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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Matt Hancock tells Britons they can expect ‘a happy and free great British summer’ THIS YEAR

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Ministers sparked confusion over the summer holidays today as they gave conflicting views on how ‘normal’ life will be in six months’ time.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock raised the hopes of millions of Britons as he said that he expected a ‘Great British summer’ powered by the success of the vaccine rollout.

But less than half an hour after his local BBC interview, Trade Secretary Liz Truss said it was ‘dangerous’ for ministers to go on television ‘making promises about people’s summer holidays’.

In addition a senior government health expert warned against rushing to lift the lockdown. Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins warned that relaxing lockdown measures would have to be done ‘very slowly, very cautiously’ to avoid a surge in infections. 

Appearing on BBC Politics East this morning, Suffolk East MP Mr Hancock said he was confident that a high percentage of the UK population would have had their jab within the next six months, enabling a roll-back of restrictions that have been in place since the new year.

‘In six months we will be in the middle of, I hope, a happy and free great British summer. I have a high degree of confidence that by then the vast majority of adults will have been vaccinated.

‘That is not just the clinically vulnerable groups but then going to all groups, people like me – I’m in my 40s and healthy and we will have got though everybody. ‘That will give a high level of protection.’

It came as:   

  • Figures showed daily positive Covid tests have fallen by 31 per cent in the past week to 23,275
  • Hospital admissions down by 16 per cent over the same period, and deaths down six per cent to 1,200;
  • German claims that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was less effective in over-65s were rubbished by senior government adviser Professor Andrew Harnden 
  • Mr Johnson signalled that he wanted to relax lockdown rules on exercise
  • Some of the UK’s biggest firms, including John Lewis and Tata, said rapid workplace tests have prevented thousands of sick days and the closure of sites;
  • A major US study found proof that Covid-19 originated in China, undermining Beijing’s claims it may have come from elsewhere. 

The Health Secretary said he was confident that a high percentage of the UK population would have had their jab within the next six months, enabling a roll-back of restrictions that have been in place since the new year.

Less than half an hour after his local BBC interview, Trade Secretary Liz Truss said it was 'dangerous' for ministers to go on television 'making promises about people's summer holidays'.

Less than half an hour after his local BBC interview, Trade Secretary Liz Truss said it was ‘dangerous’ for ministers to go on television ‘making promises about people’s summer holidays’.

Mr Hancock has long been a summer optimist despite the horrific coronavirus death rate. In December he revealed he had already booked his summer holiday

Mr Hancock has long been a summer optimist despite the horrific coronavirus death rate. In December he revealed he had already booked his summer holiday

Public Health England's Dr Susan Hopkins warned that relaxing lockdown measures would have to be done 'very slowly, very cautiously' to avoid a surge in infections.

Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins warned that relaxing lockdown measures would have to be done ‘very slowly, very cautiously’ to avoid a surge in infections.

Irish PM blasts the EU over vaccine border closure threat 

Ireland’s prime minister lashed out at the European Union today over its vaccines threat to Northern Ireland, admitting he was one of those ‘blindsided’ by the announcement. 

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said he had been given no advance notice of the intention by the EU to trigger Article 16 of the Brexit Protocol on Friday.

He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that the first he was aware of it was a public announcement by the bloc on Friday night.

After invoking Article 16 to stop the unimpeded flow of vaccines from the European bloc into Northern Ireland, the EU later backtracked, following condemnation from London, Dublin and Belfast.

It is understood that a compromise will see vaccines crossing between the Republic and Northern Ireland being recorded in Dublin, but will not be at risk of being blocked.

Any move to prevent vaccines entering Ulster via the republic would effectively create a hard border that could have had serious ramifications for political stability.

The Taoiseach said he articulated the ‘very serious implications’ the move would have and engagement began between his office and the office of president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

‘I had a number of conversations with President von der Leyen and, in the aftermath of those, I also spoke, of course, to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and we discussed the implications of all of this, and the importance of getting a resolution by the close of that evening, Friday evening, and thankfully the commission did issue a statement pulling back and reversing its decision.’

Mr Martin also criticised French president Emmanuel Macron for suggesting – contrary to all available evidence – that the AZ jab did not work for those aged over 65.

”I don’t think politicians should pronounce on the efficacy or otherwise of vaccines,’ the Irish leader said. 

 

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But speaking a short time later on LBC radio, Ms Truss said that the government’s focus was on schools.

‘We have to just focus on step by step and summer holidays, I’m afraid, are a lower priority than getting kids back to school,’ she told the radio station.  

‘If there is one thing we have learnt during the coronavirus crisis so far, is how unpredictable things are, what things could emerge.

‘I think it would be very dangerous for a government minister to go on your show making promises about people’s summer holidays.’

The travel industry, both domestic and international, has been among the worst-hit by the repeated lockdowns over the past 10 months. 

Mr Hancock has long been a summer optimist despite the horrific coronavirus death rate.

In December he revealed he had already booked his summer holiday, travelling to Cornwall with his osteopath wife Martha and their three children.

Speaking in the Commons he said: Mr Hancock replied: ‘I do have high confidence that the summer of 2021 will be a bright one without the sort of restrictions that made the summer of 2020 more restrictive. I’ve booked my holiday. I’m going to Cornwall.’ 

The success of the UK vaccines programme has fostered hopes that lockdown restrictions can be lifted sooner rather than later, with a review expected to take place late in February.

Last night Michael Gove said the Government is ‘fully on course’ to hit its target of vaccinating the 15 million most vulnerable individuals in the UK by mid-February, as official data showed 8,378,940 had received first doses.

It has set September as a target for vaccinating all adults in the UK.  

However, Dr Hopkins today caustioned against excessive speed in lifting the lockdown, despite fears over the economy and the impact on schoolchildren. 

‘We have learnt, as we did on the first occasion, we have to relax things really quite slowly, so that if cases start to increase we can clamp down quite fast,’ she told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.

‘The NHS is going to be under pressure until the end of March, as normal in winter, but even more so with the amount of inpatients they still have with Covid-19.

‘Any releases that we have will have to happen very slowly, very cautiously, watching and waiting as we go, with a two-week period to watch and see the impact of that relaxation because it takes that to see what’s happening in the population.’

Meanwhile some social distancing may remain in place until the end of the year – while coronavirus vaccines would have to be 85 per cent effective to prevent a surge in deaths if restrictions were totally relaxed, scientists warned today.

Tony Blair: EU ‘very foolish’ over vaccines 

Tony Blair has criticised the European Union’s short-lived move to override the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland under its vaccine export controls as a ‘very foolish’ move that jeopardised the peace process.

The former prime minister, a vocal supporter of the UK remaining in the bloc, said Brussels’ action in triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to control the movement of coronavirus jabs had been ‘unacceptable’.

The EU backtracked on the move, imposed unilaterally as it faces shortfalls on vaccine supplies, after facing universal criticism from London, Dublin and Belfast.

Asked if the move was irresponsible, the Labour grandee told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: ‘Yes, it was a very foolish thing to do and fortunately they withdrew it very quickly.

‘I was somebody who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement, it’s brought peace to the island of Ireland and it is absolutely vital that we protect it and that’s why what the European Commission did was unacceptable but, as you say, fortunately they withdrew it very quickly.’ 

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Modelling passed to Downing Street warns that the UK could see a large spike in deaths if inoculation fails to significantly cut transmission.

A paper commissioned by SAGE subgroup SPI-M and produced by modellers at the University of Warwick showed a ‘high uptake’ was also vital to get the country back to normal without risking a third wave of Covid cases.

It also warned that even with Britain’s breakneck vaccine rollout underway, the decline in deaths would be slow – and finds that even in a best-case scenario, lockdown would have to be kept in place until June to prevent another significant spike in deaths, according to the Telegraph.  

The paper said: ‘Only vaccines that offer high infection-blocking efficacy with high uptake in the general population allow relaxation of non-pharmaceutical interventions without a huge surge in deaths.’

The modelling, which helps to explain why Boris Johnson is so reticent to end the third national coronavirus lockdown, comes as the Government plans on presenting a ‘roadmap’ out of the economy-wrecking shutdown.

It follows an extraordinary spat between Britain and the EU where Brussels attempted to isolate the UK by imposing a vaccines blockade of Northern Ireland. 

Boris Johnson handed the EU a stark warning that a vaccines blockade of Northern Ireland could kill British pensioners  in ‘spicy’ late-night phone calls with Ursula von der Leyen.   

The Prime Minister told the European Commission president that plans to stop 3.5 million doses from the Pfizer factory in Belgium the UK risked preventing people from receiving the second injection, forcing it into a hurried climbdown. 

While a single vaccination gives some protection from coronavirus, both are needed to achieve the maximum impact and Mr Johnson told Ms von der Leyen the EU’s hardline plan could lead to the deaths of the most vulnerable, including elderly grandparents.

During two phone calls just 30 minutes apart, the Prime Minister made Ms von der Leyen abandon the ‘nuclear option’ of imposing a hard border on Northern Ireland to prevent vaccines reaching the UK.

She immediately capitulated in a tweet sent out shortly before midnight on Friday. 

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss this morning said it was important to ‘resist vaccine nationalism and protectionism’, adding: ‘The Prime Minister has spoken to Ursula von der Leyen. She’s been very clear those contractual supplies won’t be disrupted.’ 

Following the PM’s diplomatic victory, Britain yesterday recorded a daily record for first-dose jabs – 487,756 – to bring the total to almost 8.4 million.   

Boris Johnson told Ursula von der Leyen the EU’s planned vaccines blockade of Northern Ireland could KILL British pensioners by preventing them getting a second jab in ‘spicy’ phone calls that forced Brussels to abandon the ‘nuclear option’

Boris Johnson handed the EU a stark warning that a vaccines blockade of Northern Ireland could kill British pensioners  in ‘spicy’ late-night phone calls with Ursula von der Leyen.   

The Prime Minister told the European Commission president that plans to stop 3.5 million doses from the Pfizer factory in Belgium the UK risked preventing people from receiving the second injection, forcing it into a hurried climbdown. 

While a single vaccination gives some protection from coronavirus, both are needed to achieve the maximum impact and Mr Johnson told Ms von der Leyen the EU’s hardline plan could lead to the deaths of the most vulnerable, including elderly grandparents.

During two phone calls just 30 minutes apart, the Prime Minister made Ms von der Leyen abandon the ‘nuclear option’ of imposing a hard border on Northern Ireland to prevent vaccines reaching the UK.

She immediately capitulated in a tweet sent out shortly before midnight on Friday. 

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss this morning said it was important to ‘resist vaccine nationalism and protectionism’, adding: ‘The Prime Minister has spoken to Ursula von der Leyen. She’s been very clear those contractual supplies won’t be disrupted.’ 

Following the PM’s diplomatic victory, Britain yesterday recorded a daily record for first-dose jabs – 487,756 – to bring the total to almost 8.4 million.   

The astonishing diplomatic drama came as:

Boris Johnson made European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen ditch plans to stop 3.5 million doses of the Pfizer jab from reaching the UK from a factory in Belgium

Boris Johnson made European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen ditch plans to stop 3.5 million doses of the Pfizer jab from reaching the UK from a factory in Belgium

Mr Johnson warned Ms von der Leyen (pictured) that her actions risked denying millions of British pensioners their second Pfizer injections

Mr Johnson warned Ms von der Leyen (pictured) that her actions risked denying millions of British pensioners their second Pfizer injections

Last night vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi revealed Britain will help the EU fix its jab supply issue.

After Brussels backed down on its threat to block vaccine supplies at the border, Mr Zahawi said the focus has moved to ‘collaboration’ with the EU, reported The Sunday Telegraph.

Mr Zahawi said the UK had sent engineers to the Halix plant in the Netherlands to help with supply problems last month, and that there would be a continued tone of ‘collaboration’ with the bloc.

Ms Truss also struck a conciliatory tone this morning, hinting on Sky that the UK could export excess doses of vaccine abroad as long as it did not impact on the UK rollout.

 ‘It’s a bit too early to say how we would deploy excess vaccines. But we certainly want to work with friends and neighbours, we want to work with developing countries, because we are only going to solve this issue once everybody in the world is vaccinated,’ she said.

‘Some of these supplies there have been supply issues so we need to make sure the new drugs that are coming online are delivered, the population is vaccinated. But of course as we are developing that, we are also working with other countries about how we can help. 

‘Because it won’t benefit people in Britain if we become a vaccinated island and many other countries don’t have the vaccine, because the virus will continue to spread, so we need to tackle this on a global basis.’

Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was a ‘huge wrong step’ for the EU to have triggered a provision in the Brexit deal to control vaccine exports.

He told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge programme: ‘It (the EU) got it completely wrong and I think the Government is being very wise to lower the temperature in a situation like this.

‘Because this year the big threat, which is not something many people predicted, is around these new variants, particularly from South Africa and also Brazil.

‘If we are going to tackle these new variants, and they could happen to be South Africa and Brazil this time, could be anywhere else next time, we are going to need to have high levels of close co-operation and collaboration across the world.

‘We all know the problems that happened because we didn’t find out about the virus in China as quickly as we might have, so we really do need to be working closely with everyone and we have the capacity to do that in this country with our world-beating genomics capacity.

‘That’s why I think this was a huge wrong step for the EU to take, but I think it’s very welcome that it’s been resolved.’

As part of an implicit ‘peace deal’ with the EU, No 10 yesterday adopted a conciliatory tone. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the EU recognised that it had ‘made a mistake’ and both sides agreed on the need for a ‘reset’.

After Brussels backed down on its threat to block vaccine supplies at the border, vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said the focus has moved to 'collaboration' with the EU

After Brussels backed down on its threat to block vaccine supplies at the border, vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said the focus has moved to ‘collaboration’ with the EU

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster was less diplomatic, branding the EU’s move an ‘incredible act of hostility’. 

Meanwhile Tory MPs were jubilant, with one describing the EU’s surrender as Mr Johnson’s ‘Falklands moment’.

The Mail on Sunday understands that before Brussels was forced to blink twice, the Government had drawn up contingency plans to break any EU blockade. 

Under a ‘vaccine security exercise’ adapted from plans for a No-Deal Brexit, supplies of the Pfizer jab could have been airlifted out of the continent.

The EU – and Ms von der Leyen in particular – were savaged by the European media for their handling of the row as governments across the bloc faced a backlash from their voters.

And with the EU having only vaccinated 2.5 per cent of its population – compared to 12 per cent in the UK – Ms Foster suggested that Northern Ireland could help to provide vaccine supplies to Dublin.

The simmering row over vaccines exploded on Friday evening when Brussels said it would trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – thereby creating a hard border on the island of Ireland – and take other measures to stop supplies of the Pfizer vaccine from reaching Britain.

Mr Johnson called an emergency meeting at No 10 to decide the UK’s response, then spoke to the Commission President just before 10pm to set out his demands and warn Ms von der Leyen her actions could threaten the Irish peace process. 

They spoke again at 10.30pm when Ms von der Leyen agreed to issue a climbdown message that ‘there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities’.

The fiasco has put Ms von der Leyen’s position in doubt, with one senior EU source saying ‘the disquiet is growing’.

Tory MPs on both sides of the Brexit divide heralded Mr Johnson’s efforts. One Remainer said: ‘If this had happened in 2016, I would have voted to Leave without blinking.’ 

Yesterday's daily death toll has plummeted as well, as official figures showed 1,200 have died after testing positive - an 11 per cent drop on last Saturday's 1,348 fatalities

Yesterday’s daily death toll has plummeted as well, as official figures showed 1,200 have died after testing positive – an 11 per cent drop on last Saturday’s 1,348 fatalities

The UK's Covid cases plunged yet again after 23,275 people tested positive yesterday - down 30.6 per cent on last Saturday

The UK’s Covid cases plunged yet again after 23,275 people tested positive yesterday – down 30.6 per cent on last Saturday

The UK has streaked ahead of Europe in terms of the number of vaccines administered (pie chart shows the number of vaccines given by January 26)

The UK has streaked ahead of Europe in terms of the number of vaccines administered (pie chart shows the number of vaccines given by January 26)

The Prime Minister visiting a French biotechnology laboratory in Livingston, Scotland

The Prime Minister visiting a French biotechnology laboratory in Livingston, Scotland

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said this afternoon the EU 'recognises they made a mistake' and 'stepped back' following the conversation between the two leaders

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said this afternoon the EU ‘recognises they made a mistake’ and ‘stepped back’ following the conversation between the two leaders

The move was slammed by Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster (pictured), who accused the EU of an 'incredible act of hostility'

The move was slammed by Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster (pictured), who accused the EU of an ‘incredible act of hostility’

What is Article 16 and why has the EU invoked it? 

Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol allows either the EU or the UK to override part of the Brexit trade agreement in relation to border controls in Northern Ireland.

The protocol itself was designed to avoid a re-emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 

But in the deal, both parties agreed to a get-out clause, which could be used if the protocol was thought to be causing ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties’.  

However the EU has now invoked the clause, to put measures on vaccines coming from the EU to Northern Ireland.

The move is being introduced amid a huge row between the UK and EU over vaccines supplies, with Brussels accusing the UK of ‘hijacking doses’.

The row started after Oxford vaccine maker AstraZeneca announced it would not be able to supply as many vaccines as it had first hoped to the EU by Spring.

The EU has since unveiled plans for an export ban which could stop 3.5million Pfizer vaccines – made in Belgium – from being exported to the UK.

The aim of this move will be to prevent the possibility of the UK bringing vaccines into Northern Ireland ‘through the backdoor’, by using the controls-free border to bring in vaccines from the EU. 

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Another Tory backbencher said: ‘This could be Boris’ Falklands moment… Ministers have played a blinder.’

But former Brexit Secretary David Davis warned: ‘I fear we are still going to see them trying to do similar things by the backdoor.’

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said: ‘The EU cocked up big time.’

Mr Gove said: ‘I think the EU recognises they made a mistake in triggering Article 16… But now the EU has stepped back.’

The row came just before today’s first anniversary of Britain leaving the EU.

Marking the day, Mr Johnson said: ‘The destiny of this great nation now resides firmly in our hands. I take on this duty with a sense of purpose.’

He has asked former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith to set up a taskforce of MPs to ‘think more inventively about how we boost growth, innovation and competition’. 

Last night Ms von der Leyen tweeted: ‘Constructive talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson tonight.

‘We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.’

It came about an hour after a statement from the Commission outlining the detail of the export controls of vaccines.

It said: ‘To tackle the current lack of transparency of vaccine exports outside the EU, the Commission is putting in place a measure requiring that such exports are subject to an authorisation by Member States.

‘In the process of finalisation of this measure, the Commission will ensure that the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected. 

‘The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause.

‘Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal.

‘In the process of finalising the document, the commission will also be fine-tuning the decision-making process under the implementing regulation.’  

Following the conversation between the PM and Ms von der Leyen, an ally of Mr Johnson told the FT: ‘The call was fine, hopefully that’s the end of it.’ 

But the move by Brussels to initially say it was triggering Article 16 – seen as the nuclear option – left figures in Britain and Ireland reeling. 

Stormont’s first minister Arlene Foster called the move an ‘incredible act of hostility’ and this morning said the rift emanated from the ‘EU’s vaccine embarrassment and mismanagement’. 

Meanwhile former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said the EU’s move offered no understanding of the delicate political landscape of the island of Ireland.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘Years have been spent trying to ensure goods will flow freely and there will be no hard border and last night the EU pulled the emergency cord without following any of the process that are in the protocol if one side wants to suspend it.

‘And they did that, in my view, without anywhere near the understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, of the sensitivity of the situation in Northern Ireland, and it was an almost Trumpian act.’

European newspapers lashed out EU leaders on Saturday after the bloc tried to impose Covid vaccine controls on the Northern Ireland border. A leading correspondent for Germany's Die Welt paper savaged European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen, saying she had committed an 'unforgettable Brexit own goal'

European newspapers lashed out EU leaders on Saturday after the bloc tried to impose Covid vaccine controls on the Northern Ireland border. A leading correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt paper savaged European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen, saying she had committed an ‘unforgettable Brexit own goal’

France's Le Monde editorial called the move 'deplorable', adding that Von Der Leyen had 'fortunately' given up on the inflammatory border decision

France’s Le Monde editorial called the move ‘deplorable’, adding that Von Der Leyen had ‘fortunately’ given up on the inflammatory border decision

Elsewhere the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU’s U-turn was ‘welcome’ but added ‘lessons should be learned’.

In a statement on Twitter, he said: ‘Welcome news, but lessons should be learned; the Protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace & trade for many.’

Brussels had triggered the controversial Article 16 just 29 days after the UK and EU struck the post-Brexit trade deal when Britain left the transition period. 

The EU’s chief negotiator in that agreement, Mr Barnier, today called for ‘co-operation’ between Brussels and the UK over the supply of vaccines across Europe.

Mr Barnier told The Times: ‘We are facing an extraordinarily serious crisis, which is creating a lot of suffering, which is causing a lot of deaths in the UK, in France, in Germany, everywhere.

‘And I believe we must face this crisis with responsibility, certainly not with the spirit of oneupmanship or unhealthy competition. I recommend preserving the spirit of co-operation between us.’ 

Last night, Lord Ricketts, a former UK ambassador to France, accused Brussels of ‘escalating recklessly in an attempt to get more doses [of the vaccine] from the UK’. He added: ‘The EU is all at sea on this.’

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tweeted: ‘The European Union was originally inspired by Christian social teaching – at the heart of which is solidarity.

‘Seeking to control the export of vaccines undercuts the EU’s basic ethics. They need to work together with others.’

The World Health Organisation also said the export ban was a ‘very worrying trend’.    

This post was first published on DailyMail.

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