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    Covid inquiry must look at NHS 111 ‘mishandling’, bereaved families say

    The inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic should look at the “mishandling” of the NHS 111 service, families bereaved during the crisis have said.In a scathing report, the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group said the service was inappropriately used to “alleviate the burden on the NHS” with “horrific” consequences.The report, based on a survey of families, said many believed that the service “failed to recognise how seriously ill their relatives were and direct them to appropriate care”.They argue that the service was also quickly “swamped” during the first wave despite the addition of 700 new call handlers, many of who were making life or death decisions with just 10 weeks training.The phone line is one of a number of areas the groups want the government’s inquiry to cover. Other areas include No 10’s level of pandemic preparedness, particularly PPE shortages, as well as an investigation into the disproportionate impact on ethnic minority groups and those with disabilities. Lobby Akinnola, a member of the group, said his father, Olufemi Akinnola, had called NHS 111 four times over two-and-a-half weeks in April 2020 but was told that he should not go to hospital.Mr Akinnola believes the assessments were informed by his father saying he did not have blue lips – a symptom of hypoxia that as a black man he did not have.The 60-year-old was thought to be recovering from coronavirus, but he was in fact experiencing hypoxia – low blood oxygen – that proved to be fatal.Mr Akinnola said: “It’s hard not to believe that if my dad had gone to hospital, he might still be with us today.“A healthy, active man, I can’t help but wonder if he’d received different advice from 111, could it all have been so different?“If he had been white and his lips had turned visibly blue, would he have received the same advice? Would I still have my dad?”Mr Akinnola said he does not blame call operators, adding: “111 must be a key issue that the inquiry looks at, and the families that lost loved ones as a consequence of the failings resulting from the government’s mishandling of the service must be at the forefront of that.”Boris Johnson has committed to holding a public inquiry, and No 10 has said it is due to start in spring 2022.A government spokesperson said: “Every death from this virus is a tragedy and our sympathies are with everyone who has lost loved ones. We will ensure the inquiry gets to the bottom of many of the questions thousands of bereaved families have about the pandemic.“We have committed to holding a full public inquiry as soon as is reasonably possible, and will appoint the chair of the inquiry by Christmas and consult bereaved families and other groups on the terms of reference before they are finalised.“It is critical we understand what happened in detail, but at the moment it is right that public servants continue to focus their efforts on tackling the pandemic before moving on to the inquiry in spring.” More

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    Labour reshuffle: Starmer brings Yvette Cooper back to front bench as shadow home secretary

    Former minister Yvette Cooper is returning to the Labour front bench following a wide-ranging shadow cabinet reshuffle by Sir Keir Starmer.The former work and pensions secretary will face Priti Patel as shadow home secretary, replacing Nick Thomas-Symonds in the role. She last held a shadow cabinet position in 2015.“Much to do,” she tweeted on taking the new job. “The Home Office is badly letting people down.”Other major changes to Labour’s top team include a scaled-back role for former leader Ed Miliband, who has been stripped of his responsibilities for business policy and will focus on climate and net zero while Jonathan Reynolds becomes shadow business secretary.Former leadership candidate Lisa Nandy meanwhile moves from shadow foreign secretary to shadow secretary of state for levelling-up, shadowing Michael Gove.Bridget Philipson replaces Kate Green as shadow education secretary, while Wes Streeting replaces Jonathan Ashworth in the shadow health brief. Mr Ashworth moves to the work and pensions brief.Mr Thomas-Symonds will shadow international trade while Lucy Powell covers culture. Former transport chief Jim McMahon will cover the environment brief, with Louise Haigh taking over his previous job. Emily Thornberry has been moved to shadow attorney general.Earlier, the Labour leader sparked a row with his deputy, Angela Rayner, amid claims he did not consult her ahead of a major speech attacking government “corruption” where she appeared to be blindsided as news filtered through of the reshuffle.Ms Rayner told reporters she was not aware of the “details of any reshuffle” and appeared to criticise the strategy, insisting Labour should needed “some consistency in how we’re approaching things as an opposition”.Her spokesperson told The Independent they had had a “short conversation” before the speech, but stressed she “was not consulted on the reshuffle” — an account disputed by the Labour leader’s allies.The flashpoint comes after the pair were previously locked in a stand-off during Sir Keir’s last reshuffle in May where Ms Rayner felt she was being scapegoated for the party’s disastrous Hartlepool by-election result with a proposed demotion.But bolstered by weeks of allegations of sleaze and divisions in the Conservative ranks over social care and rail infrastructure, alongside polls showing a dip in support for Boris Johnson’s party, the Labour leader pressed ahead with his second reshuffle of the year on Monday to reshape his top team.Frontbencher Cat Smith was the first to announce her departure with a resignation letter posted on social media on Monday morning — despite receiving an offer from Sir Keir to remain in her current role as shadow minister for democracy.In a departing shot at the Labour leader, the MP said the failure to reinstate former leader Jeremy Corbyn — who currently sits as an independent MP — in the Parliamentary Labour Party was “utterly unsustainable”.Shadow attorney general, Lord Falconer, whose earnings outside Parliament came under scrutiny as Labour turned its attack on Conservative sleaze, also announced he was stepping aside from frontline politics in a letter to Sir Keir. Other departures from the shadow cabinet include Luke Pollard, who said he would spend more time focusing on his constituency. Mr Miliband downplayed the narrowing of his brief, stating: “I came back to frontline politics because tackling the climate emergency is the most important issue we face. “We need a Labour government with a dedicated department to decarbonise our economy and deliver climate justice and economic justice together. That’s the work I’ll lead.”Yet the reshuffle, which largely promoted moderates and centrists, was received poorly by the left of the party. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “Reviving the careers of former Blairite ministers and simply reappointing existing shadow cabinet ministers to new posts does give the impression of Christmas Past, not Christmas Future.”But Sir Keir said the Labour Party was “focused on the priorities of the country”, describing his new shadow cabinet as “smaller, more focused”.He said: “I’m particularly delighted that Lisa Nandy will take on the vital role of shadowing Michael Gove and leading on the levelling up agenda. After 11 years of Conservative mismanagement of our economy, delivering prosperity to all regions and nations in the UK will be a defining mission of the next Labour government, and there will be nobody better than Lisa to lead this work.“Climate change is the most important issue facing this country over the next decade. Ed Miliband will lead in the Shadow Cabinet to develop Labour’s extensive plans for net zero in a first term Labour Government, and hold the government to account for its failure to take action. Ed has a proven track record in government, and is a powerful, internationally well respected voice on the issue, and that’s why I am delighted he has agreed to lead on this.”He added: “I want to thank all those who have left the shadow cabinet today for their great service to me and to our party.“I look forward to working with the new team to show we are once again a serious party of Government, ready to fix the mess the Tories have got the country into and to inspire voters to believe that Britain’s best days are ahead of us.” More

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    Sajid Javid refuses to rule out return to lockdown in response to Omicron variant of Covid

    Health secretary Sajid Javid has refused to rule out a new lockdown in England in response to the threat of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.Mr Javid told MPs than no-one wanted to see a return to measures of the sort deployed when the coronavirus first emerged last year.But he was unable to give a positive response to Tory MP Richard Drax’s plea for a pledge “that he will never ever go back to locking this country down”.Mr Javid was speaking as he outlined new requirements to wear face-coverings in shops and public transport in England, as well as 10 days’ isolation for anyone coming into contact with a known carrier of the Omicron strain.The restrictions, coming into effect from 4am on Tuesday, will be reviewed in three weeks’ time on 21 December, with the possibility that they will be lifted in time for Christmas, Mr Javid told the Commons.But some Conservative lockdown sceptics raised doubts over the move, with Sir Desmond Swayne telling the Commons that the evidence for the efficacy of face-coverings was “mumbo-jumbo”.Swayne later said he was “exempt from wearing a mask due to my genetic predisposition for liberty”.And Mr Drax told the health secretary: “Covid is not going to go away. It’s here for the rest of our lives. The country has to learn to live with this disease now. It is the only way forward.“Can you please reassure me, the House and the country that he will never, ever go back to locking down this country?”Mr Javid stopped well short of ruling out a return to lockdown in his response, telling Mr Drax only that: “No-one wants to see those kinds of measures”.MPs will vote on the new restrictions for England on Tuesday, hours after they actually come into effect.There were calls for the Commons to be recalled from its Christmas recess to debate the planned review, with Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen warning that extending the restrictions without a vote would amount to “government by diktat”.Mr Javid said that the level of risk posed by Omicron remained unclear, and that the three-week restrictions would help provide time for scientists and experts to work out how dangerous it is.But his predecessor as health secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the emergence of Omicron was “a symptom of the failure of Western countries to make sure that vaccines are distributed adequately around the world”.Mr Javid said that the decision by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to extend booster vaccines to 18-49 year-olds and to reduce the interval between second jab and booster to a minimum three months marked a new measures are a “huge step up” for the vaccine programme.The move – accepted by ministers “in full” – will almost double the numbers able to get a booster dose, he said. It is expected to result in a sharp increase in numbers of jabs from the 6 million who had been expected to receive them over the next few weeks.Jeremy Hunt says Omicron is ‘a symptom of the failure of Western countries to share vaccines around the world’Mr Javid said that there were “no plans that I am aware of that would require us to close schools early” as a result of Omicron, adding: “I think that would be very detrimental to the education of children.”Shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, deputising for Jon Ashworth after he tested positive for Covid, told MPs: “This variant is a wake-up call.“The pandemic is not over, we need to act with speed to bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay and it is also an important reminder that no-one is safe until all of us are safe.”Dr Allin-Khan called for pre-departure testing to prevent people with Covid arriving in the UK.She added: “We support the decision to introduce masks on public transport and in shops, but we believe this should never have been abandoned in the first place. Keeping masks in place would always have been our Plan A.”And she said that mandatory mask-use should be extended to hospitality venues like pubs. More

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    Boris Johnson and two cabinet ministers attended event linked to Covid cases

    Boris Johnson and two cabinet ministers attended a conference in central London last week, several attendees of which have since developed Covid infections and been contacted by NHS Test and Trace. Last Monday, the prime minister addressed business leaders and trade experts at think tank the Centre for Policy Studies’ (CPS) Margaret Thatcher Conference on Trade. The majority of attendees and the prime minister did not wear a mask. The NHS recommends wearing a “face covering when it’s hard to stay away from other people – particularly indoors or in crowded places”.The prime minister arrived at the Guildhall at around 7pm on Monday evening before giving a speech at a dinner organised in order to wrap up the conference. The Independent understands that there are at least five positive Covid cases linked to the event, three of which attended the dinner and one of whom was in close proximity to the prime minister. Three people who are now infected told The Independent that they believe the CPS conference was the likely point of infection. Several more attendees have been contacted by test and trace and asked to conduct PCR tests. It is not clear if any of these infections could be cases of the omicron variant as that can only be established through genomic sequencing.On Sunday, Downing Street declined to say whether Mr Johnson had had a PCR test since attending. The Independent understands that as of Sunday afternoon, the prime minister had not been formally contacted by test and trace. This is also the case for the trade secretary and Lord Frost, it is understood.It comes as the third known English case of the new and potentially troublesome omicron variant was discovered in someone who had spent time in the Westminster area. A further two cases were confirmed in London on Monday. The CPS conference took place in the City’s Guildhall, with delegates from across Whitehall, Westminster and the UK. Brexit minister Lord Frost and trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan also attended the event, and were not seen wearing masks. Cases have since been identified in Scotland without travel history to southern Africa. Deputy first minister John Swinney told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that “on some of the cases involved we are satisfied there is no travel history or travel connection with southern Africa so that means it is likely that the omicron strain is circulating within the community”.A spokesperson for the CPS declined to comment. From 4am on Tuesday, the government will introduce “temporary and precautionary” measures to control the possible spread of the new omicron variant such as a reintroduction of masks in some areas for a period of three weeks, the prime minister said at a press conference on Saturday. A host of countries have been added to the UK’s travel red list. Other steps will include a ramping up of Covid boosters to include all adults.Downing Street has separately rejected a request from Scottish and Welsh leaders Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford for the self-isolation period for travellers to be extended until the result of a test on day eight after arriving in the UK.Extending the requirements would have a “detrimental effect” on the travel industry, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said.“We believe that the approach we’ve taken is the proportionate one to the evidence that we currently have available about this variant,” he said.“Introducing further isolation requirements and testing requirements would have a detrimental effect on the travel individually industry and indeed those who are planning to go travelling.” More

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    Nicola Sturgeon announces £20-a-week payment for Scotland’s poorest families

    A payment aimed at helped low-income families in Scotland will be doubled to £20-a-week from next year, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced.The SNP leader claimed the £10 increase of the Scottish Child Payment given to the country’s poorest families was the “boldest and most ambitious anti-poverty measure anywhere in the UK”.While the doubled payments will reach over 100,000 children from April, Ms Sturgeon said she planned extend the child payment to all under-16s by the end of next year – making around 400,000 families eligible.In a downbeat speech to close her party’s conference, Ms Sturgeon said the campaign for Scottish independence would “resume in earnest” at the end of winter, depending on the prevalence of Covid.“Next year, Covid permitting, as we emerge from winter into spring, the campaign to persuade a majority of people in Scotland that our future will be more secure as an independent nation will resume in earnest,” she said.The SNP leader repeated her pledge to hold a second independence referendum before the end of 2023, although Boris Johnson has so far refused to countenance Scotland having another vote.“My message to the prime minister is this. If you have any respect at all for democracy, and if you have any confidence whatsoever in your argument against independence, you too will let the people decide,” said Ms Sturgeon.Speaking at virtual event largely focused on the outbreak of the Omicron variant, she argued that leaving the UK would give Scotland the “opportunity to repair the damage of Covid … in a way that aligns with our values and priorities”.She told the SNP conference the mutated coronavirus variant could lead to a winter “tougher than most of us have ever experienced”.With six cases of the new Omicron strain having already been discovered in Scotland, she pledged: “If difficult decisions need to be made to keep us safe, we will not shy away from them.”Ms Sturgeon asked Scots to “significantly step up and increase compliance” with existing precautions – asking the public to take a lateral flow test before mixing with people from other households.Taking a different tack from Mr Johnson’s ministers, she also urged Scots to work from home if possible, and urged employers in Scotland to “maximise” home working.Speaking earlier on Monday, Ms Sturgeon urged Downing Street to bring in “tougher” travel rules to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant of across the UK.She and Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford wrote to Mr Johnson to demand a “tightening” of curbs so all arrivals in UK have to self-isolate for eight days.But No 10 rejected the devolved administrations’ calls for the self-isolation period for travellers to be extended, and said there was no Cobra meeting involving all four nations of the UK currently planned. More

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    Labour reshuffle: Keir Starmer launches shake up as frontbencher Cat Smith quits

    Sir Keir Starmer has launched a surprise shake-up of his shadow cabinet without consulting his deputy, Angela Rayner, on the planned changes, according to her spokesperson.Ms Rayner appeared to have been caught off-guard as details of the Labour leader’s reshuffle emerged publicly while she was delivering a major speech on reform standards in public life amid a toxic row over sleaze and corruption in politics.Frontbencher Cat Smith was first to announce her resignation on social media after taking a call from Sir Keir regarding his plans on Monday morning.The MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, shadow minister for democracy, said she had been invited to carry on in her role – but decided to step down to focus “on my Lancashire constituency”.Outlining issues on which she clashed with Sir Keir, Ms Smith said the failure to reinstate former leader Jeremy Corbyn – who currently sits as an independent MP – in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was “unsustainable”.The Independent also understands the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, has been demoted in the reshuffle, but it was not immediately clear what position he had been offered by Sir Keir. During her speech at the Institute for Government (IfG) on Monday, Ms Rayner appeared blindsided, telling reporters she was not aware of reshuffle details at the end of a major speech on standards.“I don’t know the details of any reshuffle – I’ve been concentrating on the job that I’m doing”, she said as she used her speech to highlight claims of sleaze that have caused turmoil in the Conservative Party in recent weeks.Labour confirmed to The Independent that a reshuffle was under way on Monday, with an announcement expected once the changes to Sir Keir’s team have been confirmed.Appearing to express her frustration over the shake-up “we need some consistency in how we’re approaching things as an opposition, adding that everything the Labour Party should be doing was focusing on getting into power.A spokesperson for the deputy leader said: “Keir and Angela had a short conversion in between media round and her speech.“I’m not aware of the contents of that conversation, but she was not aware of the details of the reshuffle and she was not consulted on the reshuffle — as she said herself.”Questioned on whether the timing of the reshuffle had overshadowed her speech on reforming standards in public life, they added: “Angela’s absolutely dedicated to exposing corruption in this government — that’s what she’s been working on the last few months and setting out Labour’s alternative.”In her resignation letter, Ms Smith also expressed her disappointment Labour had not adopted a clear position on proportional representation, which she suggested would to be “fundamentally fairer” electoral system. More

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    Omicron: Scottish and Welsh governments demand Boris Johnson increases number of self-isolation days for travellers

    The Scottish and Welsh government have urged Downing Street to bring in “tougher” travel rules to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 across the UK.Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said she and Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford had written to Boris Johnson to demand a “tightening” of curbs so all arrivals in UK have to self-isolate for eight days.The SNP leader and Welsh Labour leader have also requested that arrivals take a PCR test on day eight as well as day two. “It would be sensible …. for these travel rules to be tightened further,” said Ms Sturgeon.The first minister said the proposed changes would be “more effective” in identifying Omicron cases, adding: “Anything less than a four nations approach will be ineffective – we hope a four nations approach can be agreed.”In their joint letter to Downing Street, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Drakeford also called on Mr Johnson to immediately convene a Cobra meeting so talks could be held with representatives from the four nations on Monday.Currently, passengers arriving in the UK from 4am on Tuesday will be required to take a PCR test by the end of their second day from entry and isolate until they receive a negative test. But Edinburgh and Cardiff now want all arrivals to self-isolate for eight days – and then do a second PCR test.But Downing Street rejected the devolved administrations’ calls for the self-isolation period for travellers to be extended. Tightening the requirements would have a “detrimental effect” on the travel industry, a No 10 spokesperson said.Mr Johnson’s official spokesman also said there was no Cobra meeting involving all four nations of the UK currently planned. “We obviously speak to our devolved administration counterparts very regularly,” he said.After six new Omicron variant cases were found in the Scotland, Ms Sturgeon said the country has not found any evidence to suggest that community transmission is either sustained or widespread.Her administration said earlier on Monday that the new cases not linked to international travel, raising concerns that the new Covid variant is already spreading in the community.“Let me stress there is no evidence yet that this is sustained, nor any evidence from the enhanced surveillance that it is widespread at this stage,” Ms Sturgeon said in her news conference.Ms Sturgeon asked Scots to “significantly step up and increase compliance” with existing precautions – asking the public to take a lateral flow test before mixing with people from other households.Taking a different tack from Mr Johnson’s ministers, she also urged Scots to work from home if possible, and urged employers in Scotland to “maximise” home working.The SNP chief said it was unlikely but not impossible that cases of the Omicron variant were linked to the recent Cop26 conference in Glasgow. “If you consider the timelines of Cop, it is not impossible – but it’s perhaps also not probable.”The top scientists advising the UK government are set to unveil new guidance on extending the rollout of Covid booster shots to younger adults on Monday, junior health minister Edward Argar confirmed earlier today.The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has been asked to consider boosters for under-40s, as well as reducing the gap between second doses and boosters. “We’d expect that within the coming hours,” said Mr Argar. More

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    MPs could be made to sign contracts banning them from lobbying in second jobs

    MPs with second jobs could be made to sign contracts that ban them from lobbying or political consultancy work, under proposals backed by the standards watchdog.A new draft report drawn up by the parliamentary standards committee backs a call by Boris Johnson for an outright ban on any MPs providing paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy services.To enforce this, the committee says all second jobs must have a written contract outlining an MPs’ duties – and explicitly banning them from “lobbying Ministers, Members or public officials on behalf of that employer”.It comes after a Westminster row over second jobs triggered by former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson – who broke the rules while working for a private company.The change could see a “boilerplate” wording drawn up by the standards watchdog to be included in second job contracts. Mr Paterson’s job did not have a contract – which the committee believes made it harder police. But the proposals would not require MPs to actually show the Commons authorities their contract’s wording by depositing a copy with the regulator.The committee also pushed back at a proposal by the prime minister to restrict MPs’ hours spent at second jobs, stating “a significant change of this sort should only be implemented with broad cross-party support”.Other changes suggested in the report include appointing a “senior judicial figure” to review whether the current system for dealing with alleged breaches of the MPs’ code of conduct.The Standards Committee, which is made up of a cross-party group of MPs and lay members, also proposed reforms to require ministers to publish more details about their interests – ending an exemption for members of the government.The committee’s report said “it is manifestly inappropriate for ministers to be subject to fewer and less onerous standards of registration of financial interests than Members who are not ministers”.Another exemption, which allows MPs to claim they were acting to prevent a “serious wrong”, will also be tightened – after defenders of Owen Paterson tried to invoke it.Chris Bryant, who chairs the standards committee, said: “The past few weeks have seen a number of issues raised about MP’s standards, but the key overarching issue here is about conflict of interest. The evidence-based report published by my Committee sets out a package of reforms to bolster the rules around lobbying and conflicts of interest.“These aren’t the final proposals we’re putting to the House. This report is the Committee’s informed view on what changes we need to tighten up the rules and crack down on conflicts of interests following a detailed evidence-led inquiry.“We will consult and hear wider views on what we’ve published today before putting a final report to the House for a decision in the New Year. If approved, these robust proposals will empower the standards system in Parliament to better hold MPs who break the rules to account.” More