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PM under fire for Covid-19 Xmas parties

Boris Johnson told yesterday’s PMQs “all guidance was followed completely” when asked if he allowed Christmas parties to take place at Downing Street while the country was in a national lockdown last year. On Tuesday, the Mirror accused the prime minister of holding multiple gatherings in November and December 2020. During PMQs he did not directly address the paper’s claims. On Wednesday, Sir Keir Starmer said the rules at the time were “very clear” and prohibited work Christmas lunches and parties. 

The accusation came as health secretary Sajid Javid reiterated Johnson’s directive of not cancelling Christmas parties this year due to the Omicron variant. On Sky News, Javid said he was confident all adults would be offered a Covid-19 booster vaccine by the end of January. Yesterday, ministers reportedly ordered 114m more doses. Other government measures have also been introduced to keep the variant at bay, including mask-wearing in shops and on public transport, as well as tightening international travel restrictions and self-isolation rules. 

The health secretary said the restrictions will be reviewed in three weeks or sooner, as experts said they will know more about the variant in two weeks. New shadow health secretary Wes Streeting called for the government to introduce pre-departure testing for all arrivals into the UK from overseas ahead of Christmas. The BBC has reported seeing minutes from the government’s Sage advisory committee, which also recommended pre-departure testing.

Jacob Rees-Mogg under investigation

An investigation has been launched by the parliamentary standards commissioner into leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg over an alleged breach of the MPs code of conduct. The Labour party called on independent commissioner Kathryn Stone to investigate the MP over claims he failed to declare £6m in loans from one of his own companies.

Yesterday, Stone announced she was investigating whether Rees-Mogg breached paragraph 14 of the code, which requires MPs to make an “open and frank” record of their financial interests in the Commons register. The Tory MP did not report to the official register that he received director’s loans from Saliston – which he owns – between 2018 and 2020. The MP denies misconduct claims.

Elsewhere in parliament, social care minister Gillian Keegan has outlined social care reforms, detailing £1bn will be spent on training carers and new technology to improve care, alongside offering those who require care greater choice in where they live. MPs were unimpressed by the plan. Labour’s Liz Kendall said it “utterly fails to deal with the immediate pressures facing social care” like waiting lists and carer conditions.

I want to reassure affected customers they do not need to worry, under our safety net we’ll make sure your energy supplies continue.

Ofgem’s director of retail Neil Lawrence reassures customers of Zog Energy following its collapse. On Wednesday, the energy company – which has 11,700 domestic customers – stopped trading due to the continuing surge in wholesale gas costs. Ofgem said it will appoint a new supplier for the firm’s customers and insisted people should wait until it has been allocated before switching.

Zog Energy is the latest energy firm to collapse, joining 25 other companies that have also gone into administration. An estimated 4m customers have been affected by energy companies folding. Last week, the UK’s seventh-largest supplier Bulb collapsed, meaning uncertainty for 1.7m people. Bulb was appointed a special administrator and given £1.7bn of taxpayers' money to stay afloat until its sale next year.


UK house prices return to growth

Figures show the housing market has unexpectedly grown back to double digits. An Index published by lender Nationwide last month showed prices were 10% ahead of those for November 2020. The latest increase took the average house price to £252,687. Nationwide’s chief economist Robert Gardner said prices were now almost 15% higher than when the pandemic first struck the UK in March last year.

The increases remained high despite the end to the stamp duty holiday in September. Tom Bill, the head of UK residential research at estate agent Knight Frank, said “gravity-defying price growth” is the result of low interest rates and a tighter supply of houses available to buyers. However, Bill added the Omicron variant could lead to a rise in interest rates, which could begin to cool the market down again.

US judges support abortion law

The US Supreme Court has signalled a willingness to curtail abortion rights in the US and possibly overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that legalised terminations. In Wednesday’s hearing, justices implied a majority support for a Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest.

The ruling for the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization case is expected in June 2022. Under present law, pregnant people have a right to terminate a pregnancy up to the point a foetus can survive outside the womb, widely regarded as 24 weeks gestation.

Maxwell trial continues

Ghislaine Maxwell’s lawyers have continued to question a woman on the stand, referred to as ‘Jane’, about the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of paedophile Jeffery Epstein and Maxwell when she was 14. Defence attorney Laura Menninger tried to focus on alleged inconsistencies between FBI interviews Jane gave in 2019 and her testimony in court, and whether Maxwell was really present.

On Tuesday, Jane described Maxwell leading her up the stairs to Epstein’s bedroom, but this detail did not come up with the FBI. In defence of her changing statement, Jane said “memory is not linear”. Jane cried on the stand and said she regretted receiving money from the compensation fund for Epstein’s victims, saying: “Compensation is the only thing you can get to try to move on with your life.”

WTA bans tournaments in China

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has announced the suspension of all tournaments in China amid concerns about the safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. Shuai disappeared last month after accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault. Last week she was interviewed by Olympic chief Thomas Bach, whose organisation declared Peng was “doing fine”.

However, the WTA said the video was “insufficient evidence” of Peng’s safety. Last night, chairman Steve Simon said he could not allow athletes to compete in China when Peng was “not allowed to communicate freely”. The organisation has repeatedly called for a full investigation into the tennis player’s claims.

Quarter of birds endangered

The red list of Britain’s most endangered birds has increased to more than a quarter of Britain’s 245 bird species. The swift, house martin, greenfinch and Bewick’s swan have been added to the list of 70 species. The red list means the birds are of highest conservation concern because of severe declines, numbers well below historical levels or the risk of global extinction.

The new assessment is almost double the amount of endangered bird species declared 25 years ago. Swift populations have fallen by 58% since 1995 and the number of house martins have dropped by 57% since 1969. Bewick’s swans have suffered from shifts in migrating patterns due to climate change.

Have you heard?

Living robots designed by a computer and built from stem cells have started to reproduce. In 2020 researchers designed the microscopic animal-machine hybrids, dubbed ‘xenobots’, which were able to stay alive for weeks. Scientists added separate embryonic frog stem cells to a petri dish with the xenobots, which then morphed together and began to move. Researchers are hopeful the xenobots could one day be programmed to move through arteries, scrape away plaque or swim through oceans removing toxic microplastic.

Picture Of The Day
A volunteer lights candles in the shape of a red ribbon (Source: Evening Standard / Photo: Getty Images)
Yesterday London celebrated World Aids Day, 40 years after the first diagnosis in the UK. London Councils’ executive member for health Danny Thorpe said if Aids work maintains the momentum of recent years, London is “on course” to achieve zero new diagnoses by 2030. In 2015, the cross-party group launched a campaign about prevention across the capital which has led to new diagnoses falling by 41% in the city, faster than any other area in the UK. Thorpe said there is a “real hope of ending HIV altogether” while acknowledging there are still 37,000 Londoners living with Aids today.