Top story: NHS running out of beds, figures show
Morning everyone. I’m Martin Farrer and these are the top stories today.
Millions of people throughout the UK face living under the strictest coronavirus restrictions well into the new year as ministers scramble to contain the latest surge in cases, and as a growing number of NHS hospitals run short of beds. The crisis was highlighted as the country recorded its highest number of daily infections of the virus so far – 35,383 – and as hospital patients suffering from the disease rose to 18,000. As millions of people centred mainly in south-east England’s commuter belt were placed into tier-3 restrictions, experts warned that the tough measures could be in place until February and that the country faced “harsh” months ahead. Most secondary school pupils in England have been told to study from home for the first week of next term as part of the government’s plan to recruit teachers to screen children for the virus. Northern Ireland will enter a six-week lockdown on Boxing Day which will see non-essential retail and services closed down, while Scotland’s deputy first minister John Swinney said yesterday that another lockdown was a “possibility” due to a “rising tide of Covid”. Wales has already announced a lockdown starting on Christmas Eve.
The rising number of cases is placing the NHS under severe strain. A Guardian analysis of official figures shows that many hospitals are running short of beds and there were 44 instances last week when hospitals had to tell ambulance crews to divert patients elsewhere – the highest number for four years. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, tested positive for the virus as it continues to spread throughout Europe. He is believed to have contracted it at a European council meeting where he mingled with other leaders. In a rare rebuke to elected leaders, Sweden’s King Gustav said his government’s anti-lockdown Covid policies had “failed”. In the US, there were almost 250,000 new cases reported on Wednesday and close to 3,600 deaths as regulators moved another step towards approving the Moderna vaccine. A new outbreak in the northern beaches area of Sydney has sparked renewed restrictions on travel between states in Australia. Catch up with all the developments in the pandemic at our live blog.
‘Serious situation’ – Boris Johnson issued a gloomy assessment of the Brexit trade talks last night, describing them as in a “serious situation” after a stocktake call with the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. The prime minister repeated his suggestion it was “very likely” that Britain would end up with a no-deal Brexit despite the European parliament agreeing to delay its deadline to Sunday. Fishing rights remains the biggest problem, with Downing Street saying Johnson had told Von der Leyen that the UK “could not accept a situation where it was the only sovereign country in the world not to be able to control” its own waters.
Rees-Mogg under fire – Jacob Rees-Mogg faces a backlash after he accused the United Nations’ children’s agency of a “political stunt” for announcing it was feeding hungry children in the UK for the first time. Speaking in the Commons, the leader of the house defended the government’s record on child poverty and said the agency should be “ashamed of itself”. Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said his “sneering” comments were a “modern-day version of ‘let them eat cake’”. It comes as a pioneering scheme providing free school meals to all primary school pupils in the London borough of Newham faces the axe as a result of funding cuts.
Cyber alarm – The hacking of US government departments poses “a grave risk” to federal, state and local administrations, as well as “critical infrastructure entities”, according to the federal cybersecurity agency. The attack, thought to be the work of Russian state-sponsored hackers, is even said to have targeted the agency responsible for the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned that it would be “highly complex and challenging” to remove the malware inserted by the hackers through network software. On Thursday, it was reported that Microsoft found malicious software in its systems related to the hacking campaign.
Schoolboys released – More than 300 schoolboys kidnapped in Nigeria for almost a week have been released after their captors were surrounded by security forces. The group of 344 boys were seized last Friday in a raid on a school in the rural town of Kankara in Katsina state, although it was not clear whether all of them had been returned safely. Islamist militant group Boko Haram had claimed responsibility.
Grace Millane murder – The man who murdered British backpacker Grace Millane has lost an appeal against his conviction at a court in New Zealand. The killer, who cannot be named for legal reasons, strangled the British woman and then dumped her body in a forest.
Trump’s nimby neighbours – Donald Trump’s appetite for court cases may be tested if he tries to live at his Mar-a Lago club in Florida when he leaves the White House. Residents in the area have written to Trump reminding him that a clause in his purchase of the property in 1993 means he cannot live there for more than three nonconsecutive weeks in a year, and that they are prepared to go to court to prevent him doing so. Trump is expected to make Florida his base after 20 January and has already shifted his electoral domicile to the Sunshine State.
Today in Focus podcast
Control over the US Senate will be decided by Georgia’s runoff elections on 5 January, with Democrats challenging Republican incumbents for the state’s two seats. Khushbu Shah, editor-in-chief of the Fuller Project, examines the contest and assesses what impact Georgia’s long history of voter suppression could have this time.
Lunchtime read: Fiona Apple – ‘I finally believed myself’
Our countdown to the No 1 album of the year as chosen by our critics comes to a climax today with Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters annointed as the best of 2020. Over two interviews and more text messages, our artist of the year tells Laura Snapes what it’s all about and explains how she finally found compassion for herself after trauma and bullying.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United fell behind early but rallied again to win 3-2 and leave Sheffield United stuck on a solitary point this Premier League season. Burnley have scored only six goals in their 12 league matches this season but they clambered out of the relegation zone thanks to their refusal to concede in a goalless draw with Aston Villa. Lucy Bronze said she would “remember this moment for the rest of her life” after she became the first England player and first female defender to win one of Fifa’s main awards, having been named the best women’s player of the year. There was fury among the Premier League’s biggest clubs after an attempt to introduce five substitutes for the remainder of the season was stymied for a third time.
The legal action against rugby union’s authorities has taken a decisive step forward with the firm representing nine players diagnosed with long-term brain injuries sending pre-action letters of claim to World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union. Lewis Hamilton’s contract extension to continue racing in Formula One with Mercedes appears to have been sealed. Athletes and anti-doping groups have reacted with outrage after a four-year ban on Russia for state-sponsored doping offences was halved. And José de Sousa and Daryl Gurney were the biggest names in action on day three of the PDC world darts championship, and both seeds overcame scares to reach the third round.
The impact of the pandemic on consumer habits are laid bare by an annual supermarket spending survey that reveals a £2.5bn increase in spending on canned lager, spirits and meat as people turned to barbecues in lieu of nights at the pub. San Miguel lager saw the biggest boost, while Corona was also popular. On the flipside, there was a big fall in spending on make-up. The FTSE100 is expected to dip around 0.4% at the opening bell this morning while the pound is down at $1.353 and €1.105.
Increasing alarm about the prospect of a third lockdown across England and the brinkmanship around Brexit trade talks combine for some gloomy front pages. The Mail says “The bleakest midwinter” and the Mirror splash headline reads “Tiers before bedlam” as it predicts an “Xmas free-for-all” in four days’ time. The Times leads with “Southern hotspots in danger of lockdown”, the i has “Millions more trapped in toughest tier” and the Guardian lead is “Revealed: more hospitals short of beds amid coronavirus surge”. The Sun has the Beatles legend Sir Paul McCartney urging people to have the vaccine. “Get vacc” the headline reads. The Scotsman reports on the worsening situation in Edinburgh – “Covid spike makes capital Scotland’s virus hotspot”, while the city’s Evening News implores readers to follow the rules and “Do the right thing”.
The Telegraph also reports that a third lockdown is “looming” in England but its lead is “Johnson urges EU to take final steps towards Brexit trade deal”. The FT also splashes on the trade talks – “Brexit trade talks bogged down in fresh dispute over state aid” – and the Express goes for “Poles apart … Boris won’t buckle”.
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