24.09.2020

England, Gyms, pools and open-air concerts get go-ahead this month

The announcement came as the IFS warned it would be “decades” before the UK restores its national debt to pre-coronavirus levels, after Rishi Sunak unveiled his £30bn “mini budget”, slashing stamp duty and VAT, and doling out 50 per cent-off restaurant vouchers to the entire population.

The UK’s coronavirus lockdown has been eased further as outdoor arts performances, gyms and indoor swimming pools are set to return this month, culture secretary Oliver Dowden has announced.

Outdoor theatre, opera, music and dance events are to be permitted with socially-distanced audiences in England from 11 July, while indoor pools, gyms and other sports facilities will follow on 25 July.

Good morning, we’ll be using this live blog to follow the latest developments of the coronavirus pandemic.

Global coronavirus cases top 12 million​

Global coronavirus cases have exceeded 12 million, according to a Reuters tally, as evidence mounts of the airborne spread of the disease that has killed more than half a million people in seven months, Gayle Issa reports.

The number of cases is triple that of severe influenza illnesses recorded annually, according to the World Health Organisation, and the US accounts for a quarter of the total caseload.

Many hard-hit countries have eased lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of the novel virus, while others, such as China and Australia, have implemented another round of shutdowns in response to a resurgence in infections.

Experts have said alterations to work and social life could last until a vaccine is available. The first case was reported in China in early January and it took 149 days for the tally to hit 6 million cases. It has taken less than a third of that time to double to 12 million cases, the tally shows.

There have been more than 546,000 deaths linked to the virus so far, within the same range as the number of yearly influenza deaths reported worldwide.

Thousands of EU nationals ‘barred from government support during pandemic’

According to research, thousands of EU nationals have been barred from accessing government support over the past year, and the figure is likely to have increased “dramatically” in recent months amid the coronavirus crisis, our social affairs correspondent May Bulman reports.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank found large numbers of EU migrants applying for universal credit were rejected because of the government’s “flawed” habitual residence test (HRT) – which requires claimants to prove they have a settled home in the UK.

To claim universal credit, EU citizens must show they are habitually resident in Britain through the HRT, and in doing so prove their “right to reside”, which depends on factors including work history, whether they have children in school and the circumstances of any partner.

The report states the test has “considerable flaws” and imposes “unnecessary hardship” on claimants due to challenges in providing the correct documentation and proving employment in the UK is “genuine and effective”.

An analysis of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures by the think tank showed around 45,000 universal credit claims were closed because of HRT failures in the last 12 months of available data. This accounted for about 10 per cent of all those who took the test, around half of whom are estimated to be EU citizens.

The report states the number of claims will likely have increased “dramatically” due to Covid-19, meaning thousands are likely going without government support and facing unnecessary financial hardship.

Sunak admits significant job losses still possible

“We’ve moved through the acute phase of the crisis where large swathes of the economy were closed. We’re now fortunately able to safely reopen parts of our economy, that’s the most important thing that we can do to get things going,” Rishi Sunak told Sky News.

“But we won’t know the exact shape of that recovery for a little while – how will people respond to the new freedoms of being able to go out and about again. We have to rediscover behaviours that we’ve essentially unlearned over the last few months.

“But unless activity returns to normal, those jobs are at risk of going which is why we acted in the way that we did.”

The chancellor added that the UK was “entering into a very significant recession”, saying: “We acted at the beginning of this crisis to protect as many businesses and jobs as we could, with initiatives like the furlough scheme and the unprecedented support that we have provided to business.

“We did that so that when we emerged from the other side of this crisis we could bounce back as strongly as possible. Now that we’re there we want to try and make that recovery as strong as it could be, which is why having people out and about, back in restaurants, moving house, renovating homes, installing energy efficiency measures in homes.”

But he conceded: “There are going to be difficult times ahead and… there are forecasts for people predicting significant levels of unemployment. That weighs very heavily on me.”

Jess Philips: ‘We need to think beyond a rolling six-month deadline’

The Labour MP writes for Independent Voices:

What we have to ensure is that after the six-month injection of investment into youth unemployment and cheap dinner dates, we don’t just see a cliff edge for young people and those on casual contracts to fall off,

“I know a pandemic might have come as a bit of a shock, and so a reactionary crisis mode in some areas cannot be helped, but for a long time, there has been a need to address the issue of temporary, casual, agency employment that leaves too few people, young and old alike, being able to plan properly for their futures, let alone save for them.

“The government has, throughout the crisis, been too slow to plan – from the care home crisis, the lack of PPE and children still largely out of school, to a slow and not very steady test, track and trace system. Thinking ahead and planning for what happens next seems to have given way at every stage to patching up crises and looking around for someone else to blame.

“There is a real need for us to think about what the future holds, and think beyond a rolling six-month deadline.”

Sunak has given ‘a lot of excuses’ for not offering more people economic support, shadow chancellor says

Anneliese Dodds told BBC Breakfast: “Two things need to change, first of all we shouldn’t still be having this ‘computer says no’ response from the chancellor.

“Whenever these matters have been raised he said there is a need for speed when the different systems were set up, the furlough scheme and the self-employed scheme, that you can’t possibly include everyone at the beginning and he repeated that again yesterday.

“I’ve said to him and Labour said back to him that these systems have been created now, there is more scope in the system to be fitting them to people’s circumstances.”

She added: “It’s a complicated area but it’s not beyond the wit of man to sort out solutions to this.”

Businesses will have to make ‘really tough decisions’ as furlough starts to wind down in August

While many businesses will welcome the measures, “he will also need to keep an open mind about what further investment he might need to make in order to actually get the economy going again in the months to come”, said co-director of the British Chamber of Commerce, Hannah Essex.

He needs to look at retraining and re-skilling those who currently work in sectors that won’t recover for some time, Ms Essex told Sky News, “so the re-skilling agenda is just as important as bringing people into the workplace in the first place”.

Asked about her concerns once the furlough scheme starts to wind down, Ms Essex replied: “The furlough scheme’s going to start costing businesses money from the start of August so they will have to make some really tough decisions about what they do in the long-term, and for some businesses if they’re not even open yet, so they can’t even predict what their kind of income is going to be over the months ahead.

“What we’ve suggested to the chancellor is that he needs to look at the overall cost of employment, and potentially reduce the employer contribution, for example, to national insurance … which might help to save more jobs.”

£1,000-post furlough bonus is a ‘dead weight’, Sunak admits

The chancellor has said the £1,000 bonus being offered to businesses that keep furloughed staff in jobs until January would be a “dead weight” cost, in that some employers who intend to retain workers anyway would benefit.

Rishi Sunak told the Today programme: “Throughout this crisis I’ve had decisions to make and whether to act in a broad way at scale and at speed or to act in a more targeted and nuanced way.

“In an ideal world, you’re absolutely right, you would minimise that dead weight and do everything in incredibly targeted fashion. The problem is the severity of what was happening to our economy, the scale of what was happening, and indeed the speed that it was happening at demanded a different response.”

He said that “without question there will be dead weight – and there has been dead weight in all of the interventions we have put in place”

Neo-Nazis telling followers to ‘deliberately infect’ Jews and Muslims with coronavirus, report warns

Research by the Commission for Countering Extremism said groups of all kinds had been seeking to “breed hate” and spread conspiracy theories feeding into their worldview, our home affairs correspondent Lizzie Dearden reports.

“We have heard reports of British far-right activists and neo-Nazi groups promoting anti-minority narratives by encouraging users to deliberately infect groups, including Jewish communities; and of Islamists propagating anti-democratic and anti-western narratives, claiming that Covid-19 is divine punishment from Allah on the west for their alleged ‘degeneracy’,” said a report published on Thursday.

“Islamists have also claimed that Covid-19 is punishment on China for their treatment of Uighur Muslims. Other conspiracy theories suggest the virus is part of a Jewish plot or that 5G is to blame.”

The Independent has seen numerous posts on far-right social media channels celebrating reports of disproportionately high black and ethnic minority deaths from coronavirus in the UK.

Up to 1,600 jobs could be lost as Burger King may close one in 10 UK outlets

The boss of Burger King UK has warned that that up to 1,600 jobs could be lost as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Sarah Young reports.

Around 370 of the restaurant chain’s 530 UK stores have reopened since the nation went into lockdown. However, Alasdair Murdoch, chief executive of Burger King UK, has suggested the company may have to permanently close up to 10 per cent of its outlets due to economic damage stemming from the crisis.

Speaking to BBC Newcast, Murdoch said: “We don’t want to lose any [jobs]. We try very hard not to, but one’s got to assume somewhere between five per cent and 10 per cent of the restaurants might not be able to survive. It’s not just us – I think this applies to everyone out there in our industry.”

Most of 3,000 people quarantined for days in tower blocks to be allowed to go outside

Since Saturday, some 3,000 people have been locked down in nine tower blocks in Australia after an outbreak of coronavirus was discovered.

Amid widespread outcry, Victoria state has now confirmed that it will relax restrictions on many stuck inside the buildings, despite Covid-19 cases continuing to surge.

State premier Daniel Andrews said on Thursday that after testing all 3,000 people in the towers, residents in eight of the high-rise buildings would be allowed to leave their homes for essential reasons, the same rules in force throughout the state, which went back into lockdown on Wednesday.

“There are such numbers of positive cases, together with known close contacts, that the assumption has got to be that everybody in that tower is a close contact of someone who is positive,” Mr Andrews said of the tower that will remain in lockdown.

The relaxation of the rules relieved residents, many of whom have said they have been left without sufficient food and supplies.

“I can’t keep my kids anymore inside. I can’t, whether they shoot me or not. I don’t think I can stay any more here, not allowed even an hour to play outside,” Reuters heard from Amina Yussuf, an Australian citizen of Somali descent who lives with her seven children in two-bedroom apartment in one of the Melbourne towers for which the strict lockdown is ending.

Rishi Sunak warns ‘hardship lies ahead’ and apologises to those left out of his mini-budget

The chancellor also risked controversy by claiming it would hurt workers to leave them “just sitting there on furlough”, as he defended axing the job retention scheme in the autumn, our deputy political editor Rob Merrick reports.

“We are not doing those people any favours by not allowing them to get the skills they need to find a new opportunity – just sitting there on furlough forever means their skills fade,” he insisted.

The comment came as the self-employed and freelancers warned of being left without income, while the automotive industry said it was “bitterly disappointed” not to receive extra help.

Speaking after his mini-Budget – which unveiled job-saving wage subsidies, a VAT cut for hospitality and tourism and a stamp duty cut – the chancellor acknowledged not everybody would be rescued.

“Have we been able to help everyone in exactly the way they would have wanted, I’m sure not,” Mr Sunak admitted, on BBC Breakfast “For that I’m sorry.” And he added: “This has been a period of extreme hardship for many people – and, indeed, hardship lies ahead. This is a difficult time for our economy.”

Government has acted as ‘one team’ throughout crisis, Rishi Sunak insists

Asked whether if ministers dealt with the crisis differently and instilled confidence in people, he would not have to make economic interventions, the Chancellor told Times Radio: “I think we’re one team, we approach these things together.

“I think it’s entirely reasonable for people to be anxious about going out again because we’ve shut things down and that was the right thing to do.”

Yemen cemetery struggles to keep up with demand for graves as coronavirus spreads

In Yemen’s Taiz, cemetery supervisor Dabwan al-Makhlaafi has had to hire mechanical diggers to keep up with demand for new graves at a cemetery originally built for fallen government fighters, as coronavirus spreads through the war-torn country. “Workers were not able to keep up with the digging, burial and finishing of the graves,” said Makhlaafi, a former member of parliament.

The burials at Taiz illustrate the heavy toll that the pandemic has wrought on Yemen, which lacks adequate testing capabilities and health infrastructure.

The Saudi-backed government based in the south has reported 1,303 cases, including 348 deaths. The Houthi movement, which controls most large urban centres after ousting the government from the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, has not provided figures since 16 May when it said there were four cases and one death.

The United Nations has said the virus is circulating undetected and infections are likely much higher. A government health ministry spokesperson said it reported figures daily and “nothing was hidden”. A Houthi spokesperson did not respond to calls.

Coronavirus can cause immune system to attack brain, study suggests

A small German study may have uncovered the mechanism by which coronavirus appears to trick the body into attacking the brain – an outcome suspected by some scientists due to the various neurological problems seen in some severe cases, such as tremors, seizures and impaired consciousness.

It appears that patients’ immune systems are producing what are known as autoantibodies that mistakenly target a person’s own tissues or organs, researchers said on Monday in advance of a peer review.

“Remarkably, all 11 patients examined in the present study had strong autoantibodies targeting the brain, which are not normally found in cerebrospinal fluid of healthy people,” study co-author Dr Christiana Franke of Charité – Berlin’s largest university hospital – told Reuters.

The absence of other explanations for the neurological problems suggests these autoantibodies are to blame, she added.

Scotland announces list of 57 countries exempt from quarantine – and Spain isn’t on it

The list is nearly identical to the one issued by the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) concerning arrivals into England, but with two omissions: Spain and Serbia, Helen Coffey reports.

Previously, a “double lock” prevented nearly all international travel: the Foreign Office (FCO) advised against all non-essential travel abroad, invalidating travel insurance, and a mandatory 14-day quarantine period was imposed on all inbound arrivals to the UK.

From 10 July, the quarantine will be lifted for those travelling to Scotland from designated “travel corridor” destinations. However, there is a separate list of 67 countries exempt from the FCO travel warning as of 4 July – and the two are not the same. Only 46 destinations can be found on both lists.

Travel industry leaders in Scotland have called for Spain to be included on the list of destinations exempt from quarantine. Derek Provan, chief executive of AGS Airports, which owns Glasgow and Aberdeen airports, said the requirement for those entering Scotland from Spain to self-isolate would affect 60 per cent of its leisure flights.

Trump’s Tulsa rally was ‘likely’ source of surge of coronavirus cases, health official says

Tulsa City-County Health Department director Dr Bruce Dart said on Wednesday that the 20 June event, which thousands attended, “more than likely” contributed to a sudden increase in Covid-19 cases, Gino Spocchia reports.

The department documented 261 new cases on Monday – a one-day record high – and another 206 cases on Tuesday, in comparison to 76 and 96 cases on the Monday and Tuesday prior to president Trump’s event.

“In the past few days, we’ve seen almost 500 new cases, and we had several large events just over two weeks ago, so I guess we just connect the dots,” said Dr Dart.
Some 6,200 people attended Mr Trump’s event at the 19,000-seat BOK Centre arena in June – with Covid-19 concerns an apparent deterrent for some.

Stay the hell away, Europeans tell British tourists

New YouGov polling suggests those in European countries are more likely to be opposed to receiving British tourists than those from other nations on the continent.

However, visitors from the US and China remain at the top of the lists for most countries, including the UK, despite the virus appearing to be far more under control in China than the US, which now accounts for a quarter of the world’s identified cases.

1,300 jobs at risk as John Lewis closes 8 stores

Eight John Lewis stores will not reopen after the pandemic, including two major stores in Birmingham and Watford, leading to the likely loss of 1,300 jobs, the retail firm’s management has said.

The other stores to close include two small hubs at Heathrow Airport and St Pancras railway station, and four At Home shops.

“We believe closures are necessary to help us secure the sustainability of the partnership – and continue to meet the needs of our customers however and wherever they want to shop,” said Sharon White, chair of the John Lewis Partnership.

First time buyers will be left ‘worse off’ by Rishi Sunak’s stamp duty axe, think-tank warns

House prices will rise as some of the tax break is captured by sellers, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned – which will punish first time buyers already largely exempt from the levy, our deputy political editor Rob Merrick reports.

“This is a group that might actually be made worse off by the policy,” said Helen Miller, the IFS’s deputy director.

She added that it may push up house prices, saying: “Although it’s buyers who are formally required to hand over stamp duty, the effect of stamp duty can be passed through to sellers. So when there is a tax break that can lead to the price of houses going up.”

The move was likely to boost activity in the housing market, although pent-up demand generated during the lockdown may mean that a stimulus was not necessarily needed at this point and could have been more effective at a later date.

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