Mixed fortunes for London shops hit by pandemic

Michael Falkowski is pictured at his bicycle repair shop, ImpressedLondon, in north London. Bike shops have seen a surge in demand during lockdown. (AFP)
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Updated 03 June 2020

Mixed fortunes for London shops hit by pandemic

  • Businesses like bike shops and cafes are enjoying a spike in demand

LONDON: Behind the colorful shopfronts in England’s Lane, a picture-postcard street near north London’s Primrose Hill, business owners are experiencing mixed fortunes as a result of the pandemic lockdown.

While window displays stay empty and shutters are drawn, including at The Washington pub, certain shops are benefitting as customers avoid big queues elsewhere and seek out items that are hard to find at major retailers.

The newsagent and stationery store are enjoying fresh custom from people working remotely and home-schooling their children.

The street’s bike shop has meanwhile struggled to keep up with demand.

“It’s madness right now, everyone is cycling,” Michael Falkowski, co-owner of the Impressed store, tells AFP as he busily fixes a bike.

The Grain bakery has expanded its offering, transforming itself into a mini grocer by replacing tables for customers with shelves.

Owner Kristin Labrague, who has temporarily laid off two of her workers, told AFP that while “it’s a bit frightening to take public transport... we wanted to stay open and feed the community.”

Across the street, the Chamomile cafe has shut.

Irit Reed, who runs the eatery with husband David, says “the decision to close was based on the safety of our staff, our customers.”

Ordinarily the cafe would have people waiting patiently for a table and brunch, but it now has a notice attached to its pale blue exterior with a message asking for help.

“Like many other small businesses and industries who have been required to close, we have been hit pretty hard,” it reads.

“If anyone is able to donate to help us and our team through this next challenging period, we would be eternally grateful.

“In return we will be offering a free hot drink or discount once through this crisis,” the message adds.

Irit speaks of the “shock” she has felt.

“We’ve worked hard all our lives, all of a sudden not being able to work is devastating.”

UK retail sales dived by a record 18.1 percent in April with the country in coronavirus lockdown.

But most shops will soon be allowed to reopen, as Britain — with the world’s second-highest death toll in the coronavirus outbreak — took its biggest step out of lockdown on Monday.

Outdoor markets and car showrooms reopened as businesses seek to lure back customers and recoup losses suffered since Britain effectively shut down on March 23.

In England’s Lane, the Visage hair salon must wait a while longer to reopen, along with pubs, restaurants and gyms throughout Britain.

Without state funding “I don’t know what we would have done,” says co-owner Estella Cicek, referring to government measures to pay workers’ wages and delay payment of taxes during the lockdown.

Irit is meanwhile upbeat about the future.

“The cafe will reopen no question,” she insists.


Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

Updated 16 July 2020

Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

  • The circumstances of the hijack are still unclear and the boat has been tracked to Iranian waters

DUBAI: An oil tanker sought by the US over allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked on July 5 off the coast of the UAE, a seafarers organization said Wednesday.

Satellite photos showed the vessel in Iranian waters on Tuesday and two of its sailors remained in the Iranian capital.

It wasn’t immediately clear what happened aboard the Dominica-flagged MT Gulf Sky, though its reported hijacking comes after months of tensions between Iran and the US

David Hammond, the CEO of the United Kingdom-based group Human Rights at Sea, said he took a witness statement from the captain of the MT Gulf Sky, confirming the ship had been hijacked.

Hammond said that 26 of the Indian sailors on board had made it back to India, while two remained in Tehran, without elaborating.

“We are delighted to hear that the crew are safe and well, which has been our fundamental concern from the outset,” Hammond told The Associated Press.

Hammond said that he had no other details about the vessel.

TankerTrackers.com, a website tracking the oil trade at sea, said it saw the vessel in satellite photos on Tuesday in Iranian waters off Hormuz Island. 

Hormuz Island, near the port city of Bandar Abbas, is some 190 kilometers (120 miles) north of Khorfakkan, a city on the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates where the vessel had been for months.

The Emirati government, the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet did not respond to requests for comment. Iranian state media did not immediately report on the vessel and Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In May, the US Justice Department filed criminal charges against two Iranians, accusing them of trying to launder some $12 million to purchase the tanker, at that time named the MT Nautica, through a series of front companies. 

The vessel then took on Iranian oil from Kharg Island to sell abroad, the US government said.

Court documents allege the scheme involved the Quds Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which is its elite expeditionary unit, as well as Iran’s national oil and tanker companies. The two men charged, one of whom also has an Iraqi passport, remain at large.

“Because a US bank froze the funds related to the sale of the vessel, the seller never received payment,” the Justice Department said. “As a result, the seller instituted a civil action in the UAE to recover the vessel.”

That civil action was believed to be still pending, raising questions of how the tanker sailed away from the Emirates after being seized by authorities there.

Data from the MT Gulf Sky’s Automatic Identification System tracker shows it had been turned off around 4:30 a.m. on July 5, according to ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS trackers on, but Iranian vessels routinely turn theirs off to mask their movements.

Meanwhile, the 28 Indian sailors on board the vessel found themselves stuck on board without pay for months, according to the International Labor Organization. It filed a report saying the vessel and its sailors had been abandoned by its owners since March off Khorfakkan. The ILO did not respond to a request for comment.

As tensions between Iran and the US heated up last year, tankers plying the waters of the Mideast became targets, particularly near the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the Arabian Gulf’s narrow mouth through which 20 percent of all oil passes. Suspected limpet mine attacks the US blamed on Iran targeted several tankers. Iran denied being involved, though it did seize several tankers.