COVID-19 outbreak closes hotel hosting G7 summit delegation

CARBIS BAY, England (Reuters) – A hotel, which British media reported was being used by members of Germany’s delegation to a Group of Seven summit in England, has closed because members of staff tested positive for COVID-19, its owners said on Thursday.

The Pedn Olva hotel in St Ives, a seaside town adjacent to the location of the three-day G7 leaders’ meeting in Cornwall, southwest England, had shut temporarily on advice from health officials and the local authority, the owners said.

Among the guests were security staff for the German delegation and a media team working for a U.S. broadcaster, Sky News reported.

“Following extensive discussions over the last few days with PHE (Public Health England) and Cornwall Council, we have taken the decision to fully close the hotel,” said a spokesperson for the owners, St Austell Brewery.

“We fully appreciate the inconvenience given the limited accommodation options available in the area at the moment but the safety and security of our team and guests is our upmost priority.”

The spokesperson said the hotel would reopen once a full COVID-19 deep clean had taken place and there were enough staff to run it.

(Reporting by William James and Michael Holden; Editing by William Schomberg)

UK lowers COVID-19 alert status as pressure on hospitals eases

LONDON (Reuters) – The chief medical officers of the United Kingdom lowered their COVID-19 alert level on Thursday, citing a gradual reduction in pressure on the health service.

“Following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Center and in the light of the most recent data, the four UK Chief Medical Officers and NHS England National Medical Director agree that the UK alert level should move from level 5 to level 4 in all four nations,” Britain’s health ministry said in a statement.

Public health services in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland operate separately in most cases.

“The health services across the four nations remain under significant pressure with a high number of patients in hospital, however thanks to the efforts of public we are now seeing numbers consistently declining,” the medical officers added.

(Reporting by Andy Bruce, editing by David Milliken)

‘One-way road to freedom’: Johnson sets out cautious lockdown exit plan

By William James and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a map out of lockdown for England on Monday that would keep some businesses shuttered until the summer, saying caution was necessary to ensure there were no reversals on a “one-way road to freedom”.

After imposing one of the strictest lockdowns in the western world in January to counter a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus, Johnson said Britain was now in a position to enjoy the fruits of one of the world’s fastest vaccine programs.

Starting in two weeks with the reopening of schools, the phased plan will go through four stages, with at least five weeks in between each stage. The final step, when most restrictions will be lifted, will not start until June 21 at the earliest.

Britain and the world would not eliminate COVID-19 altogether, Johnson said. “And we cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children,” Johnson told parliament.

“And that is why it is so crucial that this roadmap is cautious but also irreversible. We’re setting out on, what I hope and believe, is a one-way road to freedom.”

With almost 130,000 fatalities, Britain has suffered the world’s fifth-highest official death toll from the pandemic and its economy has seen its biggest crash in over 300 years.

But in two months it has already managed to provide an initial vaccine dose to more than a quarter of the population, the fastest rollout of any big country, making it a test case for governments worldwide hoping to return life to normal.

Even with encouraging data on the impact of vaccines, the British government’s cautious approach highlights how slow a process it will likely be for many countries.

UNDER PRESSURE

Johnson has come under pressure, including from many in his Conservative Party, to allow more freedoms to millions stuck at home and offer hope to firms forced to close.

Under his plan schools will reopen on March 8, freeing parents who have had to juggle work and home schooling.

However, easing of social mixing bans will initially be limited and the government will ask people to work from home when possible for some weeks until it has completed a review into social distancing at some point before the summer.

At the end of March, a small number of people will be able to mix outdoors, but non-essential shops, and outdoor-only service in restaurants and pubs, will not reopen until April 12 at the earliest.

As the plan unfolds, lawmakers will have a chance to vote on specific steps. Authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are responsible for their own public health, will also ease restrictions over the coming months.

There was mixed reaction from business leaders to the plan. The Confederation of British Industry said it offered hope, but the hospitality industry said it would be hard for many businesses to survive until they could reopen.

“Even with the prime minister’s new roadmap, the future of thousands of firms and millions of jobs still hangs by a thread,” said Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce.

There were widespread calls for finance minister Rishi Sunak to extend support, such as schemes that have paid the salaries of workers sent home because of the pandemic. An announcement will not come until Sunak delivers his budget next month, but Johnson promised not to “pull the rug out”.

“For the duration of the pandemic the government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK,” Johnson told parliament.

SPEEDY VACCINE ROLL-OUT

Johnson, who was treated in intensive care for COVID-19 last year, has been forced to juggle pressure from Conservative lawmakers to restart the economy and from scientific advisers who fear a resurgence of the virus if he unlocks too quickly.

“The message that comes out of all of the modelling is … get (infection) numbers down before you start releasing, go slowly, (and) go in blocks that you can measure the effect of after four or five weeks,” the government’s top science adviser Patrick Vallance told reporters.

England’s vaccine campaign is significantly reducing cases, with a drop of around 70% in infections among healthcare workers who have had a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, health officials said on Monday.

Britain moved faster than most countries to secure vaccine supplies and has been inoculating people rapidly since December, a strategy that has driven sterling higher on hopes of an economic rebound. The pound hit a new three-year high of $1.4050 in early London trading on Monday.

Some 17.7 million Britons, over a quarter of the 67 million population, have now received a first dose, behind only Israel and the United Arab Emirates in vaccinations per capita.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout, Estelle Shirbon, Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton, David Milliken, writing by Michael Holden and Elizabeth Piper, editing by Giles Elgood)

England goes into new COVID-19 lockdown as cases surge

By William Schomberg and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday ordered England into a new national lockdown to try to slow a surge in COVID-19 cases that threatens to overwhelm parts of the health system before a vaccine program reaches a critical mass.

Johnson said a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus was spreading at great speed and urgent action was needed to slow it down.

“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than any time since the start of the pandemic,” Johnson said in a televised address to the country as he ditched his regional approach to fighting the pandemic.

“With most of the country already under extreme measures, it’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control.

“We must therefore go into a national lockdown, which is tough enough to contain this variant. That means the government is once again instructing you to stay at home.”

Johnson said the measures would include school closures from Tuesday and rules requiring most people to stay at home apart from essential shopping, exercise and other limited exceptions.

He said that if the timetable of the vaccination program went as planned and the number of cases and deaths responded to the lockdown measures as expected, it should be possible to start moving out of lockdown by the middle of February.

However, he urged caution about the timetable.

NEW VACCINE LAUNCHED

As Britain grapples with the world’s sixth highest death toll and cases hit a new high, the country’s chief medical officers said the spread of COVID-19 risked overwhelming parts of the health system within 21 days.

The surge in cases has been driven by the new variant of COVID-19, officials say, and while they acknowledge that the pandemic is spreading more quickly than expected, they say there is also light at the end of the tunnel – vaccinations.

Johnson’s government earlier touted a scientific “triumph” as Britain became the first country in the world to start vaccinating its population with Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot.

Dialysis patient Brian Pinker on Monday received the first vaccination outside of a trial.

“I am so pleased to be getting the COVID vaccine today and really proud that it is one that was invented in Oxford,” said the 82-year-old retired maintenance manager, just a few hundred meters from where the vaccine was developed.

But even with the vaccines being rolled out, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths keep rising.

More than 75,000 people in the United Kingdom have died from COVID-19 within 28 days of a positive test since the start of the pandemic. A record 58,784 new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Monday.

Moving a few hours ahead of Johnson, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed the most stringent lockdown for Scotland since last spring.

The devolved administration in Wales said all schools and colleges there should move to online learning until Jan. 18.

(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon, Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Sturgeon orders Scots to stay at home as new variant advances

By Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Scotland on Monday imposed the most stringent COVID-19 lockdown since last March and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would shortly impose tougher curbs in England to contain a rapidly spreading outbreak of a new variant of the coronavirus.

The United Kingdom has the world’s sixth-highest official coronavirus death toll – 75,024 – and the number of new infections is soaring across the country.

As Johnson mulled tougher measures for England, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the new variant accounted for nearly half of new cases in Scotland and is 70% more transmissible.

Scots, she said, would be legally required to stay at home for January from midnight. Schools will close for all but the children of essential workers.

“I am more concerned about the situation that we face now than I have been at any time since March,” Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament.

“As a result of this new variant, (the virus) has just learned to run much faster, and has most definitely picked up pace in the past couple of weeks,” Sturgeon said.

Visiting a hospital to see the first people receive the vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, Johnson said the country faced “tough, tough” weeks to come.

“If you look at the numbers, there’s no question that we’re going to have to take tougher measures and we’ll be announcing those in due course,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the virus really surging.”

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland implement their own COVID-19 responses though they are trying to coordinate more across the United Kingdom.

SCHOOLS

England is currently divided into four tiers of restrictions, depending on the prevalence of the virus, with the vast majority of the country in Tiers 3 and 4 where social mixing is restricted and restaurants and pubs are closed.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier that the rules in Tier 3 were clearly not working.

With England moving back towards the strict lockdown of the first wave in March, Johnson was also asked if schools would have to close once again and return to online learning.

He said that would remain a last resort for primary schools given the social and educational damage that can be done to isolated children.

But he indicated they may need to rethink a plan to reopen secondary schools for pupils aged between 11 and 18.

“It looks as though secondary schools probably play more of a role in the spread of the epidemic than primary schools, so we’ll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later in the month,” he said.

The government has spent the year trying to balance the need to shut down the country to contain the virus without hammering the economy.

The first national coronavirus lockdown in May last year prompted a 25% drop in economic output – unprecedented in modern records – leaving Britain’s economy harder hit by the pandemic than most others.

While the economy recovered partially in the third quarter, renewed lockdown measures threaten to cause a double-dip recession at the start of 2021.

(Reporting by Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge, Andy Bruce; Editing by Sarah Young and Hugh Lawson)

Europe crosses 500,000 COVID-19 deaths as new variant spreads

By Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia

(Reuters) – Europe became the first region worldwide to cross 500,000 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, as a new variant of the coronavirus discovered in Britain threatened the region’s prevention measures to curb the pandemic.

Reports of the mutated variant out of England prompted a pre-Christmas lockdown and have forced dozens of countries to close their borders to British travelers this week.

Italy, the nation with the highest death toll in Europe, on Sunday detected a patient infected with the new variant as have Denmark and France.

To curb the spread, European countries are considering screening passengers on flights from UK and obligating quarantine for travelers upon arrival.

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom became the first nation to approve the Pfizer Inc – BioNTech vaccine followed by the United States, European Union and other countries.

Europe has reported about 30% of the global COVID-19 fatalities and cases so far, according to a Reuters tally.

Europe’s death toll has accelerated in recent months. Since the first COVID-19 death was reported in France in February, it took eight months for the region to reach 250,000 deaths. It took only 60 days for the region to go from 250,000 to 500,000 deaths.

France, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and Russia have reported hundreds of deaths a day and the five countries account for almost 60% of the region’s total fatalities.

Globally there have been 77.52 million cases and 1.71 million deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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)

Second UK lockdown? PM says second wave inevitable, new restrictions possible

By Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton and Andy Bruce

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he did not want another national lockdown but that new restrictions may be needed because the country was facing an “inevitable” second wave of COVID-19.

Ministers were on Friday reported to be considering a second national lockdown, after new COVID-19 cases almost doubled to 6,000 per day, hospital admissions rose and infection rates soared across parts of northern England and London.

That rise in cases was part of a second wave that was now unstoppable, the prime minister said.

“We are now seeing a second wave coming in…It is absolutely, I’m afraid, inevitable, that we will see it in this country,” Johnson told UK media.

Asked about whether the whole of the country should brace for a new lockdown, rather than just local restrictions, he said: “I don’t want to get into a second national lockdown at all.”

But he did not rule out further national restrictions being brought in.

“When you look at what is happening, you’ve got to wonder whether we need to go further than the rule of six that we brought in on Monday,” he said, referring to the ban on gatherings of more than six people.

The United Kingdom has reported the fifth largest number of deaths from COVID-19 in the world, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.

The UK’s official number of new positive cases shot up by nearly a thousand on Friday to 4,322, the highest since May 8, after a separate ONS model pointed to about 6,000 new cases a day in England in the week to Sept. 10.

That was up from modelling of 3,200 cases per day in the previous week, with the North West and London seen as hotspots.

Health Minister Matt Hancock called a second national lockdown a last resort earlier on Friday and when he was asked about it said: “I can’t give you that answer now.”

SPREADING WIDELY ACROSS ALL AGES

The UK said its reproduction “R” number of infections has risen to a range of 1.1-1.4 from last week’s 1.0-1.2.

“We’re seeing clear signs this virus is now spreading widely across all age groups and I am particularly worried by the increase in rates of admission to hospital and intensive care among older people,” said Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at Public Health England.

“This could be a warning of far worse things to come.”

Britain imposed new COVID regulations on the North West, Midlands and West Yorkshire from Tuesday. More than 10 million people in the United Kingdom are already in local lockdown, and restrictions for millions more could be on the way.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said later on Friday that it was “increasingly likely” that additional measures would soon be required in Britain’s biggest city. He said he had seen evidence about the spread of the virus in London which was “extremely” concerning.

COVID-19 cases started to rise again in Britain in September, with between 3,000 and 4,000 positive tests recorded daily in the last week. This is still some way behind France, which is seeing more than 10,000 new cases a day.

“COVID-19 infection rates have increased in most regions, particularly the North West and London,” the ONS said.

The ONS said there had been clear evidence of an increase in the number of people testing positive aged 2 to 11 years, 17 to 24 years and 25 to 34 years.

Johnson was criticized by opposition politicians for his initial response to the outbreak and the government has struggled to ensure sufficient testing in recent weeks.

Asked by LBC radio why the testing system was such a “shambles”, Hancock said Dido Harding, who is in charge of the system, had done an “an extraordinary job.”

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton and Sarah Young; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Mike Collett-White, Philippa Fletcher, William Maclean)

Amazon bucks UK labor market gloom with 7,000 new jobs

LONDON (Reuters) – Amazon brought a little cheer to Britain’s troubled labor market on Thursday, saying it will create a further 7,000 permanent jobs in 2020, taking total new hires this year to 10,000.

Last month the number of people in work in Britain suffered the biggest drop since 2009 and the coronavirus is expected to take a much heavier toll on unemployment when the government winds down its huge job-protection scheme.

The one bright spot however has come from online retail and logistics as orders surged during lockdown. Amazon’s latest recruitment will take its total UK workforce to over 40,000 by the end of the year.

The U.S. internet giant said the 7,000 new roles will be for warehouse workers, as well as engineers, HR and IT professionals and health and safety and finance specialists.

The jobs will be in over 50 sites, including two new distribution centers in the north east and central England and at corporate offices.

It said it needed more staff to meet growing customer demand for its services and to enable small and medium sized enterprises selling on Amazon to scale their businesses.

Amazon has also started recruiting for more than 20,000 seasonal positions across the UK for the festive period.

Last month the Confederation of British Industry said British retailers had cut the most jobs since the depths of the financial crisis and expected the pace of losses to accelerate.

Well-known British retailers Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Debenhams, WH Smith and Dixons Carphone have all announced job cuts in recent weeks, reflecting the rapid shift in demand to online sales.

Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket, said it would create 16,000 permanent roles to meet the surge in home deliveries.

(Reporting by James Davey; editing by Kate Holton)

Think inside the cardboard box for your post-lockdown work station

By Stuart McDill

WELLINGBOROUGH, England (Reuters) – Want to get back to work? Put your staff in a cardboard box.

That is the advice of a British company making social distancing screens from recycled cardboard to help businesses open up after lockdown while keeping staff safe.

“As people have started to come back to work we’ve switched to making a range of distancing-at-work products such as free-standing screens, counter screens and desk partitions,” Iain Hulmes, Chief Executive at Pallite, told Reuters.

The company, 70 miles (112km) northwest of London, used to make recyclable cardboard pallets and boxes for industry but has now developed an entirely new range of products to cope with new workplace demands in the wake of the pandemic including wall screens, desk and table dividers with clear polyester film windows, free-standing signs and even pop-up desks for homeworkers.

“One of our workers at home found that she was struggling to work at home so we created a pop-up desk. That desk has sold over 5000 units in just five weeks with nothing but 5 star reviews,” Hulmes said.

Three sizes of desks, all made from laminated honeycomb paper, can hold 50kg of weight and can be assembled in less than a minute. A desk for an adult costs 26 pounds.

Not far from Pallite’s Wellingborough factory is Concept Conversions who sent all their staff home for the lockdown apart from four people all working in separate rooms.

Director, Ralph Allen, says he is trying to have some fun with themes and colors while using Pallite social distancing measures to keep his staff safe as they return to the office.

“It’s pretty extreme to put your staff into cardboard boxes so the reason for cutting the windows and trimming them in those colours was because I’ve got a Manchester United supporter sitting at my desk and I support Liverpool. Well, that could become Liverpool again couldn’t it?” he said referring to the red trim.

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)