Thursday briefing: Merry (smaller, shorter, safer) Christmas | World news – The Guardian


Top story: Wales to restrict festive gatherings

Morning everyone. My name is Martin Farrer and these are the top stories from home and abroad this morning.

Britain heads into the festive period this weekend with a warning from Boris Johnson that families should have a “smaller, shorter and safer” Christmas break in a bid to stop another devastating spread of the coronavirus. Desperate to avoid rowing back on rules about Christmas gatherings that were only put in place three weeks ago, the prime minister urged households to consider postponing get-togethers with elderly relatives and friends until after they have been vaccinated. Although he wanted to see a common, UK-wide approach, the Welsh government had no such compunctions about restricting social mixing when it announced it would reduce the number of households permitted to mix at Christmas from three to two. The BBC later reported that 11,000 cases had been missed out of figures for Wales, meaning that this week’s total could be twice as high as previously thought. Scotland advised that a maximum of two households should gather and recommended limiting reunions to one day, if at all. In Northern Ireland, where hospitals are said to be “on the brink” of being overwhelmed, the government is keeping the three-household rule. Ministers in London met last night to discuss whether any areas in England should be moved out of tier 3 but there are not expected to be many changes.

South Korea has reported its worst-ever daily death total from Covid-19 as the third wave continues to gather pace in the east Asian nation long regarded as a paragon of how to deal with the pandemic. Germany is also seeing its most deadly outbreak yet. In the worst-hit country of all, the United States, regulators have said that the excess amount of vaccine contained in vials shipped by Pfizer can be used as extra doses, helping to expand supply. President-elect Joe Biden and vice-president Mike Pence are both set to take the vaccine as the rollout continues despite a heavy snowstorm threatening deliveries. Follow all the developments overnight at our live blog.

Lockerbie charges – A Libyan suspected of being the master bomb-maker behind the Lockerbie attack is expected to be charged in the US only days before the anniversary of the UK’s deadliest terror attack. Mohammed Abouagela Masud, a former Libyan intelligence officer, will be accused of completing the device which blew up Pan Am 103 over the Scottish town on 21 December 1988.

Brexit standby – The parliamentary Christmas recess will start this evening, the government has announced, appearing to dash hopes that a Brexit deal will be struck in time to be approved before the end of the year. There are some signs from Brussels that talks are getting closer to an agreement but Downing Street sources have suggested a deal is not expected to be finalised imminently. Parliament could still be recalled before January if a deal were to be struck. EU citizens who have been granted temporary permission to stay in the UK after Brexit could lose the right to make that permanent if they have been out of the country for more than six months and do not return by the end of the year, according to campaigners. And pets will need a special health certificate before they can be taken into Northern Ireland or the EU from next month.

‘Trump is our barbarian’ – George Pell, the Australian cardinal who is one of the most senior catholics in the world, has praised Donald Trump for “splendid” supreme court appointments that have made a “positive contribution” to maintaining Christian values. Writing in a journal he kept while imprisoned for historic sexual abuse charges later quashed on appeal, Pell nevertheless notes that the outgoing US president is “a bit of a barbarian, but in some important ways, he is our [Christian] barbarian”. Pell also expressed concern about Trump’s efforts to sow doubt about the US election and told reporters that “it’s no small thing to weaken trust in great public institutions”.

Spring turns to winter – People in the Middle East think that life has become worse since the Arab spring began in 20111, leading to street protests, revolution and civil war across the region, according to a Guardian/YouGov poll. Majorities in nine Arab countries said their living conditions had deteriorated since the rebellions were set in motion by the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller in December 2010. Most did not regret the unrest, although that was not the case in countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen that have descended into civil war.

Gastrodia agnicellus, the ‘ugliest orchid in the world’.

Gastrodia agnicellus, the ‘ugliest orchid in the world’. Photograph: RBG Kew

‘Brown, fleshy and grotesque’ – The “ugliest orchid in the world”, a toadstool discovered at Heathrow airport, and a bizarre scaly shrub have topped a list of new species named by scientists at the Kew. The orchid, named Gastrodia agnicellus, was found in Madagascar and its 11mm flowers are brown, fleshy and grotesque, and likely to be pollinated by flies. Researchers found 156 new species in all, around one-third of which were orchids.

Today in Focus podcast

The Guardian’s international correspondent, Michael Safi, returns to Tunisia where, 10 years ago, fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself. It triggered a wave of protests across north Africa and the Middle East which have had profound ramifications.

Today in Focus

Tunisia ten years after the Arab Spring

Lunchtime read: How the Gruffalo shook the world

Hay Festival Of Literature And The Arts -2014HAY-ON-WYE, WALES - MAY 31: The Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson attends the Hay Festival on May 31, 2014 in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. The Hay Festival is an annual festival of literature and arts which began in 1988. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Julia Donaldson, doyenne of children’s books, is the most successful author of the past decade in any genre, selling a book every 11 seconds and dominating the market so much that some think she has become almost too successful. Oliver Franklin-Wallis explores how she started her career busking before creating her famous Gruffalo and a creative juggernaut of rhyme, wit and the power to transport children into a world of fantasy and a little danger.


José Mourinho claimed the “best team lost” after Roberto Firmino’s late header at Anfield gave Liverpool a 2-1 victory against Tottenham to take the champions top of the Premier League. Arsenal stopped their losing run but their 10 men had to settle for a 1-1 draw with Southampton at an empty Emirates, after Gabriel picked up two yellow cards. Leeds scored three goals in 11 minutes late in the second half to win 5-2 against Newcastle, while goals by Richarlison and Mason Holgate saw Everton defeat Leicester City 2-0 with an impressive display at the King Power Stadium. Sam Allardyce is back in the Premier League after answering an SOS call from West Brom following the club’s sacking of Slaven Bilic.

Formula One’s longest season, consisting of 23 races, has been confirmed by the FIA World Motor Sport Council for 2021. The ATP has also revealed its revised 2021 calendar with the year’s first grand slam, the Australian Open, to start three weeks late on 8 February. Exeter’s defence of their Champions Cup title is under threat after a Covid outbreak at the club led to two of this weekend’s European matches being cancelled, including their trip to Toulouse. And Lisa Ashton narrowly failed in her bid to repeat the heroics of Fallon Sherrock and progress in the PDC world championship at Alexandra Palace.


Lloyd’s, the world’s biggest insurance market, has bowed to pressure from environmental campaigners and set a market-wide policy to stop new insurance cover for coal, oil sands and Arctic energy projects by January 2022. It will pull out of the business altogether by 2030. Next door in the City, the FTSE100 will open up by 0.28%, the pound is $1.354 and €1.107. And Rio Tinto has named chief financial officer Jakob Stausholm as its next chief executive following the the fallout from destruction of Aboriginal rock shelters by the world’s top iron ore miner.

The papers

Guardian front page, Thursday 17 December 2020

Photograph: The Guardian

The front page headline was handed on a plate to the Telegraph and Express, who plumped for, respectively, “Have a merry little Christmas” and “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”. Most of the other papers lead with the same story but with slightly different takes. The Guardian emphasises Boris Johnson’s warnings to families – “PM in stark warning: rein in Christmas celebrations” – as does the Mail with “The fright before Xmas” and the Times – “Elderly told to keep away from family at Christmas”. The i says “Don’t stay over for Christmas, urges Johnson” and the Sun reckons families are being told to eat outside to minimise risk: “Cold turkey”.

The Mirror is in combative mode with the headline “Coward” under a strapline saying that Johnson is scared to change the rules and is trying to shift blame for more outbreaks. The Star takes aim at the Sussexes deal with Spotify, crafting the headline: “Dear Spotify, when can the rest of us have £30m for talking crap as well, please?” The FT again diverts from Covid to Brexit: “Johnson puts MPs on standby to approve last-minute trade deal”.

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