Britain is past coronavirus peak, says PM Johnson

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during a remote press conference to update the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in central London on April 30, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 30 April 2020

Britain is past coronavirus peak, says PM Johnson

  • Johnson offered hope to locked-down Britons, but urged them to stick with restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus
  • Britain now has the second-highest official COVID-19 death toll in Europe with more than 26,000 deaths

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain was now past the peak of its coronavirus outbreak and promised to set out a lockdown exit strategy next week, despite rising deaths and criticism of his government’s response.
Holding his first news conference since recovering from COVID-19, and a day after his fiancee gave birth, Johnson offered hope to locked-down Britons, but urged them to stick with restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus.
“I can confirm today that for the first time, we are past the peak of this disease,” Johnson said. “We’re past the peak and we’re on the downward slope, and we have so many reasons to be hopeful for the long term.”
Nevertheless, Britain now has the second-highest official COVID-19 death toll in Europe with more than 26,000 deaths.
That has put pressure on the government over its response to the outbreak and is fueling caution in lifting restrictions on movement in case that leads to a second spike.
But, with rising unemployment and many companies crippled, the government is coming under pressure to outline an exit strategy.
Johnson promised to set out next week a “menu of options” on how the lockdown could be relaxed, but said the exact dates of any change would be driven by scientific advice and data.
The government is also facing questions over its likely failure to meet a target Heath Minister Matt Hancock set of carrying out 100,000 daily tests for the virus by the end of April, with testing seen as key to ending the lockdown.
Johnson returned to work on Monday having recovered after being infected with the virus, which left him gravely ill in intensive care at the peak of the outbreak.
Delaying any paternity leave, he earlier headed a virtual meeting of his cabinet.
Johnson imposed strict economic and social limits six weeks ago to slow the spread of the virus, and his ministers have since repeatedly refused to discuss when it will end. Instead, the government has set five broad conditions which must be met before restrictions can be relaxed.
“It’s thanks to that massive collective effort to shield the NHS (National Health Service) that we avoided an uncontrollable and catastrophic epidemic, where the reasonable worst case scenario was 500,000 deaths,” he said.
A first review into the lockdown must come before May 7 and scientific advisers have been presenting ministers with a menu of options over how it might be eased.
The opposition Labour Party has accused the government of being slow to react to the crisis, by delaying the imposition of the lockdown and then failing to ramp up the provision of protective equipment to frontline staff and the number of tests.
Earlier, ministers indicated that their testing target is unlikely to be met.
NHS Providers, a body representing hospital, community and ambulance services in the state-run health service, said the 100,000 target was a “red herring” which could be distracting attention from ensuring those who needed a test got one.
“Testing is one area where, despite all the work delivered by trusts and the NHS, the health and care system as a whole has struggled to develop an effective, coordinated approach,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers.
“Setting a target for a number of tests for 30 April may have had a galvanizing effect. But what matters most is an updated strategy to take us through the exit from lockdown.”


Militant attack on Afghan prison frees hundreds

Afghan security personnel in front of a prison gate after an attack by Daesh that had freed hundreds in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, on Monday. (AP)
Updated 04 August 2020

Militant attack on Afghan prison frees hundreds

  • The attack, reportedly by Daesh, took place hours before end of cease-fire

KABUL: Militants affiliated with the Daesh group stormed a prison in eastern Afghanistan in a daylong siege that left at least 39 people dead, including the assailants, and freed nearly 400 of their fighters before security forces restored order, a government official said Monday.

The attack on the main prison in Jalalabad, in Nangarhar province, where several hundred Daesh fighters have been detained, began on Sunday afternoon with a car bomb detonated at the entrance to the jail.

The attack came hours before the end of a three-day ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who immediately denied any involvement in the assault. Several Western media outlets reported that the Daesh had claimed responsibility.

The Nangarhar governor’s spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, told Arab News that there was still gunfire on Monday morning, and that more than 20 civilians and personnel and three attackers have died in the fighting.

Two local security sources speaking on condition of anonymity said that nearly half of the prison’s 1,500 inmates managed to flee.

They said 20 assailants made their way into the prison and a number of explosions were heard from inside the jail.Residents said one group of attackers was firing on the jail from a nearby building and they reported heavy and sustained exchanges of small fire.

According to Khogyani, most of the escapees have been caught. He gave no further details about the attack.

The assault comes amid official claims that Daesh leaders have been arrested or killed in recent months, notably in Nangarhar, which used to be the group’s bastion.

“This is a major embarrassment for the government, which every now and then claims to have wiped out or paralyzed the Daesh. The government needs to answer why such a high security lapse has happened,” analyst Shafiq Haqpal said.

The Eid Al-Adha ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan government forces was a part of efforts to begin long-awaited peace talks following a US-Taliban agreement signed in Qatar in late February.

In accordance with the deal, the Taliban is releasing 1,000 Afghan troops in exchange for 5,000 militants held by President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

The process is near completion, but Kabul is refusing to free 400 remaining Taliban inmates, saying they have been behind “heinous crimes.”

After Eid prayers on Sunday, Ghani announced he would summon a traditional grand assembly, Loya Jirga, to help him decide whether the rest of Taliban prisoners should be freed.

The assembly is scheduled to start on Aug. 7. Loya Jirga has deep roots in Afghan history and tradition and is usually summoned during times of crisis or emergency.

The Taliban have voiced their opposition to the convocation of the jirga. Their Qatar-based spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told TOLO News that Kabul’s decision would only complicate the peace process.

Afghan politicians are divided on the jirga announcement. Hamidullah Tokhi, a member of parliament from southern Zabul province, said: “The nation and parliament have deep doubts about Ghani’s goal for summoning the jirga to decide over the fate of 400 Taliban.

“All of the 4,500 Taliban already freed were involved in some sort of bloody attacks. Why did the government not ask for the jirga on the overall release of the Taliban?”

“Summoning the jirga now is a treason to this country and a clear blocking of the peace process,” he said.
Torek Farhadi, who served in the previous government as an adviser, said Ghani hopes that the victory of Democrats in the upcoming US elections, would sideline Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan who struck the Qatar deal with the Taliban, allowing Kabul to be in charge of the peace process.
“We should have one Loya Jirga to discuss substantive matters on peace with the Taliban and the type of future regime,” Farhadi said, adding that the Taliban, too, should participate in the assembly. “This meeting would be like a half-baked national dialogue (if it is) conducted by only one side of the conflict.”