Scientists warn against easing lockdown amid mutant Covid

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson says new variant of the virus may be associated with 'a higher degree of mortality'.

The mutant coronavirus variant found in England may be more deadly than the original strain. Chris Clor via Getty Images
The mutant coronavirus variant found in England may be more deadly than the original strain.

Scientists have warned there can be no early easing of lockdown rules after evidence the mutant coronavirus variant which emerged in the south-east of England may be more deadly than the original strain.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday the new variant may be associated with “a higher degree of mortality”.

He said the UK Government could have to bring in further restrictions on travel following a warning that other new variants found in South Africa and Brazil may be more resistant to the vaccines that have been developed.

Meanwhile, the British Medical Association has reportedly written to chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty calling for the gap between doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be reduced to six weeks.

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The private letter, seen by the BBC, said the current plans of people waiting up to 12 weeks for a second dose – which Health Secretary Matt Hancock said is supported by data from an Israeli study – are “difficult to justify”.

It said: “The absence of any international support for the UK’s approach is a cause of deep concern and risks undermining public and the profession’s trust in the vaccination programme.”

At a No 10 news briefing on Friday, the UK Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said early evidence suggested the new UK variant could increase mortality by almost a third in men in their 60s.

His warning followed a briefing by scientists on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which concluded there was a “realistic possibility” that it was associated with an increased risk of death.

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It was already known that the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original – leading to a tightening of restrictions across the UK from late December onwards.

Rowland Kao, professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, said the latest findings suggested it was responsible for the “unexpectedly high” numbers of hospital admissions, especially around London.

“While the recent results showing declining case numbers is good news, and suggest that the variant is controllable via existing measures, these results on deaths imply that burden in hospitals will continue to be high requiring a more prolonged period of restrictions,” he said.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, a former government chief scientific adviser and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said even stricter measures may be needed if cases do not continue falling “at pace”.

“Decisions are going to have to be made on the basis of the evidence,” he told BBC News.

“If the evidence shows that the decrease in cases isn’t continuing, then clearly policymakers will have to consider much tougher measures.”

Johnson said the case numbers remained “forbiddingly high” and that it would be a mistake to unlock in England if it were to lead to “another big rebound” in the disease.

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On another bleak day, with a further 1,401 deaths across the UK of people who had tested for Covid-19 in the previous 28 days, there was some good news with evidence the various lockdown measures in place across the country were having an effect.

A sub-group of Sage said the reproduction number, the R, for coronavirus had fallen to below one across the UK, suggesting a retreating epidemic.

The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) put the R, which represents how many people an infected person will pass the virus on to, at 0.8 to 1.0, down from 1.2 to 1.3 the previous week.

It said the number of new infections was shrinking by between 1% and 4% every day.

However, Professor Whitty said the situation across the UK remained “extremely precarious”.

“A very small change and it could start taking off again from an extremely high base,” he said.

“If that happened again, we would be in really, really deep trouble.”

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick Medical School, suggested the more serious concern was the evidence that the South African and Brazilian variants may be less susceptible to the vaccines.

“The other virus variants identified in South Africa and Brazil are more worrying as they carry more changes in the spike protein of the virus,” he said.

“It is important that we now determine the neutralising ability of antibodies against virus variants generated in response to vaccination and study the immune response in individuals infected with virus variants.”

Sir Patrick said the evidence remained uncertain and there was no sign either the South African or Brazilian variants had any “transmission advantages” over those in the UK and so would not be expected to spread more quickly or “take over”.

Meanwhile, a year has passed since the first people in Scotland were tested for coronavirus.

The Scottish Government confirmed on January 23, 2020, that five people were being examined after presenting with symptoms of the illness.

Two of them had been diagnosed with influenza after travelling to Wuhan, China, where the virus originated.

The first confirmed coronavirus patient in Scotland came on March 1, and was from Tayside.

On March 13, the first death related to the virus was recorded.

The UK entered full lockdown for the first time on March 23, but less than a month later Scotland’s chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood resigned after making two trips to her second home.

A route-map out of the coronavirus restrictions was first published by the Scottish Government on May 21.

This has been updated throughout the pandemic and includes rules on school closures, business operations and personal freedoms.

Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, has seen the highest volumes for coronavirus infections and deaths – more than 31,700 and 863 respectively.

There have been almost 170,000 positive Covid-19 cases and 5,628 related deaths north of the border, as of Friday.

Scottish Government figures show 358,454 people have received the first dose of the Covid vaccination, and 4,689 have received the second dose

Competition law suspended in bid to stop petrol panic-buying

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng met with oil companies and retailers on Sunday to address the issue.

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Fuel crisis: Competition law suspended in bid tackle fuel shortage due to panic-buying.

Competition law has been suspended in an attempt to get a grip on the fuel shortages being driven by panic-buying motorists, ministers have announced.

The decision comes after Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng met with oil companies and retailers on Sunday to address another day of continued queuing for the pumps, with thousands of petrol stations running dry.

A scuffle at a north London petrol station was posted on social media as motorists waited to fill up their tanks in a bout of “frenzied buying” sparked after concerns from BP that the HGV driver shortage could impact its ability to keep up with fuel deliveries were leaked to the media.

Kwarteng opted to temporarily exempt the industry from the Competition Act to allow the industry to share information so it can target areas where fuel supply is running low.

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The triggering of what is known as the Downstream Oil Protocol comes as the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) warned that as many as two-thirds of its membership of nearly 5500 independent outlets was out of fuel, with the rest of them “partly dry and running out soon”.

Kwarteng said: “We have long-standing contingency plans in place to work with industry so that fuel supplies can be maintained and deliveries can still be made in the event of a serious disruption.

“While there has always been and continues to be plenty of fuel at refineries and terminals, we are aware that there have been some issues with supply chains.

“This is why we will enact the Downstream Oil Protocol to ensure industry can share vital information and work together more effectively to ensure disruption is minimised.”

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In a separate joint statement from the likes of Shell, ExxonMobile and Greenergy, the industry reiterated that the pressures on supply were being caused by “temporary spikes in customer demand, not a national shortage of fuel”.

PRA chairman Brian Madderson told the BBC the shortages were down to “panic buying, pure and simple”, with priority by oil companies being afforded to keeping motorway service station pumps topped up.

The intervention comes less than 24 hours after the Government announced a temporary visa scheme that will see 5000 foreign HGV drivers and 5500 poultry workers allowed into the UK on three-month contracts up to Christmas Eve in an attempt to keep supermarket shelves stocked with turkeys and tackle fuel delivery difficulties.

But retailers warned that the decision to relax immigration rules to fix supply chain issues was “too little, too late” to keep shop shelves fully stocked this Christmas.


Guests evacuated following incident at luxury hotel

Firefighters were called to the Macdonald Inchyra Grange Hotel in Grangemouth on Sunday evening.

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Incident: Guests evacuated from Macdonald Inchyra Grange Hotel.

Guests have been evacuated following an incident at a luxury hotel in Forth Valley.

Firefighters were called to the Macdonald Inchyra Grange Hotel in Grangemouth on Sunday evening around 7.30pm. 

Two appliances were sent to the scene alongside specialist resources, where they remained at 11pm.

A Scottish Fire and Rescue Service spokesperson said: “SFRS were called at 7.30pm on Sunday September 26 to assist as part of a multi agency response to an incident at a hotel on Grange Road in Grangemouth. 

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“Operations control mobilised two appliances and specialist resources to the scene, where crews remain.”


More than 10,000 visas given to foreign workers ‘to save Christmas’

The temporary visa scheme will see opportunities created for 5000 HGV drivers and 5500 poultry workers.

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Temporary visas: The scheme aims to 'rescue Christmas' from supply shortages.

More than 10,000 foreign workers will be temporarily permitted to work as lorry drivers and in the food sector as ministers look to rescue Christmas from supply shortages.

A temporary visa scheme will see opportunities created for 5000 HGV drivers and 5500 poultry workers to take up employment in the UK until Christmas Eve, in a bid to keep supermarket shelves stocked with turkeys and toys and counter delivery difficulties at petrol stations.

UK transport secretary Grant Shapps said the changes, with the visas available from next month, would “ensure preparations remain on track” for the festive season.

Retailers had warned the Government that it had just ten days to save Christmas from “significant disruption” due to a shortfall of about 90,000 drivers in the freight sector.

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Industry groups the Food and Drink Federation and Logistics UK both welcomed the visa changes, with federation chief Ian Wright calling the measures “pragmatic”.

But British Chamber of Commerce president Baroness McGregor-Smith said the changes were the “equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire” as it would “not be enough to address the scale of the problem”.

The announcement about immigration rules being relaxed to ease supply pressures comes amid scenes of lengthy queues at petrol stations after a shortage of specialised tanker drivers forced some fuel retailers to shut their pumps and ration sales.

As well as the short-term measure of opening up to foreign workers, the Ministry of Defence is also stepping in to provide examiners for lorry driving tests as ministers look to steadily increase the size of the workforce.

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Officials said the loan of MoD examiners to work alongside Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) employees would help put on “thousands of extra tests” over the next 12 weeks.

Meanwhile, nearly one million letters will be landing in the coming days on the doormats of people with HGV licences to encourage those who have left the industry to return.

The letter will set out the steps the haulage sector is taking to improve industry conditions, including increased wages, flexible working and fixed hours, according to the Department for Transport.

Shapps said: “This package of measures builds on the important work we have already done to ease this global crisis in the UK, and this Government continues to do everything we can to help the haulage and food industries contend with the HGV driver shortage.

“We are acting now but the industries must also play their part, with working conditions continuing to improve and the deserved salary increases continuing to be maintained in order for companies to retain new drivers.

“After a very difficult 18 months, I know how important this Christmas is for all of us and that’s why we’re taking these steps at the earliest opportunity to ensure preparations remain on track.”

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a global shortage of lorry drivers, although there have been long-term issues in the UK with labour numbers amid an ageing workforce, low wages and poor truck stop conditions.

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The DfT said it recognised that importing foreign labour “will not be the long term solution” to the problem and that it wanted to see investment poured into establishing a robust domestic workforce.

Officials said the Government continued to support solving the high vacancy rate through improved testing and hiring, with better pay, working conditions and diversity.

Another long-term measure to turn the situation around will see the Department for Education plough up to £10m into creating new “skills bootcamps” to train up to 3000 more people to become HGV drivers.

The free, intensive courses will train drivers to undertake an entry level HGV licence (Category C) or a more advanced course to operate heavier and longer lorries (Category C&E).

Another 1000 people are expected to be trained through courses accessed locally and funded by the Government’s adult education budget.

Those accessing medical and HGV licences through the adult budget in the 2021/22 academic year will have their qualifications paid for by the state, with the funding backdated to anyone who started one of these qualifications on or after August 1.

More DVSA examiners will also be freed up to conduct lorry driver tests via a law change to allow driving examiners at the three emergency services and the MoD to be able to conduct driving tests for one another.

UK education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “HGV drivers keep this country running.

“We are taking action to tackle the shortage of drivers by removing barriers to help more people to launch new well-paid careers in the industry, supporting thousands to get the training they need to be road ready.”

UK environment secretary George Eustice said: “We have listened to concerns from the sector and we are acting to alleviate what is a very tight labour market.”

The Government said it had already streamlined the process for new HGV drivers while increasing the number of driving tests available to allow for an extra 50,000 tests to take place per year.


Further two deaths and 2556 new coronavirus cases reported

The test positivity rate in Scotland has increased slightly from 8.8% on Saturday to 8.9% on Sunday.

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Coronavirus: Two more deaths reported in past 24 hours.

A further two deaths and 2556 new cases of coronavirus have been recorded in Scotland overnight, according to official figures.

On Sunday, the Scottish Government revealed 30,652 new tests were carried out in the past 24 hours, with the test positivity rate rising slightly from 8.8% to 8.9%.

While there were just two reported deaths on Sunday, this may be due to register offices being closed on weekends.

There are 1004 people in hospital with recently confirmed Covid-19, a decrease of one from Saturday, with 78 of those in intensive care, also a decrease of one.

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There have now been 4,176,832 people who have received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccination, with 3,827,110 having received their second dose.


Soldiers will help ambulance service ‘for the long run’ if required

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack spoke as military personnel started a deployment with the Scottish Ambulance Service.

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It comes as the recent surge in Covid cases in Scotland has put further pressure on the NHS

Army personnel could be driving Scotland’s ambulances for longer than the two months originally planned, with Scottish secretary Alister Jack declaring the military support is “here for the long run” if needed.

A total of 114 soldiers have been drafted in to drive non-emergency vehicles for the Scottish Ambulance Service, with a further 111 members of the armed forces helping to staff coronavirus testing centres.

It comes as the recent surge in Covid cases in Scotland has put further pressure on the NHS, with some patients experiencing long waits for ambulances – something First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been clear is unacceptable.

Health secretary Humza Yousaf, who met some of the soldiers who are stepping in on Friday, said he expected their assistance would help make a “significant improvement” to the waiting times crisis.

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Jack said that while two months of support had initially been requested, military help could remain in place “longer if that’s what the Scottish Government needs and what it takes to help protect the public”.

Alister Jack insisted the forces helping the ambulance service were ‘here for the long run’ (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, the Scottish secretary said: “The British military is always ready to deploy at the drop of a hat – but they are also here for the long run.

“Initially two months of support were requested, but let me be crystal clear about timescales.

“The UK’s Forces are not in any way restricting the amount of time available. We are happy for this operation to go on longer if that’s what the Scottish Government needs and what it takes to help protect the public.”

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Jack added: “I am pleased that we are able to work together as one to bring a quality UK asset such as the military to bear on problems.

“I say with confidence that if our NHS here in Scotland continues to struggle as winter bites, the UK military stands ready with much more help, which they can deliver in a heartbeat.”

Colonel Anthony Phillips, the commander of joint military command for Scotland, has previously said the forces deployment with the ambulance service could be extended.

Members of the armed forces from 68 Squadron from 7 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps  are now helping out, with approximately two-thirds of the troops based in the Glasgow area and a third in the Edinburgh region –  although they can be deployed elsewhere as required by the ambulance service.

Col Phillips stated on Friday: “Our commitment will be in the region of about two months.

“It is all conditions-based and if there is a requirement to look at that and extend, then that will be done in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence and the Scottish Government.”


Tom Fletcher and Strictly dance partner test positive for Covid

The McFly singer and his professional dance partner Amy Dowden have both contracted the virus.

Strictly Come Dancing via BBC
Covid-19: Tom and dance partner Amy have tested positive for the virus.

McFly star Tom Fletcher and his Strictly dance partner have tested positive for Covid-19 one day after the first live show of the series.

The BBC announced the singer and professional dancer Amy Dowden had contracted the virus on Sunday afternoon, and said they would be self-isolating.

They said in a statement: “Tom Fletcher and Amy Dowden have tested positive for Covid-19.

“The pair are now self-isolating separately following the latest Government guidelines.

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“While they will both miss Saturday’s live show, Strictly Come Dancing protocols mean that, all being well, they will return the following week.

“Strictly has and will continue to follow government guidelines in order to keep everyone safe.”

This means the pair will not be able to practice together for ten days, and Fletcher will miss McFly’s next tour performance on Sunday night.

The singer said he is “so, so sorry” to miss the gig and his band will perform without him at The SSE Hydro arena in Glasgow.

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McFly said on Twitter: “Unfortunately Tom is unwell and won’t be onstage with us tonight in Glasgow.

“He sends huge and heartfelt apologies to all the fans he won’t see tonight.

“The show will still be going ahead, we’re looking forward to seeing you all and need you guys to sing extra loud for us tonight.”

This follows reports that three of the shows dancers were unvaccinated, though there is no suggestion that either Fletcher or Dowden were among this number.

Dowden said she was vaccinated on February 4 in an Instagram post.

Fletcher and Dowden tackled a cha-cha to September by Earth, Wind and Fire in Strictly Come Dancing’s first live show of the 2021 series the night before testing positive.

The show has seen its television audience grow to almost eight million viewers, according to overnight ratings for Saturday.


Thousands hit the streets for first Kiltwalk in two years

The annual fundraising event went virtual in 2020 and early 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Big Partnership via Kiltwalk

Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Glasgow clad in tartan to take part in the first Kiltwalk in two years.

Around 4000 participants took part in the event on Sunday, marching for nearly 500 charities of their choice. 

The annual event went virtual in 2020 and early 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this year, 11,500 kiltwalkers raised £4.1m for charity, with an additional £2.05m donated by the Hunter Foundation for 1055 charities. 

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Sir Tom Hunter has pledged to top up donations from Sunday’s Kiltwalk by 50%.

Participants took on a choice of two distances – the 16.5 mile Mighty Stride starting at Glasgow Green and ending at Dumbarton’s Meadow Park or the 3.5 mile Wee Wander from Glasgow Green to the Riverside Museum. 

This year’s events were tailored to accommodate social distancing, with walkers setting off from 7am in a series of staggered starts. 

Sir Tom said: “We’re so happy to be here this morning in Glasgow Green to see folk with smiling faces. We’re back!

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“When the pandemic hit, Kiltwalk faced uncertainty, like everyone else on the planet, but I listened to the Kiltwalk team saying we need to do something. The ability for charities to raise money went down but the need for charities went through the roof – it was the perfect storm.

“The money that is raised here will help people all over Scotland with a wee hand-up, not a hand-out.  

“Over 1300 Scottish charities this year will be helped by the Kiltwalk. It makes my heart sing.”

Three Hyundai cars donated by Arnold Clark will be won by three Kiltwalkers on Sunday.


Daniel Craig ‘loved filming in Scotland’ for final Bond movie

The actor will star as 007 in his final Bond movie No Time To Die, which is released on September 30.

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Daniel Craig has said he loved filming in Scotland for his final James Bond film, adding the country is “a beautiful place to be”.

The 53-year-old will star as 007 in his fifth and final Bond movie No Time To Die, which will be released at the end of this month following delays due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Scotland will have a starring role in the movie, with scenes also filmed in the country for Craig’s third Bond film Skyfall. 

“We did a nice chunk in Skyfall and we’re back again and we just had an amazing place where we filmed,” Craig told STV entertainment reporter Laura Boyd. 

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“I love Scotland and going back and filming up there.

“We were in the studio for months and then we went [to Glen Coe] and the space – it was such a relaxing time and the same on this [film], although we went driving across fields at 90mph and crashing cars and things.

“It was a beautiful place to be.”


Man treated in hospital after ‘targeted attack’ in city

A man was taken to Glasgow Royal Infirmary Hospital following the incident on Saturday.

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There will be an increased police presence in the area as an investigation is carried out.

A police investigation has been launched after a ‘targeted attack’ which left a man in hospital.

Officers attended Garlieston Road in the Barlanark area of Glasgow on Saturday at around 9.25pm following reports of a injured man.

The 33-year-old was then taken to Glasgow Royal Infirmary Hospital for treatment.

Police Scotland have indicated that they will have an increased presence in the area throughout their investigation.

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A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “Around 9.25pm on Saturday, 25 September, police attended a report of man injured in Garlieston Road, Glasgow.

“The 33-year-old was taken to Glasgow Royal Infirmary Hospital for treatment.

“Enquiries are ongoing and officers are following a positive line of enquiry.

“This was a targeted attack and there will be an increased police presence in the area throughout the investigation.”


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