UK COVID-19 cases hit record high for second day

By Paul Sandle and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) -New cases of COVID-19 in Britain hit a record high for the second day running on Thursday, as England’s Chief Medical Officer warned daily hospital admissions could also hit new peaks due to the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant.

Britain reported 88,376 new infections, the highest since the start of the pandemic and up around 10,000 since the previous record set on Wednesday.

The surge in cases was piling pressure on a health service struggling with staff sickness, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said on Thursday.

Omicron is so transmissible that even if it proves to be milder than other variants, it could still cause a surge in hospital admissions, Whitty told lawmakers.

The record for the number of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 is 4,583 set in January.

“It is possible, because this is going to be very concentrated over a short period of time, even if it’s milder, you could end up with a higher number than that going into hospital on a single day,” he said.

However, he said vaccinations could cut the numbers admitted to intensive care and shorten the time spent in hospital. On Thursday there were 849 admissions.

Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, said there were 15 proven cases of Omicron in hospitals, but that the number was likely to be much higher.

Although new cases were at a record high according to official data, Britain did not have mass testing capacity in March 2020 when the pandemic first hit the country, and so the scale of infections at that point is unknown.

A senior emergency doctor said hospitals, particularly in London, were struggling to maintain staffing levels due to the number who are having to isolate with COVID-19.

“Even if we are not seeing a big rise in hospitalizations yet, we are already seeing the effect on not having the staff to run shifts properly and safely,” Katherine Henderson, an emergency consultant in London and president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told BBC Radio.

“So we are worried about patient harm coming about because we just don’t have the staff.”

The education minister also warned of problems with staff shortages, and said his department would work with ex teachers who wanted to return to the profession to help.

Britain is betting that vaccine boosters will prevent serious illness from Omicron.

The government has also advised people to work from home, mandated mask wearing in public places and has introduced COVID-19 passes to enter some venues and events in England, but has stopped short of previous lockdown measures.

“If it looked as if the vaccines were less effective than we were expecting, that for example would be a material change to how ministers viewed the risks going forward,” Whitty said.

(Additinoal reporting by William James, Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Gareth Jones and Alison Williams)

Canada and others say patience running out with Iran over downed plane

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and Britain on Thursday said they could consider new steps in line with international law against Iran if it failed to respond by Jan. 5 to demands for reparations after the downing of a passenger airliner last year.

Most of the 176 people killed when Iran shot down a Ukrainian jet in January 2020 were citizens from those four countries, which created a coordination group that seeks to hold Tehran to account.

“The Coordination Group’s patience is wearing thin,” it said in a statement, adding that the group had pressed Tehran to open talks on reparations and to deliver justice but said Iran had shown it was reluctant to respond in a timely manner.

It said Iran should respond by Jan 5 or the group would “have to seriously consider other actions to resolve this matter within the framework of international law” but gave no details.

Tehran says Revolutionary Guards accidentally shot down the Boeing 737 jet and blamed a misaligned radar and an error by the air defense operator at a time when tensions were high between Tehran and the United States.

Last month, families of victims alleged in a report that high-ranking Iranian officials were responsible. In June, Canada said it had found no evidence that the downing of the plane had been premeditated.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Britain warns Putin: don’t invade Ukraine

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Britain’s defense minister called on President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to pull back from the brink over Ukraine and warned that Russia would face long-term severe consequences if its forces invaded its neighbor.

“Any action by Russia to threaten the sovereignty of Ukraine would not only have severe consequences – they’d have long lasting consequences for Russia,” Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said.

Wallace called on Kremlin chief Putin to step back from any such moves which he said could trigger a deadly civil war on the edge of Europe.

“I would just urge him to think again: I don’t think Russia wants those consequences,” Wallace said. “I don’t want to see a civil war or a war at the edge of Europe.”

U.S. intelligence assesses that Russia could be planning a multi-front offensive on Ukraine as early as next year, involving up to 175,000 troops.

The Kremlin denies it plans to invade and says the West is gripped by Russophobia. Moscow says the expansion of NATO threatens Russia and has contravened assurances given to it as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Wallace said that Russian talk of NATO encirclement was nonsense.

“Only 6% of the Russian land border is bordered by NATO countries – that’s hardly being surrounded by NATO,” Wallace said.

“NATO is a defensive alliance – it is in our articles of establishment. It is only there to defend itself and its members if it were to be attacked.”

Wallace said it was up to sovereign states and NATO members if they joined NATO – not Russia.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Kate Holton)

Britain suffers largest ever bird flu outbreak – minister

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain is experiencing it worst ever outbreak of bird flu, farming and environment minister George Eustice told parliament on Thursday.

“This year we are seeing the largest-ever outbreak of avian influenza in the UK,” he told the House of Commons, adding that there had been 36 confirmed outbreaks.

Such outbreaks were a seasonal risk associated with migratory wild birds, he said.

Britain’s Chief Vet Christine Middlemiss told BBC Radio on Thursday that around 500,000 birds had been culled as a result of the outbreaks.

The highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu was confirmed at premises in North Yorkshire and South Suffolk on Wednesday following a string of outbreaks in different locations dating back to Oct. 27, when the strain was found at a rescue centre in Worcestershire.

All birds on infected premises are culled.

A nationwide Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was declared in England on Nov. 3, ordering farms and bird keepers to toughen biosecurity measures.

This was extended on Nov. 29 to include housing measures with a legal requirement for all bird keepers across the UK to keep birds indoors.

The virus has been spreading across Europe during the last few weeks with outbreaks in several countries including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Britain’s Food Standards Agency has said that on the basis of the current scientific evidence, bird flu poses a very low food safety risk for UK consumers, adding that properly cooked poultry and poultry products, including eggs, were safe to eat.

(Reporting by Nigel Hunt; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.S., partners take punitive action against Belarus

By Daphne Psaledakis and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Thursday imposed restrictions on dealings in new issuances of Belarusian sovereign debt and expanded sanctions on the country, targeting dozens of individuals and entities in an action coordinated with partners including the EU.

Washington increased pressure on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, targeting the country’s defense, security and potash sectors as well as officials and Lukashenko’s son in the move aimed at making Belarus accountable for allegedly orchestrating a migrant crisis in Europe.

The action was coordinated with Canada, Britain and the European Union. In a joint statement the group called on Lukashenko’s government to immediately and completely halt its orchestrating of irregular migration across its borders with the EU.

“Those, in Belarus or in third countries, who facilitate illegal crossing of the EU’s external borders should know this comes at a substantial cost,” the statement said.

The action came as East-West tensions have risen over the refugee crisis on the borders between Belarus, a Russian ally, and Poland and Lithuania.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said it would retaliate against the EU sanctions. In a statement, it said: “The goal of this policy is to economically strangle Belarus, to complicate and worsen the life of Belarusians.”

“As a response, as we have previously said, we will take harsh, asymmetrical but adequate measures.”

It did not immediately comment on the action from the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom.

The U.S. Treasury Department issued a directive restricting Americans from transacting in, provision of and other dealings in new Belarusian sovereign debt with a maturity greater than 90 days issued on or after Thursday by the country’s finance ministry or Development Bank.

POTASH SECTOR

Washington also imposed sanctions on Belarus’s state-owned tourism company, Republican Unitary Enterprise Tsentrkurort, and seven Belarusian government officials over the migrant crisis.

EU countries have accused Belarus of creating a migrant standoff nL1N2SM0RR on the bloc’s eastern borders by encouraging thousands from the Middle East and Africa to try to cross into Poland and Lithuania, in revenge for Western sanctions on Minsk.

Lukashenko denies doing so and pins the blame for the crisis on the EU.

Rights groups say at least 13 people have died as migrants have camped in freezing conditions at the border.

Entities related to the potash sector were also blacklisted on Thursday. Britain targeted one of the world’s largest potash fertilizer producers, Belaruskali, while Washington imposed sanctions on several entities in an effort to limit the financial benefits Lukashenko’s government derives from potash exports.

Washington had already blacklisted the state-run Belaruskali in August, but added its exporting arm, the Belarus Potash Company, and another potash producer, Slavkali. Shares of global potash producers rose on Thursday following the announcement.

The U.S. Treasury issued a general license, authorizing activities necessary for the wind-down of transactions involving the Belarusian Potash Company or its subsidiary, Agrorozkvit LLC, until April 1.

Belarus Potash Company did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

DEFENSE FIRMS

Washington also blacklisted state-owned cargo carrier Transaviaexport Airlines, which it accused of shipping thousands of tons of ammunition and weapons to foreign conflict zones such as Libya, and two of its aircraft, as well as five entities that produce or export defense materials.

The defense firms listed included the makers of riot control barriers and armored vehicles that were deployed against demonstrators protesting the August 2020 election, a surveillance system maker and the state weapons exporter that provides cash for the government.

Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury official now with the Atlantic Council, said Thursday’s move helped the United States catch up with previous European Union action while also leaving “significant” room for escalation, giving Washington leverage to continue to pressure Minsk.

“This is exactly what you want to see out of the U.S. It’s a big action, it will have lots of impact, and there’s still lots of head room,” he said.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Simon Lewis and Tim Ahmann in Washington, Polina Devitt in Moscow; Robin Emmott in Brussels and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kyiv, Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Frances Kerry)

 

French police evict migrants from camp on Channel coast

By Juliette Jabkhiro

GRANDE-SYNTHE, France (Reuters) – Police on Tuesday tore down a makeshift camp near the northern French port of Dunkirk where scores of migrants who say they are fleeing war, poverty and persecution in the Middle East were hunkered down with hopes of reaching Britain.

Armed officers entered the camp, which runs along a disused railway line, before workers in protective suits pulled down tents and plastic shelters.

Charity workers say the 27 migrants who drowned in the Channel last Wednesday had stayed in the same area before they attempted the perilous sea crossing from France to Britain last Wednesday. Their dinghy deflated in the open sea.

The number of migrants crossing the Channel has surged to 25,776 in 2021, up from 8,461 in 2020 and 1,835 in 2019, according to tallies compiled by the BBC using Home Office data.

The spike in numbers has angered Britain, which accuses France of doing too little to stem the flow. Paris says that once migrants reach the shores of the channel, it is too late to prevent them crossing.

French police routinely tear up the camps that spring up between Calais and Dunkirk. Evictions at the Grande-Synthe site had been taking place on a weekly basis for the past few weeks, one charity worker said.

The migrants are typically transported to holding centers scattered across the country where they are encouraged to file for asylum, though many quickly make their way back to the Channel coast.

Hussein Hamid, 25, an Iranian Kurd, said it was the second time he had been evicted. On the first occasion, he was bussed to Lyon 760km to the south.

Hamid tried to leave the camp swiftly by foot, carrying a backpack, but said the police had blocked any way out.

An Iraqi Kurd told Reuters by text message that he was hiding nearby while the police conducted their operation.

“I’ll come back if they don’t find me,” he said, requesting anonymity to avoid police reprisals.

President Emmanuel Macron on Friday told Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “get serious” in the effort to curb migrant flows, as post-Brexit relations between their governments deteriorate.

(Reporting by Judith Jabkhiro; Writing by Richard Lough, Editing by Alex Richardson and Ed Osmond)

At least 31 migrants perish trying to cross Channel to UK, French mayor says

By Geert De Clercq and Ingrid Melander

PARIS (Reuters) -At least 31 people died on Wednesday after their dinghy capsized while crossing the Channel from France to Britain, in the worst disaster on record involving migrants in the waters separating the countries.

The Channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and currents are strong. Overloaded dinghies often barely stay afloat and are at the mercy of waves as they try to reach British shores.

More migrants left France’s northern shores than usual to take advantage of calm sea conditions on Wednesday, according to fishermen, although the water was bitterly cold.

One fisherman called the rescue services after seeing an empty dinghy and people floating motionless nearby.

Franck Dhersin, deputy head of regional transport and mayor of Teteghem on the northern French coast told Reuters that the death toll had reached 31 and that two people were still missing.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said he was heading for the coast. “Strong emotion in the face of the tragedy of numerous deaths due to the capsizing of a migrant boat in the English Channel,” he wrote in a tweet.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair an emergency meeting on Wednesday, his spokesperson said.

Three helicopters and police and rescue boats were still at the scene, looking for people missing from the capsized vessel, said Maritime Minister Annick Girardin.

The local coast guard said they could not yet confirm the total number of deaths.

One fisherman, Nicolas Margolle, told Reuters he had seen two small dinghies earlier on Wednesday, one with people on board and another empty.

He said another fisherman had called rescue services after seeing an empty dinghy and 15 people floating motionless nearby, either unconscious or dead.

He confirmed there were more dinghies on Wednesday because the weather was good. “But it’s cold,” Margolle added.

Early on Wednesday, Reuters reporters saw a group of over 40 migrants head towards Britain on a dinghy.

While French police have prevented more crossings than in previous years, they have only partially stemmed the flow of migrants wanting to reach Britain – one of many sources of tensions between Paris and London.

Some rights groups said that tighter monitoring was pushing migrants to take greater risks as they sought a better life in the West.

“To accuse only the smugglers is to hide the responsibility of the French and British authorities,” l’Auberge des Migrants NGO said.

Before Wednesday’s disaster, 14 people had drowned this year trying to make it to Britain, a local maritime prefecture official said. In 2020, a total of seven people died and two disappeared, while in 2019 four died.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq, Tassilo Hummel, Ingrid Melander, Pascal Rossignol; Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Richard Lough and Mike Collett-White)

Austria locks down unvaccinated as COVID cases surge across Europe

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria imposed a lockdown on people unvaccinated against the coronavirus on Monday as winter approaches and infections rise across Europe, with Germany considering tighter curbs and Britain expanding its booster program to younger adults.

Europe has again become the epicenter of the pandemic, prompting some countries to consider re-introducing restrictions in the run-up to Christmas and stirring debate over whether vaccines alone are enough to tame COVID-19.

The disease spreads more easily in the winter months when people gather inside.

Europe last week accounted for more than half of the 7-day average of infections globally and about half of latest deaths, according to a Reuters tally, the highest levels since April last year when the virus was at its initial peak in Italy.

Governments and companies are worried the prolonged pandemic will derail a fragile economic recovery.

Austria’s conservative-led government said that about two million people in the country of roughly nine million were now only allowed to leave their homes for a limited number of reasons like travelling to work or shopping for essentials.

But there is widespread skepticism, including among conservatives and the police, about how the lockdown can be enforced – it will be hard to verify, for example, whether someone is on their way to work, which is allowed, or going to shop for non-essential items, which is not.

“My aim is very clear: to get the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, not to lock up the unvaccinated,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told ORF radio as he explained the lockdown, which was announced on Sunday.

The aim is to counter a surge in infections to record levels fueled by a full vaccination rate of only around 65% of the population, one of the lowest in western Europe.

Pensioner Susanne Zwach said the lockdown would be “very, very difficult” to police.

“It is definitely a way of introducing a requirement to get vaccinated through the back door,” she said as she waited in line for her booster shot.

‘STORM OF INFECTION’

Germany’s federal government and leaders of Germany’s 16 states are due to discuss new pandemic measures this week.

Three German state health ministers urged parties negotiating to form a new government to prolong the states’ power to implement stricter measures such as lockdowns or school closures as the seven-day COVID incidence rate hit record highs.

Chancellor Angela Merkel urged unvaccinated people to reconsider their decision in a video message on Saturday.

“Difficult weeks lie ahead of us, and you can see that I am very worried,” Merkel said, speaking in her weekly video podcast.

France, the Netherlands and many countries in Eastern Europe are also experiencing a surge in infections.

Britain is to extend its COVID-19 booster vaccine rollout to people between 40 and 49, officials said on Monday, to boost waning immunity ahead of the colder winter months.

Currently all people 50 and over, those who are clinically vulnerable and frontline health workers are eligible for boosters.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he saw no need to move to a “Plan B” of mask mandates and vaccine passes, even though he was cautious of rising infections in Europe.

“We’re sticking with Plan A,” he said in a broadcast clip on Monday. “But what we certainly have got to recognize is there is a storm of infection out there in parts of Europe.”

Back in Austria, skepticism about vaccines is encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third-biggest in parliament, which is planning a protest against the government’s coronavirus policies on Saturday.

Party head Herbert Kickl, 53, said in a Facebook posting he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has mild symptoms and no fever but will not be able to attend Saturday’s protest because of quarantine requirements.

(Additional reporting by Lisi Niesner in Vienna, Josephine Mason and Alistair Smout in London, Emilio Parodi in Milan and Victoria Waldersee and Maria Sheahan in Berlin; Writing by Nick Macfie, Editing by William Maclean and Philippa Fletcher)

Biden meets with France’s Macron, calls U.S. ‘clumsy’ in submarine deal

By Jeff Mason and Michel Rose

ROME (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Friday called U.S. government actions “clumsy” during his first meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron since a diplomatic crisis erupted last month over a U.S. security pact with Britain and Australia.

Biden used the meeting at the G20 summit in Rome, Italy, to try to turn the page on a relationship that came under strain over the U.S.-Australia security alliance, known as AUKUS, which also includes the United Kingdom. The pact effectively canceled a 2016 Australian-French submarine deal.

The U.S. decision to secretly negotiate a new agreement drew outrage from Paris. France temporarily recalled its ambassador from Washington, canceled a gala in the U.S. capital and officials accused Biden of acting like former President Donald Trump.

“I think what happened was, to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy. It was not done with a lot of grace,” Biden said. “I was under the impression certain things had happened that hadn’t happened. And – but I want to make it clear: France is an extremely, extremely valued partner – extremely – and a power in and of itself.”

Biden also said the United States does not have an older and more loyal ally than France and that there is no place in the world where the United States cannot cooperate with France.

“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not going through. I, honest to God, did not know you had not been,” Biden told Macron.

Macron said his meeting with Biden was “important” and that it was essential to “look to the future” as his country and the United States work to mend fences.

“What really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years,” Macron said.

Since the rift erupted, Washington has taken several steps to fix the relationship.

Biden and Macron spoke to each other last week. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also visited Paris, where he acknowledged the United States could have “communicated better.” Vice President Kamala Harris also announced that she would travel to Paris in November and meet with Macron.

Biden and Macron met at the Villa Bonaparte, the French embassy to the Vatican, which a French diplomat said was a significant mark of goodwill from Biden.

“It’s an important gesture,” the French diplomat said, adding that the United States recognized that it underestimated the impact of its actions.

France now wants to see if Biden follows his words with actions. “Trust is being rebuilt. This is one step. Tokens of goodwill were given, we’ll see whether they follow through over the long term,” the diplomat said.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Michel Rose in Rome, Writing by Nandita Bose and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Editing by Franklin Paul, Heather Timmons, David Gregorio and Marguerita Choy)

Britain calls for 800 foreign butchers to avoid pig cull

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain will offer six-month emergency visas to 800 foreign butchers to avoid a mass pig cull, it said on Thursday, after farmers complained that an exodus of workers from abattoirs and meat processors had left the pork sector fighting for survival.

A combination of Brexit and COVID-19 has sparked an exodus of east European workers, leaving some 120,000 pigs in barns and fields across the country waiting to be slaughtered, according to the National Pig Association.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the temporary visas would address the problem which farmers said was putting livelihoods at risk and causing animal welfare issues.

“What we’re going to do is allow butchers in abattoirs and meat processors dealing with pigs, to be able to come in on a temporary basis under the Seasonal Worker scheme for up to six months,” Eustice told reporters.

“That will help us to deal with the backlog of pigs that we currently have on farms to give those meat processors the ability to slaughter more pigs.”

Eustice said around 800 butchers would be needed to clear the backlog and announced private storage aid to help abattoirs store meat.

But he said the government had decided not to ease the English language requirement for skilled visas to allow more butchers to come via that route – a key demand from farmers, who have been calling for weeks for ministers to take action.

“The industry had asked us to look at the language requirement on the skills route,” he said. “We have looked at that but we don’t think that provides an answer to their particular challenge. And that’s why we decided instead to have temporary visas.”

The lack of butchers is just one of a number of areas where Britain is facing acute labor shortages.

Last month, it announced plans to issue temporary visas for 5,000 foreign truck drivers and 5,500 poultry workers, but the government wants businesses to invest in a British workforce rather than rely on cheap foreign labor.

Ministers have also been keen to downplay suggestions that Britain’s exit from the European Union was the main issue hitting labor in the supply chains.

Many workers in the pig industry had gone home during the pandemic and simply not returned, Eustice said.

“It’s a complex picture: there have been lots of market disruptions, problems with access to the Chinese market, maybe some overproduction – here production is up by about 7% – and yes, labor has been an aggravating factor but it’s not been the only factor,” Eustice said.

“The pig industry, and in common with many parts of the food industry, has seen a loss of staff as many of the EU citizens that they relied on left during the pandemic – nothing to do with Brexit.”

As part of the measures to address the problem with the lack of lorry drivers, he said cabotage rules for EU drivers would be relaxed so that they could do as many trips as they liked over a two-week period.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Michael Holden and Nick Macfie)