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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has backed his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, amid a backlash of calls for Cummings to step after it was made known that he travelled to Durham from London while the country was on lockdown and everyone had been told to stay in their houses.
Johnson told a news conference on Sunday that he believed Cummings had acted “responsibly and legally”.
“I think that what they did was totally understandable,” he added. “I think any father, any parent would frankly understand what he did and I certainly do.”
Cummings travelled 250 miles (400 kilometres) from London to his parents’ home in Durham, in northeast England, with his wife and son as he was coming down with COVID-19 symptoms at the end of March.
Britain’s lockdown, which began on March 23, specified that people should stay at their primary residence, leaving only for relevant local errands and exercise. Anyone with coronavirus symptoms was told to completely isolate themselves.
The Sun newspaper reported late on Sunday that Johnson was going through a cabinet upset over his support for Cummings, a divisive figure most known for his role in the campaign to take the UK out of the European Union.
“He (Cummings) cannot stay,” the paper quoted an unnamed minister as saying. “There has to be some contrition from Boris too or he will spend the next ten weeks having to answer questions about it all. This is not a bubble story. Real people are furious because they have been doing the right thing and isolating.”
The Sun report came after some Conventional MPs joined opposition calls for Cummings to step down.
“Dominic Cummings has a track record of believing that the rules don’t apply to him and treating the scrutiny that should come to anyone in a position of authority with contempt,” tweeted Conservative politician Damian Collins. “The government would be better without him.” He added
Boris Johnson has disclosed a “conditional plan” to reinstate society, letting people in England to take up more time outdoors from Wednesday.
The PM also said people who are not able to work from home should go back to their workplace – but keep away from public transport.
He said a new Covid 19 wide awake System with five levels would govern how swiftly lockdown limitations could be eased.
He anticipated the next step “at the earliestby 1 June” would be for some students to resume school in England
The next step could see some helpfulness businesses and other public places resume – “if the numbers support it” – but not earlier than 1 July.
He said these steps formed part of a “first sketch of a roadmap for reopening society”.
The PM added: “This is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week. Instead we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.”
Mr Johnson also confirmed that fines for the “small minority who break” lockdown rules will increase.
The UK hasn’t been trembling as much since it went into Covid lockdown.
Seismometer stations, which are commonly used to report earthquakes, have discovered a big fall in the ground shaking connected to human activity.
Scientists from Imperial College London say this framework bombinate is now half what it would usually be.
The unequalled seismic quiet – a occurrence cloned in other countries – could offer a unique opportunity to study the Earth’s interior.
“You’d have to go back decades to see noise levels like this,” commented Imperial’s Dr Stephen Hicks. “You’d often get quiet times in the evenings or at weekends but not continuously, for weeks,” he told BBC News.
Deluged communities in parts of the UK are facing more heavy rain as they struggle to cope in the wake of Storm Dennis.
A month’s worth of rain in 24 hours could also hit north Wales and north-west England, forecasters said, falling on ground that is already saturated.
Nearly 120 flood warnings remain in place across the country.
And there is also travel disruption after floods blocked a major rail route between England and Scotland.
The Environment Agency said there was a “heightened flood risk” across the Midlands, with six severe warnings – meaning there is a danger to life – still in place near the Welsh border around the Rivers Lugg, Severn and Wye.
There are also three yellow severe weather warnings in place across parts of north-west England and Wales as clean-up operations continue following flooding in the wake of Storm Dennis.
Rain fell heavily overnight into Thursday, with Met Office forecasters warning it was likely to continue until about 15:00 GMT in parts of the UK.
The West Coast Main Line was closed between Carlisle and Lancaster on Thursday morning following severe wet weather, affecting Avanti West Coast, Northern and TransPennine Express services.
Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes due to floods, with the worst-affected areas including south Wales, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced criticism from opposition parties for not visiting flood-hit communities.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he was showing his “true colours by his absence”, adding that the prime minister was sending a “clear message” by not convening the government’s emergency committee, Cobra.
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price also questioned why Mr Johnson had not convened Cobra.
Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said his union had been raising the issue of long-term planning to deal with extreme weather events for years, but had found the government’s response to be “lacklustre”.
On Wednesday, business minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News the prime minister was focused on getting “money out the door” to businesses and local authorities in affected communities.
“He wants to help people by getting funding to them,” Mr Zahawi said.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government was investing £2.6bn in flood defenses.
FROM BBC NEWS
A Chinese tourist has died in France after contracting the new coronavirus – the first fatality from the disease outside Asia.
The victim was an 80-year-old man from China’s Hubei province, according to French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn.
He arrived in France on 16 January and was placed in quarantine in hospital in Paris on 25 January, she said.
Only three deaths had previously been reported outside mainland China – in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan.
However, more than 1,500 people have died from the virus within China, mostly in Hubei where it first emerged.
A further 2,641 people have been newly confirmed as infected, bringing the China’s total to 66,492.
What has happened in France?
In late January, France became the first European country to confirm cases of the virus. It has had 11 confirmed cases of the disease, officially called Covid-19. Six people remain in hospital.
The deceased man had been in a critical condition in the Bichat hospital in northern Paris, the health minister said. He died of a lung infection due to the coronavirus.
The man’s 50-year-old daughter is among the six in hospital with the virus, but she is recovering, Ms Buzyn said.
The other five are British nationals who caught the virus at a chalet in the ski resort of Contamines-Montjoie.
How are other countries affected?
Outside mainland China, there have been more than 500 cases in 24 countries.
Earlier, the US said it was sending a plane to Japan to evacuate Americans stuck on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which is being held in quarantine in a Japanese port.
Out of 3,700 people on board, 218 have tested positive for the virus. Australia also said it was considering removing its citizens from the ship.
Egypt’s health ministry on Friday confirmed the first case of the coronavirus in Africa. The ministry described the person as a foreigner, but did not disclose their nationality.
How is China coping?
Despite the spread of the virus, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Saturday that the outbreak in China was now “generally under control”.
The foreign minister said outside Hubei province the number of new infections had fallen for 11 consecutive days. He said there had also been a rapid increase in the number of people who had recovered.
However, new figures released on Friday revealed the toll on medical staff in the country. Six health workers have died and 1,716 have been infected since the outbreak, officials said.
Local authorities have struggled to provide protective equipment such as respiratory masks, goggles and protective suits to hospitals in Hubei.
Meanwhile, Beijing has ordered everyone returning to the city to go into quarantine for 14 days or risk punishment.
The World Health Organization is beginning an investigation in China this weekend into the outbreak.
Senior ministers are bracing themselves for Boris Johnson’s first major cabinet reshuffle since the Conservatives’ general election victory.
The PM will make a number of changes over the next 24 hours although it is unclear how wide-ranging they will be.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said he would be “uncomplaining” if, as some expect, he is sacked or moved.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC reshuffles were often “brutal”, but he was hopeful of staying in post.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock joked at an event in London: “It’s a huge pleasure to be here, and with a government reshuffle in the offing, it’s a great time to be talking about longevity.”
A Downing Street source told the BBC the PM would “reward those MPs who have worked hard to deliver on this government’s priorities to level up the whole country and deliver the change people voted for last year”.
Most of the cabinet have only been in their current jobs for just over six months, having been appointed when Boris Johnson became prime minister in July.
The PM left his cabinet largely untouched following his party’s decisive election victory in December, pending what sources suggested at the time would be a more significant overhaul after the UK left the EU on 31 January.
Senior figures such as Chancellor Sajid Javid, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Priti Patel are not expected to be moved, but others are considered more vulnerable.
Mr Johnson is expected to make changes at junior ministerial level – namely parliamentary under-secretaries of state – that could see a 50/50 gender balance in a push to promote female talent.
There is also a plan to make at least 60% of parliamentary private secretaries women by the summer – compared with just 18% at the moment.
A reshuffle is a time of high anxiety for Cabinet ministers, who have been told to cancel all engagements so they are available to take a call from the PM.
One told me that they’re all paranoid, but desperately pretending not to be.
After the election, there were well-briefed reports that there would be a reorganisation of Whitehall departments and a Cabinet cull.
But it’s just seven months since Boris Johnson took over from Theresa May and got rid of most of her ministers. The speculation now is of a more limited reshuffle.
All eyes will be on Michael Gove who has been tipped to be the minister to oversee Brexit trade talks.
As for who could be on the way out, the names that crop up most among ministers are Andrea Leadsom and Theresa Villiers, but Downing Street will be mindful of gender balance in the top team.
A modest reshuffle would also encourage Conservative MPs to stay loyal, in the hope of promotion further down the line.
There are expected to be promotions for a number of female MPs in government, including Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Suella Braverman and Gillian Keegan.
Oliver Dowden and Alok Sharma are also expected to get more prominent roles.
A No 10 source said: “The prime minister wants this reshuffle to set the foundations for government now and in the future, [and] to promote a generation of talent that will be promoted further in the coming years.”
But others in the current cabinet are in less secure positions.
Mr Wallace, one of those whose future is reportedly in doubt, said it was up to the prime minister who was in his top team.
“I’ve been in this game long enough to know that British cabinet reshuffles are brutal,” he told the BBC during a trip to Brussels, where he is attending a meeting of Nato defence ministers.
“I am keen to serve. I enjoy the job of defence secretary. I’m a veteran, I’m a northern MP, I was actually in the army. So I think all those hopefully qualify me, but who knows?”
Asked about his future during a talk at the Institute for Government think tank, Attorney General Mr Cox said it had been the “greatest honour” of his working life to serve the government as its chief law officer.
He said he would be “uncomplaining” whatever the outcome of the reshuffle.
“If you gave me the opportunity to continue, I would embrace it eagerly but equally if it is not to be, there will be other doorways that will open for me.”
When she was re-appointed as Culture Secretary in December, Nicky Morgan said she only expected to stay in the role for a couple of months, having stood down as an MP at the election and appointed a peer.
Among more junior ministers tipped for promotion include Victoria Atkins, Oliver Dowden, Kwasi Kwarteng and Lucy Frazer, while Stephen Barclay could make a quick return to cabinet after his role as Brexit Secretary was scrapped following the UK’s departure.
Mr Johnson is expected to appoint a new minister to oversee the building of the HS2 rail line, final approval for which was given this week.
He also needs to find someone to run the Cop 26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year after its previous president Claire Perry O’Neill was sacked, and two former Tory leaders David Cameron and Lord Hague rejected the job.
Image copyright EPA
The British government has suspended its funding of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the body that runs the international organisation from London, the BBC has learned.
UK diplomats have told Lady Scotland, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, that Britain’s annual £4.7m voluntary contribution will be withheld until her secretariat improves its financial procedures.
The Secretariat insisted it was implementing recommendations made by external auditors.
The UK decision came after Lady Scotland was criticised by auditors for “circumventing” usual competitive tendering rules when she awarded a lucrative consultancy contract to a company run by a friend.
The auditors also discovered that procurement rules had been waived by the secretariat on no fewer than 50 occasions over three years.
Both New Zealand and Australia have also suspended their discretionary funding to the Commonwealth Secretariat until its financial systems are tightened up and tested by external auditors.
The UK decision threatens to plunge the secretariat into a financial crisis and will raise fresh questions about Lady Scotland’s leadership.
Commonwealth heads of government have already rejected calls to give Lady Scotland an automatic second term of office when it comes up for renewal this year.
The funding crisis came to a head last week when Commonwealth high commissioners in London – who together form the organisation’s board of governors – met to discuss the results of the investigation by the external accountancy firm KPMG.
The Commonwealth Secretariat is the central administrative hub for the intergovernmental organisation that comprises 54 countries – many of them former British colonies – and encompasses almost a third of the world’s population.
About two-thirds of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s funding – some £18.4m in 2018 – comes from automatic subscriptions from member states.
But there is also a second budget for the secretariat – the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation – which is discretionary and provides about a third of its funding, worth about £12m in the most recent audited accounts. The UK is the largest contributor to this fund.
A senior British diplomat wrote to Lady Scotland on 3 February to say that continued UK funding would be suspended until the Commonwealth Secretariat complied with the recommendations of the KPMG report.
These conditions included a register of occasions when procurement rules were waived, a register of real and potential conflicts of interest, and an updating of the body’s whistleblower policy.
The official gave the secretariat a deadline of 21 February to implement all the reforms which would have to be signed off by the chairman of the Commonwealth’s independent audit committee.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: “We are committed to an effective Commonwealth that delivers for its member states, so we have set a number of conditions on UK funding to the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation for this financial year.
“These include conditions relating to ensuring that the Secretariat’s procurement policy and its implementation are in line with international best practice.”
A Commonwealth spokesperson said: “The Commonwealth Secretariat does not comment on private exchanges with its member countries.
“The Secretariat complies fully with the audit process and implements recommendations accordingly.”
New Zealand has also put its £1.5m contribution on hold.
A spokesman for its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: “An independent audit report by KPMG has identified significant weaknesses in the Commonwealth Secretariat’s approach to managing procurement. As a result, New Zealand has put on hold its voluntary financial contribution to the Secretariat until we receive independent confirmation the recommendations from the audit report have been addressed by the Secretariat.”
Australia has gone one step further and cut its funding to the Commonwealth Secretariat by £414,000 and has made its remaining contribution of £260,000 contingent on the reforms being implemented.
EU leaders have agreed in principle to extend Brexit until 31 January 2020 – meaning the UK will not leave as planned on Thursday.
EU Council President Donald Tusk said it was a “flextension” – meaning the UK could leave before the deadline if a deal was approved by Parliament.
It comes as MPs prepare to vote on proposals by Boris Johnson for an early general election on 12 December.
The SNP and Lib Dems have also proposed an election on 9 December.
The government has not ruled out getting behind that proposed date, if it fails to get its preferred date through the Commons later.
The UK was due to leave the EU on Thursday, but Mr Johnson was required to request an extension after Parliament failed to agree a Brexit deal.
The prime minister had repeatedly said the UK would leave on 31 October deadline with or without a deal, but the law – known as the Benn Act – requires him to accept the EU’s extension offer.
The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, said the extension was “positive”, and “gives time for the UK to make clear what it wants”.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson had not yet seen the EU’s response to his request for a Brexit delay.
“The PM will respond once he has seen the detail,” his official spokesman said. “His view has not changed. Parliament should not have put the UK in this position and we should be leaving on 31 October.
“The PM secured a great new deal despite being told this impossible but Parliament has chosen more dither and delay.”
Boris Johnson’s “do or die” pledge to leave by 31 October is no more – it is dead.
Many will see this as a no-deal Brexit being taken off the table, at least until 31 January.
So it will increase the arguments in the Commons that with no-deal parked, Parliament now has to make a decision on an election.
And that is what Mr Johnson will be trying to argue over the next few days.
For the PM, there is a risk of calling an election without Brexit being resolved, as he may be punished for it at the ballot box.
So, while it buys more time, it also creates an element of uncertainty for the prime minister.
He will now campaign for an election in the knowledge that he has failed in his signature policy which he campaigned for in the Conservative leadership election.
Mr Tusk will now seek the UK’s formal agreement to the decision, before formalising the extension through a written procedure among the 27 other EU nations.
An EU official said they hoped for the process to be concluded by Tuesday or Wednesday.
Elizabeth II has finished delivering her Queen’s Speech, in which she announced plans for 26 bills — most of which focused on domestic policies.
She has now left the throne in the House of Lords, alongside her son, the Prince of Wales.
MEANWHILE; Lawmakers return to House of Commons
MPs are filing back into the House of Commons, where they will spend days debating the contents of Boris Johnson’s Queen’s Speech.
There is plenty in there to discuss — including bills on important issues such as domestic abuse, pensions, healthcare, the environment and animal welfare.
Several bills were also dedicated to criminal justice, as Johnson continues to make law and order a central plank of his pitch to the public.
But it’s fairly unlikely that none of these bills will see the light of day in this Parliament, thanks to the very first part of the agenda — Brexit — which is expected to force a general election in the coming weeks.