Trump extends immigration bans despite opposition from U.S. business groups | Reuters

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U.S. President Donald Trump walks to the Oval Office after returning from Mar-A-Lago to the White House in Washington, U.S., December 31, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday extended a pair of immigration bans that block many “green card” applicants and temporary foreign workers from entering the country, measures he says are needed to protect U.S. workers amid the pandemic-battered economy.

The bans, which were issued in April and June, were set to expire on Dec. 31, but will be extended until March 31, 2021, the latest in a series of last-gasp immigration moves by the outgoing Trump administration. A broad range of businesses oppose the ban on certain foreign workers.

President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, has criticized the restrictions, but has not yet said whether he would immediately reverse them. Trump issued the bans in the form of presidential proclamations that could be swiftly undone.

At least 20 million people remain on unemployment benefits in the United States as the novel coronavirus continues to spread nationwide.

In October, a federal judge in California blocked Trump’s ban on foreign guest workers as it applied to hundreds of thousands of U.S. businesses that fought the policy in court.

The judge found the ban would cause “irreparable harm” to the businesses by interfering with their operations and leading them to lay off employees and close open positions.

The U.S. Department of Justice appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is scheduled to hear arguments on Jan. 19.

Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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Into the Brexit unknown, a divided United Kingdom goes it alone | Reuters

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LONDON (Reuters) — The United Kingdom exits the European Union’s orbit on Thursday, turning its back on a tempestuous 48-year liaison with the European project for an uncertain post-Brexit future in its most significant geopolitical shift since the loss of empire.

Brexit, in essence, takes place at the strike of midnight in Brussels, or 2300 London time (GMT), when the United Kingdom leaves de-facto membership that continued for a transition period after it formally left the bloc on Jan. 31.

For five years, the frenzied gyrations of the Brexit crisis dominated European affairs, haunted the sterling markets and tarnished the United Kingdom’s reputation as a confident pillar of Western economic and political stability.

After years of Brexit vitriol, one of the most significant events in European history since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union will pass with little fanfare: The United Kingdom will slip away, serenaded by the silence of the COVID-19 crisis.

Supporters cast Brexit as the dawn of a newly independent “global Britain”, but it has weakened the bonds that bind England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into a $3 trillion economy.

“This is an amazing moment for this country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 56, said in his New Year’s Eve message. “We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it.”

As EU leaders and citizens bade farewell, Johnson said there would be no bonfire of regulations to build a “bargain basement Dickensian Britain” and that the country would remain the “quintessential European civilization”.

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But Johnson, the face of the Brexit campaign, has been short on detail about what he wants to build with Britain’s “independence” — or how to do it while borrowing record amounts to pay for the COVID-19 crisis.

His 80-year-old father, Stanley Johnson, who voted to remain in 2016, said he was in the process of applying for a French passport.

BREXIT

In the June 23, 2016, referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52%, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48%, backed staying in the bloc. Few have changed their minds since. England and Wales voted out but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in.

The referendum showed a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union, and fuelled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, the legacy of empire and what it now means to be British.

Leaving was once the far-fetched dream of a motley crew of “eurosceptics” on the fringes of British politics: the UK joined in 1973 as “the sick man of Europe” and two decades ago British leaders were arguing about whether to join the euro. It never did.

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But the turmoil of the euro zone crisis, attempts to integrate the EU further, fears about mass immigration and discontent with leaders in London helped Brexiteers win the referendum with a message of patriotic, if vague, hope.

“We see a global future for ourselves,” said Johnson who won power in 2019 and, against the odds, clinched a Brexit divorce treaty and a trade deal, as well as the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher, in the 2019 election.

Supporters see Brexit as an escape from a doomed Franco-German project that has stagnated while the United States and China surged ahead. Opponents say Brexit will weaken the West, further reduce Britain’s global clout, make people poorer and lessen its cosmopolitanism.

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When the Great Bell known as Big Ben tolls 11 through a scaffold, there will be few outward displays of emotion as gatherings are banned due to COVID-19 restrictions.

UNITED KINGDOM?

After the United Kingdom leaves the Single Market or the Customs Union, there is almost certain to be some disruption at borders. More red tape means more cost for those importing and exporting goods across the EU-UK border.

After haggling over a trade deal for months, the British government published 70 pages of case studies just hours before its departure advising companies on what rules they would have to follow at the new UK-EU border.

The Port of Dover expects volumes to drop off in early January. The most worrisome period, it says, will be in mid- to late January when volumes pick up again.

Support for Scottish independence has risen, partly due to Brexit and partly due to COVID-19, threatening the 300-year-old political union between England and Scotland.

Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has said an independence referendum should take place in the earlier part of the devolved parliament’s next term, which begins next year.

After clinching the Christmas Eve trade deal that will smooth out the worst disruption, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen quoted both William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” she said. “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Editing by Nick Macfie, Hugh Lawson, Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis

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Women should decide whether to legalize abortion, Mexican president says | Reuters

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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) — Mexico’s president said on Thursday that women should decide whether the country should legalize abortion, but he declined to take a position on the issue, which is still opposed by many Mexicans.

One day after the Argentine Senate voted to make abortion legal, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was asked during a news conference whether he thought his country should follow suit.

Sticking to his traditional approach, he said there should be a public consultation, given that the matter was controversial. He then stressed that it should be for Mexico’s female population to settle.

“It’s a decision for women,” Lopez Obrador said, adding that mechanisms existed to organize referendums. “It’s just that matters of this nature should not be decided from above.”

Abortion is legal in Mexico City and the state of Oaxaca, but it remains prohibited in most of the country except under exceptional circumstances, such as rape.

A nationwide poll published in September 2019 by newspaper El Financiero showed that a woman’s right to abortion only had majority support in Mexico City and Baja California state.

All told, 63% of people were against the right to abortion, and 32% in favor, according to the survey of 15,000 adults.

Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Howard Goller

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Schools could remain closed until the middle of February

Schools may be closed until the February half-term holiday as the Government’s Sage advisers warned a lockdown may be insufficient to curb the variant strain of Covid.

Senior government sources admitted schools could stay shut when ministers reviewed the closures on Jan 18 if the extension of Tier 4 restrictions to most of England failed to contain the virus.

Minutes from a pre-Christmas meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies released yesterday revealed members did not believe a lockdown similar to November’s would keep the R rate below 1 because of the highly-infectious new Covid strain.

It came as Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, came under fire for the “patchwork” closures of primaries on Monday which meant many schools would remain closed when those in neighbouring boroughs with higher Covid rates would be open.

A government source admitted: “The closure of schools until mid-February is an entirely possible scenario. We don’t have the data for Christmas yet but we will by Jan 18 and it’s difficult to see that being an improvement.” A senior government source added: “We have been careful not to say they will definitely reopen on Jan 18 because we don’t know that.”

It means that at least some of the million primary school pupils who will not return to their classrooms on Monday could miss classes beyond Jan 18.

The pupils, spread across 50 boroughs, were selected as they were in “high infection areas” but parents and teachers were left confused by inconsistencies in the criteria for opening schools in areas with higher Covid rates while neighbouring ones remained shut.

Most secondary school pupils will also stay at home until “at least” Jan 18, two weeks after term was supposed to start. Pupils in Years 11 and 13 are due to return on Jan 11.

Only children of key workers and vulnerable children in all settings will go back on Monday, the scheduled start of term. Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, feared schools faced “semi-permanent closures” as the two-week review would not reopen them.

“I would rather this two-week delay had not happened. I am worried two weeks will become four weeks and then six weeks. The two weeks is a guideline, not a cap,” he said. “We need to get primary schools back learning. It puts incredible pressures on parents who will have to give up work and on children because of the impact on their mental health and well-being.

“If it was a real two weeks, you could understand it but if it is a rolling two weeks I am worried it means that in certain areas of the country, we are having semi-permanent school closures.”

The Sage minutes, from the Dec 22 meeting, show the committee felt it “unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence” similar to the November lockdown with schools open “would be sufficient to maintain ‘R’ below 1 in the presence of the new variant”.

Scientists warned even if schools did close it was not known if this would be enough to bring the R rate below one. The Government SPI-B pandemic modelling group of scientists also urged the Government to reconsider the two-metre social distancing rule and where it was below that to consider compulsory face coverings.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), called for both primary and secondary schools to close for two weeks to enable the Government to consider the scientific evidence and devise a strategy.

“They should have announced that, like Scotland, when the new strain of the virus became apparent,” she said, and urged the Government to consider rotas for pupils to go to school on alternate weeks.

Exclusive: Elderly fall victims having to wait six hours for ambulances dealing with Covid patients

Elderly people who suffer falls are having to wait up to six hours for an ambulance because of rising Covid pressures, a medical body has warned.

The lengthy delays are partly due to paramedics having to prioritise 999 calls from people suffering from coronavirus related breathing difficulties.

But the service is also buckling because a shortage of hospital beds means Covid patients are being cared for in the backs of ambulances rather than on wards.

Richard Webber from the College of Paramedics said in some areas crews were spending up to five hours parked up with one coronavirus patient on board, meaning they were unable to respond to other emergency calls.

He told The Telegraph: “We are seeing elderly people who have fallen waiting five or six hours for an ambulance simply because there aren’t any available and the higher grade respiratory problems and chest problems get a higher priority.”

The crisis is particularly acute in London where the capital’s busiest facility, the Royal London Hospital, has only one nurse for every three Covid patients being treated in intensive care, leaked correspondence shows.

The facility in east London has reached “disaster medicine mode” and is no longer able to provide adequate critical care, according to management.

In an email sent last night, critical care staff were told: “We are now in disaster medicine mode. We are no longer providing high standard critical care, because we cannot.

“While this is far from ideal, it’s the way things are, and the way they have to be for now. Things are going to get harder before they get better.”

Accident and Emergency departments have outlawed the practice of ‘corridor care’ — where patients are treated in corridors until beds become available — in order to prevent the spread of the disease in hospitals.

But it has meant that ambulance crews are unable to move onto their next call until a bed on a ward has been found for the patient they are carrying.

Such is the scale of the problem that some hospitals in London have asked intensive care units in other parts of the country to take their patients in order to free up space.

Pictures posted on social media have shown fleets of ambulances parked outside A&E departments waiting for beds to become available and there have even been reports of seriously ill patients taking taxis to hospital to avoid delays.

These ambulances are queuing outside Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham tonight. There’s a sick patient inside every one of them. They can’t even enter the building.

This is the reality of Covid — right here, right now. Hospitals at breaking point. (H/T @drpunith) pic.twitter.com/YlKLH8GBUW

— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) December 29, 2020

Mr Webber said the capacity crisis, combined with high rates of sickness among frontline paramedics, meant crews were only able to deal with around a quarter of their usual callouts.

Explaining how the situation had come about, he said: “Hospitals have lost roughly 10 per cent of their beds because the spaces between patients on non Covid wards need to be wider.

“On top of that Accident and Emergency departments have had to reconfigure and have stopped providing ‘corridor care’.

“You shouldn’t have corridor care, it’s not good for patients. A&E departments don’t like doing it and try not to but they have accepted it in the past because it means you are able to keep the ambulance service running. Now because of Covid they have put a firm stop, saying ‘we are not doing it’.

“So what is happening is patients are staying in the back of an ambulance for up to five hours with an ambulance crew.’

He said while response times varied around the country, it usually took an ambulance crew around one and a half hours to deal with a 999 call. But he went on: “If you stick five hours onto that you are basically going to be able to do a quarter of the work you can do normally.”

Copy of Coronavirus UK Spotlight Chart — deaths default

Mr Webber said around 20 per cent of paramedics were currently off sick or were having to self isolate, which had also had a big impact on the service.

“The true workload you can deal with is less because you have less people at work and what you have at work is way less efficient than what it normally is because they physically can’t do anything.”

At the Whittington Hospital in North London all non urgent adult services were cancelled in order to deal with the surge in Covid cases.

Last night the NHS announced that the Nightingale hospital at London’s ExCel centre was prepared to come online.

A spokesman said: "In anticipation of pressures rising from the spread of the new variant infection, NHS London were asked to ensure the London Nightingale was reactivated and ready to admit patients as needed, and that process is underway."

Wall Street poised to close out wild year mixed | Reuters

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NEW YORK (Reuters) -U.S. stocks were poised to end a tumultuous year mixed, leaving the three major U.S. equity indexes with solid-to-spectacular yearly gains despite the economy being upended by the COVID-19 virus as investors looked towards a post-pandemic world.

FILE PHOTO: The boot on the statue of George Washington, the first president of the United States, is seen across from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) following Election Day in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 4, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

In a year that marked the end of the longest bull market on record as government lockdowns enacted because of the pandemic battered the global economy, equities stormed back, with the S&P 500 climbing more than 66% from its March 23 low, resulting in the shortest bear market on in history.

The gains, which have left the three major averages near record highs hit earlier this week, were fueled in part by massive fiscal and monetary stimulus put in place to buttress the economy reeling from the coronavirus fallout, as well as progress on a vaccine.

For the year, the S&P 500 is up more than 15%, the Dow more than 6% and the Nasdaq about 43%, which would mark the biggest yearly gain for the tech-heavy index since 2009.

“Unless there’s a big news item, traders and investors are happy with a 15% year for the S&P 500. The vaccine rollout is coming along that’s a positive that’s being offset by surging coronavirus cases,” said Oliver Pursche, president of Bronson Meadows Capital Management in Fairfield, Connecticut.

“I’m optimistic for 2021 in terms of equity returns. We could see another double-digit year for the S&P, which would make it an unbelievable four-year run.”

Still, data on Thursday was a reminder the economy still has a long way to recover as weekly initial jobless claims, while declining for a second straight week to 787,000, remained well above the peak of the 2007-2009 Great Recession.

Tech and consumer discretionary are set to be the best performing sectors on the year, while energy, a laggard for the past decade, was once again on track to be the weakest of the 11 major S&P sectors on the year and log its worst yearly performance ever.

Mega-cap names such as Amazon and Apple helped lift the broad S&P 500 and the Nasdaq, as well as gains in names that have benefited from the “stay-at-home” environment, such as online retailer ETSY Inc and digital payment platform PayPal.

On the session, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 65.68 points, or 0.22%, to 30,475.24, the S&P 500 gained 6.62 points, or 0.18%, to 3,738.66 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 16.16 points, or 0.13%, to 12,853.85.

Near-term expectations of bigger stimulus checks dimmed after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a quick vote on Wednesday to back President Donald Trump’s call to increase COVID-19 relief checks to $2,000 from $600.

Risk assets were able to build on the rally off the March low rallied in November following a U.S. election that investors viewed as likely to result in political gridlock and optimism around vaccines rollouts grew, but the momentum stalled on worries over fresh fiscal stimulus and a new, highly infectious COVID-19 variant spreading globally.

All eyes are on two U.S. Senate races in Georgia next week that will determine control of the chamber and influence Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to enact his agenda.

Trading volumes were light and have dwindled as the week moves closer to New Year’s Eve and the markets will remain closed on Friday for the holiday.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 1.27-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.22-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 17 new 52-week highs and no new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 105 new highs and 19 new lows.

Additional reporting by Stephen Culp; editing by Diane Craft

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Iran’s foreign minister says Trump trying to fabricate pretext to attack Iran | Reuters

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DUBAI (Reuters) -Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday accused U.S. President Donald Trump of attempting to fabricate a pretext to attack Iran, and said Tehran would defend itself forcefully.

FILE PHOTO: Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon August 14, 2020. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Separately, a military adviser to Iran’s supreme leader warned Trump “not to turn the New Year into mourning for Americans”.

Zarif said in a tweet: “Instead of fighting Covid in US, @realDonaldTrump & cohorts waste billions to fly B52s & send armadas to OUR region. Intelligence from Iraq indicate plot to FABRICATE pretext for war.”

The U.S. military flew two nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the Middle East in a message of deterrence to Iran on Wednesday, but the bombers have since left the region.

The Pentagon announced on Thursday that the Nimitz aircraft carrier, which was off the coast of Somalia, would be heading back to it’s homeport. Previously operating in the Middle East, some U.S. officials said the move could be seen an attempt to reduce tensions in the region.

In recent days there has been increased concern and vigilance about what Iranian-backed forces might do in the lead up to the anniversary of a Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the official said.

Washington blames Iran-backed militia for regular rocket attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq, including near the embassy. No known Iran-backed groups have claimed responsibility.

Iran is preparing to hold events marking the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing.

“Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests,” Zarif wrote.

Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Twitter: “I saw on the news that the Americans are on alert for fear of the revenge (over Soleimani’s killing) and have flown two B-52 bombers over the Persian Gulf”.

“All their military bases in the region are covered by our missiles. I advise the White House evictee (Trump) not to turn the New Year into mourning for Americans,” said Dehghan, a former defence minister.

Reporting by Dubai newsroom. Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Jon Boyle, Dan Grebler and Grant McCool

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Boris Johnson: 2021 will herald the return of ‘things that seem lost in the past’

Boris Johnson has said 2021 will herald the return of “things that seem lost in the past” as Covid is defeated and “everyday” activities can resume.

In a New Year message to the nation, the Prime Minister says that pursuits currently “bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia” such as going to the pub or theatre “or simply holding hands with our loved ones” are around the corner.

But he acknowledged that “we are still a way off from that” and that “there are tough weeks and months ahead”.

In a video posted on Twitter, Mr Johnson said many people will be “only too happy to say goodbye to the grimness of 2020”, describing it as “the year in which the Government was forced to tell people how to live their lives, how long to wash their hands, how many households could meet together, and a year in which we lost too many loved ones before their time”.

However he highlighted the positives of the past year, saying it was also “the year when we rediscovered a spirit of togetherness, of community.

“It was a year in which we banged saucepans to celebrate the courage and self-sacrifice of our NHS staff and care home workers,” with a renewed take-up of volunteering to help the elderly and vulnerable.

It was also a year in which British scientists not only found the first effective treatment for coronavirus, but also invented a vaccine that will soon be in use around the world.

With every vaccination that is carried out, Mr Johnson said, “we are changing the odds in favour of humanity and against Covid”.

In the past week deaths and infections from the new strain of the virus have shot up, making for a “hard struggle” ahead, “but as the sun rises tomorrow on 2021 we have the certainty of those vaccines”.

Mr Johnson said: “I believe 2021 is above all, the year when we will eventually do those everyday things that now seem lost in the past.

“Bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia, going to the pub, concerts, theatres, restaurants, or simply holding hands with our loved ones in the normal way.

“We are still a way off from that, there are tough weeks and months ahead.

“But we can see that illuminated sign that marks the end of the journey, and even more important, we can see with growing clarity how we are going to get there.

“And that is what gives me such confidence about 2021.”

Brexit in Pictures

Turning to Brexit, Mr Johnson said the UK now had “our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it”.

Looking ahead to another major issue later in 2021, the future of the Union, he said he believed “it will be the overwhelming instinct of the people of this country to come together as one United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland working together to express our values around the world.”

The SNP is expected to use any gains in the May elections in Holyrood, which coincide with local elections around the country, to renew calls for a second Scottish independence referendum.

Sussexes launch Archewell as Prince Harry declares ‘I am my mother’s son’ 

The Duke of Sussex put his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, centre stage as he launched his new charitable foundation yesterday, hailing her “kindness and compassion” as he declared: “I am my mother’s son.”

The Duke and his wife, the Duchess of Sussex, pledged to “build a better world” as they unveiled the website for Archewell, featuring prominent photographs of their mothers.

A picture of a young Prince Harry on his mother’s shoulders took pride of place at the centre of the homepage, signalling his determination to follow in her footsteps.

In a second monochrome image, a young Meghan stands as her mother, Doria Ragland, crouches down to hug her.

The couple launched the site with a joint statement called “Letter for 2021” which began:  “I am my mother’s son. And I am our son’s mother. Together we bring you Archewell.”

It went on: “We believe in the best of humanity. Because we have seen the best of humanity. We have experienced compassion and kindness, From our mothers and strangers alike.

“In the face of fear, struggle and pain, it can be easy to lose sight of this. Together, we can choose courage, healing, and connection. Together, we can choose to put compassion in action.

“We invite you to join us. As we work to build a better world. One act of compassion at a time.”

Prince Harry in the garden of Highgrove House in Gloucestershire, 18th July 1986 with his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales

The Duke and Duchess also announced partnerships between their foundation and several tech and research-focused groups.

The website detailed their plans for the Archewell Foundation, declaring that its core purpose was to “uplift and unite communities — local and global, online and offline — one act of compassion at a time.”

The couple said: “We believe that compassion is the defining cultural force of the 21st century… we support a growing community of partner organisations fuelling systemic cultural change.”

They vowed to listen to people and communities and “put real action” behind their words.

To that end, they put out an appeal for members of the public to get involved under the heading: How do you activate compassion in the world? 

They said that they wanted to hear stories, via an online form, about how people “acted with compassion in the last year” or how they felt connected with others, despite the distance.

The website also details their plans for Archewell Audio, which will produce podcasts for Spotify, the first of which was released this week, and Archewell Productions, created to “produce programming that informs, elevates, and inspires” for Netflix.

The couple said their programmes would “utilise the power of storytelling to embrace our shared humanity and duty to truth through a compassionate lens.”

Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, holding their son Archie in Cape Town, South Africa

Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

The multi-year deals signed with Spotify and Netflix are estimated to be worth around £18 million and more than £100 million respectively.

The Sussexes’ first podcast, a “holiday special” released almost a year to the day since they stepped back from their official royal roles, sent a poignant message to their supporters.

Perhaps mindful of their triumph in the face of perceived adversity, the Duchess said: “Trust us when we say, love always wins.”

The podcast saw their 19-month-old son, Archie, make his broadcast debut, complete with an endearing giggle, but the show has yet to break into the streaming service’s top ten most popular podcasts, climbing from 32 to 15.

Among the partnerships the couple announced yesterday, was one with Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who co-founded the Center for Humane Technology, to back research on ways to create the conditions for safer, more compassionate online communities.

Another is with the Loveland Foundation, which focuses on providing affordable mental health resources to black women and girls.

They have also joined forces with the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry and Stanford University’s Dr. James Doty, whose work focuses on the science of compassion.

A million doses of newly approved Oxford vaccine will be ready by Monday

A million doses of the newly approved Oxford vaccine will be ready by Monday amid concern over the NHS’s ability to carry out a mass vaccination programme at speed.

Well-placed sources said almost a million doses will be “on the shelf” in time for the roll out next week and a further two million made available by the middle of January.

On Wednesday Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, had said 530,000 doses had been cleared for release but another 407,000 will now be ready for use by this Monday.

The Government has ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford University/ AstraZeneca vaccine which was granted  emergency approval by the medicines regulator.

On Thursday, the Government said medically-trained Army personnel had been put on standby at the request of the Department of Health “to ensure the unbroken delivery of the vaccine rollout”.

Problems with delivery were highlighted when a group of GPs pledged to defy the Government over the change to how another vaccine — manufactured by Pfizer/BioNTech — will be administered.

The GPs said they were unhappy at an alteration to the vaccine regimen that recommends second doses of the Pfizer vaccine be given up to 12 weeks after the first. Pfizer has said there is no evidence its vaccine offers immunity if the second dose is delayed by more than three weeks.

Meanwhile, two major hotel chains have offered their sites as vaccination centres but have not heard back from the Government, The Telegraph understands.

The second dose of the Oxford vaccine will also be delivered up to 12 weeks after the first in an attempt by the Government to boost the vaccination numbers at a time when the second wave of Covid-19 has effectively shut down britain.

A further three million Oxford doses have been stored in vials for immediate use once given safety clearance with a further 15 million waiting for the “fill and finish” stage — where they are put into glass vials. That process takes just days.

Sources have insisted the supply of the Oxford vaccine is running smoothly but have questioned the ability of the NHS to distribute tens of millions of doses by April, as promised by Boris Johnson.

“There are 19 to 20 million doses available for supply. That’s not a problem. If the Government manages to vaccinate 500,000 people next week then wow, that will be amazing,” said a source. “The challenges are not in the supply but in the distribution.”

Official figures released on Thursday by the NHS showed 786,000 people in England had received the alternative Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, already given approval, in the 19 days from December 8 to December 27 — equivalent to 290,000 jabs a week.

Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, had warned on Wednesday that there were problems with supply that could hinder the roll out but sources have questioned his claims.

A separate source said: "The NHS have got 529,000 doses on the shelf right now and they will have another 407,000 on Monday, so before anyone starts to get the jab, there will be a million on the shelf. By the middle of January there should be two million doses a week being supplied.”

Pfizer vaccine roll-out

A Government spokesman said: “The NHS is well prepared to deliver the vaccine and keep pace with supplies as they increase over the coming weeks.

“As part of prudent planning, a reserve force of medically qualified military personnel has been placed on standby to support this work if needed.”

But last night in a two-page statement justifying the increased time between doses, the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said the problem in getting people vaccinated lay with the supply of both the Oxford and Pfizer vaccines rather than finding healthcare workers to deliver it.

"The rate of vaccine delivery in the UK is currently limited by vaccine supply rather than workforce capacity," said JCVI.

It said that "initially vaccinating a greater number of people with a single dose will prevent more deaths and hospitalisations than vaccinating a smaller number of people with two doses".