Covid-19 News In Brief

Overtaken by events? Here is a compendium of our coronavirus News Bites during the past two months.

Oxford/AZ vaccine to undergo new global trial
The Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine will undergo a new global trial as critics questioned the claim that it could protect up to 90 per cent of people against coronavirus. On Thursday Sir John Bell, Oxford’s regius professor of medicine and the UK government’s life sciences adviser, dismissed suggestions the previous trial had not been properly set up or reported. “We weren’t cooking this up as we went along,” he said, adding that he hoped the full, peer-reviewed data would be published in the Lancet medical journal at the weekend. In spite of the public excitement generated by the announcement that a third vaccine had been successful – with particular promise for developing countries as it is relatively cheap and can be stored at fridge temperature – AstraZeneca’s share price dropped. The Guardian, November 26

UK regulator to assess Oxford Covid jab
The government has asked the regulator to assess the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, bringing the UK a step closer to a possible rollout. The referral to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency marked “a significant first step” in getting the vaccine “approved for deployment”, the government said. It follows news that the jab was “highly effective” in advanced trials. The UK government has pre-ordered 100m doses of the Oxford vaccine. The government’s latest request to the MHRA comes a week after the regulator was asked to assess the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. BBC news, November 27

PM facing big backbench revolt over Covid tiers
Boris Johnson is facing a big Tory backlash over the decision to place 99 per cent of England into tough new Covid-19 restrictions, as MPs claim the system was arbitrary and not backed by evidence. Conservative MPs warned that the prime minister faced a major rebellion by up to 70 backbenchers when the House of Commons votes on the new regime next Tuesday, hours before it is due to come into effect on Wednesday. Robert Jenrick, communities secretary, insisted on Friday that the new system – expected to be backed by Labour – of tier allocations were “not going to change” before December 2. He told the BBC that tiers were set by a “rigorous process” looking at five criteria, including the infection rate, the number of cases among older people and the healthcare capacity. Many Conservative MPs claim there is a lack of scientific and economic evidence to back the decision to put the whole of England except Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and Isles of Scilly into the highest tier 2 and tier 3 levels. Financial Times, November 27

Doubts raised over AZ-Oxford vaccine data
Disquiet is growing over the way that Oxford university and AstraZeneca have handled the early readout from trials of their coronavirus vaccine, which much of the developing world may rely on to emerge from the pandemic. The results were hailed a success for showing an average efficacy of 70 per cent – a figure reached by pooling the results from cohorts on two different dosing regimens. One set of participants received two identical doses a month apart, while the other group received a half-dose, and then a full dose. The efficacy for the first, larger group was 62 per cent. In the second subgroup, it was 90 per cent. It has emerged that administration of the half-dose started with a mistake. It was then given to a smaller number of participants than those who received two full doses, making the discovery of its greater effectiveness look like a lucky break. Yet on Tuesday, Moncef Slaoui, the head of Operation Warp Speed, the US government’s funding programme for vaccine development, disclosed that second subgroup was also limited to people aged 55 or below, a demographic with lower risk of developing severe Covid-19. Oxford and AstraZeneca did not disclose the age breakdown on Monday, when results were released. Financial Times, November 26

Covid costs ‘three years of growth to economy’
Rishi Sunak said that Britain’s economic emergency had only just begun as the long-term damage that the pandemic has inflicted on growth, jobs and the public finances was laid bare. The chancellor froze public sector pay and reduced foreign aid yesterday but must still find tens of billions in tax rises and spending cuts to stop debt running out of control. The independent budget watchdog said that the economy would be 11.3 per cent smaller this year than was forecast before Covid-19, the biggest fall for 300 years, and still 3 per cent smaller by 2025 owing to “long-term scarring”. It is not forecast to return to 2019 levels until late in 2022, meaning that coronavirus has cost the country three years of growth, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The Times, November 26

Sunak’s Covid rescue plan ‘will fail to help long-term wage stagnation’
The government’s plans to rescue Britain from the Covid crisis will fail to end a decade-long squeeze on wages, leaving average pay packets by the middle of the decade £1,200-a-year below the level forecast before the virus outbreak, a leading think-tank has said. The Resolution Foundation said the combined effects of weaker pay growth and higher unemployment will prolong Britain’s living standards squeeze, despite the extra spending by the Treasury. Household incomes are on course to grow by just 10 per cent in the 15 years since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, compared with the 40 per cent growth seen in the 15 years up to the crisis, it said. The report comes as Rishi Sunak faces mounting criticism for implementing £10bn of cuts across many Whitehall departments next year, well before the economy is scheduled to climb back to health, rising to £13bn by 2025. Sunak also refused to say he would maintain universal credit levels that he raised earlier this year beyond next April. The Resolution Foundation said around 6m of the poorest households will lose over £1,000 “just when unemployment is at its highest”. The Guardian, November 26

Covid ‘could set women’s equality back 25 years’
The coronavirus pandemic could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality, new global data from UN Women suggests. Women are doing significantly more domestic chores and family care, because of the impact of the pandemic. “Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year,” says UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia. Employment and education opportunities could be lost, and women may suffer from poorer mental and physical health. The care burden poses a “real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes”, Ms Bhatia says. Even before the pandemic, it was estimated women were doing about three quarters of the 16 billion hours of unpaid work that are done each day around the world. In other words, before coronavirus, for every one hour of unpaid work done by men, three hours was done by women. Now that figure is higher. BBC news, November 26

Scramble to secure PPE cost UK extra £10bn
The UK government’s belated efforts to secure personal protective equipment for health workers during the Covid-19 pandemic led to huge extra costs to the taxpayer, according to a report from parliament’s spending watchdog. The National Audit Office found that England had inadequate levels of PPE going into the crisis, and in ramping up supply after March the government paid “very high prices due to unusual market conditions”. The government would have saved £10bn on this essential gear if it had been acquired in 2019, the NAO said … Between February and July, the health department spent £12.5bn on 32bn items of PPE – but this would have cost just £2.5bn at 2019 prices. Prices were already rising fast when the government started to accelerate purchases of stock from March, when the extent of the pandemic was becoming apparent, given the global surge in demand and restrictions on exports. The cost of body bags for example increased 1,310 per cent from 2019 to 2020. Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Once it recognised the gravity of the situation, [the government] worked hard to source PPE, but most of these orders were not received in time for the first wave of the pandemic and many frontline workers reported shortages. The price of PPE increased dramatically, and that alone has cost the taxpayer around £10bn.” Financial Times, November 25

Covid-19 jobless £4.3bn support package
Rishi Sunak is to acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic will lead to a steep rise in long-term unemployment today when he announces a £4.3 billion package to help the jobless. The economic devastation will be made clear in a series of forecasts published by the Office for Budget Responsibility alongside the Whitehall spending round. The Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, has suggested that the central forecast will show a permanent reduction in GDP of 3 per cent, equivalent to £1,000 a head. Government borrowing will be close to £400bn this year as public spending jumps above 50 per cent of GDP, a level not seen since the Second World War, and the national debt reaches a 60-year high. However, updated GDP forecasts will show that the economy is on track for a V-shaped recovery. After a shrinkage of about 10 per cent this year, the deepest recession in three centuries, Britain will have its fastest growth since 1941. The Times, November 25

UK facing risk of ‘systemic economic crisis’
The government has privately admitted the UK faces an increased likelihood of “systemic economic crisis” as it completes its exit from the European Union in the middle of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. A confidential Cabinet Office briefing seen by the Guardian also warns of a “notable risk” that in coming months the country could face a perfect storm of simultaneous disasters, including the prospect of a bad flu season on top of the medical strains caused by Covid. “Winter 2020 could see a combination of severe flooding, pandemic influenza, a novel emerging infectious disease and co-ordinated industrial action, against a backdrop of the end of the [Brexit] transition period,” it warns. The briefing, marked “official sensitive” and dated September, lays out for government planners the possible impacts of the last stage of Brexit, detailing “reasonable worst case scenarios” across 20 different areas of national life from oil and healthcare to travel and policing. The Guardian, November 24

Europe on way to recovery, say industrialists
The heads of Europe’s biggest industrial companies have declared the bloc is on its way to recovery, showing a sharp rebound in confidence in prospects for their businesses and the economy over the next six months. While cautioning that recovery was still fragile as a second wave of the pandemic sweeps the region, Europe’s leading industrialists said they had seen a large improvement in business conditions – even before news of successful vaccine trials broke last week, according to a twice-yearly survey of members of the European Round Table for Industry. The poll, which surveyed the chairs and chief executives of 55 companies with combined revenues of €2tn, found that a measure of their confidence had jumped from 34 out of 100 in May to 61 at the end of October. A score above 50 reflects more positive than negative responses. At the same time, industrialists are preparing to kickstart investment in Europe, with the score rising from 35 to 54. Even more expect to increase investment outside Europe, with the score rising from 32 to 59. Financial Times, November 25

AZ and Oxford Uni vaccine shows high efficacy
The coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford university and AstraZeneca has exceeded regulatory requirements for effectiveness in phase 3 trials, giving another boost to hopes that the disease can be defeated. The vaccine will be submitted for approval “immediately” after Oxford and AstraZeneca said two different dosing regimens showed different levels of effectiveness in trials in the UK and Brazil. When the vaccine was given as a half dose, followed by a full one at least one month later, efficacy – a measure of how a vaccine prevents infection or severe disease in trials – was 90 per cent. When the jab was given as two full doses at least one month apart, efficacy was 62 per cent. The average efficacy was 70 per cent. The results were better than the 50 per cent efficacy sought by both the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency … AstraZeneca, along with Johnson & Johnson, has said it will sell its inoculation at cost. J&J trials are ongoing. The jab is priced at about $3 to $4 a dose, supply deals suggest, a fraction of the price of other vaccines. AstraZeneca has agreed to sell it at cost to developing nations in perpetuity. Financial Times, November 23

Pollution results less impressive during second European lockdown
Air pollution levels have remained relatively high despite the latest phase of coronavirus-linked restrictions imposed across many European capitals in recent weeks, according to data analysed by the FT. The environmental benefits from Lockdown 2.0 are much slimmer than that of the spring lockdown, satellite data from Copernicus, the EU climate monitoring agency, shows. Levels of nitrogen dioxide, which is produced from cars and trucks, have seen only modest declines – and in some cases appeared to increase – as the lockdowns took effect. In contrast to the previous wave of lockdowns, when the level of major pollutants fell 50 per cent or more in European cities, there have been higher levels of vehicle traffic in recent weeks than during the spring. Even as the major capitals have closed restaurants, shops and bars, air pollution has not followed suit. Financial Times, November 22

China pushes for QR code global travel system
Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for a “global mechanism” that would use QR codes to open up international travel. “We need to further harmonise policies and standards and establish ‘fast tracks’ to facilitate the orderly flow of people,” he said. The codes will be used to help establish a traveller’s health status. But Human Rights advocates warn that the codes could be used for “broader political monitoring and exclusion”. Mr Xi made the comments at the G20 summit, an online meeting of heads of state from the world’s 20 largest economies, which was hosted by Saudi Arabia over the weekend. He said the codes could be used to recognise “health certificates based on nucleic acid test results”, according to a transcript published by Chinese state news agency Xinhua. Mr Xi didn’t go into further detail about how the travel scheme might work, or how closely it would be modelled on China’s QR code apps, which have been used to help contain the virus on the mainland. BBC news, November 23

Barnier self-isolates and Brexit talks halt after EU official tests positive
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, was forced to go into self-isolation and face-to-face Brexit talks in Brussels have been suspended after a member of the bloc’s negotiating team tested positive for coronavirus. In a development that will put further pressure on the tight timeline for a successful outcome in the trade and security talks, Barnier shut down the talks in the Belgian capital with the agreement of his British counterpart, David Frost. The two sides had been aiming to strike an agreement by next week to allow time for the European parliament to ratify any potential deal, with a possible emergency sitting on 28 December pencilled in. In an attempt to keep to that tight deadline, the two sides said video conference negotiations would continue but British officials are expected to leave Brussels on Friday. The talks were also suspended in March when Barnier and Frost contracted the virus. The Guardian, November 19

US Treasury refuses to extend some of Fed’s crisis-fighting tools
The US Treasury has decided not to extend several emergency lending facilities set up by the Federal Reserve at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting a rare expression of disappointment from the central bank, which warned that the economy remained “strained and vulnerable”. In a letter to Fed chairman Jay Powell on Thursday Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, asked the central bank to return unused funds from five emergency programmes that are set to expire in late December. The facilities that Mr Mnuchin is looking to end include: two schemes set up to purchase corporate debt; five facilities created to lend to medium-sized businesses, collectively known as the Main Street Lending Program; one programme to lend to state and local governments; and one to support asset-backed securities. Financial Times, November 20

China: Italian study clears us of Covid blame
China has seized on claims that Covid-19 was circulating in Italy last September as evidence that it may not be to blame for giving the world the virus. The findings by researchers who tested blood samples taken last year in Italy could rewrite the history of the pandemic since they suggest Covid arrived in Italy well before it officially emerged in China in December. As Chinese state media gave ample coverage to the report, Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman, said: “This once again shows that tracing the virus’s source is a complex scientific question that should be left to scientists. [It] is a developing process that can involve multiple countries.” … In Italy, an expert involved in the study told The Times that its findings did not exclude the virus starting in China. “We know that China delayed announcing its outbreak so there is no telling when it started there, and China has very strong commercial links with northern Italy,” Giovanni Apolone, at Milan’s National Cancer Institute, said. The Times, November 19

Oxford vaccine shows ‘encouraging’ immune response in older adults
The Oxford coronavirus vaccine shows a strong immune response in adults in their 60s and 70s, raising hopes that it can protect age groups most at risk from the virus. Researchers say the Lancet phase two findings, based on 560 healthy adult volunteers, are “encouraging”. They are also testing whether the vaccine stops people developing Covid-19 in larger, phase three trials. Early results from this crucial stage are expected in the coming weeks. Three vaccines – Pfizer-BioNTech, Sputnik and Moderna – have already reported good preliminary data from phase three trials, with one suggesting 94 per cent of over-65s could be protected from Covid-19. The Oxford data is from an earlier stage, which tests the safety of the vaccine and the body’s response to it, but in the long run it’s likely this vaccine could be easier to roll out because it doesn’t need to be stored at very cold temperatures. The UK government has ordered more of the Oxford vaccine, manufactured by AstraZeneca, than any other – 100 million doses – compared to 40m doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and five million of the Moderna vaccine. BBC news, November 19

NAO criticises govt over £17bn Covid contracts
Britain’s public spending watchdog has criticised the government for a series of failures when it awarded more than £17bn of contracts to private companies to tackle the coronavirus crisis, including a lack of transparency, errors and potential conflicts of interest. The National Audit Office said the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care had failed to explain why some companies with government connections or poor due diligence records were chosen to provide crucial services during the pandemic, such as supplying personal protective equipment or consulting and policy advice. Its findings will add to concerns about the risks to public money that have arisen from the government’s vast use of contractors during the pandemic and the unprecedented number of direct awards, through which contracts worth £17.3bn were agreed without a competitive tender. Financial Times, November 18

Covid-19 shakes up most expensive city list
The world’s three most expensive cities are now Hong Kong, Zurich and Paris, according to a new cost of living report. Singapore and Osaka, which were equal first with Hong Kong last year, have slipped down the rankings. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual survey said Singapore’s prices fell because of an exodus of foreign workers due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Most Chinese cities have risen as US-China tensions push up prices. “Asian cities have traditionally dominated the rankings in the past years but the pandemic has reshuffled the rankings of this edition,” said Upasana Dutt, the EIU’s Head of Worldwide Cost of Living. Bangkok also slipped 20 places and is ranked 46th most expensive. BBC news, November 18

Coronavirus vaccination rescue plan boost
Hopes that Britain could have several working Covid-19 vaccines within months have been boosted by a deal for five million doses of the most promising jab so far. Government scientific advisers are optimistic that other vaccines will also offer protection after the US company Moderna said that its jab was almost 95 per cent effective. A $125 million deal that secures Britain enough doses to inoculate 2.5 million people was finalised hours after early trial data also showed signs that the vaccine can protect people above 65 and that it stops severe illness. Although British officials have been talking to Moderna for months, reaching agreement with other companies that can manufacture more rapidly was prioritised in the hope of starting mass immunisation before the year’s end. The Times, November 17

Foreign aid spending faces cut to pay for Covid
Boris Johnson is considering a temporary cut to Britain’s aid spending to help repair the nation’s Covid-ravaged public finances. Ministers have drawn up plans to reduce the proportion of Britain’s gross national income spent on aid from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent, saving billions, The Times has learnt. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is pressing for the move to be announced in next week’s comprehensive spending review. His allies have insisted that cutting the aid budget is a political necessity at a time when spending on domestic areas will be limited as a result of the pandemic. Mr Johnson wants the cut to be time-limited and is insisting that aid spending returns to the 0.7 per cent total as soon as 2022. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, is said to be opposed, amid concerns about the impact on Britain’s global standing. The Times, November 17

Two UK virus testing megalabs planned for 2021
Two new “megalabs” capable of processing a total of 600,000 diagnostic tests a day will be opened in the UK next year as the government seeks to bolster a testing operation bedevilled by capacity shortages and slow turnround times. The government scaled back testing and tracing early in the pandemic in large part because of insufficient processing capacity in public labs. That decision is now regarded as having been one of the crucial errors in handling an outbreak that has so far cost more than 50,000 UK lives. A concerted push to build up capacity, particularly through the creation of a network of so-called “Lighthouse” labs, allowed Matt Hancock, health secretary, to meet his target of 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. But the FT disclosed last month that ministers have had to retreat from an ambition to get to 2m tests a day by the end of the year. When operating at full stretch, the two new labs, located in Leamington Spa and Scotland, will each add 300,000 to the UK’s daily testing capacity, not only for Covid but conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Financial Times, November 16

6,000 UK volunteers to be injected with vaccine
Six thousand British volunteers are to be injected with an experimental Covid vaccine modelled on an Ebola jab. It is the third Covid vaccine to enter large-scale clinical trials in the UK. Pursuing multiple candidates is essential to guarantee UK supply and ensure that most effective vaccine is identified, researchers stressed. Already undergoing large clinical trials in British patients are the Oxford Covid vaccine, and one being developed by the US biotech company Novavax. A phase 3 trial of the latest vaccine, developed by global pharmaceutical company Janssen (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson), begins on Monday. Phase 3 trials are designed to test the safety and effectiveness of drugs or vaccines in thousands of people. It will initially involve 6,000 volunteers from 17 sites across the UK, including Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Dundee, Leicester, London, Manchester, Sheffield and Southampton. A further 24,000 volunteers are to be recruited from other countries. The Guardian, November 16

NHS staff join anti-vax group
Hundreds of NHS and care home staff have formed a group opposed to vaccinations, wearing masks and testing in hospitals. The group, NHS Workers for Choice, No Restrictions for Declining a Vaccine, has gained more than 250 Facebook members in a month. They include a GP, several accident and emergency nurses, healthcare assistants, lab workers, and private and public care home staff. It says it is not an anti-vaccine group and exists to support healthcare workers, but The Times found posts saying that the Pfizer-BionTech coronavirus vaccine was a new frozen virus, similar to smallpox, to be “unleashed” on the world. They compared it to “poison” … Researchers have found that exposure to online misinformation could reduce the number of people getting vaccinated. The Times, November 16

US virus surge darkens outlook for economy
The US economy is facing an accelerating surge in coronavirus cases and harsh new restrictions on business activity without the cushion of meaningful fiscal support, raising fears of a blow to the recovery. Even though equity markets have rallied on advances in vaccine development, the deteriorating health situation across the country presents an imminent threat to the US economy as the winter months approach. The US has recorded more than 1m new coronavirus cases this month, with the healthcare system in parts of the country now under severe strain. Lockdown measures have been introduced in a number of states and major cities in an attempt to contain the spread. While the White House and Congress agreed to $3tn in government spending measures to counter the initial pandemic lockdowns in March and April, they failed to reach a deal on further stimulus before the election and have made little if any progress towards an agreement since the vote. Financial Times, November 15

Health leaders urge increase in NHS spending
Health leaders on Friday urged chancellor Rishi Sunak to use his public spending review to make good on his commitment that the National Health Service will have whatever it needs to deal with the cost of the coronavirus pandemic. NHS Providers said in a letter to Mr Sunak that if his review on November 25 failed to allocate the necessary money for 2021-22, “the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of … patients is at risk”. The plea for additional NHS funding came after the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on health service care was laid bare, with new data on Thursday showing a 100-fold plus increase over the past year in the number of people waiting more than 12 months for hospital treatment. It also came after the government reported a sharp spike in coronavirus cases. There were 33,470 cases in the latest 24 hour period, up 46 per cent on the previous day, although it was unclear whether this represented a persistent rise in the prevalence of coronavirus. Financial Times, November 13

Biden adviser calls for overhaul of Trump’s ‘Warp Speed’ vaccine effort
Donald Trump’s flagship vaccine programme Operation Warp Speed should be overhauled to focus on coronavirus testing when Joe Biden enters the White House, according to a member of the president-elect’s pandemic task force. Céline Gounder, a member of Mr Biden’s advisory group, said Operation Warp Speed should spend more on improving the quality of testing, in what would amount to a shift in direction for the sprawling federally-funded effort that has paid billions of dollars to drug companies to develop vaccines. “We need to be funding not just vaccines. I think another major area we need to be looking at is diagnostics,” Dr Gounder, an infectious diseases expert, said in an interview with the FT. Coronavirus testing is hampered by the fact that accurate tests do not produce instant results, while rapid diagnostics are less reliable. Public health experts say the holy grail is a test that is both fast and precise. A greater focus on diagnostics would help identify asymptomatic carriers who may be spreading the illness unwittingly, Dr Gounder said. Financial Times, November 13

UK economic rebound leaves output far below pre-pandemic levels
The UK economy expanded at its fastest pace on record in the third quarter, but output was still well below pre-pandemic levels and growth is threatened by the latest lockdown restrictions. Britain’s gross domestic product increased 15.5 per cent in the three months to September compared with the previous three months, the quickest pace since records began in 1955, according to the Office for National Statistics. The rebound reflected the reopening of businesses, shops, restaurants and bars after the national lockdown. Even so, the economy was 9.7 per cent smaller than in the final three months of 2019, the last full quarter before the pandemic hit. Britain has contracted more dramatically that the US and eurozone, where output is 3.5 per cent and 4.3 per cent lower than the last three months of 2019. Financial Times, November 12

Hungary to trial Russian Covid vaccine
Hungary has said it will receive a sample of the Russian-made Covid-19 vaccine within a week and a half, making it the first EU member state to announce plans to procure the Kremlin-backed jab. Speaking from quarantine via video link after getting infected with Covid-19, Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian minister of foreign affairs and trade, said on Wednesday evening his country was in “advanced negotiations” to acquire full doses from Moscow. “This is good news for Hungary,” he said. An acquisition by Budapest and entry into the EU market would represent a major victory for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which has been criticised by some experts for its rapid pace of approval and limited publicly available information on its efficacy. Talks over the vaccine are the latest in a series of moves that analysts say prove Budapest is cosying up to Moscow, including hosting the headquarters of the International Investment Bank, a former Soviet state lender that had ties to the security services. Financial Times, November 12

Hospital waiting in England worst since 2008
The number of people waiting over a year for hospital treatment in England has hit its highest levels since 2008. Patients are meant to be seen within 18 weeks, but nearly 140,000 of the 4.35m people on the waiting list at the end of September had waited over a year. Surgeons said it was a “tragic” situation with patients left in pain while they waited for treatment, including knee and hip operations. And others warned the situation could get even worse during winter. In recent weeks, major hospitals in Bradford, Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham and Liverpool, which have seen high rates of infection, have announced the mass cancellation of non-urgent work. BBC news, November 12

Tory MPs form group to oppose lockdowns
Conservative MPs have set up a group to fight any future lockdown in England, arguing it would be “devastating” for the economy and “cost lives”. The Covid Recovery Group, which has around 50 MP members, wants the country to “live with” coronavirus after nationwide restrictions end next month. The “cure” prescribed by the government ran “the risk of being worse than the disease”, MP Mark Harper said. But the PM has stressed the NHS faces a “medical disaster” without action. A further 20,412 coronavirus cases were reported in the UK on Tuesday, with another 532 deaths within 28 days of a positive test recorded. BBC news, November 11

NHS plans to vaccinate 1m every week
A million people a week could be vaccinated against coronavirus under NHS plans to ensure a jab can be administered as quickly as it is manufactured. All over-65s may be able to get the Pfizer jab before Easter if it is approved, with officials hopeful that the Oxford vaccine could allow a wider programme during the winter if it is also successful. The government hopes to cover all over-50s and the most vulnerable younger adults, who account for 99 per cent of Covid-19 deaths, early next year in the first stage of a “three wave” strategy, if supplies allow. It will set out its plans in more detail next week. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said yesterday that the NHS would be ready at the start of next month if a jab were approved. He suggested that regulators would be able to give the go-ahead within days of final results. The Times, November 11

‘Normal life by spring’ as jab stops infections
Britain should be heading back to normal by the spring, scientists said yesterday, after the announcement of a vaccine that is 90 per cent effective in stopping the coronavirus. Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said that the “huge milestone” meant this wave of infection could be the last that Britain endured. He said he was hopeful that the first Britons could be injected with the Pfizer and Biontech vaccine before Christmas. Britain has bought 40 million doses in advance, enough to inoculate 20 million people, and the NHS is preparing to start with the most vulnerable. Scientists also said that the apparent success of the vaccine was a positive sign for others, such as the Oxford project, which is expected to report findings within weeks.Stock markets rose sharply in response to the announcement, which Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive, described as “a great day for science and humanity”. The Times, November 10

UK urged to stockpile medicines to confront Covid and Brexit
The UK barely met demand for crucial medicines at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and the government must act to safeguard supplies, as it grapples with the twin perils of a coronavirus second wave and Brexit, drug manufacturers have warned. Warwick Smith, director-general of the British Generic Manufacturers Association, said the country must become far less reliant on overseas manufacturers for the ingredients that make up its drugs, and called on the NHS to reverse the efficiency-driven stock reductions it has made in recent years. More than 75 per cent of medicines used in the health service are generic, rather than branded medicines, including the vital drugs used to treat patients in intensive care at the height of the first coronavirus surge. But the generics sector has never attracted the same level of government attention as the branded medicines industry, which is seen as a key generator of jobs and research and development. Urging the government to develop an industrial strategy for the sector, Mr Smith said the pandemic had highlighted the fragility of the supply chains on which the industry relied. Financial Times, November 8

Joe Biden’s coronavirus taskforce to meet
Joe Biden will convene a coronavirus taskforce on Monday to confront one of the biggest problems vexing the US, as the president-elect and his running mate, Kamala Harris, move ahead with their transition process. On Sunday night, Biden and Harris released their first public schedule as “president-elect” and “vice-president-elect”. Biden is due to meet with a 12-member advisory board led by former the surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, and the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, David Kessler, to examine how best to tame a pandemic that has killed more than 237,000 Americans …. Biden’s taskforce will be responsible for executing the promises he made on the campaign trail for tackling Covid-19, which include doubling the number of drive-through testing sites, establishing a US public health job corps to mobilise 100,000 Americans on contact tracing and ramping up production of masks, face shields and other PPE equipment. The Guardian, November 9

GCHQ in cyberwar on anti-vaccine propaganda
GCHQ has begun an offensive cyber-operation to disrupt anti-vaccine propaganda being spread by hostile states, The Times understands. The spy agency is using a toolkit developed to tackle disinformation and recruitment material peddled by Islamic State, according to sources. It is the latest move by cyberagents to counter activity linked to Moscow whose aim is to exploit the pandemic in order to undermine the West and boost Russian interests. The government regards tackling false information about inoculation as a rising priority as the prospect of a reliable vaccine against the coronavirus draws closer. A government source said: “GCHQ has been told to take out antivaxers online and on social media. There are ways they have used to monitor and disrupt terrorist propaganda.” The Times, November 9

Hospitals are ordered to isolate patients from Denmark amid mutant mink coronavirus fears
Hospital patients who have recently returned from Denmark must be treated in isolation because of fears about a mutant strain of the coronavirus caught from mink. Guidance from Public Health England and the Department of Health also says people who test positive for Covid-19 within 14 days of arriving from Denmark must be isolated and sent to a specialist “infectious diseases centre”. About 17 million mink are being culled in Denmark after more than 200 people caught Covid-19 linked to fur farms. One strain of the mink-related Sars-Cov-2 virus appears to be more resistant to antibodies, so could be harder to treat or vaccinate against. The new guidance says that anyone who needs hospital treatment for any condition within a fortnight of travelling from or through Denmark must “be managed in strict isolation in a single room with en suite bathroom”. The Times, November 9

Four arrests at 600-strong anti-lockdown demo
Four people were arrested after more than 600 gathered in Manchester for an anti-lockdown protest, police said. The demonstration in Piccadilly Gardens was condemned by Greater Manchester Police as “irresponsible” after the rules came into force on Thursday. A number of police officers suffered minor injuries at Sunday’s event, which included one group of protesters travelling from Cumbria. GMP are hunting for the organisers and have vowed to fine them £10,000. The four arrested were held on suspicion of public order offences and 24 protesters were given £200 on-the-spot fines. BBC news, November 9

Rapid Covid test missed over 50% of cases
A rapid coronavirus test at the heart of Boris Johnson’s mass-testing strategy missed more than 50 per cent of positive cases in an Operation Moonshot pilot in Greater Manchester, the Guardian can reveal. The 20-minute tests, on which the government has spent £323m for use with hospital and care home staff with no symptoms, identified only 46.7 per cent of infections during a crucial trial in Manchester and Salford last month. This means that many of those carrying Covid-19 were wrongly told they were free of the virus, potentially allowing them to infect others. The tests were due to be used in the UK’s first city-wide mass-testing initiative, which starts in Liverpool on Friday. There was confusion on Thursday night when the council suggested they would no longer be deployed as part of the trial, but the government later insisted that small numbers of NHS staff would be using them in hospitals. The Guardian, November 5

London anti-lockdown protest – 104 arrests
Police have arrested at least 104 protesters during anti-lockdown demonstrations in central London. A large police presence remains in place near Trafalgar Square where the protest was dispersed shortly after 19:00 GMT. Smaller groups of protesters remained on Oxford Street and along the Strand. The Metropolitan Police said: “This gathering is unlawful and is putting others at risk. We are directing those there to go home”. Officers urged demonstrators to disperse as they took to the streets near Trafalgar Square on Thursday evening, warning those who had gathered that they were breaching coronavirus restrictions. Protesters began to walk up the Strand soon after 18:00 GMT, chanting “freedom” and “no more lockdown”. BBC news, November 6

UK campaigners set out plan to meet Paris agreement and beat Covid recession
A decade-long rollout of home insulation and heat pumps to replace gas boilers is urgently needed to enable the UK to meet its climate obligations and recover from the Covid-19 recession, campaigners say. A government scheme to insulate homes, requiring households to apply for green grants, began in September and is due to finish next March. That will leave tens of millions of homes still leaking energy and relying on fossil fuel heating, which must be phased out for the UK to meet its net zero carbon goal. Expanding the scheme to a long-term programme would be one of the biggest ways to ensure carbon targets are met, and would create at least 300,000 jobs, according to the Climate Coalition of 70 charities and campaigning groups representing about 22 million supporters around the UK. The Guardian, November 5

Tory-linked firm involved in testing failure given new £347m Covid contract
The UK government has awarded a new £347m Covid-19 testing contract to Randox, the Tory-linked private healthcare company whose testing kits had to be recalled over the summer because of concerns about contamination. The deal is a six-month extension of an existing contract and was agreed without other companies being invited to bid. It means the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has now approved transfers of nearly half a billion pounds in taxpayer funds to the Northern Ireland-based company since the pandemic began. Disclosed in a filing on a European contracts website, the award has prompted concerns about “cronyism” and calls for an independent inquiry into the £12bn spent so far on attempting to control the pandemic through the test-and-trace system. Critics raised further concerns about a separate revelation that the Conservative MP Owen Paterson, who is paid £100,000 a year to act as a consultant for Randox, was party to a call between the company and James Bethell, the health minister responsible for coronavirus testing supplies. The Guardian, November 4

MPs to vote on England’s one-month lockdown
MPs will vote later on the government’s month-long lockdown in England, amid growing unease among Conservatives about its economic and social impact. The restrictions will come into force just after midnight if approved, and will last until 2 December. Pubs, restaurants, gyms and non-essential shops will have to close. Earlier, the head of NHS England, Sir Simon Stevens, said there are 11,000 coronavirus patients in hospital – up from 2,000 at the start of October. Sir Simon told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “So, put another way, we’ve got 22 hospitals’ worth of coronavirus patients across England. And indeed, even since Saturday, when the prime minister gave his press conference, we filled another two hospitals full of severely ill coronavirus patients.” BBC news, November 4

Fraud claims as £45m NHS mask deal collapses
Millions of medical masks purchased by the British government for £45m are missing after a major PPE deal collapsed amid accusations of fraud, the Guardian can reveal. The Department of Health and Social Care paid its supplier Purple Surgical upfront for 5m FFP3 respirator masks, which were supposed to have been flown into Birmingham international airport by June. But Purple Surgical, a Hertfordshire-based company that has signed deals worth almost £250m with the DHSC since the pandemic began, has been unable to supply the masks. Purple Surgical has filed papers in California alleging fraud by its own supplier, a company in the British Virgin Islands. The legal battle in San Francisco lays bare how the DHSC became embroiled in a global market for PPE reliant upon chains of suppliers and subcontractors, in this case stretching from the Caribbean to Hong Kong and South Korea. The Guardian, November 3

Furlough plan lets PM dodge row with Scotland
Boris Johnson has averted a damaging row with Nicola Sturgeon and Scotland’s Tory leadership by announcing lockdown funds for devolved nations in a move that blindsided his closest allies. The prime minister confirmed yesterday that the furlough scheme would be available to all UK countries when required as he was pressed to explain why an “English job is more important” than one in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by Douglas Ross, the Conservative leader north of the border. It followed the Treasury decision to extend furlough for a month to support businesses forcibly shut by an effective second lockdown in England. With lighter restrictions in Scotland, Ms Sturgeon demanded clarity over whether she would lose the option of furlough support to cover the wages of employees unable to work if she delayed imposing tougher controls. The Times, November 3

Covid-related cybercrime drives attacks on UK
Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre has dealt with 194 coronavirus-related incidents involving hostile states and criminal gangs, which led to the overall number of serious hacker attacks reaching an all-time record of 723 over the past year. The intelligence unit said that while Russia and other states – such as China – had targeted British vaccine research, it was criminal gangs who frequently targeted other parts of the NHS, often to attempt online fraud. A frequent method of attack used by both groups was spear phishing, creating plausible emails targeted at key individuals designed to encourage them to click on a link to malware or to obtain more information by deception. “Nation state actors are using Covid as a theme, sending what appear to be news articles from popular media outlets in an attempt to encourage targets to click on what are dangerous links,” warned Paul Chichester, director of operations. The Guardian, November 3

Liverpool to pilot city-wide coronavirus testing
People in Liverpool will be offered regular Covid-19 tests under the first trial of whole city testing in England. Everyone living or working in the city will be offered tests, whether or not they have symptoms, with follow-up tests every two weeks or so. Some will get new tests giving results within an hour which, if successful, could be rolled out to “millions” by Christmas, the government says. Liverpool has one of the highest rates of coronavirus deaths in England. The latest figures show the city recorded 352 cases per 100,000 in the week up to 30 October. The average area in England had 153. On Monday, the UK recorded 18,950 new confirmed cases of coronavirus and 136 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. BBC news, November 3

PM warns of virus deaths twice as bad as spring
Covid-19 deaths could be twice as high over the winter as they were in the first wave of the pandemic, PM Boris Johnson is expected to warn MPs later. In a Commons statement he will say there is “no alternative” as he seeks to win support for a planned four-week lockdown in England from Thursday. But Mr Johnson will explain he was “right to try every possible option” before ordering people to stay at home. Labour has said it will back the lockdown but criticised the delay. Mr Johnson announced at a Downing Street news conference on Saturday that strict measures will include closing pubs, restaurants, gyms, non-essential shops and places of worship … Chancellor Rishi Sunak told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the UK-wide furlough scheme, which had been due to end on 31 October, was extended until December “to give businesses that ease at this difficult time”. BBC news, November 2

Waiting lists in courts and hospitals hit record
The pandemic has caused a record build-up of waiting lists across UK public services, including in the criminal courts and hospitals, according to a joint report by the Institute for Government and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. The risk of infection has meant that far fewer people have been using most services, but this has stored up problems for the future, the annual Performance Tracker 2020 report says. The crown court backlog is equivalent to 56,000 cases, 42 per cent higher than it was before coronavirus and the biggest in at least two decades, according to the report. Hospital waiting lists are likely to increase for years as GPs refer patients who have stayed away during the pandemic. There are at least 3.6m people waiting for elective treatments such as hip operations. The government should set out a timetable to meet acceptable waiting list numbers, and provide additional funding, the report says. Financial Times, November 2

Brexit party to rebrand as anti-lockdown voice
The Brexit party has applied to the Electoral Commission to change its name to Reform UK in a bid to rebrand the party, which has no elected representatives, as a voice in the anti-lockdown movement. The party’s leader, Nigel Farage, and chairman, Richard Tice, first announced the plan in a joint article in the Telegraph where they wrote it was “time to redirect our energies”. The name change is subject to approval of the commission. The Brexit party gained 2 per cent of the vote in the 2019 general election, and none of the 275 candidates it stood won a seat. The Guardian, November 2

Top scientist Fauci accused of ‘playing politics’
The White House has accused leading infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci of playing politics days before the election in an interview about the coronavirus pandemic. Dr Fauci told the Washington Post the US was in for a “whole lot of hurt”. He also offered an assessment of how both President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, are approaching the pandemic. The US has recorded more deaths and cases than any other country. According to data collated by Johns Hopkins University, deaths in the US have now passed 230,000, while more than nine million cases have been registered. In his interview with the Post published on Saturday night, Dr Fauci warned that “all the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors”. “You could not possibly be positioned more poorly,” he said. When asked about the approaches of the two presidential candidates, Dr Fauci said Mr Biden was “taking it seriously from a public health perspective”, while Mr Trump was “looking at it from a different perspective… the economy and reopening the country”. BBC news, November 1

Stricter curbs to lockdown England ‘by proxy’
England is heading for a national lockdown by proxy ministers have said after the government announced new restrictions that will put 60 per cent of the population under strict curbs. It announced yesterday that 2.3 million people in West Yorkshire will be moved into Tier 3 lockdown from Sunday night, with pubs closed unless they serve food. A further 3.5m people in 16 areas, including Oxford, Luton, East Riding, Kingston Upon Hull, Derbyshire Dales, Derby and Staffordshire, will be moved into Tier 2 at midnight, meaning that they face restrictions on socialising indoors. The curbs will mean that 21m people are under Tier 2 restrictions and a further 11m under Tier 3, meaning 32m people, 58 per cent of the population, are under higher tiers. The Times, October 30

Rebound in Europe’s economies marred by virus
The eurozone’s four biggest economies outstripped expectations for growth in the third quarter with a rebound from their coronavirus-induced recession earlier in the year, but output remained well below pre-pandemic levels. Quarterly growth rates in the three months to September ranged from 8.2 per cent in Germany to 18.2 per cent in France. Italy reported record quarterly growth of 16.1 per cent, while Spain’s output was up 16.7 per cent. However, there were growing signs of divergence between countries depending on how hard their economies have been hit by the pandemic – with Spain suffering the greatest impact. France’s economic output was down 4.1 per cent from its pre-pandemic level at the end of last year, while Germany’s economy was down 4.2 per cent and Italy’s GDP was 4.7 per cent smaller. That compared with Spain’s 9.1 per cent gap from pre-pandemic levels – reversing its position as one of the fastest growing economies in the eurozone before the virus struck. Financial Times, October 30

Scientists warn of new coronavirus variant spreading across Europe
A coronavirus variant that originated in Spanish farm workers has spread rapidly through much of Europe since the summer, and now accounts for the majority of new Covid-19 cases in several countries – and more than 80 per cent in the UK. An international team of scientists that has been tracking the virus through its genetic mutations has described the extraordinary spread of the variant, called 20A.EU1, in a research paper to be published on Thursday. Their work suggests that people returning from holiday in Spain played a key role in transmitting the virus across Europe, raising questions about whether the second wave that is sweeping the continent could have been reduced by improved screening at airports and other transport hubs. Because each variant has its own genetic signature, it can be traced back to the place it originated. Financial Times, October 29

England: nearly 100,000 catching virus each day
Nearly 100,000 people are catching coronavirus every day in England, a major analysis suggests. The study, by Imperial College London, says the pace of the epidemic is accelerating and estimates the number of people infected is now doubling every nine days. The authors say we are at a “critical stage” and “something has to change”. France and Germany have turned to forms of lockdown to control the virus. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick told BBC Breakfast the government wanted to “try to avoid having a national blanket approach” to coronavirus restrictions in England, where a regional three-tier alert system is in place. “We don’t have a plan, today, to do a full national lockdown,” he said, adding such a move “would be destructive to people’s lives and livelihoods and broader health and wellbeing”. A national “firebreak” lockdown is ongoing in Wales, while Northern Ireland has tightened restrictions, including closing schools, and Scotland will later confirm details of its new tiered alert system. BBC news, October 29

Scientists hope for virus vaccine by Christmas
The government believes that a German vaccine backed by Pfizer could be ready to distribute before Christmas, with the first doses earmarked for the elderly and vulnerable. Albert Bourla, the chief executive of Pfizer, said that the vaccine was in the “last mile” and that the pharmaceutical company expected results within a matter of weeks. Britain has already bought enough doses for 20 million people and is anticipating that some will be available for use immediately if the drug is shown to be successful. Senior government sources expect that a verdict on whether it works will be available before Oxford’s competing vaccine, which may not provide results until after Christmas. The announcement came as a study by Imperial College London showed an accelerating rise in infections. The research, which is used to inform ministers about the spread of the virus, found that 1.28 per cent of people in England were infected, more than double the proportion reported at the start of this month. The Times, October 29

Self-employed who suffered no loss of income banked extra £1.3bn
Almost half a million self-employed workers have banked an extra £1.3 billion from the taxpayer despite suffering no loss of income during the coronavirus crisis, according to an analysis. In a survey of more than 6,000 people, the Resolution Foundation found that 17 per cent of applicants who applied for the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme did so despite suffering no hit to their incomes. This amounts to 435,000 workers. Under the scheme, self-employed people with annual profits of less than £50,000 were offered a taxable grant worth up to 80 per cent of average profits for a period of three months to October 31, capped at £7,500. The scheme has since been extended to April 2021. The Times, October 28

Lockdown risks crippling north, MPs warn PM
Boris Johnson has been warned by 54 Conservative MPs in northern seats that their constituencies risk being left behind unless there is a clear strategy for exiting lockdown restrictions. The MPs said in a letter to the prime minister that his pledge to “level up” the nation was being undermined by the disproportionate impact of restrictions in northern England. They have urged Mr Johnson to create a route back down the system of tiers for areas at the highest level and urged him to give priority to infrastructure projects in the north. The letter was written by members of the newly founded Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, which includes many of those who won traditionally Labour seats at the last election and is led by Jake Berry, a former minister and close ally of the prime minister who warned that coronavirus was threatening to “send the north into reverse”. The Times, October 27

Antibodies ‘fall rapidly after infection’
Levels of protective antibodies in people wane “quite rapidly” after coronavirus infection, say researchers. Antibodies are a key part of our immune defences and stop the virus from getting inside the body’s cells. The Imperial College London team found the number of people testing positive for antibodies has fallen by 26% between June and September. They say immunity appears to be fading and there is a risk of catching the virus multiple times. More than 350,000 people in England have taken an antibody test as part of the REACT-2 study so far. In the first round of testing, at the end of June and the beginning of July, about 60 in 1,000 people had detectable antibodies. But in the latest set of tests, in September, only 44 per 1,000 people were positive. It suggests the number of people with antibodies fell by more than a quarter between summer and autumn. BBC news, October 27

Fresh vaccine hope as elderly respond well
Older people have a strong immune response to Oxford’s vaccine, raising hopes that it will protect all sectors of society. Although the research cannot prove that the vaccine protects against disease, it did show that even in people over 70 it elicited a robust antibody and T-cell immune response. The findings come from a previously unreleased analysis of early-stage human trials, looking specifically at volunteers aged 56 and over. “This marks a key milestone and reassures us that the vaccine is safe for use and induces strong immune responses in both parts of the immune system in all adult groups,” said Andrew Pollard, from Oxford University, who announced the findings. The elderly are most at risk of suffering from severe Covid but there has been concern that they may be among those least likely to be protected by a vaccine. Older immune systems often respond poorly to vaccines. The Times, October 27

NHS short of over £1bn for Covid-19 and winter
The NHS has been given in excess of £1bn less than it needs to tackle the second wave of Covid-19, deal with the coming winter and restart routine operations, the Guardian has learned. The disclosure raises questions about the pledge from the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, at the start of the pandemic to give the NHS “whatever resources it needs” to cope with the pandemic. Hospitals across England face holes in their budget for the rest of the year of up to £20m, which they say is hampering their efforts to prepare properly for the service’s annual winter crisis and get back to pre-pandemic levels of surgery. The situation has led to tension between hospital trusts and clinical commissioning groups on the one hand and NHS England on the other over the sums the latter has awarded them to cover their costs for the rest of the financial year. The Guardian, October 26

Oxford Covid vaccine trials offer elderly hope
A vaccine considered a frontrunner in the race to protect the global population from Covid-19 has produced a robust immune response in elderly people, the group at highest risk from the disease, according to two people familiar with the finding. The discovery that the vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford, in collaboration with AstraZeneca, triggers protective antibodies and T-cells in older age groups has encouraged researchers as they seek evidence that it will spare those in later life from serious illness or death from the virus. Age has emerged as the principal risk factor for a severe bout of Covid-19. However, the immune system weakens with age, raising concerns that the very group that most needs the protection of a vaccine may generate the least effective response to one. Financial Times, October 26

‘Generation Covid’ hit hard by the pandemic
Young people, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, have had their earnings and job prospects hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, adding to fears for the long-term impact on their futures. BBC Panorama found people aged 16-25 were more than twice as likely as older workers to have lost their job, while six in 10 saw their earnings fall, according to new research. It also highlighted the impact of school closures on young people and added to growing evidence that students from poorer backgrounds have fallen behind their more privileged peers. A quarter of pupils – some 2.5 million children – had no schooling or tutoring during lockdown, the survey by the London School of Economics suggests. But, the study adds, nearly three quarters of private school pupils had full days of teaching (74 per cent) – almost twice the proportion of state school pupils (38 per cent). BBC news, October 26

Trump aide: ‘We’re not going to control pandemic’
A senior aide to President Donald Trump has conceded that the US is “not going to control the pandemic”. Instead White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Covid-19 could only be defeated by “mitigation areas” like vaccines and therapeutics. His remarks come as coronavirus cases surge in the US, nine days before the presidential election. Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden said the White House was waving “the white flag of defeat”. He added that Mr Meadows’ comments showed that the Trump administration had “given up on their basic duty to protect the American people”. BBC news, October 26

£2bn lost to criminals in furlough cash fraud
Organised criminals have siphoned off up to £2 billion intended for furloughed workers, tax officials believe. HM Revenue and Customs has estimated that between 5 and 10 per cent of £39bn in payments made under the Treasury’s job retention scheme are likely to have been claimed fraudulently. Of these, it is “almost certain” that more than half has been paid to organised criminals posing as legitimate businesses to make claims under the emergency scheme, tax officials have told the National Audit Office. As well as organised crime, the NAO said that other types of fraud included employers making furloughed employees work or inflating claims. The Times, October 23

England’s Covid contact-tracing hits new low
Boris Johnson and his chief scientific adviser have admitted to failings in England’s £12bn test-and-trace system as contact-tracing fell to a new low and waiting times for test results soared to almost double the target. Under pressure to explain new figures showing less than 60 per cent of close contacts being reached, while test turnaround times rose to nearly 48 hours, the prime minister said: “I share people’s frustrations and I understand totally why we do need to see faster turnaround times and we need to improve it”. The system, designed to contain outbreaks by ensuring anyone exposed to the virus self-isolates, was helping “a bit”, Johnson added. “The thing depends on people self-isolating and breaking the transmission. It is helping a bit already to break the transmission. About 1m contacts have been reached. But there is more that it can do if everybody complies once they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace.” The Guardian, October 22

Outrage at Rishi Sunak’s England-only jobs fund
Nicola Sturgeon has insisted it is “intolerable and unacceptable” that coronavirus funding in England will not lead to extra cash being given to the Scottish government. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, announced billions of pounds of extra help for companies and workers affected by Covid-19 restrictions in England. Scottish Tories hailed the “blockbuster support” from the UK government, but Ms Sturgeon said the chancellor had told the Scottish ministers that the new measures “won’t deliver any upfront extra cash for Scotland” beyond £700 million of funding that has already been pledged. The first minister hit out on Twitter, saying: “Businesses in England have been given, rightly, an open-ended commitment to support for as long as needed.” But she added that the Scottish government “will be expected to match that for Scottish businesses – with no confirmation that the money will be there to pay for it, and no borrowing powers to raise it”. The Times, October 23

Barclays warns of cuts as Covid pushes bad debt charges to £4.3bn
Barclays has warned of potential cost cuts as the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic pushed its total bad debt provisions to £4.3bn. The lender has put aside another £608m to help cover a potential surge in customer defaults. It came as Barclays beat profit forecasts for the third quarter of 2020. While this latest increase was less than the £1bn forecast by analysts, it brings Barclays’ total credit impairment charges to £4.3bn for the nine months to September. Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the bank confirmed that Barclays could be forced to put aside up to £4.5bn to cover bad debts. The Guardian, October 23

Consumer confidence drop fuels recession fears
UK consumer confidence, spending and mobility dropped in October as coronavirus infections rose and restrictions tightened across the country, fuelling fears of a double-dip recession. Data from research company GfK showed that the UK consumer confidence index tumbled 6 percentage points to minus 31 in the first half of October. This is the lowest reading since May, with consumers becoming more pessimistic about both the general economic situation and their personal financial conditions. Financial Times, October 23

Trump and Biden row over Covid, climate and racism
US President Donald Trump and his White House challenger Joe Biden clashed over Covid and race while trading corruption charges, in their final live TV debate. On the pandemic, Mr Biden would not rule out more lockdowns, while Mr Trump insisted it was time to reopen the US. Mr Trump cited unsubstantiated claims Mr Biden personally profited from his son’s business dealings. The Democrat brought up Mr Trump’s opaque taxes. Mr Biden has a solid lead with 11 days to go until the presidential election. But winning the most votes does not always win the election, and the margin is narrower in a handful of states that could decide the race either way. More than 47 million people have already cast their ballots in a voting surge driven by the pandemic. This is already more than voted before polling day in the 2016 election. There are about 230m eligible voters in total. BBC news, October 23

Ireland faces Brexit and virus double whammy
Ireland will be the eurozone’s biggest loser from a no-deal Brexit, which threatens to cause an economic “double whammy” on top of the fallout from rising coronavirus infections, the Irish central bank’s governor has warned. Gabriel Makhlouf told the FT that if the UK left the EU without a trade deal at the end of this year, the new tariffs on goods would hit Ireland’s agricultural and food sectors hardest, knocking 2 percentage points off the country’s economic growth next year. “This whole process is lose-lose,” said Mr Makhlouf. “People talk about who will be the winners from this, but I would argue that in the short term there will be no winners.” However, in the longer term he predicted London’s dominant position in Europe’s financial services sector was likely to shift slowly to Dublin, Frankfurt, Paris or Amsterdam. Financial Times, October 22

Worried young help to slow spread of Covid-19
The rise in coronavirus cases in England has slowed as young people have been frightened into following social-distancing rules, officials believe. The trend appears to have been a key factor in helping the northeast to escape Tier 3 restrictions. Concern about “long Covid” has been suggested as one reason for the young changing their behaviour. A key government “gold” meeting on the pandemic, chaired by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was told yesterday that infection rates appeared to be falling among younger people, slowing the national surge in cases … Cases are still rising in the over-60s and hospital admissions and deaths are expected to carry on rising as a result. However, after a rise in infections was seen in the young first, there are hopes that a fall in the same group could be followed by an easing of infections in older adults. The Times, October 22

Spending pushes national debt to £2.06 trillion
Britain’s national debt has hit its highest level since 1960 after a record £208.5 billion was borrowed in the first six months of the financial year, official figures show. Borrowing from April to September was nearly four times the £54.5 billion borrowed across the whole of 2019 as state spending soared during the pandemic and tax receipts collapsed. At the end of September, the debt was £2.06 trillion, equivalent to 103.5 per cent of GDP, a 60-year high, the Office for National Statistics said. The sharp rise in borrowing was largely down to the furlough scheme and support for the self-employed, which between them cost £59.8bn in the first six months of the year and helped to drive up government spending by a total of £125.5bn compared with the same period last year. At the same time, tax receipts fell by £42.6bn as the government collected £15.1bn less in VAT and £4.9bn less in business rates owing to deferrals and holidays provided in the crisis. Income tax receipts were £5.8bn lower. The Times, October 21

Johnson to ditch public spending master plan
Boris Johnson’s hopes of regaining the political initiative by setting out a three-year spending master plan for the rest of the parliament have been abandoned. The Treasury confirmed on Wednesday that the proposed three-year comprehensive spending review had been scrapped in favour of a one-year review because of the economic chaos caused by Covid-19. “While the government would have liked to outline plans for the rest of this parliament, the right thing today is to focus entirely on the response to Covid-19 and supporting jobs – that’s what the public would expect,” the Treasury said. Instead of setting out departmental spending plans for three years, Rishi Sunak, chancellor, will focus on a one-year package to support employment and help public services cope with the pandemic, as revealed on Tuesday by the FT. Financial Times, October 21

Mark Sedwill: Cummings undermined the govt
Dominic Cummings “clearly undermined” the government’s ability to enforce lockdown restrictions when he secretly travelled to Durham at the height of the first outbreak of coronavirus, the former head of the civil service has said. In his first interview since quitting as cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, who was ousted in June after months of tension with Boris Johnson and Mr Cummings, said the prime minister’s chief adviser had made a “mistake” in defying guidance to stay at home … Sir Mark also suggested that ministers and the civil service had not been fully prepared for the first outbreak but criticised political briefings against officials as “unpleasant”. Speaking to the BBC for the first time since formally leaving the civil service last month, Lord Sedwill said: “I think there is a genuine question about whether we could have been better prepared in the first place and that is obviously a very legitimate challenge.” The Times, October 21

China’s vaccine diplomacy steals a march on US
China is promising preferential access to its Covid-19 vaccines to countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America, as Beijing uses inoculations as a new tool to bolster its ties with nations neglected by the US. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, has spearheaded the effort, pledging that Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos will be among the “priority” recipients of Chinese vaccines. China aspires to be a global vaccine supplier with four Chinese products now in phase 3 trials, the final stage intended to ensure safety and effectiveness before approval for public use. Although US pharmaceutical groups, including Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, also have advanced vaccines in development, Washington has shown no interest in helping to distribute them overseas. Financial Times, October 21

Ban stops visits to Wales from Covid hotspots
A ban on travelling to Wales from coronavirus hotspots elsewhere in the UK comes into effect on Friday evening. First Minister Mark Drakeford asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson twice to stop people in areas of England with high coronavirus rates from travelling. But after receiving no reply, the first minister used devolved powers to shut Wales’ borders to people from hotspots. The ban will cover all of Northern Ireland, England’s tier two and three areas and the Scottish central belt. The UK government’s Welsh Secretary Simon Hart said the decision risks “stirring division and confusion”, but Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she fully supported Mr Drakeford’s move. There was a warning from the head of the Police Federation in Wales that the rules could be “unenforceable”. The first minister said the police will have extra patrols on main roads into Wales. BBC news, October 16

Russians spread fake news over Oxford vaccine
A Russian disinformation campaign designed to undermine and spread fear about the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine has been exposed by a Times investigation. Pictures, memes and video clips depicting the British-made vaccine as dangerous have been devised in Russia and middlemen are now seeking to “seed” the images on social media networks around the world. The crude theme of the distorted images is that the vaccine, millions of doses of which will be manufactured by the pharmaceutical giant Astrazeneca, could turn people into monkeys because it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector. The campaign is being targeted at countries where Russia wants to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine, as well as western nations. The Times, October 16

Almost half of PMs education catch-up fund remains unallocated
The £350m “massive catch-up operation” pledged by Boris Johnson to help pupils affected by the coronavirus lockdown has run into difficulties, with 40% of its funding unallocated. An investigation by Schools Week has found that only £106m of the £350m fund will go towards the national tutoring programme backed by Johnson, which aims to offer subsidised one-to-one and small-group tuition for disadvantaged school pupils in England. But earlier this month, only “hundreds” of England’s more than 22,000 state schools had expressed an interest in signing up to the programme, which launches in November. The investigation found that the DfE has underspent by £139m, and appears unlikely to find ways to spend it on tuition for the current school year as promised. According to a DfE spokesperson, the fate of the remainder will be decided by the government’s spending review next month. The Guardian, October 16

Harris goes in quarantine blow to Democrats
Joe Biden’s election campaign has been shaken by coronavirus after Kamala Harris, his running-mate, was forced off the trail for the rest of the week by the news that two members of her entourage have fallen prey to the illness. Liz Allen, her communications director, and an unnamed crew member on a campaign aircraft tested positive for the virus on Wednesday night, the campaign announced. Ms Harris, 55, tested negative yesterday but will play it safe by returning to the virtual electioneering strategy pioneered by Mr Biden. Last night the Biden campaign announced that an employee of the company which charters their planes had travelled with Mr Biden on Monday and Tuesday before testing positive yesterday. They said that Mr Biden and the individual had always been at least 50 feet apart, and were both wearing masks at all times. A spokeswoman said that Mr Biden’s doctor had advised him there was no need to quarantine. The Times, October 16

Union comes under growing pressure
Border restrictions are to be introduced within Britain as pressures over Covid-19 strain the Union and support for Scottish independence surges. The Welsh government announced that it intends to implement curbs that will prevent Britons visiting from areas with high coronavirus infection rates. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, announced the plan yesterday in response to Boris Johnson’s refusal to meet his demand to make travel guidance in English Covid hotspots mandatory instead of advisory. Local restrictions in Wales block people moving beyond their county boundary without a reasonable excuse … The Welsh restrictions heap pressure on Mr Johnson as backing for Scottish independence reached a record level, according to a poll that shows a surge in support for the SNP. When undecided voters were excluded, 58 per cent of likely voters said they would vote “yes” in another ballot while 42 per cent would vote “no”, the research by Ipsos Mori for STV News found. The Times, October 15

NHS staff testing ‘dismantled’ in virus hotspots
A number of NHS trusts stood down in-house coronavirus testing for staff in the summer, ahead of a surge in virus cases, a health leaders’ body says. This followed assurances from government about the capacity of the centralised system, says NHS Providers. But it left some staff, including in virus hotspots, unable to access testing when the national system came under strain earlier in the autumn. The government has since said it has increased testing capacity. The Department of Health and Social Care is also extending regular testing to some NHS staff without symptoms. At the start of the pandemic, “a lot of trusts pulled together their own [makeshift] testing schemes because they really needed to test staff,” said Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of the body, which represents health trust leaders in England. But as a centralised national system developed, many trusts “stood down” their testing arrangements put in place in the first months of the pandemic, she said. This was partly in response to the “direction of travel from central government”. BBC news, October 15

Pressure grows on PM for half-term lockdown
A half-term “circuit-breaker” lockdown would save thousands of lives by the end of the year, government scientific advisers have calculated as pressure grows for a two-week shutdown. Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, called on Boris Johnson last night to implement such a “reset”, warning that without it Britain would “sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter”. Mr Johnson hardened his stance against it during a call with Tory MPs organised by the 1922 Committee, saying that it would not be right to impose the restrictions on areas where cases were still low … A paper by members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, obtained by The Times and due to be published today, challenges his position. It shows that a two-week full lockdown, with stay-at-home orders and school closures, from October 24 could reduce deaths for the rest of the year from about 19,900 to 12,100. Hospital admissions could be reduced from 132,400 to 66,500. The Times, October 14

Poor numerical literacy linked to greater susceptibility to Covid-19 fake news
People with poor numerical literacy are more likely to believe Covid-19 misinformation, according to a survey conducted in five countries. Researchers at Cambridge University said the findings suggested improving people’s analytical skills could help turn the tide against an epidemic of “fake news” surrounding the health crisis. Five national surveys – reflecting national quotas for age and gender – were conducted this year to evaluate susceptibility to coronavirus-related misinformation and its influence on key health-related behaviours. The study found the most consistent predictor of decreased susceptibility to misinformation about Covid-19 was numerical literacy – the ability to digest and apply quantitative information broadly. The Guardian, October 14

J&J pauses Covid vaccine trial
Johnson & Johnson has paused its Covid-19 vaccine trial due to an “unexplained illness” in a participant, the company confirmed. The pharmaceutical giant was unclear if the patient was administered a placebo or the experimental vaccine, and it’s not remarkable for studies as large as the one Johnson & Johnson are conducting – involving 60,000 patients – to be temporarily paused. Nevertheless, with several drug companies racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine, facilitated by Operation Warp Speed, the US government effort to speed up development the news of any setbacks is being closely watched by politicians and Americans eager for a way out of a pandemic that has killed more than 214,000. The Guardian, October 13

Trump claims Covid immunity
Donald Trump offered to kiss members of the audience and claimed he was immune to Covid-19 during a rally in Florida that marked the US president’s return to the campaign trail just 10 days after he was hospitalised with the virus. “They say I’m immune. I feel so powerful … I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women,” Mr Trump said on Monday night in front of a cheering crowd, many of whom were not wearing masks or practising social distancing. Mr Trump is hoping that he can convince the American public he is healthy and has recovered from the virus during a series of rallies this week at a time when he trails Democratic rival Joe Biden in the polls with just 22 days until the election. The president, 74, addressed the rally at Orlando Sanford airport for an hour and departed the stage dancing to the lyrics from “YMCA” by the Village People – “young man, there’s no need to feel down, I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground”. Financial Times, October 13

MPs legal action against UK govt Covid contracts
A legal action has been launched over the government’s failure to disclose details of its spending on contracts related to the pandemic, as it emerged that it has failed to account for £3bn spent on private contracts since the start of lockdown. Three cross-party MPs and Good Law Project, a non-profit-making organisation, have filed a judicial review against the government for breaching the law and its own guidance and argue that there are mounting concerns over coronavirus procurement processes … The Department of Health and Social Care has said due diligence was carried out on all government contracts which have been awarded. The government has 21 days to respond to the judicial proceedings. The Guardian, October 11

Hospitality firms legal action over lockdown
The UK hospitality industry has said it will take legal action to stop new local lockdown rules that could force pub, clubs and other venues to close. Trade body the Night Time Industries Association said there was no evidence that hospitality venues contributed to the spread of Covid-19. It comes as the government prepares to unveil new restrictions for England. NTIA boss Michael Kill said the hospitality industry had been left with “no other option”. “These new measures will have a catastrophic impact on late night businesses, and are exacerbated further by an insufficient financial support package presented by the chancellor in an attempt to sustain businesses through this period,” he said. “This next round of restrictions are hugely disproportionate and unjust, with no scientific rationale or correlation to Public Health England transmission rates, when compared to other key environments.” BBC news, October 12

Local furlough pays two thirds of wages in firms forced to shut
Rishi Sunak will announce a local furlough scheme today in which the government will subsidise two thirds of the wages of workers in pubs, restaurants and other businesses that are forced to close to stop the spread of coronavirus. Pubs and restaurants in northern England will be shut next week in an effort to stop hospitals being overwhelmed by the rising number of Covid-19 cases. A new system of restrictions divides England into three tiers of escalating severity. Merseyside and other parts of northern England will be placed in the highest tier as some hospitals start to run out of dedicated coronavirus beds. Businesses such as pubs, restaurants and cafés will be forced to close. The local furlough scheme will remain in place for as long as businesses are locked down. The Times, October 9

UK economic growth slows unexpectedly
The UK economy grew less than expected in August despite a boost from the hospitality sector, adding to pressure on policymakers to do more to support the economy. UK gross domestic product increased by 2.1 per cent from July, but the expansion fell short of the 4.6 per cent consensus forecast of economists polled by Reuters. The figures added to mounting fears over the economy, signalling that the bounceback is losing steam and that a full recovery – key for the survival of many jobs and businesses – remains a distant prospect. Output in August remained 9.2 per cent below its pre-pandemic levels in February. The unexpected slowdown in growth, reported by the Office for National Statistics, followed strong monthly expansions earlier in the summer. Financial Times, October 9

Starmer blasts ‘Whitehall knows best’ attitude
Keir Starmer has called for an end to the government’s “serial incompetence” throughout the pandemic as concerns grow over the possibility of further restrictions being introduced. The Labour opposition leader, writing in the Telegraph, decried the leaking of plans for tougher measures and said it had led to confusion about Downing Street’s approach. He suggested a number of ways the government could “get a grip of this situation urgently before it spirals out of control”. Local leaders had to be consulted more closely over restrictions, he said, to arrest frustration amid a sense that No 10 was talking down to parts of the country. The Guardian, October 9

Trump ready to return to public events
US President Donald Trump has completed his course of treatment for Covid-19 and can return to public engagements this weekend, his physician has said. Dr Sean Conley said the president had responded “extremely well” to medication and had “remained stable”. Mr Trump later said he would probably take another Covid test on Friday and hoped to hold a rally over the weekend. The president earlier pulled out of next Thursday’s TV debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden. He said he was “not going to waste my time on a virtual debate” after organisers said it would have to take place remotely because Mr Trump had tested positive for coronavirus. The move sparked a row about how and when further debates would take place. BBC news, October 9

Trump plans rally amid Covid test secrecy
Donald Trump, who is still recovering from Covid-19, has suggested he might organise a rally in Florida on Saturday, while continuing to ignore questions on whether he has yet tested negative for the disease. On Thursday night, Trump said: “I think I’m going to try doing a rally on Saturday night if we can, if we have enough time to put it together. But we want to do a rally in Florida, probably in Florida on Saturday night, might come back and do one in Pennsylvania, on the following night.” … Asked by Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Thursday night whether he had yet to test negative for coronavirus – or whether he had been tested at all since his positive test last week – the president did not directly respond, instead touting the experimental drugs he had been treated with. He said he would likely be tested on Friday. The Guardian, October 9

‘Rapid’ inquiry into govt’s Covid-19 response
A pair of Conservative former ministers have announced they are to lead a rapid, cross-party investigation into the UK’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, amid worries a government inquiry will take too long for lessons to be learned in time. In a rare set of joint hearings, the Commons health committee, led by ex-health secretary Jeremy Hunt, and the science committee, chaired by Greg Clark, who was business secretary, are to hear from witnesses in the hope of producing a report by the spring. Announcing the plan, Hunt and Clark said the inquiry would aim to produce interim recommendations along the way. It will hold weekly joint sessions, with early witnesses set to include Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Patrick Vallance, the government’s top scientific adviser. While the pair stressed the aim will be constructive, and they do not want to pre-empt any future official inquiry, the testimony and findings could nonetheless be uncomfortable at times for Boris Johnson and his ministers. The Guardian, October 8

Govt pays £2m to settle coronavirus testing case
The UK has agreed to settle a lawsuit over how it selected an IT contract for coronavirus testing at its Lighthouse labs. The BBC understands that the settlement will cost the government up to £2m. British company Diagnostics AI claimed it lost out to a European rival UgenTec despite spotting some positive coronavirus cases its rival missed. It sued the government over the decision, claiming the selection process was “unfair and unlawful”. Lighthouse labs are a UK-wide network of specialist coronavirus laboratories managed by the government and run by private firms. When the labs were set up, companies pitched to analyse the test results. The dispute was due to be played out in court. It would have meant a public examination of the accuracy and speed of the testing system, at a time when it has come under serious criticism. But the government has decided to settle the case and will pay Diagnostics AI compensation and most of its legal fees. However, despite agreeing to the payout, the government has refuted the claims made by Diagnostics AI, saying they are “inaccurate”. BBC news, October 8

England: poorest areas four times as likely to face lockdown as richest
England’s poorest communities are nearly four times as likely to face lockdown restrictions as the wealthiest areas, a Guardian analysis has found, as local leaders warned of a “winter of dangerous discontent” in the north of England without urgent financial support. A study of official figures shows a wide disparity in the resurgence of coronavirus across the country, with the most deprived areas bearing the brunt of the second wave. In Liverpool, almost two-thirds of the areas with the highest infection rates were among the poorest 10 per cent of communities in England. More than half of Birmingham and Manchester’s worst-hit areas are among the country’s most deprived. The Guardian, October 7

Pence and Harris clash over US virus response
Mike Pence and Kamala Harris clashed over Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic during their vice-presidential debate on Wednesday, with the Democratic challenger accusing the president of “the greatest failure” in the history of the office. In contrast with last week’s chaotic presidential debate, Mr Pence, the vice-president, and Ms Harris, California senator, avoided name-calling. Instead, the proceedings in Salt Lake City were marked by both candidates frequently sidestepping questions – and social media commentators focusing on a fly that sat on Mr Pence’s head for two minutes. Ms Harris made history as the first black woman to appear in a US presidential or vice-presidential debate. But the event was unlikely to change the contours of a race in which Mr Trump trails Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, in the polls ahead of the November 3 election. Financial Times, October 8

Soaring infections leaves UK on lockdown alert
Surging coronavirus infection rates have put Britain on the brink of tougher lockdown measures, overshadowing Boris Johnson’s attempt yesterday to focus on life after the pandemic. The government’s scientific advisers called for “urgent and drastic action” after cases doubled in 11 days to 14,542 and deaths doubled to 76 in the same period. Hospital admissions in England jumped by a quarter in one day and ministers are scrambling to find a way to bring down cases in the northwest amid concerns about the ability of the health service to cope over winter in infection hotspots. Rates in Manchester have doubled in a week to more than 500 cases per 100,000 people. Liverpool and Newcastle are close behind with rates increasing by more than 50 per cent in seven days. The Times, October 7

White House aide tests positive as military leaders quarantine
Covid-19 is spreading further among those around US President Donald Trump, with White House adviser Stephen Miller and a top military official infected. Mr Miller, who has been self-isolating for the past five days, confirmed on Tuesday that he had tested positive. Several military leaders are also quarantining after Coast Guard official Admiral Charles Ray tested positive. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has said Mr Trump should not debate him if he is still infected. Speaking about their scheduled second encounter in Miami, Florida, on 15 October, he said he would be guided by medical experts. BBC news, October 7

NHS faces drug shortages as Brexit stockpile used in Covid crisis
Hospitals could face shortages of drugs during the second wave of Covid because some of the medicines stockpiled for Brexit have already been used, NHS bosses have warned. NHS Providers, which represents hospitals in England, said problems associated with Brexit could conjure a “perfect storm” of problems this winter that could undermine care, including flu, bad weather, workforce shortages, a resurgence of Covid and an epidemic of burnout among staff. “All of the issues we feared about Brexit remain. None of those have gone away because we are in a pandemic. It’s important to remember drug supplies could be compromised”, said Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive. “What we were relying upon in Brexit was a supplies stockpile. I would suggest we have eaten into that stockpile because of Covid. We need to think about what the stockpiles are looking like.” The Guardian, October 6

Covid could cause ‘tsunami of cancelled NHS operations’
There could be a “tsunami” of cancelled operations this winter as the NHS copes with rising numbers of coronavirus patients, leading surgeons are warning. Members of the Royal College of Surgeons of England say they doubt the NHS can meet targets to restore surgery back to near pre-pandemic levels. Planned procedures such as hip replacements were paused to free up beds during lockdown in the spring. And hospitals have since been dealing with a backlog. In July, NHS England boss Sir Simon Stevens told trusts hospitals should by September 2020 be performing at least 80 per cent of their September 2019 rates of overnight planned procedures and outpatient or day-case procedures. And by October, this proportion should rise to 90 per cent. But data suggests more than two million people have been waiting longer than 18 weeks for routine operations, with 83,000 waiting more than a year – up from 2,000 before the pandemic. BBC news, October 6

Commons rebellions on curfew and rule of six
MPs could signal growing discontent with the government’s coronavirus restrictions at key votes on the regulations this week, amid growing calls for the government to publish the scientific advice behind the 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants in the UK. Conservative and Labour MPs have signalled they could withdraw backing for implementing the rule of six regulation and the curfew at votes expected this week. One senior Conservative MP said a small rebellion was expected on Tuesday on the rule of six statutory instrument – a retrospective vote on the implementation of the new measure under existing legislation. Another vote is expected by MPs to take place on Wednesday on the 10pm curfew – which could attract a more significant rebellion given the measure has also been criticised by the Labour frontbench. The Guardian, October 6

Phone crash hits efforts to trace 40,000 contacts
Contact tracers’ phone lines crashed as they scrambled to reach tens of thousands of potentially infectious people missed because of an IT blunder. A computing malfunction caused phones to fail yesterday as tracers tried to clear the backlog of an estimated 40,000 contacts of coronavirus cases, only half of whom had been identified by yesterday morning. Almost 16,000 infectious people were missed because of an error caused by systems reliant on a 13-year-old version of Microsoft Excel and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, could not say when their contacts would be reached. The Times, October 6

500,000 redundancies planned since crisis
British employers planned 58,000 redundancies in August, taking the total to 498,000 for the first five months of the Covid crisis. Some 966 separate employers told the government of plans to cut 20 or more jobs, compared with 214 last August, a more than fourfold increase. However, the figures were down from the levels seen in June and July, which both saw 150,000 job cuts planned. The figures were released to the BBC after a freedom of information request. BBC news, October 6

Trump returns to White House from hospital
Donald Trump returned to the White House on Monday evening after three days of hospital treatment for coronavirus, although his doctor warned that the president was not yet “out of the woods”. Mr Trump walked down the steps of the Walter Reed Medical Center wearing a mask and without assistance shortly before 7pm, giving a thumbs up to the cameras and saying only: “Thank you very much, everybody.” Upon returning to the White House, he discarded his mask for an extended period to watch the departure of the presidential helicopter, Marine One, which had flown him back from the Maryland military hospital. He then participated in a video message shot from the balcony of the White House, declaring: “Now I’m better. Maybe I’m immune,” he hypothesised. “I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there. Be careful … The vaccines are coming momentarily.” Financial Times, October 6

Biden warns Trump is to blame for getting virus
It is President Trump’s own fault that he caught coronavirus his Democratic rival Joe Biden told a live television audience from a town hall event in Miami last night. The former vice-president was careful to wish the president and the first lady well with their recoveries at the start of the discussion, but then said that Mr Trump’s diagnosis was not a surprise given his disregard for the recommended precautions while campaigning and carrying out his presidential duties. “Look, three times a week I’m on the telephone and on Zoom with some of the leading immunologists in the nation,” Mr Biden said during the NBC News event. “They go through everything that’s happening.” He said that it was unrealistic to imagine “that Covid does not spread in proximity, when you don’t have a mask on and you’re not social distancing, when there’s large groups of people, when you’re inside particularly but even when you’re outside. That’s not surprising.” The Times, October 6

Lower taxes like it’s 1993, economists tell Sunak
Rishi Sunak has been urged to embark on a big tax simplification by an influential group of more than 30 economists, academics, business people and politicians. An open letter organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs advises the chancellor to look to the past for inspiration for policies that can “recreate success” and build a “bright future” despite the damage done to the economy by the pandemic. As Mr Sunak prepares to address the Conservative Party conference by video today, a briefing paper from the think-tank highlights policies that it argues helped create the strongest period of growth in government revenue in the last 40 years, namely the decade starting in 1993. The relevant policies included falling corporation tax, a top rate of income tax of 40 per cent, stamp duty of no more than 4 per cent and a “light regulatory burden on all productive sectors”, the IEA said, as well as VAT at 17.5 per cent. The Times, October 5

Less than half UK population to receive vaccine
Less than half the UK population can expect to be vaccinated against coronavirus, the head of the government’s vaccine task force has said in an attempt to clear up the public’s “misguided” perception of the programme’s aim. Kate Bingham told the FT that vaccinating everyone in the country was “not going to happen”, adding: “We just need to vaccinate everyone at risk.” Her comments come as Boris Johnson on Sunday warned that the country was in for a “bumpy” winter. Calling himself a “freedom-loving Tory”, he urged Britons to live “fearlessly but with common sense”. However, pointing to the latest infection rate data, which has surged despite more than a quarter of the UK living under tighter restrictions, the prime minister said the number one priority was to keep fighting the virus. Financial Times, October 4

Airport testing may finally get clearance in days
Ministers may finally announce airport testing this week as they sought to explain the delay in implementing the policy as an attempt to find the best possible system. Stephen Barclay, chief secretary to the Treasury, said on Saturday that a decision on airport swabbing would be taken in the “coming days”. He pointed to the airport testing regime in Germany, where passengers arriving from high-risk countries could be rapidly tested and allowed to leave quarantine earlier. The government has faced criticism from the aviation industry and senior Tory backbenchers over the quarantine policy, which they say is seriously damaging the economy by affecting travel and tourism. In the UK all passengers arriving from high-risk countries must self-isolate for 14 days. The Times, October 5

Trump criticised for drive-by visit
President Donald Trump sparked criticism for briefly leaving Walter Reed military hospital in an SUV to thank supporters on Sunday, in a political stunt that raised questions about the coronavirus infection risk to his driver and security team. His escape from hospital, where the president has been treated for Covid-19 since Friday, capped a tumultuous three days during which he was given oxygen after his levels fell dangerously low. It also followed a weekend of misleading statements from the White House doctor and other officials that painted an overly rosy picture of his health. Mr Trump’s doctors said he could be discharged on Monday if he continued to improve. Hours after doctors revealed that Mr Trump was taking a steroid normally reserved for patients with severe cases of Covid-19, the president was driven slowly past hundreds of fans in a vehicle with two others inside on Sunday evening. James Phillips, a George Washington University doctor who also practises at Walter Reed, criticised Mr Trump over the move. “Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days,” Dr Phillips tweeted. “They might get sick. They may die. For political theatre. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theatre. This is insanity.” Financial Times, October 5

Paris bars to close for two weeks as city moves to maximum Covid alert
Paris is to be placed on maximum Covid-19 alert, meaning bars will be forced to close for two weeks from Tuesday and restaurants will have to put in place new sanitary protocols to stay open, the prime minister has ordered. Jean Castex’s office said there had been no improvement in the Paris region since the French capital passed all three of the government’s criteria for being put on the highest level of alert mid last week. The move comes as Europe’s second wave gathers pace, with Ireland’s health officials reportedly about to recommend a return to full lockdown and leaked documents showing plans for a stricter traffic-light system in England … Leaked documents seen by the Guardian show plans for a new three-tier lockdown system, paving the way for potential harsher restrictions including the closure of pubs and a ban on all social contact outside of household groups. The Guardian, October 5

Cineworld to cut 45,000 jobs
Shares in Cineworld have plunged after it confirmed it will temporarily close all of its cinemas in the UK and US as it struggles with the pandemic-induced lack of new films to draw in audiences, including the twice-delayed new James Bond instalment. Some 45,000 employees will be out of work because of the closures, including about 5,500 staff in the UK and 20,000 in the US, as well as contractors such as cleaners and security workers. Staff were informed on Sunday. The world’s second biggest cinema operator said its 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse UK cinemas [and] its 536 Regal cinemas in the US would shut from Thursday. The Guardian, October 5

Worst September for UK car sales this century
New UK car registrations fell 4.4 per cent in September from a year earlier, according to the motor industry. That made it the worst September this century in what is normally the industry’s second most important month. There were just 328,041 new registrations in the month, said the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. The car sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, which closed factories and showrooms. September is normally second to March as the industry’s most important sales month, because licence plate changes typically prompt a spike in demand. But the SMMT said last month saw the lowest volume in new cars since the current licence plate system began in 1999. BBC news, October 5

Trumps test positive for coronavirus
Donald Trump and his wife Melania have tested positive for Covid-19 and will quarantine barely a month before the US presidential election. “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!” Mr Trump tweeted. Shortly after Mr Trump sent the tweet, the White House released a signed memorandum from the president’s physician confirming that both Mr and Mrs Trump had tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday evening. “The President and First Lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain home at the White House during their convalescence,” Dr Sean Conley said. “Rest assured I expect the President to continue carrying out his duties without disruption while recovering,” he added. Financial Times, October 2

MPs demand explanation over virus loans fear
MPs have asked the government to explain what action it took to address warnings about the design and management of emergency taxpayer-backed Covid-19 loans. Darren Jones, chairman of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee, has written to Alok Sharma, the business secretary, to raise concerns about the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS), Future Fund and Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme. His intervention comes a day after it emerged that the state-owned British Business Bank, which administers the schemes, expressed its formal objections to the BBLS and the Future Fund before their launch. The bank warned that the BBLS was vulnerable to abuse by “individuals and organised crime” and may undermine competition, while the smaller Future Fund initiative risked propping up “second tier” companies at taxpayers’ expense. Mr Jones asked Mr Sharma what the business department had done to address the bank’s concerns, which were raised in May. The Times, October 2

SNP urges MP who broke isolation rule to resign
The Scottish National party’s Westminster leader on Friday said the position of an SNP member of parliament who broke coronavirus rules was “not tenable” as calls mounted for her to resign her seat. The SNP has moved sharply to distance itself from MP Margaret Ferrier, whose admission on Thursday that she travelled hundreds of miles to and from parliament while infected with Covid-19 has made her one of the UK’s most high-profile examples of defiance of pandemic regulations. Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP group at Westminster, suspended Ms Ferrier from the parliamentary party on Thursday and made clear on Friday morning that he thought she should not continue as an MP. “I would say to her that her position is not tenable … and she has to accept her own responsibilities,” Mr Blackford told BBC Radio Scotland. “I can’t force that upon her, she is no longer an SNP MP,” he said. “This is gut-wrenching, but it is an enormous error of judgment that she has made and she has to do the right thing for her constituents.” Financial Times, October 2

Home Office moved Covid-affected asylum seekers against orders
The Home Office moved dozens of asylum seekers involved in a Covid outbreak more than 120 miles despite an enforcement order saying they should remain in self-isolation for 14 days, the Guardian has learned. Home Office contractors have been accused of being “beyond reckless” in their handling of the initial outbreak. Among those who were moved despite the instruction to self-isolate, at least nine people were found to have Covid following testing, although the Home Office had initially said none had tested positive. The initial outbreak was among asylum seekers in Home Office accommodation in Birmingham. Public health officials deemed it too overcrowded to be Covid-secure after at least 26 people tested positive. Enforcement action was taken ordering everyone in the accommodation to self-isolate for 14 days, but the Home Office moved 40 people to the west London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. The Guardian, October 2

US: almost 20,000 Amazon workers test positive
Amazon has revealed that almost 20,000 of its workers in the US have contracted Covid-19 after months of demands for public disclosure from activists. The US tech company has been one of the biggest corporate winners during the pandemic, with people across the world switching to online shopping during lockdowns. However, Amazon has faced criticism from some labour campaigners who alleged that the company put employees in danger by keeping warehouses open. In a blogpost, Amazon said that its analysis suggested that the rate of infection among 1.4m workers at Amazon and its Whole Foods subsidiary was 42 per cent lower than the rate expected based on the broader US population. A state-by-state breakdown of the cases showed that the highest rate of infection of Amazon employees was in Minnesota, where 3.17 per cent of Amazon workers were presumed to have caught Covid-19, double the rate of infection in the broader population. However, the data did not give absolute numbers of infected workers in each state or whether workers in warehouses were more vulnerable. The Guardian, October 2

Crisis loans rushed in despite fraud warnings
The government was warned by the state development bank that key emergency schemes meant to help businesses survive the Covid-19 crisis risked wasting taxpayers’ money. The British Business Bank (BBB), which administers many of the government’s economic interventions, issued formal “reservation notices” outlining serious concerns about the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS) and Future Fund ahead of their launch. Last night the business department admitted in its annual report that losses on BBLS could be as high as 60 per cent, which could mean the taxpayer has to provide well over £20 billion to cover lenders’ losses. It has emerged that Keith Morgan, then chief executive of the Business Bank, wrote to the business secretary Alok Sharma in May to issue the warnings after his organisation was asked to implement and oversee the schemes. The Times, October 1

‘Millions of jobs’ at risk as furlough nears end
The countdown to the end of the furlough financial lifeline has begun, with employers facing increased costs amid a warning that millions of jobs now hang in the balance. From Thursday, the government’s contribution to furloughed workers’ wages falls. It is also the deadline for some firms to issue redundancy notices before the furlough scheme ends on 31 October. The current scheme is being replaced by a less generous jobs support package. Labour claims that as a result of the government’s “flawed” support, almost three million people working for small businesses are at risk of losing their jobs. BBC news, October 1

Sadiq Khan sets out £5.7bn TfL rescue plan
Sadiq Khan has called for a £5.7bn bailout of London’s transport system in a submission to the Treasury that lays bare the damage the coronavirus emergency measures have inflicted on the network. In the mayor’s official submission to the government’s spending review as chairman of Transport for London, Mr Khan said the funds were needed to keep the system going for the next 18 months. A similar package was struck a week ago for the national railway system. Meanwhile, Mr Khan, who is a member of the opposition Labour party, has accused the government of cutting London out of some of its recent spending announcements as it focuses on “levelling up” the regions. Senior Conservatives indicated that the government was likely to approve most of the money demanded by TfL but it could come with strings attached. Financial Times, October 1

World Bank announces $12bn plan for poor countries to buy Covid vaccines
The World Bank has announced plans for a $12bn (£9.3bn) initiative that will allow poor countries to purchase Covid-19 vaccines to treat up to 2 billion people as soon as effective drugs become available. In an attempt to ensure that low-income countries are not frozen out by wealthy nations, the organisation is asking its key rich-nation shareholders to back a scheme that will disburse cash over the next 12 to 18 months. David Malpass, World Bank president, said the initiative was needed because Covid-19 was having a much bigger impact on low- and middle-income countries than on the developed world. The Guardian, September 29

MPs to vote on renewing emergency powers
MPs will vote later on whether to extend emergency powers given to the government to tackle coronavirus. Dozens of Conservative MPs are demanding more parliamentary scrutiny of the multiple restrictions in place. Talks are continuing ahead of the vote in an attempt to reach a compromise and prevent any rebellion. Business Secretary Alok Sharma said ministers were “looking at” the options but defended the need to act quickly to save lives as cases rise. During a BBC interview, he rejected suggestions that many ministers did not understand the varying rules in force across England – after Boris Johnson apologised for stumbling over them on Monday – and criticised what he suggested were “gotcha” questions intended to catch people out. BBC news, September 30

UK spent £569m on 20,900 ventilators for Covid care but most remain unused
The government spent £569m buying 20,900 ventilators to keep people alive during the Covid-19 pandemic but lack of demand means NHS hospitals have used just a few of them. All but 2,150 of the machines it bought are still being held in a Ministry of Defence warehouse in case they are needed in the coming second wave of the disease. That is the conclusion of a National Audit Office investigation into the costs of ministers’ scramble to buy tens of thousands of mechanical ventilators in March and what it achieved. Whitehall’s spending watchdog found that the Department of Health and Social Care and Cabinet Office paid a lot more than usual for the devices but were right to do so given the threat to life. The Guardian, September 30

Uni leaders call to axe next year’s A-levels
Vice-chancellors have called for A-level exams to be cancelled next year because it would be “simply wrong” to waste time on assessment rather than lessons, putting them at odds with Gavin Williamson. The heads of two universities – supported by several others – have set out plans for teenagers to focus on learning for the whole of this academic year. The education secretary has insisted that GCSEs and A-levels will take place next summer and will decide next month whether they will be delayed slightly and whether less content will be compulsory in exams. Sir David Eastwood and Sir Chris Husbands, the heads of Birmingham University and Sheffield Hallam University, want A-level exams to be abandoned for next year in favour of teacher marks. The Times, September 30

US election has fewer international observers
There will be far fewer international election observers than planned at this year’s fraught US presidential vote because of a combination of health concerns during the pandemic and the lack of an invitation from the state department for Latin American observers. The electoral arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has had to scale down its ambitions because of Covid-related precautions and travel restrictions. It is sending 30 observers, instead of the 500 that had been recommended in view of the scale of concern about the US election. The Organization of American States has yet to receive an invitation to send observers to the 3 November vote, which is threatening to be the most contentious in modern US history as Donald Trump himself repeatedly claims it will be rigged and refuses to say whether he will leave the White House if defeated at the polls. The Guardian, September 29

Emergency lockdown plan to ban socialising
Ministers are preparing to enforce a total social lockdown across much of northern Britain and potentially London to combat a spiralling second wave of coronavirus. Under the new emergency plan, all pubs, restaurants and bars would be ordered to shut for two weeks initially. Households would also be banned indefinitely from meeting each other in any indoor location where they were not already under the order. Schools would stay open as well as shops, factories and offices at which staff could not work from home. The social lockdown was among options presented to the cabinet’s Covid-19 strategy committee before last week’s new restrictions, which included a 10pm curfew on all hospitality venues. The Times has learnt that the group of six ministers, led by Boris Johnson, held them back, fearing a backlash from Tory MPs and sections of the public. The Times, September 28

Britons told to ‘take responsibility’ for self-isolation
Senior ministers in Boris Johnson’s government have told citizens to take “personal responsibility” for self-isolation as significant new fines are introduced for those who fail to follow coronavirus guidance. From Monday, individuals will be fined £1,000 if they do not isolate after being tested positive for Covid-19 or being advised to do so by the NHS app. The fines will increase to £10,000 for repeat offenders. The government also announced that a glitch in its tracing app had been fixed, which meant some individuals were unable to input positive Covid-19 test results. The Department for Health announced the app had been downloaded 10m times. Financial Times, September 28

Brexit red tape set to create weeks of delay for patients awaiting drugs
Pharmaceutical industry leaders have fired a salvo into the Brexit trade talks, warning that patients face weeks of delays in securing vital medicines amid the coronavirus pandemic unless negotiators agree to cut red tape to smooth exports between the UK and the EU. In a rare joint intervention, ahead of the resumption of trade talks on Tuesday, the bodies representing the UK and European pharma industries called for a “mutual recognition agreement” to ensure tests and inspections on medicines carried out on one side of the English Channel are considered valid on the other, as currently happens through the UK’s membership of the European Medicines Agency. The processes will otherwise have to be duplicated after the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, risking delays of up to six weeks in obtaining medicines for patients, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations told the FT. Financial Times, September 28