The Coronavirus: An Update
What’s the latest?
A group of MPs has said the government made a “serious mistake” when it was slow to put quarantine restrictions on new arrivals into the country. The Home Affairs committee said the introduction in early June of a requirement for people arriving from certain countries to quarantine should have come in earlier. It accused ministers of underestimating the threat from importing the virus from Europe as opposed to Asia, and suggested countries such a Spain should have been subject to the restrictions sooner. A spokeswoman for the Home Office rebutted the claim, saying: “All of our decisions throughout the pandemic have been guided by the science, with appropriate measures introduced at the right time to keep us all safe.”
Government adviser Prof Neil Ferguson has warned that reopening secondary schools next month is likely to spread coronavirus and necessitate tighter measures. The Imperial College London academic said the UK would have to “row back on the relaxation of restrictions” if all pupils returned full time. His advice came as Anne Longfield, England’s children’s commissioner, said closing schools should be a “last resort” in any future lockdowns. Briefing ministers, she said restaurants, shops and other non-essential services should be closed in order for educational establishments to be kept open.
Scotland’s first minister reimposed lockdown restrictions in Aberdeen yesterday. Pubs and restaurants closed at 5pm last night, after Nicola Sturgeon decided the city’s 54 recent cases constituted a “significant outbreak” and community transmission could not be ruled out. Aberdeen is the first city in Scotland to undergo a local lockdown, with 228,000 inhabitants no longer allowed to meet in each others’ houses or travel more than five miles for leisure activities. The restrictions will be reviewed next Wednesday.
How is the crisis impacting the economy?
WH Smith and M&Co are the latest retailers to announce job losses. Scotland-based fashion chain M&Co – formerly known as Mackays – is to shed 400 of its 2,600 workers as it closes 47 of its 262 stores. WH Smith has said it will cut 1,500 jobs, equating to around 15% of its global workforce. Most of the losses will be in its travel shops, which suffered a 92% drop in revenue during April’s lockdown peak and have not fully recovered. Takings for July were still down 75%, with group revenues 57% lower than they were in the same month of 2019. WH Smith has not announced any major store closures, but it is believed 14 kiosk-style outlets in bus and train stations will close as part of the restructuring announced yesterday.
William Hill is not going to reopen 119 branches it closed for the coronavirus lockdown. That will leave the bookmaker with 1,414 outlets. Having relocated many of the staff at the disappearing shops, it expects to only have to make 16 redundancies. William Hill also posted a £141m profit for the first half of 2020 yesterday and said it would repay the £24.5m it claimed from the government to support around 7,000 furloughed staff. The gambling firm said the lack of sporting fixtures in lockdown meant revenues were delayed, rather than entirely lost, and picked up again once sport resumed.
And what are the international developments?
France is “highly likely” to experience a second wave of coronavirus in autumn or winter, according to its national scientific committee. In a statement published by the country’s health ministry, the committee also warned there could be an earlier second wave if social-distancing rules were not adhered to. France has reported 3,376 new confirmed Covid-19 cases in the last three days, with more people being treated in intensive care. Elsewhere in Europe, Poland has reported its highest daily increase in cases (680, with six deaths) and is now considering measures such as mandatory testing for anyone returning to the country and compulsory quarantine for those arriving from some countries.
In response to Russia’s recent announcement that it would begin a mass vaccination programme in October, the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged the country to adhere to international guidelines for producing a Covid-19 vaccine. The Russian vaccine is not on the WHO’s list of six vaccines that have reached the phase of widespread testing on humans. WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier commented: “Sometimes individual researchers claim they have found something, which is of course, as such, great news. But between finding or having a clue of maybe having a vaccine that works, and having gone through all the stages, is a big difference.”
Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), commenting on research showing the majority of FTSE 100 companies did not cut top executive pay, despite many of the firms turning to the taxpayer to pay the wages of furloughed workers. The CIPD worked with the High Pay Centre to analyse the ways the UK’s biggest firms had navigated the coronavirus pandemic. Together they found just 36 of them had reduced their CEO’s pay and that the measures those 36 took were “superficial or short-term”.
The report suggested high levels of CEO pay were likely to be “particularly controversial in the case of companies that have drawn on government support”. It found 19 of the FTSE 100 companies had taken advantage of the job retention scheme or coronavirus corporate financing facility loan scheme. On average, FTSE 100 CEOs take home £3.61m a year – around 119 times more than the average full-time worker in the UK. The report called for executive pay to be agreed in “a more democratic fashion”, suggesting that a worker representative be appointed to the committees that decide it.
In Other News...
BEIRUT EXPLOSION CAUSED BY ABANDONED SHIP
The explosion in Beirut that has killed at least 100 people and left up to 300,000 homeless was caused by ammonium nitrate on a Russian-owned ship that was abandoned in the Lebanese capital’s port at least six years ago. The 87m Rhosus, which was built in 1986, had 2,750 tonnes of the fertiliser on board, which was subsequently stored unsafely in a warehouse in 2014. Tuesday’s explosion is believed to have entirely destroyed the port and inflicted damage on buildings across the city. Lebanon has declared three days of mourning and a two-week state of emergency, while France has sent three planes carrying rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic to the stricken city. On Wednesday, the government announced that a number of Beirut port officials were placed under house arrest pending an investigation into the explosion. The country's Supreme Defence Council insisted that those found responsible will face the "maximum punishment".
NEW INSIGHT INTO UIGHUR DETENTION CAMPS
Video footage shot by a detainee of conditions inside one of China’s internment camps has been released. Merdan Ghappar, a 31-year-old Uighur, was a successful fashion model until he was detained in January this year. His four-and-a-half-minute video shows him shackled to a bed in a filthy room, wearing dirty clothes and suffering with swollen ankles. He also sent text messages to his family, detailing human rights violations, torture and violent abuse of detainees, including teenage boys. China claims the camps in Xinjiang province are voluntary and designed to combat separatism, terrorism and extremism, particularly within the Uighur community. It also says they have mostly been closed, but the new video adds to growing evidence that supports credible estimates suggesting up to 1m Uighurs and other minorities have been forced into them. Ghappar has not been heard from since March.
PENGUIN COLONIES SPOTTED FROM SPACE
The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has identified 11 previously unknown colonies of emperor penguins in Antarctica – thanks to guano patches picked up on satellite images. The findings increase the number of known colonies of the endangered birds by one-fifth. Each new colony is thought to number a few hundred birds, meaning the total increase in the known population is around 5-10%. Emperor penguins are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they are the only species of penguin to breed on sea ice, rather than land. “While this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up to just over half a million penguins,” said the BAS’s Peter Fretwell, who led the research.
RUSSIAN TORY DONOR REVEALED
The Times has identified Viktor Fedotov as the Russian tycoon who has donated almost £250,000 to the Conservative party. The 73-year-old owns Aquind, a company that is seeking government approval to build a £1.2bn undersea electricity interconnector between the UK and France. Five cabinet ministers or their constituency parties – including Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma and Brandon Lewis – have received donations from Aquind or one of its directors. The identity of Aquind’s ultimate owner had been hidden thanks to an unusual exemption from corporate transparency rules. After concerns were voiced by the Commons intelligence and security committee last month about the influence of a Russian elite on British life, a group of senior Tories called for the owner to be named.
RARE WARNING OVER ILLICIT PRESCRIPTION DRUGS
Public Health England (PHE) has told healthcare providers and drug treatment services to look out for illicit tablets being sold as benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and diazepam, which can be prescribed to treat anxiety or insomnia. PHE issued the warning after being made aware of 12 cases in the last four months in which the illicit pills – which are often blue and may stain people’s mouths – were linked to deaths or illnesses requiring hospitalisation. Experts had warned in April that drug users were turning to benzodiazepines while other drugs were in short supply. Dr Rachel Britton from drug and alcohol treatment service We Are With You advised: “Testing has shown that these fake pills can often contain different substances in differing strengths, meaning the chances of overdose are far higher. Due to the dangers, we are urging people to avoid taking these drugs.”
The proportion of waking hours that Brits spent watching TV at the height of lockdown. Broadcasting regulator Ofcom’s latest annual study of viewing habits has found the average person spent almost six and a half hours a day in front of a screen during April – that’s 90 minutes more per day than the figure recorded for the same period of 2019. Ofcom’s report also estimates that 12m adults signed up to a new streaming service during lockdown.