lawmaker Liz Kendall.

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Flypast and promotion for UK fund-raising hero 'Colonel' Tom as he turns 100

LONDON (Reuters) – British World War Two veteran Captain Tom Moore, who has become a national hero after raising almost 30 million pounds for the health service, celebrates his 100th birthday on Thursday with an honorary promotion and two military flypasts.

Moore has raised 29.4 million pounds ($36.5 million) for charities that help front-line National Health Service staff by completing laps of his garden with the help of a walking frame, having initially set out to raise just 1,000 pounds.

That figure means he now holds the Guinness World Record title for the most money raised by an individual through a walk, and he has also since also become the oldest person to notch up a number one single in Britain’s main music chart, featuring on a cover version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

His endeavors have won the hearts and admiration of the public at home and across the world. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on his return to work on Monday after recovering from COVID-19 himself, called upon Britons to show the same resolve as the old soldier to help defeat the virus.

Foreign minister Dominic Raab, who stood in for Johnson in parliament on Wednesday after the prime minister’s fiancee gave birth to their son, said all lawmakers would want to wish him a happy birthday.

“His life of service for his country, his dedication to helping others is an inspiration to us all,” Raab said.

To celebrate his landmark, Moore has been appointed the first Honorary Colonel of the Army Foundation College, based near the town where he grew up, a position that came with the approval of Queen Elizabeth, the defense ministry said.

There will also be two flypasts by Royal Air Force planes above “Colonel” Moore’s home in Bedfordshire, central England – one featuring historic World War Two aircraft and a second by modern helicopters.

He will also be re-presented with his World War Two Defence Medal which he had lost.

“During these unprecedented times he has reminded us all hardship is easier endured when we place the needs of others above our own, and approach everything with a smile,” said defense minister Ben Wallace.

Tributes have been flooding in for Moore since he started his fundraising mission earlier this month. Since Monday, Britain’s Royal Mail said all stamped post would feature a special postmark in his honor while more than 125,000 birthday cards have been sent to him by well-wishers.

The royal family are among those who had have joined the chorus of praise for the veteran, who served in southeast Asia during the war.

“It’s incredible, it’s amazing,” said Prince William, the queen’s grandson. “It’s wonderful that everyone is being inspired by his story, his determination … he’s a one man fund-raising machine.”

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Back at work, British PM Johnson faces lockdown Catch-22

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson returns to work on Monday to the biggest dilemma of his premiership: how to lift the coronavirus lockdown that is destroying swathes of the British economy without triggering a deadly second wave of the outbreak.

Johnson, 55, is back in Downing Street almost a month to the day since he was tested positive for COVID-19 which incapacitated the prime minister and threatened his life at the peak of the coronavirus crisis.

His inbox is full to bursting. His government, his party and his scientific advisers are divided over how and when the world’s fifth largest economy should start to get back to work, albeit in a limited form.

“He will be back in the driving seat as we speak, getting on with the job,” said Edward Argar, a junior health minister. “He is raring to be back and he is full of energy as you would expect.”

Johnson is due to chair the government’s daily COVID-19 emergency response meeting on Monday, Argar said, but he added that it was still too early to lift the lockdown.

Johnson’s deputy, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, said social distancing would in place for some time yet. He too said Johnson was “raring to go”.

The United Kingdom is on course to be among the worst hit European states with more than 20,732 hospital deaths reported as of Saturday.

But the most stringent lockdown in peacetime history has left the economy facing possibly the deepest recession in three centuries and the biggest debt splurge since World War Two.

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At the start of the outbreak, Johnson initially resisted imposing a draconian lockdown but then changed course when projections showed that a quarter of a million people could die in the United Kingdom.

Since the lockdown was imposed on March 23, his government has faced criticism from opposition parties and some doctors for the United Kingdom’s limited testing capabilities and the lack protective equipment for some frontline health workers.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who has replaced veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, urged Johnson to set out when and how an economic and social lockdown might be eased – as did some Conservative Party donors.

“Simply acting as if this discussion is not happening is not credible,” Starmer wrote in an open letter to Johnson.

He said the government had been too slow to impose the lockdown, to expand testing and to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospital and care home staff.

Johnson is expected to announce plans for how the lockdown could be eased as early as this week, the Daily Telegraph reported.

The number of deaths related to COVID-19 in hospitals across the United Kingdom rose to 20,732, up by 413 in 24 hours, the lowest daily rise this month. A total of 29,058 tests were carried out on April 25.

Based on those statistics, the United Kingdom has the fifth worst official COVID-19 death toll in the world, after the United States, Italy, Spain and France.

But the United Kingdom’s total death toll is much higher as statistics for deaths outside hospital – for example in care homes – are slower to be published.

Stephen Powis, medical director of the National Health Service in England, said the “very definite” downward trend in the number of coronavirus cases in hospital demonstrated that social distancing was reducing virus transmission and spread.

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