The third man: UK charges another Russian for nerve attack on double agent

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) -British police said on Tuesday a third Russian had been charged in absentia with the 2018 Novichok murder attempt on former double agent Sergei Skripal, saying they could also now confirm the three suspects were military intelligence operatives.

The attack on Skripal, who sold Russian secrets to Britain, caused one of the biggest rows between Russia and the West since the Cold War, leading to the tit-for-tat expulsion of dozens of diplomats after Britain pointed the finger of blame at Moscow.

Russia has rejected any involvement, casting the accusations as anti-Russian propaganda.

Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious, slumped on a public bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March 2018. They and a police officer who went to his house were left critically ill in hospital from exposure to the military-grade nerve agent.

A woman later also died from Novichok poisoning after her partner found a counterfeit perfume bottle which police believe had been used to smuggle the poison into the country.

In September 2018, British prosecutors charged two Russians, then identified by the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with conspiracy to murder Skripal and the attempted murder of Yulia and the officer, Nick Bailey.

Dean Haydon, Britain’s Senior National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism Policing, said prosecutors had now authorized them to charge a third man, Sergey Fedotov, who was aged about 50, with the same offences.

Haydon also said Petrov and Boshirov were really named Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, and Fedotov’s true name was Denis Sergeev. All three were believed to be in Russia, he said. Britain has no extradition treaty with Russia, and Moscow has so far refused to hand over Petrov and Boshirov.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said the issue would be raised with the Russian ambassador to London.

Russians “should recognize that our sense that justice must be done is not abated,” Johnson told Sky News in an interview while on a trip to the United States.

The Russian foreign ministry said Britain was using the poisoning to stoke anti-Russian sentiment.

‘DANGEROUS INDIVIDUALS’

The Skripal suspects were a three-man GRU team which had carried out operations on behalf of the Russian state in other countries, and there had been discussions with Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, Haydon said.

“We can’t go into the detail of how, but we have the evidence that links them to the GRU,” Haydon told reporters, the first time police had categorically identified them as Russian spies. “All three of them are dangerous individuals.”

As with the other two Russians, British police had obtained an arrest warrant for Fedotov and they were applying for Interpol notices against him, he said.

The police announcement came on the same day that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia was responsible for the 2006 killing of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned at a London hotel with Polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope.

British police say Petrov and Boshirov carried out the Skripal attack, while Fedotov met them several times over the weekend of March 2-4 when the poisoning occurred.

After they were accused by Britain, Boshirov and Petrov appeared on Russian TV to say they were tourists who had travelled to Salisbury to do some sightseeing.

“There’s the famous Salisbury Cathedral. It’s famous not only in Europe, but in the whole world. It’s famous for its 123 meter-spire,” Boshirov said.

(additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)

UK meat industry warns of imminent supply threat from CO2 crisis

By James Davey

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain’s meat processors will start running out of carbon dioxide (CO2) within five days, forcing them to halt production and impacting supplies to retailers, the industry’s lobby group warned on Monday.

A jump in gas prices has forced several domestic energy suppliers out of business and has shut fertilizer plants that also make CO2 as a by-product of their production process.

The CO2 gas is used to stun animals before slaughter, in the vacuum packing of food products to extend their shelf life, and to put the fizz into beer, cider and soft drinks. CO2’s solid form is dry ice, which is used in food deliveries.

The CO2 crisis has compounded an acute shortage of truck drivers in the UK, which has been blamed on the impact of COVID-19 and Brexit.

“My members are saying anything between five, 10 and 15 days supply (remain),” Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association told Sky News.

With no CO2, a meat processor cannot operate, he said.

“The animals have to stay on farm. They’ll cause farmers on the farm huge animal welfare problems and British pork and British poultry will disappear off the shelves,” Allen said.

“We’re two weeks away from seeing some real impacts on the shelves,” he said, adding that poultry could start disappearing from shops even sooner.

Allen said the government was working to try and resolve the issue and might be able to persuade fertilizer producer CF Industries to re-start its UK plants.

Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said he met CF Industries CEO Tony Will on Sunday to explore ways to secure CO2 supplies.

“Work is ongoing … to ensure that those sectors which are impacted by this … have appropriate contingency plans in place to ensure that there is minimal disruption,” he told parliament.

Meanwhile, the British Soft Drinks Association warned some manufacturers had only a few days of CO2 left.

UNHAPPY CHRISTMAS?

Some in the poultry industry fear a Christmas crisis.

Ranjit Singh Boparan, owner of 2 Sisters Food Group and Bernard Matthews, said the CO2 issue was “a massive body blow”, noting that the supply of turkeys this Christmas was already compromised by labor shortages.

Shares in processor Cranswick, whose products include fresh pork and chicken and gourmet sausages, fell 4% after it said production could be halted.

The crisis is also having a more immediate impact.

Online supermarket group Ocado said it had temporarily reduced the number of lines it is able to deliver from its frozen range. Dry ice is used to keep items frozen during delivery. Ocado shares fell 1.6%.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents retailers including the major supermarket groups, said the CO2 shortage had compounded existing pressures on production and distribution.

“… it is vital that government takes immediate action to prioritize suppliers and avoid significant disruption to food supplies,” said Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability.

Britain’s National Farmers Union said it was concerned about the shortages of fertilizer and CO2.

“We’re aware of the added strain this puts on a food supply chain already under significant pressure due to lack of labor,” NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said.

Britain’s big four supermarket groups – market leader Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons declined to comment.

(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Jason Neely, Gareth Jones and Alexander Smith)

Britain says China’s BGI must register prenatal tests by Sept 1

By Reuters Staff

LONDON (Reuters) – China’s largest gene company BGI Group must register its prenatal test with local regulators by Sept. 1 if it wants to keep offering products in Britain, a minister said on Thursday.

A Reuters report found BGI Group developed the tests in collaboration with China’s military and uses them to collect genetic data from millions of women round the world.

However, BGI says it alone produced the NIFTY test, has never shared data for national security or defense purposes, and complies with European privacy laws. Reuters found no evidence BGI violated privacy agreements or regulations.

British junior health minister James Bethell said the British Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) expected BGI’s devices to need oversight before being placed on the local market.

“The MHRA understand BGI genetic screening tests are currently available for sale in the UK. These devices do not appear to have been registered with the MHRA at this time,” Bethell said in a written response to a question on BGI’s tests from a member of Britain’s upper chamber of parliament.

“However, due to their risk classification, registration will be required from 1 September 2021 in order to continue placing the products on the market.”

Bethell said there had been no specific assessment of BGI’s tests, but that neither the state-run National Health Service (NHS) nor the Public Health England (PHE) agency used its technology.

The tests have been available in some private clinics in England since at least 2014, however.

“There are no grounds to prevent BGI Groups operating in the UK provided they comply with UK legislation and regulatory requirements,” Bethell added.

In an emailed statement, BGI said it “strictly complies with local laws, guidelines, and protocols, while adhering to internationally recognized ethical and legal standards.”

Britain warns COVID-19 could infect half Myanmar in next two weeks

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Britain’s U.N. ambassador warned on Thursday that half of Myanmar’s 54 million people could be infected with COVID-19 in the next two weeks as Myanmar’s envoy called for U.N. monitors to ensure an effective delivery of vaccines.

Myanmar has been in chaos since the military ousted an elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, with protests and fighting between the army and newly formed militias. The United States, Britain and others have imposed sanctions on the military rulers over the coup and repression of pro-democracy protests in which hundreds have been killed.

“The coup has resulted in a near total collapse of the healthcare system, and health care workers are being attacked and arrested,” British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward told an informal Security Council discussion on Myanmar.

“The virus is spreading through the population, very fast indeed. By some estimates, in the next two weeks, half of the population of Myanmar could be infected with COVID,” she said.

Myanmar state media reported on Wednesday that the military ruler is looking for greater cooperation with other countries to contain the coronavirus.

Infections in the Southeast Asian country have surged since June, with 4,980 cases and 365 deaths reported on Wednesday, according to health ministry data cited in media. Medics and funeral services put the toll much higher.

“In order to have smooth and effective COVID vaccination and providing humanitarian assistance, close-monitoring by the international community is essential,” Myanmar’s U.N. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who speaks for the elected civilian government, told the Security Council discussion.

“As such, we would like to request the U.N. in particular the Security Council to urgently establish a U.N.-led monitoring mechanism for effective COVID vaccination and smooth delivery of humanitarian assistance,” he said.

Myanmar recently received two million more Chinese vaccines, but it was believed to have only vaccinated about 3.2% of its population, according to a Reuters tracker.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

Britain reports highest deaths from COVID-19 since March as Johnson urges caution

By Alistair Smout and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain reported its highest number of deaths and people in hospital with coronavirus since March on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging caution despite a week of lower reported numbers of infection.

Britain reported 131 new deaths from COVID-19, the highest daily total since March 17, though it came after just 14 deaths were reported on Monday, suggesting the weekend might have impacted when deaths were reported.

The number of COVID-19 patients in British hospitals has also steadily risen to 5,918, also the highest since March, following a spike in cases earlier this month.

The number of new infections has fallen each day for the last seven days, though Johnson stressed the pandemic was not over.

“It is very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions about (lower case numbers),” Johnson told broadcasters, noting it would take a while for the lifting of restrictions in England to feed through to the data.

“People have got to remain very cautious and that remains the approach of the government.”

Johnson has lifted restrictions in England and is betting he can get one of Europe’s largest economies firing again because so many people are now vaccinated, a decision which marks a new chapter in the response to the novel coronavirus.

Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said the effective end of Britain’s pandemic could be just months away as vaccines have so dramatically reduced the risk of hospitalization and death.

“We’re not completely out of the woods but the equation has fundamentally changed,” Ferguson, whose modelling of the virus’s likely spread at the outset of the pandemic in early 2020 alarmed governments across the world, told the BBC.

“I’m positive that by late September, October time we will be looking back at most of the pandemic.”

ON THE WAY DOWN

Johnson lifted COVID-19 restrictions in England on July 19. New daily cases in the current wave peaked two days earlier at 54,674 and have since fallen dramatically, to 23,511 new cases on Tuesday.

The closure of schools for summer, the end of the Euro 2020 soccer championships and warmer weather are among factors epidemiologists say might have reduced social mixing indoors and therefore cases, even as England’s economy has fully reopened.

Case numbers have been falling for longer in Scotland, where the recent peak in new infections was on July 1, than in England, corresponding to an earlier elimination from the Euros.

“Both of them seem to coincide in some ways with the end of activity in the Euro 2020 tournament,” Rowland Kao, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, told Reuters, adding that changes in testing patterns might mean that the sharpness of the drop is overstated in daily testing figures.

“(Cases) may go up again, because we’re only just going to be starting to see the effect of the complete release of restrictions associated with July 19 in England. So there may still be rises yet to come.”

Britain has one of the highest official fatality rates from COVID-19 in the world, with 129,303 deaths, but vaccinations and lockdowns have greatly slowed the rate since March.

Scotland’s National Clinical Director Jason Leitch said a gradual return to usual social activity would help smooth the end of the current wave, but that the next few weeks would be unpredictable.

“On the way down is always bumpier than the exponential rise on the way up,” he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Sarah Young and Alistair Smout; Additional reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Janet Lawrence, Catherine Evans, William Maclean and Mike Harrison)

UK should be concerned at Chinese gene data harvesting, lawmaker says

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain should be concerned about the harvesting of genetic data from millions of women by a Chinese company through prenatal tests, a senior British lawmaker told Reuters.

A Reuters review of scientific papers and company statements found that BGI Group developed the tests in collaboration with the Chinese military and is using them to collect genetic data around the world for research on the traits of populations.

“I’m always concerned when data leaves the United Kingdom, that it should be treated with the respect and privacy that we would expect here at home, and the concern that this raises is that it may not be so,” Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told Reuters.

“The connections between Chinese genomics firms and the Chinese military do not align with what we would normally expect in the United Kingdom or indeed many other countries.”

The privacy policy on the website for the Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT), sold under the brand name NIFTY in Britain, says data collected can be shared when it is “directly relevant to national security or national defense security” in China.

BGI says it has never shared data for national security purposes and has never been asked to.

The company said that it fully complied with European GDPR data protection rules and also had the British certification for personal information management.

“BGI’s NIPT test was developed solely by BGI – not in partnership with China’s military. All NIPT data collected overseas are stored in BGI’s labs in Hong Kong and are destroyed after five years,” it said in an email to Reuters, adding that it took data protection, privacy and ethics extremely seriously.

Tugendhat is one of nine British lawmakers who has been sanctioned by China for highlighting alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which Beijing describes as “lies and disinformation.”

He co-leads the China Research Group, a group of Conservative lawmakers which looks to rebalance the strategic relationship with China.

He said that any British companies using the tests should be clear where the data is going, who holds it, and what access others, including other governments, would have to it.

“Unless a company has done that, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for British people to be extremely concerned with these connections,” he said.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout in London, additional reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Kate Holton and Pravin Char)

UK food supply chains ‘on the edge of failing,’ meat industry says

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s food supply chains are “right on the edge of failing” as absence related to COVID-19 has aggravated a critical shortage of labor, a meat industry body said on Wednesday.

The British Meat Processors’ Association (BMPA) said the shortage of skills was so critical, some plants had reported vacancies of 10% to 16% of permanent positions, discounting the impact of the pandemic.

“On top of the underlying worker shortage, we’re also hearing from some members that between 5% and 10% of their workforce have been ‘pinged’ by the (health service) app and asked to self-isolate,” BMPA CEO Nick Allen said.

The shortage of workers affected the meat products that require more labor to produce, he said, meaning those lines would be the first to be cut.

On Monday, England’s car plants, railways, supermarkets and pubs warned the government that the COVID-19 tracing app, which has told hundreds of thousands of workers to isolate, was wrecking the recovery and pushing supply chains to the brink of collapse.

Alerts, or “pings,” from the official app telling anyone identified as a contact of someone with the disease to self-isolate for 10 days have also disrupted schools and the healthcare system.

The government has announced exemptions for some workers identified as critical, including health and transport workers, but says it does not plan widespread rule changes.

Pictures on social media showed gaps on supermarket shelves as the so-called “pingdemic” is putting pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and stock shelves.

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at industry lobby group, the British Retail Consortium, said the government needed to act swiftly.

“Retail workers and suppliers, who have played a vital role throughout this pandemic, should be allowed to work provided they are double vaccinated or can show a negative COVID test, to ensure there is no disruption to the public’s ability to get food and other goods,” he said.

(Reporting by James Davey; editing by Barbara Lewis)

Britain’s COVID-19 cases up by nearly 41% over past week

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has reported 46,558 new cases of COVID-19, government data showed on Tuesday, meaning the rise in cases between July 14 and July 20 stood at 40.7% compared with the previous seven days.

A further 96 people were reported as having died within 28 days of a positive test for COVID-19.

A total of 46.35 million people had received a first dose of a vaccine against coronavirus by July 19 and 36.24 million people had received a second dose.

(Writing by William Schomberg)

Britain issues first Amber Extreme Heat warning

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Met Office issued its first ever amber extreme heat warning on Monday, saying unusually high temperatures expected western areas and continuing high night-time temperatures created potential risks to health.

The alert is the first issued by the Met Office since the national meteorological service launched its extreme heat national severe weather warning system at the start of June to help better inform people of the risks hot weather can bring.

Much of Britain has seen heatwave conditions in recent days but temperatures are expected to rise further, possibly reaching 33 degrees Celsius in some western parts of the country, the Met Office said.

“The impacts of extreme heat can be many and varied. It can have health consequences, especially for those who are particularly vulnerable, and it can impact infrastructure, including transport and energy, as well as the wider business community,” the Met Office said in a statement.

A record-breaking heatwave this month killed hundreds of people in Canada and the United States. Europe also has been unusually hot and flooding has devastated parts of Germany, Belgium and other countries.

(Reporting By Susanna Twidale; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. and allies accuse China of global hacking spree

By Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and its allies accused China on Monday of a global cyberespionage campaign, mustering an unusually broad coalition of countries to publicly call out Beijing for hacking.

The United States was joined by NATO, the European Union, Britain, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada in condemning the spying, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said posed “a major threat to our economic and national security.”

Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Justice charged four Chinese nationals – three security officials and one contract hacker – with targeting dozens of companies, universities and government agencies in the United States and abroad.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chinese officials have previously said China is also a victim of hacking and opposes all forms of cyberattacks.

While a flurry of statements from Western powers represent a broad alliance, cyber experts said the lack of consequences for China beyond the U.S. indictment was conspicuous. Just a month ago, summit statements by G7 and NATO warned China and said it posed threats to the international order.

Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, called Monday’s announcement a “successful effort to get friends and allies to attribute the action to Beijing, but not very useful without any concrete follow-up.”

Some of Monday’s statements even seemed to pull their punches. While Washington and its close allies such as the United Kingdom and Canada held the Chinese state directly responsible for the hacking, others were more circumspect.

NATO merely said that its members “acknowledge” the allegations being leveled against Beijing by the U.S., Canada, and the UK. The European Union said it was urging Chinese officials to rein in “malicious cyber activities undertaken from its territory” – a statement that left open the possibility that the Chinese government was itself innocent of directing the espionage.

The United States was much more specific, formally attributing intrusions such as the one that affected servers running Microsoft Exchange earlier this year to hackers affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security. Microsoft had already blamed China.

U.S. officials said the scope and scale of hacking attributed to China has surprised them, along with China’s use of “criminal contract hackers.”

“The PRC’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain,” Blinken said.

U.S. security and intelligence agencies outlined more than 50 techniques and procedures that “China state-sponsored actors” use against U.S. networks, a senior administration official said.

Washington in recent months has focused heavy attention on Russia in accusing Russian hackers of a string of ransomware attacks in the United States.

The senior administration official said U.S. concerns about Chinese cyber activities have been raised with senior Chinese officials. “We’re not ruling out further action to hold the PRC accountable,” the official said.

The United States and China have already been at loggerheads over trade, China’s military buildup, disputes about the South China Sea, a crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and treatment of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.

Blinken cited the Justice Department indictments as an example of how the United States will impose consequences.

The defendants and officials in the Hainan State Security Department, a regional state security office, tried to hide the Chinese government’s role in the information theft by using a front company, according to the indictment.

The campaign targeted trade secrets in industries including aviation, defense, education, government, health care, biopharmaceutical and maritime industries, the Justice Department said.

Victims were in Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“These criminal charges once again highlight that China continues to use cyber-enabled attacks to steal what other countries make, in flagrant disregard of its bilateral and multilateral commitments,” Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in the statement.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, David Shepardson, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)