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Keir Starmer hints at ‘rainbow alliance” to fight the Tories at the next general election

Keir Starmer hints at ‘rainbow alliance” to fight the Tories at the next general election
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Keir Starmer hints at ‘rainbow alliance” to fight the Tories as he refuses to rule out pre-election pact with Lib Dems and Greens

Keir Starmer has hinted at a ‘rainbow alliance’ to fight the Tories at the next general election – which he expects to happen within two years.

The Labour leader refused to rule out making a pact with other parties such as the Lib Dems and the Greens in order to maximise the chances of defeating Boris Johnson.

The comments will fuel chatter about a ‘progressive alliance’ of the Left, which has been on the rise again following the huge Conservative victory in 2019.

Labour was seen as having helped deliver victory for the Lib Dems in the recent Chesham & Amersham by-election by carrying out minimal campaigning.

But such a strategy could also revive a favourite Tory attack line about the possibility of Labour teaming up with the SNP to form a government – a prospect weaponised effectively by David Cameron in 2015.

Boris Johnson

Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer (right) has hinted at a ‘rainbow alliance’ to fight Boris Johnson (left) at the next general election – which he expects to happen within two years

In an interview with ITV’s Robert Peston, Sir Keir was asked if an electoral alliance could be on the cards given the scale of the ‘deficit’ he has to make up against the Tories.

‘We’ve got to do a lot more work, you know, obviously going into the next general election. There will be a question of what we do,’ he said.

‘There’s a majority broadly against the Tories in the country and obviously we’ll have to see how we go into the next general election, but, you know, the rules are what they are, but we’re rebuilding our party, putting out our arguments and going hell for leather for that election – probably May 23, I suspect.’

Sir Keir said he believes the ‘road will run out’ for Mr Johnson as the public believe in ‘integrity, honesty and accountability’.

He claimed Mr Johnson had been ‘lucky’ due to the pandemic, with the Government able to address fears over the virus and job security through the vaccine programme and the furlough scheme.

But with most people now jabbed and the furlough scheme winding down, Sir Keir suggested the public’s attention will turn to other aspects of the PM’s record.

There was ‘government by soundbite’ and ‘mounting promises that are just broken’ on issues including the Northern Ireland Protocol, the size of the army, overseas aid, tax and social care.

Labour was seen as having helped deliver victory for the Lib Dems in the recent Chesham & Amersham by-election (pictured) by carrying out minimal campaigning

Labour was seen as having helped deliver victory for the Lib Dems in the recent Chesham & Amersham by-election (pictured) by carrying out minimal campaigning

‘I don’t buy into this argument that character just doesn’t matter. I do think that in the end integrity, honesty and accountability do matter and I think there will come a point at which the road will run out for Johnson on this.’

The Labour leader, an Arsenal fan, praised England football manager Gareth Southgate for showing ‘far more leadership than the PM’ and joked that he would have pundit Gary Neville in his shadow cabinet as ‘he’s been very critical, rightly, of the Prime Minister’.

Sir Keir also took a swipe at Mr Johnson’s appearances supporting England, saying: ‘I’ve been an England fan all my life and I don’t wear my shirt over my shirt and tie because real fans never do that – it’s just a no-go area.’

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Poland’s President Is Making the Restitution of Nazi-Looted Objects More Difficult

Poland’s President Is Making the Restitution of Nazi-Looted Objects More Difficult
President Andrzej Duda | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Several countries and institutions have recently worked to make the process of restituting Nazi-looted artifacts more seamless, but Poland isn’t one of them: recently, Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland, signed a law that would make this process much more difficult to complete. Specifically, Duda reduced the country’s statute of limitations when it comes to all charges regarding allegedly stolen property, which significantly reduces the chances of restitution of Nazi-looted artwork from the country.

Yair Lapid, the Foreign Minister of Israel, went so far as to call Duda’s move “antisemitic and immoral.” Representatives from the United States also reacted negatively.

“The United States reiterates our concerns about amendments to the Code of Administrative Procedure….severely restricting restitution and compensation for property wrongfully confiscated during Poland’s communist era,” Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, said in a statement.

“Further, we urge the Polish government to consult with representatives of affected parties and to develop a clear, efficient, and effective legal procedure to resolve confiscated property claims and provide some measure of justice for victims.  In the absence of such a procedure, this legislation will harm all Polish citizens whose property was unjustly taken, including that of Polish Jews who were victims of the Holocaust.”

Defending his decision, Duda said that his choice to reduce the statute of limitations was motivated by instances of fraud.

“Linking this act with the Holocaust raises my firm objection,” Duda told the PAP news agency.

“Poland is the guardian of the memory of the victims of German crimes against Jews, it will not allow the Holocaust to be instrumentalized for current political purposes.”

Other public figures, like the mayor of Amsterdam, have recently made it a priority to ensure that Nazi-looted artifacts held within their countries should be returned to their rightful owners. Regarding the status of a Kandinsky painting, Femke Halsema said: “Returning this artwork will mean a lot to the victims and is important for acknowledging the injustice perpetrated.” OBSERVER

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France sees fifth weekend of protests against Macron COVID-19 pass

France sees fifth weekend of protests against Macron COVID-19 pass
The protesters were an eclectic mix of far-right, yellow vest anti-inequality activists, anti-vaxxers and civil liberties campaigners Sameer Al-DOUMY AFP

Protesters opposing a health pass championed by President Emmanuel Macron to defeat COVID-19 massed in streets across France for the fifth successive weekend Saturday (Aug 14), refusing to give in after the measure was fully implemented.

Macron sees the health pass – which essentially makes vaccination essential to carry on with routine activities like sipping a coffee in a cafe or travelling on a train – as the key to emerging from the pandemic and avoiding further lockdowns.

But protesters – an eclectic mix of far-right, yellow vest anti-inequality activists, anti-vaxxers and civil liberties campaigners – say that the policy encroaches on the basic freedoms so prized by the French.

Two separate protests were taking place in Paris – in a sign of the inability of the protesters to fully unite – with slogans like “free France!”, “stop the corona-madness” or “yes to the freedom to choose” being chanted and brandished.

“I detest the idea that the authorities can go as far as they like,” said Marie Huguet, a pensioner, taking part in Paris in a protest organised by the yellow vests who shook Macron with mass protests from 2018-2019.

Yann Fontaine, 30, who works in a notary office, said he believed the health pass is a measure that “kills freedom and is segregationist”.

Unlike in the yellow vests demonstrations from 2018 there have been no reports of major incidents in these protests. But they have only been increasing in numbers and show no sign of diminishing.

About 237,000 people turned out last Saturday across France, including 17,000 in Paris, the interior ministry said, exceeding the 204,000 recorded the weekend before and numbers extremely unusual for protests at the height of the summer break.


Protesters accuse the government of downplaying the numbers taking to the streets. A collective called Le Nombre Jaune published a detailed breakdown city by city on Facebook in a bid to show the actual numbers last week were 415,000.

Other protests were taking place in cities, especially in the south, including Toulon, Montpellier, Nice, Marseille and Perpignan, where numbers have sometimes exceeded those in Paris.

Macron, who faces re-election next year, has shown little patience with the demands of the protesters while his Health Minister Olivier Veran last week lashed out at a movement “about which we are talking far too much”.

Analysts have said Macron thrives on taking on a protest movement – as was the case with the yellow vests – as it plays well with his core centrist supporters but the government needs to be attentive to the fact the protests are continuing.

The government has also expressed alarm over anti-Semitic elements at some rallies and a teacher in the eastern city of Metz will go on trial next month accused of seeking to incite racial hatred after brandishing a sign at a protest last week that police said was clearly anti-Semitic.

Implemented on Monday, the regulations make it obligatory to have either a full course of vaccination against Covid-19, a negative test or be recently recovered from the virus to enjoy routine activities like eating at a restaurant or a cafe or travelling by inter-city train.

The pass has already been required since Jul 21 to visit cultural venues such as cinemas, theatres and museums. Its extension was approved by France’s Constitutional Council earlier this month.

The vaccine rollout has gathered steam in France since the health pass plan was announced and the government wants 50 million people to have received at least one jab by the end of August. AFP

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UK’s Labour accused of ‘purging Jews’ from party over antisemitism claims

UK’s Labour accused of ‘purging Jews’ from party over antisemitism claims
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish anti-Zionism protesters join a demonstration on Whitehall opposite Downing Street in central London on 7 April, 2018 in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)

Jewish Voice for Labour tells EHRC that Jews almost five times more likely to face antisemitism charges than non-Jewish members

A new report says that Keir Starmer’s Labour “is purging Jews from the party” – with Jews almost five times more likely to face antisemitism charges than non-Jewish members.

It states that British Jews are experiencing “discrimination, victimisation and harassment” inside the UK’s Labour Party.

These statements are found in a submission by Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). A left-wing, pro-Palestinian Jewish group, JVL was founded in 2017 and has been a consistent supporter of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The group says it is submitting its report to the EHRC because it believes its members “increasingly experience administrative persecution by the Labour Party as a form of discrimination”.

Approached by Middle East Eye, the Labour Party did not respond to the JVL’s claims.

In its report, the left-wing group additionally says that members “increasingly experience administrative persecution by the Labour Party as a form of discrimination, targeted not just at our political beliefs but at the nexus of these beliefs with our Jewish identity”.

Jenny Manson, co-chair of Jewish Voice for Labour, who is herself under investigation by the Labour Party, told MEE: “For the first time in my life as a Jew living in the UK I feel persecuted, hated and shunned by the apparatus of the Labour Party and the loud voices of some sections of the Jewish community. The weapon used too often is to call us JVL activists antisemitic. Bizarre and wicked.”

“Those who should defend us – the courts, the media, politicians – turn from us as if we are dangerous and distasteful,” she added.

Jewish Voice for Labour claims to represent some 350 Jewish Labour members, along with some 800 non-Jewish “solidarity” members and a small number of Jewish “supporters”.

It told the EHRC: “Our Jewish members do not feel safe in the Party and this is experienced agonisingly like the persecution our families have experienced over centuries”.

When MEE put this statement to the Labour Party it did not respond. JVL says investigations against left-wing Jewish members have been “disproportionate”.

According to Labour statistics, by March 2021 there had been 1,450 “actioned complaints” against Labour party members in relation to allegations of antisemitism – equivalent to 0.29 percent of Labour’s membership, which averaged 500,000 between 2015 and 2020, when Corbyn was leader.

By contrast, says JVL, there were at least 35 actioned complaints against Jewish members. This is equivalent to 1.4 percent of Jewish members, who the group estimate to have numbered around 2,500 during the same period.

In evidence that has also been submitted to the Forde Inquiry into Labour’s leaked report on antisemitism, JVL says that the disproportion gets even larger when it comes to action against its own members.

Jewish Voice for Labour asserts that its members are 20 times more likely than non-Jewish Labour members to face antisemitism complaints. That number appears to rise for JVL’s officers and committee. Nine of JVL’s 16 officers and committee members have been investigated for antisemitism, with three currently suspended.

“This means that 53 percent of JVL officers have faced actioned complaints of antisemitism, a rate 180 times higher than non-Jewish Labour Party members,” the group says.

‘Taking sides’

The claims jar with the stated aims of Labour’s leader. Starmer, who replaced Corbyn last year, has sought to define himself against his predecessor by promising zero tolerance on antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Under Corbyn, Labour was plagued by allegations that members were targeting Jews with antisemitic abuse.

In May 2020, an EHRC report said there was a culture in Labour “which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it”. It put some of the blame for these “serious failings” on Corbyn’s leadership.

In response, Corbyn described antisemitism as “abhorrent”, but said “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons”. Starmer then suspended him from the party and Corbyn now sits as an independent MP.

Starmer’s allies say he has taken a much harder line than Corbyn on antisemitism and made progress on tackling the issue. Jewish Voice for Labour contests this, arguing that the new Labour leader has instead taken sides in an argument among British Jews.

“Previous leaderships,” it states, “sought to hear from diverse Jewish perspectives. But the party now limits its engagement with British Jews to groups who claim to represent ‘the Jewish community’ but who in fact represent only one position within it.”

It adds: “The party is in effect collaborating with these groups to delegitimise Jewish dissent.”

The left-wing Jewish group defines itself as being part of the “universalist Jewish tradition for freedom”, declaring itself “committed to the struggle against all racism, including antisemitism, and for freedom and justice for all, including the Palestinian people”.

It states that “it is novel for the majority of Jews in the UK to be told that we are represented by the Board of Deputies and, for those on the left, by the Jewish Labour Movement” – both groups are to the right of JVL.

Critics of Israel

In its report, Jewish Voice for Labour cites a number of case studies and examples, including the testimony of Diana Neslen, a disabled Jewish widow from Ilford in Essex who speaks of being targeted by “extreme right-wing Zionist groups”.

She says this is because she and others like her are not unconditional supporters of Israel “and we remind them of the ethnical dimension of Judaism”.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, the former vice chair of the Chingford and Woodford Green constituency Labour party, describes herself as “a committed anti-racist, anti-war campaigner for decades”. She says she has “taken a leading role in many campaigns for justice for Palestinians, including as a member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians”.

Wimborne-Idrissi says that “everyone raised in a Jewish family setting, grows up knowing what antisemitism is in the depth of their being”.

Yet she describes being charged with antisemitism by anonymous accusers, as things she said in a private meeting were taken out of context. “I am not alone in feeling we Jews whose voices are being silenced must defend ourselves vigorously and look for justice outside the party,” she said.

Jewish Voice for Labour contends that the party is currently “pursuing disciplinary cases against members who have been critical of Israel or expressed support for Palestinian rights”, rather than antisemites.

JVL’s report acknowledges that “in a few of these cases it has been reasonable to conclude that there was antisemitic motivation and the party was duty bound to take firm action”.

However, it also says that “in far more cases the alleged offences were only motivated by distress at Israel’s actions and any reference to Jews was in the context of support by Jewish organisations for Israel’s actions”.

A recent report by the Community Security Trust antisemitism monitor said antisemitic attacks in the UK had risen during Israel’s conflict in the besieged Gaza Strip in May, recording 1,308 incidents between January and June 2021.

Where’s Labour?

When Middle East Eye asked Labour, “Does the Labour Party accept that it has a responsibility to represent non-Zionist (or post-Zionist) Jewish British socialists?” there was no reply.

JLV insists that: “Jewish socialists who are vocal advocates for Palestinian rights and for holding Israel to account for its breaches of international law, perceive that the party is unwilling to protect them from abuse by other party members”.

It adds that “they are both insulted as antisemites and their right to identify themselves as Jews is constantly denied”.

“The assumption of disciplinary investigations is that all Jews are Zionists and/or that anti-Zionists are not proper Jews and indeed are antisemitic, delegitimising an entire swathe of Jewish opinion and tradition,” the JVL report says. Again, the Labour Party declined to comment on this statement.

Jewish Voice for Labour further complains that “no duty of care” is fulfilled for abuse victims, and the party has abandoned the group’s members with “the possibility of their hurt never considered”.

The submission follows a Middle East Eye article by Richard Sanders in September in which Manson said that at least 24 Jewish members of the party had come under formal investigation at one time or another, many of them more than once.

Sanders quoted JVL committee member Mike Cushman, who has himself been investigated in the past, saying: “For a Jewish person, to be accused of antisemitism is as devastating as to be confronted with antisemitism. It’s even worse when the accusation comes from someone who isn’t Jewish themselves.”

The article quoted Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who said the purge of alleged antisemites in the Labour Party had had a “chilling effect” on advocacy work for Palestinians.

Contacted about the concerns raised in the Sanders article, the Labour Party told MEE: “The Labour Party takes all complaints of antisemitism extremely seriously and they are fully investigated in line with our rules and procedures, and any appropriate disciplinary action is taken.” MEE


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Europe a fearful bystander as Taliban sweeps through Afghanistan

Europe a fearful bystander as Taliban sweeps through Afghanistan
People gather with their heavy weapons to support Afghanistan security forces against the Taliban, in Guzara district, Herat province on 23 June 2021. (AFP)

As the Taliban rapidly recaptures swathes of Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of Western troops, European leaders are watching with a mix of shock, fear and powerlessness.

Having invested in U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan over two decades by deploying thousands of troops and sending billions of euros in aid, European officials have been stunned by how quickly the Islamist group has defeated government forces across the country.

“We feared that in 20 weeks, the hands of time would go back 20 years — and instead unfortunately 20 days were enough,” Italian General Claudio Graziano, the chairman of the European Union’s military committee, told Politico.

Stoking Europeans’ fears are the prospect of a hardline Islamist regime ruling Afghanistan once again, the possibility of a new wave of migration and grave concerns about the safety of Afghans who have worked for the EU or European governments. Officials are also closely watching the roles that geopolitical rivals Turkey and China are playing in the crisis.

Yet despite Europe having a major stake in the outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, European officials admit they have very little influence or leverage. And there is no sign of any appetite among European leaders for a new military intervention, following U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out American forces — a move that prompted the Europeans to follow suit.

The EU is represented by a special envoy, Tomas Niklasson, at talks in Qatar that are meant to produce a lasting political settlement for Afghanistan. On paper, the bloc has some sway there, through its financial aid and its ability to grant international recognition to whoever leads the country.

On Thursday evening, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tried to play the latter card in a statement calling on the Taliban to “immediately” resume talks and to respect human rights. He warned that “if power is taken by force and an Islamic Emirate re-established, the Taliban would face non-recognition, isolation, lack of international support.”

But the Taliban has little incentive to engage in those talks or bend to the will of outside powers when it is making such dramatic progress on the ground and now controls most of the country.

“I cannot see much leverage for us,” said one European diplomat. “The Taliban seem just willing to put us in front of a de facto situation.”

While admitting their powerlessness, European officials note that even the much mightier U.S. also appears to have little influence over the advancing Taliban.

European efforts

The lion’s share of money and troops for NATO operations in Afghanistan came from the United States, which lost more than 2,000 soldiers there. But the EU and its member countries also poured substantial resources into the country.

Since 2002, the EU has provided more than €4 billion in development aid to Afghanistan, making the country the largest beneficiary of EU development assistance in the world.

Many European nations also contributed troops to the various U.S.-led military missions in Afghanistan. Germany, for example, deployed a total of more than 150,000 troops to the country over the past 20 years. A total of 59 German soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan and the Bundeswehr’s operations there cost some €12.5 billion.

Europeans are now watching much of their efforts in Afghanistan go up in smoke. And one of the most pressing issues for European officials is the fate of Afghan staff who worked for them and may face retaliation from the Taliban.

According to diplomats, the EU’s External Action Service, the bloc’s diplomatic body, has identified over 100 local staff members who work for the EU in various forms in Afghanistan, with a total of 456 family dependents. A spokesperson for the service declined to comment on those figures, citing “security reasons.”

Diplomats say that Stefano Sannino, the secretary-general of the External Action Service, sent a letter to EU member countries at the start of August, asking for help to resettle these local staffers as the EU itself can’t grant visas.

A group of countries, including France and the Netherlands, have already replied to say that they are available to help, according to one diplomat. In the letter, the service also floated the idea of offering unpaid leave or a financial severance package to those local employees who want to make their own arrangements in neighboring countries.

Migration fears

One of the biggest fears of European officials is that the conflict and the prospect of a Taliban government could trigger a new wave of mass migration, with large numbers of Afghans seeking asylum and safety in Europe.

Since the beginning of the year, nearly 400,000 Afghans have been internally displaced within the country — some 244,000 since May alone, according to estimates cited by the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. And Afghans were the No. 1 nationality among irregular arrivals to the EU in 2019 and 2020.

European officials do not expect an imminent migration crisis — but they fear that one will develop in the months ahead. “I’m worried, very worried about that,” said a senior EU diplomat.

Niels Annen, minister of state in Germany’s foreign ministry, said it would be “naive to believe that the onward march of the Taliban and the violence in the war zone will not have any consequences for migration policy.”

“People from Afghanistan will have to flee in greater numbers than in past years,” Annen told the Funke media group.

“We’ll feel the effects of that in Germany too, even if it’s not yet the case in the coming weeks,” he added.

Highlighting these concerns, ministers from six EU countries — Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Denmark — called this week for the continuation of deportations from Europe for Afghans whose asylum claims have been rejected.

Their letter was condemned by other politicians and rights activists as a crude attempt to signal to Afghans that they should not seek refuge in Europe.

Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP, said it was ridiculous to believe that freezing deportations would encourage Afghans to flee their country and head for Europe.

“No one can seriously believe that people flee Afghanistan to seek refuge elsewhere only because some EU countries stop deportations,” Neumann said via email. “It is the atrocities of the Taliban that force people to leave.”

At least two of the countries involved, Germany and the Netherlands, swiftly U-turned and put a hold on deportations.

The instability in Afghanistan has also triggered geopolitical concerns in Europe. A recent picture of a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sparked anxiety among some diplomats that Beijing could gain further influence in a strategic region if the U.S.-backed central government in Kabul falls.

But other officials downplayed these fears, saying that China wants stability and has no interest in allowing Afghanistan to pose a new Islamist terrorist threat.

European officials are also watching Turkey’s role closely. Ankara has offered to deploy troops at Kabul airport after NATO troops withdraw and has held talks with the U.S. for weeks on the matter. Turkey wants certain conditions for a deployment to be met, including a green light from the Taliban that hasn’t yet been forthcoming, officials said.

Officially, the EU has spoken positively about this option. But some diplomats fear that, after strengthening its role in Syria and Libya, Turkey could use its presence in Afghanistan to increase its influence on migration flows to Europe. EU POLITICO

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France urges better protection for Covid-19 vaccination centres after vandalism

France urges better protection for Covid-19 vaccination centres after vandalism
A medical worker administers a Covid-19 jab to a patient in a vaccination centre in Bordeaux, southwestern France, on May 26, 2021. © Philippe Lopez, AFP

The French government on Wednesday urged better protection of vaccination centres after some two dozen acts of vandalism were recorded against Covid-19 related facilities over the last month alone.

The warning comes after high tensions over recent weeks as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to rally against President Emmanuel Macron’s health pass policy which aims to encourage vaccination.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin sent a letter to senior local authority officials at the request of Macron seen by AFP in which he urged French police to mobilise to ensure better protection for vaccination centres across the country.

According to the interior ministry, some 22 acts of vandalism against testing and vaccination centres as well as pharmacies have been recorded since July 12 alone. Almost 60 threats have also been recorded.

In mid-July, a vaccination centre in Lans-en-Vercors in southeast France was flooded with a hosepipe, causing damage to equipment. Slogans such as “vaccinations are the new genocide” were found daubed on the walls.

Last weekend in the city of Toulouse a piece of paper was found at a vaccination centre warning that “one day this will all be blown up”.

In a letter to healthworkers, Health Minister Olivier Véran said: “I will not accept any violence, any intimidation, any attack on your physical integrity or professional equipment.”

The protests over the last four weekends have mixed those who believe the health pass scheme encroaches on basic freedoms, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.

The health pass, which is needed to enter a café or restaurant and also to travel on an inter-city train, is generated in a QR code either by a full course of vaccinations, a recent negative virus test or a recovery from Covid-19.

The government believes the plan will ramp up the demand for vaccinations. AFP


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Boris Johnson backs plans for ‘firebreak lockdowns’ if needed over winter months if NHS faces chaos

Boris Johnson backs plans for ‘firebreak lockdowns’ if needed over winter months if NHS faces chaos

Boris Johnson has authorised contingency plans for ‘firebreak lockdowns’ should the NHS be overwhelmed with Covid cases during the winter months.

Sources within Whitehall today confirmed the government is prepared for ‘local, regional or national’ lockdowns in order to protect the health service from being swamped and reaching breaking point with cases.

The i reports the Prime Minister has given the green light to plans for ‘firebreak lockdowns’ should Covid cases cripple the NHS later this year.

Although scientists remain confident of the efficacy of Britain’s vaccines, Whitehall sources say fears persist over surging flu infections, a potential NHS staffing crisis and a rise in positive infections.

The senior Downing Street source told i: ‘The Government believes it has got to grips with the pandemic following the vaccine rollout

‘Barring a new vaccine-beating strain, fears over a rise in infections similar to that seen last autumn are actually outweighed by other issues like an NHS staffing crisis and the likely resurgence in flu infections, and other respiratory diseases.

‘On top of Covid infections, these factors could tip the NHS back to the brink and force more lockdowns.’

Boris Johnson (above) has authorised contingency plans for ‘firebreak lockdowns’ if the NHS is again overwhelmed with Covid cases during the winter months

It is understood that any subsequent lockdown would resemble the nation’s four-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown during November 2020.

The return of draconian restrictions would likely be short and during ‘school holidays and over Christmas’, the source adds.

Even the government’s most cautious scientific advisors now appear to be turning against the prospect of strict restrictions being reimposed on our lives.

Several outspoken scientists, including Neil Ferguson – once dubbed Professor Lockdown – have argued that lockdowns are unlikely to be needed in the future.

Speaking in the Times, Professor Ferguson said he thought it would be ‘unlikely’ the UK would return to a lockdown, unless a deadly new variant was discovered.

He said: ‘I suspect we won’t have to [return to lockdown].

‘The pinch point has always been pressure on the NHS, and though it will be awkward for the NHS, so there will be pressure, I very much doubt they won’t be able to cope.’

Several prominent scientists, including Neil Ferguson (above) – once dubbed Professor Lockdown – have argued that lockdowns are unlikely to be needed in the future

The news comes as stats show Britain’s Covid outbreak is still flattening off, according to official statistics that dismissed hopes that the worst of the third wave was over.

Department of Health bosses posted another 31,808 cases on Friday, up 7 per cent on the 29,622 recorded last week.

The number of victims dying with the virus – a measure which lags weeks behind infections – also increased by 35.3 per cent, jumping from 71 last week to 92.

But hospital admissions, which always turn before fatalities, continue to fall. There were 778 people hospitalised with Covid on Monday, down 16.2 per cent on the previous week.

The figures come as leading scientists warn achieving herd immunity against Covid is looking ever-increasingly impossible, with neither vaccines nor natural infections triggering ‘perfect’ protection.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said immunity against SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid – is likely to be short-lived.

But separate official data offered a glimmer of hope, revealing England’s shrinking Covid outbreak towards the end of July was real and marked the first time cases had genuinely fallen since the third wave took off.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) data released today shows the number of people infected with the virus fell from 856,200 to 722,300 in the week ending July 31

No10’s top scientists claimed the R rate — which shows how quickly the coronavirus is spreading — has dipped below one for the first time in 12 weeks. The UK Health Security Agency said the reproduction rate is between 0.8 and 1.1. For comparison, last week’s figure stood at between 1.1 and 1.4.

Meanwhile, random swab-testing data — used by ministers to keep tabs on the size of the outbreak — estimated the number of infected people has also dropped for the first time since May.

Britain’s total infections have now risen up to 6,014,023, while 130,178 people who have tested positive have lost their life to the virus since the start of the pandemic.

Just under 47million adults in Britain (88.8 per cent) have now had a jab after another 35,500 first doses were dished out yesterday.

And 39million (73.8 per cent) are fully protected after NHS staff and volunteers put 172,692 second doses into people’s arms.

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