Live events under review, warns Culture Secretary 'as country enters period of heightened vigilance'

·28-min read
Revellers at the Circus Nightclub at Bramley-Moore Dock, Liverpool, on April 30 which was part of a Covid safety pilot event monitoring the potential spread of Covid-19 in indoor venues - Richard McCarthy / PA
Revellers at the Circus Nightclub at Bramley-Moore Dock, Liverpool, on April 30 which was part of a Covid safety pilot event monitoring the potential spread of Covid-19 in indoor venues - Richard McCarthy / PA

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has warned the live events industry that the country is entering a "period of heightened vigilance" due to the Indian variant of coronavirus.

He said on Twitter: "The crucial road map date for theatres, music venues and sports has always been step 4, so I understand this is an anxious time as we assess the situation over the next couple of weeks.

"We continue to make good progress with the vaccine rollout and with testing the safe return of audiences through the Events Research Programme, but must accept we enter a period of heightened vigilance with the new fast-moving variant."

It comes as England moves to the next stage of the lockdown roadmap on Monday, with pubs and restaurants able to serve people indoors again.

04:27 PM

Today's top stories

That's all from me today. Here's your summary of what went on:

  • Things are changing: indoor dining, pubs, cinemas, theatres and museums are set to reopen from Monday - these are the latest Covid rules.

  • Two-thirds of adults in Scotland have had their first dose of coronavirus vaccine, compared to 69 per cent of adults in the UK, new figures show.

  • France reached its target of injecting 20 million initial doses of coronavirus vaccines on Saturday, days ahead of a hugely anticipated reopening of restaurant terraces as the government begins lifting a nationwide lockdown.

  • Taiwan, which once enviable success in containing Covid-19, has been forced to impose new restrictions in its capital city as it battled its worst outbreak since the pandemic began.

  • China has decided to cancel the 2021 spring climbing season from the Tibetan side of Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak, because of coronavirus concerns.

  • India's two biggest cities (Delhi and Mumbai) have reported a drop in daily infections but the government is warning that the devastating surge is spreading in rural areas, where nearly two-thirds of India's 1.4 billion people live.

04:16 PM

Bodies of Covid-19 victims among those dumped in India's Ganges

Bodies of Covid-19 victims have been found dumped in some Indian rivers, a state government letter seen by Reuters says, in the first official acknowledgement of the alarming practice, which it said may stem from poverty and fear of the disease in remote areas.

Images of corpses drifting down the Ganges river, which is considered holy in Hinduism, have shocked the country, reeling under the world's worst surge in Covid-19 cases.

Although media reports have linked the increase in the number of bodies found floating in the river and its tributaries in recent days to the pandemic, India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 240 million people, has until now not publicly revealed the cause of the deaths.

"The administration has information that bodies of those who have succumbed to Covid-19 or any other disease are being thrown into rivers instead of being disposed of as per proper rituals," a senior state official, Manoj Kumar Singh, said in a letter dated May 14 to district heads that was reviewed by Reuters.

A man wearing a protective suit touches the body of his relative, who died from Covid-19 before his cremation on the banks of the river Ganges at Garhmukteshwar - DANISH SIDDIQUI / REUTERS 
A man wearing a protective suit touches the body of his relative, who died from Covid-19 before his cremation on the banks of the river Ganges at Garhmukteshwar - DANISH SIDDIQUI / REUTERS

04:03 PM

Coronavirus world news – in pictures

Fans celebrate winning the Scottish Premiership title outside the Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland.

Fans celebrate winning the Scottish Premiership title outside the Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland - Jeff J Mitchell / Getty
Fans celebrate winning the Scottish Premiership title outside the Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland - Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

A man wearing a protective face mask stands inside a shuttered massage shop after several venues were ordered to close amid an increasing number of Covid-19 infections in Taipei, Taiwan.

A man wearing a protective face mask stands at a closed massage shop after several venues were ordered to close amid an increasing number of COVID-19 infections, in Taipei, Taiwan - ANN WANG / REUTERS
A man wearing a protective face mask stands at a closed massage shop after several venues were ordered to close amid an increasing number of COVID-19 infections, in Taipei, Taiwan - ANN WANG / REUTERS

A Nepalese woman and her daughter wearing face masks at the Rato Machindranath chariot festival in Lalitpur, Nepal.

A Nepalese woman and her daughter wearing face masks at the Rato Machindranath chariot festival in Lalitpur, Nepal -  Niranjan Shrestha / AP
A Nepalese woman and her daughter wearing face masks at the Rato Machindranath chariot festival in Lalitpur, Nepal - Niranjan Shrestha / AP

People queue to buy alcohol after West Bengal's government announced a 15-day partial lockdown and travel restrictions including amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Siliguri.

People queue to buy alcohol after West Bengal's government announced a 15-day partial lockdown and travel restrictions including amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Siliguri - DIPTENDU DUTTA / AFP
People queue to buy alcohol after West Bengal's government announced a 15-day partial lockdown and travel restrictions including amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Siliguri - DIPTENDU DUTTA / AFP

03:36 PM

UK records 2,027 new cases and seven additional deaths

The Government said a further seven people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Saturday, bringing the UK total to 127,675.

Separate figures published by the UK's statistics agencies show there have been 152,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

The Government also said that, as of 9am on Saturday, there had been a further 2,027 lab-confirmed cases in the UK.

It brings the total to 4,448,851.

03:21 PM

Everything we know about the NHS Covid vaccine passport app

Vaccine passports look set to become a part of our daily lives as an important way to show whether we’ve been vaccinated.

The technology is controversial and has attracted scepticism as well as outright opposition from privacy campaigners.

The Government is preparing to launch its Covid Vaccine Status scheme from Monday.

Here’s everything we know about how it will work

Vaccine passports will be key to resuming international travel - The Telegraph
Vaccine passports will be key to resuming international travel - The Telegraph

03:11 PM

Pubs and restaurants are opening indoors from Monday – with new rules for outside

Pubs and restaurants in England are still expected to reopen indoors from Monday May 17, in step three of the Government's 'roadmap' out of lockdown, despite discussions of a potential delay in some areas.

Boris Johnson formally signed off the return of indoor socialising and dining from May 17 at a Downing Street press conference that took place on May 10.

That means six people or two households will be able to mix inside, and pubs and restaurants can restart indoor dining.

However, due to the number of cases of the Indian variant having doubled in the past week, there is the potential of local lockdowns being reintroduced in some hotspot areas.

This is everything you need to know

Pubs, restaurants, cafés and bars will be able to open indoors in step three of lockdown easing  -  OLI SCARFF / AFP
Pubs, restaurants, cafés and bars will be able to open indoors in step three of lockdown easing - OLI SCARFF / AFP

02:41 PM

Ethiopia postpones landmark polls as logistical woes pile up

The head of Ethiopia's election board said Saturday it would be impossible to hold parliamentary elections as planned on June 5, due to mounting logistical issues, without giving a new date.

When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power three years ago, he promised to break from Ethiopia's authoritarian past and hold the most democratic elections the country has ever seen.

The elections had already been delayed from last August due to the coronavirus pandemic, and problems have only mounted since, with a conflict in the northern Tigray region and brutal ethnic violence in several areas.

"The vote will not happen on June 5 ... we can't tell you the date as the board has to examine the inputs it received from parties," said election board chairwoman Birtukan Mideksa.

She cited a plethora of logistical delays, such as finalising voter registration, training electoral staff, printing and distributing ballot papers.

Related: Breaking through the blackout to expose Tigray’s ‘crimes against humanity’

02:17 PM

Pfizer and Moderna jabs may help guard against next coronavirus pandemic

Pfizer and Moderna's Covid-19 vaccines point the way to conquering the next coronavirus pandemic and may already offer some basic protection against killers such as MERS or other as yet undiscovered threats, according to new US research.

In experiments described by leading scientists as "exciting", researchers at Duke University tested mRNA vaccines that were very similar to the approved jabs on monkeys. They found that the vaccines induced antibodies that not only protected against Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, but could also guard against other viruses from the same family.

"These results demonstrate current mRNA vaccines may provide some protection from future zoonotic betacoronavirus [coronaviruses crossing from animal to human] outbreaks, and provide a platform for further development of pan-betacoronavirus vaccines," the paper, published this week in Nature, concludes.

Sars-Cov-2 is already the third threatening coronavirus to arise this century, after the viruses causing MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome), and experts agree that another could easily take hold.

Jennifer Rigby has the latest here.

12:57 PM

Scotland: Two-thirds of adults given first vaccine dose

Two-thirds of adults in Scotland have had their first dose of coronavirus vaccine, figures show.

First jabs have been administered to more than three million people, with the 66.6% per cent mark crossed on Friday, said the Scottish Government.

Nearly 1.6 million people have had both shots of the vaccine, it added.

The national vaccine programme is currently inoculating people aged between 40 and 49, more than half of whom have had their first dose.

Scotland is on course to offer all adults a first vaccine by the end of July, if supplies are maintained.

Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon received her first dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine on April 15 -  JANE BARLOW / AFP
Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon received her first dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine on April 15 - JANE BARLOW / AFP

12:35 PM

Italian study shows Covid-19 infections and deaths plummeting after jabs

Covid-19 infections in adults of all ages fell by 80 per cent five weeks after a first dose of Pfizer , Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccine, according to Italian research published on Saturday.

The first such study by a European Union country on the real-world impact of its immunisation campaign was carried out by Italy's National Institute of Health (ISS) and the Ministry of Health on 13.7 million people vaccinated nationwide.

The analysis showed that the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, hospitalisation, and death decreased progressively after the first two weeks following the initial vaccination.

"As of 35 days after the first dose, there is an 80 per cent reduction in infections, 90 per cent reduction in hospitalisations, and 95 per cent reduction in deaths," the ISS said, adding that the same pattern was seen in both men and women regardless of age.

"This data confirms the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign and the need to achieve high coverage across the population quickly to end the emergency," ISS president Silvio Brusaferro said in the statement.

Among the nearly 14 million people included in the Italian study, 95 per cent of those who had taken Pfizer and Moderna had completed the vaccine cycle, while none of those given AstraZeneca had received a second dose.

Up until now, Italy has been following the makers' recommendations, giving a second dose of Pfizer three weeks after the first, a second dose of Moderna after a four week gap and a second dose of AstraZeneca after a 12 week gap.

12:21 PM

Britain to hold meeting to encourage global vaccine take-up

Britain has said it plans to hold a virtual meeting on June 2 to encourage global take-up of Covid-19 vaccines, bringing together medical experts, officials from G7 countries and other partners.

The event will discuss how to tackle misinformation about vaccines, including the role social media companies can play in stopping the spread of damaging falsehoods.

Britain, which has one of the world's fastest inoculation campaigns and an uptake of over 90 per cent in older age groups, hopes to use its presidency of the Group of Seven nations to improve access to coronavirus vaccines.

Rich countries are generally far ahead of most poorer nations in inoculating their populations. The World Health Organization has repeatedly urged them to do more to help distribute vaccines around the world, including boosting supplies to the COVAX scheme to provide vaccines to poorer nations.

"This UK-hosted Summit is a significant opportunity for G7 countries to come together with partners across the world to take action to maintain high levels of trust in vaccines and those that provide them," vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said in a statement.

"We must work collectively to ensure people across the world can reclaim their lives and livelihoods."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair a G7 summit in Cornwall, southwestern England, on June 11-13. U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to attend with other leaders.

11:43 AM

Live events still under review, warns Dowden

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has warned the live events industry that the country is entering a "period of heightened vigilance" due to the Indian variant of coronavirus.

He said on Twitter: "The crucial road map date for theatres, music venues and sports has always been step 4, so I understand this is an anxious time as we assess the situation over the next couple of weeks.

"We continue to make good progress with the vaccine rollout and with testing the safe return of audiences through the Events Research Programme, but must accept we enter a period of heightened vigilance with the new fast-moving variant."

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11:25 AM

Suicides rise in Thailand as Covid decimates its tourism industry

The last time 23-year-old Buddhist monk Phongphichet Pittayaseehanat spoke to his parents was over the phone on May 4.

They told him where to find their belongings. A mobile phone, a power bank, and 200 baht (almost £5.00), all in a drawer in their home.

Their conversation worried Mr Pittayaseehanat, so he asked a friend nearby to check in on his parents and take them some food. The couple, hardworking fruit sellers in their early 60s, were found together in their bathroom with two handwritten notes. Amid mounting debt, they had taken their own lives.

Thailand has the highest rate of suicide among Southeast Asian nations. It is estimated that one person tries to kill themselves every 10 minutes. According to a 2019 World Health Organization (WHO) report, there are 14.4 suicides per 100,000 people in Thailand, whereas neighbouring Cambodia records 5.3 and the Philippines 3.2 per 100,000.

The rate of suicide had already been increasing year-on-year in Thailand pre-pandemic, but during Covid-19, the figure leapt by 11 per cent from 2019 to the end of 2020, from 4,581 to 5,085 deaths, according to statistics from the Ministry for Health.

Jack Taylor and Navaon Siradapuvadol have more on this harrowing story here.

Thailand beat the first wave of coronavirus with strict lockdowns - but, as this empty beach in Phuket shows, there have been far-reaching consequences - Sirachai Arunrugstichai / Getty
Thailand beat the first wave of coronavirus with strict lockdowns - but, as this empty beach in Phuket shows, there have been far-reaching consequences - Sirachai Arunrugstichai / Getty

10:33 AM

Indian state orders lockdown after 'super-spreader' election

An Indian state stricken by coronavirus after mass rallies were held for a key election ordered a two-week lockdown on Saturday in a bid to halt the spread.

All offices, stores and public transport in West Bengal were told to close for 15 days after the region reported its biggest spike yet in deaths and infections.

West Bengal accounted for 21,000 of India's 326,000 new cases reported Saturday and hospitals in the state say they are swamped with patients.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew tens of thousands of people to rallies in the region last month ahead of state elections in which his ruling nationalist party failed to unseat chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Banerjee also staged major rallies ahead of the polls and on Friday her brother died from coronavirus in hospital.

Many experts have said the election campaign was a "super-spreader".

A health worker collects nasal swab for a Covid-19 coronavirus RT PCR test at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital on the outskirts of Siliguri  - DIPTENDU DUTTA / AFP
A health worker collects nasal swab for a Covid-19 coronavirus RT PCR test at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital on the outskirts of Siliguri - DIPTENDU DUTTA / AFP

10:10 AM

France closing in on 20 million target in Covid vaccination drive

France was on track to reach its goal Saturday of 20 million initial doses of coronavirus vaccines, ahead of a hugely anticipated reopening of restaurant terraces Wednesday as the government begins lifting a nationwide lockdown.

Authorities also reported further declines in the number of patients requiring intensive care in hospitals.

"Again nearly 600,000 vaccinations today," Health Minister Olivier Veran tweeted late Friday. "Tomorrow, 20 million French will have had at least one dose," which would represent nearly 30 percent of the population.

The government aims to have 30 million initial doses injected by June 15, when President Emmanuel Macron has said all adults will be able to sign up for a jab currently reserved for priority groups and adults over 50.

A man leaves the latest mass-vaccination centre, at the National Exhibition Centre, having received his vaccine -  Kiran Ridley / Getty
A man leaves the latest mass-vaccination centre, at the National Exhibition Centre, having received his vaccine - Kiran Ridley / Getty

09:35 AM

'Like New Year's Eve': Polish bars celebrate midnight reopening

Champagne corks popped at the stroke of midnight on Friday as bars and restaurants in Poland opened their outdoor terraces for the first time in over six months and many Poles went out to celebrate.

Bars and restaurants can now offer outdoor service, with indoor service due to reopen with limited capacity on May 28. Since October, they have been able to serve only take-away food.

Additionally, from Saturday Poles are no longer required to wear masks outside in places where they can observe social distancing.

"We've been closed for so long, over 200 days, and it was very stressful and exhausting for different reasons, we didn't know if we could survive at all," said Zuzia Mockallo, 34, co-owner of Bar Studio, located in the capital's landmark building, the Palace of Culture and Science.

"I really feel that the emotions are a bit comparable to the New Year, where everyone has huge expectations of the old year ending and a new opening ... We are very happy and a little excited, a little nervous, but very emotional."

New coronavirus cases in Poland dropped sharply during April and the government began easing restrictions this month.

The Koszyki shopping centre in central Warsaw, where one of the city's most popular cluster of bars is located, installed a clock counting down to midnight. Paweł Slupski, the centre's PR manager, said the mood was "very much like New Year's Eve".

People gather and celebrate as bars, clubs and other establishments reopened in Poland after being closed for seven months, in Warsaw, Poland -  Czarek Sokolowski / AP
People gather and celebrate as bars, clubs and other establishments reopened in Poland after being closed for seven months, in Warsaw, Poland - Czarek Sokolowski / AP

09:17 AM

China cancels Everest spring climbing over coronavirus worries

China has decided to cancel the 2021 spring climbing season from the Tibetan side of Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak, because of coronavirus concerns, the official Xinhua news agency said on Saturday.

It cited a notice on Friday from the General Administration of Sport, following a severe pandemic situation.

The Himalayan nation of Nepal, which is so short of oxygen canisters it has asked mountaineers to bring back their empties, has issued a record 408 permits to climb Everest in the April-May season after last year's closure.

In contrast, a total of 21 Chinese climbers had secured approval for climbs in spring, Xinhua added.

Last Sunday, state media said China would establish "a line of separation" at the summit of Everest to prevent the mingling of climbers from Nepal and those ascending from the Tibetan side as a precautionary measure.

China has canceled attempts to climb Mount Everest from its side of the world's highest peak because of fears of importing COVID-19 cases from neighboring Nepal - Purbu Zhaxi /  Xinhua
China has canceled attempts to climb Mount Everest from its side of the world's highest peak because of fears of importing COVID-19 cases from neighboring Nepal - Purbu Zhaxi / Xinhua

08:53 AM

Portugal prepares for visitors

Portugal's secretary of state for tourism Rita Marques has said "everything is open" in her country.

Portugal confirmed this week it will reopen its borders to UK tourists from Monday.

Ms Marques told BBC Breakfast: "We have been working hard to tackle the pandemic, as I said, so restaurants and coffee shops and shops and everything is open as from May 1.

"Some restrictions apply, of course, so you have to wear a mask, you have to maintain social distancing.

"I guess, at the end of the day, the experience will be great."

She said masks are worn "indoors and outdoors", adding: "Masks need to be used all day long, except when you are on the beach, of course.

"So if you are going to a restaurant near the beach you should wear a mask, but if you are near the sea you don't need to wear a mask."

The Estadio do Dragao in Porto where thousands of English football fans will be arriving for the Champions League Final on May 29th - JOSE COELHO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The Estadio do Dragao in Porto where thousands of English football fans will be arriving for the Champions League Final on May 29th - JOSE COELHO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

08:35 AM

Taiwan faces its worst outbreak yet

Taiwan, which once enviable success in containing Covid-19, has been forced to impose new restrictions in its capital city as it battled its worst outbreak since the pandemic began.

Authorities raised the alert level for Taipei, the capital, and the surrounding area of New Taipei city. The level 3 alert, which remains in effect for two weeks, requires people to wear a mask outdoors and limits indoor gatherings to five people and outdoor gatherings to 10 people.

Health authorities said that 180 new locally spread cases had been confirmed, the majority in Taipei and New Taipei. That's more than the total of 164 cases previously confirmed for the entire pandemic period. The daily number of new cases rose steadily from single digits early this week to 29 before the triple-digit jump announced Saturday.

"The epidemic is gaining intensity," Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said, while noting that more cases are being identified as authorities hone in on hot zones.

Taiwan, a self-governing island of about 24 million people off China's east coast, has kept the coronavirus largely at bay. It has tallied 1,475 cases, mostly infected people who arrived from abroad, and 12 deaths. The total number of locally spread cases more than tripled in the past week to 344 from under 100 as of last weekend.

A soldier disinfects his colleague at a testing center in Taipei, Taiwan -  ANN WANG / REUTERS
A soldier disinfects his colleague at a testing center in Taipei, Taiwan - ANN WANG / REUTERS

08:02 AM

Bolton councillor calls for increased support for those in self-isolating

Bolton Council chief executive Tony Oakman has said he wants increased payments for people who are self-isolating.

He told BBC Breakfast: "The areas that this Indian variant has particularly taken a hold in are areas with low incomes, deprivation, mixed households, and therefore if you're on a limited income and you're thinking 'Where am I going to pay for the food? How am I going to survive this week?', then you might be tempted to not isolate."

Mr Oakman also highlighted the importance of "responsibilities" of the individual and people "adhering to the simple rules and advice that is available to them in terms of trying to make the right decisions and choices".

He said the council is "glad" about the acceleration of the vaccination programme across Bolton and will keep "pushing" for people aged 18 and over to be able to get a jab.

Mr Oakman said it has been explained that a rollout to people aged 18-plus is not possible.

"At the minute we are having to work within the rules that have been explained in previous interviews, but we're glad that we are getting the acceleration of the vaccination programme across Bolton, and we will keep pushing for 18 years plus," he said.

07:47 AM

Vigilance still key, despite vaccine roll out

Professor Anthony Harnden said vaccines will help in "dampening down" the spread of the virus but that vigilance is needed.

The deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said the situation is different to January because we now have a "highly vaccinated population".

He told BBC Breakfast: "I think the vaccines will help in terms of dampening down the spread of this virus but we do need to be vigilant and we just need to see what happens over the next few weeks."

He said decisions on easing restrictions are "very, very difficult" but acknowledged people are "completely fed up" with the impact on their lives.

He said: "I sympathise with those that are making the decision. My imperative is to make sure that as many people are vaccinated as quickly as possible.

"I'm very grateful that I haven't got to make that decision (about June 21) because I think it is a very difficult decision."

07:25 AM

Bringing forward second jabs the 'better strategy'

The deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has defended the approach of bringing forward second jabs rather than speeding up the rollout to younger people.

Professor Anthony Harnden told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that targeting more vulnerable people with full immunity is a "better strategy".

He said: "The reason we think this is if we immunise 18-29 year olds, for instance, in these areas we'll be taking vaccines from somebody else in the country.

"The vaccines may be less effective against transmission and immunity takes a number of weeks to develop, so it's not a very good strategy for preventing transmission, what we want is to prevent disease.

"From a vaccination strategy it just won't help mass-vaccinating a number of young people at the expense of older people who haven't been vaccinated."

07:20 AM

Government "calmly" continuing to lift restrictions

Health minister Edward Argar said the Government was acting "coolly" and "calmly" as it presses ahead with coronavirus restriction easing on Monday, despite rising cases of the Indian variant.

Referring to reports the new variant could be up to 50 per cent more transmissible, he said: "As Chris Whitty said yesterday, it's possible, but equally it could be much less more transmissible, if that makes sense.

"We don't know how much more transmissible it is yet.

"All the evidence so far suggests there is no evidence of increased severity of illness or that it evades the vaccine.

"So, at the moment, on the basis of the evidence we are doing the right thing, coolly, calmly continuing with Monday, but keeping everything under review."

Mr Argar added that people should take personal responsibility when deciding whether or not to hug loved ones, when allowed to do so.

"You have to take all the facts into consideration," he said.

"It's about personal responsibility, it's about making the right judgment call."

06:55 AM

'Snarky conversations' over guidance on face coverings in schools

Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said Government guidance on wearing face coverings in schools had caused some "snarky" conversations between teachers and parents.

"The past year has taught us not to be too comfortable with anything and to expect the unexpected all the time," he told BBC Breakfast.

"Parents who heard what the Prime Minister said will say 'well, why are you possibly not ending face coverings in my school or college?' and I think it's made it more difficult to navigate our way through the communication.

"Everyone heard an announcement that was rather cut and dry from the Prime Minister rather than more nuanced.

"So, there have, as you're implying, been one or two snarky conversations with parents who don't want their children wearing face coverings."

He added: "Ultimately, governors and heads will follow public-health advice and will insist, if it's necessary, that face coverings continue to be worn."

Read more: Masks likely to stay in classroom as schools set to defy guidance

06:39 AM

China cancels Everest climbs over fears of virus from Nepal

China has cancelled attempts to climb Mount Everest from its side of the world's highest peak because of fears of importing Covid-19 cases from neighbouring Nepal, state media reported.

The closure was confirmed in a notice on Friday from China's General Administration of Sport, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

While China has mostly curbed domestic transmission of the coronavirus, Nepal is experiencing a surge with record numbers of new infections and deaths.

China had issued permits to 38 people, all Chinese citizens, to climb the 8,849-meter (29,032-foot) -high mountain this spring. Nepal has given permission to 408 people. Climbing was not allowed from either side last year because of the pandemic.

In Nepal, several climbers have reported testing positive after they were brought down from the Everest base camp.

Nepalese army personnel salute to pay tribute to Covid-19 victims before cremating their bodies near Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu - AP
Nepalese army personnel salute to pay tribute to Covid-19 victims before cremating their bodies near Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu - AP

05:31 AM

Devastating surge spreading in India's rural areas

India's two biggest cities have reported a drop in daily infections but the government is warning that the devastating surge is spreading in rural areas, where nearly two-thirds of India's 1.4 billion people live.

India reported 326,098 new confirmed cases and 3,890 deaths in the past 24 hours, though experts say both figures are an undercount. The Health Ministry had reported 343,144 cases on Friday and 362,727 on Thursday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday warned people to take extra precautions as the virus was spreading fast in rural areas. He said the government was mobilising all resources, including the military.

News reports say hapless villagers have been rushing the sick to nearby towns and cities for treatment because health care facilities are limited in the countryside.

India's capital has reported less than 10,000 new cases in a day for the first time in over a month. It recorded 8,506 cases in the past 24 hours.

After a peak of 11,000 daily infections, Mumbai, India's financial and entertainment capital, has been reporting less than 2,000.

Indian doctors wearing examine patients inside a Covid-19 care centre and isolation ward facility near a hospital in New Delhi - RAJAT GUPTA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Indian doctors wearing examine patients inside a Covid-19 care centre and isolation ward facility near a hospital in New Delhi - RAJAT GUPTA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

04:17 AM

Taiwan tightens curbs after rise in domestic cases

Taiwan raised its coronavirus alert level on Saturday in the capital, Taipei, and the city around it, bringing curbs for a period of two weeks that will shut many venues and restrict gatherings in the wake of 180 new domestic infections.

The new rules will not mean offices, schools or restaurants have to close, but will cause the shutdown of cinemas and other entertainment spots, while limiting family get-togethers to five people indoors and 10 outdoors.

Taipei's government has already ordered bars, nightclubs and similar venues to shut.

03:13 AM

First flight lands in Australia as India travel ban ends

A plane carrying more than 70 Australians fleeing virus-stricken India landed in the country's north on Saturday, the first since a controversial ban on arrivals ended.

The plane touched down in Darwin on Saturday morning after picking up vulnerable passengers from New Delhi, but 72 of its booked passengers were barred from flying after 48 tested positive for Covid-19 and others were deemed close contacts.

Initially planned to carry 150 travellers, just over half of those booked were cleared to board the plane, a Northern Territory Health spokeswoman said.

Under the arrangement, those who test positive for the virus, or were deemed close contacts, have to remain in India until they return a negative test.

The arrivals will quarantine at Outback quarantine facility Howard Springs for at least a fortnight.

03:03 AM

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