Covid-19: People can start thinking about foreign travel – Shapps

People in England can start thinking about booking foreign holidays again this summer, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said.

But he said the cost of the Covid tests required needed to be driven down, amid criticism from the travel industry. 

Mr Shapps has also given more detail on the traffic light system which will see countries graded on their risk.

Passengers will have to take the tests before leaving and on returning – even from low-risk “green” countries.

There will be a watch list for countries that could go from green to amber.

Announcing the findings of the Global Travel Taskforce set up by the government to examine how leisure travel could be reopened safely after lockdown, Mr Shapps said foreign holidays would resume on 17 May at the earliest.

He said for the first time in months he was not advising against booking foreign trips.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is the first time I’m able to come on and say I’m not advising against booking foreign holidays. 

“Yes, you’ll want to check what the situation is in two or three weeks’ time when that list – the green, amber, red, is produced – you’ll want to know that you’ve got good holiday insurance and flexible flights and the rest of it. 

“But for the first time I think there is light at the end of the tunnel and we’ll be able to restart international travel, including cruises by the way, in a safe and secure way, knowing about the vaccinations, everything we know about the disease this year, and of course that abundance of caution – having the tests in place.”

The traffic light system will grade foreign destinations as being:

  • Green: Passengers will not need to quarantine on return, but must take a pre-departure test, as well as a PCR test on return to the UK
  • Amber: Travellers will need to quarantine for 10 days, as well as taking a pre-departure test and two PCR tests
  • Red: Passengers will have to pay for a 10-day stay in a managed quarantine hotel, as well as a pre-departure test and two PCR tests

Mr Shapps told BBC Breakfast the use of PCR tests – those needing to be sent to a lab – enabled scientists to detect potential variants of concern.

But he said he was “concerned” about the cost of the tests, adding that the government was committed to driving down the price of these by working with the private sector.

The transport secretary said the government was also looking at the possibility of allowing people to take cheaper lateral flow tests before travelling. 

The government has not yet said which countries will be green, amber or red – but said it would do so by early May. 

Mr Shapps said countries would be categorised based on level of infections and vaccinations, variants of concern and the quality of their genetic sequencing.

He said this list would be kept under constant review and that he was hopeful European countries would be upgraded as their vaccination rates improve. 

Nearly 40 countries are currently on the UK government’s current red list of countries from which travel is banned, except for British and Irish nationals and those with residence rights in the UK.

The rules will be reviewed at the end of June to see whether any measures can be rolled back, the government said.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the government had not outlined the traffic light system in detail and criticised the release of the plans while the House of Commons was not sitting. 

He told BBC Breakfast: “The government has spoken about factors like vaccination rates, infection rates, the position with variants and also about the level of genomic sequencing. But I’ve no idea what the levels of each of those are for the government to place countries into, whether it’s the green category, amber or red.” 

The first ministers of Scotland and Wales have both already argued that 17 May will be too early for foreign holidays to resume.

Northern Ireland has not yet announced its plans, but its chief medical officer has said it would be “premature” to book a foreign summer trip.

At the moment, almost anyone seeking to travel to England must first take a coronavirus testbefore departure and then two tests when they arrive, bought through a private provider. Children under 11 are exempt.

Consumer group Which? estimated that each PCR test – which is just one of the tests needed – could cost about £120 per person.

However, the government said it would work with airlines, travel firms and the test providers to see whether prices can be reduced. That could involve cheaper tests, or the government providing the pre-departure tests.

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Analysis box by Caroline Davies, transport correspondent

Today’s report is not the grand reopening many in the travel industry wanted. 

There is real worry, particularly among lower cost carriers, that around £100 per person for a test will dissuade travellers from booking, with many paying more for it than for their flights. 

But there are suggestions that the government has tried to address some of the concerns too. 

The introduction of a green watch list, to flag any countries potentially about to move from green to amber, is an attempt to avoid some of last year’s confusion, as people rushed back to the UK before countries required quarantine.

Nothing is guaranteed yet, but the government now says it will confirm whether or not international travel will restart on 17 May early next month. 

How early is the next question. 

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What is the travel industry saying?

The government’s plans have been met with mixed reaction from the travel industry.

  • Heathrow Airport chief executive officer John Holland-Kaye expressed concern about the requirement for PCR testing, adding “we need to make sure that travel is something anyone can do and is not just something for the wealthy”
  • Industry body Airlines UK said that the proposed framework “does not represent a reopening of travel as promised by ministers”
  • Mark Tanzer, boss of travel trade organisation Abta, said permitting the use of lateral flow tests would “make international travel more accessible and affordable” 
  • Jet2.com has extended the suspension of its flights and holidays up to 23 June following the government’s announcement 
Travellers arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5
image captionThe travel industry says lateral flow tests, which are cheaper and faster, would be preferable to PCR tests

Thursday’s daily government figures showed a further 53 people had died with coronavirus within 28 days of a positive test, while another 3,030 confirmed cases were reported.

Graphic showing UK daily coronavirus figures

Covid: Europe’s vaccine rollout ‘unacceptably slow’ – WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised the rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Europe as being “unacceptably slow”.

Tents for a COVID-19 vaccination centre are installed inside the national stadium of France, Stade De France, in Saint Denis, near Paris, France, 31 March 2021
image captionEurope’s vaccination campaign has been hit by delays

It also says the situation in the region is more worrying than it has been for several months. 

Vaccination campaigns in much of Europe have been hit by delays and the number of infections is rising.

The EU has been criticised for the pace of its vaccination programme – only 16% of its population has received the jab, compared with 52% in the UK.

But the EU says the UK has had an unfair advantage in contracts it signed with vaccine manufacturers, some of whom are based within the EU.

“Vaccines present our best way out of this pandemic… However, the rollout of these vaccines is unacceptably slow” and is prolonging the pandemic in the wider Europe region, WHO director for Europe Hans Kluge said in a statement.

“We must speed up the process by ramping up manufacturing, reducing barriers to administering vaccines, and using every single vial we have in stock, now,” he added.

Last week saw increasing transmission of Covid-19 in the majority of countries in the WHO European region – which includes more than 50 countries and extends from Greenland to the far east of Russia – with 1.6 million new cases and close to 24,000 deaths, the WHO said. 

Only 10% of the nearly 900 million people in the region have had a single dose of coronavirus vaccine.

It remains the second most affected by the virus of all the world’s regions, with the total number of deaths fast approaching one million and the total number of cases about to surpass 45 million, it added.

It also warned of the risks of greater spread associated with increased mobility and number of gatherings over the forthcoming religious holidays of Passover, Easter and Ramadan. 

Some 27 countries of the more than 50 included in the WHO Europe region have implemented partial or full coronavirus lockdowns.

What else is happening around Europe?

  • After President Emmanuel Macron announced new restrictions in France on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday morning at the National Assembly: “The third wave is here.” He announced more detailed measures including a ban on alcohol in public spaces. France is set to begin a limited lockdown for four weeks from Saturday night, with travel restrictions extended from 19 areas to the entire country
  • Eurovision is to take place in Rotterdam’s Ahoy arena in May. The Dutch government wants to use the event as a test with 3,500 spectators allowed for all the rehearsals and the three big shows. There will be extensive safety measures for the 39 countries taking part
  • As infections surge in Belgium, a Brussels court has ruled that all the country’s Covid measures have to be lifted within 30 days because the legal basis is not sound enough. The court backed a lawsuit from the League for Human Rights. Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden has appealed against the ruling
  • Spain is seeing a new rise in cases with an average incidence of up to 152 cases per 100,000 over the last two weeks. Madrid and Navarre in the north are among the areas seeing a spike
  • Cases are also rising in Germany, with 24,300 in the past 24 hours. Almost 90% of infections involve the UK (Kent) variant
  • The Austrian capital, Vienna and two other provinces in the east have imposed an Easter lockdown to help ease the pressure on hospitals. Austrians have been told to stay at home, except for necessary activities such as food shopping, work, exercise and helping their families
  • A new German survey suggests only 25% of people have faith in the government’s vaccination strategy. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been limited to over-60s in Germany and 40% of those surveyed said they did not want it

Covid: Rapid home test kits to be available for workers

Employers in England will be able to offer free rapid coronavirus tests to staff to take at home under the extension of a government scheme.

Home kits will be offered to firms with more than 10 employees from 6 April, where on-site testing is not possible.

Businesses should register by 12 April for the lateral flow tests, which can give results in less than 30 minutes, and they are free until 30 June.

Some 60,000 firms have already signed up for workplace testing.

The hope is that asymptomatic cases can be detected quickly, helping to prevent workplace outbreaks.

The wider availability of the rapid flow tests is part of government policy to ensure all kinds of workplaces are able to operate safely as lockdown measures are eased, with the stay-at-home rule ending on Monday.

The schools testing programme – in which pupils, their family members and staff at secondary schools and colleges are tested twice a week – combined with the wider use of workplace testing, has seen the total number of Covid tests carried out in the UK jump.

There were about 500,000 tests a day in mid-February – whereas on two days this week there were more than 1.8 million.

Initially, only businesses with 250 or more employees were eligible to access lateral flow tests. Earlier this month, it was made available to all businesses and this has now been extended to home testing.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said rapid testing was a “vital part” of the roadmap out of lockdown, “helping us to cautiously lift restrictions on our economy and society”.

“Around one in three people with coronavirus do not have any symptoms,” he said. “So extending employee testing from the workplace to the home will help us identify more cases we otherwise wouldn’t find, prevent further transmission and save lives.”

Employees will be told to inform their bosses of a positive test result, as well as the NHS, which will then offer them a confirmatory PCR test. 

British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson welcomed the move, saying: “This is something we have called for as the next step for smaller businesses and stores where the space for testing at work is limited. It is also supported by employees as a practical approach.”

Most businesses in England can register via an application form on the government’s website. Charities and some other organisations, including those who are a building society, a partnership or a sole proprietor, will need to register by email, with details listed on the same web page.

GSK fires Moncef Slaoui Galvani chairman

(Reuters) – GlaxoSmithKline has dismissed Moncef Slaoui, former U.S. government vaccine chief, as chairman of a company controlled by the British drugmaker after an internal investigation found he had sexually harassed a GSK employee several years ago.

GSK said the termination of Slaoui’s contract at Galvani Bioelectronics was with immediate effect. Slaoui, the former chief adviser to the U.S. COVID-19 vaccine development programme known as Operation Warp Speed, was not immediately reachable for comment by telephone and LinkedIn account.

GSK said an investigation of Slaoui’s conduct had substantiated allegations of harassment and inappropriate contact, adding that the probe was ongoing.

The termination of Slaoui’s contract follows receipt of a letter containing the allegations of inappropriate conduct towards the employee of GSK, the company said in a statement. GSK said the allegations stemmed from when Slaoui was an employee of GSK.

In a letter to staff and reviewed by Reuters, GSK CEO Emma Walmsley said the company has been dealing with the allegations since February.

“Dr. Slaoui’s behaviours represent an abuse of his leadership position and violate our company policies, our values, and our commitment to Trust – a commitment I know is shared by all of you,” she said. Galvani is a bioelectronic medicines company set up in 2016 by GlaxoSmithKline and Verily, the life sciences unit of Google parent Alphabet.

Prior to his role at Galvani, Slaoui spent nearly 30 years at GlaxoSmithKline holding various leadership roles including Head of Pharmaceutical R&D and Chairman of its Vaccines division.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump appointed Slaoui to lead his administration’s effort to produce and distribute COVID-19 vaccines last year. He resigned from the post in January ahead of the incoming administration of President Joe Biden.

Executive behaviour and treatment of employees has been under scrutiny over the past few years following the #MeToo social media movement prompting a string of high-profile boardroom departures.

Covid-19: Vaccines and vaccine passports being sold on darknet

Covid-19 vaccines, vaccine passports and faked negative test papers are being sold on the darknet.

Prices range between $500 (£360) and $750 for doses of AstraZeneca, Sputnik, Sinopharm or Johnson & Johnson jabs.

Fake vaccination certificates are also being sold by anonymous traders for as little as $150.

Researchers say they have seen a “sharp increase” in vaccine-related darknet adverts, while the BBC has been unable to verify if the vaccines are real.

The darknet, also known as the dark web, is a portion of the internet that is only accessible through specific browser tools.

Advert on dark net
image captionAn advert on one marketplace claiming to sell Covid-19 vaccines

Researchers at cyber-security company Check Point have monitored hacking forums and other marketplaces since January, when vaccine adverts first appeared.

They say the number of adverts they have seen has more than tripled to more then 1,200.

Sellers of vaccines appear to be from the US, Spain, Germany, France and Russia. 

The team found multiple adverts in Russian cyrillic text as well as in English.

The vaccines advertised include the Oxford-AstraZeneca at $500, and Johnson & Johnson and Sputnik each at $600, and Sinopharm at $750.

One seller is offering next-day delivery, saying: “For overnight delivery/emergency leave us a message.”‘

‘Buy two get one free’

Another advert on a hacking forum is offering fake negative tests and reads: “We do negative Covid tests, for travellers abroad, for getting a job etc. Buy two negative tests and get the third for free!”

vaccine passport advert
image captionVaccination passports and papers are being offered to let people travel freely who’ve not been jabbed

Some holiday operators require vaccination certificates for passengers.

A vaccine passport system is also being considered in the UK and could be used to allow visitors entry to venues such as bars, or sports stadiums.

European officials have also announced plans for a “Green Digital Certificate”. This would allow anyone vaccinated against Covid, or who has tested negative, or recently recovered from the virus, to travel within the EU.

It’s no surprise then that faked documents are being offered on the darknet for sale.

Check Point investigators found many sellers offering forged documents, including one supposedly from the UK, with a vaccination card for $150 using the hard-to-trace cryptocurrency Bitcoin as the payment method.

When they got in touch with the seller, the team were told that they just needed to provide their names and some dates for when the fake jabs occurred. The seller messaged: “You don’t have to worry…it’s our job….we have done this to many people and it’s all good.” 

Oded Vanunu, head of product vulnerabilities research at Check Point said: “It’s imperative for people to understand that attempting to obtain a vaccine, a vaccination card or negative Covid-19 test result by unofficial means is extremely risky, as hackers are more interested in your money, information and identity for exploitation.”

Mr Vanunu also told the BBC that his team purchased a dose of the Sinopharm vaccine from a vendor for $750 as part of their research, but are yet to receive it.

His team has told the BBC that they believe this seller was a scammer, but say others may or may not be selling real vaccines. 

Check Point is urging countries to adopt a QR code system across all vaccine documentation to make forgeries more difficult.

By Joe Tidy
Cyber reporter – BBC

Covid: Paris lockdown as France fears third wave

The French capital is set to go into a month-long Covid lockdown as the country fears a third wave.

Some 21 million people in 16 areas of France will be placed under the measures from midnight on Friday.

These measures will not be as strict as the previous lockdown, Prime Minister Jean Castex said, with people allowed to exercise outdoors. 

France has recorded more than 35,000 new infections within the past 24 hours.

Mr Castex said a “third wave” of infections in the country was looking increasingly likely.

The situation in Paris is particularly worrying with 1,200 people in intensive care there, more than at the peak of the second wave in November, Health Minister Olivier Véran said. 

Under the new measures, non-essential businesses will be forced to close, but schools will remain open, along with hairdressers if they follow a “particular sanitary protocol”. 

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal stressed there would be differences with the two earlier lockdowns and said further details would be given of which business could stay open or would have to shut.

People will be allowed to exercise outdoors within 10km (6 miles) of their home and are not allowed to travel to other parts of the country unless they have a valid reason. Those in the affected areas will have to fill out a form to explain why they have left their homes. 

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Parisians prepare for lighter lockdown

Analysis box by Hugh Schofield, Paris correspondent

There is a weary resignation about Paris, as people prepare for another four weeks of tedium. Yes, we know this third lockdown won’t be quite as bad as the second – which was itself a lighter version of the first. But still.

Another month of bits of paper for the police; another month of having to justify a trip to the supermarket; another month without meaningful social contact. It’s enough to drive you to distraction.

Passengers wait before boarding trains at Montparnasse railway station in Paris, on March 19, 2021
image captionFrance’s SNCF train company reported a surge in bookings ahead of the new lockdown

Except it hasn’t. In general, most Parisians simply knuckle under. Those who can are leaving by train or car, but because schools are staying open, most families will stick it out in the city.

Everyone’s made the calculation. The long Easter weekend in two weeks is a bust. But the Paris school holidays start on 17 April – exactly when the lockdown is supposed to end.

That’s the light that will keep people going. Spring break.

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As well as the greater Paris region, the northern Hauts-de-France, Seine-Maritime and Eure areas will go under lockdown as well as the Alpes-Maritimes on the French Riviera.

France’s nationwide curfew will remain in place. However, it will begin an hour later at 19:00 (18:00 GMT), taking into account the longer hours of daylight. 

Fears of a third wave come as the French government faces criticism for its slow vaccine rollout. 

From Friday, France will resume vaccinating using the AstraZeneca jab following the EMA’s announcement that it was fit for use. Mr Castex said he would be getting the vaccine straight away to prove that it was OK.

France had suspended the jab after a number of people in Europe reported blood clots developing after the vaccine was administered. 

A survey conducted just as the suspension was announced found that only 20% of the French have confidence in AstraZeneca.

EU agency says AstraZeneca vaccine is ‘safe and effective’

A review by the EU’s medicines regulator has concluded the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is “safe and effective”.

A woman is vaccinated against Covid-19 with the AstraZeneca vaccine in Genoa, Italy, 10 March 2021.
image captionGermany, France and Italy were among the countries to pause their rollouts of the vaccine as a precaution

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) investigated after 13 EU states suspended use of the vaccine over fears of a link to blood clots.

It found the jab was “not associated” with a higher risk of clots.

Italy announced it would resume using the jab on Friday while Sweden said it needed a “few days” to decide

It is up to individual EU states to decide whether and when to re-start vaccinations using the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The agency’s investigation focused on a small number of cases of unusual blood disorders. In particular, it was looking at cases of cerebral venous thrombosis – blood clots in the head. 

Decisions to suspend use of the vaccine sparked concerns over the pace of the region’s vaccination drive, which had already been affected by supply shortages.

Much of Europe is struggling to contain a surge in coronavirus cases.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday called on countries to continue using the vaccine, and is due to release the results of its own review into the vaccine’s safety on Friday. 

What did the EMA say exactly?

Emer Cooke, the agency’s executive director, told a news conference: “This is a safe and effective vaccine.”

“Its benefits in protecting people from Covid-19 with the associated risks of death and hospitalisation outweigh the possible risks.” 

Emer Cooke
image captionMrs Cooke was speaking at an online news conference in Amsterdam

The EMA’s expert committee on medicine safety, Mrs Cooke said, found that “the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of… blood clots”. 

But the EMA, she added, could not rule out definitively a link between the vaccine and a “small number of cases of rare and unusual but very serious clotting disorders”.

Therefore the committee has, she said, recommended raising awareness of these possible risks, making sure they are included in the product information. Additional investigations are being launched, Mrs Cooke added. 

“If it was me, I would be vaccinated tomorrow,” Mrs Cooke added. “But I would want to know that if anything happened to me after vaccination what I should do about it and that’s what we’re saying today.”

Why did European countries act?

Thirteen EU countries suspended use of the vaccine, after reports of a small number of cases of blood clots among vaccine recipients in the region.

Leading EU states said they had opted to pause their use of the drug as a “precautionary measure”.

“There were a few very unusual and troubling cases which justify this pause and the analysis,” French immunologist Alain Fischer, who heads a government advisory board, told France Inter radio. “It’s not lost time.”

In Germany, the health ministry also pointed to a small number of rare blood clots in vaccinated people when justifying its decision. It postponed a summit on extending the vaccine rollout ahead of the EMA’s announcement. 

Other countries, such as Austria, halted the use of certain batches of the drug, while Belgium, Poland and the Czech Republic were among those to say they would continue to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Decisions to halt rollouts of the AstraZeneca vaccine were criticised by some politicians and scientists.

A spokeswoman for Germany’s opposition Free Democrats said the decision had set back the country’s entire vaccination rollout. German Greens health expert Janosch Dahmen, meanwhile, argued that authorities could have continued using the drug.

Dr Anthony Cox, who researches drug safety at the UK’s University of Birmingham, told the BBC it was a “cascade of bad decision-making that’s spread across Europe”.

What has AstraZeneca said?

The company says there is no evidence of an increased risk of clotting due to the vaccine.

It said it had received 37 reports of blood clots out of more than 17 million people vaccinated in the EU and UK as of 8 March.

These figures were “much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed Covid-19 vaccines”, it said.

Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford vaccine group which developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, told the BBC on Monday that there was “very reassuring evidence that there is no increase in a blood clot phenomenon here in the UK, where most of the doses in Europe [have] been given so far”.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock this weekurged people to “listen to the regulators” and to “get the jab”. 

Chart showing the number of countries using each vaccine. Updated 15 March.

Exclusive: Catalent to expand production of J&J COVID-19 vaccine in Italy: WSJ

(Reuters) – Catalent Inc plans to expand its COVID-19 vaccine production in Europe that will enable it to make more doses of Johnson & Johnson’s shot, the Wall Street Journal reported here on Tuesday, citing people familiar with the matter.

The contract drug manufacturer will bring online a second J&J vaccine production line at its plant in Anagni, Italy, during the fourth quarter, the Journal reported.

EU regulators team up with U.S. and UK on pharmaceutical mergers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – EU antitrust enforcers have teamed up with their U.S. and British counterparts to share expertise on how to examine mergers in the pharmaceutical industry amid concerns such deals could push up prices or hold back innovation.

The COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine supply bottlenecks have spurred regulatory interest in the pharmaceutical industry which has seen a wave of consolidation in recent years.

The European Commission said the working group, which was launched on Tuesday, included the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Canadian Competition Bureau, Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The group would “take stock of the lessons learned in recent years and explore new ways to foster vibrant competition to the benefit of citizens”, European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

The EU competition enforcer said greater scrutiny of pharmaceutical deals was needed to single out those that might lead to higher drug prices, lower innovation or anti-competitive conduct.

French Industry Minister: AstraZeneca CEO is ‘on a hot seat’

PARIS (Reuters) – The chief executive of AstraZeneca – whose COVID-19 vaccine has been temporarily suspended in several European countries – is “on a hot seat and knows it”, said French Industry Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher.

Pannier-Runacher also told France Info radio on Tuesday that France needed more details from AstraZeneca regarding its COVID-19 vaccine production plans.