Muted Christmas joy in La Palma evacuees’ caravan as volcano falls silent

By Marco Trujillo

LA PALMA, Spain (Reuters) – Dacil Batista felt little Christmas cheer while trimming a plastic fir tree by the caravan where she, her family and pets have been living since the volcanic eruption on the Spanish island of La Palma forced them from their home.

“No matter how low you feel, at this time of the year you must be strong for the children because they are excited about Christmas,” said the 22-year-old mother of two.

The Cumbre Vieja volcano fell silent last week, raising hopes that the eruption that began on Sept. 19, which has forced the evacuation of thousands of residents, destroyed about 3,000 buildings and devastated crops, may be finally over.

Batista says the children have been missing their house and garden with swings, a slide and a playhouse.

“But we will go back home and they will have it all again,” she told Reuters after being shown a video of their property largely intact, but covered with tonnes of dark ash.

“A lot of people are much worse off than we are. We still have the house,” said Batista’s partner Adam Gonzalez, 27, who has mostly adjusted to caravan life after spending many sleepless nights there during the eruption.

He recalled how frequent tremors would rattle the vehicle, spooking the family and their many pets – a dog, a dozen birds, two turtles and a ball python.

“It’s been three months and now it’s difficult not to see it or hear it (the volcano), to know it happened but as if nothing ever happened,” he added.

Some residents have been allowed to return to their homes, but the parking lot where the family has their caravan is still full of mobile homes. The town hall of Los Llanos de Aridane has put a big Christmas tree above the car park to cheer up those who remain.

People have been quick to help each other out. A German neighbor gave the family another caravan, where Batista’s mother-in-law and her son are staying now, after learning that all six of them had been sharing one vehicle.

Barring any resumption of volcanic activity, the authorities could declare the end of the eruption this week.

(Writing by Andrei Khalip, editing by Nathan Allen and Jane Merriman)

UK’s Johnson rules out new COVID-19 curbs before Christmas

By Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that he would not be introducing new COVID-19 restrictions in England before Christmas, but the situation remained extremely difficult and the government might need to act afterwards.

Britain has reported record levels of COVID-19 cases over the past week as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads, and hospitalizations are also rising.

Johnson held a more than two-hour meeting with his cabinet to discuss the latest COVID-19 data on Monday. Media reported several ministers had pushed back against the prospect of new curbs before Christmas, despite warnings from some scientists.

“We don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify any tougher measures before Christmas,” Johnson said in a video posted on social media.

Uncertainty remained around how likely people were to need hospital treatment after being infected with Omicron, compared to previous variants, as well as the impact of booster doses of vaccines, which are being rolled out rapidly.

“We can’t rule out any further measures after Christmas,” Johnson added. “We continue to monitor Omicron very closely and if the situation deteriorates we will be ready to take action if needed.”

The idea of further restrictions is unpopular among Conservative lawmakers, more than 100 of whom last week voted against the introduction of new COVID-19 rules, leaving Johnson reliant on the support of the opposition Labor Party.

British media had previously reported that temporary curbs, lasting between two weeks and a month, were more likely to be introduced in England after Christmas. These could include a ban on households mixing indoors and limits on the numbers who can meet outdoors.

Earlier on Tuesday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out plans for post-Christmas restrictions on large-scale events in Scotland, including the cancellation of public New Year’s Eve celebrations, as well as restricting bars and restaurants to table service.

Johnson said that while people could go ahead with their Christmas plans, he urged them to be cautious and follow advice such as keeping windows open and taking a test before visiting elderly or vulnerable relatives.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; editing by David Milliken)

La Palma volcano’s underground vents are solidifying as lava dries up

By Marco Trujillo and Borja Suarez

LA PALMA, Spain (Reuters) – The underground conduits that feed lava from the Cumbre Vieja volcano in Spain’s La Palma island are solidifying, authorities said on Thursday, in a sign that the end of the three-month eruption could be announced by Christmas.

If seismic activity and other factors remain unchanged, La Palma authorities have set Dec. 24 as the day to declare the eruption is over.

“The emission of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, which was low yesterday, is not related to emerging magma, but to the solidification of existing magma in the vents,” Maria Jose Blanco, the director of the National Geographic Institute in the Canary Islands, said.

The eruption could be ending soon, but the emergency is far from over, as lava fumes could still be dangerous and some parts of the exclusion zone around the volcano are buried in ash that needs to be cleared.

Miguel Angel Morcuende, head of a task force set up to monitor the volcano, warned evacuees, who are now allowed to return to clean up their houses, that they should be cautious, especially those who live near the lava flows.

“They should not be alone, but with people to measure gas levels beforehand,” he said. “They should ventilate (their homes) for at least a quarter of an hour in order to release trapped gases.”

The 86-day eruption, which sent rivers of molten rock down the slopes of Cumbre Vieja and expanded the size of the island by more than 48 hectares, is the longest ever on La Palma, according to records dating back to the 16th century.

Thousands of people have been evacuated, at least 2,910 buildings have been destroyed and the island’s banana plantations, a major source of income, have been devastated.

(Writing by Emma Pinedo, editing by Inti Landauro and Giles Elgood)

The Mexican town where making Christmas baubles is a way of life

TLALPUJAHUA, Mexico (Reuters) – In Tlalpujahua, Mexico, the spirit of Christmas is baked into the small town’s very existence.

While people around the world prepare to decorate Christmas trees and buy gifts to celebrate the holiday, in Tlalpujahua thousands of workers do the delicate work of blowing glass into Christmas ornaments that are then hand-painted.

“We are a people who are very creative and we have developed this industry ourselves, from our art,” baubles maker Jose Luis Munoz told Reuters Television. “And clearly we are committed to making Mexican families and families from around the world feel good this coming Christmas.”

Munoz is one of more than 2,000 people in Tlalpujahua, located about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Mexico City in the state of Michoacán, who are employed directly in making Christmas ornaments. They produce millions of ornaments each year.

Artisans hand-blow glass over a 750-degree Celsius (1,382 Fahrenheit) flame, transforming long glass tubes into shapes ranging from standard round baubles to flowers, apples, birds and bells. They are then painted with sparkling colors.

Most of the ornaments, about 60%, are shipped overseas, to the United States and Canada, as well as Europe, Japan and Malaysia.

The ornaments are popular with visitors to the town, as well.

“I think that this is a craft like no other and I think the work of artisans from Michoacán is very beautiful,” said Consuelo Herrera, a visitor.

Tlalpujahua once thrived on income from gold and silver mines, but it fell on hard times after a 1937 mudslide shut down most mining.

It underwent a renaissance after a local man, Joaquin Munoz Orta, returned from Chicago where he had learned to make ornaments while working in a factory that produced artificial Christmas trees. He set up a workshop that grew steadily and inspired others in the town to also make ornaments.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Leslie Adler; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

“There will be things that people can’t get,” at Christmas, White House warns

By Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -White House officials, scrambling to relieve global supply bottlenecks choking U.S. ports, highways and railways, warn Americans may face higher prices and some empty shelves this Christmas season.

The supply crisis, driven in part by the global COVID-19 pandemic, not only threatens to dampen U.S. spending at a critical time, it also poses a political risk for U.S. President Joe Biden.

The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll shows the economy continues to be the most important issue to Democrats and Republicans alike.

The White House has been trying to tackle inflation-inducing supply bottlenecks of everything from meat to semiconductors, and formed a task force in June that meets weekly and named a “bottleneck” czar to push private sector companies to ease snarls.

Biden himself plans to meet with senior officials on Wednesday to discuss efforts to relieve transportation bottlenecks before delivering a speech on the topic.

Supply chain woes are weighing on retail and transportation companies, which recently issued a series of downbeat earnings outlooks. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve last month predicted a 2021 inflation rate of 4.2%, well above its 2% target.

American consumers, unused to empty store shelves, may need to be flexible and patient, White House officials said.

“There will be things that people can’t get,” a senior White House official told Reuters, when asked about holiday shopping.

“At the same time, a lot of these goods are hopefully substitutable by other things … I don’t think there’s any real reason to be panicked, but we all feel the frustration and there’s a certain need for patience to help get through a relatively short period of time.”

Inflation is biting wages. Labor Department data shows that Americans made 0.9% less per hour on average in August than they did one year prior.

The White House argues inflation is a sign that their decision to provide historic support to small businesses and households, through $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief funding, worked.

U.S. consumer demand stayed strong, outpacing global rivals, and the Biden administration expects the overall economy to grow at 7.1%, as inflation reaches its highest levels since the 1980s.

“We recognize that it has pinched families who are trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy as we move into the later stages of the pandemic,” said a second senior White House official.

BOTTLENECK CZAR

In August, the White House tapped John Porcari, a veteran transportation official who served in the Obama administration as a new “envoy” to the nation’s ports, but he’s known as the bottleneck czar.

Porcari told Reuters the administration has worked to make sure various parts of the supply chain, such as ports and intermodal facilities, where freight is transferred from one form of transport to another, are in steady communication.

Now it is focused on getting ports and other transportation hubs to operate on a 24-hour schedule, taking advantage of off-peak hours to move more goods in the pipeline. California ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles have agreed to extended hours, and there are more to follow, he said in an interview Monday.

“We need to make better use of that off-peak capacity and that really is the current focus,” Porcari said.

The administration is also seeking to restore inactive rail yards for extra container capacity and create “pop-up” rail yards to increase capacity.

“It’s important to remember that the goods movement system is a private sector driven system,” he said. “There’s problems in every single part of that system. And, and they tend to compound each other.

“While the pandemic was an enormously disruptive force. I think it also laid bare what was an underlying reality, which was the system was strained before the pandemic.”

A NEW WAR ON CHRISTMAS

Republican strategists are seizing on possible Christmas shortages to bash Biden’s policies as inflationary, and thwart his attempt to push a multi-trillion dollar spending package through Congress in coming weeks.

A recent op-ed by Steve Cortes, a one-time advisor to former President Donald Trump, dubbed the upcoming holiday season “Biden’s Blue Christmas,” continuing in a long tradition of conservatives criticizing Democrats over celebrations around the Christian holiday.

Trump, considered the front-runner Republican candidate for president in 2024, blasted it out in a mass email through his political action committee, Save America.

Seth Weathers, a Republican strategist who ran Trump’s Georgia campaign in 2016 said they see local impact. “People here in Georgia are paying twice as much for items than they paid a year ago and they are blaming Biden. He’s in charge.”

A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed Biden is losing the public’s trust on the economy, with only 29% of public thinking the U.S. economy is in “good” or “excellent” condition, compared with 35% in April.

“President Biden could use a holiday season win,” Quinnipiac polling analyst Tim Malloy said. “A slowdown of holiday season deliveries and the financial strain that comes with it would be coal in the stocking for the Administration at the close of the first year in office.”

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons, Richard Pullin and Aurora Ellis)

Britain has 10 days to save Christmas, retail sector says

By James Davey, Victor Jack and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain’s retail industry warned the government on Friday that unless it moves to alleviate an acute shortage of truckers in the next 10 days then significant disruption was inevitable in the run-up to Christmas.

As the world’s fifth-largest economy emerges from COVID-19 lockdowns, a spike in European natural gas prices and a post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers have left Britain grappling with soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.

BP had to close some of its gas stations due to the driver shortages while queues formed at some Shell stations as pumps ran dry in some places. ExxonMobil’s Esso said a small number of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites had also been impacted in some way.

In a rush to fill up, drivers also queued at some gas stations in London and the southern English county of Kent. Diesel ran out at one station visited by Reuters.

For months supermarkets, processors and farmers have warned that a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers was straining supply chains to breaking point – making it harder to get goods on to shelves.

“Unless new drivers are found in the next 10 days, it is inevitable that we will see significant disruption in the run-up to Christmas,” said Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, the retail industry’s lobby group.

“HGV drivers are the glue which hold our supply chains together,” Opie said. “Without them, we are unable to move goods from farms to warehouses to shops.”

The next 10 days are crucial because retailers ramp up supplies in October to ensure there are enough goods for the peak Christmas season.

Hauliers and logistics companies cautioned that there were no quick fixes and that any change to testing or visas would likely be too late to alleviate the pre-Christmas shortages as retailers stockpile months ahead.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has insisted that there will be no return to the 1970s when Britain was cast by allies as the “sick man of Europe” with three-day weeks, energy shortages and rampant inflation.

‘DON’T PANIC’

As ministers urged the public not to panic buy, some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets have warned that the shortage of truck drivers could lead to just that ahead of Christmas.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said that Johnson, whom he met in New York, had asked him for an “emergency” agreement to supply a food product that is lacking in Britain, though the British embassy disputed Bolsonaro’s account.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there was a global shortage of truckers after COVID halted lorry driver testing so Britain was doubling the number of tests. Asked if the government would ease visa rules, he said the government would look at all options.

“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Shapps told Sky News. “We’ll move heaven and earth to do whatever we can to make sure that shortages are alleviated with HGV drivers.

“We should see it smooth out fairly quickly,” he said.

British ministers are due to meet later on Friday in an attempt to hash out a fix.

TRUCKER VISA?

The trucking industry body, the Road Haulage Association (RHA), has called on the government to allow short-term visas for international drivers to enter Britain and fill the gap, while British drivers are being trained for the future.

“It’s an enormous challenge,” Rod McKenzie, head of policy at the RHA, told Reuters. In the short-term, he said, international drivers could help, even if it may be too late to help Christmas, and in the longer term the industry needed better pay and conditions to attract workers.

“It’s a tough job. We the British do not help truckers in the way that Europeans and Americans do by giving them decent facilities,” he said.

The British haulage industry says it needs around 100,000 more drivers after 25,000 returned to Europe before Brexit and the pandemic halted the qualification process for new workers.

Shapps, who said the driver shortage was not due to Brexit, said COVID-19 exacerbated the problem given that Britain was unable to test 40,000 drivers during lockdowns.

(Additional reporting by Gerhard Mey, Kate Holton, Michael Holden and Paul Sandle; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Toby Chopra nd Nick Macfie)

Authorities still searching for motive in Nashville blast

(Reuters) – Federal, state and local law enforcement officers on Monday were searching for the motive behind a bombing that rocked Nashville on Christmas morning, with evidence pointing to the 63-year-old suspect on a suicide mission that took only his life.

The FBI on Sunday identified the suspect as Anthony Q. Warner and said he died in the blast, which damaged more than 40 businesses in downtown Nashville, Tennessee’s largest city and the United States’ country music capital.

Warner’s motor home exploded at dawn on Friday moments after police responding to reports of gunfire noticed it and heard music and an automated message emanating from the vehicle warning of a bomb. Police hurried to evacuate people in the area, and Warner is the only person known to have died in the blast.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper has said that local officials felt there had to be some connection between the bombing, which occurred near an AT&T Inc transmission building on the city’s busy Second Avenue, and the building.

But officials have maintained it was too early in the investigation to discuss the suspect’s motives.

Council Member Freddie O’Connell, whose district includes Second Avenue, said officials have been reluctant to speculate about motive or to label the bombing an act of terrorism because it was still unclear whether Warner was driven by any ideology.

“It may be some time before we get even close to having some of these questions answered,” O’Connell said.

The explosion injured three people and damaged businesses, disrupting mobile, internet and TV services across central Tennessee and parts of four other states.

Investigators searched Warner’s home on Saturday and visited a Nashville real estate agency where he had worked part-time, providing computer consulting services.

Speaking to Fox News on Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee described the damage in Nashville as “enormous” and said he expected President Donald Trump would shortly grant his request to declare a state of emergency to assist the state.

“It was a indescribable blast and it’s destroyed businesses all up and down that downtown block,” Lee said.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Susan Heavey in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Israel imposing third national COVID-19 lockdown

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will impose a third national lockdown to fight surging COVID-19 infections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, as the country pursues a vaccination campaign.

The restrictions will come into effect on Sunday evening and last for 14 days, pending final cabinet approval, a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

They include the closure of shops, limited public transport, a partial shutdown of schools and a one-kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) restriction on travel from home, except for commuting to workplaces that remain open, and to purchase essential goods.

Such measures will cost Israel’s economy about three billion shekels ($932.6 million) a week, the Finance Ministry said.

The economy is expected to shrink 4.5% in 2020, though the Bank of Israel has said the contraction could reach 5% should the COVID-19 crisis prompt more curbs. In November, the jobless rate stood at 12%. The economy is projected to grow as much as 6.5% in 2021 and possibly faster – if the pandemic is contained.

With a population of nine million, Israel has so far reported more than 385,000 cases of COVID-19 and 3,150 deaths.

The number of daily infections approached 4,000 on Wednesday, rising from around 1,000 at the end of a month-long lockdown imposed in September that followed one that ran from late March to early May.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry said it had found four people infected with the new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in Britain.

With regard to Israel’s Christian minority, the Health Ministry said that during Christmas, prayers at houses of worship would be limited to gatherings of 10 people in closed spaces and 100 people in open areas.

The new lockdown comes with Israel’s vaccination drive already underway. Health workers and people over the age of 60 are the first groups to be inoculated in a campaign which the health minister said he expected to be completed within months.

But public anger has risen over the government’s perceived inconsistent handling of the crisis, and Israel will hold an election on March 23, its fourth in two years, after constant infighting in Netanyahu’s coalition.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Steven Scheer and Rami Amichay; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Stranded truckers fume as they wait to leave UK after COVID blockade

By Peter Nicholls and Gerry Mey

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Furious truck drivers stranded at the English port of Dover scuffled with police as Britain sought to get cross-Channel traffic moving after a partial blockade by France to contain a highly infectious coronavirus variant.

Paris and London agreed late on Tuesday that drivers carrying a negative test result could board ferries for Calais from Wednesday after much of the world shut its borders to Britain to contain the new mutated variant.

The British government has drafted in the military to help but there was confusion amongst drivers about how to get tests, and warnings it would take time to clear the backlog of trucks, hammering Britain’s most important trade route for food just days before it leaves the European Union’s orbit.

“Testing has begun as we look to get traffic moving again between the UK and France,” British transport minister Grant Shapps said on Twitter. “However, French border police only acting on agreement from this morning and severe delays continue.”

Huge queues of trucks have been stacked on a motorway towards the Eurotunnel Channel Tunnel and on roads to Dover in the southeast county of Kent, while others have been parked up at the former nearby airport at Manston.

With no sign of traffic to the European mainland resuming and confusion over how to get a coronavirus test, tempers were beginning to flare among drivers, many from Eastern Europe who do not speak English and are angry that they will not be able to get home to their families before Christmas.

Police said there had been disturbances in Dover and Manston “involving individuals hoping to cross the Channel” and one arrest had been made.

“This is not how it should work. We have no information, the people need to be fetching information,” Mekki Coskun from Dortmund in Germany, told Reuters.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had been in touch with Britain’s Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron about the jam.

“This can be done differently. This whole process could’ve been better organized,” he said.

The Road Haulage Association, which estimated there were up to 10,000 trucks being held up in Kent, said it was chaotic.

“The border is still closed, the testing regime isn’t happening yet, you’ve got truckers very angry and we’re starting to see a breakdown in law and order in a small way among very frustrated guys who want to get back by Christmas,” Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy for the RHA, said.

Normally between 7,500-8,500 trucks travel via the port every day but volumes have reached more than 10,000 recently.

Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, said just 45 trucks had reached France between midnight and 1100 GMT.

FURTHER BREXIT DISRUPTION

Some of the extra traffic was a result of Christmas demand, but many were in the country to deliver goods to companies who are stockpiling parts before Britain finally leaves the EU on Dec. 31, a move that is expected to cause further disruption in January when a full customs border comes into force.

The British Retail Consortium, an industry lobby group, warned that until the backlog of trucks was cleared and supply chains returned to normal, there could be issues with the availability of some fresh goods.

Logistics firms have also said that many European drivers had already refused to come to Britain in the new year when they would have to carry customs paperwork, and the need to secure a coronavirus test will further compound the situation, pushing up freight prices.

Drivers will first take a rapid lateral flow test. Anyone who records a positive result will take a more comprehensive PCR test, which takes longer to secure a result, and anyone testing positive again will be given a hotel room to isolate.

Many of the mostly European drivers, many stranded with their trucks and without access to hot food or bathroom facilities, believe they are pawns in a political standoff between Britain and the EU as trade talks reach a climax.

“We don’t have food to eat, we don’t have drink, we don’t have anything, nobody … cares about us,” said Stella Vradzheva a driver from Sterlcha in Bulgaria.

(Additional reporting by James Davey, Joanna Plucinska, and Yiming Woo; Writing by Kate Holton and Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)

Anger grows as truckers stranded in England miss Christmas at home

By Ben Makori and Gerhard Mey

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Dan Jinca, a Romanian truck driver stranded in England after much of the world shut its borders to Britain, is angry, and he is not alone.

The 47-year-old will miss Christmas at home and he thinks the official excuse for the border closures – a new variant of the novel coronavirus spreading fast across southern England – is nonsense.

“We are upset and we don’t know why we have to be in this situation,” Jinca told Reuters, speaking English. “They say it is about corona. We don’t know.”

Hundreds of trucks are lined up, snaking into the horizon across southern England after the border closures. Many drivers have been stuck for days, eating up their reserves of food along roads that now stand silent.

No matter what is decided in London, Paris and Brussels, Jinca, a father, will miss Christmas at home in Bumbești-Jiu, about 186 miles (300 km) west of Bucharest, because he has too far to drive.

“Now it is done, it is finished. From here to go home we have about 2,000 miles,” he said. “It is about 45 hours to drive non-stop – no sleep, just drive. We can’t make it.”

After 7 years in trucking, it has never happened to him before.

Sergio Robles, a 41-year-old Spanish truck driver, said the conditions – stuck on a road in December for three days and counting – were a disgrace.

And he wants a solution – and information – fast.

“They don’t give us food, they don’t give us drinks, they don’t give us sanitation, they don’t offer us anything,” he said in Spanish. “The situation is basically inhumane, so what we are asking for is a solution.”

“I think and believe that this happening now isn’t due to coronavirus or anything, it’s due to Brexit, due to internal politics or something of that manner.”

Robles will also miss Christmas with his family in Madrid.

“We are the transport that moves the world, so to say. And they treat us badly,” he said.

“They treat us as if we are garbage. We don’t get to spend Christmas at home, not with family or children or anything. I think there’s nothing right in all of this.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mike Collett-White)