UK extends Covid vaccine booster program to all adults

UK extends Covid vaccine booster program to all adults
A photograph released by the UK Parliament’s Christmas tree being erected at Westminster Hall in London. Adults in Britain will be able to get 3rd Covid jab, a government body said, as concerns mount about the Omicron variant’s spread. (AFP)
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Updated 09 December 2021

UK extends Covid vaccine booster program to all adults

UK extends Covid vaccine booster program to all adults
  • The move, approved by Health Secretary Sajid Javid, comes as the UK government said it needed to react swiftly to the new variant
  • Until now, only adults aged 40 and over were eligible for a booster dose six months after their second

LONDON: All adults in Britain will now be able to get a third Covid jab, a government scientific advisory body said Monday, as concern mounted about the spread of the new Omicron variant.
The move, approved by Health Secretary Sajid Javid, comes as the UK government said it needed to react swiftly to the new variant, which was first detected in South Africa.
“We’re advising that the booster program should now be extended to adults aged 18 to 39 years old,” said Wei Shen Lim, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI).
Until now, only adults aged 40 and over were eligible for a booster dose six months after their second.
At the same time, the advisory body also recommended second doses of vaccine for children aged 12 to 15.
Since last week, the government in London has slapped a travel ban on 10 southern African countries, including South Africa, to try to control the spread of Omicron.
It has also reintroduced compulsory testing for travelers, and mandatory mask-wearing in shops and public transport in England, as well as self-isolation for contact cases.
The JCVI approved the government’s proposed expansion of the rollout of booster jabs of Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech to include more people within a shorter time.
Britain is one of several countries to have announced cases of the new variant on their soil, including Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
Six cases of the new strain were detected in Scotland on Monday, two of them in the largest city of Glasgow. Five others were confirmed in England, Javid told parliament.
“We expect cases to rise over the coming days,” he added.
“In this race between the vaccines and the virus the new variant may have given the virus extra legs,” he told MPs.
“So our strategy is to buy ourselves time, and to strengthen our defenses,” he said of the extension of the booster program.
Britain, currently chair of the G7 group of nations, on Monday hosted an emergency meeting of health ministers to discuss the Covid crisis.
The ministers said in a joint statement that the Omicron variant was highly transmissible and needs “urgent action.”


Le Pen’s campaign hit by niece calling rival far-right Zemmour a better candidate

Le Pen’s campaign hit by niece calling rival far-right Zemmour a better candidate
Updated 59 min 1 sec ago

Le Pen’s campaign hit by niece calling rival far-right Zemmour a better candidate

Le Pen’s campaign hit by niece calling rival far-right Zemmour a better candidate
  • Marechal told Le Parisien and Le Figaro in separate interviews that she considers her aunt's far-right rival Zemmour had adopted a better strategy
  • "Unlike Marine Le Pen, Zemmour still has ample room to rise further (in polls)," Marechal told Le Figaro newspaper

PARIS: Marine Le Pen’s niece Marion Marechal, a popular figure among far-right French voters, on Friday said Eric Zemmour was a better presidential candidate, piling woes onto a campaign already troubled by the defection of two EU lawmakers.
Le Pen ranks second or third in opinion polls that show a tussle among right and far-right candidates to win a second-round runoff spot against President Emmanuel Macron in the April elections. Macron himself is leading polls and seen as likely to secure the other spot.
Marechal, a 32-year old former lawmaker, told Le Parisien and Le Figaro in separate interviews that she considers her aunt’s far-right rival Zemmour had adopted a better strategy, even though he is currently running fourth in opinion polls.
“Unlike Marine Le Pen, Zemmour still has ample room to rise further (in polls),” Marechal told Le Figaro newspaper.
She said that because he was new to politics and was seeking to bridge gaps between parties, Zemmour was better placed to get wide-ranging support than Le Pen’s party, which other parties, including on the mainstream right, often shun.
Her comments went to the heart of a debate that could re-define France’s right and far-right for years to come.
Marechal, once a rising star in the Le Pen family’s National Rally party, quit politics five years ago.
She said on Friday she wanted to return but hadn’t quite decided yet whether to rally with Zemmour’s campaign for fear it would revive feuds that had torn the Le Pen family and the party apart for years.
But the divisions she said she wanted to avoid creating were immediately clear with her aunt’s reaction.
“It’s brutal, it’s violent, it’s tough for me,” a visibly moved Le Pen told CNews, adding it was “painful” on a person level and “incomprehensible” politically.
The 53-year-old veteran politician noted that polls showed her and not Zemmour as likely to reach the second round in April, in a repeat of the 2017 match that Macron won.
While the National Front — rebranded National Rally — has dominated the French far-right for decades, first led by Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie and then by her since 2011, it has always failed to reach power beyond a few municipalities.


Russia says it won’t start a war as Ukraine tensions mount

Russia says it won’t start a war as Ukraine tensions mount
Updated 28 January 2022

Russia says it won’t start a war as Ukraine tensions mount

Russia says it won’t start a war as Ukraine tensions mount
  • US President Joe Biden warned Ukraine’s leader a day earlier that there is a “distinct possibility” that Russia could take military action
  • “There won’t be a war as far as it depends on the Russian Federation, we don’t want a war,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said

MOSCOW: Russia’s top diplomat said Friday that Moscow will not start a war in Ukraine but warned that it wouldn’t allow the West to trample on its security interests, amid fears it is planning to invade its neighbor.
US President Joe Biden warned Ukraine’s leader a day earlier that there is a “distinct possibility” that Russia could take military action against the former Soviet state in February.
“There won’t be a war as far as it depends on the Russian Federation, we don’t want a war,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a live interview with Russian radio stations. “But we won’t let our interests be rudely trampled on and ignored.”
Tensions have soared in recent weeks, and the United States and its NATO allies warily eyed a buildup of more than 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine, worrying that Moscow was preparing to attack. Russia has repeatedly denied having any such plans, but has demanded that NATO promise Ukraine will never be allowed to join and that the alliance roll back deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe.
The US and NATO formally rejected those demands this week, though Washington outlined areas where discussions are possible, offering hope that there could be a way to avoid war.
Russia’s official response to those proposals will come from President Vladimir Putin, but the Kremlin has said there was “little ground for optimism.”
Lavrov echoed noted that grim note Friday.
“While they say they won’t change their positions, we won’t change ours,” he said. “I don’t see any room for compromise here.”
Putin opened the weekly meeting of his Security Council on Friday, saying only that it would address foreign policy issues. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Russian leader may also discuss his reaction to the US rejection with French President Emmanuel Macron during their video call the same day.
Lavrov noted that the US suggested the two sides could talk about limits on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles, restrictions on military drills and rules to prevent accidents between warships and aircraft. He said that Russia proposed discussing those issues years ago — but Washington and its allies never took them up on it until now.
While he described the US offers as reasonable, he emphasized that Russia’s main concerns are to stop both NATO’s expansion and the deployment of the alliance weapons near Russia’s borders. He noted that international agreements say that the security of one nation must not come at the expense of others’ — and that he would send letters to ask his Western counterparts to address that obligation.
“It will be hard for them to wiggle out from answering why they aren’t fulfilling the obligations sealed by their leaders not to strengthen their security at the expense of others,” he said.
As tensions build, Washington warned Moscow of devastating sanctions if it invades Ukraine, including penalties targeting top Russian officials and key economic sectors. Several senior US officials also said Thursday that Germany would not allow a newly constructed pipeline — which is meant to bring gas directly from Russia — to begin operations if Russia invades Ukraine.
Asked about possible sanctions, Lavrov said that Moscow had warned Washington that their introduction would amount to a complete severing of ties.
While Moscow and the West are mulling their next steps, NATO said it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region, and the US ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert for potential deployment to Europe.
Russia has launched a series of military drills involving motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, and dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic. Russian troops have also headed to Belarus for sweeping joint drills, raising Western fears that Moscow could stage an attack on Ukraine from the north. The Ukrainian capital is just 75 kilometers (50 miles) from the border with Belarus.
Despite the alarming rhetoric, Ukrainian officials have repeatedly tried to project calm.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told parliament Friday that the total number of Russian troops near Ukraine — about 130,000 — is comparable to Moscow’s military buildup in the spring of 2021, when Moscow eventually pulled its forces back after massive military exercises.
“We haven’t observed any events or actions of military character that significantly differ from what was going on last spring,” with the exception of the deployment to Belarus, Reznikov said.
But that has so far not reassured many in the West. Biden warned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Thursday’s call that the US believed there was a high degree of likelihood that Russia could invade when the ground freezes and Russian forces could attack Ukrainian territory from north of Kyiv, according to two people familiar with the conversation who were not authorized to comment publicly.
While concerns rise about an invasion, Ukraine is already beset by conflict. Following the 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed an insurgency in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has killed over 14,000 people, and efforts to reach a settlement have stalled.


UK foreign office pledges to release Afghanistan cash after aid chief pleas

UK foreign office pledges to release Afghanistan cash after aid chief pleas
Updated 28 January 2022

UK foreign office pledges to release Afghanistan cash after aid chief pleas

UK foreign office pledges to release Afghanistan cash after aid chief pleas
  • London announces more than $130m in aid to ease Afghan humanitarian crisis
  • 1m children could die from acute malnutrition: Ex-UN official

LONDON: The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has pledged to release nearly £100m ($133m) in emergency funds to Afghanistan following impassioned pleas from two former aid chiefs, who warned that a million children could die from acute malnutrition.

Last August, the British government promised to double its aid spent in Afghanistan, but so far only £145 million out of £286 million has been disbursed, leaving roughly half the money unspent, just months before the end of the financial year in April. On Thursday Sir Mark Lowcock, a former UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, urged London to release the rest of the money.

He told Sky News: “It’s not at all appropriate to enforce a sort of collective punishment on the total population of the country because you don’t like the regime that those people haven’t chosen. Where is the rest of that money, what are they waiting for?”

Baroness Valerie Amos, also a former UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, also warned: “There will be 3 million children under 5 who will face acute malnutrition by March. Of those, a million children will die.”

Following those urgent pleas, the Foreign Office pledged to released £97m of emergency aid to Afghanistan for winter, which the department said would provide more than 2.7 million people with food, health services, and water.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “The UK continues to provide vital humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. We have doubled UK aid this year to save lives, protect women and girls and support stability in the region.

“The funds announced today will mean essential food, shelter and health supplies will reach those who are most in need.”

Billions of dollars of Afghan money is currently frozen in assets by foreign governments as the US and its allies grapple with how they should deal with the Taliban regime.

Lowcock said Afghanistan’s own cash could be used to pay teachers and health workers directly. The UN is seeking $5.9 billion to help solve the humanitarian crisis.

“This is a significant requirement but the good news is quite a lot of it could be funded from Afghanistan’s own resources,” said Lowcock.

He added that while people “are right to be concerned” by the Taliban, the price is being paid by innocent children and women.

Reports have emerged that impoverished and desperate Afghans have resorted to selling their own organs, or in some cases their children, in order to feed themselves and their families.

Amos said: “We have to find a way of restoring the economy in Afghanistan without getting money into the hands of the Taliban, and we have plenty of experience of doing this.”

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Death toll from Storm Ana rises to 86 as another storm brews to Africa’s east

Death toll from Storm Ana rises to 86 as another storm brews to Africa’s east
Updated 28 January 2022

Death toll from Storm Ana rises to 86 as another storm brews to Africa’s east

Death toll from Storm Ana rises to 86 as another storm brews to Africa’s east
  • Storm Ana passed over Madagascar on Jan. 22, adding to days of already intense rainfall
  • Ana has affected hundreds of thousands of people and lead to widespread flooding and destruction
JOHANNESBURG: Tropical Storm Ana has killed at least 86 people across southern and eastern Africa, with recovery operations still ongoing as another storm threatened more severe weather.
Storm Ana passed over Madagascar on Jan. 22, adding to days of already intense rainfall. The country declared a state of disaster on Thursday night, reporting a rise in the death toll from Ana to 48, with people killed by landslides and collapsing buildings or washed away.
Ana then made landfall in Mozambique on Jan. 24, where 18 have been reported dead, before moving inland to Malawi, where it triggered massive power cuts. Malawi’s death toll rose to 20 on Thursday.
Across all three nations, Ana has affected hundreds of thousands of people and lead to widespread flooding and destruction, according to the United Nations.
“This latest storm...is a blunt reminder that the climate crisis is very much a reality,” said Maria Luisa Fornara, UNICEF Representative in Mozambique.
The region has been repeatedly struck by severe storms and cyclones in recent years, destroying homes, infrastructure and crops and displacing large numbers of people.
In some cases, communities still recovering are hit again, compounding the impacts. Experts say storms are becoming stronger and more frequent as waters warm due to climate change, with rising sea levels also making low-lying coastal areas vulnerable.
Another storm, dubbed Batsirai, is now traveling toward Africa’s east coast.
Meteo France on Friday described Batsirai as a small system that presented no immediate threat to a group of islands to the east of Madagascar, including the French territory of Reunion, because it was still days away.
However, it said the evolution of Batsirai’s intensity and trajectory remained uncertain. Mozambique’s National Institute of Meteorology warned Batsirai still had the potential to evolve into a severe tropical storm.

China agrees to Xinjiang visit by UN rights chief in early 2022 — report

China agrees to Xinjiang visit by UN rights chief in early 2022 — report
Updated 28 January 2022

China agrees to Xinjiang visit by UN rights chief in early 2022 — report

China agrees to Xinjiang visit by UN rights chief in early 2022 — report
  • Rights groups have accused China of perpetrating widescale abuses against Uyghurs and other minority groups in its western region of Xinjiang

BEIJING: China has agreed to let the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visit Xinjiang in the first half of 2022 after the Beijing Winter Olympics, according to a report in the South China Morning Post which cited unnamed sources.
Rights groups have accused China of perpetrating widescale abuses against Uyghurs and other minority groups in its western region of Xinjiang, including mass detention, torture and forced labor. The United States has accused China of genocide.
Beijing denies all allegations of abuse of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims and has described its policies as necessary to combat religious extremism.
UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet has been pursuing negotiations with China on a visit since September 2018.
China’s foreign ministry, China’s mission to the United Nations in New York, and the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The South China Morning Post report on Thursday cited sources saying that the approval for a visit after the conclusion of the Beijing Winter Games, which run Feb. 4-20, was granted on the condition the trip should be “friendly” and not framed as an investigation.
As in 2008, the Olympics have again cast a spotlight on China’s human rights record, which critics say has worsened since then, leading Washington to call Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims genocide and prompting a diplomatic boycott from the United States and other countries.
“No one, especially the world’s leading human rights diplomat, should be fooled by the Chinese government’s efforts to distract attention away from its crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities,” Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters in an emailed statement on Friday.