Britain is at coronavirus tipping point, health minister says

COVID-19 cases in the UK have risen sharply in recent weeks to more than 4,000 per day. (AFP)
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Updated 20 September 2020

Britain is at coronavirus tipping point, health minister says

  • ‘The choice is either that everybody follows the rules ... or we will have to take more measures’
  • Second national lockdown a possible option

LONDON: Britain is at a tipping point on COVID-19, health minister Matt Hancock said on Sunday, warning that a second national lockdown could be imposed if people don’t follow government rules designed to stop the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 cases have risen sharply in recent weeks to more than 4,000 per day. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called it a second wave and stricter lockdown measures have been introduced in areas across the country — with London possibly next in line.
“The nation faces a tipping point and we have a choice,” Hancock told Sky News. “The choice is either that everybody follows the rules ... or we will have to take more measures.”
Hancock later told the BBC that a second national lockdown was possible option.
“I don’t rule it out, I don’t want to see it,” he said.
Johnson announced fines of up to $12,900 on Saturday for people in England who break new rules requiring them to self-isolate if they have been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19.
In addition to tighter rules on social gatherings across the country, several cities and regions in Britain have had ‘local lockdowns’ imposed, limiting even more strictly when, where and how many people can meet up socially.
Asked about comments from London mayor Sadiq Khan, who said on Friday new restrictions were increasingly likely in the capital, Hancock said: “I’ve had discussions this week with the Mayor of London, and the teams are meeting today to discuss further what might be needed.”
Hancock was also asked on Times Radio about the possibility of Londoners being told to work from home later this week, and said: “Well, I wouldn’t rule it out.”
The opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said he would support whatever measures the government brings forward, but criticized the government’s testing system for not having the capacity to deal with increased demand as schools returned.


US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

Updated 20 October 2020

US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

  • Khalilzad urges militant group to honor ‘historic opportunity’ and end decades of war

KABUL: The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation warned on Monday that increasing attacks by the Taliban could undermine the historic peace deal signed between Washington and the militant group in February.

Zalmay Khalilzad also said the strikes could derail the ongoing intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar, that look to end the protracted conflict in the country.

“Continued high levels of violence can threaten the peace process and the agreement, and the core understanding that there is no military solution. Violence today remains distressingly high in spite of the recent reaffirmation of the need for a substantial reduction,” he said in tweets on Monday.

Since last week, the Taliban have unleashed a series of attacks in parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the southern Helmand province, where more than 35,000 people have been displaced over recent days, Afghan officials told Arab News.

In response, US forces in the country launched several airstrikes on Taliban positions, which the insurgent group described as a breach of the February accord on Sunday.

Responding to the Taliban’s accusations, Khalilzad said they were “unfounded charges of violations and inflammatory rhetoric,” and “do not advance peace.”

Washington also accused the Taliban of breaking the historic agreement, which, among other things, looks to finalize a complete withdrawal of US-led troops from the country.

Khalilzad said the airstrikes were conducted to support Afghan troops as part of Washington’s commitment to defend them, if necessary.

He added that the Taliban attacks in Helmand, including some in the provincial capital that targeted Afghan security forces, led to a recent meeting in Doha where both sides agreed to “decrease attacks and strikes.” And while levels of violence in Helmand have fallen, it “remains high” across the country, the Afghan-born diplomat added.

Some Afghan observers said the motive behind Taliban attacks was to gain an “upper hand” in negotiations.

However, Khalilzad warned of the risks involved in using this strategy.

“The belief that says violence must escalate to win concessions at the negotiations table is risky. Such an approach can undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculation by Afghan leaders,” he said, urging all sides to honor the “historic opportunity for peace, which must not be missed.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Monday that the group had “no comment” on Khalilzad’s statements and that US forces had “violated the Doha agreement in various forms by carrying out excessive airstrikes.”

Mujahid added that he had “no information” on the state of attacks in Helmand province.

However, Omar Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor, told Arab News that “fighting subsided in various parts of Helmand” over the past two days.

Meanwhile, an anonymous senior official in President Ashraf Ghani’s government praised Khalilzad for “beginning to get realistic” and “breaking silence over repeated Taliban attacks.”

Another figure, Kabul-based lawmaker Fawzia Zaki, said: “The government and Afghan people, in general, insisted on enforcement of a cease-fire or a drastic reduction of violence before the beginning of the intra-Afghan dialogue.”

For it to be effective, Khalilzad and Washington “need to exert growing pressure to make them listen to the righteous demands of ours,” Zaki added.

However, experts have warned of the “growing impatience” of both sides.

Shafiq Haqpal, an analyst, told Arab News: “Khalilzad’s comments clearly show that Washington is becoming impatient with Taliban attacks and the lack of progress in the talks.”

He said that US President Donald Trump is “hoping to see a breakthrough soon,” so that he can “portray it as a success of his administration for his re-election campaign.

“But that is not happening. Maybe Washington has realized that won’t happen, so they are beginning to come out and warn the Taliban against the consequences of their attacks,” Haqpal added.