’Be cautious’: Johnson goes ahead with lifting England’s COVID curbs

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives an update on relaxing restrictions imposed on the country during COVID-19 pandemic at a news conference inside the Downing Street Briefing Room in London on Monday. (Reuters)
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Updated 12 July 2021

’Be cautious’: Johnson goes ahead with lifting England’s COVID curbs

  • An increase in cases underlined that the pandemic was by no means over
  • Government says Britain's vaccination drive has largely broken the link between infections and serious illness or death

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people on Monday to show caution when nearly all remaining COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in England next week.
He said an increase in cases underlined that the pandemic was by no means over.
England will from July 19 be the first nation in Britain to lift the legal requirement to wear masks and for people to socially distance. The government says Britain’s vaccination drive — one of the world’s fastest — has largely broken the link between infections and serious illness or death.
But what was once billed as “freedom day” is now being treated with wariness by ministers after a new surge in cases and fears that there could be as many as 100,000 new infections a day over the summer.
Johnson set a somber tone, defending his decision to lift most of the remaining restrictions by saying the four conditions the government set itself had been met, but also warning the country that more people would die from the coronavirus.
“We think now is the right moment to proceed...But it is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution and I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough — this pandemic is not over,” he told a press conference.
“To take these steps we must be cautious and must be vaccinated,” he said, adding that England would see “more hospitalizations and more deaths from COVID.”
Johnson added: “I generally urge everyone to keep thinking of others and to consider the risks.”
Earlier, health minister Sajid Javid told parliament that people should still wear masks in crowded areas like on public transport and should only gradually move back to the workplace, and that the government would encourage businesses holding mass events to use health certification as a way to open up.
Business welcomed the move, but also called on the government to offer clearer guidance. Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said companies still did not have the full picture they needed.
“Business leaders aren’t public health experts and cannot be expected to know how best to operate when confusing and sometimes contradictory advice is coming from official sources,” she said.
After 18 months of pandemic, governments around the world have been wrestling with how and when to reopen their economies.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte conceded on Monday that coronavirus restrictions had been lifted in the Netherlands too soon and he apologized as infections surged to their highest levels of the year.
Britain has implemented one of the world’s swiftest vaccination programs, with more than 87 percent of adults having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 66 percent having received two.
The Conservative government argues that the fact that deaths and hospital admissions remain far lower than before, even though cases have risen sharply, is proof that the vaccines are saving lives and it is now safer to open up.
But the surge in infections to rates unseen since the winter has raised concern, with some epidemiologists saying the Euro soccer championships might have helped fuel the rise.
Britain, which ranks 20th in the world for per-capita reported deaths https://ourworldindata.org/explorers/coronavirus-data-explorer?tab=table... from COVID-19, on Monday reported a further 34,471 COVID-19 cases, up 26 percent in a week, and six additional deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
London’s Wembley Stadium hosted the Euro 2020 final on Sunday between England and Italy. Large crowds gathered in London, including around the stadium, and there were reports that some had gained entry to the match without tickets to join the more than 60,000 who had them — much to the dismay of the World Health Organization.
“Am I supposed to be enjoying watching transmission happening in front of my eyes?” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove tweeted in the late stages of the match.
“The #COVID19 pandemic is not taking a break tonight ... #SARSCoV2 #DeltaVariant will take advantage of unvaccinated people, in crowded settings, unmasked, screaming/shouting/singing. Devastating.”


US-French spat seems to simmer down after Biden-Macron call

Updated 54 min 12 sec ago

US-French spat seems to simmer down after Biden-Macron call

  • Biden and Macron agreed “that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners”

PARIS: The most significant rift in decades between the United States and France seemed on the mend Wednesday after French President Emmanuel Macron and President Joe Biden got on the phone Wednesday to smooth things over.
In a half-hour call that the White House described as “friendly,” the two leaders agreed to meet next month to discuss the way forward after the French fiercely objected when the US, Australia and Britain announced a new Indo-Pacific defense deal last week that cost the French a submarine contract worth billions.
The White House made a point of releasing a photograph of Biden smiling during his call with Macron.
In a carefully crafted joint statement, the two governments said Biden and Macron “have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence.”
So did Biden apologize?
White House press secretary Jen Psaki sidestepped the question repeatedly, allowing that Biden did acknowledge “there could have been greater consultation.”
“The president is hopeful this is a step in returning to normal in a long, important, abiding relationship that the United States has with France,” she said.
The call suggested a cooling of tempers after days of outrage from Paris directed at the Biden administration.
In an unprecedented move, France last week recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia to protest what the French said amounted to a stab in the back by allies. As part of the defense pact, Australia will cancel a multibillion-dollar contract to buy diesel-electric French submarines and acquire US nuclear-powered vessels instead.
It was clear there is still repair work to be done.
The joint statement said the French ambassador will “have intensive work with senior US officials” upon his return to the United States.
Biden and Macron agreed “that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners,” the statement said.
Biden reaffirmed in the statement “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a visit to Washington, didn’t mince words in suggesting it was time for France to move past its anger over the submarine deal, saying French officials should “get a grip.” Using both French and English words, he added they should give him a “break.”
Johnson said the deal was “fundamentally a great step forward for global security. It’s three very like-minded allies standing shoulder-to-shoulder, creating a new partnership for the sharing of technology.”
“It’s not exclusive. It’s not trying to shoulder anybody out. It’s not adversarial toward China, for instance.”
Psaki declined to weigh in on whether Johnson’s comments were constructive at a moment when the US was trying to mend relations with France.
The European Union last week unveiled its own new strategy for boosting economic, political and defense ties in the vast area stretching from India and China through Japan to Southeast Asia and eastward past New Zealand to the Pacific.
The United States also “recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO,” the statement said.
No decision has been made about the French ambassador to Australia, the Elysee said, adding that no phone call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was scheduled.
Earlier Wednesday, Macron’s office had said the French president was expecting “clarifications and clear commitments” from Biden, who had requested the call.
French officials described last week’s US-UK-Australia announcement as creating a “crisis of trust,” with Macron being formally notified only a few hours beforehand. The move had prompted fury in Paris, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calling it a “stab in the back.”
France’s European Union partners agreed Tuesday to put the dispute at the top of the bloc’s political agenda, including at an EU summit next month.
Following the Macron-Biden call, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in New York with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell as the administration worked to repair the damage done to broader EU-US relations by the deal.
Blinken spoke of the need for trans-Atlantic cooperation on any number issues “quite literally around the world, to include of course Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific and Europe and beyond.”
Borrell, taking note of the phone call, said he hoped to be able to “build a stronger confidence among us following the conversation that had been taking place this morning between President Biden and President Macron. I’m sure we’ll be working together.”
The French presidency categorically denied a report by Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published on Wednesday saying Macron could offer the country’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council to the European Union if the bloc backs his plans on EU defense.
Psaki echoed Johnson’s point that the creation of the new security alliance — which has been dubbed AUKUS — wasn’t meant to freeze out other allies on Indo-Pacific strategy.
“During the conversation, the president reaffirmed the strategic importance of France — French and European nations I should say — in the Indo-Pacific region,” Psaki said.
The deal has widely been seen as part of American efforts to counter a more assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.


Taliban face uphill battle in efforts to speak at UN meeting

Updated 22 September 2021

Taliban face uphill battle in efforts to speak at UN meeting

  • Taliban are challenging the credentials of the ambassador from Afghanistan’s former government and asking to speak at the UN General Assembly
  • In cases of disputes over seats at the United Nations, the General Assembly’s nine-member credentials committee must meet to make a decision

UNITED NATIONS: The new rulers of Afghanistan have an uphill battle in their efforts to be recognized in time to address other world leaders at the United Nations this year.
The Taliban are challenging the credentials of the ambassador from Afghanistan’s former government and asking to speak at the General Assembly’s high-level meeting of world leaders this week, according to a letter sent to the United Nations.
The decision now rests with a UN committee that generally meets in November and will issue a ruling “in due course,” the General Assembly’s spokeswoman said Wednesday.
UN officials are confronting this dilemma just over a month after the Taliban, ejected from Afghanistan by the United States and its allies after 9/11, swept back into power by taking over territory with surprising speed as US forces prepared to withdraw from the country at the end of August. The Western-backed government collapsed on Aug. 15.
In cases of disputes over seats at the United Nations, the General Assembly’s nine-member credentials committee must meet to make a decision. Letters from Afghanistan’s currently recognized UN ambassador, Ghulam Isaczai, who represents the former government, and from Taliban Foreign Minister Ameer Khan Muttaqi, are before the committee, assembly spokeswoman Monica Grayley said.
“Only the committee can decide when to meet,” Grayley said.
The committee’s members are the United States, Russia, China, Bahama, Bhutan, Chile, Namibia, Sierra Leone and Sweden.
Afghanistan is listed as the final speaker of the ministerial meeting on Monday, Sept. 27, and if there no decision by then, Isaczai, Afghanistan’s currently recognized UN ambassador, will give the address.
When the Taliban last ruled from 1996 to 2001, the UN refused to recognize their government and instead gave Afghanistan’s seat to the previous, warlord-dominated government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2011. It was Rabbani’s government that brought Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11, to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.
The Taliban have said they want international recognition and financial help to rebuild the war-battered country. But the makeup of the new Taliban government poses a dilemma for the United Nations. Several of the interim ministers — including Muttaqi — are on the UN’s so-called blacklist of international terrorists and funders of terrorism.
Credentials committee members could also use Taliban recognition as leverage to press for a more inclusive government that guarantees human rights, especially for girls who were barred from going to school during their previous rule, and women who weren’t able to work.
The Taliban said they were nominating a new UN permanent representative, Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, the UN spokesman said. He has been a spokesman for the Taliban during peace negotiations in Qatar.


Philippines’ Duterte renews call to abolish kafala system

Updated 22 September 2021

Philippines’ Duterte renews call to abolish kafala system

  • While Saudi Arabia has scrapped the controversial labor laws, Duterte says millions of OFWs continue to work in ‘unjust’ and ‘inhumane’ conditions elsewhere

MANILA: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has renewed his call for the abolition of the kafala or sponsorship system in Gulf countries, saying it was “unjust” and permits the “exploitation” of millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

 In his speech at the 76th UN General Assembly on Wednesday, Duterte, who has advocated against the kafala system at the UN for much of his career, maintained that “nothing can justify its continued existence.”

The kafala gives employers in GCC countries plus Jordan and Lebanon almost complete control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status and generally binds them to one employer.

 In 2009, Bahrain became the first GCC country to abolish the kafala system, followed by Saudi Arabia earlier this year.

 “Millions of Filipinos work abroad under the most difficult and inhumane circumstances. We call for the abolition of all structures that allow the exploitation and oppression of migrant workers,” Duterte said.

 “The kafala system is one such behemoth that chains the weak, the desperate, and the voiceless to an existence of unimaginable suffering. While reforms have been made, the kafala system must be dismantled — sooner rather than later — in the name of justice and basic decency,” he added.

 Under the controversial system, migrant workers must have a sponsor in the host country for a visa or worker’s permit to be issued.

 Duterte has previously said that the system led to “inhumane working conditions, nonpayment of wages, movement restrictions, healthcare denial, and sexual abuse of overseas Filipino workers.”

 In March, the Philippines welcomed the Kingdom’s move to end the notorious sponsorship system and replace it with new measures to ensure migrant workers in the private sector have improved job mobility and can switch jobs or leave Saudi Arabia without their employers’ consent.

The labor reforms will also allow OFWs to apply directly for government services, with all employment contracts documented online.

Dexter Garcia, a former OFW who spent a decade working as an office staff member with the Saudi Turf Company, returned to the Philippines in November last year, a few months before the Kingdom’s new laws became effective on March 14.

He said while he had “heard many stories of abuse, that was all in the past.”

“Before I left the Kingdom after my contract with my company ended last year, things were already starting to change. The Saudi government was already starting to relax the kafala,” he told Arab News.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, as of January 2020, there are an estimated 2,221,448 Filipinos in the Middle East.


German FM says Taliban ‘show’ at UN would serve no purpose

Updated 22 September 2021

German FM says Taliban ‘show’ at UN would serve no purpose

  • UN credentials committee is reviewing a request from the Taliban to address the General Assembly
  • "To schedule a show at the United Nations won't serve anything," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters

UNITED NATIONS, United States: Germany on Wednesday voiced opposition to the Taliban’s request to address the United Nations, saying the “show” by Afghanistan’s new rulers would serve no purpose.
The UN credentials committee is reviewing a request from the Taliban to address the General Assembly on behalf of Afghanistan, which is still represented at the world body by the ambassador from the government that collapsed last month.
“To schedule a show at the United Nations won’t serve anything,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.
“What’s important are concrete deeds and not just words, including on human rights and in particular the rights of women and on an inclusive government and distancing from terrorist groups,” he said.
Maas said it was important to communicate with the Taliban, but said: “The UN General Assembly is not the appropriate venue for that.”
A senior US official suggested that the credentials committee, which includes the United States, would not make a decision before the General Assembly ends on Monday.
“It will take some time to deliberate,” the official said.
No nation has recognized the Taliban, whose brutal 1996-2001 regime enjoyed recognition from only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


France's envoy to return to US after Macron, Biden talks

Updated 22 September 2021

France's envoy to return to US after Macron, Biden talks

  • The two heads of state “have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence,” the Elysee and the White House said in a joint statement.
  • The French ambassador will “have intensive work with senior U.S. officials” after his return to the United States

PARIS: France will send its ambassador back to Washington next week after French President Emmanuel Macron and President Joe Biden agreed in a phone call Wednesday to meet next month over a submarine dispute.
The two heads of state “have decided to open a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence,” the Elysee and the White House said in a joint statement. Macron and Biden will meet at the end of October in Europe, the statement said.
In an unprecedented move, France recalled its ambassador after the US, Australia and Britain announced a new Indo-Pacific defense deal last week. As part of the pact, Australia will cancel a multibillion-dollar contract to buy diesel-electric French submarines and acquire US nuclear-powered vessels instead.
The French ambassador will “have intensive work with senior US officials” after his return to the United States, the statement said.
Biden and Macron agreed “that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners,” it said. Biden “conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard.”
Biden reaffirmed in the statement “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The European Union unveiled last week a new strategy for boosting economic, political and defense ties in the vast area stretching from India and China through Japan to Southeast Asia and eastward past New Zealand to the Pacific.
The United States also “recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO,” the statement said.
Earlier Wednesday, Macron’s office said the French president was expecting “clarifications and clear commitments” from Biden, who had requested the call.
French officials described as a “crisis of trust” last week’s announcement of the Indo-Pacific deal, with Macron being formally informed only a few hours beforehand.
Paris is calling for “acts, not words only,” Macron’s office said.
France’s European Union partners agreed Tuesday to put the dispute at the top of the bloc’s political agenda, including at an EU summit next month.
The French presidency categorically denied a report by Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published on Wednesday saying Macron could offer the country’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council to the European Union if the bloc backs his plans on EU defense.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismissed French anger over the submarine deal, saying French officials should “get a grip.” Using both French and English words, he added they should give him a “break.”
Speaking to reporters on a visit to Washington, Johnson said the deal was “fundamentally a great step forward for global security. It’s three very like-minded allies standing shoulder-to-shoulder, creating a new partnership for the sharing of technology.”
“It’s not exclusive. It’s not trying to shoulder anybody out. It’s not adversarial toward China, for instance.”
The deal has widely been seen as part of American efforts to counter a more assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.