How London is avoiding a second Covid wave

At the Government’s Covid data briefing this week, alarming graphs revealed rapidly growing infection rates nationwide, from one in 2,200 people in August to one in 85 now. 

The number of people in hospital with Covid in England over the same period reflected that dramatic rise, going from a few hundred to more than 14,300.

But a closer look, by region, showed something else. As might be expected, the South was faring far better than the North. Fewer people were going to hospital across the South-East, South-West and east of England combined than in Yorkshire, where 376 people were admitted on Sunday.

One region, above all, appeared to be thriving – London, where new ONS figures showed that, in contrast to every other part of the country, there are currently no "excess deaths" at all compared to previous years. 

The percentage of those testing positive in the capital, at 0.71 per cent, is lower than any other region bar the East. Not only that, the infection rate in London is trending noticeably down from its peak of 0.85 per cent about three weeks ago.

Our most prosperous, populous city appears to be ducking the second wave. Intensive care units that were jammed almost exclusively with Covid patients in March are ticking along as normal. Two weeks into lockdown, doctors say case numbers show few signs of spinning out of control.

What’s going on? Is the second wave merely waiting to break across the capital, or might Covid be having a tougher time this time around? Here are five theories doing the rounds in the medical profession:

Fewer people

There are simply not as many people in London as usual, with a complete absence of tourists having changed the face of the city. 

Covent Garden in central London, normally a tourist destination, is all but deserted

Credit: Justin Tallis/ AFP

In 2019, there were 21 million tourist trips to London – 10 times the number to Edinburgh, in second place. National tourism agency VisitBritain noted that "from mid-March to mid-July, Covid-19 triggered a near-total shutdown in international tourism".

Things then picked up a little, but full year estimates are desperate. "Our central scenario forecast for inbound tourism to the UK in 2020 is for a decline of 74 per cent," said VisitBriain – and that was before the second national lockdown.

Behaviour changes

Those left in the city are doing different things – no more clubbing, massive concerts, sporting events, gigs. 

Packed commuter trains and Tube carriages are also a thing of the past. There were just 36.3 million Tube journeys in the last month for which figures are available.

The equivalent last year was 99.4 million – meaning there has been a fall of two-thirds. 

A quiet main concourse at London's Waterloo Station shortly before the start of the second lockdown

Credit: Niklas Hallen/AFP

The same is true of the rest of the country, of course. But such restrictions leave "general mixing" of households as the principal driver of infection. 

"Although everyone goes on about illegal raves or parties, the general mixing of people in London has changed," said Nicky Longley, associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "All that has gone away." 

In contrast, household mixing has been a problem in other regions. Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, said lockdown measures imposed in September were "to emphasise… about mixing between households".

Even a few breaches can be critical – some studies suggest that just 10 per cent of people might be responsible for 80 per cent of infections.

Second time lucky

London was badly hit by the first wave. Over the summer, React, the huge Imperial College study tracking Covid, reported a national average of six per cent of us had antibodies to the virus, showing that we had been infected. 

London – at 13 per cent – was more than twice that, and the highest in the country. In a separate nationwide study of children between two and 15 years old, 11.6 per cent in London had antibodies – "significantly higher than all other sites". 

Safer, a study of frontline healthcare workers at UCLH, showed that a whopping 45 per cent had been infected. "Obviously that is bigger than the general population [in London] but indicates that rates were likely to have been higher here than in the country as a whole," said Ms Longley, who also works at UCLH. 

Even this is not "herd immunity" level, but protection in London is almost certain to be higher than elsewhere.

Covid-19 antibody prevalence by region

Jobs and wealth

Of course there is deprivation in London. Of course there are multi-generational households in which vulnerable older people can easily be exposed to the virus. But the city is richer than other parts of the country. In 2018, disposable income per head stood at £29,362. In Yorkshire, it was £17,665. 

That is a consequence of the kinds of jobs people do. Close contact is the overwhelming route of infection. A study found that, in Sweden, the job carrying the greatest risk was taxi driver – 4.8 times higher than the average for all professions. 

In London, workers are more likely to be part of the "knowledge economy" and to more easily work from home. An ONS survey in the summer showed that 57 per cent of Londoners worked from home, 11 per cent above the national average and 20 per cent above Yorkshire, now so badly hit.

The Government favours London

This is the controversial one. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Government is, at the very least, dazzled by the fortunes of London and its nine million residents. 

Take the first lockdown. Many regions were forced indoors when infection rates, high in London, were low with them. When lockdown was first imposed, hospitalisation figures were the inverse of those now – London was way out in front. 

On March 23, when Boris Johnson told us all to stay indoors (see video below), some 1,515 were admitted in the capital, half the national total. In Yorkshire and the North-East, by comparison, there were just 190 admissions. 

When lockdown measures were eased, London had dramatically reversed the trend. On the last day of May, just 748 people were in hospital – fewer than half the total at the beginning of lockdown, and an 84 per cent decline from the capital’s peak of 4,813.

But everywhere else, the story was very different. In every other region, the numbers in hospital at the end of lockdown were higher than at the beginning. The Midlands, with 1,113, had almost three times as many people in hospital at the end of lockdown as at the beginning, and was only 64 per cent down from its own peak of 3,092. 

Yorkshire had almost five times as many, just 66 per cent down. The North-West, too, had five times as many people in hospital at the end as the beginning, and was just 57 per cent down on its peak.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the first lockdown was timed to suit London and that, this time around, the second national lockdown was imposed in time to protect the capital. 

"Last time our London figures dropped off and they released lockdown, but it hadn’t done the same in the North and they never really had a chance to catch up," said Ms Longley. "It’s possible that the second lockdown has also been timed in a London-centric way."

Princess Anne urged to take stand against closure of Institute for Commonwealth Studies

Princess Anne has been urged to take a stand against the closure of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, as a former secretary general says her intervention could save it from being axed.

The institute, which is part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies, faces closure due to the “real and pressing financial challenges” which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Princess Royal, who is chancellor of the university, has been urged to intercede by Chief Anyaoku, who was secretary general of the Commonwealth from 1990 to 2000.

 "She is the chancellor of the university and she should be aware of what is happening," he told The Telegraph. "She should be aware of the strong feelings of academics throughout the Commonwealth and beyond the Commonwealth.

"I would hope that if she is inspired by the presentations she wouldn’t want to have a word with the university authorities. The impact of closure of the institute will be felt throughout the Commonwealth.

"I would hope that the university would take serious notice of her intervention if she were minded to intervene. I would greatly welcome her intervention."  

Chief Anyaoku has previous warned that a “guilty conscience” over colonialism may be behind misguided plans to close the Institute for Commonwealth Studies.

 The Commonwealth should not be viewed “through the perspective of colonial history”, according Chief Emeka Anyaoku who said there is a “danger” in focussing on the past.  

Chief Anyaoku and three other former Commonwealth secretary generals have written to Prof Wendy Thomson, vice-chancellor of the University of London, urging her to reconsider.  A copy of their letter was also sent to The Princess’ office. 

The director general of the Commonwealth Foundation, one of the Commonwealth’s three major intergovernmental agencies, has also said that she was “dismayed” to learn of the institute’s planned closure and asked the university to review its decision. 

Last month, the University of London unveiled its “new strategy” for the School of Advanced Study.

It explained that due to the “significant” financial challenges faced by the School, it must “now consider all means of preserving viability and securing its future”. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies along with the Institute of Latin American Studies are earmarked for closure, with “key academic initiatives” and staff to be redeployed to other parts of the School.

A University of London spokesman said: "We are coming to the end of a formal consultation with staff and it would be inappropriate to comment further." Buckingham Palace declined to comment.

Exclusive: Peru’s interim president eyes new debt amid economic, political crises | Reuters

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LIMA (Reuters) — Peru is planning to raise new public debt in the short term in order to finance the Andean country’s deep fiscal deficit and repay interest on old debt in 2021, interim President Francisco Sagasti told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: Peru’s selected interim leader Francisco Sagasti attends his swearing-in ceremony, in Lima, Peru, November 17, 2020. REUTERS/Gerardo Marin/File Photo

“Our country has the capacity to raise debt at interest rates that are relatively reasonable,” Sagasti, 76, said late on Thursday evening in his first interview since taking office earlier this week amid a biting political crisis in the country.

“When one has space to raise debt and you are going through a crisis, that is what you have to do.”

Sagasti, a centrist lawmaker, has taken the reins in the copper-producing nation amid some of Peru’s most heated demonstrations against the political classes in decades, which saw huge protests in which two people killed and dozens injured.

Peru had been an economic success story for almost three decades, but the coronavirus pandemic has hit the country’s mining-driven economy hard, pushing up poverty levels and driving it towards its biggest annual contraction in a century.

The government of Vizcarra had launched one of the region’s biggest economic package to weather the coronavirus crisis, including cash transfers for the most vulnerable, even as mining production was hit by a lockdown.

The stimulus package will cost around 20% of Peru’s pre-pandemic gross domestic product, though the economy is set to contract 12.5% this year and tax revenue has dipped 30%.

Sagasti says his interim administration is weighing the possibility of spending more on new cash transfers.

He added said that while mining was key, there were other areas of industry such as agriculture, fishing, and forestry that had enormous potential for growth.

“Let’s not just get obsessed with one sector of the economy in a country that is so rich and that has so much diversity in terms of natural resources,” he said.

Sagasti said he would look to promote measures that balanced foreign investment with the needs of local communities and the environment.

“What the government will do is create the conditions and act as a guarantor of the rights of communities and investors, we have to be a mediator,” he said.

Reporting by Marco Aquino and Marcelo Rochabrun; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Alistair Bell

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Teenage law student ‘full of dreams and aspirations’ dies after taking party drug ketamine

A teenage girl who was full of “dreams and aspirations” has died after taking ketamine at university, amid concern that the drug is becoming the party drug of choice for students.

Megan Pollitt, an 18-year-old law student with a “beautiful bright smile” moved 140 miles to start her new life at Cardiff University.

She collapsed at her university halls of residence on Saturday, dying in hospital four days later.

Last year, Public Health England voiced their concerns that young people are using the drug, which is often used as a horse tranquilliser, more frequently for partying.

Experts warned that many young people would be unaware of the health risks such as damage to the bladder, while it was quickly becoming the third most popular party drug after ecstasy and cocaine.

Home Office figures showed that in 2018, although drug seizures by police had fallen, the number of confiscations of ketamine had increased by 30 per cent.

The Government’s crime survey of England and Wales found that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds using the drug had risen to 3.1 per cent in the same year, the highest since records of ketamine use began.

A South Wales Police spokeswoman said: "Detectives are keeping an open mind and investigating the possibility that the drug ketamine might be a factor."

Ms Pollitt’s family from Rugby in Warwickshire, paid tribute to her, saying: "Meg dedicated her time to everyone around her and was always there for others.

"She had recently started studying law in Cardiff and was full of dreams and aspirations.

"Having moved away Meg still enjoyed close contact with family and friends, sharing stories and laughter through visits and calls.

"We will miss her beautiful bright smile and positive energy that would lift the spirits of anyone.

"Meg loved the outdoor space, particularly hiking with her Dad and her dog. She had recently climbed Snowdon and reached the summit.

"Meg also loved reading the classics, watching Anime and listening to music as well as supporting the Wasps rugby team.

"Meg will be missed and forever loved by her Mum and Dad, sister, grandparents and friends."

Bristol University students have already been made aware that a potentially dangerous batch of ketamine may be in circulation around the area.

In a statement, police said: “Users of controlled drugs are once again reminded that they should be aware that they can never be 100 per cent sure of exactly what they are taking.

“These drugs are illegal and there is every possibility that they may contain a cocktail of toxic ingredients”

Alison Golden, Director of Student Health and Inclusion told students: “Mixing drugs, including alcohol can be extremely dangerous. The effects will be exaggerated and it could prove fatal”.

The University of Bristol already provides funding for free drug testing kids through the Bristol Drugs Project, so that if students were to take drugs like ketamine, they are able to determine if they are laced with other chemicals.

According to the university they will also be using their Psychology department to test which interventions work well when engaging with students on their use of drugs.

This follows the deaths of four young people in Newcastle where ketamine and MDMA were suspected to be involved.

Following her death, South Wales Police said they have charged a 23-year-old man with drug offences.

Lanoi Liddell appeared at Cardiff Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday where he was remanded in custody.

Detective Chief Inspector Tom Moore, said: "Two families have been left devastated by these tragic events over the weekend and they are being supported by officers as we continue with our enquiries.”

Covid marshals giving ‘yellow cards’ to rule flouters, video reveals 

Coronavirus marshals are showing ‘yellow cards’ to people flouting lockdown rules, a video has shown.

The cards, more frequently seen on a football or rugby pitch, have been brandished by high-vis wearing ‘Covid Community Protection Officers’ in Gloucestershire who warn rulebreakers that a second yellow will result in the police being called.

The cautions have no legal weight and have been described as “a symbolic gesture” to try and get members of the public to adhere to lockdown restrictions.

Eight officials are being employed to patrol the streets of Gloucester, Cheltenham, Stroud and Tewkesbury.

According to a statement from Gloucestershire County Council: “Although the new officers do not have an enforcement role, they can as a very last resort, issue yellow cards to people who seriously or repeatedly flout advice given to them, which could lead to a fine from Police or their local council.”

A video has been shared on social media where a group of people are being confronted by two officers.

It is understood that the footage was filmed in Stratford Park, Stroud, where dozens attended an anti-lockdown rally on November 7, which saw the organiser fined £10,000.

In the clip, the marshal waving the caution says: “Carry on walking, if you won’t leave I will give you a yellow card.”

A person filming on his phone replies: “Yellow card? What is it?”

A second officer then responds, saying: “A yellow card is what we give you if you breach Covid regulations.

“You have also been to a protest up the road. 

“You’ve been walking around the park where the protest has been taking place and you’ve been stood there watching, therefore you’ve breached the Covid regulations because you’re not exercising, you’re in a gathering.

“We issue a yellow card as a first warning and we issue the second yellow card as a final warning and that’s when police will come and enforce it by fining you.”

Council officials stressed that the officers had an “ambassadorial role” and are “supporting the public and businesses to do all they can to reduce the spread of Covid in Gloucestershire.”

“They are more likely to hand out free face masks or hand gel. The yellow cards for disobedience are symbolic gestures,” according to one source.

In a joint statement the leaders of the councils involved said: “These continue to be tough times for us all and we want to do all we can to help people to be aware of the things they can do to keep themselves and others safe and most importantly reduce the spread of Covid in the county. 

“Although increasing, the number of cases remains low compared to many other places. We want to make sure it stays that way and would encourage everyone to play their part by remembering three simple things: hands, face and space.”

Georgia deals setback to Trump’s bid to overturn Biden victory | Reuters

6 Min Read

(Reuters) — President Donald Trump’s desperate bid to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 election was dealt another blow on Friday when a high-ranking Georgia official announced President-elect Joe Biden was the winner after a recount in the U.S. state.

Biden, a Democrat, is preparing to take office on Jan. 20, but Trump, a Republican, has refused to concede and is searching for a way to invalidate or overturn the results in a number of states, claiming widespread voter fraud.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger poured more cold water on the Trump campaign’s effort when he confirmed that a manual recount and audit of all ballots cast in the southern state had determined that Biden was the winner.

“The numbers reflect the verdict of the people, not a decision by the secretary of state’s office or courts, or of either campaigns,” Raffensperger, a Republican and Trump supporter, told reporters.

With the door seemingly slammed shut in Georgia and having been stung by a series of court defeats, the Trump team is resting its hopes on a bid to get Republican-controlled legislatures in other battleground states won by Biden to set aside the results and declare Trump the winner, according to three people familiar with the plan.

It is focusing on Michigan and Pennsylvania for now, but even if both those states flipped to the president he would need to overturn the vote in another state to vault ahead of Biden in the Electoral College.

Such an extraordinary event would be unprecedented in modern U.S. history. Trump not only would need three state legislatures to intervene against vote counts as they stand now, but then also have those actions upheld by Congress and, almost certainly, the U.S. Supreme Court.

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2020 U.S. ELECTION: What you need to know right now

Trump’s lawyers are seeking to take the power of appointing electors away from state governors and secretaries of state, and give it to friendly state lawmakers from his party, saying the U.S. Constitution gives legislatures the ultimate authority.

“The entire election frankly in all the swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for Trump,” Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s lawyers, told Fox Business Network on Thursday.

Legal experts have sounded the alarm at the notion of a sitting president seeking to undermine the will of the voters, though they have expressed skepticism that a state legislature could lawfully substitute its own electors.

Biden campaign legal adviser Bob Bauer told reporters on Friday that Trump was in a hopeless legal position.

So far, Trump’s attempts to reverse the outcome via lawsuits and recounts have met with little success. Despite the setbacks, his campaign has not abandoned its legal efforts and has vowed to file more lawsuits.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

WHITE HOUSE MEETING

Trump will meet with Michigan’s state legislative leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House of Representatives Speaker Lee Chatfield, both Republicans, at the White House on Friday, according to a source in Michigan.

The two lawmakers will listen to what the president, who requested the meeting, has to say, the source said. Shirkey told a Michigan news outlet earlier this week that the legislature would not appoint a second slate of electors.

Upon arriving at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport outside Washington, Shirkey and his colleagues were met by a swarm of protesters. Some held signs that read “SHAME” while others chanted “Certify the results” and “respect Michigan voters.” One protester asked, “What has Trump promised you?”

Slideshow ( 3 images )

“It’s incredibly dangerous that they are even entertaining the conversation,” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told MSNBC. “This is an embarrassment to the state.”

Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were the pillars of Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, but Biden prevailed in all three by even larger margins than Trump did four years ago. Trump’s hopes of remaining president are doomed without them.

Even though election officials have not reported any major irregularities, most prominent Republicans have remained on side with Trump or quietly acceded. But a few, including U.S. Senator Mitt Romney, have spoken out.

“Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the president has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election,” Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, said in a statement on Thursday. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president.”

Other Republican senators including Ben Sasse and Joni Ernst called on Trump to offer proof of electoral fraud.

Biden, meanwhile, was due on Friday to meet Democratic leaders in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, after spending most of the week with advisers planning his administration.

Nationally, Biden won nearly 6 million more votes than Trump, a difference of 3.8 percentage points. But the outcome of the election is determined in the Electoral College, where each state’s electoral votes, based largely on population, are typically awarded to the winner of a state’s popular vote.

Biden leads by 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232 as states work to certify their results at least six days before the Electoral College convenes on Dec. 14.

Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit, Jarrett Renshaw in Wilmington, Delaware, Karen Freifeld in New York and Jan Wolfe and Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert in Washington; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Paul Simao; Editing by Lincoln Feast, David Clarke and Chizu Nomiyama

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Supreme Court cancels arguments over Trump bid to withhold parts of Russia probe | Reuters

2 Min Read

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building at sunset in Washington, U.S. November 10, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday canceled oral arguments next month over President Donald Trump’s bid to keep Congress from seeing material withheld from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian political meddling, raising the possibility that the justices may never rule on the issue.

The court granted a request from the Democratic-led House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, which asked in court papers for a postponement given that a new Congress will convene in the first week of January 2021 and Democratic President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.

The committee last year subpoenaed grand jury materials related to the Mueller report, which documented Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election to boost Trump’s candidacy. The Justice Department withheld the materials when the report was released.

Come January, a newly constituted committee, still led by Democrats following last month’s election, “will have to determine whether it wishes to continue pursuing the application for the grand-jury materials that gave rise to this case,” the committee said in the court papers.

Acting U.S. Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, representing the Trump administration, did not oppose the request.

The oral arguments had been scheduled for Dec. 2. The court action in a brief order means it is possible the case will be dropped altogether once Biden takes office.

Mueller submitted his report to U.S. Attorney General William Barr in March 2019 after a 22-month investigation that detailed Russian hacking and propaganda efforts to help the Republican Trump and harm his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton and documented multiple contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley. Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Howard Goller

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Asia Pacific leaders come together with free and fair trade call | Reuters

4 Min Read

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) — Asia Pacific leaders set aside differences on Friday with their first joint communique in three years, calling for free and predictable trade to help a global economy laid low by the coronavirus pandemic.

A screenshot shows participants of the virtual APEC Economic Leaders Meeting 2020 pose for a family picture, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia November 20, 2020. APEC Economic Leaders Meeting Malaysia 2020/Handout via Reuters

Leaders of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), who included U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping, also said they would not resort to protectionist policies.

Their joint statement, after a virtual summit hosted by Malaysia, is set against a backdrop of ongoing trade tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

“The impact of (the U.S.-China) trade war has been eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told reporters after the meeting.

“APEC has also pledged to refrain from backtracking and resorting to protectionist measures to keep markets and borders open,” he said.

In the communique, the leaders said they recognised “the importance of a free, open, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent and predictable trade and investment environment” to drive growth during the crisis.

APEC countries failed to reach agreement in 2018, after talks were stymied by discord over trade and investment between the United States and China, and last year’s gathering in Chile was cancelled due to violent street protests.

Trump, who has yet to concede and begin a transfer of government to President-elect Joe Biden, largely focused on domestic issues in his remarks at the meeting and spoke of the successes of his time in office, a source who heard it said.

The Trump administration has been criticised for a lower level of engagement in Asia. The only time he has joined an APEC summit — held annually — was in 2017.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

He also missed the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit this month.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters that Trump’s remarks were about the coronavirus, vaccines and economic recovery. “We can do this,” he quoted Trump as saying about defeating COVID-19.

Xi, in his remarks, called for free and open trade and investment, and support for multilateralism.

He also said China will “actively consider” signing up for a regional free-trade pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Trump had pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the predecessor to CPTPP.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Before the meeting, several APEC leaders warned against protectionism and expressed hope that a Biden administration will engage more and support multilateral trade.

“As we confront this generation’s biggest economic challenge, we must not repeat the mistakes of history by retreating into protectionism,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday at the APEC CEO Dialogues.

“APEC must continue to commit to keeping markets open and trade flowing.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday that U.S. trade policies under Trump had caused “very slow” progress in APEC in recent years, adding that he expected “more multilateralists” in the Biden administration.

Other than the CPTPP, the United States is also absent from the world’s largest free-trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP) — a 15-nation pact backed by China that was signed last week.

Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur, David Brunnstrom in Washington, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Ju-min Park in Tokyo; Writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Sam Holmes, Gareth Jones and Alexander Smith

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Wall Street dips on concerns over fading stimulus, virus fears | Reuters

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(Reuters) — Wall Street’s main indexes dipped on Friday as fears grew over fading stimulus and the blow to the economy from increasing coronavirus infections.

FILE PHOTO: The New York Stock Exchange is pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., November 10, 2020. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday defended his decision to end several of the Federal Reserve’s key pandemic lending programs on Dec. 31, saying Congress should use the money to help small U.S. companies with grants instead.

The decision to end the program, which was deemed essential by the central bank, comes as data showed a rise in jobless claims last week as new business restrictions to control spiraling COVID-19 infections likely unleashed a fresh wave of layoffs.

California and Ohio imposed nightly curfews on Thursday, joining 20 U.S. states to have adopted new mandates this month to fight the spread of the virus.

“I don’t think we will go through a full-blown contraction or a complete shutdown, but as the vaccine starts to roll out there is potential for tremendous economic improvement next year,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Florida.

U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided to resume COVID-19 relief talks on Thursday.

The S&P 500 and the Dow were little changed over this week following two strong weeks of gains, as investors juggled between growing optimism over an effective coronavirus vaccine and near-term economic damage from the surging COVID-19 infections.

Major banks have upgraded their stock market forecasts for 2021 after recent promising data from COVID-19 vaccine trials.

At 09:45 a.m. ET the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 37.28 points, or 0.13% to 29,445.95, the lost 2.00 points, or 0.06% to 3,579.87 and the lost 9.78 points, or 0.08% to 11,894.94.

All major S&P sectors slipped, barring utilities.

Pfizer Inc rose 1.8% as the company said it has applied to U.S. health regulators for emergency use authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine.

Apparel and home fashion retailer Ross Stores Inc gained 2% after its quarterly sales topped expectations.

Gilead Sciences Inc fell 1% as a World Health Organization panel advised against the use of remdesivir for patients hospitalized with COVID-19, saying there was no evidence the drug improves survival or reduces the need for ventilation.

Declining issues matched advancing ones on the NYSE, and on the Nasdaq a 0.7-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted nine new 52-week highs and no new low, while the Nasdaq Composite recorded 65 new highs and four new lows.

Reporting by Shivani Kumaresan and Medha Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta

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Cardinal Nichols criticised for ‘Mafia-esque’ question-blocking during apology to abuse victims

Cardinal Nichols has been criticised by child sexual abuse victims following a “Mafia-esque” blocking of questions during a “meaningless” press conference to offer his apology.

Earlier this month the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) concluded that Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who acts as the Pope’s representative in England and Wales, failed to show "personal responsibility and compassion" for victims, and instead prioritised Church reputation.

It also found that between 1970 and 2015 there were more than 900 complaints involving over 3,000 instances of child sexual abuse, and since 2016, there have been more than 100 reported allegations each year. 

On Friday morning, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales held a press conference, which required the media to register and was not open to members of the public, to unveil its new safeguarding procedures and ask abuse victims for forgiveness for causing "wounds of permanent damage". 

Cardinal Nichols told the press conference that “abuse is a terrible wickedness”, adding: “I am so sorry for all that has happened over these years”. 

However he refused to take questions specifically regarding IICSA’s critical findings, prompting claims from victims that his apology is “meaningless”. 

The Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols

Credit: David Rose /David Rose 

Alexander DesForges, Cardinal Nichols’ press secretary, asked journalists to submit their questions in writing during the online conference — which were visible to all 35 people present — and failed to select those which were directly critical of the Cardinal. 

Instead, Mr DesForges allowed some journalists to ask multiple questions, and muted those who interrupted the online conference in a bid to get answers.

Responding to the incident, one survivor of abuse in the Catholic Church who gave evidence to the IICSA said:”It’s just awful. It’s Mafia-esque. It just smacks of what the Church has been found to be doing by the Inquiry — which is protecting its reputation at all costs. That’s what they’ve done this morning. 

“They protect Vincent Nichols by shutting down any questions about his role in this and I think until there’s a change in leadership, any statements that are made are meaningless. 

“In not allowing journalists to answer questions that they would like to ask themselves and on their behalf, it’s just another form of silencing victims from speaking out.”

Mr DesForges told the press conference that all questions had been answered and muted The Telegraph following an attempt to ask Cardinal Nichols questions. 

Following Friday’s press conference, Richard Scorer, solicitor at Slater and Gordon who represents 32 survivors of Catholic Church abuse in IICSA, said: “The attempt by the Cardinal’s press officer to prevent questions by journalists is an absolute disgrace, and indicative of an authoritarian mindset which seeks to silence any questioning or accountability – precisely the mentality which created the abuse crisis in the first place. It confirms the Cardinal’s total unfitness for office. 

“The Cardinal’s attitude seems to be that if he avoids questions, this will go away. It won’t. Survivors are determined to ensure that the hierarchy is held to account. 

“Their courageous campaigning will continue, and church leaders will not escape accountability by hiding from public view.”

In response, Mr DesForges said: “I am sorry you feel your question was not answered previously” citing reasons of “limited time”. 

“I can only apologise for any misunderstanding around the press conference…  Cardinal Nichols has given substantive answers to questions about his position.” 

In its final review of the Catholic Church, the government-ordered IICSA found that it “betrayed” its moral purpose by prioritising its reputation above children who had been sexually abused by priests. 

“Child sexual abuse,” the damning 162-page report concluded, “was swept under the carpet”, as authorities “turned a blind eye and failed to take action against perpetrators”.

Furthermore, the Inquiry found that the Holy See and the Apostolic Nuncio, its ambassador to the UK, did not provide a witness statement to the Inquiry despite repeated requests. 

They had been asked about the Apostolic Nuncio’s involvement in handling child sexual abuse allegations at Ealing Abbey, as well as other issues. The Inquiry said it “could not understand their lack of cooperation”.

Despite facing calls to resign from victims following the publication of the report, Cardinal Nichols said he would continue in his role as Archbishop of Westminster. He offered his resignation to the Pope when he turned 75, in accordance with custom, and which occurred on the day the IICSA report was published.

However, it remains unknown whether the Cardinal discussed the forthcoming IICSA report with Pope Francis when he offered his resignation.

Cardinal Nichols has also yet to respond to the IICSA’s criticism of the Holy See.