EU and UK say Hong Kong newspaper raid shows China cracking down on dissent

By Guy Faulconbridge and Robin Emmott

LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union and Britain on Thursday said a police raid on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily showed that China was using a new national security law to crack down on dissent and silence the media rather than deal with public security.

Just days after the world’s richest democracies scolded China over human rights at a Group of Seven summit and the NATO military alliance warned Beijing over its ambitions, Hong Kong police made dawn arrests of Apple Daily newspaper executives.

Five hundred Hong Kong police officers sifted through reporters’ computers and notebooks at the daily, the first case in which authorities have cited media articles as potentially violating the national security law.

The raid “further demonstrates how the national security law is being used to stifle media freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong,” EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali said in a statement.

“It is essential that all the existing rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents are fully protected, including freedom of the press and of publication.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also said the raid was aimed at silencing dissent.

“Freedom of the press is one of the rights China promised to protect in the Joint Declaration and should be respected,” Raab said, referring to an accord guaranteeing autonomy for Hong Kong when London handed over its colony to China in 1997.

Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee described the newsroom as a “crime scene” and said the operation was aimed at those who use reporting as a “tool to endanger” national security.

Western leaders say Chinese President Xi Jinping, 68, is cracking down on Hong Kong, which Britain handed back to China in 1997, and Western security officials have expressed apprehension about Xi’s next target.

Britain and its allies say the national security law breaches the “one country, two systems” principle enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British treaty that guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy.

China has repeatedly warned Britain and the United States to stop meddling in its affairs and says many Western powers are gripped by an “imperial hangover” after years of humiliating China during the 19th and 20th Centuries.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Robin Emmott; Editing by Alistair Smout and Peter Graff)

UK-EU ‘sausage war’ talks yield threats, not progress

By Elizabeth Piper and Philip Blenkinsop

LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Britain and the European Union failed on Wednesday to agree any solutions to ease post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland and exchanged threats in a standoff that could cloud a weekend international summit.

Since Britain completed a tortuous exit from the EU late last year, its relations with Brussels have soured further, with each side accusing the other of bad faith over a part of their Brexit deal that covers goods movements to Northern Ireland.

The row has been dubbed the “sausage war” by British media because it affects the movement of chilled meats from Britain to Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday, it stepped up a gear, with Britain saying it could again unilaterally extend a grace period waiving checks on some goods, and the EU saying it could advance its legal action, a step that could end in tariffs and quotas.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants a summit of the world’s seven largest advanced economies this weekend at a seaside village in southwestern England to showcase what he calls “global Britain”.

But he could receive a warning from U.S. President Joe Biden, who, according to the Times newspaper, will tell London to respect a deal with the EU that was designed to protect a 23-year-old peace settlement in Northern Ireland.

British Brexit minister David Frost, who is expected to attend the summit, met European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in London to address the issue.

“There weren’t any breakthroughs. There aren’t any breakdowns either, and we are going to carry on talking,” Frost told reporters.

“What we now need to do is very urgently find some solutions.”

A senior UK source close to the talks said all options were on the table if there was no agreement, including London further extending a grace period that waives checks on some foodstuffs moving to Northern Ireland beyond June 30.

Sefcovic responded in kind, saying the EU was considering advancing its legal challenge over Britain’s actions, which could result in a court case by autumn or the eventual imposition of tariffs and quotas.

WORLD IS WATCHING

“The U.S. administration and the U.S. Congress are following this matter very closely,” Sefcovic told a news conference.

“I’m sure that the G7, also the European leaders, would raise this issue because I think that what we should be focusing on right now should be the economic recovery … and how to form and forge this new strategic partnership between the EU and the UK. Instead of that, we have these very difficult meetings.”

Preserving the delicate peace in Northern Ireland without allowing the United Kingdom a back door into the European Union’s single market across the Irish land border was one of the trickiest issues of the Brexit divorce.

The result was the protocol, which essentially kept the province in the EU’s customs union and adhering to many of the rules of its single market — both of which the rest of Britain has left.

While Brussels is upset that London is failing to honor the protocol, London says it has no choice because some of the checks hamper supplies to Northern Irish supermarkets.

It has also pointed to rising tensions among pro-British unionists in the province, who say the protocol undermines the 1998 peace agreement by loosening their ties to Britain.

Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, called for rapid action to protect consumers in the province:

“We need immediate solutions to keep goods flowing now, and we need a breathing space so that the UK Government and the EU can, in the longer term, find a workable solution.”

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Philip Blenkinsop, additional reporting by Alistair Smout, William James and James Davey; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Kevin Liffey)

Delta coronavirus variant believed to have 60% transmission advantage: UK epidemiologist

LONDON (Reuters) – The Delta coronavirus variant of concern, first identified in India, is believed to be 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant which was previously dominant in Britain, a prominent UK epidemiologist said on Wednesday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that England’s full reopening from COVID-19 lockdown, penciled in for June 21, could be pushed back due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant.

Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London told reporters that estimates of Delta’s transmission edge over Alpha had narrowed, and “we think 60% is probably the best estimate”.

Ferguson said that modelling suggested any third wave of infections could rival Britain’s second wave in the winter – which was fueled by the Alpha variant first identified in Kent, south east England.

But it was unclear how any spike in hospitalizations would translate into a rise in deaths, as more detail was needed on how well the vaccine protects against serious illness from Delta.

“It’s well within possibility that we could see another third wave at least comparable in terms of hospitalizations,” he said.

“I think deaths probably would be lower, the vaccines are having a highly protective effect… still it could be quite worrying. But there is a lot of uncertainty.”

Britain has seen over 127,000 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test, but has given more than three-quarters of adults a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Public Health England has shown that the Delta variant reduces the effectiveness of Pfizer and AstraZeneca shots among those who have only received one shot, though protection is higher for those who have received both doses.

Ferguson said that up to a quarter of the Delta variant’s transmissibility edge over Alpha might come from its immune escape from vaccines, saying it was “a contribution but not an overwhelming contribution” to its advantage.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Sarah Young and James Davey)

Delta variant dominant in UK, may increase risk of hospitalization

LONDON (Reuters) -The Delta variant of concern first identified in India is now dominant in Britain and might have an increased risk of hospitalization compared to the Alpha variant, Public Health England said on Thursday.

There were 5,472 new cases of the Delta variant reported in latest weekly figures, taking the total confirmed cases of the variant to 12,431, PHE said, adding it had overtaken Alpha, the variant first identified in England’s Kent, as Britain’s dominant variant.

The Delta variant is also thought to be more transmissible than Alpha, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that it could derail plans for lockdown restrictions in England to end on June 21.

“With this variant now dominant across the UK, it remains vital that we continue to exercise caution particularly while we learn more about transmission and health impacts,” said Jenny Harries, Chief Executive, UK Health Security Agency.

PHE said that early evidence suggested there may be an increased risk of hospitalization for Delta, also known as B.1.617.2, compared to Alpha, known as B.1.1.7, but more data was needed in order to have more confidence in that finding.

PHE said there continued to be a “substantially increased growth rate for Delta compared to Alpha” but did not update on the transmissibility advantage of the variant.

Officials have previously said that Delta could be from a few percentage points to 50% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, and the extent of that advantage could determine whether restrictions can be lifted on June 21.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and William James; Editing by Kate Holton)

Iran says nuclear talks not at impasse, but difficult issues remain

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran believes that barriers to the revival of its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers are complicated but not insurmountable, a spokesman said on Tuesday, denying that negotiations had stalled.

Iran and six powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for Tehran and Washington to take, respectively, on nuclear activities and sanctions, for the pact to resume.

“There is no impasse in the Vienna talks,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a news conference streamed live by a state-run website.

“Negotiations have reached a stage where a few key issues need to be decided, and these issues require the proper attention, perfectionism and time.”

Since former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal three years ago and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has embarked on counter-measures, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear bombs.

“It is natural that due to the complexities created by the Trump administration’s numerous sanctions and Iran’s measures … Many details need to be considered, but none of these obstacles are insurmountable,” Rabiei added.

On Monday, Iran’s nuclear negotiator expressed doubt that the current round of talks would be the final one.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said Washington will return to the pact if Tehran first resumes compliance with its strict limits on uranium enrichment.

Separately, France, one of the signatories to the deal, voiced concern after a report from the U.N. nuclear watchdog which showed on Monday that Iran had failed to explain traces of uranium found at several undeclared sites.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll, asked whether Paris wanted to resurrect a resolution criticizing Iran at the IAEA watchdog for not clarifying the uranium issue, said: “We strongly call on Iran to provide such responses as quickly as possible.”

Three months ago Britain, France and Germany scrapped a U.S.-backed plan for the watchdog’s 35-nation Board of Governors to criticize Iran for failing to fully explain the origin of the particles. The three backed off as IAEA chief Rafael Grossi announced fresh talks with Iran.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, and John Irish in Paris; Editing by John Stonestreet and Alison Williams)

First foreign tourists in more than a year land in Israel

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The first group of foreign tourists in more than a year touched down in Israel on Thursday after the government began opening its borders following a steep drop in COVID-19 infections.

Small groups of vaccinated foreign tourists – up to 30 people – have been allowed to enter as of last Sunday and the Tourism Ministry expects 20 such groups to come from countries, including the United States, Britain and Germany, under a pilot program until June 15.

The ministry then hopes to expand the number of groups and, in July, allow individual tourists.

Shortly after 4 pm (1300 GMT), United Airlines flight 90 from Newark, New Jersey landed with 12 Christian pilgrims, men and women of varying ages, studying theology at the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. They were welcomed by Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hakohen, who said: “You are the first of what I am sure will be many tourists returning to the Holy Land.”

Led by Pastor Tom Zelt of the Prince of Peace Church, the group plans to visit Jerusalem, Nazareth, national parks and Christian sites, the Tourism Ministry said.

“Israel is … healthy and vaccinated. Everything is now safely open,” Farkash-Hakohen told the group.

The country had closed its borders to foreigners at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. A rapid vaccine roll-out that has vaccinated most adults has brought the number of active COVID cases to just 428 nationwide.

This has paved the way for Israel to allow vaccinated foreigners to enter the country and revive its tourism sector, although officials remain cautious over potential new variants.

Tourists are required to show negative PCR tests before flying and to take another test at Ben Gurion Airport after landing in Tel Aviv.

Groups will also need to take serological tests at their hotel to prove they have COVID-19 antibodies. They will need to quarantine until results come back, usually in a few hours.

Tourism in 2019 hit a record high of 4.55 million visitors, contributing 23 billion shekels ($7.1 billion) to Israel’s economy, mainly via small and mid-sized businesses.

(Reporting by Steven Scheer. Editing by Jane Merriman)

France imposes quarantine on UK visitors ahead of summer tourist season

By Matthieu Protard

PARIS (Reuters) -France on Wednesday declared a mandatory quarantine period for people coming from Britain, due to the increasing prevalence there of a highly contagious coronavirus variant first detected in India.

France follows Austria, which said on Tuesday it was banning direct flights and tourist visits from Britain, and Germany, which said on Friday that anyone entering from the UK would have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival.

“There is a new situation with the progression of the so-called Indian variant in the United Kingdom,” said government spokesman Gabriel Attal. “(France) will set up compulsory isolation for people coming from the United Kingdom.”

The isolation will need to last seven days, Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, said on Twitter, adding visitors would also need to present a COVID-19 test carried out less than 48 hours before departure.

The measures are expected to come into force on Monday.

Coronavirus infections in Britain have been rising again, but the overall incidence is still low in a country with one of the world’s fastest vaccine rollouts. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients fell last week to its lowest level since September.

Clusters of the B.1.617 Indian variant have grown quickly, however, to 3,424 as of last Thursday, up by 2,111 from similar numbers the previous week. The Indian variant has been reported in at least 17 countries.

The French government’s announcement will be a blow to parts of the beleaguered tourism industry, which is desperate for a return to normal business ahead of the peak summer season.

“It’s reasonable in terms of saving the French summer but will be very punishing for those regions which depend on British holidaymakers,” said Ge Kusters, owner of Le Paradis campsite in the Dordogne area and president of the regional campsite union.

“More financial support is going to have to follow.”

British tourists had been due to be allowed to visit France without restrictions from June 9 if they carried a certificate of vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative COVID-19 PCR test.

Some 13 million Britons visited France every year before the coronavirus crisis began in early 2020, more than any other nationality, according to official data.

(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten and Matthieu Protard; Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Dominique Vidalon, Mark Heinrich and Peter Cooney)

Britain open to talks over vaccine waivers with U.S, others at WTO

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain is open to talks with the United States and other World Trade Organization members on the issue of IP waivers for COVID-19 vaccines, a government spokesman said after pressure from charities to back U.S. proposals.

U.S. President Joe Biden last week threw his support behind waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.

British and European Union officials have been skeptical about the usefulness of the proposal, while saying they are prepared to discuss it.

“We are engaging with the U.S. and other WTO members constructively on the TRIPS waiver issue, but we need to act now to expand production and distribution worldwide,” the British government spokesman said, adding WTO negotiations on the waiver would be lengthy as they would need unanimous support.

“So while we will constructively engage in the IP discussions, we must continue to push ahead with action now including voluntary licensing agreements for vaccines.”

Britain has promised to donate surplus vaccines to other countries when it is able to, but says it has no spare shots to give at the moment.

About two-thirds of the adult population of Britain has received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while Britain has ordered 517 million doses in all.

PEOPLE’S VACCINE

Hundreds of charities, academics and politicians this week signed a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on him to back Biden’s move on IP waivers.

Pharma companies and other critics of the waiver move say producing COVID-19 vaccines is complex and setting up production at new facilities would divert resources from efforts to boost production at existing sites, potentially compromising safety.

On Tuesday around a dozen protesters sat outside AstraZeneca’s headquarters in Cambridge, eastern England, to coincide with the pharma firm’s annual general meeting (AGM). Some chained themselves to the doors and others unfurled a banner saying “People’s Vaccine not Profit Vaccine.”

AstraZeneca, which has entered into manufacturing partnerships to produce Oxford University’s vaccine candidate globally, has pledged to not profit from sales of the vaccine during the COVID-19 pandemic, though the campaigners highlight that the company can determine when that pledge ends.

Asked about the British government’s stance, an AstraZeneca spokesman said the company agreed that the “extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures”, and that this had already informed its approach.

“We have established 20 supply lines spread across the globe and we have shared the IP and know-how with dozens of partners,” the spokesman told Reuters. “In fact, our model is similar to what an open IP model could look like.”

AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said last month that it would maintain its no-profit pledge into 2022, and would keep no-profit or modest pricing for parts of the world thereafter.

(Additional reporting by Andy Couldridge in Cambridge, editing by William James, Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Heinrich)

Britain reopens travel from May 17 to limited destinations

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain will allow people in England to resume international travel from May 17 but is limiting the number of destinations open for quarantine-free holidays to just a handful of countries as it cautiously emerges from lockdown restrictions.

Portugal, Israel, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore all made the green list for travel in a system that will be reviewed every three weeks, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said. Popular destinations such as France, Spain and Greece did not.

Airlines, holiday companies and tourist hotspots in southern Europe have been waiting for over four months for big-spending Britons to start travelling again, but they will have to wait a few months longer for a full rebound to take off.

Left off the list were Spain, France, Italy and the United States, the top four most visited countries by UK residents in 2019, which all sit in the amber category, requiring self-isolation on return to the UK.

Trade bodies for pilots and airlines said Britain was being excessively cautious and that such a limited reopening would continue to drag on an industry which is battling for survival.

Before the announcement, the chief executive of British Airways-owner IAG had called on the UK and the U.S. to open a travel corridor given their high vaccination rates.

“Today marks the first step in our cautious return to international travel, with measures designed above all else to protect public health and ensure we don’t throw away the hard-fought gains we’ve all strived to earn this year,” Shapps said.

The travel industry had argued that Britain’s rapid vaccination program should enable the country to open up more quickly but the government has prioritized efforts to prevent variances of the coronavirus from entering the country.

Despite the limitations, permitting travel abroad is still a welcome boost for the beleaguered sector and should prompt bookings. Britons have been banned from going abroad without an essential reason since early January, a blow for leisure travel and also splitting families who live across different countries.

British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair, TUI and others will now likely have to wait until next month for the larger scale re-opening they need to repair their COVID-19 battered finances.

Experts have warned that prices could shoot up for bookings to the few countries on the green list and Shapps said airports could also see longer delays as passengers have to show negative test results.

Green list travel will involve people taking two COVID-19 tests, one before arrival back into the UK and one within two days of returning.

Countries where Britons might want to travel will still have their own rules for entry. For example, Britons are currently banned from going to the U.S.

($1 = 0.7208 pounds)

(Reporting by Sarah YoungEditing by Keith Weir and Kate Holton)

Britain labels coronavirus “variant of concern” linked to travel from India

By Alistair Smout and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) -British health officials on Friday labelled a coronavirus variant first found in India a “variant of concern” due to evidence it spreads more easily, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying the situation needed careful handling.

Public Health England designated variant B.1.617.2, one of three variants identified in India that has spread to Britain, a variant of concern. Surge testing was being carried out in areas where evidence indicates community spread.

Cases of the B.1.617.2 variant increased to 520 from 202 over the last week, PHE said, mainly in London and the northwest town of Bolton, with almost half the cases related to contact with a traveler.

“I think we’ve got to be very careful about that,” Johnson told reporters, in reference to the variant.

“We’re doing a huge amount, obviously, to make sure that when we do find outbreaks of the Indian variant that we do surge testing, that we do door-to-door testing.”

PHE cited evidence that it spreads more quickly than the original version of the virus and could spread as quickly as the so-called “Kent” variant which fueled England’s second wave of infections.

The public health body said other characteristics of the B.1.617.2 variant were still being investigated.

“There is currently insufficient evidence to indicate that any of the variants recently detected in India cause more severe disease or render the vaccines currently deployed any less effective,” PHE said in a statement.

The original India variant, B.1.617, was first detected in October, but PHE has categorized three different subtypes, all with slightly different mutations.

Other variants of concern include variants first identified in Kent, southeast England, as well as South Africa and Brazil.

Two weeks ago, India, which is experiencing a deadly surge in cases, was added to Britain’s travel “red list,” meaning travelers have to quarantine in special hotels.

But the move, which came in on April 23, was announced on April 19, giving travelers notice if they wanted to change plans and beat the hotel quarantine.

Britain has recorded 4,428,553 coronavirus cases and 127,583 deaths since the pandemic hit its shores, making it one of the worst hit countries in the world. About 66% of the adult population has now been vaccinated and lockdown restrictions are being eased.

India is reporting record daily death tolls. In total it has recorded 21.49 million cases and 234,083 deaths.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Paul Sandle and Sarah Young; Editing by Angus MacSwan)