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)

Exclusive: Hong Kong activists discuss ‘parliament-in-exile’ after China crackdown

By Natalie Thomas and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy activists are discussing a plan to create an unofficial parliament-in-exile to keep the flame of democracy alive and send a message to China that freedom cannot be crushed, campaigner Simon Cheng told Reuters.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, was convulsed by months of often violent pro-democracy, anti-China protests last year against Chinese interference in its promised freedoms, the biggest political crisis for Beijing since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Hong Kong police fired water cannon and tear gas and arrested more than 300 people on Wednesday as protesters took to the streets again in defiance of new, sweeping security legislation introduced by China to snuff out dissent.

The law pushes China’s freest city and one of the world’s most glittering financial hubs on to a more authoritarian path. China, which denies interfering in Hong Kong, has warned foreign powers not to meddle in its affairs.

Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen, worked for the British consulate in the territory for almost two years until he fled after he said he was beaten and tortured by China’s secret police. Cheng, who has since been granted asylum by Britain, describes himself as pro-democracy campaigner.

“A shadow parliament can send a very clear signal to Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities that democracy need not be at the mercy of Beijing,” he told Reuters in London. “We want to set up non-official civic groups that surely reflect the views of the Hong Kong people.”

He said that while the idea was still at an early stage, such a parliament-in-exile would support the people of Hong Kong and the pro-democracy movement there. He declined to say where the parliament might sit.

“We are developing an alternative way to fight for democracy,” Cheng said. “We need to be clever to deal with the expanding totalitarianism: they are showing more powerful muscle to suppress so we need to be more subtle and agile.”

He said more and more people were “losing hope that it is effective to go out on to the streets or run for election” to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or mini-parliament.

“We should stand with the Hong Kong people and support those staying in Hong Kong,” he said.

‘VERY GOOD SIGNAL’

Asked about HSBC’s support for the sweeping national security law, Cheng said the British government should speak to senior British capitalists to make them understand the importance of democracy.

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered millions of Hong Kong residents the path to British citizenship following China’s imposition of the law, hundreds of thousands of people would come to the United Kingdom, Cheng said.

“The UK has given a very good signal,” Cheng said. “At least hundreds of thousands of people will come.”

Almost 3 million Hong Kong residents are eligible for the so called British National (Overseas) passport. There were 349,881 holders of the passports as of February, Britain said.

“One day we will be back in Hong Kong,” Cheng said.

Hong Kong returned to China 23 years ago with the guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including its independent legal system and rights to gather and protest, under a “one country, two systems” formula.

Huge protests calling for democracy, especially on the anniversaries of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crackdown, were common and brought major streets to a standstill for 79 days in the Umbrella movement of 2014.

The national security law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, will see mainland security agencies in Hong Kong for the first time and allows extradition to the mainland for trial.

(Reporting by Natalie Thomas, editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Stephen Addison)

UK says some children have died from syndrome linked to COVID-19

By Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) – Some children in the United Kingdom with no underlying health conditions have died from a rare inflammatory syndrome which researchers believe to be linked to COVID-19, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday.

Italian and British medical experts are investigating a possible link between the coronavirus pandemic and clusters of severe inflammatory disease among infants who are arriving in hospital with high fevers and swollen arteries.

Doctors in northern Italy, one of the world’s hardest-hit areas during the pandemic, have reported extraordinarily large numbers of children under age 9 with severe cases of what appears to be Kawasaki disease, more common in parts of Asia.

“There are some children who have died who didn’t have underlying health conditions,” Hancock told LBC Radio.

“It’s a new disease that we think may be caused by coronavirus and the COVID-19 virus, we’re not 100% sure because some of the people who got it hadn’t tested positive, so we’re doing a lot of research now but it is something that we’re worried about.”

Children were until now thought to be much less susceptible than their parents or grandparents to the most deadly complications wrought by the novel coronavirus, though the mysterious inflammatory disease noticed in Britain, Spain and Italy may demand a reassessment.

“It is rare, although it is very significant for those children who do get it, the number of cases is small,” Hancock, one of the ministers leading Britain’s COVID-19 response, said.

He did not give an exact figure for the number of deaths.

Kawasaki disease, whose cause is unknown, is associated with fever, skin rashes, swelling of glands, and in severe cases, inflammation of arteries of the heart.

Britain’s National Health Service says the syndrome only affects about eight in every 100,000 children every year, with most aged under 5.

There is some evidence that individuals can inherit a predisposition to the disease, but the pattern is not clear.

Children either testing positive for COVID-19 or for its antibodies have presented gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea in the last two weeks, the Spanish Pediatric Association said on Monday.

Though the children were otherwise in good health, their condition could evolve within hours into shock, featuring tachycardia and hypotension even without fever.

Most cases were detected in school-age or teenage minors, and sometimes overlapped with Kawasaki disease or toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

Parents should be vigilant, junior British interior minister Victoria Atkins said.

“It demonstrates just how fast moving this virus is and how unprecedented it is in its effect,” Atkins told Sky News.

Professor Anne Marie Rafferty, the president of the Royal College of Nursing, said she had heard reports about the similarity between cases in infants and Kawasaki syndrome.

“Actually there’s far too little known about it and the numbers actually at the moment are really too small,” told Sky News. “But it is an alert, and it’s something that’s actually being explored and examined by a number of different researchers.”

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton in London and Clara-Læïla Laudette in Madrid; editing by Michael Holden and Angus MacSwan)

UK coronavirus deaths rise by 27% to 1,789

UK coronavirus deaths rise by 27% to 1,789
LONDON (Reuters) – The number of deaths from coronavirus in the United Kingdom rose by 27% in the space of a day to 1,789 as of Monday at 1600 GMT, the government said.

The number of confirmed cases rose by 14% to 25,150 as of Tuesday at 0800 GMT, the Department for Health and Social Care said.

(Reporting by Andy Bruce; editing by Stephen Addison)

UK coronavirus death toll rises to 1,408

LONDON (Reuters) – The number of people who have died after testing positive for coronavirus in the United Kingdom rose to 1,408, according to figures released on Monday, an increase of 180, a smaller rise than the previous set of numbers.

The figures are accurate up to 17:00 local time on March 29.

The previous increase saw the death toll rise by 209.

There are a total of 22,141 positive cases as of 0900 local time on March 30, the health ministry said.

(Reporting by Costas Pitas and Paul Sandle; editing by Stephen Addison)

UK to pass law to stop early release of terrorists by February 27: government source

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain plans to pass emergency legislation by Feb. 27 to prevent convicted terrorists automatically being released from prison half-way through their sentence, a government source said on Wednesday.

Justice minister Robert Buckland announced plans for the law earlier this week after an Islamist attacker stabbed two people in London on Sunday. Sudesh Amman had been released from prison half-way through his term on Jan. 23, despite still being considered a risk by authorities.

He was shot dead by police officers who had placed him under covert surveillance.

The new emergency law will be introduced to parliament on Tuesday next week.

“If the legislation is passed by Feb. 27 we can prevent the automatic release of any further terrorist suspects who might pose a threat to the public,” the source said.

“This is emergency legislation which we believe is vital for protecting the public … We cannot continue to be in a position where the state has no power to block the release of terrorists who continue to pose a threat.”

Neil Basu, the country’s top counter-terrorism police officer, welcomed the move to keep the most dangerous offenders locked up for longer but said it was only part of the solution. More had to be done to prevent people becoming radicalized in the first place, he said.

“With 3000 or so subjects of interest currently on our radar and many convicted terrorists soon due to be released from prison, we simply cannot watch all of them, all the time.”

“Early intervention … is absolutely key. We need families, friends, colleagues and local communities to recognize that early intervention is not ruining someone’s life but saving it, and potentially that of others, too,” he said in a statement.

The government has said the legislation will apply to those already in prison, prompting predictions from some opponents that it could be challenged in the courts for breaching human rights law.

“What we are proposing in this emergency legislation is not to retrospectively alter offenders’ sentences as they were imposed by the court,” the government source said.

“This is in relation to release arrangements which are part of the administration of a sentence and it would be our position that you can change those without being considered to breach an offender’s human rights.”

London police chief Cressida Dick said if there were to be changes to sentencing, when offenders were released they needed to be freed on “strong license conditions”.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Dick said there was no evidence at this stage that it was “directed or enabled by anyone else”.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; editing by Michael Holden, Stephen Addison and Hugh Lawson)

Europe to Britain: So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu

ATHENS/MADRID (Reuters) – With sorrow, some support for Brexit and even hope of a return, Europeans from across the EU’s 27 remaining members bade farewell to the United Kingdom on the eve of its historic departure.

The United Kingdom leaves the European Union an hour before midnight on Friday, casting off into an uncertain future that also challenges Europe’s post-World War Two project of forging unity from the ruins of conflict.

“Farewell, bye bye my love!” said Rudolf Stockey, speaking to Reuters in German.

From across Europe, EU citizens wished the United Kingdom the best after 47 years of membership. Some expressed hopes that the British might one day return to the European fold.

“Come back. I have no idea. We are not so different,” said Madrid resident Marcos Leon.

Some expressed concern that one of Europe’s biggest powers was leaving the club.

“I am very sorry that the United Kingdom is exiting. I think it is a very, very bad thing for Europe, for the United Kingdom, for everything,” said Sara Invitto, from Milan. “Goodbye!”

“I think it’s a great waste,” said Belgian Francois Heimans, who expressed worry over populism.

But some in Greece and Poland said the British were doing the right thing.

“Have a good Brexit guys,” said Petros Papakyriakos from Greece. “They are doing what is right for their economy, and I think a lot of countries will follow their lead.”

Gdansk resident Henryk Kulesza said: “It’s good that Great Britain is leaving the European Union. It’s about time. I think that Poland should do the same thing.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Reporting across Europe by Antonio Denti, Emily Roe, Christian Levaux, Ciara Luxton, Deborah Kyvrikosaios, Vassilis Triandafyllou, Lewis Macdonald, Dominik Starosz, Polly Rider, Ben Dadswel; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Northern Ireland prepares for momentous abortion, same-sex marriage changes

Northern Ireland prepares for momentous abortion, same-sex marriage changes
By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST (Reuters) – Campaigners who fought for decades to end Northern Ireland’s same sex-marriage ban and restrictions on abortion prepared on Monday for a momentous change to the laws on both at the stroke of midnight.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that does not allow same-sex marriage. Also, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, laws in Northern Ireland forbid abortion except where a mother’s life is at risk, bans that have been upheld by the region’s block of conservative politicians.

But an overwhelming vote by British lawmakers in July to compel the government in London to overhaul the laws if Belfast’s devolved executive had not been restored by Oct. 21 is set to kick in with little or no hope of politicians ending the local parliament’s near three-year hiatus.

Advocacy groups have planned a number of events on Monday to usher in the changes.

“We are not going to stick with the guilt and the shame any longer. Tomorrow the law changes in this place, and for the first time in Northern Ireland, women will be free,” Pro-choice campaigner Dawn Purvis told a public meeting in Belfast

“Free to choose if, when and how many children they will have in the care of health-care professionals. This is a very emotional day for many here.”

Abortion rights were long opposed in Northern Ireland by religious conservatives in both the Protestant community that supports continued British rule and the Catholic community that favours union with the traditionally Catholic Irish Republic.

Pressure has mounted, however, to change the Victorian-era laws in recent years, particularly after the neighbouring Irish Republic voted overwhelmingly last year to repeal a similarly restrictive ban, demonstrating a stark change in attitudes on an island once known for its religious conservatism.

If a new devolved government is not formed by midnight, abortion will be decriminalised, beginning a consultation on what the framework for services should look like, which is due to be finalised and approved by March 2020.

“This is a bad law being implemented through a bad process leading to bad consequences for both women and unborn children,” said Dawn McAvoy from the anti-abortion Both Lives Matter group.

Opinion has also changed on same-sex marriage. But despite opinion polls showing most in the region in favour, previous attempts to follow the Irish Republic in legalising it have been blocked by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), using a special veto intended to prevent discrimination towards one community over another.

It will take the British parliament until mid-January to bring in the new legislation, setting up Feb. 14, 2020 – Valentine’s Day – as the first opportunity for same-sex couples to marry once they give the required 28-days’ notice.

(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson; Editing by Padraic Halpin, Peter Cooney and Giles Elgood)

U.S., allies urge Facebook not to encrypt messages as they fight child abuse, terrorism

By Joseph Menn, Christopher Bing and Katie Paul

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and allies are seizing on Facebook Inc’s plan to apply end-to-end encryption across its messaging services to press for major changes to a practice long opposed by law enforcement, saying it hinders the fight against child abuse and terrorism.

The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia plan to sign a special data agreement on Thursday that would fast track requests from law enforcement to technology companies for information about the communications of terrorists and child predators, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

Law enforcement could get information in weeks or even days instead of the current wait of six months to two years, one document said.

The agreement will be announced alongside an open letter to Facebook and its Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, calling on the company to suspend plans related to developing end-to-end encryption technology across its messaging services.

The latest tug-of-war between governments and tech companies over user data could also impact Apple Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, as well as smaller encrypted chat apps like Signal.

Washington has called for more regulation and launched anti-trust investigations against many tech companies, criticizing them over privacy lapses, election-related activity and dominance in online advertising.

Child predators have increasingly used messaging applications, including Facebook’s Messenger, in the digital age to groom their victims and exchange explicit images and videos. The number of known child sexual abuse images has soared from thousands to tens of millions in just the past few years.

Speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday, Associate Attorney General Sujit Raman said the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 18 million tips of online child sex abuse last year, over 90% of them from Facebook.

He estimated that up to 75% of those tips would “go dark” if social media companies like Facebook were to go through with encryption plans.

Facebook said in a statement that it strongly opposes “government efforts to build backdoors,” which it said would undermine privacy and security.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, told Reuters the company was looking at ways to prevent inappropriate behavior and stop predators from connecting with children.

This approach “offers us an opportunity to prevent harms in a way that simply going after content doesn’t,” she said.

In practice, the bilateral agreement would empower the UK government to directly request data from U.S. tech companies, which remotely store data relevant to their own ongoing criminal investigations, rather than asking for it via U.S. law enforcement officials.

The effort represents a two-pronged approach by the United States and its allies to pressure private technology companies while making information sharing about criminal investigations faster.

A representative for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.

Susan Landau, a professor of cybersecurity and policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said disputes over encryption have flared on-and-off since the mid-1990s.

She said government officials concerned with fighting child abuse would be better served by making sure investigators had more funding and training.

“They seem to ignore the low-hanging fruit in favor of going after the thing they’ve been going after for the past 25 years,” she said.

The letter addressed to Zuckerberg and Facebook comes from U.S. Attorney General William Barr, UK Secretary of State for the Home Department Priti Patel and Australian Minister of Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

“Our understanding is that much of this activity, which is critical to protecting children and fighting terrorism, will no longer be possible if Facebook implements its proposals as planned,” the letter reads.

“Unfortunately, Facebook has not committed to address our serious concerns about the impact its proposals could have on protecting our most vulnerable citizens.”

WhatsApp’s global head Will Cathcart wrote in a public internet forum https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21100588 on Saturday that the company “will always oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would weaken the security of everyone who uses WhatsApp including governments themselves.”

That app, which is already encrypted, is also owned by Facebook.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn and Katie Paul in San Francisco and Christopher Bing in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Brexit ‘inferno’ lays bare a divided United Kingdom

By Guy Faulconbridge and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – The fury of Britain’s Brexit “inferno” is so intense that it could encourage violence unless politicians tone down their rhetoric, the husband of a lawmaker murdered a week before the 2016 EU referendum said on Thursday.

Parliament reached boiling point on Wednesday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his opponents engaged in hours of vitriolic argument over Brexit, with lawmakers hurling allegations of betrayal and abuse of power across the chamber.

Jo Cox, a 41-year-old parliamentarian from the opposition Labour Party, was murdered on June 16, 2016 by Thomas Mair, a loner obsessed with Nazis and extreme right-wing ideology. She was the mother of two young children.

Cox’s husband Brendan said he was shocked by the inflammatory language on display and both sides should ponder the impact of the words they used.

When asked how his late wife might have responded, Cox said: “She would have tried to take a generosity of spirit to it and thought about how at this moment you can step back from this growing inferno of rhetoric.”

“To descend into this bear pit of polarization is dangerous for our country,” he told the BBC. “It creates an atmosphere where violence and attacks are more likely.”

Brexit has illustrated a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union and has fueled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and Britishness itself.

The rage and ferocity of the Brexit debate have shocked allies of a country that has prided itself as a confident – and mostly tolerant – pillar of Western economic and political stability.

Cox was clear that the language across the Brexit schism was troubling and that the United Kingdom needed to come together rather than tear itself apart.

Some on both sides of the debate are now using the politics of contrived outrage to argue their point. Johnson says parliament is betraying the will of the people over Brexit, while opponents cast him a dictator who has ridden roughshod over democracy to take the United Kingdom to the brink of ruin.

Parliamentary speaker John Bercow told lawmakers to stop treating each other as enemies, saying the atmosphere in the House of Commons was the worst he had known since he was elected 22 years ago.

“The culture was toxic,” Bercow said in parliament.

BREXIT SCHISM

Johnson returned to the chamber on Wednesday after the Supreme Court ruled that his decision to suspend parliament earlier this month was unlawful.

He goaded his opponents either to bring down the government or get out of the way to allow him to deliver Brexit. His opponents roared “resign” and some cast him as a cheating dictator who should stand aside after the court ruling.

Johnson provoked anger by repeatedly calling a law that forces him to ask the EU for a Brexit delay unless he can strike a deal as “the Surrender Bill”. Speaking to Conservative lawmakers on Thursday, he defended his use of the term and received support from the party.

Johnson told the 1922 Committee: “It IS a surrender act,” arguing that it hurt Britain’s negotiating stance with the EU. The prime minister added that he took threats to lawmakers very seriously.

But some were still furious over his response on Wednesday to a question about Jo Cox.

Labour’s Paula Sherriff told the House she had received death threats, some of which echoed the prime minister’s own rhetoric. Johnson replied: “I have never heard so much humbug in my life”, sparking uproar.

It was not just politicians who were angry. Johnson’s own sister Rachel described her brother’s words as a “particularly tasteless” way to refer to the memory of a murdered lawmaker.

“Words like collaborationist, traitor, betrayal, my brother using words like surrender, capitulation, as if the people who are standing in the way of the blessed will of the people as defined by 17.4 million votes in 2016 should be hung, drawn, quartered, tarred and feathered,” she told Sky News.

“I think that it highly reprehensible language to use.”

In the 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, voted to remain.

But after more than three years of crisis since then, it remains unclear how, when or even whether the country will leave the bloc it joined in 1973.

Nicholas Soames, grandson of Britain’s World War Two leader Winston Churchill, said the atmosphere in the chamber was the most poisonous he could remember in 37 years in parliament. “I despair, to be frank,” Soames, 71, said.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Andrew MacAskill, Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood)