UK hospitals on the edge as government resists fresh COVID measures

UK hospitals on the edge as government resists fresh COVID measures
Britain's Health Secretary Sajid Javid speaks during a press conference held in Downing Street, London, Britain, October 20, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 20 October 2021

UK hospitals on the edge as government resists fresh COVID measures

UK hospitals on the edge as government resists fresh COVID measures
  • Javid announced deals for two experimental COVID-19 antivirals
  • Britain has the eighth biggest death toll globally from COVID-19, with 139,000 fatalities

LONDON: Britain's health minister Sajid Javid on Wednesday resisted calls from doctors for fresh measures to halt a rising wave of COVID-19 infections despite their warnings that hospitals are on the edge of being overwhelmed.
Britain reported 223 new deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest daily figure since March, and cases are the highest in Europe, with nearly 50,000 new infections reported on Wednesday.
Javid announced deals for two experimental COVID-19 antivirals, one developed by Merck and Ridgeback Therapeutics and another by Pfizer, doubling down on a strategy of relying on vaccines and drugs to limit the damage this winter, instead of restrictions.
But he warned that people should get vaccinated and take up booster shots when offered, or else "Plan B", involving limited steps such as mask mandates, a work from home order and vaccination passes to get into venues, might be enacted.
"We're looking closely at the data, and we won't be implementing our Plan B of contingency measures at this point," he said, adding that 5 million people aged over 16 remained unvaccinated and that cases could reach 100,000 cases a day.
"If we want to secure these freedoms for the long term, then the best thing that we can do is come forward (for a shot), once again, when that moment comes."
Britain has the eighth biggest death toll globally from COVID-19, with 139,000 fatalities. But it also had a quick start to its vaccine programme and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lifted almost all restrictions in England, ending social distancing measures and mask mandates.
Johnson's government has said it is relying on vaccinations, including booster shots for the vulnerable, to avoid winter lockdowns, having already shut the economy three times.
But the rollout has stalled, slipping behind several other European countries, while the booster programme is off to a slow start.
"COVID-19 cases are rising and winter is drawing closer. If you have not been vaccinated, now is the time. If you are offered a booster please take up the offer," Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said, adding that masks in crowded indoor spaces remained important.
Doctors have expressed concern that an increase in numbers going into hospital, combined with pressures on the National Health Service (NHS) from seasonal viruses, could leave hospitals unable to deal with long waiting lists and function normally.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, called for more measures.
"This is the middle of October. Things are only going to get worse," Taylor told BBC radio.
"The health service is right at the edge ... if you push much further we will not be able to provide the level of service that people need to have."
Javid said he did not believe the pressure on the NHS had become unsustainable, and added the government would act if that changed.
Andrew Pollard, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said the risk was mainly in the unvaccinated.
He added that a subvariant of Delta that is growing in England was unlikely to change the picture. Javid said there was no reason to believe the subvariant posed a greater threat than Delta. 


Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital

Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital
Updated 28 sec ago

Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital

Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital
  • The country has one of the highest numbers of road traffic deaths in the world

DHAKA: Thousands of Bangladeshi students took to the streets of Dhaka on Sunday, blocking the capital city’s main intersections and paralyzing traffic to demand enforcement of road safety laws.

Bangladesh has one of the highest numbers of road traffic deaths in the world, according to World Health Organization estimates. 

Data from the Accident Research Institute of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology shows that road accidents in the country claimed the lives of 3,558 people between January 2020 and June this year.

In 2018, young Bangladeshis protested across the country for over a week after two students were killed by a speeding bus. The protest prompted the government to enact a new road transportation law that increased the punishment for death due to negligent driving to five years.

But demonstrators said the 2018 law had not been implemented as the current road safety protests gained momentum last week, after a college student was killed by a garbage truck.

“How many more lives will be required to restore discipline in streets? We have given time to the authorities but nothing has been changed so we returned on streets again,” Jisan Ahmed, a college student, told Arab News while protesting in the Dhanmondi area of Dhaka.

The protesting students are also demanding a discount on transit fares.

“We want a 50 percent discount on fare in public transports and the authorities have to fulfil the demand by Tuesday. We will stage protest in front of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority building if our demands are not met within 48 hours,” another student protester, Antor Hasan, said.

Nur Mohammad Mazumder, chairman of the authority, said more discussions were needed with transport operators to find a solution to student demands.

“Already we had two meetings where a number of issues were discussed,” he said, adding it may take “some time” to resolve the issues.

Bus owners said they feared facing losses if discounted fares were in place.

“We have to incur losses if the students are transported at 50 percent discounted rate,” Dhaka Road Transport Owners Association Secretary-General Enayet Ullah Khan said. “We will sit again tomorrow among ourselves to find a solution.”

According to the Passenger Welfare Association of Bangladesh, the fare issue was not a big problem.

“Operators actually don’t require any subsidies from the government in this regard,” the association’s secretary-general, Mozammel Hoque, said.

He expressed worry over the more significant issue that was deteriorating road safety.

“Many of the city buses don’t comply with the fitness parameters set by the authorities,” Hoque said, adding that the number of accidents had increased since the 2018 protests.

“In many cases we’re not witnessing the implementation of the law,” he told Arab News. “Things have taken a worse look as the number of road accidents have increased by around 10 percent.”


Unable to return to China, thousands of Pakistani students fear losing degrees

Unable to return to China, thousands of Pakistani students fear losing degrees
Updated 7 min 48 sec ago

Unable to return to China, thousands of Pakistani students fear losing degrees

Unable to return to China, thousands of Pakistani students fear losing degrees
  • About 28,000 Pakistani students are enrolled in Chinese educational institutions
  • China suspended the entry of foreigners in March 2020 to stop the spread of COVID-19

ISLAMABAD: More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Pakistani students say they fear losing their qualifications from Chinese universities as thousands remain stranded at home, unable to return to classes despite the government’s assurance of constant negotiations with Beijing.

About 28,000 Pakistani students are enrolled in Chinese educational institutions and most of them have been stuck in Pakistan since China suspended the entry of foreign nationals in late March 2020 to stop the spread of COVID-19.

For more than a year, the Pakistani government has been saying it remains in touch with Chinese authorities to help students return to their colleges and universities, but some of them are on the verge of losing hope.

“We are hopeless and fearful that our money, time, is wasted, and our future is at stake,” Aroosa Khan, a Karachi-based student who has completed two years of medicine in China, told Arab News on Saturday.

“We are around 7,000 medical students in China, out of which above 85 percent are now stuck in Pakistan due to the travel ban,” she said, expressing the concern that they would not be able to become good doctors if they could not practice at university hospitals and clinical labs.

As Pakistan does not recognize medical degrees obtained from online courses — provided by Chinese institutes to overseas students due to the travel ban — Khan is worried that years of study and thousands of dollars spent on education may be in vain.

“It is not our fault that we have been compelled to take virtual classes. The majority of these medical students are on self-financing where their families have spent around Rs5 million ($28,000),” she said. “They are under acute stress and have become patients of depression due to the uncertainty hovering over their future.”

The worries of medical students are shared by those enrolled in engineering courses.

Adam Ali, from Attock, who is pursuing a degree in artificial intelligence at a Chinese university, said that he had exhausted all avenues of help.

“We have met everyone in the Foreign Office, the foreign minister, the education minister and all other officials, but nothing happened despite tall claims. When we wrote to the Pakistani Embassy in China, they didn’t even respond to our emails,” he told Arab News.

“When this travel ban was imposed and we started online classes, at that time we were assured by our Foreign Office that we would be able to travel back to China through chartered flights for next semester by the end of July 2020. But nothing happened.”

Another engineering student, Jamal Nasir, from Sialkot, said that he had left his job to pursue a master’s degree on a Chinese university scholarship, but as online classes were introduced that facility was discontinued.

“I had a good job but left it to pursue my master’s on a scholarship, which included a monthly stipend. After resumption of online classes, they have stopped (the) stipend as well, which created a lot of financial issues,” he said. “Now neither I have a job nor (am I) completing my studies due to the travel ban.”

As students from some other countries, including South Korea, were allowed back to Chinese campuses in August 2020 as part of intergovernmental deals, Nasir asked why it was not possible for Pakistanis to follow suit.

“If they want, they can impose quarantine and other standard restrictions but at least allow professional degree students to take physical classes,” he said.

The Pakistani government says that it is trying to resolve the issue.

“The issue has been discussed at various levels with the Chinese authorities both in Beijing and Islamabad,” foreign office spokesperson Asim Iftikhar told Arab News.

“We are also exploring the possibility of addressing the issues of research, lab work, scholarship etc with the relevant Pakistani and Chinese authorities and institutions,” he said. “We are pursuing the matter and are continuously in touch with the Chinese side at all levels.”

The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad told Arab News it had “nothing to comment on the matter at this time.”

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Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants

Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants
Updated 28 November 2021

Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants

Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants

SILIAI, LITHUANIA: From her green-painted homestead near the Belarusian border, Lithuanian pensioner Jadvyga Mackevic remembers the day she saw three migrants coming out of the forest and being detained.
“I barely saw them through my window. The border patrol immediately caught them,” the 80-year-old recalled.
Officers have now placed razor wire along the bottom of her garden in the small village of Siliai in an area that is almost entirely surrounded by the border.
While much of the migrant crisis has been focused on Poland’s border with Belarus, fellow EU and NATO member Lithuania has also been faced with an unprecedented influx of migrants.
The area around Siliai, known as the Dieveniskes Loop because of the shape of the border, has seen large numbers of migrants trying to cross.
The EU blames Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko for orchestrating the migrant influx as retaliation against the sanctions the bloc imposed on his regime.
The crisis will be a key topic at a meeting this week of NATO foreign ministers and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in neighboring Latvia, which also shares a border with Belarus.
Lithuania, which has a population of 2.8 million, has taken in more than 4,000 people this year, the vast majority of them asylum seekers.
Numbers have fallen sharply since it passed a law allowing border guards to send the migrants back across the border.
But border guards say small groups of migrants still regularly try to cross different parts of the largely forested border between the two countries.
“It seems we won’t be able to return to normal life soon,” Rustamas Liubajevas, head of Lithuania’s border guards, told AFP.
The border guard chief said he “pities” migrants trying to cross the border, because they were “tricked” by the Belarusian regime into believing that entering the European Union would be easy.
But he said that Lithuania could not let people in because this would fulfil Lukashenko’s goal to “destabilize” the country.
The government’s tough line has strong support in Lithuania.
On a visit to a military base near the border this week, President Gitanas Nauseda told troops it was “not easy to fulfil your duty and reject civilians seeking a better life.”
“Nevertheless, you have a sacred duty to guard our border.”
But charities, which are banned from the immediate border area under state of emergency laws, said they are worried about the welfare of migrants still stranded in freezing temperatures.
Giedra Blazyte from Diversity Development, a non-governmental organization, said aid groups should be allowed to access the border to help border guards identify vulnerable people.
“The main task for border guards is to defend the state border and not to take care of people. We understand that and this is why we want to be present,” she told AFP.
Even after Lithuania saw its first snowfall this week, Liubajevas warned it was unlikely that migrants would stop trying to cross as might be expected.
“This is not organic migration. This is Lukashenko’s organized migration, so the weather won’t have any effect,” he said.
In the village of Krakunai, also in the Dieveniskes Loop, resident Josif, 56, voiced support for the government’s tough line on the border and said he did not want migrants.
“I don’t know how this will end. I hope they go back to their countries. No one wants them here,” he said.
“They are from a different country, they are different people, they live differently.”


Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says
Updated 28 November 2021

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

PARIS: An off-duty police officer was stabbed and seriously wounded in Paris on Sunday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
Darmanin said in a Twitter post that an investigation had been opened and everything was being done to find the perpetrator. He did not give a motive for the stabbing.


Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions

Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions
Updated 28 November 2021

Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions

Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions
  • Landmark judgment in April saw Iranian asylum seeker freed after steering small vessel

LONDON: A group of migrants who were imprisoned in the UK for steering dinghies across the English Channel are staging a bid to have their convictions overturned, The Independent newspaper has reported.

The group, comprised of 12 people, were labeled people smugglers and were prosecuted for aiding illegal migration.

However, in the wake of a landmark case won by an Iranian asylum seeker in April, the 12 men have decided to fight their convictions through the England and Wales Court of Appeal.

Lawmakers will host special court sessions next month to stage legal arguments over four of the 12 cases. The rulings handed down in the four cases will apply to the remainder of the cases.

Three of the cases involve migrants from Iran, while the fourth relates to a Kuwaiti citizen.

Iranian Samyar Bani, who was prosecuted in June 2019 and jailed for six years, will have his case considered first. His lawyer said: “This is a situation I have never heard of before. He is as much of a victim as others who have found their way to our shores.”

Aiding in an unlawful migration is typically a charge leveled against smugglers who receive substantial payments, including truck drivers.

A Court of Appeal judgment earlier in the year made available a defense for asylum seekers guiding small vessels who were found guilty of the charge.

It came after Fouad Kakaei, an asylum seeker, had his conviction overturned during a retrial.

Kakaei said that he had “taken turns” steering the dinghy with other migrants “because their lives were at risk.”

Following his case, the Crown Prosecution Service issued new rules meaning that asylum seekers would not be charged for steering boats if the “sole intention is to be intercepted and brought into port for asylum claims to be made.”