Betting omicron has peaked, PM Johnson drops COVID-19 rules in England

Betting omicron has peaked, PM Johnson drops COVID-19 rules in England
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate at Parliament in London on Wednesday. (Reuters)
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Updated 20 January 2022

Betting omicron has peaked, PM Johnson drops COVID-19 rules in England

Betting omicron has peaked, PM Johnson drops COVID-19 rules in England
  • While cases soared to record highs, hospitalisations and deaths have not risen by the same extent
  • Johnson's pledge to avoid lockdowns and live with the virus contrasts with a zero tolerance approach to COVID-19 in China and Hong Kong

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the end of COVID-19 measures including mandatory face masks in England as he looks to live with the virus after a peak in cases caused by the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
Johnson’s light touch approach to dealing with omicron saw him introduce work-at-home advice and vaccine passes as well as more mask-wearing on Dec. 8, although he stopped short of more onerous restrictions seen globally.
While cases soared to record highs, hospitalizations and deaths have not risen by the same extent, in part due to Britain’s booster rollout and the variant’s lesser severity.
Johnson’s pledge to avoid lockdowns and live with the virus contrasts with a zero tolerance approach to COVID-19 in China and Hong Kong, and tougher restrictions in many other European countries.
“Many nations across Europe have endured further winter lockdowns... but this government took a different path,” Johnson told lawmakers, saying the government had got the toughest decisions right and that numbers going into intensive care were falling.
“Our scientists believe it is likely that the omicron wave has now peaked nationally... because of the extraordinary booster campaign, together with the way the public have responded to the Plan B measures, we can return to Plan A.”
Johnson said none of the so-called Plan B measures would remain in England when they lapse on Jan. 26, as face masks would not be legally enforced anywhere and COVID passes would not be mandatory.
The government said it would also no longer ask people to work from home, effective immediately.
Johnson cited official figures that showed infection prevalence levels falling from a record high.
But scientists warned that cases could still turn higher again if people’s behavior returned to normal quickly.
“There’s no guarantee that the levels are going to continue to fall as they are at the moment,” University of Warwick virologist Lawrence Young told Reuters, who said he favored a more gradual approach given that cases are still high.
“I just don’t think we’ve got any room for complacency at the moment, but I do understand the economic imperative. People want to get back to normal.”
PANDEMIC ‘NOT OVER’
Johnson has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic overall, and Britain has reported 152,872 deaths, the seventh highest total globally. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed their own anti-coronavirus measures, generally with tougher restrictions, but have also begun to ease them.
Johnson hopes to reset his agenda following furor over the lockdown gatherings at his office, which has some in his party plotting to remove him.
The lifting of Plan B measures, along with the navigation of omicron without resorting to a stringent lockdown, could help Johnson appease vocal opponents of restrictions in his own caucus amid the party unrest.
Johnson said if data supported it, he may end the legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive before the regulation lapses in March.
“But to make that possible, we must all remain cautious during these last weeks of winter,” he said, warning of continued pressure on hospitals.
“The pandemic is not over.”
Susan Hopkins, the Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, said she expected cases would continue to fall, but it would not be linear.
“We believe that overall, we will continue to see declines in cases. That may plateau at some points as the infection is in various different populations,” she said at a news conference.
“People’s behavior and how they react to the removal of Plan B will determine how fast infection can spread in the population.”


As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Updated 14 sec ago

As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
  • Prolonged dry periods have been more frequent in recent years due to climate change
  • Farmers build soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water

KATHMANDU: Water scarcity in Kuinkel Thumka, a mountainous village in eastern Nepal, has for years made life difficult for residents — until a few months ago, when they started to capture excess rainfall during the monsoon season.

Located in the Middle Hills, between the Himalayas and Tarai, the village of 850 people lies in Kavrepalanchok district of Bagmati province, where the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has introduced soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water.

“We built a soil-cement tank in our village eight months ago and started to collect rain,” Gita Kuinkel, a 53-year-old farmer, told Arab News.

“Before this tank, we didn’t have enough water and our lives were hard. It was not enough for our cattle, household chores and irrigation. Now, the water is enough,” she said.

“We don’t have to buy vegetables, we grow and eat vegetables from our own home gardens.”

Cheap soil-cement conservation ponds are constructed in the region with the help of ICIMOD, an intergovernmental research center serving countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, and the Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED), a leading Nepali developmental NGO.

The ponds capture excess rainfall during the monsoon, making water available during prolonged dry periods, which in recent years have been more frequent, even in the Himalayas, as South Asia is experiencing unprecedented heatwaves due to climate change.

Sanjeev Bhuchar, a water management expert at ICIMOD, told Arab News that more than 80 percent of Nepal’s 13 million population was dependent on mountain springs as the primary source of water. But the springs are drying up.

“In Nepal and other Himalaya-Hindu Kush countries, depletion of springs is one of the major emerging water crises,” he said.

“There is increasing evidence that spring discharge is decreasing, or in some cases, ceasing altogether.”

Within the past three years, more than 400 ponds have been built across the country, according to Kiran Bhusal, project coordinator at CEAPRED.

“Farmers can easily build such tanks because the procedure is very easy. It is built with mixtures of soil, sand and cement,” he said. “It is helping the people so much.”

Kamala Adhikary, another resident of Kuinkel Thumka, said that it cost the village about $160 to build a water conservation pond, and the standard of living has changed ever since.

“We didn’t have enough water for drinking, we had to buy water from other areas,” she said.

“Now we can wash our clothes, use it for our cattle and even we do farming, and earn money because of it. It improved our economic condition. A lot of problems have been solved.”

 


Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
Updated 27 May 2022

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
  • Number being granted refuge hits 30-year high
  • Most enter via small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risk of prosecution

LONDON: Charities have raised concerns over the potential for asylum seekers to be criminalized or transferred to Rwanda as the number being granted refuge in the UK hits a 30-year high.
The Guardian reported on Friday that Home Office data for the 12 months to March shows 75 percent of asylum claims were granted, with Syrians, Eritreans and Sudanese forming the majority of people making their way from countries with typically high approval rates.
However, most of them entered the UK by small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risks of prosecution under the Nationality and Borders Act passed last month.
The same dataset also showed an increase in the number of Afghans making their way to the UK via the dangerous English Channel crossing, indicating that the resettlement schemes launched after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last year are not working.
“The government has said it is giving Afghans a ‘warm welcome,’ but these figures reveal that many have felt they have been left with no option but to take this dangerous route to make it to the UK,” said Marley Morris, associate director for migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
“The government’s new plans in response to the Channel crossings could mean that Afghan asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda.
“Contrary to the government’s claims, there are few safe routes for people forced into small boats to make it to the UK.”


Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says
Updated 27 May 2022

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says
  • "We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily," said Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness
  • So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries

GENEVA: Countries should take quick steps to contain the spread of monkeypox and share data about their vaccine stockpiles, a senior World Health Organization official said on Friday.
“We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily,” Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness, told the UN agency’s annual assembly.
Monkeypox is a usually mild viral infection that is endemic in parts of west and central Africa.
It spreads chiefly through close contact and until the recent outbreak, was rarely seen in other parts of the world, which is why the recent emergence of cases in Europe, the United States and other areas has raised alarms.
So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries where the virus was not previously circulating.
“For us, we think that the key priority currently is trying to contain this transmission in non-endemic countries,” Briand told a technical briefing for member states.
Needed measures included the early detection and isolation of cases and contact tracing, she added.
Member states should also share information about first generation stockpiles of smallpox vaccines which can also be effective against monkeypox, Briand said.
“We don’t know exactly the number of doses available in the world and so that’s why we encourage countries to come to WHO and tell us what are their stockpiles,” she said. A slide of her presentation described global supplies as “very constrained.”
Currently, WHO officials are advising against mass vaccination, instead suggesting targeted vaccination where available for close contacts of people infected.
“Case investigation, contact tracing, isolation at home will be your best bets,” said Rosamund Lewis, WHO head of the smallpox secretariat which is part of the WHO Emergencies Programme.


Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school

Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school
Police in Canada’s largest city Toronto on Thursday fatally shot a man armed with a rifle. (Reuters)
Updated 27 May 2022

Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school

Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school
  • Bystanders alerted police to the man’s presence in an eastern neighborhood of Toronto

MONTREAL: Police in Canada’s largest city Toronto on Thursday fatally shot a man armed with a rifle, local media reported, in an incident that forced several schools into lockdown just two days after a deadly assault on a US primary school.
Bystanders alerted police to the man’s presence in an eastern neighborhood of Toronto, and the circumstances of what transpired next were not immediately clear.
But city police chief James Ramer told reporters that the suspect, described as a man in his late teens or early 20s, was dead after he had “confronted” responding officers, without elaborating.
The police force’s Twitter account said that after officers located the man, a “police firearm” was “discharged.”
A spokeswoman for the Special Investigations Unit told the CBC that preliminary evidence showed that two police officers had fired their weapons, and the suspect was pronounced dead at the scene.
It was not clear if the man was holding the weapon when police shot him.
Ramer said he was unable to offer more details, as the incident was under investigation.
“There’s no threat to public safety,” he said.
“Due to the proximity to a school, I certainly understand the trauma and how traumatic this must have been for staff, students and parents, given recent events that have happened in the United States,” the chief added.
On Tuesday, a shooting at a Texas elementary school left 21 dead — 19 children and two teachers.


Home Office says a quarter of migrants crossing English Channel fleeing Afghanistan

Home Office says a quarter of migrants crossing English Channel fleeing Afghanistan
Updated 26 May 2022

Home Office says a quarter of migrants crossing English Channel fleeing Afghanistan

Home Office says a quarter of migrants crossing English Channel fleeing Afghanistan
  • Iranians and Iraqis combined make up almost a third of those seeking a better life in the UK
  • The BBC reported 1,094 Afghans made the dangerous crossing in the first three months of 2022

LONDON: One in four migrants crossing the English Channel in the first quarter of the year are people fleeing Afghanistan, according to figures released by the UK Home Office.
The BBC reported 1,094 Afghans made the dangerous crossing in the first three months of 2022, almost as many as the 1,323 Afghans that attempted the crossing in the entirety of 2021.
Iranians made up the next highest demographic at 16 percent, with Iraqis the third highest at 15 percent.
While the figures claim 90 percent of Afghans who made it to the UK were granted asylum, they do not include the UK’s two resettlement schemes set up in the wake of the Taliban takeover of the country in August.
The plans have faced criticism from politicians and sections of the public for leaving thousands of UK translators and others who worked for coalition forces behind after the UK withdrawal.
Compounding that failed operation, the numbers of non-Afghan refugees awaiting an asylum decision in the 12 months to March almost doubled from 66,000 to 109,000.
Refugee Council CEO Enver Solomon said: “Increased numbers waiting for a decision is desperately worrying, and it leaves thousands of vulnerable men, women and children trapped in limbo.
“Adults, banned from working, living hand to mouth on less than £6 ($7.55) and left not knowing what their future holds; this simply is not good enough,” he added.
Amnesty International has pointed the finger of blame for the backlog in asylum decisions at the UK’s Home Secretary Priti Patel, accusing her of a “disastrous leadership” over a department that has become “a byword for backlogs and dysfunction”.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said it had “helped thousands” of people fleeing Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong.