Britain on Monday took another giant step in the fight against COVID-19, ramping up its immunization program by giving the first shots in the world from the vaccine created by Oxford University and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
Dialysis patient Brian Pinker, 82, was the first to get the new vaccine shot, administered by the chief nurse at Oxford University Hospital. Pinker said he was so pleased and that he can “now really look forward to celebrating my 48th wedding anniversary with my wife Shirley later this year.”
Since Dec. 8, Britain's National Health Service has been using a vaccine made by Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech to inoculate health care workers and nursing home residents and staff. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine boosts that arsenal and is cheaper and easier to use since it does not require the super-cold storage needed by the Pfizer vaccine.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was being administered at a small number of U.K. hospitals for the first few days so authorities can watch out for any adverse reactions. But hundreds of new vaccination sites — at both hospitals as well as local doctors’ offices — will launch this week, joining the more than 700 already in operation, NHS England said.
In a shift from practices in the U.S. and elsewhere, Britain now plans to give people second doses of both vaccines within 12 weeks of the first shot rather than within 21 days, to accelerate immunizations across as many people as quickly as possible.
The government’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, said Sunday that decision is “the right thing to do for the nation as a whole.”
The U.K. is in the midst of an acute outbreak, recording more than 50,000 new coronavirus infections a day over the past six days. On Sunday, it notched up another 54,990 cases and 454 more virus-related deaths to take its confirmed pandemic death toll total to 75,024, one of the worst in Europe.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Sunday that more onerous lockdown restrictions in England are likely in the coming weeks as the country reels from a coronavirus variant that has pushed infection rates to their highest recorded levels.
Johnson, though, insisted he has “no doubt” that schools are safe and urged parents to send their children back into the classroom Monday in areas of England where schools plan to reopen. Unions representing teachers have called for schools to turn to remote learning for at least a couple of weeks more due to the variant, which officials have said is up to 70% more contagious.
“We are entirely reconciled to do what it takes to get the virus under control, that may involve tougher measures in the weeks ahead," Johnson told the BBC.
Johnson conceded that school closures, curfews and the total banning of household mixing could be on the agenda for areas under the most stress.
London and southeast England are facing extremely high levels of new infections and there's speculation that restrictions there will have to be tightened. Some areas in the region have more than 1,000 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people.
Johnson's Conservative government is using a tiered coronavirus restrictions system to try to stop the spread of the virus. Most of England is already at the highest Tier 4 level, which involves closing non-essential shops, gyms and recreation centers and going to at-home instruction.
A Spanish-flagged humanitarian ship on Sunday was seeking a port of safety for 265 migrants its crew rescued from the Mediterranean Sea in the last few days.
The Open Arms charity tweeted that its vessel on Saturday had safely brought aboard 96 migrants who had been adrift in a wooden boat with without life vests in international waters. It said the passengers, most of them from Eritrea, included two women and 17 minors and were suffering from hypothermia.
In a separate operation two days before that rescue, Open Arms took aboard 169 migrants, who had departed Libyan shores, where many human traffickers are based.
The traffickers launch vessels, many of them flimsy rubber dinghies or rickety fishing boats, crowded with migrants who hope to reach European shores to seek asylum. Some are fleeing conflict or persecution, but many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have been rescued at sea in recent years are fleeing poverty and thus are denied asylum by European Union countries.
Italy and fellow EU nation Malta have often refused docking permission to the humanitarian rescue boats, contending that most migrants want to reach jobs or relatives in northern Europe. Italian and Maltese government authorities have insisted other European nations do their share.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will find out Monday whether he can be extradited from the U.K. to the U.S. to face espionage charges over the publication of secret American military documents.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is due to deliver her decision at London’s Old Bailey courthouse at 10 a.m. Monday. If she grants the request, then Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, would make the final decision.
Whichever side loses is expected to appeal, which could lead to years more legal wrangling.
However, there’s a possibility that outside forces may come into play that could instantly end the decade-long saga.
Stella Moris, Assange’s partner and the mother of his two sons, has appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump via Twitter to grant a pardon to Assange before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
And even if Trump doesn’t, there’s speculation that his successor, Joe Biden, may take a more lenient approach to Assange’s extradition process.
U.S. prosecutors indicted the 49-year-old Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse that carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
Lawyers acting on behalf of the U.S. government said in their closing arguments after the four-week hearing in the fall that Assange’s defense team had raised issues that were neither relevant nor admissible.
“Consistently, the defense asks this court to make findings, or act upon the submission, that the United States of America is guilty of torture, war crimes, murder, breaches of diplomatic and international law and that the United States of America is ‘a lawless state’,” they said. “These submissions are not only non-justiciable in these proceedings but should never have been made.”
Assange’s defense team argued that he is entitled to First Amendment protections for the publication of leaked documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the U.S. extradition request was politically motivated.
In their written closing arguments, Assange’s legal team accused the U.S. of an “extraordinary, unprecedented and politicized” prosecution that constitutes “a flagrant denial of his right to freedom of expression and poses a fundamental threat to the freedom of the press throughout the world.”
Defense lawyers also said Assange was suffering from wide-ranging mental health issues, including suicidal tendencies, that could be exacerbated if he is placed in inhospitable prison conditions in the U.S.
They said his mental health deteriorated while he took asylum inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for years and that he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Assange jumped bail in 2012 when he sought asylum at the embassy, where he stayed for seven years before being evicted and arrested. He has been held at Belmarsh prison in London since April 2019.
His legal team argued that Assange would, if extradited, likely face solitary confinement that would put him at a heightened risk of suicide. They said if he was subsequently convicted, he would probably be sent to the notorious ADX Supermax prison in Colorado, which is also inhabited by Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Lawyers for the U.S. government argued that Assange’s mental state “is patently not so severe so as to preclude extradition.”
Assange has attracted the support of high-profile figures, including the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and actress Pamela Anderson.
Daniel Ellsberg, the famous U.S. whistleblower, also came out in support, telling the hearing that they had “very comparable political opinions.”
The 89-year-old, widely credited for helping to bring about an end to the Vietnam War through his leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, said the American public “needed urgently to know what was being done routinely in their name, and there was no other way for them to learn it than by unauthorized disclosure.”
There are clear echoes between Assange and Ellsberg, who leaked over 7,000 pages of classified documents to the press, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. Ellsberg was subsequently put on trial for 12 charges in connection with violations of the Espionage Act, which were punishable by up to 115 years in prison. The charges were dismissed in 1973 because of government misconduct against him.
Assange and his legal team will be hoping that developments in the U.S. bring an end to his ordeal if the judge grants the U.S. extradition request.
Britain on Friday became the latest country to abolish the so-called “tampon tax,” eliminating sales taxes on women’s sanitary products.
The move was widely praised by women’s rights advocates as well as proponents of the country’s departure from the European Union.
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak had committed to ending the widely unpopular tax on tampons and sanitary pads in his budget in March but the change could only take effect Friday after Britain had finally left the economic orbit of the European Union.
Under EU law, nations cannot reduce the rate of value-added tax on menstrual products below 5% as they are deemed to be luxury items and not essentials. Ireland is the only EU country that does not charge a levy on sanitary products as its zero tax rate was in place before the EU set its floor.
“Sanitary products are essential, so it’s right that we do not charge VAT,” said Sunak. “We have already rolled out free sanitary products in schools, colleges and hospitals and this commitment takes us another step closer to making them available and affordable for all women.”
Britain officially left the bloc’s vast single market for people, goods and services at 11 p.m. London time on Thursday, giving it greater scope to set its own laws. A new U.K.-EU trade deal will bring new restrictions and red tape, but for British Brexit supporters, it means reclaiming national independence from the EU and its rules. They pointed to the abolition of the tampon tax as an early positive change from Brexit.
Britain’s treasury has previously estimated the move will save the average woman nearly 40 pounds ($55) over her lifetime.
“It’s been a long road to reach this point, but at last, the sexist tax that saw sanitary products classed as nonessential, luxury items can be consigned to the history books,” said Felicia Willow, chief of the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights charity.
Many other countries have also eliminated the tampon tax, including Australia, Canada and India. In the United States, several states including New York and Florida have also nixed the tax.
Between the specter of Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and a new leadership team facing a budget battle, the European Union looked set to remember 2020 as an “annus horribilis.”
Instead, a last-minute trade deal with the United Kingdom coupled with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the final days of the year produced a sense of success for the 27-nation bloc and brought glimmers of hope to the EU’s 450 million residents.
After months of chaotic negotiations, the EU also will head into 2021 with both a long-term budget and a coronavirus recovery fund worth 1.83 trillion euros ($2.3 trillion) that could help the EU’s member nations bounce back from Europe’s most brutal economic crisis since World War II.
“The European Union managed to do what was necessary,” Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank, said. “In the end, the European Union is resilient because it delivers benefits to its member, that the members will not want to give up.”
Ursula von der Leyen, a veteran member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, pledged to put the fight against climate change at the top of her agenda when she took over as president of the EU’s powerful executive arm on Dec. 1, 2019. But the pandemic quickly relegated environmental concerns to the background.
EU leaders agreed this year on a more ambitious target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, yet immediate public health needs and the economic fallout of the virus crisis eclipsed the ambitious Green Deal that von der Leyen envisioned to make Europe the world’s first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 .
Faced with a more urgent crisis, Brussels showed adaptability.
After several member states closed their borders in response to the virus, temporarily threatening the sacrosanct principle of free movement of people and goods within Europe’s visa-free Schengen Area, the EU secured the creation of priority corridors to allow cross-border movement of essential supplies. In an unprecedented move, the bloc also relaxed its stringent state aid rules so national governments could help businesses on the verge of collapse.
The true silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly the emergence of a common approach to health, which was until this year purely of member states’ competence.
When the virus first struck Europe hard in March, a critical shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers laid bare the weaknesses of the EU’s supply chains. Ten months and more than 350,000 virus-related deaths later, the member states’ cooperation on health-related issues has never been closer.
Under the European Commission’s helm, the 27 countries joined forces to resolve medicine and mask shortage, and to secure vaccine deals that allowed all member states to kickstart vaccination programs around the same time last week.
European countries also forged new ground in agreeing for the first time to borrow together while mutualizing part of the debt to fund the coronavirus recovery program. It was not an easy task. A majority of member states first had to overcome the resistance of a group of so-called “frugal” countries led by the Netherlands, then faced resistance from Poland and Hungary over a provision of the overall EU budget that linked payouts to respect for democratic standards.
The stalemate was broken under Germany’s time in the rotating presidency of the European Council, which defines the EU’s priorities. Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005 and is set to leave office next year, proved she remains as a major EU power broker while in the twilight of her political career.
“Her role has been crucial when it comes to the (budget), to the recovery package,” Zuleeg told The Associated Press. “It was crucial that Germany took the lead together with France and push it over the line.”
Of course, Merkel could not fix all the EU’s problems is the space of six months: the bloc’s relationship with Turkey is at a nadir, and the EU has yet to tackle illegal immigration and asylum, Europe’ most pressing and politically divisive issue before the pandemic.
But while sealing the U.K. trade deal made for a frantic December, the EU found more ways to usher in 2021 with a blush of health on its cheeks. It launched an ambitious reform of its rules for internet businesses, a move that will expose big tech companies to hefty fines for violations, and signed a major investment deal with China this week.