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)

Russia warns UK and U.S. not to tempt fate in Black Sea

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia warned Britain and the United States on Friday against “tempting fate” by sending warships to the Black Sea, and said it would defend its borders using all possible means including military force.

In a statement broadcast on state television, the Defense Ministry said it was ill-advised for British and U.S. vessels to approach the coast of Crimea, a peninsula Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

“We call on the Pentagon and the British navy, which are sending their warships into the Black Sea, not to tempt fate in vain,” Major General Igor Konashenkov, the ministry’s spokesperson, said.

HMS Defender, a British destroyer that sailed through waters off Crimea on Wednesday, was “not more than a target” for the Black Sea fleet’s defenses, he said.

Russia considers Crimea part of its territory, but the peninsula is internationally recognized as part of Ukraine.

Russia said on Wednesday it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British warship to chase it out of Black Sea waters off the coast of Crimea.

Britain rejected Russia’s account of the incident. It said it believed any shots fired were a pre-announced Russian “gunnery exercise”, and that no bombs had been dropped.

It confirmed HMS Defender had sailed through what it said were waters belonging to Ukraine.

The British embassy in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgian the South Caucasus, wrote on Twitter on Friday that HMS Defender was set to arrive in the port city of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said separately that Washington and London were sowing strife by failing to accept Crimea was part of Russia, and that Russia was ready to defend its borders using all means, including military force.

Moscow warned Britain on Thursday that it would bomb British naval vessels in the Black Sea if what it called provocative actions by the British navy were repeated off the Crimean coast.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said separately on Friday that it was beginning joint navy and air force exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, where Moscow operates an air base on Syria’s coast.

(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Alexander Marrow and Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Editing by Katya Golubkova, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK removes Portugal from safe travel list in blow for airlines

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain has removed Portugal from its quarantine-free travel list, the country’s transport minister said on Thursday, essentially shutting down the UK’s leisure travel market and deepening the pandemic crisis for airlines.

Airline easyJet also said no new countries would be added to the so-called green list.

Britain relaunched travel on May 17 following more than four months of lockdown, with Portugal the only big destination open to UK travelers.

Transport Minister Grant Shapps told reporters that Portugal would be moved to the amber list due to rising COVID-19 case numbers and the risk of a mutation of the virus variant first discovered in India.

Over the last three weeks, Portugal has proved a lifeline for airlines and travel companies. The industry had been expecting a wider reopening this month, but instead will face weeks of cancellations and more uncertainty.

“This decision essentially cuts the UK off from the rest of the world,” easyJet said in an emailed statement.

The airline also said that the UK would be left behind as governments across Europe start to open up travel.

Shares in easyJet and British Airways-owner IAG and Jet2 were down 5%, while Ryanair and TUI, which has a big German customer base as well as British, lost 4% on fears that Europe would lose another peak travel season, when millions of Britons usually head to southern Europe in July and August.

The industry is already weakened by 15 months of lockdowns and it will be severely financially challenged if there is no reopening this summer.

Many companies had hoped for bumper trading given that Britain has one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates and is gradually reopening its domestic economy.

But worries over the spread of new more transmissible variants of coronavirus and the vaccine’s efficacy against them are now threatening that plan.

Data provided by Cirium showed that Ryanair and easyJet had been scheduled to operate over 500 flights from the UK to Portugal in June. The airlines had all added flights to the country in May.

Under the UK system, travel to countries rated amber or red is not illegal but it is discouraged. Spain, France, Italy and the United States are on the amber list which means quarantining on return, restricting demand from Britons for what are usually the most popular destinations.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had warned the travel industry that protecting the country’s vaccine roll-out was his priority.

“I want you to know we will have no hesitation in moving countries from the green list to the amber list to the red list if we have to do so. The priority is to continue the vaccine rollout, to protect the people of this country,” he told reporters.

Travel companies and airlines have criticized the government for being overly cautious, saying that increasing vaccination rates and testing can make travel safe.

(Reporting by William James and Sarah Young, Editing by Paul Sandle, Kate Holton and Andrew Heavens and Kirsten Donovan)

Delta variant dominant in UK, may increase risk of hospitalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

France imposes quarantine on UK visitors ahead of summer tourist season

By Matthieu Protard

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

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

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

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

The measures are expected to come into force on Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK daily COVID cases highest in a month, Indian variant rising sharply

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain reported its highest daily total of new coronavirus infections in a month while cases of a variant of concern first found in India continue to climb, official statistics showed on Thursday.

The overall incidence of infections in Britain is still low, while the number of people in hospital with COVID-19 fell to its lowest level since September on Thursday.

But clusters of the B.1.617.2 variant, believed to be more transmissible than the dominant Kent variant, are growing quickly, and could derail Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to reopen England’s economy by the summer.

British cases of the B.1.617.2 variant first found in India have risen to 3,424, up by 2,111 compared to comparable figures last week, Public Health England said.

It also represents a steep rise compared to figures given on Wednesday, when Health Minister Matt Hancock said there had been 2,967 cases of the variant.

“PHE will continue to monitor all variants closely, paying particular attention to the impact on hospitalizations and deaths which will help us to understand the protective effects of the vaccine,” said Meera Chand, COVID-19 Incident Director at PHE.

Britain reported 2,874 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the highest daily figure for new cases since April 19

The uptick comes as Johnson eases restrictions in England, and as a quick rollout of vaccines decouples the link between case numbers and hospitalizations and deaths.

On Thursday, the total number of patients in hospital fell below 900 for the first time since September.

Britain recorded another 7 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test, and the statistics portal showed 37.25 million people had been given a first dose of vaccine.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Kate Holton and Giles Elgood)

Italy lifts COVID quarantine for EU, UK and Israel from Sunday

ROME (Reuters) -Italy will scrap mandatory quarantine from Sunday for visitors from the European Union, Britain and Israel who test negative for COVID-19, the government said on Friday as it looks to give summer tourism a boost.

With vaccine roll-outs picking up pace in the EU, more countries are looking to ease travel curbs and restrictions on the hospitality sector to help it recover from the pandemic.

“We have been waiting for this move for a long time and it anticipates a Europe-wide travel pass,” Tourism Minister Massimo Garavaglia.

The EU plans to start a unified system recording COVID-19 vaccinations, tests and recovery from June to allow more movement.

People entering Italy from these countries have so far been requested to quarantine for five days and test both before arrival as well as at the end of their isolation period.

Quarantine for other countries, including the United States, is longer.

Entry restrictions on those coming from Brazil will remain in place, the health ministry said.

The government also extended the so-called COVID-tested flights to cover some destinations in Canada, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. There will be no quarantine for those who test negative upon arrival on these routes, as well as on certain flights to Rome, Milan, Naples and Venice.

Although asked to supply a negative swab before travelling, passengers of these flights will be tested upon arrival and, if negative, exempted from quarantine.

Travel between Italy and much the rest of the world has been severely restricted for months as the government sought to contain resurgent coronavirus infections.

However, cases have declined steadily in recent weeks thanks in part to an increasingly effective vaccination campaign.

The national health institute (ISS) said on Friday the “R” reproduction number had fallen to 0.86 from 0.89 a week earlier. An “R” rate above 1 indicates that infections will grow exponentially.

Italy has recorded nearly 124,000 deaths due to coronavirus, the second-highest number in Europe after Britain. As of Monday, 19 of Italy’s 20 regions will be designated as “low-infection” zones and only one as a “medium-risk” one.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government is also due to discuss on Monday easing or abolishing Italy’s nationwide 10 p.m. curfew.

(Reporting by Maria Pia Quaglia and Angelo Amante, editing by Giulia Segreti and Gabriela Baczynska)

COVID variant ‘taking over’ UK and likely to dominate elsewhere: expert

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A coronavirus variant first found a few months ago in Britain is now “taking over” and causing 98% of all cases in the UK, the scientist leading the country’s variant-tracking research said on Thursday.

Sharon Peacock said the UK variant, known as B.1.1.7, also appears to be gaining a firm grip in many of the 100 or so other countries it has spread to in the past few months.

“It’s around 50% more transmissible – hence its success in really taking over the country,” said Peacock, director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium of scientists monitoring mutations in the coronavirus.

“We now know that it has spread across the UK and causes nearly all of the cases of COVID-19 – about 98%,” she told an online briefing for Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine.

“It appears to be the case that the other variants are not getting a foothold in this country.”

The B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in September 2020, has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively high number of changes – and is thought by experts to be 40%-70% more transmissible than previously dominant variants.

Peacock also noted data released on Wednesday from a UK study which found that B.1.1.7 has “significantly higher” mortality, with death rates among those infected with it between 30% and 100% greater than among those infected with previous variants.

“There is a small increase in the likelihood of death from the variant,” she said.

The World Health Organization says B.1.1.7 is one of several “variants of concern,” along with others that have emerged in South Africa and Brazil. The variants are mutant versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, which has already killed more than 2.7 million people in the pandemic.

B.1.1.7 has spread to about 100 countries, according to WHO data, and some of those, including France, Denmark and the United States, have reported swift rises in the proportion of their COVID-19 cases being caused by it.

Peacock said evidence from the UK suggests B.1.1.7. is likely to become dominant elsewhere too.

“Because of its transmissibility, once it’s introduced, it does have that advantage over other circulating variants – so it is the case that B.1.1.7 appears to be travelling around the world and really expanding where it lands.”

Public Health England (PHE) also said on Thursday that a new coronavirus variant had been identified in the UK in two people who had recently been in Antigua. PHE said it shared some traits of other variants but was not classed as concerning for now.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, Editing by William Maclean)

UK to prioritize next stage of COVID-19 vaccines by age, not job

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – Police and teachers will not jump to the head of the queue in the second phase of Britain’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout, with people instead prioritized by age, officials advising the government said on Friday, describing this as the best way to keep up the pace of immunizations.

Britain’s vaccine program has been among the fastest in the world, meeting a government target to offer a first dose of vaccination to 15 million high-risk people by mid-February.

Some frontline workers such as police and teachers had been calling for prioritization on the basis of their jobs, but Professor Wei Shen Lim, COVID-19 chairman for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), said such an approach could complicate the rollout.

“Following an age-based program will be simple, and simplicity has been one of the cornerstones of the current program in terms of speed and its success,” he told a news conference.

Britain aims to complete the first phase of its vaccine rollout by mid-April.

While the priority list for that phase was largely determined by age, with all over-50s set to be offered a vaccine, health and care workers and clinically vulnerable people have also been prioritized.

Announcing the prioritization list for phase 2, Lim said all those aged between 40-49 would be next in line for the shot, then those aged 30-39, then those aged 18-29.

The JCVI said that an age-based approach remained the most effective way of reducing death and hospitalization from COVID-19, even in those under 50. Giving shots by job would be logistically complex and could result in delays, it said.

The government said it would follow the recommended approach, but not everyone welcomed the advice.

John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation of England & Wales, said it was “a contemptible betrayal of police officers.”

“Their anger is palpable, this will not be forgotten.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Michael Holden, Elizabeth Piper and Frances Kerry)