England mulls local lockdowns to stop Indian coronavirus variant spread

Officials say concern over COVID variant means regional restrictions more likely as June 21 easing looms.

England mulls local lockdowns to stop Indian coronavirus variant spread

LONDON — Ministers are considering local lockdown measures to curb the spread of the so-called Indian variant in England as an alternative to delaying the full nationwide lifting of coronavirus measures.

Boris Johnson gave a press conference on Friday in which he warned that the transmission of COVID variant B.1.617.2 could mean “serious disruption” to the planned final exit from lockdown in England on June 21. 

However, officials familiar with Johnson’s thinking say he is reluctant to keep the whole country in a longer period of restrictions and health officials are unwilling to redirect vaccines to younger people in affected areas, raising the likelihood of locally-concentrated controls. 

One Cabinet minister said: “The PM will do what he can to keep to the national timeframe of the 21st [reopening date]. I expect local lockdowns will be more likely.”

This was underlined by a Whitehall official who suggested that of three scenarios which will be presented to Cabinet by scientific advisers — no change to the plan; a nationwide delay; or delaying certain areas — the third was the most likely.  

They added: “We are in a waiting game to see if the extended measures we have put into Bolton and Blackburn have any impact, which could take two weeks. Then we are into early June and it’s a tight window in which to make a call.”

England further eased some COVID restrictions nationwide on Monday — with indoor hospitality and foreign travel now allowed among other things — and ministers have previously stressed the need to avoid a return to a system of varying regional restrictions used last year before the country went into its third lockdown.

In a statement to the House of Commons Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there had now been 2,323 confirmed cases of B.1.617.2. He said 483 of those were found in Blackburn and Bolton, where it is now the dominant strain.

Additional nurses were deployed to Bolton at the weekend to assist council workers in making door-to-door visits to encourage vaccine uptake, and enhanced testing facilities are available in several areas across the North West, Midlands and London.

Jabs are only available in the U.K. to those aged 37 or over at present. Two MPs representing Bolton said they wanted a wider cross-section of residents to be able to access the vaccine.

Mark Logan, Conservative MP for Bolton North East, told POLITICO: “Over the last ten days I’ve been pushing to vaccinate the whole of Bolton before the end of May. Together with surge testing, if we can keep doing that it should mean we can avoid further lockdown.”

Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East, said: “We should employ the use of surge vaccinations where possible and it was disappointing that the government refused to allow Bolton Council’s health officials express permission to roll out the vaccine [to younger age groups], despite the clear need to do so.”

Both MPs expressed their opposition to any local lockdown unless absolutely critical, pointing out that Bolton has been under tough restrictions for all but a few weeks of the last year.

Medics in certain parts of Bolton have been taking the decision to vaccinate younger people there on a case-by-case basis, against central guidance on prioritization from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI). 

Both the government and NHS England appear content to let this proceed unchecked at the same time as publicly stressing that the eligibility rules have not altered.

A Department for Health and Social Care official said JCVI guidance was unlikely to change, as redeploying vaccines on a geographical basis presents a greater logistical challenge than proceeding downwards through the age groups as planned.

In his statement, Hancock placed a heavy emphasis on the need for everyone to take up jabs when offered, stating that most of the patients currently hospitalized in Bolton had been eligible to receive the vaccine.

However, local MP Qureshi said vaccine hesitancy was “the exception rather than the rule.” She said “the majority of people in Bolton” who haven’t yet taken up vaccines could point to a “lack of access to transport and lack of time to book the appointment, which can be difficult if you’re working 60 hours a week as a carer, earning as little as £8.50 an hour.”

The government has also faced criticism for being slow to place travel from India under the U.K.’s strictest travel rules, with Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth labeling the delay a “catastrophic misstep.”

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How Europe can protect independent media in Hungary and Poland

Press freedom is a prerequisite for free and fair elections.

How Europe can protect independent media in Hungary and Poland

Adam Bodnar is the Ombudsman of the Republic of Poland. John Morijn is a Commissioner at the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights

Media freedom is fundamental to democracy — and Europe’s least-democratic governments know that. In Poland and Hungary, ruling parties have co-opted state channels and bought out private media channels aggressively. Diversity of opinion has all but disappeared, and the few remaining independent outlets are hanging by a thread. 

Meanwhile, the European Union does little to help. While European institutions were tutting about rising worries, governments in Warsaw and Budapest learned to control their local publishers and broadcasters with a simple, effective formula: finance your friends, and silence your enemies.  

In Poland, state-owned oil company PKN Orlen, which is close to the ruling Law and Justice government, has tried to buy local media properties. The goal wasn’t to diversify beyond fossil fuels — it was to control the message. In Hungary almost no independent media publishers remain, with just a handful of internet portals and radio stations available to Hungarians looking for media the government or the ruling party doesn’t influence. 

Even independent media is at risk. When the ruling party can’t just buy the message, they send lawyers to unplug it. PiS and its allies have hit independent newspapers like Gazeta Wyborcza and oko.press, as well as opinion-makers such as the constitutional law expert Wojciech Sadurski, with dozens of so-called “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation,” or SLAPP lawsuits. These typically frivolous, politically motivated lawsuits are designed to intimidate and distract media organizations — and burden them with legal fees 

To its credit, the Commission was quick to recognize the moves against media freedom in Hungary and Poland and see the threat it represented to European democracy. Unfortunately, it still hasn’t taken meaningful action. A 2016 rule of law recommendation to Poland specifically cited media freedom as an area of concern. But then they never followed up.  

More empty talk came in 2020, when the Commission gave media freedom its own section in its rule of law report. Again though: no real impact on the ground in Poland. Recently the Commission set up a working group to develop legislation addressing SLAPP cases. That’s better. But even if adopted, the legislation will have come too late, given that the country’s courts have already been captured and state media has been converted to the ruling party’s mouthpiece. The Commission has also investigated complaints about fair competition in media, but in the end seemingly concluded it could not act.

The Commission now has a new idea, a “media freedom act” for 2022. As usual, it is saying all the right things. The proposed act would strengthen the EU’s ability to sanction countries for restrictions of media freedom, rather than just monitoring a worsening situation and fretting.  

This too is unlikely to go anywhere, because it asks turkeys to vote for Christmas. After all, the initiative would clearly target Poland and Hungary. So these governments could be expected to draw out the debate and water down the language.  Even if a seemingly workable act would emerge from the Brussels sausage-making, it would be unlikely to be meaningfully implemented. The law could easily be challenged in national courts which these governments control. 

Fortunately, there is another way. The EU’s founding treaties require nationally organized local and European Parliament elections to be free and fair, a standard countries can’t meet without independent media. This gives the Commission the capability — and the obligation — to act when media options have become so narrow that informed choice is no longer possible.  

The impact of unfree media on elections is not theoretical. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in a notable departure from its usual tone of strict understatement, declared Hungary’s 2018 parliamentary elections and Poland’s 2020 presidential elections unfair. Their reason: the state-controlled media’s outsized control of the information voters’ used to make their decisions. As things stand right now, the same will hold true in future elections in both countries.  

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen should not be launching another lofty, doomed legislative project, but leading an infringement action to protect independent national media to ensure Hungarians and Poles maintain their right to free and fair elections. 

And if that doesn’t happen soon, the European Parliament should push the Commission to act, and quickly. After all, the parliament’s own future composition (and legitimacy) depends on free and fair elections across the entire EU.  

Independent national media is hanging by a thread in Poland and Hungary. The EU should immediately use the tools it already has to protect it. 

Source : Politico EU More   

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