U.S. Army Corps allows Dakota Access pipeline to stay open during review

By Laila Kearney and Devika Krishna Kumar

NEW YORK (Reuters) -The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday said it will allow Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access oil pipeline to keep running during an environmental review, a blow to activists who wanted the line shut after a key environmental permit was scrapped last year.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has been the flashpoint for a years-long legal battle between its operator, Energy Transfer LP, and several Native tribes that want it shut after opposing its construction. It is the most important artery for crude transport out of North Dakota, shipping up to 570,000 barrels of North Dakota’s crude production daily.

Energy Transfer shares were up 2.5% in afternoon trading.

Last year, native tribes led by the Standing Rock Sioux won a victory when Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia vacated a permit allowing the line to run under Lake Oahe, a key water source.

The Corps could have shut the line pending another review, but deferred to the judge. Boasberg gave operators of the pipeline until April 19 to make the case for keeping the line flowing before he issues a ruling.

The tribes opposing DAPL sought to shut the line, and frustrated tribal representatives decried what they called one in a series of decisions that abrogates the rights of Native Americans.

“It’s the continuation of a terrible history that we believed was going to change,” Earthjustice lawyer Jan Hasselman, who represents the Standing Rock Sioux, told the court. “So we are really disappointed to hear this news from the Army Corps.”

Energy companies said a shutdown would increase reliance on crowded rail lines and smaller pipelines and hamper transport of crude from the Bakken region, where more than 1 million barrels are produced daily.

The Army Corps is expected to produce an environmental impact statement (EIS) by March of 2022, said Corps attorney Ben Schifman.

“The Corps is proceeding with the EIS process … but at this time has not taken any additional action,” he said.

The Standing Rock Sioux and environmental groups have ramped up pressure on the White House to shut the line. President Joe Biden’s administration is trying to reduce U.S. carbon emissions and protect minority groups from pollution threats. It canceled a presidential permit for the unbuilt Keystone XL pipeline from Canada but has not shut an operating pipeline.

In 2016, tens of thousands of protesters flocked to the site to support tribes who said they had not been adequately consulted about the line’s construction.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney and Devika Krishna Kumar; editing by David Evans, David Gregorio and Grant McCool)

‘How can we not be tense?’ Turkey’s coronavirus infections soar

By Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – The red letters scrolling across the front of Fikret Oluk’s bus say: “Stay Home Turkey.” But the Istanbul driver said passengers are ignoring rules and overcrowding, sometimes without masks, even as coronavirus infections rocket.

Turkey – which has the highest level of daily new COVID-19 cases in Europe and the Middle East – again tightened measures last week to contain the rapid spread after calls for action by doctors and opposition politicians.

Among the rules are a limit of 69 passengers on Oluk’s busy urban bus route. When 89 are aboard, he says he draws the line.

“But unfortunately people do not listen. They attack us and put us in a difficult position,” said the driver of 10 years.

“How can we not be tense? Our lives are currently dependent on these masks. But unfortunately, just like people don’t think about themselves, they don’t think about us either,” he said.

Interviews with Turks who have received a vaccine and those waiting for one show a mix of fear and frustration with record COVID-19 deaths and infections, which neared 56,000 on Thursday alone, and an uneven adherence to the rules.

The head of the Turkish Medics Association told Reuters she believed the biggest misstep of President Tayyip Erdogan’s government was broadly easing restrictions in March as daily case numbers fell below 10,000. She said this sacrificed the gains made over the winter, calling the approach “social murder.”

“We called this a ‘social murder’ because they already know what will cause these deaths, they do not have any preventative measures,” Sebnem Korucu Fincanci said, adding that intercity travel, manufacturing and public transportation should be halted.

Erdogan and his government came under fire last month for a party congress with thousands of people, many of whom were seen violating social distancing rules and not wearing or improperly wearing masks. Opposition parties and critics accused Ankara of undermining efforts to curb infections.

‘BE REALISTIC’

Nurettin Yigit, head doctor at a specially-built pandemic hospital in Istanbul, said the impact on the health system of the latest surge had been less than in previous waves and called the timing “unlucky.”

“The moment we began this controlled normalization, the entry of other mutations from other countries started,” he told Reuters as medical staff administered vaccines to patients. He attributed the rise partly to people travelling domestically.

Ankara has blamed coronavirus variants for the surge in infections, saying some 85% of total cases across the country are from the variant first identified in Britain, as well as a lack of commitment to measures such as social distancing and mask wearing.

On Friday, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca told the Hurriyet daily that the solution to the “serious rise” in infections was to speed up vaccinations, adding he aimed to have all citizens over 20 years old vaccinated by July.

Fincanci called Ankara’s vaccination goals unrealistic and criticized what she called the inaccurate reporting of case and death numbers. “They have to be realistic, they have to be transparent,” she said.

Turkey has administered around 18 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far, roughly enough to cover about 11% of the population, according to a Reuters tally.

The government has dismissed criticisms over its handling of the pandemic and the measures it has implemented, saying public health is the priority.

It has adopted fresh stay-at-home orders for weekends and will halt dining at restaurants starting Tuesday for the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

But the country has remained largely open for business since last June and many have hit the streets and cafes as the weather has warmed – worrying some who have stayed home.

“I haven’t drank tea in a café for 11 months. I don’t leave the house,” said Mehmet Tut, 62, sitting outside a hospital treatment room after receiving his first vaccine shot on Friday.

“We will still be careful as we wait for the second dose” even as others are not taking enough precautions, he said. “They expect everything from the state but it is up to us. If we are careful we won’t get sick.”

(Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen, Bulent Usta and Mert Ozkan; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Italy eases COVID-19 curbs as infections decline, but deaths still high

ROME (Reuters) – Lockdown measures will be eased from Monday in six Italian regions, the health ministry ruled on Friday, even as the nationwide daily death toll remains well above 400.

New infections have fallen by 30% over the last five days compared with the same period last week, and the national health institute (ISS) said the “R” reproduction number has declined to 0.92 from 0.98 a week earlier. An “R” number above 1 indicates that infection numbers will grow at an exponential rate.

Italy operates a four-tier, color-coded system to calibrate the restrictions in place in its 20 regions.

Much of the industrial north worst-affected by the epidemic will be lowered from the highest-tier red, where people can only leave their homes for work, health reasons or emergencies, to tier-three orange, where restrictions on business and movement are slightly less severe.

This includes Lombardy, around the financial capital Milan, and Piedmont centered on Turin. Central Tuscany also passes from red to orange, while the island of Sardinia is the only region to move from orange to red.

A month ago Sardinia was the only region to be on the lowest-tier white, meaning daily life was almost as normal, underscoring the speed with which infections can accelerate in the absence of curbs.

Overall, from Monday there will be 16 orange regions and four red ones, with none in the two lower tiers, yellow and white.

The health system remains under acute strain and intensive care unit occupancy is still above the critical threshold, the ISS said, and daily deaths continue to pile up.

Friday saw the tally rise by 718, the largest increase this year, although the health minister said this figure was bloated by late reporting from the island of Sicily which had failed to register 258 deaths from “previous months.”

Italy has so far recorded 113,579 COVID-linked fatalities, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the seventh-highest in the world.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, editing by Gavin Jones and Hugh Lawson)

Pfizer, BioNTech seek U.S. emergency nod for COVID-19 vaccine in adolescents

By Michael Erman and Mrinalika Roy

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE on Friday asked U.S. regulators to allow the emergency use of their vaccine in adolescents aged 12 to 15.

The vaccine is currently authorized for emergency use in the United States for people aged 16 and up. The companies said on Friday that they requested an expansion of the authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to include the younger age group.

In March, the drugmakers said the vaccine was found to be safe, effective and produced robust antibody responses in 12- to 15-year old’s in a clinical trial.

It is unclear how long the regulator will take to review the data from the trial, although U.S. Centers for Disease Control director Rochelle Walensky told ABC news on Thursday that she expects the vaccine to be authorized for 12 to 15 year olds by mid-May.

It is also unclear whether the regulator will require a meeting of the independent advisory board that recommended the original authorization in order for the companies to receive the nod in the younger age group.

Moderna Inc and Johnson & Johnson are also testing their vaccines in 12- to 18-year old’s, and data from Moderna’s trial could come soon.

Pfizer and Moderna have also launched trials in even younger children, aged six months to 11 years old. Both companies have said they hope to be able to vaccinate children under 11 as soon as early 2022.

Inoculating children and young people is considered a critical step toward reaching herd immunity and taming the pandemic, according to many experts.

Pfizer and BioNtech said they plan to ask other regulatory authorities globally to allow the use of their vaccine in 12- to 15-year old’s in the coming days.

WHO warns on Brazil COVID-19 outbreak as Bolsonaro blasts Senate inquiry

By Eduardo Simões

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday blasted a pending Senate inquiry on his handling of a record-breaking COVID-19 outbreak, which global health officials compared to a “raging inferno.”

Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso ruled late on Thursday that enough senators had signed on to a proposed inquiry on the government’s pandemic response to launch the probe despite stalling by Senate leadership.

“It’s a stitch-up between Barroso and the leftists in the Senate to wear out the government,” Bolsonaro told supporters outside his residence, accusing the judge of “politicking.”

A Senate investigation represents the most severe political consequence to date for Bolsonaro’s approach to the coronavirus, which he compared to a “little flu” last year as he ignored health experts calling for mask wearing and social distance.

Bolsonaro has backed off his criticism of COVID-19 vaccines, but he continues to attack governors attempting lockdowns and even milder measures, accusing them without proof of killing more with those restrictions than the virus itself.

COVID-19 has taken more than 345,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States. One in four deaths from the pandemic this week were in Brazil, where a brutal wave is overwhelming hospitals and setting records of more than 4,000 deaths per day.

“What you are dealing with here is a raging inferno of an outbreak,” said Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization, in a public briefing.

Yet fatigue and political pressure from Bolsonaro have pushed some governors to ease restrictions despite record deaths.

The state of Sao Paulo, whose governor has been a critic of the president, announced that it was loosening some restrictions next week even as its hospitals struggle to manage case loads.

Sao Paulo officials said a downtick in hospitalizations had justified the decision to restart soccer matches without spectators, reopen stores selling building materials and resume take-out service at restaurants.

(Reporting by Eduardo Simoes; Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer; Editing by Brad Haynes and Dan Grebler)

Unwanted vaccines needed to help poor countries catch up, international health officials say

By Stephanie Nebehay and Douglas Busvine

(Reuters) – Doses of vaccines rejected as countries fine-tune their inoculation campaigns will go to poor countries where possible to counter a “shocking imbalance” in distribution, international health officials said on Friday.

Authorities in Australia and Greece became the latest to recommend alternatives to the AstraZeneca vaccine for younger people over fears of possible very rare blood clots, while Hong Kong delayed deliveries.

The city said it had enough alternatives and did not want to waste these shots while global supplies were short.

Australia’s decision effectively put paid to plans to have its population vaccinated by the end of October, highlighting the delicate public health balancing act the issue has created.

Giving alternative vaccines to younger recipients will delay inoculation campaigns by around a month in Australia, France and Britain, science information and analytics company Airfinity forecast after crunching the numbers for those countries.

Millions of doses of the AstraZeneca shot have been safely administered around the world but some governments have limited its use to older age groups as a precaution while cases of clotting are investigated.

The World Health Organization said most countries did not have anywhere near enough shots of any vaccine to cover health workers and others at high risk from exposure to the virus, which has killed almost 3 million people around the world.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said high income countries had on average vaccinated one in four people while in low income countries it was one in more than 500.

“There remains a shocking imbalance in the distribution of vaccines,” he told a press briefing on Friday.

The WHO and GAVI vaccine alliance’s COVAX mechanism aims to ensure vaccines reach poorer states. Asked whether COVAX was negotiating for doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that had been shunned, GAVI alliance head Seth Berkley said the Anglo-Swedish company’s supply chain had “picked up”.

“As countries decide they are going to priorities one vaccine or another, that may free up doses, and in so doing we will try to make sure those doses are made available without delay, if countries are willing to make that happen,” he said.

DIFFERING AGE LIMITS

Australia said it had doubled its order of the Pfizer shot after health authorities recommended those under 50 take it instead of AstraZeneca. Greece followed Britain in recommending people under 30 get an alternative shot.

AstraZeneca said it was working with regulators “to understand the individual cases, epidemiology and possible mechanisms that could explain these extremely rare events”.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) received reports of 169 cases of the rare brain blood clot by early April, after 34 million doses had been administered, Sabine Straus, chair of the EMA’s safety committee, said this week.

Most of the cases reported had occurred in women under 60.

On Friday, the EMA said that if a causal relationship is confirmed or considered likely, regulatory action will be needed to minimize risk.

It also said it was looking into Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) shot over reports of blood clots. U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said there was nothing on reports on the J&J vaccine that is a red flag.

The AstraZeneca shot is by far the cheapest and most high-volume vaccine launched so far to curb the pandemic and avert damaging lockdowns, but supplies have been beset by delays.

However, new data in the EU, where vaccinations lag those in the United States, showed overall deliveries of vaccines were gathering momentum. Germany said it was accelerating inoculations but needed a new lockdown as well.

“Every day in which we don’t act, we lose lives,” Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, said.

GLOBAL SUPPLY

Hong Kong Health Secretary Sophia Chan said the city would delay its ordered shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine this year “so as not to cause a waste when the vaccine is still in short supply globally”.

The government was considering buying a new type of vaccine that may offer better protection, she added.

All the countries recommending age limits for the AstraZeneca shot have emphasized that its benefits far outweigh the risks of catching COVID-19 for older people.

But some people have been put off. Madrid said less than half of over 60s due to have the AstraZeneca shot on Thursday turned up, a day after Spain recommended younger people get a different shot.

The top health body in France, where vaccine hesitancy is high, recommended that those over 55 who had received a first dose of the AstraZeneca shot get a new-style messenger-RNA vaccine for the second one.

Two messenger RNA vaccines have been approved for use in France, one from Pfizer and BioNTech and another from Moderna.

(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; writing by Philippa Fletcher; editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich)

Biden forms panel to study possible U.S. Supreme Court expansion

By Andrew Chung and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Friday formed a bipartisan commission to study potential U.S. Supreme Court changes including expanding the number of justices beyond the current nine, a goal of some liberal Democrats hoping to end its conservative majority.

Under an executive order signed by the Democratic president, the 36-member commission would consider the “merits and legality” of potential reforms to the nation’s top judicial body including adding justices or imposing term limits on their service instead of the current lifetime appointments.

The number of Supreme Court justices has remained at nine since 1869, but Congress has the power to change the size of the bench and did so several times before that. Imposing term limits would likely require a constitutional amendment, though some scholars have proposed ways to accomplish it by statute.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the commission will represent the full political spectrum. It will include liberal and conservative legal scholars, former federal judges and lawyers who have appeared before the court. It will hold public meetings and have 180 days to report its findings.

Biden promised in October, late in the presidential election campaign, to establish the commission – a step that enabled him to avoid taking a firm position on the proposal floated by some liberals to expand the court, though he has opposed the idea in the past.

Republicans fiercely oppose the idea of what is sometimes called “court packing.” Some Democrats and liberal activists have said all options including expansion must be considered to counter an entrenched conservative majority that could threaten abortion rights, civil rights, gun control and access to healthcare in the coming years.

Republican former President Donald Trump was able to appoint three justices during his four years in office, giving the court a 6-3 conservative majority.

Democrats accused Republicans of “stealing” a Supreme Court seat in 2016 when the Senate, then controlled by Republicans, refused to consider Democratic President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill a vacancy left by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

Republicans at the time said it would be inappropriate to confirm a justice during a presidential election year. Their gambit paved the way for Trump in 2017 to replace Scalia with another conservative, Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Democrats accused Republicans of hypocrisy last year when the Senate quickly confirmed Trump’s appointment of conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett a week before the presidential election after the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the prior month.

The court’s oldest member is liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, 82. If Breyer retires this year, as liberal activists have urged him to do, Biden would make his first appointment to the high court. Biden has promised to name a Black woman, which would be a historic first. But replacing a liberal with a liberal would not change the court’s ideological balance.

Psaki said Biden “believes that’s a decision for Justice Breyer to make when he decides it is no longer time to serve on the Supreme Court.”

In a speech at Harvard Law School on Tuesday, Breyer indicated that changes to the court could undermine its authority. The court, Breyer said, depends on “trust that the court is guided by legal principle, not politics.”

Breyer added: “Structural alteration motivated by the perception of political influence can only feed that perception, further eroding that trust.”

Some liberal activists on Friday demanded immediate action to expand the court.

“Adding seats is the only way to restore balance to the court, and Congress should get started right away,” said Aaron Belkin, who heads the liberal group Take Back the Court.

The last attempt to expand the court was a failed effort in the 1930s by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt after a series of rulings frustrated some of his policies.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Steve Holland in Washington; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Trevor Hunnicutt and Heather Timmons; Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. producer inflation heats up in March as prices increase broadly

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. producer prices increased more than expected in March, resulting in the largest annual gain in 9-1/2 years and likely marking the start of higher inflation as the economy reopens amid an improved public health environment and massive government aid.

The report from the Labor Department on Friday also showed solid gains in underlying producer prices last month. That aligned with business surveys showing rising cost pressures as strengthening domestic demand pushes against supply constraints.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Thursday reiterated that he believed the expected rise in inflation will be transitory and that supply chains will adapt and become more efficient. Most economists agree, citing considerable slack in the labor market.

“Beyond temporary effects, inflation is unlikely to keep accelerating given ample slack in the labor market,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York.

The producer price index for final demand jumped 1.0% last month as costs increased across the board. The PPI rose 0.5% in February. In the 12 months through March, the PPI surged 4.2%. That was the biggest year-on-year rise since September 2011 and followed a 2.8% advance in February.

The year-on-year PPI was boosted as last spring’s weak readings dropped out of the calculation. Prices tumbled early in the pandemic amid mandatory closures of non-essential businesses across many states to slow the first wave of COVID-19 cases.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the PPI would increase 0.5% in March and jump 3.8% on a year-on-year basis. The PPI report was delayed after the Bureau of Labor Statistics website crashed. The BLS, the Labor Department’s statistics agency, said it was looking into the problem with the website.

Goods prices soared 1.7%, accounting for almost 60% of the increase in the PPI last month. That was the biggest increase since December 2009 and followed a 1.4% rise in February. Prices for services shot up 0.7% after gaining 0.1% in February.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar gained versus a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mostly lower.

SOLID GAINS

The government has provided nearly $6 trillion in relief since the pandemic started in the United States in March 2020, while the Fed has slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases.

Powell said on Thursday that while he expected a surge in demand and bottlenecks in the supply chain as the economy reopens, “it seems unlikely that will change the underlying inflation psychology that has taken deep roots over the course of many years.”

Employment remains about 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020. Though vacancies have rebounded above their pre-pandemic level, competition for jobs remains stiff, limiting workers’ ability to bargain for higher wages.

But some economists do not share Powell’s inflation assessment, arguing that businesses have the capacity to pass on the higher production costs to consumers. Business surveys have indicated that customer inventories are at record lows and order books are full.

“The implication is that manufacturers potentially have the sort of pricing power we haven’t seen in years,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at ING in New York. “With greater scope to pass these price rises on to customers, the obvious implication is that risks are increasingly moving in the direction of higher CPI readings.”

Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida said on Friday if the expected jump in inflation did not reverse going into 2022, the U.S. central bank “will have to take that into account.”

According to a Reuters survey, the consumer price index likely rose 0.5% in March, which would boost the year-on-year increase to 2.5% from 1.7% in February. The report is scheduled to be released on Tuesday.

Wholesale energy prices increased 5.9%, accounting for 60% of the broad-based rise in goods prices in March. Energy prices rose 6.0% in February. Food prices climbed 0.5% last month.

Excluding the volatile food, energy and trade services components, producer prices increased 0.6%. The so-called core PPI gained 0.2% in February. In the 12 months through March, the core PPI accelerated 3.1%, the biggest rise since September 2018, after increasing 2.2% in February.

In March, wholesale core goods prices shot up 0.9% after gaining 0.3% in February. The Fed tracks the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index for its 2.0% inflation target, a flexible average.

The core PCE price index is at 1.5%. Some of the PPI components, which feed into the core PCE price index, rose moderately last month.

Airline tickets increased 1.1% after jumping 3.7% in February. Healthcare costs rose 0.2% after dipping 0.1% in the prior month. Portfolio management fees rebounded 1.6% after dropping 1.1% in February.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci and Paul Simao)

Volcano erupts in southern Caribbean, sparking evacuation ‘frenzy’

By Robertson S. Henry

ROSE HALL, St Vincent and the Grenadines (Reuters) -La Soufriere volcano on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent erupted on Friday after decades of inactivity, sending dark plumes of ash and smoke billowing into the sky and forcing thousands from surrounding villages to evacuate.

Dormant since 1979, the volcano started showing signs of activity in December, spewing steam and smoke and rumbling away. That picked up this week, prompting Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves to order an evacuation of the surrounding area late on Thursday.

Early on Friday it finally erupted. Ash and smoke plunged the neighboring area into near total darkness, blotting out the bright morning sun, said a Reuters witness, who reported hearing the explosion from Rose Hall, a nearby village.

Smaller explosions continued throughout the day, Erouscilla Joseph, director at the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre, told Reuters, adding that this kind of activity could go on for weeks if not months.

“This is just the beginning,” she said.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which has a population of just over 100,000, has not experienced volcanic activity since 1979, when an eruption created approximately $100 million in damages. An eruption by La Soufriere in 1902 killed more than 1,000 people. The name means “sulfur outlet” in French.

The eruption column was estimated to reach 10 km (6.2 miles) high, the seismic research center said. Ash fall could affect the Grenadines, Barbados, St. Lucia and Grenada.

“The ash plume may cause flight delays due to diversions,” the center said on Twitter. “On the ground, ash can cause discomfort in persons suffering with respiratory illnesses and will impact water resources.”

Local media have in recent days also reported increased activity from Mount Pelee on the island of Martinique, which lies to the north of St. Vincent beyond St. Lucia.

EVACUATIONS IN COVID ERA

Some 4,500 residents near the volcano had evacuated already via ships and by road, Gonsalves said at a news conference on Friday. Heavy ash fall had halted the evacuation efforts somewhat due to poor visibility, according to St. Vincent’s National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO).

“The place in general is in a frenzy,” said Lavern King, 28, a shelter volunteer. “People are still being evacuated from the red zone, it started yesterday evening and into last night.”

Gonsalves said that depending on the extent of the damage, it could be four months before evacuees could return home.

Welling up with tears, he said neighboring islands such as Dominica, Grenada and Antigua had agreed to take evacuees in and cruise lines could ferry them over – as long as they got vaccinated first.

That though could prove a challenge, said opposition senator Shevern John, 42.

“People are very scared of the vaccine and they opt out of coming to a shelter because eventually they would have to adhere to the protocol,” she said. Shelters are also having to limit the number of evacuees they take due to COVID-19 protocols.

Vincentians would have to wait for further scientific analysis to know what steps to take next, she said.

“It can go for a few days or a few weeks,” she said. “At the moment, both ends of the island are covered in ash and very dark.”

(Reporting by Robertson S. Henry in Rose Hall and Kate Chappell in Kingston; Writing by Sarah Marsh and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Howard Goller and Rosalba O’Brien)

Biden’s first budget marks sharp change from Trump years

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden asked Congress to sharply increase spending to combat climate change and gun violence in a budget that marks a sharp departure from his predecessor, Donald Trump.

The $1.5 trillion budget, reflecting an 8% increase in base funding from the current year, would invest billions more in public transportation and environmental clean-ups, slash funding for a border wall and expand funding for background checks on gun sales, each goal clashing with the prior administration.

Nearly three months into a job consumed by the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the document offered a long-awaited glimpse into Biden’s agenda and kick-starts a grueling negotiation with Congress over what will ultimately be funded.

Biden would increase spending by $14 billion across agencies to deal with the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, a shift from the Trump administration’s dismissal of climate science.

The president would spend millions on dealing with rising numbers of unaccompanied children showing up at the country’s southern border from Central America, including $861 million to invest in that region.

But his budget would provide no funding for the construction of a border wall, a signature Trump priority, and would increase funding for investigation of immigration agents accused of “white supremacy.”

Among the biggest proposed increases in funding are for schools in poorer neighborhoods and on researching deadly diseases other than the COVID-19 pandemic that has dominated his term in office so far.

Biden would spend $6.5 billion to launch a group leading targeted research into diseases from cancer to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, a program that reflects Biden’s long desire to use government spending to create breakthroughs in medical research.

Biden requested some $715 billion for the Department of Defense, roughly even in inflation-adjusted terms with this year, and a compromise between liberals trying to impose cuts and hawks who want military spending to increase.

The money earmarked for the Pentagon aims to deter China, support modernizing the nuclear missile inventory and building “climate resiliency” at military facilities.

Known as a “skinny” budget, Biden’s proposal on Friday provided only cursory figures on “discretionary” programs and departments where Congress has flexibility to decide what it wants to spend for the fiscal year starting in October.

The White House had been delayed in producing the document, blaming resistance from political officials during the handover from Trump and denying that competing interests over issues like military funding played a role.

The proposal does not include Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal or changes in taxation, one administration official said. Those changes would be included in a full budget proposal to be submitted in late spring.

Discretionary spending accounted for $1.6 trillion in the 2020 fiscal year, about a quarter of total federal spending. The rest is for areas deemed mandatory including old-age, disability, unemployment and medical benefits.

Each of the proposals is just the first step in a budgeting process that will ultimately be decided in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, where Democrats hold bare majorities.

Biden withdrew his initial pick, Neera Tanden, to lead the Office of Management and Budget after she faced difficulty winning Senate approval. The office is currently run by acting director Shalanda Young.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by Andrea Ricci)