PM 'Anxious' About Indian Variant
The prime minister has admitted he is “anxious” about the spread of the Indian Covid-19 variant in the UK. Speaking during a school visit in County Durham on Thursday, Boris Johnson said there remained a “very wide range of scientific opinion” about how the variant could affect the UK. However, when quizzed about the possibility of localised lockdowns in future, he said: “There may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get”.
Despite the concerns, Johnson has maintained that nationwide lockdown easing will go ahead in England from Monday. On Thursday, the government’s Sage advisory committee met to assess the rise in cases of the variant. According to Prof Paul Elliott, director of the React testing programme at Imperial College London, the Indian strain is now circulating in London and is “at least as transmissible” as the Kent variant that is currently dominant in the UK.
Downing Street has suggested surge vaccinations could be carried out in virus hotspots to combat the variant’s spread. This would involve focusing extra doses of the jab in targeted areas to immunise a bigger proportion of the population. A similar campaign has reportedly been launched in Blackburn and Darwen this week, with extra doses being made available to all over-18s in the area's three worst-affected wards.
ISRAEL MOVES TROOPS TO GAZA BORDER
Thousands of Israeli troops have begun moving to the border with Gaza as Israel’s conflict with Palestinian militants intensifies. The cross-border violence entered its fourth day on Thursday as Palestinian Hamas fighters continued to battle with the Israeli military in a fierce air offensive. The Israeli army has stepped up its bombing campaign in Gaza, with a BBC journalist in the enclave reporting heavy shelling involving gunboats and fighter jets. At the same time, Hamas has continued to fire hundreds of rockets into Israel.
According to Palestinian health officials, more than 100 people have now been killed in Gaza and 580 have been injured. Seven people have died in Israel. On Thursday, Israeli troops and tanks began amassing at the border with Gaza. The reinforcements follow warnings from Israel that its military is preparing plans for a possible ground invasion. On Thursday, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Israeli operation against Hamas "would continue for as long as necessary."
Meanwhile, violence has worsened in mixed communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel. Synagogues were attacked in some towns, and shops and cars have been torched. A Jewish mob beat a man thought to be an Arab as he lay in the street in Bat Yam on Thursday, while another person was shot by Arabs in the town of Lod. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin has warned the country risks falling into “a senseless civil war”. Ceasefire efforts by the UN, Egypt and Qatar are yet to offer any signs of progress.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis issues a formal apology for the Troubles killings that took place in Ballymurphy in 1971. The apology comes after a coroner concluded that the 10 people shot dead in the west Belfast neighbourhood were “entirely innocent”. Delivering her findings this week, Justice Keegan said the British Army had been responsible for nine of the fatal shootings.
Speaking in the Commons on Thursday, Lewis said the government was “truly sorry” for the deaths. “The families of those who were killed should never have had to experience the grief and trauma of that loss,” he said. “Above all, they should not have had to wait nearly five decades for the judgement this week.” The prime minister, who has been criticised for failing to personally deliver a public apology, said he would be writing to the victims’ families.
In other news
MILLIONS WAIT FOR NHS TREATMENT
New NHS figures revealed a record 4.95m people were waiting for hospital treatment in England at the end of March. The figure comes as the health service struggles to tackle the backlog in care caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The number of people waiting more than a year for treatment has now surpassed 400,000 – the most since 2007.
On Thursday, the NHS announced a new £160m initiative aimed at identifying ways to combat the backlog. The funding will be used to buy mobile CT and MRI scanning trucks for hospitals and extend surgery operating times in the evening and at weekends, as well as providing care to patients at home using ‘virtual wards’.
PORTO TO HOST CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL
Uefa has confirmed that this year’s Champions League final will be played in Portugal. The match between Manchester City and Chelsea was originally due to take place at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul. However, Turkey has since been placed on the UK’s travel ‘red list’ following a rise in Covid-19 infections. The restrictions, which would have required travelling fans to quarantine on their return to the UK, have prompted Uefa to relocate the match.
The final will now be held on 29th May in Porto, Portugal, which is on the UK’s ‘green list’. While the stadium capacity is yet to be confirmed, Uefa said 6,000 tickets would be made available to fans at both clubs.
TESLA DROPS BITCOIN OVER FOSSIL FUEL USE
Tesla has stopped accepting payments made in Bitcoin due to concerns over its environmental impact. Elon Musk, chief executive of the electric vehicle company, said Tesla had halted vehicle purchases using the digital currency due to the “rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels” for Bitcoin mining and transactions.
The creation of new Bitcoins requires an energy-intensive computer process known as mining. According to Cambridge University’s Centre for Alternative Finance, the cryptocurrency’s energy usage now equates to more than the total electricity consumption of Sweden and Argentina. The statement from Musk, who has been a high-profile supporter of Bitcoin, triggered a 17% drop in the cryptocurrency’s price on Thursday morning.
NO 10 REFURB DETAILS COULD BE REVEALED SOON
Details about the funding of refurbishments at the prime minister’s Downing Street flat could be revealed by the end of this month. Lord Geidt – who has been newly appointed by Boris Johnson as the independent adviser on ministers’ interests – has promised MPs he will publish the findings of his inquiry into the refurbishments by the end of May.
Geidt has vowed to consider “all the facts” relating to the renovations – including details of how the work was paid for. The information will be published alongside the much-delayed list of ministerial interests. “I think public confidence demands that this list be published without further delay,” Geidt said.
HOLIDAY FIRMS WARNED OVER REFUNDS
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has warned package holiday companies that they must refund customers if their overseas trips are cancelled due to the coronavirus this summer. The watchdog said it had written to 100 package tour firms to remind them of their legal obligations after receiving more than 20,000 complaints from consumers about refund issues last year.
“We want to make sure people are fully aware of their refund rights,” CMA chief Andrea Coscelli said. “We expect all firms to give clear cancellation options and will consider appropriate steps if we see companies breaking the law by refusing or delaying refunds this summer.”
A safari park in China has been forced to issue an apology after it failed to tell residents that three of its leopards had escaped. According to police, lax zookeepers at Hangzhou Safari Park allowed the animals to escape while cleaning their enclosures on 19th April. However, the park only came clean about the loose cats this week after police launched an investigation into the city’s growing number of leopard sightings. As of Tuesday, two of the leopards had been captured – but one remained at large.