UK to move Covid alert level down from five to four as hospitalisations fall

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Max Stephens
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The risk of the NHS being overwhelmed within 21 days "has receded", according to the UK's four chief medical officers - PA
The risk of the NHS being overwhelmed within 21 days "has receded", according to the UK's four chief medical officers - PA

07:03 PM

Roundup of today's news

Here is your evening roundup of today's news:

06:54 PM

Scotland was 'not close' to eliminating Covid-19 despite Sturgeon claims, says Government adviser

Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that Scotland was “close” to eliminating Covid-19 last summer has been contradicted by one of her handpicked advisers.

Mark Woolhouse, chair of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, told MSPs that "Scotland was not close to elimination at any stage" during the pandemic and also questioned whether the First Minister’s strategy for tackling the virus was achievable.

The First Minister has repeatedly insisted that Covid-19 was “almost eliminated” in Scotland last summer but that it was “reseeded” after being brought back into the country mainly from both UK and overseas travel.

She has used the claim to justify her harsh stance on international and internal travel and her cautious approach to easing restrictions.

However, Prof Woolhouse, who also sits on Ms Sturgeon’s Covid-19 advisory group, said that it is a “misinterpretation” to suggest that the virus was close to elimination during the summer when only a handful of cases per day were being reported because a large number of infected people were not getting tested at the time.

Georgina Hayes has the full story here

06:48 PM

Just 36 England and Wales postcodes have escaped a coronavirus death

Just 36 postcode areas in England and Wales have escaped a death from coronavirus, latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show.

The majority were in the South West which has seen extremely low levels of disease throughout the pandemic, with several areas in Devon and Cornwall escaping deaths.

Inner-city areas such as Bristol City Centre, Leeds City Centre and Camden in north London have also registered no deaths, possibly due to the low levels of older people.

The ONS data showed only 36 out of 7,209 districts (0.5 per cent) had not recorded a single Covid-linked death by the end of January.

The worst postcode area was Crabtree and Fir Vale in Sheffield, which has totalled 72 deaths, followed by West St Leonards in Hastings with 62, and Hadleigh in Suffolk with 57.

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Sarah Knapton has the full story here

06:41 PM

Comment: Lockdown is even harder to bear knowing the end is in sight

With the end of our confinement just over the horizon, I feel the temptation to bend the rules bubbling up inside more strongly than ever, writes Jemima Lewis.

The Government’s “roadmap to freedom” is intended to make lockdown feel more manageable. Why break the rules when our sentence is almost up?But opening the door just a crack creates a rush towards the light. My local park is already full of people “leaving home for recreation outdoors such as a coffee or picnic” (a treat supposedly reserved for March 8).Gorgeous hipsters move in drifts of laughter and lipstick and mohair, definitely not in single households or support bubbles, but who can blame them when it’s been so long and the sky is so blue and granny’s already had her jab?

06:33 PM

Israel to put on hold program to send vaccines abroad amid legal scrutiny

Israel is to put on hold its program to send Covid-19 vaccines abroad amid legal scrutiny, Israeli news media reports said on Thursday following criticism at home and abroad of what has been called 'vaccine diplomacy'.

Israeli public broadcaster Kan, which this week reported that Israel would send small shipments to 19 countries, said the country's attorney general was seeking clarification about the program.

The country's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, came under fire for donating Covid-19 vaccines to foreign allies while Palestinians complained that, as an occupying power, it should be supplying more to them.

His office made no immediate comment after the reports that the initiative was on hold. Netanyahu earlier this week defended the program as buying international "goodwill".

06:27 PM

Number of Covid-19 hospital patients in England lowest since early November

The number of patients in hospital in England with Covid-19 has dropped to its lowest level since early November, new figures show.

A total of 12,449 patients were in hospital at 8am on February 25, according to figures from NHS England.

This is the lowest number since 12,033 on November 10.

It is also down 64 per cent from the record 34,336 on January 18.

During the first wave of the virus patient numbers peaked at 18,974 on April 12, 2020.

06:18 PM

Belgians warned to shun toxic masks distributed by government

Belgian health authorities have warned citizens to stop using millions of cloth facemasks distributed by the federal government last year to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

A letter from health minister Frank Vandenbroucke, made public by the CSS national health council, says masks made in Asia by the Luxembourg firm Avrox may contain toxic materials.

In June last year, Belgium's central government procured 15 million Avrox masks and made them available free via private pharmacies to help protect its 11.5 million people.

But local communes were distributing masks directly to households and many private enterprises were selling them, reportedly meaning only a third of the federal models were used.

Now, following complaints from rival Belgian manufacturers, the CSS is investigating whether the masks are contaminated with toxic nanoparticles of silver and with titanium dioxide.

The Luxembourg firm insists that it followed all appropriate safety protocols, but Belgian authorities are recommending the masks be avoided while the probe continues.

06:09 PM

Care watchdog warns against 'unacceptable' care home visiting bans

Unacceptable blanket bans on care home visits are in operation in England contrary to Government guidance, the care watchdog has said.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) said providers should not wait until the vaccination programme is complete before allowing loved ones to visit residents.

It intervened after becoming aware of blanket decisions "continuing to be made against Government guidance" in some areas.

The CQC said that while providers are "rightly cautious" they "mustn't wait for the completion of the vaccination programme to facilitate visits".

Kate Terroni, chief inspector of Adult Social Care at the CQC, said: "Blanket bans are unacceptable and people should follow Government guidelines, give sufficient weight to local risks and advice from their Director of Public Health, as well as giving consideration to the home environment."

06:05 PM

Vaccine centre set up in Atletico Madrid stadium

Atletico Madrid's Wanda stadium on the eastern side of the Spanish capital was transformed into a huge vaccination centre Thursday where firemen, police and civil protection officers got their first jabs against coronavirus

Around 1,000 people were invited on Thursday to be immunised with the AstraZeneca vaccine at the 68,000-seat venue.

President of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso (3rd R) and Club President of Atletico Madrid, Enrique Cerezo (R) - Anadolu Agency
President of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso (3rd R) and Club President of Atletico Madrid, Enrique Cerezo (R) - Anadolu Agency

The makeshift centre in the home ground of the current leaders of the Spanish league will have the capacity to vaccinate between 350 and 400 people an hour once it is fully up and running.

Vaccinations are also being carried out at neighbourhood public health centres.

Those being inoculated at the stadium are "professionals on the front lines" of the fight against the pandemic, the head of the regional government of Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, said during a visit to the stadium.

05:53 PM

EU leaders attempt to speed up vaccine rollout in race against variants

European Union leaders met on Thursday to find ways to speed up the production and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in a race against the emergence of new variants that some fear could bring a third wave of the pandemic to the continent.

The executive European Commission told leaders 51.5 million doses of vaccines have so far been delivered to the bloc and 29.17 million administered, with an estimated five per cent of citizens having had their first dose

The Commission and EU countries have come under fire for missteps in their joint inoculation programme and a hampered rollout of doses that has lagged badly behind Israel, Britain and the United States.

The 27 countries are pushing for smoother delivery of shots and ways to quickly produce updates to cope with variants

"We cannot afford to lose this battle," the leaders of five EU countries said in a joint letter.

Tourist-dependant members like Spain and Greece hope vaccination passports would unlock their vital tourism sectors this summer.

05:44 PM

Gorilla loses appetite, lions develop cough after catching Covid-19 at Prague Zoo

A gorilla and two lions have tested positive for Covid-19 at the Prague Zoo, which is closed amid lockdown restrictions in the country.

Director Miroslav Bobek said: "Lions Jamvan and Suchi and male gorilla Richard tested positive today. Their symptoms have been mild so far.

"The lions have a cold and cough. Richard is tired and lost his appetite,"

Richard, a western lowland gorilla, who was tested positive for COVID-19 on February 25, 2021, sits inside its enclosure at closed Prague Zoo - Reuters
Richard, a western lowland gorilla, who was tested positive for COVID-19 on February 25, 2021, sits inside its enclosure at closed Prague Zoo - Reuters

The animals were mostly likely infected by staff and other animals will be tested, Bobek said. Prague Zoo was in touch with other zoos that have seen Covid-19 cases.

In January, a troop of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park suffered from an outbreak of the virus that sickened several of the group's eight members.

The Czech Republic has faced a renewed surge in coronavirus cases that has pushed its infection rate among the highest in the world on a per capita basis

05:33 PM

France may impose further regional lockdowns in worst-hit area

French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday that the Covid-19 situation is very "worrying" in 20 French departments and that stricter limits on movement will be enforced in those areas if infection rates show no improvement.

He said he would recommend to local authorities that they consider regional partial lockdowns similar to the weekend lockdowns implemented in coastal towns Nice and Dunkirk earlier this month.

05:28 PM

Labour urges against abandoning high streets 'battered' by pandemic

Labour has urged against abandoning struggling British high streets as the party outlined proposals to revive town and city centres "battered" by the coronavirus crisis.

Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said a Labour government would give councils the power to take over the management of empty shops as part of a plan to kickstart the post-pandemic recovery in communities.

Under the proposals unveiled in a speech on Thursday, she suggested local authorities be given the power to repurpose commercial properties that have been vacant for at least 12 months to bring them back into use.

Ms Dodds also opposed rules that could allow shops to be sold off for conversion to housing without planning permission, branding it "catastrophic" for local communities.

She also criticised the Government for "concentrating power" in London with civil servant jobs, claiming that there had been a six per cent rise in these roles in the capital while jobs had been lost in other regions in England.

05:23 PM

Portugal extends Covid-19 lockdown

Portugal today extended it's nationwide lockdown to fight the spread of coronavirus but its president told the government to put together a plan to gradually lift the strict rules.

Portugal waged its toughest battle against the pandemic last month when it recorded the world's worst surge in new infections and deaths per capita for weeks, with its health service on the brink of collapse.

"Unfortunately the situation of public calamity caused by the Covid-19 pandemic continues," President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in a statement, explaining that although the number of cases has dropped, the pressure on hospitals remains high.

The lockdown, however, has rapidly reduced daily case and death tolls, with just 49 deaths and 1,160 new cases on Thursday - levels last seen in October when businesses were still open.

05:13 PM

Bob Mortimer receives Covid jab

Comedian Bob Mortimer has confirmed he has received the first dose of the Covid vaccine, sharing a photo on Instagram of his appointment slip.

He wrote: "Didn't feel a thing.. not even when the microchip passed through."

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05:05 PM

Medics facing complaints from 'very angry' cancer patients facing surgery delay

The NHS faces a potential "medicolegal minefield" due to delayed cancer surgery and the Government needs to plan for how to deal with it, top medics have warned.

Complaint letters are coming through from "very angry" patients who are dealing with delays while surgeons are being told to keep "brilliant notes" to protect themselves, it emerged in a Royal Society of Medicine webinar.

The topic for discussion was the mounting problem of cancer and surgical waiting lists due to the impact of Covid-19.

Asked if he had views on medicolegal implications on cancer progression, Prof Gary Middleton, professor of medical oncology at the University of Birmingham, said: "We don't know the scale of this yet but I think the likelihood is enormously high that potentially we're sitting on a medicolegal minefield with this."

Prof Middleton, who is also a member of the UK Coronavirus Cancer Monitoring Project, said he has heard "many stories" where people have gone fully prepared for their surgery and then been sent home.

04:56 PM

One in five adults under 70 in England given first Covid jab, figures show

One in five adults in England aged under 70 have had their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, new data suggests.

Provisional figures from NHS England, published on Thursday, show that 16,337,561 Covid-19 vaccinations took place in England between December 8 and February 24, including first and second doses.

This is a rise of 411,146 on the previous day's figures.

Of this number, 15,794,992 were the first dose of a vaccine, a rise of 396,937 on the previous day, while 542,569 were a second dose, an increase of 14,209.

An estimated 20.3 per cent of people aged 16 to 69 had received their first jab as of February 21.

The estimates show little variation between the regions, ranging from 17.2% in London to 22.3% in north-west England.

04:52 PM

Kenya's first batch of Covid-19 vaccines to arrive in March

Kenya first batch of Covid-19 vaccines will arrive in the first week of March, the presidency said on Thursday, with healthcare workers, frontline workers and vulnerable population groups to be given priority.

"Cabinet ratified the distribution framework for the vaccines; with first priority being given to Health Care Workers, Frontline Workers including Security Personnel and Teachers, vulnerable persons and groups and Hospitality Sector Workers," the presidency said in a press release.

04:41 PM

UK government creates new 'global health' team to tackle pandemic and beyond

The British government has created a new “global health” directorate in the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office, a sign of a renewed focus in the wake of the worldwide devastation wreaked by Covid-19.

The new team will prioritise tackling the pandemic as well as coming up with strategies for how to prevent the next threat. Bringing down the huge numbers of preventable deaths of mothers and babies around the world is also at the top of the to-do list.

The UK has long been seen as a leader in global health, but there have been fears that contributions could be impacted by the recent foreign aid cuts, and concerns that “Covid has come to represent global health to the UK government”, as some charity bosses put it last year.

However, the creation of the new directorate is a sign that the pandemic has re-established global health at the forefront of the government’s mind. Reiterating the long-standing commitment to cutting preventable maternal and child mortality by 2030 may also calm fears that Covid has eclipsed all over priorities.

Jennifer Rigby has the full story here

04:31 PM

Boris Johnson: Government's exams plan a good 'compromise'

04:23 PM

CureVac says preliminary trials show Covid-19 vaccine effective against variants

CureVac chief Franz-Werner Haas said on Thursday that preliminary trials on animals of the company's Covid-19 vaccine candidate show it is effective against the UK and South African variants.

Haas told EU lawmakers that the results of the preliminary trials on the vaccine's effects on variants would be published soon.

He also said that the company expected its vaccine to be approved in the European Union by June.

04:15 PM

Britons welcome to holiday in Greece with or without vaccine, minister says

Greece is ready to welcome British tourists this summer regardless of whether they have had a coronavirus vaccine, Tourism Minister Harry Theocharis said.

Greece, which has led calls for a European Union-wide certificate of vaccination to help open up summer tourism, reached an accord with Israel earlier this month to ease travel restrictions for those who can prove they have been vaccinated.

Athens is in talks with Britain about a similar agreement but travel will not be restricted to those who have had anti-Covid-19 doses, Theocharis told ITV News.

"All Britons, whether they have had a coronavirus vaccine or not, will have the opportunity to travel to Greece for their summer holidays," he was quoted as saying.

He said Britons who have a vaccine certificate would not need to be quarantined or have a negative PCR test before flying to Greece.

04:09 PM

Initiative to combat oxygen shortages launches amid supply crisis in poorer countries fighting Covid

An emergency initiative to ensure much-needed medical oxygen is available across the globe launched on Thursday, amid a growing supply crisis in Africa and Latin America.

Medical oxygen is considered one of the most critical tools to treat Covid-19, yet access to an affordable and sustainable supply has been a luxury in much of the world during the pandemic.

A man prays after waiting three days next to an empty oxygen tank for his uncle who has Covid-19 outside a refill shop in Callao, Peru - AP
A man prays after waiting three days next to an empty oxygen tank for his uncle who has Covid-19 outside a refill shop in Callao, Peru - AP

Examples include Peru, where people are regularly forced to queue for days to refill cylinders for sick relatives. Meanwhile the cost of a cylinder has increased 10 times in Lagos, Nigeria, to roughly $260 - more than the average monthly wage - while Malawi’s president has turned to crowdfunding to buy additional cylinders.

“Oxygen is a simple medical intervention that remains in short supply for far too many around the world,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of Unicef.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has taken this acute shortage and made it a full-blown emergency.”

The new taskforce, launched on Thursday by a coalition of health groups including the World Health Organization, aims to rapidly raise $90 million to immediately meet an urgent need in 20 low and middle income countries, including Malawi, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

Sarah Newey has more details here.

04:05 PM

AstraZeneca's chief confirms pledge of 40 million doses by end of March

AstraZeneca is trying to deliver 40 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to the EU by the end of March, less than half the amount it promised in its contract for the quarter, the company's CEO has said.

The pledge was in line with previous statements from the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker, which has previously said it will not be able to fulfil the target of 90 million doses in the first quarter.

The EU, which has fallen far behind Britain in vaccinating its public, has repeatedly urged the firm to deliver more.

"I am disappointed that lower-than-expected output in our dedicated European supply chain has affected our ability to deliver," Pascal Soriot said. "We are doing everything that we can to deliver 40 mln doses in the first quarter of 2021."

In his initial statement to the EU Parliament he made no reference to deliveries in the second quarter of the year, which should amount to 180 million doses under the contract.

03:58 PM

Czech Republic confirms first case of Covid-19 South African variant

The Czech Republic has confirmed its first case of the Covid-19 variant first detected in South Africa, the Health Ministry said on Thursday.

The ministry had reported some new Covid-19 infections suspected to be from the South African variant this week.

The central European country has sought to rein in a fast-rising Covid-19 infection rate, which has also been accelerated by the spread of the British variant of the virus in past weeks.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry said it would ban citizens until April 11 from travel to countries with high risk of South African and Brazilian variants.

03:51 PM

South Africa remains to vaccinate one million by end of March

South Africa is targeting an ambitious plan to vaccinate one million people against Covid-19 by the end of March after a late start to its inoculation campaign, the country's health minister said Thursday.

So far around 32,000 healthcare workers have received vaccinations developed by US pharma giant Johnson & Johnson since February 17, when the rollout began with a first batch of 80,000 doses.

The country, which was slow to join in the global jostle for vaccines, hopes to take delivery of another 500,000 doses from Johnson & Johnson in the coming days.

Thereafter, a consignment of 600,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine will follow.

"This will be able to get over 1.1 million people vaccinated between now and hopefully the end of March," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told lawmakers.

03:45 PM

Covid blamed for biggest drop in French births in 45 years

The number of babies born in France in January fell by 13 percent, the biggest drop in 45 years which statisticians on Thursday linked to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 53 900 babies born in January 2021, down from 62,180 in January 2020, were conceived at the start of the first nationwide lockdown imposed by France in March 2020 to halt the spread of Covid-19.

National statistics agency INSEE said that the "context of a health crisis and huge uncertainty may have discouraged couples from procreating or prompted them to postpone their parenting project for several months".

"Considerations relating to the possible transmission of the virus from the mother to the newborn could also have played a role," INSEE added.

In 2020, the number of births in France fell to its lowest level wince World War II, with 735,000 children being born.

03:37 PM

Bahrain becomes first country to approve Johnson & Johnson vaccine for emergency use

Bahrain has approved Johnson & Johnson's one-dose Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use, the first country to do so, the National Health Regulatory Authority said on Thursday.

The small Gulf state already offers citizens and residents free of charge four vaccines: the Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccine, one manufactured by Chinese state-backed pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm, the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.

NHRA said the vaccine was for groups at greater risk of developing complications from COVID-19, including the elderly and people with chronic diseases.

"An in-depth study had been conducted on all documents submitted by the company, which included the results of the clinical trials conducted," NHRA CEO Mariam Al-Jalahma said.

03:33 PM

Raising taxes before pandemic is over 'makes no sense', David Cameron warns Rishi Sunak

It would not make “any sense at all” to raise taxes in next week’s Budget while the UK is still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, David Cameron has warned Rishi Sunak.

Mr Cameron said any tax rises must wait until the UK has emerged from all lockdown measures and urged ministers to consider the pandemic a “wartime situation”.

Speaking to CNN, the former Prime Minister defended his own austerity measures while in Government after the 2008 financial crisis, but said the same policy would be damaging now.

“Today we do face very different circumstances,” he said.

“So piling, say, tax increases on top of that before you’ve even opened up the economy wouldn’t make any sense at all.

“I think it’s been right for the government here in the UK and governments around the world to recognise this is more like a sort of wartime situation.”

Tony Diver has the full story here

03:24 PM

Boris Johnson: No 'wiggle room' in road map with Covid cases still high

Boris Johnson has said he will stick to his timetable for lifting coronavirus restrictions, pledging to remain "cautious" in easing the lockdown.

The Prime Minister this week set out a plan for incrementally reducing measures over the coming months in England, with the aim of scrapping all restrictions by June.

On a visit to Accrington Academy in Lancashire on Thursday, Mr Johnson said the dates he set out continued to be the target "towards which people can work" given that the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 remained "high".

According to Government data, there are 16,800 people in UK hospitals being treated for coronavirus symptoms.

Mr Johnson made the comments when asked whether there was "wiggle room" to lift lockdown quicker if emerging data suggested infections and hospital admissions were falling faster than predicted as vaccines were rolled out.

He said: "I think it's very important to have a timetable that is sensible, that is cautious, but one that is also irreversible. And that's the virtue of the timetable we have set out."

03:06 PM

Breaking: UK to move Covi-19 alert level down from five to four

The UK's four chief medical officers have agreed the Covid-19 alert level should move from five - its highest - down to four as the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed within 21 days "has receded".

03:04 PM

Dutch sex workers and cafe owners challenge Covid restrictions

Dutch sex workers have said today they would demonstrate next week against the continued closure of brothels under government Covid curbs while scores of restaurants and cafes vowed to reopen in defiance of a ban.

The challenges follow Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's announcement Tuesday to relax some measures but to extend the country's controversial nightly curfew and maintain bans on sex work and on the hospitality industry.

A person dressed as the grim reaper takes part in a demonstration of several hundreds of people against the lockdown and curfew in Amsterdam,  - Peter Dejong/AP
A person dressed as the grim reaper takes part in a demonstration of several hundreds of people against the lockdown and curfew in Amsterdam, - Peter Dejong/AP

Rutte said his government would allow hair salons, massage spas and some secondary schools to reopen next Wednesday.

But Rutte said prostitution, which is legal in the Netherlands, will remained curbed because "of the specific nature of the job, which means very close contact and possibility of virus transmission."

Sex workers, under a ban since early December, said they would gather outside parliament on Tuesday to make their voices heard.

02:48 PM

Israel imposes night-time curfew during Jewish holiday of Pirum

Israel imposed a night-time curfew for three nights on Thursday to curb the spread of the coronavirus during the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The curfew, from 8.30 pm to 5.00 am daily, will be in force from Thursday night until Sunday morning.

Gatherings will be limited to a maximum of 10 people in closed spaces and 20 people in open spaces, the statement added.

Actors in costumes perform to people during the Purim holiday celebrations in the port of Tel Aviv - Shutterstock
Actors in costumes perform to people during the Purim holiday celebrations in the port of Tel Aviv - Shutterstock

Sometimes dubbed the "fun" Jewish holiday, Purim typically includes costumes and boisterous public celebrations marking a story dating from fourth-century Persia that saw Jews defeat a murderous plot against them.

For many it also involves services in synagogues and shared meals.

Last year, gatherings for Purim were banned, but many ultra-Orthodox defied the restrictions, which authorities said contributed to the spread of the virus.

02:43 PM

Pubs able to serve takeaway drinks when beer gardens reopen from April 12

Pubs will be able to serve takeaway drinks from April 12, Downing Street has confirmed.

In a "lifeline" to venues, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman has said once beer gardens reopen during step two of the road map out of lockdown, Britons will be able to get a takeaway pint.

The serving of alcohol to take away has not been permitted since the last national lockdown began.

Under previous restrictions, people could continue to buy drinks from pubs even while they were closed.

Speaking on Thursday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "Outdoor hospitality is permitted so I believe it would be the case that takeaway alcohol will be permitted."

Drinkers will have to order their alcohol by table service because queueing at the bar would be banned.

02:38 PM

China approves two more Covid-19 vaccines for wider use

China approved two more Covid-19 vaccines for wider use Thursday, adding to its growing arsenal of shots.

The National Medical Products Administration gave conditional approval to a vaccine from CanSino Biologics and a second one from state-owned Sinopharm.

Both are already being used among select groups of people under an emergency use authorization. China now has four vaccines to immunize its population.

CanSino said its one-shot vaccine candidate is 65.28 per cent effective 28 days after the dose is given. It can be stored at between two and eight degrees Celsius, "making it more accessible especially to the regions with underserved public health," it said in a statement.

It relies on a harmless common cold virus, called an adenovirus, to deliver the spike gene of the coronavirus into the body.

The body then makes the spike proteins, which generate an immune response. The technology is similar to both Astrazeneca's and Johnson & Johnson's vaccines, which rely on different adenoviruses.

02:28 PM

China denies using 'undignified' anal swab Covid tests on US diplomats

China has denied subjecting US diplomats to “undignified” anal swab tests for coronavirus, after a number of envoys complained about the intrusive procedure.

Staff stationed in China have now been told to refuse the tests in future and the State Department claimed that they should never have been carried out.

In a statement, they said: “The State Department never agreed to this kind of testing and protested directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when we learned that some staff were subject to it,” a spokesperson told VICE World News.

“We have instructed staff to decline this test if it is asked of them, as was done in the past.”

They added that it was important to preserve the “dignity” of diplomats and their families.

Jamie Johnson has the full story here

02:21 PM

Covid cases fall in nearly all parts of England

Covid-19 case rates fell in all regions of England except Yorkshire and the Humber, according to the latest weekly surveillance report from Public Health England.

In Yorkshire and the Humber the rate of new cases stood at 150.1 per 100,000 people in the seven days to February 21, a slight increase from 149.5 the previous week.

In the East Midlands the rate of new cases stood at 167.1 - the highest rate of any region, but down from 181.0 in the previous week.

The West Midlands recorded the second highest rate: 152.1, down from 175.5.

South-west England recorded the lowest rate: 68.1, down from 89.3.

02:08 PM

Surge in testing in Ealing after South African variant detected

Additional testing is to be rolled out across part of west London after a "small number" of new cases of the South Africa coronavirus variant were found.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on Thursday said additional testing and genomic sequencing is being deployed in Ealing as part of measures to monitor and suppress the spread of the virus.

Positive cases will be sequenced for genomic data to help increase understanding of Covid-19 variants and their spread, it added.

People living in the borough are "strongly encouraged" to take a Covid-19 test when offered.

The department said: "Working in partnership with the London Borough of Ealing, additional testing and genomic sequencing is being deployed within the borough, where a small number of additional cases of the Covid-19 variant first identified in South Africa have been found."

02:04 PM

Bangladesh vaccinates sex workers at largest brothel

Bangladesh has begun administering coronavirus vaccines to sex workers from the country's largest brothel, a vast warren of shacks home to around 1,900 prostitutes.

The South Asian nation has so far vaccinated nearly three million people aged 40 or above with the AstraZeneca jab, but has scrapped the age restriction for sex workers at the town of Daulatdia.

"At least 100 sex workers have already got the anti-Covid-19 jabs," Asif Mahmud, health chief in Daulatdia, said.

"It is very necessary to vaccinate the sex workers... Thousands of people visit the brothel every day and the sex workers at the massive brothel are most vulnerable to the virus."

A sex worker from Bangladesh's largest brothel receives a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Daulatdia - AFP
A sex worker from Bangladesh's largest brothel receives a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Daulatdia - AFP

The country has focused on inoculating the elderly, frontline health workers and security forces since its vaccination drive launched early this month, but plans to eventually cover about 80 percent of the population.

The first sex workers from the brothel to receive the jab travelled to a clinic five kilometres (three miles) away, but Mahmud said authorities were also planning a dedicated vaccine centre inside the brothe

01:58 PM

EU countries report offers for 900 million Covid vaccines by 'alleged intermediaries'

Several European Union countries have reported offers from "alleged intermediaries" for 900 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines for some 12.7 billion euros, the bloc's anti-fraud agency OLAF said on Thursday.

OLAF opened an inquiry earlier this month into scam vaccine offers, underlining how fraudsters have sought to capitalise on a haphazard EU vaccination rollout that is hampering the bloc's economic recovery.

"OLAF received information from several EU member states about offers of Covid-19 vaccines by alleged intermediaries," the agency's press office said in a statement sent to Reuters.

"To date, all these different offers together represent over 900 million vaccine doses for a total asking price of roughly 12.7 billion euros."

Pharmaceutical companies that manufacture vaccines against coronavirus say they only sell directly to governments.

01:53 PM

Wales forced to import foreign leeks for St David's Day after pandemic shortage

Farmers have warned of a potential shortage of British leeks, partly due to coronavirus, as people in Wales get ready to mark St David's Day.

The vegetable is one of the national symbol of Wales, along with the daffodil, and can be worn as a badge by those marking the annual celebration on March 1 as well as being used in traditional Welsh meals such as cawl, and leek and potato soup.

But the UK's supply is now said to have almost run out due to a 15 per cent surge in demand as more people cook from home during the pandemic, coupled with last spring's cold temperatures which led to smaller crops.

On Thursday, the British Leek Growers' Association said suppliers are having to import more expensive continental leeks from places like the Netherlands to "fill the void" and meet demand in time for Wales's national day.

Chairman Stewart Aspinall said: "This unexpected growth in demand, coupled with a harsh spring in 2020, which affected seed populations, means that we're experiencing a shortfall, with supply ending earlier than normal.

"There should be leeks on the shelves, but if people want to keep eating them they might not be able to find British ones."

01:46 PM

Afternoon roundup of latest Covid stories from around the world

  • The World Health Organization says people with long-term Covid symptoms should be made a "clear priority" by health authorities, with its European branch saying sufferers need to be heard.

  • China denies asking US diplomats to undergo anal swab tests for the virus after reports that State Department staff there had complained of being subjected to the intrusive test.

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte demands soldiers are the first in the country to be vaccinated.

  • Finland is to close bars and restaurants for three weeks starting March 8 due to a rise in cases - the Nordic country has had the fewest cases in Europe up to now, but infections are now rising.

  • This weekend's crunch Six Nations rugby match between France and Scotland is postponed after another player tests positive.

  • The virus has caused at least 2,498,003 deaths around the world since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019 - the US is the worst-affected country with 505,899 deaths

01:39 PM

Woman died after catching Covid-19 from transplanted lungs

A woman contracted Covid-19 from transplanted lungs and later died, doctors have confirmed, reports Ben Farmer.

Tests of the donor and her lungs had come back negative for the coronavirus, but doctors now believe nasal swabs had failed to spot that it was being harboured deeper inside the organs or airway.

The unnamed recipient in Michigan is thought to be the first confirmed US case of an organ recipient catching the virus from a donor, the New York Times reported.

Dr Daniel Kaul, an infectious disease specialist at Michigan Medicine who researched the case, said the patient had appeared to make good progress after surgery, before her condition then dipped.

“All of a sudden, she had fever, low blood pressure, pneumonia,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what was going on.”

After testing showed the recipient had tested positive for the coronavirus, the doctors were able to go back and test a remaining sample of the donor's lungs.

That results confirmed the donor had been infected and when the virus samples were sequenced, it showed the patient had contracted the virus from the donor’s lungs. Moreover a surgeon carrying out the transplant also caught the virus.

01:27 PM

Exclusive: New wave of £7,500 grants for self-employed – but scheme may be scrapped as restrictions end

Millions of self-employed workers are due to be offered grants of up to £7,500 in next week's Budget, but the Chancellor is considering dropping the scheme from May.

The Telegraph understands that people who meet the criteria can claim 80 per cent of average monthly profits up to a maximum of £2,500 a month.

The terms for the fourth round of grants, run through the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), are yet to be announced but have been pencilled in by the Treasury.

The grants will cover February, March and April. The move reflects the fact that many self-run businesses will have to remain shut during that period.

However, the grant scheme could be ditched or drastically scaled back from May, given that lockdown restrictions are due to be fully lifted by late June.

Ben Riley-Smith has the full story here

01:22 PM

NHS Nightingale Hospital North West to close down in March

NHS Nightingale Hospital North West will "cease operations by the end of March" due to a fall in need for it, Manchester's council leader has said.

Labour Cllr Sir Richard Leese said emergency care beds had been removed from the £10m site, which opened in the Manchester Central complex in April 2020.

Nightingale Hospital North West in Manchester, - Jon Super/AP
Nightingale Hospital North West in Manchester, - Jon Super/AP

The hospital, which has a capacity for up to 750 beds, has treated non-Covid patients since reopening in October.

NHS England said it would remain in place as long as it was needed.

Weekly hospital admissions for Covid-19 across Greater Manchester fell to 186 on 22 February, down from 266 at the beginning of the month.

01:16 PM

Plan to scrap weekend rail closures if leisure travel soars when lockdown ends

Weekend rail closures could be scrapped if demand for leisure travel surges when lockdown restrictions ease.

Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy said there is "no point" in carrying out engineering work on dates when trains would be packed.

His organisation normally carries out much of its maintenance and upgrade work requiring line closures over weekends and public holidays, to minimise the number of passengers affected.

This policy has caused frustration among leisure travellers for years.

Sir Peter believes the lifting of coronavirus restrictions could result in weekends being busier than weekdays this summer, leading to a new strategy.

Speaking at the National Rail Recovery Conference, he said: "If Saturday and Sunday get really busy in the summer, well we should do engineering work some other time, shouldn't we, if that's going to be how people want to use the railway.

01:11 PM

Moderna vaccine that targets South African variant to undergo clinical trials

Moderna has produced a vaccine that works specifically against the South African variant of coronavirus, with trials due to start in the US.

The firm is experimenting with several potential methods of combating new variants of coronavirus, with a view to potentially offering new or booster shots.

It comes after studies suggested that current vaccines offer less protection against the South African variant, which has a key mutation - E484K - that is thought to help the virus evade parts of the immune system.

The mutation has been worrying scientists and is also found in the Brazil variant of the virus as well as some cases of the variant originally identified in Kent.

Moderna is looking at whether an additional booster shot targeting the South African variant could be given to people, and is working on a combined jab that mixes its current vaccine with the new one.

Vaccine comparator (as of February 8)
Vaccine comparator (as of February 8)

01:03 PM

Pubs to serve takeaway drinks from April 12, says Downing St

Downing Street has confirmed that pubs will be able to serve takeaway drinks from April 12, in a potential boost for bars without gardens.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "Outdoor hospitality is permitted so I believe it would be the case that takeaway alcohol will be permitted."

12:58 PM

Downing Street denies prisoners will jump the queue for vaccines

Downing Street has denied prisoners will be vaccinated against coronavirus ahead of other groups.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "That is obviously not the case and is not true. Prisoners won't be prioritised for vaccines.

"They are vaccinated at the same time as the general public in line with the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) prioritisation groups, no quicker than that."

The priority list for phase two of the vaccination programme, to jab under-50s without clinical conditions, is being awaited from the JCVI.

The spokesman confirmed that, while the JCVI makes the recommendation, it is for ministers to make the final decision.

"The JCVI make their recommendation and we take it forward in terms of the vaccination programme," he said.

12:51 PM

Sweden: Those vaccinated with two Covid doses can start seeing relatives again

Swedes living at nursing homes can start seeing relatives again two weeks after having received two vaccine doses, the government said on Thursday.

"When they have, they can start hugging their grand children again," Lena Hallengren, minister for health and social affairs, told a news conference.

She said it was too early to say when broader restrictions could be lifted.

The spread of coronavirus in Sweden has accelerated in recent weeks and the Health Agency has warned of a possible third wave.

Meanwhile the country's vaccine coordinator has said that Astrazeneca will be able to deliver 150 million doses of vaccine to the European Union in the second quarter, as previously communicated.

"It's still lower than the original contract. We're not entirely happy but they are trying to find new volumes and we think that is very good," Richard Bergstrom told a news conference.

12:45 PM

Children will cycle to school more often post lockdown, research suggests

More children than ever could be set to cycle to schools once they reopen next month, research suggests.

Retail giant Halfords said sales of children's bikes have increased since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

The main reason for buying a new bike was to keep fit, and wanting to spend time outdoors with families.

A survey of 2,000 adults found that one in five was using their bike twice a week.

Paul Tomlinson, cycling director at Halfords, said: "With a third of the new bikes being kids' bikes, we can see that more families are using their bikes to exercise together during the pandemic.

"Our research also suggests that we haven't seen the peak of this demand yet as over a third of people say they are planning to buy a bike in the next six months.

"With the cycling trend set to stay, we expect that cycling will continue to be part of daily life and, as spring and summer approach, predict more cyclists will embrace the weather and get out on their new bikes."

12:41 PM

Boris Johnson rules out Scotland referendum while UK 'fights pandemic'

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he could not see the point of a having a referendum on Scottish independence, "at any time in the foreseeable future" while the UK is fighting the pandemic.

He said: "I think the focus of politicians throughout the UK should be on fighting the pandemic, working together to defeat Covid and building back better and quite frankly I do not see the virtue, value or utility of having a referendum at any time in the foreseeable future, particularly when we have to defeat Covid and take our country forward."

Asked if Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should resign, if she is found to have misled the Scottish Parliament, Mr Johnson said: "I'm focusing on fighting the pandemic and that's what we're all doing across the whole of the UK.

"I am indeed working across the whole of the UK right now to fight the pandemic I think that's what everyone wants us to do.

That's what all politicians should be focused on, that should be our number one priority and for what it is worth, since you ask me to comment on these issues, I don't see the sense in having a referendum on the constitution of the UK whilst we're trying to defeat coronavirus and build back better.

12:35 PM

Increased testing in west London after new cases of South Africa variant discovered

Additional testing is to be rolled out in Ealing, west London after a "small number" of new cases of the South Africa coronavirus variant were found.

The Department of Health and Social Care said: "Working in partnership with the London Borough of Ealing, additional testing and genomic sequencing is being deployed within the borough, where a small number of additional cases of the COVID-19 variant first identified in South Africa have been found.

People living in the borough are "strongly encouraged" to take a Covid-19 test when offered, the DHSC said.

12:22 PM

Coronavirus cases are falling globally, but the big question is: why?

For six consecutive weeks, the number of new Covid-19 cases globally have fallen.

According to the World Health Organization, cases fell by 11 per cent this week, and deaths by 20 per cent.

It’s the first time since the pandemic began more than a year ago that there has been such a sustained drop.

But the big question is: why?

Rather than “we don’t know”, Dr Paul Sax, a professor of medicine at Harvard, has another option: “gemish”, Yiddish for “a mixture of things”.

From improved social distancing to lockdowns, the early impact of vaccinations or emerging herd immunity, there is no single reason for the fall in numbers.

“It could be all of the above explanations, in various proportions, and different in various regions - plus things no one has considered,” he said.

Here our Global Health Security team look at what could be behind the fall in cases - and how the world can sustain it.

12:20 PM

Fraudsters offer 400 million 'ghost' Covid vaccines in EU

Fraudsters have offered 400 million doses of fake Covid-19 vaccines at a value of three billion euros to EU countries.

The EU has warned already that vaccine fraud was on the rise, with fake doses circulating on the market, but the true extent of the problem has remained unclear up to this point.

Two officials with the bloc's executive European Commission have estimated that around 400 million doses of "ghost" vaccines had been offered by fraudsters at a price of up to three billion euros.

One official, who spoke with the condition of anonymity, said: "There is a really large quantity. Nobody has any idea what is actually in these vials.

"The best case is it's just not working, in the worst case it's a very serious issue."

A second unnamed official added: "It is unclear whether these are genuine vaccine doses or if we are just talking about salt water in small vials".

12:09 PM

Burden of long covid is 'real and significant,' says WHO

he burden of long Covid "is real and it is significant", the World Health Organisation's Europe director has said as he urged countries to do more to tackle the issue.

There are no precise figures for how many people suffer ongoing symptoms after a bout of Covid-19, but it is thought around one in 10 remain unwell after 12 weeks, and many for much longer, Dr Hans Kluge said.

He told a briefing that as the pandemic had evolved, professionals and patients "have mapped a path in the dark" and stories of people with ongoing "debilitating symptoms" have emerged.

"Regrettably, some were met with disbelief, or lack of understanding," he said, adding that disability following coronavirus infection can linger for months "with severe social, economic, health and occupational consequences".

He added: "We need to listen and we need to understand. The sufferers of post-Covid conditions need to be heard if we are to understand the long-term consequences and recovery from Covid-19."

12:06 PM

Experimental arthritis drug may help prevent severe Covid-19

An experimental arthritis drug could help prevent severe Covid-19 in those at highest risk from the disease, research suggests.

Otilimab demonstrated a potential clinical benefit in people aged between 70 and 80 over and above the current standard of care, the study indicated.

However, younger, lower risk patients did not benefit from the drug, said pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which is running the trial.

Based on these results, the study is expanding the cohort of patients aged 70 and older.

A further 350 people in this age group will be enrolled, and results are expected in the second half of this year.

A pre-planned efficacy analysis by age in patients aged 70 and older (180 patients out of 806) showed that 65.1 per cent were alive and free of respiratory failure 28 days after treatment with otilimab plus standard of care (including anti-viral treatments and corticosteroids).

12:01 PM

Pfizer BioNTech testing booster of vaccine in new trial

Pfizer Inc and BioNTech have said they are testing a third dose of their Covid-19 vaccine to better understand the immune response against new variants of the virus.

They are also in talks with regulatory authorities about testing a vaccine modified to protect specifically against the highly transmissible new variant found in South Africa and elsewhere, known as B.1.351, as a second arm of the same study.

The companies believe their current two-dose vaccine will work against the South African variant as well as one found in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

But the studies will allow the vaccine makers to be prepared if and when more protection is necessary, they said.

"The rate of mutations in the current virus is higher than expected," Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer Mikael Dolsten said in an interview.

"It's a reasonable probability that we would end up with regular boosts. And for potent vaccines, it may be that you need to do a strain change every few years, but not necessarily every year."

Covid variants at a glance
Covid variants at a glance

11:56 AM

Rugby: France squad in isolation after another player tests positive for Covid-19 ahead of Scotland clash

The Six Nations match on Sunday between France and Scotland in Paris looks in doubt after yet another positive Covid test in the France camp late on Wednesday night.

Eleven players have now tested positive over the past week, including star scrum-half Antoine Dupont and captain Charles Ollivon, as well as three members of the coaching staff, including head coach Fabien Galthie.

"Following the RT-PCR tests carried out on Wednesday, February 24 and the appearance of a positive case within the squad of players, the FFR Medical Committee met this morning and decided to suspend training today," a statement from the French Rugby Federation said.

"The entire group is in isolation in accordance with health protocol. The FFR is in close contact with the Six Nations Committee."

A decision from the Six Nations on whether the game will go ahead is expected by 14:30 on Thursday afternoon.

11:48 AM

Northern Ireland school reopening plan risks making children 'second class citizens'

Northern Ireland risks treating its children as second class citizens if it does not accelerate the pace of school reopening, the Education Minister has warned.

Peter Weir said the region was an "outlier" compared with faster reopening plans elsewhere in the UK and the Irish Republic.

Mr Weir and his DUP colleagues are urging Stormont Executive colleagues to revisit a plan for primary school children in P1 to P3 to return on March 8.

Under the plan, unanimously agreed by the Executive last week, secondary school children in key exam years - years 12-14 - will return two weeks later.

On that date, P1 to P3 will revert to remote learning for another week.No date has been given for the return of the wider school population.

11:43 AM

Firms urged to give workers time off to have vaccine

Firms are being advised to give workers time off to attend Covid vaccination appointments.

The conciliation services Acas said companies should also allow staff time off sick for a few days if they have side-effects from the jab.

Acas said many office-based workplaces have successfully adapted to home-working during the pandemic.

But officials added this has not been possible for many non-office-based workplaces and some employers have said staff should be vaccinated as a workplace condition.

Susan Clews, chief executive of Acas, said: "The UK has a world leading coronavirus vaccination programme and recent projections suggest that everyone in the country may get offered the vaccine by the end of July.

""Our new advice aims to help employers support staff to get the vaccine, maintain good workplace relations and avoid unnecessary conflict."

11:37 AM

African Union backs call to waive IP rights on Covid-19 drugs

The African Union is backing calls for drugmakers to waive some intellectual property rights on Covid-19 medicines and vaccines to speed up their rollout to poor countries.

South Africa and India, which both manufacture drugs and vaccines, made the proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) last year, arguing that intellectual property (IP) rules were hindering the urgent scale-up of vaccine production and provision of medical products to some patients.

They have faced opposition from some developed nations, but the backing of the African Union (AU) may give renewed impetus for the push to relax IP rules.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a news conference that IP transfer was a "win-win for everybody" that would address the huge inequalities in global public health.

He gave two examples where the developing world had suffered because of restricted access to medicines: the swine flu pandemic in the late 2000s and HIV/AIDS in the 1990s.

11:32 AM

Face coverings in secondary schools will not be compulsory

Face coverings and asymptomatic Covid-19 tests in secondary schools will not be compulsory when pupils in England return to class next month, the schools minister has confirmed.

Nick Gibb acknowledged that it is "more challenging" to teach with face masks, but he said wearing face coverings is "highly recommended".

He appealed to parents to allow their secondary school-age children to take part in regular voluntary rapid coronavirus tests when classrooms reopen from March 8.

He told Times Radio: "Of course we can't make it mandatory on parents but we just hope that most parents will see the wisdom of testing their children twice a week."

Over the first two weeks of term, secondary school and college pupils will be asked to take three Covid-19 tests on site and one at home. They will then be sent home-testing kits to do twice-weekly.

11:30 AM

Watch Live: Gavin Williamson on how schools will determine exam grades in House of Commons

11:25 AM

NHS Test and Trace reaches six million contacts

Since its launch last May, NHS Test and Trace has now reached more than six million contacts, according to Public Health England (PHE).

Of those who took their tests in-person in the latest reporting week, 95.8 per cent had received their results the following day, while the median turnaround time for home test kits has reduced to 33 hours.

Between 11 and 17 February, 90.2 per cent of the 120,165 contacts identified were reached within three days of the confirmed case testing positive.

Health Minister Lord Bethell said: "Week after week these results continue to have an enormous impact. Thanks to NHS Test and Trace’s continued outstanding performance, we are helping to halt the spread of the virus."

As of February 24, more than 83 million tests have been processed in the UK with almost 22.8 million people tested at least once since NHS Test and Trace was launched.

11:18 AM

China denies requiring U.S. diplomats to take anal swab tests

China's foreign ministry has denied that U.S. diplomats in the country had been required to take anal swab tests for Covid-19, following media reports that some had complained about the procedure.

U.S. media outlet Vice yesterday reported a State Department official saying the test was given in error and that China had said it would stop such tests on U.S. diplomats.

"To my knowledge...China has never required U.S. diplomatic staff stationed in China to conduct anal swab tests," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

A U.S State Department representative said it was "committed to guaranteeing the safety and security of American diplomats and their families, while preserving their dignity".

Some Chinese cities used samples taken from the anus to detect potential infections amid stepped-up screening during a spate of regional outbreaks ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays.

Tests using anal swabs can avoid missing infections as virus traces in faecal samples or anal swabs could remain detectable for a longer time than in those from the respiratory tract according to Li Tongzeng, a respiratory diseases doctor in Beijing.

11:13 AM

Indonesia holds mass vaccination drive for clergy

Thousands of Indonesia's religious figures gathered today for mass Covid-19 inoculations for clergy and faith groups, with monks, priests, imams and nuns queuing to receive their first doses of vaccine.

Monks in orange, brown and maroon robes sat on chairs evenly spaced across the basement car park of Jakarta's Grand Istiqlal Mosque waiting to register for Sinovac Biotech's CoronaVac.

Indonesian monks wait to receive their first dose of China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine - Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters
Indonesian monks wait to receive their first dose of China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine - Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters

Thursday's was the biggest turnout yet, forcing health workers to turn away some people.

Authorities aim to immunise more than a 1,200 members of religious groups each day over a week.

11:05 AM

Schools minister says 'we trust judgement of teachers' amid warnings of grade inflation

The schools minister has defended tasking teachers with setting the grades of A-level and GCSE students in the absence of exams after experts warned of widespread grade inflation.

Nick Gibb said the Government trusts "the judgment of teachers" and insisted there are checks to ensure consistency for the hundreds of thousands of students in England hit by coronavirus disruption.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is to set out further details of how schools will be tasked with determining the grades in the House of Commons later on Thursday after exams were cancelled for a second successive year.

Following last year's fiasco overseen by Mr Williamson, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank warned the latest plans could cause "extremely high grade inflation".

But Mr Gibb told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We trust the judgment of teachers. They're the people who know their pupils best.

10:44 AM

GP appointments drop by 14pc

The estimated total number of GP appointments in England dropped by nearly 14% in January compared to the previous year, new data shows.

Experimental figures from NHS Digital, published on Thursday, show that an estimated 24.0 million GP appointments were estimated to have taken place in England in January 2021 compared to 27.9 in January 2020.

The total number of appointments recorded in GP practice systems increased from 23,759,106 in December to 23,776,396 in January - a rise of 0.1%. This is a drop compared to the same period last year, when there was a 15% increase seen from December to January.

NHS Digital said this was likely to be due to the third national lockdown in England, which was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on January 4. The data from December 2020 onwards also contains appointments related to Covid-19 vaccinations, NHS Digital said.

10:36 AM

Third of students want online assessment in post-Covid world

Nearly a third of students would prefer to be assessed solely online once the coronavirus pandemic is over, a survey suggests.

Only around a quarter of students want to go back to all assessments and exams being held in person, a report from the university watchdog found.

The polling was carried out as part of a major review of digital teaching and learning led by Sir Michael Barber, chairman of the Office for Students (OfS).

Lecturers need more training and support to realise the long-term advantages of remote education, the report from the higher education regulator says.

A poll of 536 teaching staff suggests nearly a fifth (18%) of lecturers were not confident they could deliver digital teaching during the pandemic.

10:21 AM

Trainee and newly-qualified teachers can run summer camps, minister says

Trainee teachers and new graduates could run the summer schools that are being funded, the Government has suggested.

Asked who would facilitate the extra catch-up sessions during the holidays, schools minister Nick Gibb told Sky News: "We want them run from schools but the reason why there is funding is to enable the schools to be able to employ people to be able to run those summer schools - we want a summer of activities.

"There are a whole raft of people who will be able to come in - young graduates, people who are training to be teachers, retired teachers - that is a matter for the school to decide.

"But we are providing £200 million to enable schools to run those summer schools, and that is on top of all the other measures."

10:15 AM

Pupils can choose to sit exams

Pupils will be able to sit exams if they decide that is how they perform best, the schools minister has said.

Speaking to ITV's Good Morning Britain (GMB), Nick Gibbs said: "There will be mocks in some schools where that student can thrive.

"There is an option for teachers to use the question bank of past paper questions that exams boards are producing for schools to use if they wish, to give an extra layer of evidence that teachers can have and can compile to submit to the exam board.

"So I think there will be options for those students to take one of those optional papers or questions if the teacher decides that is best for the student."

Mr Gibb said there is "an autumn series" of exams available for those pupils who "really did want to take the exam" as part of any resit.

10:02 AM

ICYMI: Rewatch Gavin Williamson's press briefing in full

If you missed the Downing Street press briefing last night, you can catch up below.

09:52 AM

Minister appeal to parents - test your children twice a week

The schools minister appealed to parents to allow their children to take part in the voluntary testing regime once classrooms reopen next month.

Nick Gibb told Times Radio: "It is not mandatory and any child will need the permission of a parent for the test to be administered.

"This is just one more way of identifying positive cases - without this system, you might miss these asymptomatic cases. But for every person who takes a test, that helps us to identify positive cases.

"Of course we can't make it mandatory on parents but we just hope that most parents will see the wisdom of testing their children twice a week.

"And the first three tests will be in school so the students, who will do it themselves actually, will learn how to do it effectively and then testing kits will be sent home."

09:38 AM

Schools testing not compulsory

Nick Gibb confirmed on LBC that the twice-weekly testing for pupils was not compulsory.

Asked whether it should be a case of "no test, no school", Mr Gibb said: "No, we want to make sure it is not compulsory in that sense, and they will need the permission of the parents.

"In all these things, it is a balance of risk and just having anybody tested frankly and identifying asymptomatic cases is a bonus in terms of minimising the risk.

"But we do expect and we hope that most students, the vast majority of students will volunteer to have these tests twice a week and then, after the third test, there will be home testing kits for those students."

09:29 AM

Masks in school 'presents problems'

The schools minister, asked about the Prime Minister saying that making pupils wear face coverings in classrooms was "nonsensical", admitted teaching with masks presented a challenge.

Nick Gibb told LBC radio: "It is more challenging to teach where you have masks on the children and on the teachers but we have a new variant of this virus which is far more transmissible than the previous variant.

"We are always led in every decision we take by the advice of the chief medical officer, by Sage and the scientists to do everything we can to minimise the risk."

09:12 AM

Heathrow quarantine hotels

Wagner Araujo, acompanied by his wife Elaine take in some fresh air and exercise in the car park of the Radisson Blu Hotel during their ten day period of self isolation after arriving in the UK from Brazil - David Dyson
Wagner Araujo, acompanied by his wife Elaine take in some fresh air and exercise in the car park of the Radisson Blu Hotel during their ten day period of self isolation after arriving in the UK from Brazil - David Dyson
hotel - David Dyson
hotel - David Dyson
Karen Scheffer, takes in some fresh air and exercise in the car park of the Radisson Blu Hotel during her ten day period of self isolation after arriving in the UK from South Africa - David Dyson
Karen Scheffer, takes in some fresh air and exercise in the car park of the Radisson Blu Hotel during her ten day period of self isolation after arriving in the UK from South Africa - David Dyson

09:04 AM

Pupils won't be sent home for not wearing masks

Nick Gibb said the wearing of face coverings in secondary schools was not compulsory but instead was being "highly recommended".

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, the schools minister said: "We are saying it is not mandatory for schools to have masks in classrooms but it is highly recommended because we want to do everything we can to reduce the risk of transmission in the school.

"So there is twice-a-week testing of students, staff as well.

"We have all those measures in place - hand hygiene, the cleaning of surfaces, the ventilation, staggered lunchbreaks and play times - all those measures designed to minimise the risk of infection and transmission within the school.

"And this is one more measure just to help reduce that where you can't have social distancing in a classroom."

08:24 AM

Pfizer vaccine's second dose boosts protection dramatically

The Pfizer vaccine provides strong protection against Covid symptoms and severe disease after two doses but markedly lower protection after a single dose, the first large-scale peer-reviewed study of the real-world effectiveness of the vaccine has found.

Separate survey data published by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) found that for those over 80 who had received just a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine blood antibodies were relatively low at 34.7 per cent.

The study by Israel's Clalit Research Institute was conducted in collaboration with researchers from Harvard University and published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday night.

It found two doses of the Pfizer vaccine reduced symptomatic Covid-19 by 94 per cent and severe disease by 92 per cent. A single dose reduced symptomatic Covid-19 by 57 per cent and severe disease by 62 per cent after three weeks.

08:10 AM

New variant spreading in New York

A new variant of the virus, containing a mutation that may help it get past the immune system, is spreading in New York, according to a report in the New York Times.

The B.1.526 variant was first found in samples collected in November, according to the report, which cited researchers from Caltech and Columbia University.

08:04 AM

Test and Trace boss concedes programme took 'quite some time'

The boss of a British outsourcer involved in NHS Test and Trace has acknowledged the programme took "quite some time" to work effectively.

Serco chief executive Rupert Soames told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It (Test and Trace) is now a remarkable success and I acknowledge it has taken quite some time to get there.

"But as of last week there are as many people being tested every week as we've vaccinated, about 2.5 million people a week.

"In the first week of January there were about 1 million people who were traced through the system."

Mr Soames added that Test and Trace had a "bumpy start", but said a system of its kind had "never been done before in the UK".

08:02 AM

Teachers will have to show evidence for grades

The schools minister said teachers would have to show evidence for the grades they give, as part of checks against grade inflation.

Nick Gibb told BBC Breakfast: "Teachers will be required to produce the evidence and the second layer of quality assurance is checking by the exam boards.

"So if the grades when they are submitted, if in a particular school they look very out of line with the achievements of that school in the past, that will be a signal for the exam board to pay extra attention, maybe pay a visit to that school to make sure that the evidence the teacher has collected to justify that grade really does justify that grade."

Asked whether he accepted grades would be inflated this year, Mr Gibb replied: "Well, that's why we've put in place all these different checking mechanisms to make sure that there is consistency. But it is very important that the pandemic does not prevent students from going on to the next stage of their careers, whether that is to college or to university or to an apprenticeship, so we want to make sure that, despite the disruption that students have faced, they will still be able to progress."

07:54 AM

Boris Johnson: 'No child should be left behind'

Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: "No child should be left behind as a result of learning lost during the pandemic. That's why students will receive grades awarded and determined by teachers.

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He added that the "fair and flexible system will ensure all young people can progress to the next stage of their education or career".

07:47 AM

'Tell the public difficult home truths,' Hammond urges PM on Budget

Tory former chancellor Philip Hammond has urged the Prime Minister to tell the public "some difficult home truths" ahead of next week's Covid-dominated Budget.

The ex-occupant of Number 11, who was a close ally of Theresa May, also said the Government should ditch "very extravagant" promises from its manifesto.

Lord Hammond of Runnymede told the BBC he broadly supported financial assistance measures during the pandemic, but remains concerned about Downing Street's priorities in the future.

"My fear is that, as a populist government, giving money away is always easier than collecting it in," the 64-year-old said.

"And the Government will be tempted not to move quickly back to normalising the relationship between government and citizen, the balance between taxing and spending, as we move out of the crisis and into the next phase, which is dealing over the longer term with the legacy of this Covid crisis - what the economists called the scarring effect on the British economy."

07:39 AM

Teacher assessment 'fairest given disruption schools have faced'

Asked about criticism levelled at the Department for Education's plan for teacher-moderated grades by the Education Policy Institute (Epi), schools minister Nick Gibb said the Government was aware of the risks involved but it remained the fairest way of adjudicating.

Pressed that it would lead to "chaos" in the summer, he told Sky News: "No, all these risks that the Epi are talking about are all risks we are fully aware of.

"Of course, this is not the ideal situation to be in, this is a consequence of the pandemic. But it is the fairest system given the different levels of disruption schools have faced.

"We are aware of all those issues that think tanks and other people (have mentioned)."

He said grades would not have to be submitted until June 18 to give pupils more time to study following the disruption to their learning.

07:30 AM

Exams remains 'fairest' way of assessing grades, says schools minister

Schools minister Nick Gibb said exams remained the "fairest" way of evaluating pupil grades but that disruption to education during the pandemic meant that was not possible this year.

He told Sky News: "Of course exams are the fairest and best system for judging attainment.

"But we can't have exams this year because of the pandemic and because of the disruption that many students have faced up and down the country.

"It wouldn't be fair to hold exams this year and we trust the professionals - teachers are the people who know their students best and we do trust their professionalism."

Mr Gibb said he was confident the "quality assurances" in place, both at a school level and exam board level, would result in fair results, with teachers to be given "guidance" about how to grade accurately from their relevant exam boards.

07:27 AM

'Significant risk' of different approaches to grading

A senior educator says there is a "significant risk" schools will take vastly different approaches to grading in teacher-assessed A-levels and GCSEs after exams were cancelled for a second successive year due to the pandemic.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will announce in the Commons on Thursday how the grades of hundreds of thousands of students in England will be awarded this summer in a bid to avoid a repeat of last year's assessments fiasco.

But Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute (Epi) think tank, said: "Without timely and detailed guidance for schools on how this year's grades should be benchmarked against previous years, and with classroom assessments only being optional, there is a significant risk that schools will take very different approaches to grading.

"This could result in large numbers of pupils appealing their grades this year or extremely high grade inflation, which could be of little value to colleges, universities, employers and young people themselves."

07:13 AM

Today's front page

Here's your Daily Telegraph on Thursday, Feb 25.

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03:50 AM

New Zealand hit by rocketing house prices

New Zealand's success in battling the coronavirus has unleashed an unanticipated problem: skyrocketing house prices.

When the pandemic hit, most experts predicted house prices would fall. Instead, prices have risen by more than 19 per cent over the past year, putting them out of reach for many people wanting to buy their first home.

The government, which has come under increasing criticism for its response to the housing squeeze, on Thursday announced the first of what it says will be a series of moves to address the issue by ordering the nation's central bank to consider the impact on house prices when making decisions.

Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr said it welcomed the new directive, which is "in tune" with its own advice to the government. The central bank has also recently announced its own moves to restrict lending to housing investors.

The price surge is being driven by undersupply - GETTY IMAGES
The price surge is being driven by undersupply - GETTY IMAGES

03:26 AM

Exams plan for schools: What we know

Today, the Government will announce how millions of pupils will receive their A-level and GCSE grades this summer after exams were axed for the second year in a row due to the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said ministers will "put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms" following the fiasco last summer which saw a controversial algorithm ditched after a mass outcry.

Here is everything we know about what happens next – including exams, appeals, university offers and timetables.

03:12 AM

Today's top stories

  • End of year exams will be voluntary, the Department for Education (DfE) will announce on Thursday, amid warnings of another summer of chaos and record grade inflation

  • Children are not under any obligation to wear face masks, the Government said on Wednesday night, telling schools not to send pupils home if they refuse to wear one

  • European Union leaders challenged Emmanuel Macron over his inaccurate claims that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffectual”, it emerged on Wednesday

  • Vaccine distribution in the second phase should be decided by age because prioritising teaching or other occupations would slow down the rollout, a leading government adviser has said

  • A six-month extension to the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit will be announced in the Budget next Wednesday, The Telegraph understands

  • Rules that banned people from attending hospitals with their pregnant partners during the first wave of the Covid pandemic could have contributed to maternity deaths, a new report has suggested