Northern Irish business will face additional barriers to trade with Britain after Brexit, despite Boris Johnson’s promises to the contrary, the Government admitted on Wednesday. Mr Johnson said Northern Ireland’s businesses could throw customs declarations forms “in the bin” because there would be no “no barriers of any kind” to trade crossing the Irish Sea in November after negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels. Michael Gove told the House of Commons that Northern Irish traders would not face new import declarations and administrative requirements on goods they were exporting elsewhere in the UK but he admitted that would be subject to the EU agreeing to that system.
Brexit will result in physical customs checks for food and goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, ministers conceded yesterday as they pledged to minimise the disruption for businesses. Michael Gove said the government accepted that under the deal struck by Boris Johnson last year, the UK was obliged to enforce EU customs rules on goods entering the province. However, the Cabinet Office minister insisted these checks would be “the minimum possible” and the government would do everything it could to limit the “bureaucratic consequences”.
Britain’s proposal on Wednesday that its Brexit divorce deal would require no new customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland will be met with scepticism by many in the European Union, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said. “There is going to need to be a lot of technical discussion around the commitments that were made in this plan today. It’s quite straightforward in relation to things like live animals, but I think the really tricky area will be around customs,” Coveney told Irish national broadcaster RTE.
THE UK sparked a fresh Brexit showdown with Brussels after defying demands for new border posts in Northern Ireland and barred any EU presence in the country. Government documents published on Wednesday confirmed there will need to be checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK from January next year once the Brexit transition period has ended. But it rejected the EU’s demands for new infrastructure to be introduced to carry out the checks. Instead they will expand existing border screening to carry out the additional checks.
Michel Barnier has raised the temperature in the row over deadlocked Brexit trade talks, warning that the UK has no “automatic entitlement” to trade with the EU on favourable terms. The European Commission’s chief negotiator was hitting back after his UK counterpart David Frost yesterday claimed the bloc was making a sub-standard offer to Britain, which he said would lead to “a relatively low-quality trade agreement coming with unprecedented EU oversight of our laws and institutions”. But in a letter of his own Mr Barnier said: “There is no automatic entitlement to any benefits that the EU may have offered or granted in other contexts and circumstances to other, often very different, partners.”
A “new dynamism” is needed in the next round of post-Brexit UK-EU trade talks if they are to avoid a “stalemate”, EU chief negotiator Michael Barnier says. In a letter, he criticises the “tone” of his UK counterpart David Frost, but says talks could move forward with “constructive engagement by the UK”. He was responding to a letter written by Mr Frost which was critical of the EU’s approach to the negotiations. The two sides will meet for the fourth round of talks from 1 June.
GUY Verhofstadt, who served as the European Parliament’s Brexit representative, has been slated on social media after returning to the subject of the UK’s exit from the bloc yet again, accusing Britain of “pulling up the drawbridge”. Committed europhile Mr Verhofstadt, a persistent critic of the UK’s decision to quit the bloc, made his remarks in response to Home Secretary Priti Patel, who tweeted: “We’re ending free movement to open Britain up to the world.” Mr Verhofstadt, who was the Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the assembly, from 2009 to 2019, said: “Scoop! Britain is the first country in world history to open up by pulling up the drawbridge!”
Voice of Europe
Germany’s agreement to share debt with other EU countries to finance an economic recovery plan is being greeted as a political breakthrough and an overdue sign of unity in the face of the worst downturn the bloc has ever seen. Chancellor Angela Merkel broke with her country’s longstanding opposition to shared borrowing with other EU member countries. The proposal made with French President Emmanuel Macron is limited in scale and duration, which could help her sell it to skeptics back home.
France has been accused of assisting an “invasion” of illegal migrants after its border patrol ships were filmed escorting dinghies carrying people across the Channel. Record numbers of migrants are crossing by small boats, including a 17-day old baby, who was rescued. Border patrols say that they are powerless to halt the boats because migrants have threatened to throw themselves or their children into the sea if they are forced to turn back.
Nigel Farage has been condemned as “callous and heartless” for making a boat trip into the Channel to monitor migrants arriving in the UK. The Brexit Party leader posted on Twitter that he had “just hit dry land in Dover” after an early morning foray to track migrants arriving on British shores. His latest move comes after he was reprimanded by the police for making several trips to the south coast during lockdown to produce videos on what he describes as an “illegal migrant scandal”.
Brexit leader Nigel Farage has called on the government to act after he filmed what appeared to be the French Navy escorting an “absolutely packed” rubber dinghy of illegal migrants into British waters. Mr Farage said that he sailed right to “the edge of British and French territorial waters” in order to document the growing scandal of illegal migrants sailing across the English Channel from France. The veteran Brexiteer reported that he and his crew had already spotted “three migrant boats”.
Boris Johnson yesterday set a ten-day target to deliver a virus tracing system that could allow the lockdown to be eased. He said a 25,000-strong army of trackers had been recruited to identify the contacts of infected victims and prevent outbreaks. The Government’s scientific advisers insist the system must be in place before any more restrictions are lifted. If the scheme is up and running in time some schools and shops could reopen as early as June 1. Rules limiting social contact could also be relaxed at that point, with a decision due at the end of next week.
Boris Johnson has pledged to get contact tracing in place by June 1 as he attempts to get children back to school and the country out of lockdown. The Prime Minister wants primary schools to reopen to help get parents back to work and hopes the “world beating” test and trace system will satisfy teacher union concern over staff safety. Unions had suggested the lack of such a system would stop teachers safely returning to school but on Wednesday in the Commons Mr Johnson insisted that it would be in place by June 1.
Newly recruited contact tracers are being paid to sit at their computers with nothing to do after training sessions that left recruits feeling “completely and utterly confused”. The government is hiring 25,000 people to track new coronavirus cases and identify who else might have been infected. The British outsourcing giant Serco and Sitel, a large American contact centre company, are among those recruiting and training people to implement the system. Sitel has redirected staff who worked for other clients including Airbnb, Thomas Cook and UK Visas and Immigration in order to help fill the posts before a planned launch.
A contact-tracing system to keep new cases of coronavirus under control will be ready by the end of next week, Boris Johnson has promised. The prime minister said 25,000 contact tracers will have started work by June 1 but an NHS app has been delayed. Scientific advisers have told ministers that a system to spot new cases quickly and isolate them so that they do not infect others will be needed before lockdown can be eased further, but the launch date has slipped back.
The UK has recorded another 363 hospital deaths from COVID-19 today, taking the official total among people who have tested positive to 35,704. NHS England said 166 people had died in its hospitals, while a further 197 people died in the other three nations and in care homes, private homes elsewhere in the community. Another 2,472 people have been diagnosed with the virus today, taking the total number of cases to 248,293 – the fifth highest in the world. The government said it had done 177,216 tests in the last 24 hours.
The number of people seriously ill with coronavirus has dropped below 10,000 for the first time since the start of the lockdown. Deaths and infections will continue to fall if people stick with social distancing, the NHS’s leading doctor said, as ministers held out hopes of summer holidays in Britain. Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, said that he hoped to have tourism “up and running by the beginning of July” as the government prepared a push for domestic holidays.
The Culture Secretary has hailed ‘promising’ figures showing only small numbers of people are now testing positive for coronavirus in London. Oliver Dowden said the Government may consider lifting restrictions in ‘micro-hotspots’ when track and trace was in place but ruled out regional variation, saying the intention was to still ‘move as a whole nation’.
London has recorded no new cases of coronavirus for a full 24 hour period, the latest official data shows. Public Health England data shows that none of the Covid-19 swabs taken in the capital on Monday came back positive. It was a fall from 19 cases the previous day. Officials put the steep decline down to a technical hitch in the patient notification system over the weekend, with NHS England confirming it “did not operate for a period of time” on Saturday. But the latest data is the first sign that the capital, which was ravaged by the virus early on in the outbreak, is starting to see light.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recorded its highest ever daily rise in coronavirus cases. Director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday there had been 106,000 new cases in the past 24 hours. He used the figures to warn people the pandemic is far from being nearly over. Dr Tedros also expressed concern about the rising infections in low and middle-income nations. He said: “In the last 24 hours, there have been 106,000 cases reported to WHO – the most in a single day since the outbreak began. “Almost two-thirds of these cases were reported in just four countries.”
More evidence face masks help curb the spread of the coronavirus has emerged after a study found it reduced infection by up to 75 per cent. Researchers in Hong Kong studied transmission of the virus between hamsters, with half infected with COVID-19 and the other being healthy. They analysed various scenarios in which the hamsters cages were either cloaked with face mask material or not. Although it’s completely different to how humans interact, the researchers said it showed ‘very clearly’ that covering the nose and mouth is hugely effective to mitigate spread.
The wearing of cloth face masks by the public was becoming more about politics than science, one expert has argued, as a new study reveals potential benefits and problems of the coverings. At present the UK government recommends the public wear face coverings when in crowded places where it is not always possible to maintain social distancing – a stance also taken by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – while other countries, including the Czech Republic, have made the wearing of masks in the community mandatory.
Antibody tests will be available for NHS and social care staff from next week so they can ascertain if they have already had coronavirus, the Government is expected to announce today. Healthcare workers will be able to access the tests in the coming days with priority given to front-line staff working close to Covid-19 patients, such as those who work in intensive care units. The news came as NHS chiefs warned last night against buying commercial antibody tests, after Superdrug became the first high street retailer to offer one for sale.
Parents remain in the dark about whether primary schools will reopen on June 1 with many councils leaving it up to head teachers to decide. A survey carried out by The Times of 151 local education authorities in England found only a small minority are abiding by the government’s timeline to open up to priority year groups in less than two weeks, while other local authorities are yet to decide. Almost two thirds of local education authorities responded and only 17 of them say they are planning for June 1. This compares with 23 who said they were not aiming for this date.
SOME 2,200 English primary schools are set to defy plans to reopen on June 1 — despite doctors dropping their opposition. At least 28 councils have joined the growing revolt and warned their schools could stay shut on the date. Analysis by The Sun found the local authorities cover 2,269 primaries. Ministers want kids in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to head back first on June 1, if scientists give it the go-ahead. If 120 kids in each of these council schools are denied the chance to return, 272,280 will be forced to stay at home.
Boris Johnson‘s plans to reopen schools on June 1 appear to be collapsing today after at least 13 mainly Labour councils refused while parents who want their children back in class were being branded ‘teacher bashers’ by those in the profession. Extraordinary rows between parents and teachers have broken out on WhatsApp groups and online forums as it was revealed that up to 1,500 English primary schools are now expected to remain closed in 12 days’ time despite millions of children being at home for more than eight weeks.
Sweden has now overtaken the UK, Italy and Belgium to have the highest coronavirus per capita death rate in the world, throwing its decision to avoid a strict lockdown into further doubt. According to figures collated by the Our World in Data website, Sweden had 6.08 deaths per million inhabitants per day on a rolling seven-day average between May 13 and May 20. This is the highest in the world, above the UK, Belgium and the US, which have 5.57, 4.28 and 4.11 respectively.
Sweden is suffering the highest Covid-19 death rate in Europe, raising pressure on the government to abandon its soft approach and impose a lockdown of the kind that has worked elsewhere. Stefan Lofven, the Social Democrat prime minister, said that the country’s strategy, under which people are encouraged to work from home if they can as schools, restaurants and businesses stay open, will bear fruit in the long run, despite signs that the disease is persisting as it declines on the rest of the continent.
House of Commons
Jacob Rees-Mogg today told MPs they should no longer work from home and must physically return to Westminster if they want to participate in debates and vote on new laws. The House of Commons is currently using a ‘hybrid’ system which allows a maximum of 50 MPs to be present in the chamber while up to 150 can take part using Zoom video software. But Mr Rees-Mogg, the Commons Leader, said the current set-up dramatically curtailed the amount of time which could be spent debating legislation as he said all MPs should come back to London on June 2 after the Whitsun recess which starts tomorrow.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has been told by a senior Conservative backbencher that an attempt to return to a “physical” parliament will in effect “euthanise” MPs who are sick, shielding and self-isolating. After the leader of the house confirmed the government planned to end the virtual parliamentary proceedings and force MPs to return to Westminster in early June, the former minister Robert Halfon said the proposals would discriminate and threaten the lives of some MPs.
The BBC is to refocus its news programmes on towns and cities that voted Leave, after admitting it “under-served” them during the EU referendum. The corporation will overhaul its regional news output and give more time to voices from the Midlands and the North of England, answering critics who have accused it of representing a metropolitan elite. In its annual plan, the BBC singled out Bradford, Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Blackpool and Peterborough. Bradford voted 54.2 per cent to leave the EU and the others voted at least 60 per cent in favour.
BBC Four could be transformed into a “Netflix for the arts” subscription service for international viewers while being mothballed in the UK. The BBC said that it was “exploring potential commercial opportunities” for the culture channel abroad, despite confirming plans to downgrade it into a repeats station in Britain to save money. A BBC Four-branded global streaming service would allow the corporation to exploit its large back catalogue of acclaimed history series, cultural shows and music documentaries.
The Government is demanding Premier League matches are shown live on television and free-to-air at 3pm on Saturdays. If agreed it would be an historic moment for football in this country with live broadcasts of league games having previously been subject to a black-out to protect clubs. However that stipulation was lifted by Uefa soon after the coronavirus crisis brought a halt to sport in March, allowing games to be shown across Europe at that time.
ITV is asking for a £1.5 million reduction in what it still owes to racing for television rights following the loss of the Grand National meeting in April. A new three-year contract between the broadcaster and the sport, which has been the subject of negotiations since April last year, is believed to be almost ready but the Aintree issue with the current contract – worth £30 million over four years – needs resolving first.