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EU races to control Covid variant



France and other EU nations are racing to isolate cases of the highly infectious variant of Covid-19 dominant in parts of England while preparing for a possible tightening of restrictions on movement if the mutation threatens to spread widely.

Jean Castex, French prime minister, told parliamentarians at a meeting on Monday that it was impossible to rule out a third lockdown for the country, according to officials. 

Arnaud Fontanet, an epidemiologist and member of the government’s scientific council on the pandemic, said it was important to consider closing the border to countries such as the UK in the face of the “very serious threat” posed by the new variant.

“By midweek we’ll know the size of the enemy and we’ll have to take appropriate measures,” Mr Fontanet told BFMTV. Jean-François Delfraissy, who heads the council, said last week that France probably “cannot avoid” the rapid spread of the variant, which took two and a half months to reach 60 per cent of new viral infections in parts of the UK.

Philippe Froguel, a professor of genomics at Imperial College London and at Lille in France, said very little genetic sequencing of the virus had so far been done in France compared to the UK, and that it was likely the new variant was already well established. 

By February, he said, “I’m afraid we’ll be in exactly the same situation as the UK with 50-60,000 new cases a day and a large number of dead.”

French health workers have already found more than two dozen cases of the English Covid variant in Marseille in the south, Lille in the north and in the Alps in the south-east, but fear there may be hundreds or thousands more undetected infections. At least seven people were found to be infected with the English variant from a cluster in Marseille originating in a family of five who had returned from their base in the UK for the Christmas holidays. 

Benoît Payan, mayor of Marseille, said on Sunday that there was a “worrying” reality of virus infections in the city and “every minute counts in the effort to control the English variant”. Marseille is in one of 23 French departments now operating with an extended night-time curfew between 6pm and 6am. For the rest of the country, including Paris, the curfew begins at 8pm. 

A similar pattern is visible in other parts of western Europe, even as governments struggle to implement mass vaccination programmes that initially target health workers, the elderly and the vulnerable for protection.

Ireland detected the UK variant for the first time only on Christmas Day, but it has since had a big impact on surging infections in the country, amplifying coronavirus transmission after social restrictions were eased in the run-up to the holiday. 

Rising infections have alarmed health officials and placed huge strain on the country’s hospitals, with the 14-day coronavirus incidence rate per 100,000 population at 1,291 on January 9, up from up from 166 on December 23.

“The UK variant has had a very significant impact in terms of the rapidity of the growth of transmission, of that I am convinced,” Micheál Martin, the prime minister, told NewsTalk radio on Monday.

Although the taoiseach said “socialisation” in December was also a factor in the surge, there was evidence that the UK variant was “growing in terms of its percentage of the overall transmission”. Official data suggest the variant accounted for 45 per cent of 92 samples sent for additional testing, up from 25 per cent in the week to January 3. 

Chart showing that UK’s Covid hospital occupancy is now among the highest in the world

In Belgium, infection rates in Brussels have leapt by more than three-quarters in a week, in what some observers fear may be the impact of people returning to the European institutional hub after travelling over Christmas and the new year. 

The Belgian capital, which is the headquarters of both the EU and Nato, saw a 76 per cent rise for the seven-day period to last Thursday compared with the previous week, according to official figures. That has redoubled concerns that more cases of the UK variant will appear, adding to the handful already discovered in Belgium.

Denmark has toughened travel restrictions in response to the spread of the British and South African coronavirus strains, barring entry since the weekend to all international air arrivals unless they have a negative Covid-19 test from the 24 hours before they boarded the aircraft. 

The European Commission declined to comment specifically on the new Danish travel rules, but said it was “closely monitoring” the situation. It added that it had been “pushing for increased and better co-ordination” at an EU level on border controls.

Spain said last week that it had detected at least 60 cases of the English strain but added that the total could increase significantly because of the number of cases being studied.

Information about the prevalence of the new strain reflects not just the infection rate but also countries’ differing abilities to detect it. Spain has had problems compiling national data since the onset of the pandemic, partly because of differing methodologies among the country’s 17 regions, which have primary responsibility for health policy.

Last week a Spanish genetics laboratory in Valencia detected the new strain in two patients with no known links to the UK, indicating community transmission had begun. The samples had been taken two weeks before. France has also found at least two cases with no direct link to the UK. 

“It’s clear that there is community transmission, but we don’t know at what level,” said Fernando González Candelas, a researcher at Valencia’s Fisabio foundation and professor of genetics at the university of Valencia. Noting that the Ramón y Cajal Hospital in Madrid had found the new variant in only 1 per cent of the samples it tested for it, he added: “There are indications that it is low, but we can’t be sure of that.” 

Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Madrid and Arthur Beesley in Dublin


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Missing Belarus activist found hanged in Kyiv park




Belarus updates

A Belarusian opposition activist has been found hanged from a tree in a park near his home in Ukraine, a day after he was reported missing. Local police said his death could have been made to look like suicide.

Vitaly Shishov, who led the Kyiv-based organisation Belarusian House, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution find their feet in Ukraine, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after not returning from a run.

Shishov’s death follows weeks of increased pressure in Belarus by authorities against civil society activists and independent media as part of what the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has called a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents”.

Many Belarusians have fled the country since Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown last summer after nationwide protests erupted following his disputed victory in presidential elections. About 35,000 people have been arrested in Belarus and more than 150,000 are thought to have crossed into neighbouring Ukraine.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who met UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday in London, said Shishov’s death was “absolutely shocking and unexpected to all of us”.

“He [Shishov] and his friends helped people who were moving to Ukraine,” Viacorka told the Financial Times. “They were very helpful, especially for those who have just arrived and didn’t know what to do.”

Viacorka said many activists living in Ukraine, such as Shishov who fled Belarus in 2020, had “complained about possibly being followed, and receiving threats”.

Kyiv park where Vitaly Shyshov’s body was found
The Kyiv park where Vitaly Shishov’s body was found after he failed to return home following a run © Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Downing Street said that after meeting Tsikhanouskaya, Johnson condemned the Lukashenko regime’s severe human rights violations. “The UK stands in solidarity of the people of Belarus and will continue to take action to support them,” a spokesperson said.

Ukrainian police have now launched a criminal case for the suspected murder of Shishov, including the possibility of “murder disguised as suicide”.

Yuriy Shchutsko, an acquaintance and fellow Belarus refugee who found Shishov’s body, ruled out suicide, pointing out that Shishov’s nose was broken.

“I suspect this was the action of the [Belarus] KGB . . . we knew they were hunting for us,” he told Ukrainian television.

Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police of Ukraine, subsequently said Shishov’s body had what appeared to be “torn tissue” on his nose and other wounds, but stressed it would be up to medical examiners to determine if these were caused by beatings or the result of suicide.

There was no immediate comment from Lukashenko or his administration.

Belarusian House said: “There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by the Chekists [the Belarusian KGB] to eliminate someone truly dangerous for the regime.

“Vitalik was under surveillance,” it added. “We were repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations up to kidnapping and liquidation.”

Adding to the swirl of attention on Belarus this week, Tokyo Olympics sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday took refuge in Poland’s embassy after alleging she had been taken to the airport against her will, having criticised her Belarusian coaches.

The athlete has said she feared punishment if she went back to Belarus but has so far declined to link her problems to the country’s divisions.

Shishov’s death comes five years after Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarus-born opposition figure and journalist, was killed in an improvised bomb explosion in downtown Kyiv while driving to work at a local radio station. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Ukrainian authorities at first suggested Belarusian or Russian security services could have been involved in the hit, as Sheremet was close to opposition movements in Russia as well.

Instead, officials charged three Ukrainian volunteers who supported war efforts against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — although they steadfastly denied involvement and authorities were unable to provide a motive in what has been widely described as a flimsy case.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London

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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus




EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.

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Britain’s wrong-headed approach to refugees




UK immigration updates

Thanks to the bravery of volunteers who run towards storms at sea to rescue ships’ crews, few British institutions command as much respect as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The charity, however, has recently had to negotiate a different kind of storm, over its efforts to help refugees who get into difficulties crossing the Channel from France. Nigel Farage, the former Brexit party leader, accused it of running a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs. Last week, the RNLI said it had received hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra donations in response.

The RNLI has become embroiled in a now familiar story when the summer months allow more small boats to make the Channel crossing. Compared with the flows to other countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, only a handful of migrants attempt the journey. That makes the UK’s inability to control the border in an effective and humane way — and shabby treatment of those who do make it across — no less of a scandal.

Britain’s strategy for stemming the flow has relied mostly on paying the French authorities to limit the number of boats crossing and return any that leave to France, while deterring would-be migrants through the unwelcoming environment that awaits them. Just as EU countries are dependent on their neighbours for keeping entrants down — whether Morocco for Spain or Belarus for Lithuania — the UK needs French co-operation to control the mutual border. Diplomatic spats, whether over Brexit or extra Covid quarantine restrictions on arrivals from France, have made that harder.

The UK approach manages to be simultaneously ineffective and cruel. Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, wrote last week to home secretary Priti Patel to complain of unacceptable conditions in the holding facility for migrants who make it to the Kent coast. A recent unannounced visit by MPs found most of those remaining in the overcrowded facility sitting on a thin mattress on the floor, with women and children in the same room as adult men.

Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that “squalid” conditions in the Napier Barracks, a temporary centre set up last year to house asylum seekers during the pandemic, were so bad as to be unlawful. While arrivals have declined since the peak seven years ago, cutbacks have led to a backlog in processing claims, leaving more in a legal limbo.

Since the start of the pandemic Britain has shut down other paths into the country, ending a resettlement scheme. This has ceded the ground to people traffickers. The “push factors” of the risk of violence and torture at home and “pull factors” of higher living standards mean many are still willing to resort to risky and illegal methods to try to reach the UK. Creating a harsh environment for those who make it has done little to dispel the widespread belief among migrants that Britain is a better destination than other European countries, and stem the flow.

That will not stop the government trying. Barristers have warned that a clause in draft border legislation could potentially make it a crime to help asylum seekers arrive in the UK, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; at present it is illegal to do so to earn a profit. The Home Office says the clause is aimed at criminal traffickers. But along with a suggestion to set up offshore processing centres, the provision has rightly earned criticism from human rights groups. If the government is unwilling to create safe and legal routes, its only option is to prevent people from coming in the first place. That, ultimately, will mean relying on France.

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