UK PM plans Brexit talks with EU's von der Leyen, warned to reach deal pre-autumn: FT

(Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning to hold Brexit talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in June, with UK officials warning Johnson that an agreement was needed before autumn, the Financial Times newspaper reported.

“We need a broad agreement in place by the summer,” an unnamed UK official was quoted as saying by the newspaper on Monday. “We can’t still be having this conversation in September or October”, the official added.

Downing Street said that the European Union’s plan for a common regulatory framework was “novel and unbalanced”, the report added.

“As soon as the EU accepts we will not conclude an agreement on that basis, we will be able to make progress,” Johnson’s spokesman said in a statement cited by the Financial Times.

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UK is following scientific advice on cautious lockdown easing, minister says

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government is following scientific advice in cautiously easing the coronavirus lockdown, Business Secretary Alok Sharma said on Monday, after criticism from some prominent epidemiologists.

“Of course scientific advice does differ but I think the key point is what is the overall view from SAGE?” Sharma told BBC TV.

“The overall view from SAGE – the scientific advisory group on emergencies which advises the government – their overall view is that we must do this cautiously and that is precisely what we are doing,” Sharma said, adding that if people obeyed the rules there was a good likelihood that R0 would not go above 1.

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UK Conservative lawmakers call on PM's adviser to quit over lockdown drive

LONDON (Reuters) – Lawmakers from Britain’s ruling Conservatives Party on Sunday called for the resignation of Dominic Cummings, the senior adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson who travelled 400 km (250 miles) to northern England during the coronavirus lockdown.

Cummings, who masterminded the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union, travelled from London to Durham in late March while his wife showed COVID-19 symptoms, when measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus were in place.

Johnson had ordered Britons to mostly stay at home and shut down large parts of the economy to curb the outbreak which has left the United Kingdom with one of the world’s highest official death tolls.

Johnson’s office said Cummings made the journey to ensure his 4-year-old son could be properly cared for as his wife was ill with COVID-19 and there was a “high likelihood” that Cummings would himself become unwell.

A number of cabinet ministers and the attorney general have also said that the journey was justified. Transport minister Grant Shapps reiterated the government’s support on Sunday, saying the advisor would not be quitting.

“Perfectly legitimate questions to ask about these things…Straightforward answers have been forthcoming,” Shapps told Sky News.

However, high profile Brexit campaigner Steve Baker, was the first of a number of Conservative lawmakers who said Johnson’s adviser should now quit.

“I just see this rattling on now for day after day, wasting the public’s time, consuming political capital and diverting from the real issues we need to deal with,” he told Sky News. “No-one is indispensable.”

Baker has long opposed Cummings taking a role in Downing Street.

Opposition politicians have called for Cummings, who wields huge influence on the government, to go, saying his actions were hypocritical at a time when millions of Britons were staying in their homes.

The number of confirmed UK deaths from COVID-19 has reached 36,675, the government said on Saturday.

The Daily Mirror newspaper on Saturday reported that the advisor made a second trip from London during the lockdown and was spotted near Durham on April 19, days after returning to London from his first trip.

Johnson’s Downing Street office described the newspaper reports as “false allegations”.

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Other prominent British figures have resigned after breaking lockdown rules.

Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson quit as a member of the government’s scientific advisory group after he was visited at home by his girlfriend.

Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, stepped down after she was caught making two trips to her second home.

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UK says PM's adviser did not break lockdown rules with 400 km drive

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson resisted calls on Saturday from opposition parties to sack adviser Dominic Cummings after he traveled 400 km (250 miles) while his wife showed COVID-19 symptoms so that their son could be looked after by his family.

Cummings, who masterminded the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union during the Brexit referendum, traveled to Durham in northern England in late March, when a strict lockdown was already in place.

Johnson’s office said his adviser made the journey to ensure his young son could be properly cared for as his wife was ill with COVID-19 and there was a “high likelihood” that Cummings would himself become unwell.

“His sister and nieces had volunteered to help so he went to a house near to but separate from his extended family in case their help was needed,” a Downing Street spokesman said.

“His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines,” the spokesman said. “Mr Cummings believes he behaved reasonably and legally.”

One of Johnson’s most senior ministers, Michael Gove, said of the situation: “Caring for your wife and child is not a crime.”

But opposition parties called for Johnson to sack Cummings.

“Dominic Cummings should have done the right thing, he should have resigned but now that he hasn’t, Boris Johnson must show leadership and he must remove him from office immediately,” the Scottish National Party’s parliamentary leader, Ian Blackford, said.

The Labour Party said there should not be one rule for politicians and another rule for the British people. The Liberal Democrats said that if Cummings broke the guidelines, he should resign.

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British guidelines say people should stay at home and refrain from visiting family members unless they need essential items such as food or medication.

Other prominent figures have resigned after having broken lockdown rules.

Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson quit as a member of the UK goverment’s scientific advisory group after was visited at home by his girlfriend. Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, also stepped down after she was caught making two trips to her second home.

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Exclusive: Review contradicts Boris Johnson on claims he ordered early lockdown at UK care homes

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Britain’s parliament on Wednesday that his government moved swiftly to protect the country’s vulnerable care homes. Under increasing pressure to defend his record on fighting Covid-19, he said: “We brought in the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown.”

An examination by Reuters of the guidance issued to care homes, as well as interviews with three care home providers, has provided no evidence that any such early lockdown was ordered.

The government’s handling of care homes has emerged as a major controversy in parliament. According to a Reuters analysis of official figures here the pandemic has resulted in over 20,000 deaths in UK care homes.

The prime minister’s spokesman told reporters on Wednesday that in his comments earlier that day to parliament, Johnson was referring to government advice to care homes, issued on March 13. This advice, he said, was “recommending essential visits only, that obviously came before we took steps nationwide in relation to social distancing.” The government issued a general lockdown order to the nation on March 23.

The March 13 guidance here://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-residential-care-supported-living-and-home-care-guidance/covid-19-guidance-on-residential-care-provision by the government was equivocal, a review of the documents shows. The advisory, reviewed by Reuters, did not impose a ban on visits from family or friends.

Instead, the document from Public Health England, an official agency, advised home providers to “review their visiting policy by asking no one to visit who has suspected Covid-19 or is generally unwell, and by emphasising good hand hygiene for visitors.” Balancing those restrictions, it said that care home policies “should also consider the wellbeing of residents, and the positive impact of seeing friends and family.”

At a press conference on March 16, Johnson commented that “absolutely, we don’t want to see people unnecessarily visiting care homes.”

Reuters found no official guidance which made that advice mandatory. The news agency asked 10 Downing Street, Johnson’s office, if it could point to any official order that care homes must close to outside visitors, prior to the broader UK lockdown on March 23. A government spokeswoman referred Reuters to the March 13 advice. Asked if there were further instructions to care homes between March 13 and the March 23 general lockdown, the spokeswoman said there were not.

In a statement, the government said it had been “keeping in regular contact with care homes to provide guidance on reducing the spread of infection. We have continued to review and update our guidance, in line with the latest scientific advice.”

The government’s cautious approach to imposing restrictions was signaled earlier in March by Chris Whitty, the chief medical adviser. At the launch of the government’s coronavirus action plan, on March 3, Whitty told journalists that specific advice for care homes would be issued in future, “but one of the things we are keen to avoid … is doing things too early.” He explained that premature action would bring no benefit “but what you do get is a social cost.”

A Reuters investigation last week here detailed how the government’s focus on shielding hospitals, to prevent emergency wards from being overwhelmed, left care home residents and staff exposed to COVID-19. To free up hospital beds, many patients were discharged into homes for the elderly and vulnerable, many without being tested for the coronavirus that causes the disease.

On May 5, when Reuters initially asked the Department for Health and Social Care when an order was first given to ban care home visits by family and friends, a press officer responded: “There was no order, care providers make their own decisions about visitors.”

Later that day, another press officer said the guidance was issued in a document dated April 2 here which said visits should only be made in exceptional circumstances, such as when residents are dying. That guidance was issued 10 days after the national lockdown and 20 days after the earlier, more nuanced advice to care homes.

Joyce Pinfield, who runs two care homes and is on the board of directors at the National Care Association, a body which represents care providers, said she spent time Wednesday after Johnson’s comments to parliament trying to find out when the order to lock down care homes was made. She said she found no trace of any order prior to the wider UK lockdown on March 23 and the April 2 instruction closing homes to outside visits, and concluded there hadn’t been one.

“The guidance should have been far better,” she said. “It was left to care providers to make their own decisions.”

Pinfield’s view was echoed by Julie Nicholls, the manager of the Appleby Lodge residential home in Cornwall. Nicholls said care home managers were left to make their own decisions about whether to restrict visits. She closed her care home on March 13, the day after the government moved the threat level of the virus to “high” and the prime minister warned the nation to expect to lose loved ones.

Nicholls said she “definitely didn’t have any government guidance” to close before the general lockdown ordered by Johnson on March 23. “There was never a formal order,” she said.

Opposition MPs have accused Johnson this week of misleading parliament over the government’s handling of the coronavirus.

Labour leader, Keir Starmer, confronted the prime minister in parliament on Wednesday with Public Health England guidance for care homes that was in place from February 25 to March 12. This stated, as reported by Reuters on May 5, that “it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected.” A government spokesman told Reuters in early May that the advice “accurately reflected the situation at the time when there was a limited risk of the infection getting into a care home.”

Johnson replied to Starmer that “it wasn’t true that the advice said that.”

After the debate, Starmer wrote to Johnson asking him to correct his remark. The prime minister responded that he stood by his comments and accused the Labour leader of selectively and misleadingly quoting from the documents.

Reuters is examining the UK’s response to COVID-19 crisis. If you have information you can direct message our reporters @StephenGrey twitter.com/StephenGrey or @andymacaskill twitter.com/andymacaskill on Twitter.

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UK overtakes Italy with Europe's highest official coronavirus death toll

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom has overtaken Italy to report the highest official death toll from the new coronavirus in Europe, figures released on Tuesday showed, increasing pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his response to the crisis.

Weekly figures from Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) added more than 7,000 deaths in England and Wales in the week to April 24, raising the total for the United Kingdom to 32,313.

Only the United States, with a population nearly five times greater, has suffered more confirmed fatalities from the virus than Britain, according to the data so far.

Tuesday’s figures are based on death certificate mentions of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including suspected cases.

While different ways of counting make comparisons with other countries difficult, the figure confirmed Britain was among those hit worst by a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 worldwide.

“I don’t think we’ll get a real verdict on how countries have done until the pandemic is over, and particularly until we’ve got international comprehensive data on all-cause mortality,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told reporters.

Opposition politicians said the figures proved the government had been too slow to provide enough protective equipment to hospitals and introduce mass testing.

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“I’d be amazed if, when we look back, we don’t think: yep we could have done something differently there,” the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in response to lawmakers’ questions on testing.

Responding to the ONS figures, a Downing Street spokesman pointed to Johnson’s recent comments that Britain had passed the peak of the disease but remained in a “dangerous phase”.

He also cited the advice of England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty: “Different countries are recording different things in relation to deaths.”

Italy and Spain, the next worst-hit European countries, have smaller populations than Britain, further complicating comparisons.

“Putting a graph out with the United States at the top and UK second is not helpful, but once you start to break it down by looking at the population we should be seriously asking questions about what’s different,” said Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University.

“Why are six countries disproportionately affected?” Heneghan added, referring to a list dominated by Europe.

The daily cumulative death toll published by Britain’s government, which records deaths only for confirmed coronavirus cases, rose on Tuesday to 29,427 – exceeding Italy’s own daily toll for the first time.

Ministers dislike comparisons of the headline death toll, saying that excess mortality – the number of deaths from all causes that exceed the average for the time of year – is more meaningful because it is internationally comparable.

EXCESS DEATH

But early evidence for excess mortality suggests Britain will be one of the hardest-hit on this measure, too.

ONS statistician Nick Stripe said excess deaths for the United Kingdom were running about 42,000 higher than average at this point in the year.

However, only about 80% of these excess deaths have been linked specifically with COVID-19.

The weekly ONS data also showed the peak in COVID-19 deaths has likely passed, although the week to April 24 was still the second-deadliest since comparable records began being kept in 1993.

The overall decline also masked a worsening picture in care homes.

The ONS said 7,911 deaths from all causes were registered in care homes in the week ending April 24, three times higher than a month previously.

“These figures show that talk of being ‘past the peak’ of this awful virus simply does not hold true for social care,” said Labour opposition lawmaker Liz Kendall.

A Reuters Special Report published on Tuesday showed that even as the government was promising to protect the elderly and vulnerable from the deadly virus, local councils said they did not have the tools to carry out the plan, and were often given just hours to implement new government instructions.

According to Reuters calculations, the pandemic has resulted in at least 12,700 excess deaths in British care homes.

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UK overtakes Italy with Europe's highest official coronavirus death toll

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom has overtaken Italy to report the highest official death toll from coronavirus in Europe, figures released on Tuesday showed, increasing pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his response to the crisis.

Weekly figures from Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) added more than 7,000 deaths in England and Wales, raising the total for the United Kingdom to 32,313 as of late April.

Only the United States has suffered more deaths than Britain, according to the data so far.

Tuesday’s figures are based on death certificate mentions of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including suspected cases.

While different ways of counting make comparisons with other countries difficult, the figure confirmed Britain was among those hit worst by a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 worldwide.

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“The UK has been hit very hard in this wave of COVID-19 and each death will (have) brought sadness to families,” said Professor James Naismith of Oxford University, who is director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute of medical research.

Opposition politicians said the figures proved the government was too slow to provide enough protective equipment to hospitals and introduce mass testing.

“I’d be amazed, if when we look back, we don’t think: yep we could have done something differently there,” the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in response to lawmakers’ questions on testing.

Britain’s health ministry said the ONS data should be handled with care.

“We caution against extrapolating or estimating figures based on historic data as it risks being extremely misleading,” it said on Twitter.

Ministers dislike comparisons of the headline death toll, saying that excess mortality – the number of deaths from all causes that exceed the average for the time of year – is more meaningful because it is internationally comparable.

EXCESS DEATH

But early evidence for excess mortality suggests Britain will be one of the hardest-hit on this measure, too.

ONS statistician Nick Stripe said excess deaths for the United Kingdom were running about 42,000 higher than average at this point in the year.

Only about 80% of these excess deaths have been linked specifically with COVID-19, however.

The weekly ONS data also showed the peak in COVID-19 deaths has likely passed, although the week to April 24 was still the second-deadliest since comparable records began in 1993.

The overall decline also masked a worsening picture in care homes.

The ONS said 7,911 deaths from all causes were registered in care homes in the week ending April 24, three times higher than a month previously.

“These figures show that talk of being ‘past the peak’ of this awful virus simply does not hold true for social care,” said Labour opposition lawmaker Liz Kendall.

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UK ethnic minorities suffer extra COVID deaths: think tank

LONDON (Reuters) – People from some ethnic minorities in Britain are dying in disproportionate numbers from COVID-19, possibly in part because they are more likely to work in healthcare and other sectors most exposed to the virus, a leading think tank said on Friday.

Per capita deaths for people in Britain who had black Caribbean heritage were three times that for British citizens who are white, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said.

Per capita deaths among other black groups were double that of the population overall, while those of Indian descent also suffered more fatalities than average, the IFS said.

Taking into account the fact that most minority groups are much younger on average than the white British population, per capita death rates across almost all minority groups looked disproportionately high, it said in a report.

Part of the extra death rate could be explained by ethnic minorities’ higher likelihood to live in London or other cities hit hard by the virus, but geography was not the only factor.

“There is unlikely to be a single explanation here and different factors may be more important for different groups,” Ross Warwick, a research economist at the IFS said.

“For instance, while Black Africans are particularly likely to be employed in key worker roles which might put them at risk, older Bangladeshis appear vulnerable on the basis of underlying health conditions.”

Data from the United States has shown African Americans are more likely to die from COVID-19, highlighting longstanding disparities in health and inequalities in access to medical care there.

The IFS said people from ethnic minorities in Britain were more likely to be hit financially by the coronavirus shutdown.

“Bangladeshi men are four times as likely as white British men to have jobs in shutdown industries, with Pakistani men nearly three times as likely,” Lucinda Platt, a London School of Economics professor who sits on an IFS inequalities panel, said.

Household savings were lower than average among people of black African, black Caribbean or Bangladeshi descent. Those of Indian heritage and the largely foreign-born ‘other white’ group did not seem to be facing extra economic risks, the IFS added.

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UK to be 'extremely careful' in relaxing rules on outdoor activities

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government will think very carefully about relaxing lockdown rules regarding open-air activities, despite evidence that transmission of the coronavirus is less likely outdoors, England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said.

“At various different points (the activities) might involve a congregation of individuals and one has to be very painstaking and very careful about thinking through some of these before we make the wrong move to relax measures,” he told a news conference on Wednesday.

“We have to be extremely sure-footed and extremely painstaking about this. This virus will absolutely come back.”

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It's a boy: British PM Johnson and fiancée thrilled by birth of son

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, gave birth to a healthy baby boy at a London hospital on Wednesday, slightly earlier than had been expected.

Symonds, 32, had said previously that their baby was due to “hatch” in the early summer. It was not clear if Johnson, 55, would take paternity leave given the government is facing the worst health crisis since the 1918 influenza outbreak.

“The Prime Minister and Ms Symonds are thrilled to announce the birth of a healthy baby boy at a London hospital earlier this morning,” a spokeswoman said. “Both mother and baby are doing very well.

“The PM and Ms Symonds would like to thank the fantastic NHS maternity team.”

There was no announcement of a name.

The new arrival tops a tumultuous month for Johnson; he returned to work on Monday after recuperating from COVID-19, which had left him gravely ill in intensive care at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.

Symonds, a former public relations executive, also had symptoms of the virus but recovered more swiftly.

BABY IN DOWNING STREET

Few British leaders have had babies while in office, although it has become more common among recent occupants of Downing Street.

David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, gave birth to their daughter, Florence, in 2010 and Tony Blair’s wife Cherie gave birth to their son, Leo, in 2006.

Before that, Frances, the wife of John Russell, a 19th-Century Whig and Liberal politician, gave birth to two children in 1848 and 1849 while he was in office.

“Great to hear Downing Street is getting a new resident,” said Johnson’s finance minister, Rishi Sunak.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said: “Wonderful news. Many congratulations to Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds.”

Symonds and Johnson have been living together in Downing Street since he became prime minister in July. They announced in February that they were expecting their first child and that they were engaged to be married.

‘INCREDIBLY BLESSED’

Johnson, once dubbed “Bonking Boris” by Britain’s riotous tabloid media, has a complicated private life.

He was once sacked from the Conservative Party’s policy team while in opposition for lying about an extra-marital affair. He has been divorced twice and refuses to say how many children he has fathered.

In 2013, when Johnson was mayor of London, appeal court judges ruled that the public had the right to know he had an extra-marital affair with a woman who gave birth to his daughter.

Johnson’s previous marriage was to Marina Wheeler, a lawyer. They had four children together but announced in September 2018 that they had separated. They divorced earlier this year.

Symonds announced her engagement to Johnson in February.

“Many of you already know, but for my friends that still don’t, we got engaged at the end of last year… and we’ve got a baby hatching early summer,” she said.

“Feel incredibly blessed.”

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