VACCINE ROLL OUT TO BEGIN NEXT WEEK
The UK has become the first western country to licence a vaccine against Covid-19 after the national regulator approved the jab developed by Pfizer/BioNTech on Wednesday. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) has authorised the vaccine for emergency use, meaning the jab will begin to be rolled out to those most at risk early next week. A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the vaccine had been approved following months “of rigorous trials” and a “thorough analysis of data” by MHRA experts. “[They] have concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness,” the spokesperson added. Results from the final trials of the jab earlier this month showed it had an efficacy of 95%.
The government has purchased 40m doses of the vaccine, 800,000 of which will be available by next week for the most vulnerable people, including older hospital patients. While the roll out is likely to prove challenging, as the vaccine must be stored at temperatures of -70ºC, health secretary Matt Hancock said a network of 50 hospitals stood ready to begin delivering the jab. However, the prime minister has warned it could be some time before the wider public can access the vaccine. “At this stage it is very, very important that people do not get their hopes up too soon about the speed with which we will be able to roll out this vaccine,” Boris Johnson told MPs on Wednesday. He has urged Britons to continue to abide by virus restrictions in the interim.
SHOPPERS RETURN TO HIGH STREETS
Shoppers have returned to high streets in England following the end of the national lockdown. Under new tiered coronavirus rules, which came into force on Wednesday, all non-essential shops are permitted to reopen. Personal care businesses, including hairdressers, can also operate in all three tiers. Queues were reported outside some stores early on Wednesday morning as shoppers made their way back onto the nation’s high streets. Primark, which was among the first to reopen its stores at 7am yesterday, said it would introduce 24-hour opening hours at 11 of its outlets in the run-up to Christmas. It is one of several retailers attempting to recoup lockdown losses with extended opening hours.
British Retail Consortium chief Helen Dickinson said England’s non-essential shops were looking forward to welcoming back customers in the wake of the four-week shutdown. “Every purchase we make is a retailer helped, a job protected and a local community supported,” she said. Shoppers arrived early to take advantage of stock clearance sales at Debenhams after the department store chain collapsed into administration on Tuesday. The 242-year-old company is expected to offer up to 70% off stocked products as its creditors are paid and the business is wound down. The retailer was forced to introduce a virtual queuing system on its website on Wednesday after the launch of its online sale sparked an influx in demand.
US attorney general William Barr confirms that the Department of Justice has not uncovered any evidence of significant voter fraud that could have impacted the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Barr’s comments contradict those made by Donald Trump, who has insisted the election was “stolen” by Democrats through widespread voting fraud. The attorney general was previously considered one of the president’s closest allies. While Trump did not immediately respond to the comments, his campaign lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said: “[Barr’s] opinion appears to be without any knowledge or investigation of the substantial irregularities and evidence of systemic fraud.”
Barr said claims of fraud relating to the November vote “are not systemic” and had no bearing on the election result. Giuliani has insisted the campaign will continue its “pursuit of the truth”. Meanwhile, Trump’s continued allegations of fraud have drawn the ire of one of Georgia’s top election officials. Gabriel Sterling, who oversees the state’s voting systems, said the president’s claims were “inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence”. He has urged Trump to stop tweeting the baseless allegations after election workers were targeted with intimidation and death threats.
In other news
HONG KONG ACTIVISTS JAILED
Three Hong Kong activists have been handed jail sentences for their roles in last year’s pro-democracy protests. Joshua Wong has received a 13.5-month sentence, while Agnes Chow will serve 10 months and Ivan Lam seven months. All three had been found guilty of unlawful assembly. The pro-democracy protest movement, of which the trio are high-profile members, has largely been quashed by the introduction of strict new security laws in Hong Kong. The three activists have avoided potential life sentences for the offences as they took place before the legislation came into force. Responding on Wednesday, foreign secretary Dominic Raab urged officials in Beijing and Hong Kong to end “their campaign to stifle opposition”.
UN WARNS OF WAR ON NATURE
UN secretary-general António Guterres has issued a stark message on humanity’s impact on the natural world. In a virtual address on Wednesday, Guterres said: “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force.” While he highlighted the human-inflicted nature of crises such as overfishing and deforestation, Guterres also stressed that this meant that “human action can help to solve it.” He has called on global governments to introduce several policies to tackle the climate emergency, including fossil fuel divestment, carbon emissions charges and an end to the building of new coal power plants. “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century,” he said.
TESTING REOPENS CARE HOMES TO VISITORS
Families can now visit their loved ones in care homes after the government approved visits for those who have tested negative for Covid-19 on Wednesday. The Department of Health has pledged to send more than 1m tests to care home providers over the next month to support the new policy. Visitors must receive a negative result from a rapid coronavirus test and may even be able to hug their relatives if personal protective equipment is worn and other infection control measures are followed. Announcing the policy, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “I’m so pleased we are now able to help reunite families and more safely allow people to have meaningful contact with their loved ones by Christmas.”
TESCO TO REPAY BUSINESS RELIEF
Tesco has confirmed it will repay £585m worth of business rates relief granted to the retailer during the coronavirus crisis. The government exempted all retailers from paying the tax on their stores this year in a bid to help them through the pandemic. Announcing the company’s decision to repay the money on Wednesday, Tesco chief Ken Murphy said: “While business rates relief was a critical support at a time of significant uncertainty, some of the potential risks we faced are now behind us.” Returning the money to the public was “absolutely the right thing to do” for Tesco’s customers, colleagues and stakeholders, Murphy added. The supermarket’s competitors are likely to face pressure to follow suit in the wake of the announcement.
BIDEN DASHES TRADE DEAL HOPES
Joe Biden has dashed hopes of an early US-UK trade deal with a warning that America will not sign new agreements until fresh domestic investment gets underway. In a New York Times interview on Wednesday, the US president-elect said he planned to prioritise investment in US manufacturing and workers. “I’m not going to enter any new trade agreement with anybody until we have made major investments here at home and in our workers and in education,” he said. British negotiators had previously been working towards a trade deal with Donald Trump’s administration – with a US-UK agreement often touted by pro-Brexit politicians as an early benefit of leaving the European Union.
Berney Arms has been named Britain’s least used railway station. The tiny Norfolk request stop falls on a single-track line from Norwich to Great Yarmouth and is normally only accessible by foot. Named after a local pub which shut its doors several years ago, the station served just 42 passengers last year. It is one of six UK stations to have seen fewer than 100 passengers over the course of 12 months.