Lockdown, what lockdown? UK begins tougher action against those ignoring shutdown

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain brought in tough measures on Thursday to curb the spread of coronavirus and ensure people obey the government’s virtual lockdown which many thousands are feared to have so far ignored.

The new powers allow police to issue instant fines those who leave their homes without good reason or gather in groups of more than two people.

In northern England, one police force has begun introducing random vehicle checkpoints to ensure the new rules are enforced while the head of the Church of England told Britons who were flouting the instructions to “get your act together”.

Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered pubs, restaurants and nearly all shops to close, banned social gatherings and told people to stay at home unless they needed to buy food, go out to essential work or to exercise once a day.

While millions have respected the measures, roads and parks have remained busy, and the authorities across the country have repeatedly reported that people have not respected the 2 metre (6 foot) guidance on social distancing while others have continued to mingle.

On Thursday, a new regulations came into effect which give the authorities the power to impose a 30-pound fixed penalty on those who breach the rules. Repeat offenders could ultimately receive a fine of up to 960 pounds and might be arrested.

Those who did not pay up could be taken to court, where magistrates could impose unlimited fines, the government said.

“The prime minister has been clear on what we need to do: stay at home to protect our NHS and save lives,” said Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel.

PARKS CLOSED

Some Britons have continued their daily routine and risked spreading the virus which the government fears could overwhelm the National Health Service if large numbers contract COVID-19.

In east London, police and the Tower Hamlets local authority said they had been forced to close Victoria Park, one of the largest and most popular open public spaces in the area, because people were failing to abide by the guidance.

The Royal Parks, a charity which looks after eight major parks across the capital, said it too was considering shutting its gates.

“It is up to all of us collectively to adhere to the latest guidance, otherwise we will have to consider closing the parks. We will keep the situation under constant review,” said Tom Jarvis, its Director of Parks.

Other cities have already closed some parks and facilities to meet the guidance on social distancing while Greater Manchester firefighters said they had received reports of lots of people having barbecues on moorlands.

Meanwhile police in Devon, southwest England, said when they has asked a young cyclist why he was four miles from his home and not following the rules, he had replied: “It only kills old people”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual head of the Church of England, said people should not act selfishly.

“Get your act together,” he said to those who have been ignoring the strict government social distancing instructions.

“If you are not complying, you are risking other people’s lives, not just your own,” he told ITV News.

To ensure compliance, police in northern England said they would bring in vehicle checkpoints from Thursday, along with foot patrols to disperse any groups.

“We sincerely hope that we won’t have to resort to enforcement action, but if people do not comply, we will,” said Mike Walker, Assistant Chief Constable of North Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill said anyone who claimed they had the virus and deliberately coughed at police or other emergency workers could be charged with common assault and face up to two years in jail.

“Let me be very clear: this is a crime and needs to stop.”

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)

Britain asks its citizens to help pick fruit and vegetables

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain on Wednesday called on its citizens to help pick fruit and vegetables to ensure a supply of food during the global coronavirus crisis – work that would usually be largely carried out by migrant seasonal workers.

Britain’s agricultural sector is heavily dependent on seasonal workers, but the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the flow of migrants into the country.

“We need to mobilize the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months,” environment minister George Eustice said in a statement.

“There are already brilliant recruitment efforts underway by industry and I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.”

The supply of seasonal workers was already under pressure following Britain’s departure from the European Union.

(Reporting by William James, editing by Estelle Shirbon)

More than 170,000 volunteer to help UK fight coronavirus

LONDON (Reuters) – More than 170,000 people have signed up to help Britain’s National Health Service tackle the coronavirus outbreak just hours after a request for a quarter of a million volunteers.

“At times of crisis people come together,” Stephen Powis, the national medical director of NHS England, told BBC TV. “This is a health emergency and we can all play a role.”

Britain had called for 250,000 volunteers to deliver food and medicines, provide transport for patients and supplies, and to telephone those who are becoming lonely because of self isolation.

The system aims to reach up to 1.5 million people who are “shielding” – keeping themselves at home for 12 weeks under government advice to protect those with serious health conditions.

The death toll from coronavirus in the United Kingdom jumped on Tuesday by 87 to a total of 422 – the biggest daily increase since the crisis began.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Kate Holton)

UK puts military on standby as coronavirus shuts down swathes of London

Reuters
By Guy Faulconbridge and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom put 20,000 military personnel on standby, closed dozens of underground train stations across London and Queen Elizabeth left the city for Windsor Castle as the coronavirus crisis shut down whole swathes of the economy.

As the coronavirus outbreak sweeps across the world, governments, companies and investors are grappling with the biggest public health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic, panicked populations and imploding financial markets.

Against a background of panic buying in supermarkets and the biggest fall in sterling for decades, the British government moved to quash rumors that travel in and out of London would be restricted.

“There is zero prospect of any restriction being placed on traveling in or out of London,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman told reporters.

He said police were responsible for maintaining law and order and there were no plans to use the military for this purpose, though the government put military reservists on formal notification.

But dozens of underground train stations across the capital were due to be closed and an industry source said supermarkets were expecting police support amid the fears that London was facing a virtual shutdown.

After ordering the closure of schools across a country that casts itself as a pillar of Western stability, Johnson on Wednesday said the government was ruling nothing out when asked whether he would bring in measures to lock down London.

Johnson has asked the government to come up with plans for a so-called lockdown which would see businesses closed, transport services reduced, gatherings limited and more stringent controls imposed on the city.

Queen Elizabeth on Thursday left the capital for her ancient castle at Windsor. The monarch has also agreed to postpone the planned state visit by Japanese Emperor Naruhito in June.

LONDON CLOSING?

London’s transport authority said it would close up to 40 underground train stations until further notice and reduce other services including buses and trains. The line between Waterloo station and the City of London financial district would be closed.

“People should not be traveling, by any means, unless they really, really have to,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said.

Britain has so far reported 104 deaths from coronavirus and 2,626 confirmed cases, but UK scientific advisers say more than 50,000 people might have already been infected.

Britain faces a “massive shortage” of ventilators that will be needed to treat critically ill patients suffering from coronavirus, after it failed to invest enough in intensive care equipment, a leading ventilator manufacturer said.

With the world’s fifth largest economy coming to a standstill, the pound on Wednesday plunged to its lowest since March 1985, barring a freak “flash crash” in October 2016. On Thursday the pound was down 0.5% at $1.1570.

British shoppers were queuing around the block early on Thursday morning to buy basic supplies such as bottled water and tinned goods ahead of an expected toughening of measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Supermarkets have been forced to limit purchases after frantic shoppers stripped shelves. Outside one Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London on Thursday, a huge queue had formed ahead of opening, with people standing calmly in the rain.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Dylan Martinez, Kate Holton and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Michael Holden and Giles Elgood)

Exclusive: UK faces ‘massive shortage’ of ventilators – Swiss manufacturer

By John Miller

EMS, Switzerland (Reuters) – Britain faces a “massive shortage” of ventilators that will be needed to treat critically ill patients suffering from coronavirus, after it failed to invest enough in intensive care equipment, a leading ventilator manufacturer said on Wednesday.

“England is very poorly equipped,” said Andreas Wieland, chief executive of Hamilton Medical in Switzerland, which says it is the world’s largest ventilator maker.

“They’re going to have a massive shortage, once the virus really arrives there,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Ventilators, running in the thousands of dollars per unit, are used to help people with respiratory difficulties to breathe. They are high-tech versions of the “iron lungs” that kept people alive into the 1950s during fierce polio epidemics.

Worldwide, the devices have become shorthand for the rapid advance of the disease — and the desperation of officials who fear their stocks are inadequate. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the 3,000 devices in his state where 20 people have died are a fraction of what he’d like to have.

“The entire world is trying to buy ventilators,” Cuomo said, according to a transcript published on Wednesday, adding he is hoping to tap a U.S. federal government stockpile.

Germany’s Draegerwerk  last week got a government order for 10,000, equal to a typical year’s production.

Wieland’s company in the Swiss Alps has boosted normal production of some 15,000 ventilators annually by 30-40% and now can produce about 80 ventilators daily.

He has shifted his 1,400 employees to seven-day work weeks as well as borrowed workers from other companies in the Rhine River valley where his two-year-old ventilator plant is located.

Last week, Hamilton Medical shipped 400 ventilators to Italy, whose intensive care units have been overwhelmed by more than 35,000 cases of the rapidly spreading virus and almost 3,000 deaths.

About 50% of those with coronavirus in Italy accepted into intensive care units are dying, compared with typical mortality rates of 12% to 16% in such units.

Wieland said a similar outbreak in Britain, now with more than 2,600 cases and about 100 deaths, would swamp the system there, too.

“They are not well equipped with ventilators and intensive care stations,” he said. “They invested very little, and I think now they will pay the price.”

UK health minister Matt Hancock has acknowledged the existing stock of 5,000 ventilators is inadequate.

“NO NUMBER TOO HIGH”

“We think we need many times more than that and we are saying if you produce a ventilator then we will buy it,” he said earlier this week. “No number is too high.”

Wieland said he was in “close contact” with UK medical leaders and aimed to prioritize shipments there soon, though for now Italy was taking precedence.

But he also has orders from the United States, Turkey, France and China, where in January he stocked up on components in anticipation of rising demand as the virus spread from its origins in Wuhan.

The UK’s Intensive Care Society, an organization of medical professionals, did not immediately return emails and phone calls from Reuters seeking comment on the nation’s readiness for a possible explosion of coronavirus cases.

“We are likely to need more,” a National Health Service spokesman told Reuters. “Engineers have already been tasked with developing plans to produce more ventilators in the UK, at speed.”

Hamilton CEO Wieland is skeptical, however, of the British government’s recent call for manufacturers from other industries including Ford, Honda and Rolls Royce to help make equipment including ventilators.

“I wish them the best of luck,” Wieland said. “I do not believe anything will come of it. These devices are very complex. It takes us four to five years” to develop a new product.

(Reporting by John Miller in Ems, Andrew MacAskill in London; Editing by Mark Potter and Chizu Nomiyama)

Britain moves to trying to delay coronavirus spread

By Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain is moving into the second of four phases in its battle plan to tackle the spread of coronavirus, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said on Thursday, after confirmed cases jumped across the country.

Britain has so far registered 90 cases of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, which started in China, but has held off from introducing measures to restrict movement or to cancel large gatherings for fear of hurting the economy.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he is optimistic that Britain is well prepared to cope with the spread of the virus, but early on Thursday regional airline Flybe became one of the first big corporate casualties of the outbreak.

Health minister Matt Hancock said the coming weeks would be tough. But with calm heads and clear determination, together we can see it through”.

The government set out its action plan earlier this week based on four stages – containing the virus, delaying its transmission, researching its origins and mitigating its impact.

Whitty, questioned by lawmakers, said Britain had mainly moved into the second stage and was now considering measures to try to delay the peak of an epidemic which officials are anticipating in the coming weeks.

“The original plan … was very much predicated on the idea of ‘if it could be controlled in China and contained everywhere else, this virus might go away’. I think the chances of that happening are now very slim. Slim to zero,” Whitty said.

“As time goes by, we then may start to move into the more socially determined actions … We’ve moved from a situation where we were mainly in contain … to now we’re basically mainly delay.”

Johnson told ITV television that Britain’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was meeting to consider options to try to delay the spread of the outbreak ranging from “quite draconian stuff to more targeted interventions”.

Asked whether Britain was close to taking measures such as stopping large public gatherings, Johnson said: “We’ll see what the scientists advise.”

A spokesman for Johnson said the government would announce publicly when Britain had moved to the second phase of its plan.

The government has said it could encourage home-working, cancel large-scale gatherings and possibly close schools to slow the spread of the disease and delay the peak of the outbreak until summer, when the health service is under less pressure.

Whitty also said that with older people more vulnerable to the virus, there may be measures announced to encourage them to stay away from public places, such as the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the lower house of parliament, told lawmakers there were no plans to close the House of Commons.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and William James, editing by Estelle Shirbon and Stephen Addison)

UK conducts random coronavirus testing as part of early warning plan

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has started random tests for coronavirus on flu patients to have an early warning system in place in case the outbreak becomes more widespread, a senior health official said.

Britain has so far had 13 cases of coronavirus. An outbreak in northern Italy worsened on Wednesday, and the illness has spread to Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia and France via visitors who were recently in northern Italy.

“We’re heightening our vigilance because of the apparent spread of the virus in countries outside mainland China,” Public Health England’s medical director, Paul Cosford, told BBC radio on Wednesday.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

British health minister Matt Hancock said the government had plans in place in case the virus becomes a pandemic.

In Britain, random tests for the virus will be carried out at 11 hospitals and 100 general medical offices on people who have flu symptoms including a cough, plus shortness of breath and a fever.

“This testing will tell us whether there’s evidence of infection more widespread than we think there is. We don’t think there is at the moment,” PHE’s Cosford said.

“The other thing it will do is, if we do get to the position of more widespread infection across the country, then it will give us early warning that that’s happening,” he added.

Hancock told parliament the government expected more cases in Britain and was planning to introduce home testing.

“We are taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public,” he said. “The public can be assured that we have a clear plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate this virus.”

Media have reported several schools have closed or sent pupils home after returning from trips to northern Italy during last week’s school holiday. Hancock said there was no need for schools to close or other students or staff to be sent home.

(Reporting by Sarah Young and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by William Schomberg and Stephen Addison)

British politicians covered up child sex abuse for decades, inquiry finds

A British Union flag flutters in front of one of the clock faces of the 'Big Ben' clocktower of The Houses of Parliament in central London

By Elizabeth Howcroft

LONDON (Reuters) – British politicians turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children and actively covered up allegations over decades, an independent inquiry into historical sex offences in Westminster found on Tuesday.

The inquiry did not find evidence of an organized pedophile network in its examination of the period, covering the 1960s through until the 1990s.

But the report found there “have been significant failures by Westminster institutions in their responses to allegations of child sexual abuse.”

“This included failure to recognize it, turning a blind eye to it, actively shielding and protecting child sexual abusers and covering up allegations,” the report’s summary said.

The 173-page report found that several members of parliament in the 1970s and 1980s, including Peter Morrison and Cyril Smith, were “known or rumored to be active in their sexual interest in children and were protected from prosecution in a number of ways,” by police, prosecutors and political parties.

Peter Morrison was the private secretary to Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister at the time.

Both Morrison and Smith received knighthoods – a British honors system which awards the title ‘Sir’.

The inquiry found about 30 instances of people’s honors being forfeited after they were convicted for crimes involving sexual abuse.

Margaret Thatcher pushed for a knighthood for Jimmy Savile, which he got in 1990, despite revelations in the media about the TV presenter’s sexual abuse of children, the report said.

The inquiry also discussed the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which campaigned for the public acceptance of pedophilia and for changes in the law to allow adults to have sex with children.

It was accepted by some charities as the voice of an oppressed sexual minority and took part in London’s gay pride march in 1983.

“PIE’s aims were given foolish and misguided support for several years by people and organisations who should have known better… There was a fundamental failure to see the problem and a lack of moral courage to confront it,” the report said.

The inquiry found no evidence that the Home Office funded the campaign group.

Home Secretary Priti Patel hailed the “strength and courage” of the victims who testified during the inquiry.

“[The] government will review this report and consider how to respond to its content in due course,” she said in a statement.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) – of which the Westminster investigation is one strand – is one of the largest and most expensive ever undertaken in Britain.

It began work in 2017 and is expected to take five years to complete.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft; Editing by Alistair Smout/Guy Faulconbridge)

Julian Assange put lives at risk, lawyer for United States says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange is wanted for crimes that put at risk the lives of people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared, said a lawyer acting for the United States in its bid to extradite him.

Almost a decade since his WikiLeaks website enraged Washington by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents, Assange, 48, is fighting extradition from Britain to the United States where he is accused of espionage and hacking.

He was wanted, said James Lewis, lawyer for the U.S. authorities, not because he embarrassed the authorities but because he put informants, dissidents, and rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.

“What Mr Assange seems to defend by freedom of speech is not the publication of the classified materials but the publication of the names of the sources, the names of people who had put themselves at risk to assist the United States and its allies,” Lewis said at London’s Woolwich Crown Court.

Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights.

Chants from 100 of his backers outside could be clearly heard inside. Assange himself complained about the din.

“I’m finding it difficult concentrating,” said a clean-shaven Assagne, dressed in a blue-grey suit. “This noise is not helping either. I understand and am very appreciative of the public support. They must be disgusted…”

Judge Vanessa Baraitser warned those in the public gallery not to disturb the proceedings.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request.

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, has said his case could lead to criminalising activities crucial to investigative journalists, and his work had shed light on how the United States conducted its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are talking about collateral murder, evidence of war crimes,” she said last week. “They are a remarkable resource for those of us seeking to hold governments to account for abuses.”

Lewis, speaking on behalf of the U.S. authorities, said hundreds of people across the world had to be warned after the WikiLeaks disclosures. Some had to be relocated. Others later disappeared, he said, although he said the United States would not try to prove that was directly a result of the disclosures.

Some WikiLeaks information was found at Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, he added.

HERO OR ENEMY?

The United States has charged Assange with 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. Lewis said Assange had conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to hack Department of Defense computers.

He said Assange’s defense team was guilty of hyperbole by suggesting Assange might receive a U.S. jail term of 175 years. Similar cases had led to terms of about 40-60 months, he said.

Assange attracted a host of well-known backers, with those criticizing the case against him ranging from leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn to Roger Waters, co-founder of rock group Pink Floyd. Designer Vivienne Westwood was among protesters outside court.

In addition to releasing military records, WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders. Assange made headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 U.S. helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

The hearing will not decide if Assange is guilty of any wrongdoing, but whether the extradition request meets the requirements set out under a 2003 UK-U.S. treaty, which critics say is stacked in Washington’s favor.

The case will get under way before being postponed until May 18, when it will resume again for a further three weeks to allow both sides more time to gather evidence.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)

Flights axed and floods feared as Storm Ciara clobbers Europe

By Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – Storm Ciara lashed Britain and northern continental Europe with heavy rain and wind speeds that reached more than 90 miles an hour (145 kph) in places on Sunday, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights, train services and sports matches.

More than 200 flood warnings were issued across Britain, which recorded a maximum wind speed of 93 miles an hour at Aberdaron in Wales. One severe flood warning was put in place in Yorkshire, northern England, where water was predicted to overflow flood defenses and potentially threaten lives.

The storm caused major disruption to transport across the region; in the Netherlands, around 240 flights to and from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, one of Europe’s busiest, were canceled as Ciara roared in off the Atlantic with gusts of up to 74 mph (120 kph).

In Germany, where Ciara was named Sabine, about 180 flights to and from Frankfurt airport – about 15% of all planned flights – were axed. Lufthansa <LHAG.DE>, Germany’s largest carrier, said it would cancel short and long-haul flights from Munich airport on Monday until 1200 GMT and 1300 GMT, respectively.

Lufthansa’s budget unit Eurowings said it had suspended flight operations at Hamburg, Berlin, Hanover, Dortmund, Duesseldorf, Cologne and Stuttgart. Meanwhile, some British domestic and international flights were also canceled, from airports including Heathrow and Gatwick.

Train services also fell victim to Ciara’s wrath.

German railway operator Deutsche Bahn warned of severe disruptions and said it would stop long-distance train travel across Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, in the evening.

Britain’s Network Rail said the weather had caused problems across its network, with fallen power lines, trees and even trampolines blocking tracks, and warned people not to travel unless they had to.

SPORT DISRUPTED

All shipping movements in and out of Britain’s Port of Dover on the south coast were suspended and the Humber Bridge in northern England was closed to all traffic for only the second time since it opened in 1981.

London’s eight royal parks, home to more than 170,000 trees, were closed and even the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, a tourist draw, was also canceled.

Sporting events were also hit; Manchester City said its English Premier League soccer match against West Ham was postponed due to “extreme and escalating weather conditions”, while Scotland’s Women’s Six Nations rugby match against England was among the other matches canceled.

All professional Dutch soccer matches were canceled, along with most outdoor sporting events.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by Pravin Char)