Top story: Potential setback for return to school
Good morning and welcome to this Friday briefing, with me, Alison Rourke.
Boris Johnson’s plans to test millions of school students a week are in disarray after the UK regulator refused to formally approve the scheme. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) told the government it had not authorised the daily use of 30-minute tests because of concerns that they will give false reassurance if they test negative. This could lead to pupils staying in school and potentially spreading the virus when they should be self-isolating. The decision is another setback for the prime minister’s mass-testing plan (which experts remain divided over) and raises questions about the proposed full return of schools after the February half-term, which is partly dependent on the availability of serial testing.
In other Covid news, seriously ill coronavirus patients are being transferred from overstretched London hospitals to intensive care units almost 300 miles away in Newcastle. A ban on travellers from more than a dozen countries across South America entering Britain came into force early this morning because of growing concerns about a variant that has emerged in Brazil. The ban also covers Portugal because of its travel links with Brazil. Migrant doctors and other healthcare workers who have contracted Covid while caring for NHS patients with the virus say they are devastated that a parliamentary bill that would have given them the right to remain in the UK has been postponed. And Rishi Sunak is coming under renewed pressure to provide more financial support to businesses across the UK, as official figures are expected to confirm the UK has slumped into a double-dip recession. Business lobby groups say firms can’t afford to wait until the budget on 3 March for help, which Sunak has indicated will be the next date when he refreshes the government’s pandemic response.
‘American rescue plan’ – Joe Biden has unveiled a $1.9tn stimulus package to tackle the health and economic impacts of the pandemic ravaging the country. He pledged to deliver 100m vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office, saying the country would have to “move heaven and earth” to make it happen. He also flagged a plan to help schools to cope with the pandemic and to support frontline workers stay at work and isolate when they needed to. They plan also includes $1,400 stimulus cheques, topping up the much-argued-over $600 payments passed by Congress in December’s Covid-relief bill. But as Barry Eichengreen argues, stimulus payments alone won’t be enough to sustain a recovery. You can stay up to date with all the global coronavirus news on our live blog.
‘Boys’ club’ – Amber Rudd says Boris Johnson is emblematic of a “boys’ club” approach to the House of Commons, which makes it harder for women to win promotion. The former home secretary under Theresa May and work and pensions secretary under Johnson, said the PM was part of an “establishment group” whose style meant the political prospects for women were actually diminishing. “There is a kind of boys’ club-type behaviour in parliament because it is still more like a public school or a university club than anywhere else you’ll ever go,” Rudd told the Institute for Government.
Beirut blast – The company used to ship a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate to Beirut port, where it caused a devastating explosion last August, has been linked to three influential businessmen with ties to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a new investigation has found. The revelations about Savaro Limited – a London shelf company that was deregistered at Companies House on Tuesday – have amplified suspicions that Beirut had always been the cargo’s intended destination, and not Mozambique, its official endpoint. They also for the first time raise the possibility that the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of nitrate in Beirut may have been a byproduct of Syrian officials’ attempts to source nitrate to use in weapons.
Workers’ rights – The government has rejected a report that following Brexit it plans to tear up employment protections based in EU law – a strategy that Labour has called “a disgrace”. Proposals include an end to the 48-hour maximum working week, changes to rules about breaks at work, and removing overtime pay when calculating certain holiday pay entitlements, the Financial Times said. But Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, rejected the claims. “We are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights,” he tweeted. “The UK has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world – going further than the EU in many areas. We want to protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them.”
‘Neptune balls’ – Underwater seagrass in coastal areas appear to trap plastic pollution in natural bundles of fibre known as “Neptune balls”, researchers have found. With no help from humans, the plants may collect nearly 900m plastic items in the Mediterranean alone every year, a study reported in the journal Scientific Reports said. “We show that plastic debris in the seafloor can be trapped in seagrass remains, eventually leaving the marine environment through beaching,” lead author Anna Sanchez-Vidal from the University of Barcelona said.
Today in Focus podcast
This week, Donald Trump sanctioned the execution of the only woman on federal death row: Lisa Montgomery. She was the 11th prisoner to be killed since the president restarted federal executions in July last year. The Guardian US’s Ed Pilkington looks at why Trump has carried out more federal executions than any other president in almost 200 years.
Lunchtime read: Marianne Faithfull: ‘I was in a dark place’
After battling Covid-19 for three weeks in hospital, Marianne Faithfull went on to finish her 21st solo album – and possibly her last. She doesn’t remember anything about falling ill with coronavirus (a result of the disease), or being rushed to intensive care: “All I know is that I was in a very dark place – presumably, it was death.” In the outside world, obituaries were prepared and not just by ghoulish journalists who assumed Faithfull’s luck – which in the past had seen her through heroin addiction, bulimia, suicide bids, homelessness, breast cancer, hepatitis C and, in 2014, a broken hip that became infected after surgery – had finally run out. She was, by her own admission, very much Covid-19’s target market: 73 years old, with a raft of underlying health conditions, including emphysema, the result of decades of smoking. She tells Alexis Petridis about her experience of Covid, how she might never sing again, her hatred of being a 60s muse and why she still believes in miracles.
Frank Lampard has admitted he is trying to coach his players out of the urge to celebrate, as teams received their sternest warning yet that they should stop hugging after scoring a goal. But Sam Allardyce, while endorsing the regulations, hit back at what he saw as the “absolute nonsense” of the Conservatives focusing on football. The Olympic 100m hurdles champion, Brianna McNeal, could face an eight-year ban after becoming the latest big-name athlete to be charged with an anti-doping violation.
Marcus Rashford has revealed a pep talk from the former Manchester United manager José Mourinho helped him become more “savvy” in the penalty area. John Terry will play a surprising role in England’s plans for this autumn’s Rugby League World Cup, after the head coach, Shaun Wane, revealed that the former Chelsea and England captain will work with the national team at some point during 2021. The decline in children’s activity levels during the pandemic has been less severe than feared in England because of a boom in home fitness among girls, a major new report has found, with TikTok, boxercise and Joe Wicks all playing a part. England Women will fly out to New Zealand later this month facing stringent new quarantine measures before their series in February.
And play has resumed on the second day of the test between England and Sri Lanka. A short time ago England were 153-3. You can follow all the action on our live blog.
Ministers face calls to extend the deadline for purchasing a house in England using the help-to-buy loan scheme, as buyers face losing thousands of pounds because of Covid-related delays in construction. The government’s help-to-buy equity loan scheme, launched in 2013, allows people to buy a new-build home with a 5% deposit. The scheme was extended in July due to the pandemic, but ministers have refused to postpone the deadline any further. Delays on building sites will mean that many developers are unable to build homes on time to meet the deadline at the end of March, leaving prospective buyers unable to take advantage of the loan scheme despite having paid out for legal and broker fees.
The pound is buying $1.369 and €1.126.
Coronavirus dominates the front pages again. The Guardian splashes with the exclusive “Mass school Covid testing not approved by regulator”, with officials concerned the tests would give people false reassurance if they were negative. The Telegraph leads with “‘Shocking’ care home outbreaks at levels not seen since first peak”, reporting that cases in care homes have more than trebled in a month.
The Mail and the Express are both hopeful on infection rates with: “At last … infection rates in retreat” and “Dare we hope … tide is turning in Covid battle”, respectively. The i reports “500,000 jabs a day in UK vaccine plan”, citing plans published by the Scottish government. The Mirror leads with “Jabs on the High Street”, with the news that pharmacies have started carrying out vaccinations.
The FT’s Covid lead is “Digital Covid passport aims to open way for travellers with proof of jabs”, but the paper saves its splash for warnings over possible changes to workers’ protections with: “Plans to tear up EU work rights regime put 48-hour week at risk” (you can read our story on that here). The Times splashes with “150,000 arrest records wiped out in tech blunder” reporting that fingerprint, DNA and arrest history records have been accidentally deleted from police databases. Its Covid lead is “Whitehall sources predict all over-50s vaccinated by end of March”. The Sun’s splash is an exclusive with Katie Price on her son: “Sad Katie: Why I’m putting Harvey in care”.
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