Ed Miliband: Lord Falconer 'very sorry' over Covid 'gift' remarks

Ed Miliband says Labour’s shadow attorney general Lord Falconer is ‘very, very sorry’ after he was caught on tape telling City lawyers the coronavirus crisis ‘is a gift that keeps on giving’ as Sir Keir Starmer faces furious backlash

  • Lord Falconer, Shadow Attorney General, used phrase at briefing for City firm staffed by millionaire lawyers
  • The peer insists he was referring to changes in the law triggered by the crisis – but a source close to the Labour grandee said he regretted his choice of words
  • Lord Falconer’s comments were seized on by Conservatives, with party chairman Amanda Milling describing it as a ‘troubling’ example of Labour’s approach to the pandemic
  • Comes after torrid week for Starmer, who apologised to the PM for making false accusations in the Commons

Ed Miliband today insisted Labour’s shadow attorney general Lord Falconer is ‘very, very sorry’ after he described the coronavirus pandemic as a ‘gift that keeps on giving’ for lawyers.

The comments have left Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer facing a furious political backlash but Mr Miliband, the shadow business secretary, said this morning that Lord Falconer ‘apologises for what he said’.  

He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘He shouldn’t have said it. He was talking in the context of lawyers and the way the law was changing.

‘It was a very poor choice of words. I have spoken to Charlie this morning and he is very, very sorry and apologises for what he said. It shows that we have to be careful with our words, all politicians have to be very careful with our words.’  

Lord Falconer used the phrase during a briefing for a top City firm staffed by millionaire lawyers. 

The peer insists that he was referring to changes in the law triggered by the crisis, but a source close to the Labour grandee said that he regretted his choice of words.

Last night, Lord Falconer’s comments were seized on by the Conservatives, with party chairman Amanda Milling describing it as a ‘troubling’ example of Labour’s approach to the pandemic. 


Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is facing a backlash after one of his most senior frontbenchers described the Covid pandemic as a ‘gift that keeps on giving’ for lawyers. Lord Falconer (right), the Shadow Attorney General, used the phrase during a briefing for a top City firm staffed by millionaire lawyers

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said this morning that Lord Falconer is ‘very, very sorry’ for making the remark

As well as being a full-time member of the Shadow Cabinet, Lord Falconer – who served as Tony Blair’s Lord Chancellor – is a partner at the international law firm Gibson Dunn, where his duties have included leading its Covid-19 UK Task Force.

Labour declined to reveal details of Lord Falconer’s pay at the company, although it was reported in 2019 that full partners at the firm took home an average of £2.5 million a year.

The embarrassment comes after a torrid week for Starmer, who had to apologise to Boris Johnson for making false accusations in the Commons. 

The Labour leader had called it ‘complete nonsense’ for the Prime Minister to claim that Starmer had wanted Britain’s vaccines to remain under the regulation of the European Medicines Agency post-Brexit. He later had to admit the charge was true.

Constituency Labour parties have also reportedly been drawing up censure motions against Starmer as they lose faith in his ability to win a General Election. 

The most recent opinion poll put the Conservatives three points ahead of Labour, while one survey found that just 16 per cent of people thought Starmer would have done a better job in handling the pandemic than Johnson.

In a recording obtained by The Mail on Sunday, Lord Falconer can be heard introducing a Gibson Dunn ‘webinar’ on ‘how the law has been changed by Covid’ by saying: ‘This is a gift that keeps on giving, the law keeps on changing, keeps on getting more complicated, and is always interesting.’ 

By the time of the webinar, on June 29, in the UK some 43,575 people had died with coronavirus, with the country established as the worst-hit nation in Europe.

Lord Falconer, who also once shared a flat with Mr Blair, inhabits a world which contrasts starkly with that of voters in those ‘Red Wall’ seats in the Midlands and the North which Labour hopes to reclaim from the Tories at the next Election.

Last year, three partners at Gibson Dunn, which has 20 offices worldwide, wrote an article for a legal journal which advised private equity firms on how to invest in the ‘distressed environment’ of Covid.

It started: ‘The current Covid-19 pandemic – while providing unprecedented challenges for many portfolio companies – will also present some unique investment opportunities to invest in distressed businesses.’ 

The article suggested the ‘strategic purchase of debt as a path to obtaining control’ of failing firms. 

Lord Falconer, who was appointed to Labour’s front bench last April, is a member of the Privy Council, which technically entitles him to receive sensitive Government information – although there is no suggestion that he has ever used the privilege for commercial advantage.

The source close to Lord Falconer said of his opening comments last night: ‘Charlie was referring to the pace at which the Government is making changes to the law.

‘He regrets his choice of words, which he understands could be misinterpreted.’

Last year, three partners at Gibson Dunn, which has 20 offices worldwide, wrote an article for a legal journal which advised private equity firms on how to invest in the ‘distressed environment’ of Covid. (Above, ambulance staff outside the Royal London hospital)

As well as being a full-time member of the Shadow Cabinet, Lord Falconer – who served as Tony Blair’s Lord Chancellor – is a partner at the international law firm Gibson Dunn, where his duties have included leading its Covid-19 UK Task Force. Labour declined to reveal details of Lord Falconer’s pay at the company, although it was reported in 2019 that full partners at the firm took home an average of £2.5 million a year. (Above, Lord Falconer in 1997 when he was Tony Blair’s Solicitor General)

A source present at the meeting said: ‘Lord Falconer’s comments to a group of legal advisers were solely about it being an interesting time to study the law.’

In September, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, called the pandemic a ‘good crisis’ which Labour could exploit. 

She said: ‘I think we should use the opportunity, don’t let a good crisis go to waste. We can really see now what happens when you under-resource schools, when you under-resource families.’

Last night, Ms Milling said: ‘One Shadow Minister previously said this awful pandemic was a ‘good crisis’ for the Labour Party. Now these troubling comments by another Shadow Minister emerge.

‘All of this sums up Labour’s approach throughout the pandemic, which has been to play politics at every opportunity.’

From Blair’s flatmate to a Starmer loyalist – the ultimate Labour insider

By BRENDAN CARLIN for the Mail On Sunday 

He is a Labour insider par excellence – there at the start of the Blair project and, more than 20 years later, present at the beginning of the Starmer project too.

Charlie Falconer has been a familiar – if unelected – figure on the party’s front line since the mid-1990s, even if that figure has dramatically changed over the years thanks to his famous ‘apple diet’.

Apart from a few years of exile under the Gordon Brown premiership and the Jeremy Corbyn era, he has served as either a Minister or a Shadow Minister every year since 1997. Falconer was given a peerage immediately after New Labour’s landslide victory that year.

That was after he ‘fluffed’ his bid to become an MP, so the story goes, by refusing to take his children out of private school during selection for the safe Labour seat of Dudley North. 

In the early days of New Labour, the affable Scottish lawyer was best known as Tony Blair’s one-time flatmate. 

In the early days of New Labour, affable Scottish lawyer Charlie Falconer was best known as Tony Blair’s one-time flatmate. As young lawyers, they lived together in Wandsworth, South London. Apart from Labour activism, they shared a passion for rock music – Lord Falconer, 69, has boasted of still being able to reveal the names of the B-sides of virtually every hit of the 1960s. (Above, the-then Home Secretary David Blunkett, centre, flanked by Lord Falconer and Tony Blair in 2003)

As young lawyers, they lived together in Wandsworth, South London. Apart from Labour activism, they shared a passion for rock music – Lord Falconer, 69, has boasted of still being able to reveal the names of the B-sides of virtually every hit of the 1960s.

The two men have known each other since their school days in Scotland, although not always on the best of terms. Lord Falconer has let slip how Mr Blair was dating a fellow student, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, whom Charlie fancied. ‘We got on very, very badly,’ he revealed, although Amanda and Charlie apparently did get together eventually.

While Mr Blair focused on his political career in the 1980s, his flatmate concentrated on his career in commercial law – so much so that by the mid-90s his earnings were estimated to be about £500,000. 

In 1985, he married fellow barrister Marianna Hildyard, eventually becoming neighbours – and dinner companions – of the Blairs in New Labour’s Islington heartland. Starting out as Solicitor-General in 1997, his ministerial career included a brief responsibility for the Millennium Dome.

It culminated in a four-year spell as Lord Chancellor and Constitutional Affairs Secretary in 2003-07 when he presided over the creation of the Supreme Court. 

Out of office during the Brown premiership, the peer returned to the frontbench under Ed Miliband. He even stayed on to accept a job in Corbyn’s Cabinet but quit in 2016 ahead of the failed bid to force the leader out.

Blair flatmate jibes apart, he has suffered swipes for being a political ‘heavyweight’ in every sense of the word.

Nine years ago, the bathroom scales read 16st 6lb, so his lordship decided on a punishing weight-loss regime which meant missing breakfast and lunch, living off apples till dinner time, and no alcohol. Such was his dramatic weight loss (over 5st in two years), that fellow peers feared he had some horrible wasting disease.

‘I was just so fat,’ he explained. Despite his Blairite pedigree, Charlie Falconer seems to have remarkably few critics, even among hardened Labour Corbynites who heartily loathe his former boss’s brand of Labour politics.

His Covid ‘gift that keeps on giving’ gaffe may change that.   

Covid infections must fall by another 95% to 1,000 a day before lockdown is lifted, says the NHS: Hospitals chief writes to Boris urging him to wait before easing restrictions after SAGE warned of FOURTH wave causing more than 1,000 deaths a day

Boris Johnson must wait until there are fewer than 1,000 Covid infections a day before lifting lockdown, NHS bosses and scientists have warned.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, is set to write to the Prime Minister and urge him not to lift the restrictions or face another unmanageable increase of infections – despite 22% of all over-18s in the UK now having been vaccinated.

SAGE modelling has also predicted a fourth wave of more than 1,000 deaths a day in Spring if restrictions are lifted completely – or eased too quickly – when the rules are set to be reviewed on March 8. 

The government’s scientific advisers believe there could be a further 130,000 deaths between now and June next year, taking the total close to 250,000. 

The scientists fear that although the most vulnerable Britons will have received a dose of vaccine by the time restrictions are lifted, the virus could still hospitalise a large number of un-vaccinated younger people.

And although the government is on track to vaccinate the over-70s by February 15 they believe infections could prove severe in the small percentage of recipients in whom the vaccine does not block symptoms. 

Hospitalisations are falling rapidly but there are still 29,326 patIents in hospital with coronavirus in the UK.  

 Mr Hopson said in the Sunday Times: ‘We have crested the peak but we’re only just beginning the descent.

‘We’re still at a dangerously high altitude where the NHS is under great pressure and the thing we know is the descent is going to be much slower because people are taking longer to recover. It’s going to take months, not days and weeks.’

The UK announced another 18,262 coronavirus infections yesterday meaning they would have to fall another 95% to bring the numbers down to the 1,000 case threshold. Currently infections are dropping at approximately 20% a week. 

But lockdown sceptic Tory MPs are pushing for the restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible – arguing that the vaccine will prevent most serious cases. Mark Harper, who chairs the Tory MP Covid Recovery Group (CRG), said: ‘These top nine groups [of over-50s who should be vaccinated by Spring ] account for around 99 per cent of those that have died from Covid and about 80 per cent of hospital admissions.

‘It will be almost impossible to justify having any restrictions in place at all by that point.’

Mr Johnson is set to unveil his road map out of lockdown towards the end of the month, with hopes the return of schools from March 8 can be followed by allowing mixing outdoors, with bars and restaurants freed up over the summer.

In other developments: 

  • Real-world data is set to show next week that infections among the over-80s are falling and those who have received one dose of vaccine have a high level of protection, according to the deputy head of the JCVI 
  • The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is less effective against the South African variant, early data showed last night in a blow to global inoculation efforts. 
  • Britain’s daily death toll has also plunged – with 828 fatalities recorded today. The figure is 31 per cent lower than the 1,200 seen on this day last week.
  • Ministers are drawing up a ‘jabs at work’ blitz to vaccinate millions of under-50s in rapid time, it emerged last night.
  • Plans to deploy roving teams of vaccinators to workplaces across the UK were revealed to be under consideration in government.
  • Sources said it would help accelerate the rollout, which is currently taking place in hospitals, GPs, and makeshift vaccination hubs.
  • The Government this week revealed its ambition to have offered all over-50s their first dose by May – although insiders suggested this could be sooner.
  • It would mean the nine priority groups of the 33million who account for 99 per cent of Covid deaths would have been inoculated and start gaining some protection against the disease.

University of Warwick research published in January, before the current vaccination data became available, suggested that if a vaccine could prevent 65% of transmission, as Oxford now says its vaccine does, the country’s death rate could be kept to the low hundreds per day or fewer from late March onwards if the rule of six is kept in place. The model is based on a large majority of the population having a vaccine with that level of effectiveness. But it predicts a large fourth wave if measure are eased too quickly

Real life data shows the vaccine IS saving lives in the UK: Real-world data shows inoculations ARE reducing infections and deaths, top advisor reveals 

Data collected on the first rollout of the Covid vaccine justifies the Government’s decision to delay the second dose, according to an expert.

Professor Anthony Harnden, of the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation, says those already given the jab are experiencing high levels of protection from their first dose.

And the data, set to be published next week by Public Health England, shows infection rates in those over the age of 80 have fallen in the past month.

 

The warning by the NHS chief coincided with one of the Government’s most senior vaccine advisers saying there is ‘promising evidence’ that justifies the decision to extend the gap between the first and second dose of the Covid jab from three to 12 weeks.

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said last night that people were showing ‘high levels of protection from the first dose’, which was reducing infections and saving lives.

‘The Covid-19 vaccine rollout in the UK is nothing short of a triumph,’ he told The Sunday Times.

‘The Government’s strategy to extend the interval between the two doses means we have been able to protect more people and undoubtedly save more lives. We have seen promising evidence that people get high levels of protection from the first dose.’

Data from Public Health England, due for release within days, is expected to show infection rates in the over-80s has plunged in the past month.

The World Health Organisation recommends that the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine be delayed for a maximum of only six weeks, while the European Medicines Agency says it should be only three weeks.

Prof Harnden’s comments follow the latest figures show the Prime Minister is on course to hit his target of 15 million first vaccine doses by Valentine’s Day.

As the Government said yesterday that a further 494,163 jabs have been given – bringing the total to 11,465,210 – there was growing confidence that Boris Johnson’s ambition to vaccinate the most vulnerable priority groups before February 15 would be met.

The average daily number of first vaccinations given over the past week is 440,896 – meaning the 15 million landmark could be hit inside a week. Growing anticipation of reaching the milestone came as the number of reported deaths fell to 828, down 31 per cent on a week ago, and new infections dropped by a fifth to 18,262.

WHERE IS DOOR-TO-DOOR TESTING BEING OFFERED IN HUNT FOR SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT?

Door-to-door testing has been ordered in 11 authorities

London

W7: Hanwell (South African variant)

N17: Tottenham (South African variant)

CR4: Mitcham (South African variant)

West Midlands

WS2: Walsall (South African variant)

WR3: Worcestershire (South African variant) 

WR9: Worcestershire (South African variant) 

East of England

EN10: Broxbourne (South African variant)

South East 

ME15: Maidstone (South African variant)

GU21: Woking (South African variant)

North West

PR9: Southport (South African variant)

Liverpool (Original variant with E484K mutation)

South West

Bristol (Kent variant with E484K mutation)

Dr Clive Dix, chairman of the vaccines taskforce, said he was ‘very optimistic’ of giving jabs to all over-50s by May.

He added Britain would be ‘ahead of the game’ in anticipating variants of coronavirus. However, concern about the impact of mutations of Covid-19 was underlined as so-called surge testing for the South Africa variant was extended to two areas of Worcestershire.    

Yesterday the UK has recorded 18,262 new coronavirus cases – down a fifth in just one week.

In a sign that the UK’s third national lockdown has slowed the spread of a highly-infectious Covid-19 variant, today’s daily case total is down 21.5 per cent on the 23,275 seen last Saturday.  

How to quickly administer injections to the UK’s remaining adults – and who should go first – remains a live discussion in Whitehall.

According to the Telegraph, key workers such as teachers, supermarket workers and delivery drivers would be first in line for the second wave of jabs.

Cabinet sources told the paper that mobile vaccination units would tour workplaces inoculating these essential staff.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is tasked with breaking down the remaining under-50s into priority order.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said last week: ‘This could include first responders, the military, those involved in the justice system, teachers, transport workers, and public servants essential to the pandemic response.’

Teachers in particular are expected to be at the front of the queue for the second phase of the rollout as schools are due to reopen on March 8.

But global inoculation efforts were dealt a blow last night as early data showed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is less effective against the South African variant.

A small trial of just 2,026 people found the jab had ‘limited efficacy’ in protecting against mild and moderate disease caused by the mutant strain.

The pharmaceutical giant said scientists will now start adapting the vaccine to kill the new variant, with hopes it will be ready by autumn.

Nobody died or was hopitalised during the study by South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford University, which has not yet been published but has been seen by the Financial Times.

An AstraZeneca spokesman said: ‘In this small phase I/II trial, early data has shown limited efficacy against mild disease primarily due to the B.1.351 South African variant.

‘However, we have not been able to properly ascertain its effect against severe disease and hospitalisation given that subjects were predominantly young healthy adults.’

Britain has bought 100million doses of the home-grown Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and is currently rolling it out to millions.

At the same time a testing blitz is underway in parts of the country after 11 cases of the variant were identified in people who had no links to travel – suggesting it may be spreading in communities.

A million people in the North West of England have been told to take a Covid test if they have a runny nose, as part of a clampdown on the mutated virus detected in the region. 

A mobile testing unit has been set up at The White Hart pub in Fernhill Heath, near Worcester, for adults with no symptoms living within walking distance, a drive-through testing site will open and door-to-door testing will be rolled out. 

Worcestershire County Council said: ‘Working in partnership with NHS Test and Trace, every person over the age of 18, living in the WR3 postcode and some WR9 postcodes, is strongly encouraged to take a Covid-19 test this week, even if they are not showing symptoms.’ 

Meanwhile, residents in the Liverpool city region, Preston and Lancashire have been urged by health bosses to get swabbed if they have even the slightest suspicion they are ill. 

It comes after more than 40 cases of an altered strain of the original virus – which carries a mutation experts fear makes vaccines less potent – was spotted in the three areas. 

Yesterday, it was revealed that passengers arriving in Britain from countries not on the Covid hotspot list could have to take up to four tests during their at-home isolation period, it emerged last night. 

Earlier this week, the Government confirmed that all passengers from the 33 ‘red list’ countries would have to quarantine for ten days in a hotel from February 15.

And now, travellers arriving from countries not on the list – who have to isolate for ten days at home – face three mandatory Covid tests during their isolation.

A fourth test taken half-way through quarantine could allow travellers to be let out early.

All the tests must be paid for by the traveller. Those who fail to take the mandatory tests face fines.

It is unclear how much the tests will cost, but private patients can fork out around £150 on one currently.

It has also emerged that as ministers struggled to find accommodation for passengers forced to quarantine after arriving from virus hotspots, this newspaper found hundreds of asylum seekers housed at a large hotel near Heathrow Airport;

In an article for the MoS, the bosses of Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester Airports Group issued a plea for financial support and revealed they are losing £50 million a week;

Hundreds of school staff have been vaccinated by mistake after messages apparently inviting them for jabs were circulated on WhatsApp;

In Israel, one of few countries to rival the UK for the speed and scale of its vaccine roll-out, officials revealed that coronavirus cases had plunged since it started to administer the second Pfizer dose on January 10.

Daily case rates for over-60s have fallen by 46 per cent compared with the mid-January peak, while hospital admissions have dropped by 35 per cent.

Professor Eran Segal, a biologist at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, said: ‘We say with caution, the magic has started.’ 

Oxford Covid vaccine is less effective against South African mutant strain, claim scientists: Small study of just 2,000 patients found some patients got mild or moderate symptoms – but NONE died or were hospitalised

  • A small trial of 2,026 people found jab had ‘limited efficacy’ in protecting against mild and moderate disease 
  • The pharmaceutical giant said scientists will now start adapting the vaccine to kill the new variant 
  • Nobody died or was hopitalised during study by South Africa ‘s University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford 
  • A testing blitz is underway in some parts of the country to track down cases of the South African variant

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is less effective against the South African variant, early data showed last night in a blow to global inoculation efforts.

A small trial of just 2,026 people found the jab had ‘limited efficacy’ in protecting against mild and moderate disease caused by the mutant strain.

The pharmaceutical giant said scientists will now start adapting the vaccine to kill the new variant, with hopes it will be ready by autumn. 

Nobody died or was hopitalised during the study by South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford University, which has not yet been published but has been seen by the Financial Times.

An AstraZeneca spokesman said: ‘In this small phase I/II trial, early data has shown limited efficacy against mild disease primarily due to the B.1.351 South African variant.

‘However, we have not been able to properly ascertain its effect against severe disease and hospitalisation given that subjects were predominantly young healthy adults.’

A testing blitz is underway in parts of the country after 11 cases of the South African variant were identified in people who had no links to travel – suggesting it may be spreading in communities

Staff instruct a person on how to carry out a Covid-19 test at a mobile testing unit during a testing blitz to track the South African variant

The average age of the trial’s participants was 31, an age at which one is very unlikely to fall seriously ill with Covid-19. 

Coronavirus has mutated thousands of times during the course of the pandemic which is normal behaviour for a virus.

But scientists are concerned in particular about three variants which evidence suggests are highly transmissible; the ones first detected in Kent, South Africa and Brazil.  

The South African variant, which has been detected across the world including in the UK, appears to be proving the most immune to vaccines.

American pharmaceutical firms Johnson and Johnson and Novavax have both reported their shots are less effective against the strain.

Similarly, Moderna is manufacturing a booster shot to its vaccine regimen to tackle the variant, while the Pfizer-BioNTech jab was also reportedly less effective.

Britain has bought 100million doses of the home-grown Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and is currently rolling it out to millions. 

At the same time a testing blitz is underway in parts of the country after 11 cases of the variant were identified in people who had no links to travel – suggesting it may be spreading in communities.

Worcestershire become the latest area to start surge testing after the South African coronavirus variant was detected locally.

Worcestershire County Council has set up surge testing in the WR3 postcode after cases of the variant with no links to international travel were identified.

A mobile testing unit has been set up at The White Hart pub in Fernhill Heath, near Worcester, for adults with no symptoms living within walking distance.

A drive-through testing site is planned to open in the coming days, and door-to-door testing will also be made available.

Worcestershire County Council said: ‘Working in partnership with NHS Test and Trace, every person over the age of 18, living in the WR3 postcode and some WR9 postcodes, is strongly encouraged to take a Covid-19 test this week, even if they are not showing symptoms.’

Dr Kathryn Cobain, director for public health in the county, said: ‘I urge everyone offered a test to take it up to help us to monitor the virus in our communities and to help suppress and control the spread of this variant.’

Door-to-door and mobile testing began at the start of the month as part of urgent efforts to swab 80,000 people. 

Public Health England confirmed that the 11 cases of the South African variant in people who hadn’t travelled to the country were found on December 22, January 5 and January 26 – the mass community testing began on February 2

Worcestershire County Council has set up surge testing in the WR3 postcode after cases of the variant with no links to international travel were identified

Testing of around 10,000 people in Maidstone, Kent, was completed on Thursday night.

In Surrey, testing in Woking was expected to finish on Friday with door-to-door deliveries in Egham and Thorpe due to begin on Saturday.

Sefton Council said efforts to identify the variant in the Norwood area of Southport in Merseyside would continue into the weekend.

Testing in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, is being rolled out for another week until February 12, the council said.

Around 10,300 people in Walsall have been tested so far and some 560 tests had been conducted in the affected areas in Birmingham, the West Midlands Combined Authority was told.

Mobile testing units and home testing kits were also deployed this week to Hanwell, west London and Mitcham, south London.

Testing will also continue into next week in Tottenham, north London.      

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT? 

Real name: B.1.351

When was it discovered? Nelson Mandela Bay, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, in mid-December.

What mutations does it have? The South African variant carries 21 mutations, some of which change the shape of the spike protein on its outside. The two worrying alterations are known as E484K and N501Y.

Why is it causing panic? N501Y appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread. This is the same mutation found on the Kent variant, which is at least 50 per cent more infectious than regular Covid. 

The variant has mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear will make it difficult for the immune system to recognise, even in vaccinated people

Scientists believe E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies. Researchers suspect this is the case because strains with this mutation have been shown to reinfect people who caught and beat older versions of Covid.  

How many people have caught it in the UK? At least 143 Brits have been infected with this variant, though the number is likely to be far higher because PHE is only testing random positive samples. 

Will it affect vaccines? So far Pfizer and Moderna’s jabs appear only slightly less effective against the South African variant. Researchers took blood samples from vaccinated patients and exposed them to an engineered virus with the worrying mutations found on the South African variant.

They found there was a noticeable reduction in the production of antibodies, which are virus-fighting proteins made in the blood after vaccination or natural infection, but still enough to kill off the mutant strain.

There are still concerns about how effective a single dose of vaccine will be against the strain. So far Pfizer and Moderna’s studies have only looked at how people given two doses react to the South African variant, 

Studies into Oxford University/AstraZeneca‘s jab and the South African strain are still ongoing.

Johnson & Johnson confirmed that its single shot jab blocked 57 per cent of coronavirus infections in South Africa, which meets the World Health Organization’s 50 per cent efficacy threshold. 

As Government scrambles to find hotel rooms for its border quarantine plan, a Crowne Plaza two miles from Heathrow is home to 400 asylum seekers… and two nearby migrant detention centres stand almost empty

By MICHAEL POWELL for the Mail On Sunday 

Hundreds of asylum seekers are being housed at a large hotel near Heathrow as the Government struggles to find accommodation for passengers forced to quarantine after arriving from virus hotspots.

Ministers have so far failed to secure a single room for the scheme – intended to prevent deadly new strains of Covid-19 spreading in Britain. Yet taxpayers are spending a fortune to put up more than 400 immigrants at the four-star Crowne Plaza hotel just two miles from the UK’s biggest airport.

Astonishingly, officials have chosen not to move the asylum seekers into two nearby immigration removal centres, where there is space for more than 800 people and which would free up vital rooms for passengers required to self-isolate for ten days.

Boris Johnson last month announced plans to force arrivals from 30 ‘red list’ countries to quarantine in hotels, but the scheme has been delayed in part because of problems finding accommodation. Yet some 10,000 migrants are being housed at hotels across the UK, despite official figures showing only 290 of the 2,462 beds at seven purpose-built immigration centres are currently occupied.

Hundreds of asylum seekers are being housed at a large hotel near Heathrow as the Government struggles to find accommodation for passengers forced to quarantine after arriving from virus hotspots

At Harmondsworth, two miles from the £100-a-night Crowne Plaza, 527 beds are lying empty. There is space for a further 300 people at Colnbrook, half a mile further on. Alp Mehmet, from the Migration Watch UK think tank, said last night: ‘This is a frankly barmy situation. The Government is struggling to find hotel rooms for travellers to quarantine in, but there are hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers staying in a hotel right next to the airport. You couldn’t make it up.’

An 8ft fence was erected around the perimeter of the Crowne Plaza last summer, yet migrants last week strolled past private security guards contracted by the Home Office – many of them not wearing masks. 

As further evidence of the apparent indifference to safety, a hand car-wash business is operating in the hotel’s car park in contravention of lockdown rules. There is even a sign advertising the service at the nearby exit of the M4.

Migrants who have often risked their lives to reach Britain are in despair at safety measures.

‘It is not a good system – people are too close together,’ claimed Ilyat Alkaldi, 42, who fled Kuwait and completed the final leg of his journey across the Channel by dinghy from Calais. 

He has been housed at the hotel since October and claimed migrants roam the corridors and visit each other’s rooms. Djomou Bamou, 32, who was smuggled into the UK in a car, said: ‘We can walk around wherever we want. There are lots of people here.’

Astonishingly, officials have chosen not to move the asylum seekers into two nearby immigration removal centres (pictured), where there is space for more than 800 people and which would free up vital rooms for passengers required to self-isolate for ten days

Each room has a double bed, an en suite bathroom and flatscreen TV. Staff leave three basic meals outside rooms each day while dining areas and leisure facilities are closed. Housekeepers clean the rooms once a week.

Groups of migrants can be seen chatting on smartphones outside the hotel or strolling to a parade of shops in nearby West Drayton.

Among them was Atif Ali, 21, from Pakistan, who was smuggled into the UK in the back of a lorry after spending two years living in the infamous Jungle camp in Calais. ‘After three months here in this hotel I feel like I am going crazy,’ he said. ‘You just sleep, it’s boring.’

The apparent freedom afforded to the migrants contrasts with the draconian measures awaiting passengers who will be placed in quarantine after flying in to Britain. Government-hired security guards are expected to patrol each hotel floor to ensure compliance.

However, Government officials still need to find 28,000 rooms to accommodate them after admitting that no contracts have yet been awarded. Given its location, the Crowne Plaza and its 500 rooms might be considered an ideal location, but it has been block-booked by the Home Office until March.

Taxpayers are spending a fortune to put up more than 400 immigrants at the four-star Crowne Plaza hotel just two miles from the UK’s biggest airport

Ministers have been accused of hopelessly inadequate planning, with tender documents sent out to hotel chains only on Thursday night. Rob Paterson, the boss of Best Western, said: ‘In any normal company, if you went out and announced a programme nationally and you hadn’t thought about how you were going to plan that, and you hadn’t spoken to the people involved… I’m not sure I’d have a job if I did that in my company.’

Tory MP Sir John Hayes, a former Transport Minister, said: ‘This is a ridiculous situation. Hotels are not the best place for asylum seekers. They should be in secure accommodation or else we risk them disappearing into the black economy or being exploited.’

The Mail on Sunday has revealed how at least 20 hotels across Britain are being used to house migrants who had crossed the Channel as part of a £4 billion, ten-year contract between the Home Office and outsourcing firms.

Last night the Home Office said it is legally obliged to provide accommodation to asylum seekers. A spokesman said: ‘At all of our sites we put in place a range of measures to ensure they are safe and asylum seekers, like everyone else, must follow the coronavirus regulations.’ 

Gibraltar has given Covid jabs to 40 per cent of its residents – compared to Spain’s four per cent… in what is perhaps the starkest contrast between the speed of the UK’s vaccine rollout and the ‘slow-coach’ failure of Brussels

By BRENDAN CARLIN and JONATHAN BUCKS  for the Mail On Sunday 

It is perhaps the starkest contrast between the speed of the UK’s vaccine rollout and the ‘slow-coach’ failure of Brussels.

Thanks to jab supplies flown in by the RAF, Gibraltar has so far inoculated well over a third of its 33,700 residents.

The famous British outpost on the Mediterranean last week announced it had given first doses to over 13,000 people – a rate of almost 40 per cent.

But in next-door Spain, the EU member which covets the tiny UK territory on its southern tip, only four per cent of people had had a first jab by Friday.

To rub salt in Madrid’s wounds, many of the people now protected by British-supplied jabs in Gibraltar include workers who travel each day from Spain to work in the Rock’s care sector. 

Thanks to jab supplies flown in by the RAF, Gibraltar has so far inoculated well over a third of its 33,700 residents. The famous British outpost on the Mediterranean last week announced it had given first doses to over 13,000 people – a rate of almost 40 per cent. (Above, a woman gets her Covid jab in Gibraltar)

In next-door Spain, the EU member which covets the tiny UK territory on its southern tip, only four per cent of people had had a first jab by Friday. To rub salt in Madrid’s wounds, many of the people now protected by British-supplied jabs in Gibraltar (above) include workers who travel each day from Spain to work in the Rock’s care sector

As befits its British Overseas Territory status, the Rock is being supplied with coronavirus vaccines flown out from the UK on RAF aircraft. (Above, RAF personnel load a batch of the Covid-19 vaccine onto a Voyager aircraft, bound for the Falkland Islands)

Last night, former Brexit Minister David Jones hailed the comparison as one more bonus of quitting the EU.

With fish and chips and warm beer galore, modern Gibraltar looks for all the world like a little bit of Britain on the Med. Perched on the edge of the Iberian peninsula, it was ceded by Spain to Britain more than 300 years ago.

And as befits its British Overseas Territory status, the Rock is being supplied with coronavirus vaccines flown out from the UK on RAF aircraft.

In a series of flights which began last month, more than 17,000 of the Pfizer-BioNTech jabs have so far been delivered.

The most recent consignment of 6,825 jabs arrived last weekend on a C-130J Hercules flying from RAF Brize Norton. Another is due to arrive tomorrow.

Fabian Picardo, the territory’s chief minister, last week expressed ‘the sincere gratitude’ of the people of Gibraltar to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace for the ‘sterling work done by the RAF’ to get the vaccines to the St Bernard’s Hospital on the Rock.

As with other EU countries, the vaccination rate in Spain has been hampered by the chaos engulfing the decision by Brussels to order supplies for all 27 member states and the resulting delays in vaccines being delivered. (Pictured, a healthcare worker at Enfermera Isabel Zendal hospital in Madrid on February 4)

Addressing Gibraltar’s parliament, he added: ‘The logistical work necessary to get the vaccine here has been extraordinary.’

Mr Picardo, who himself has been vaccinated, led a minute’s silence to the 80 Gibraltarians who have so far died from coronavirus. 

But he hailed the Rock’s vaccine rollout so far – which yesterday stood at 13,398 first doses and nearly 5,000 second doses – and raised hopes that with infections down, ‘we are slowly turning the corner’.

That vaccine drive included many of the Spanish nationals who cross into Gibraltar each day to work in the care-home sector. Spanish newspaper El Pais admitted last December that they would be the first Spaniards to get the jab.

As with other EU countries, the vaccination rate in Spain has been hampered by the chaos engulfing the decision by Brussels to order supplies for all 27 member states and the resulting delays in vaccines being delivered. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been heavily criticised, including in her native Germany, for presiding over a procurement policy that has left Brussels trailing way behind the UK.

According to the World In Data league table last week, only about four per cent of Spaniards had received a first dose, compared to more than 17 per cent in the UK.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been heavily criticised, including in her native Germany, for presiding over a procurement policy that has left Brussels trailing way behind the UK

Last night, senior Tory Mr Jones said: ‘I think it’s great that so many Gibraltarians are getting vaccinated at such a fast rate.

‘But it just goes to show how much better off Gibraltar is in being part of the UK as a newly sovereign nation capable of running its own highly successful vaccination, well-planned programme rather than the botched slow-coach operation in Brussels.’

His Tory colleague, Colonel Bob Stewart, secretary of Westminster’s all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar, added: ‘Gibraltar has been in front of the curve all the way through the pandemic.

‘They have had total control on getting their population vaccinated and it does not surprise me that if they can, they will be using it to help local Spanish people for whom they have a great affinity.’

Mrs von der Leyen admitted last week that in relation to procuring the vaccines, Britain was like a ‘speedboat’ compared with the ‘tanker’ of the EU.

But she still insisted the ‘European approach is the right one’, saying: ‘On these vaccines, we worked faster than usual.’

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