Thursday briefing: ‘Indian variant’ could threaten roadmap

·9 min read
<span>Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA</span>
Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Top story: Sage to hold emergency meeting, reports say

Hello, Warren Murray here with the news quickened up a bit.

Evidence is growing that a troubling “India variant” of the coronavirus is more transmissible than the type first detected in Kent that fuelled the UK’s second wave of infections and spread around the world. Scientists have warned the sharp rise in cases of the “India variant” could jeopardise the country’s roadmap out of lockdown. Imperial College London’s latest React study found based on swab tests that between 15 April and 3 May in England coronavirus case rates halved compared with March, but the variant of concern known as B.1.617.2 found in India could be spreading faster, at least in London, than the “Kent variant”, known as B.1.1.7. It is thought the government’s Sage committee will hold an emergency meeting on the issue today.

Despite the concerns, prevalence of the virus has fallen to about 1 in 1,000 people. The epidemic is shrinking in all regions, with the exception of south-east England, where there is a hint cases have started to rise.

Boris Johnson has come under fire from experts and bereaved families for delaying until spring 2022 the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Experts said the inquiry could be up and running much sooner if desired. Johnson said: “We must not inadvertently divert or distract the people on whom we depend in the heat of our struggle against this disease.” But the start has been branded “simply too late” by Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice: “A rapid review in summer 2020 could have saved our loved ones who died in the second wave in winter.” More coronavirus developments at our live blog.

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‘Stop the anarchy’ – Israel has pressed ahead with a fierce military offensive on Gaza that has flattened high-rise buildings, while Hamas fired volleys of rockets deep into the country overnight. Israel’s defence minister vowed to continue attacking Gaza until “complete quiet” had been achieved. Thousands of Israelis went into shelters on Thursday. At least 67 people have been killed in Gaza since the violence escalated on Monday, according to its health ministry. Seven people have been killed in Israel, medical officials said.

Racist mob attacks spread through Israel in the worst Jewish-Arab chaos for years. On Wednesday a mob of far-right Israelis dragged a man they thought was an Arab from his car and beat him until he lay on the ground motionless and bloodied. The mayor of Lod, a city with both Jewish and Arab residents, warned that “civil war” was breaking out after Arab mourners clashed with police. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited Lod and Acre, where he pledged to “stop the anarchy” and restore order “with an iron fist if needed”.

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£160m to tackle NHS backlog – Tens of thousands of patients will get quicker access to diagnostic tests and surgery under a £160m NHS initiative to tackle its vast backlog of non-Covid care. Hospitals will use the money to buy mobile CT and MRI scanning trucks, put on extra surgery in evenings and at weekends, and look after patients at home in “virtual wards”. Thursday’s latest set of NHS England monthly figures is likely to see the number of people on the waiting list for treatment rise beyond the 4.7 million who are on it – already a record high. NHS England has designated groups of NHS trusts working together in 12 parts of the country as “elective accelerators” that will be given up to £20m each if they manage to carry out 20% more diagnostic tests, operations and outpatient appointments by July than they did at the same point in 2019-20.

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Tesla unplugs from bitcoin – Tesla has suspended customers’ use of bitcoin to purchase its vehicles, Elon Musk has announced, citing concerns about the burning of fossil fuel to power computers that generate the electronic currency. Bitcoin is created when high-powered computers compete against other machines to solve complex mathematical puzzles – a process known as “mining”, which globally uses about the same amount of energy annually as some countries. Tesla revealed in February it had bought $1.5bn of bitcoin, before it began accepting it as payment for cars in March, driving a roughly 20% surge in the cryptocurrency’s value. Musk said Tesla would not sell any bitcoin and intended to use it for transactions as soon as bitcoin mining moved to more sustainable energy. After the announcement, bitcoin fell by as much as 17% and remained 12% off this morning.

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Blow for ovarian cancer detection – Annual screening for ovarian cancer can detect tumours earlier but does not save lives overall, one of the largest studies ever conducted on the general population suggests. While the finding is a blow to those affected by ovarian cancer, the hope is that earlier diagnosis could reduce the amount and intensity of treatment that women go through. Prompt diagnosis remains crucial because although 80-90% of women whose cancer is detected early survive for at least five years, that figure falls to 25% when the disease is spotted late. About 7,500 British women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year and 4,000 die from it, making it the deadliest gynaecological cancer. The lack of any single telltale symptom means the disease is often not diagnosed until it is at a late stage.

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‘The people are second to none’ – Kim Leadbeater, sister of the murdered MP Jo Cox, has said she would be “honoured” to represent the people of Batley and Spen as she announced her intention to become Labour’s candidate in the upcoming byelection. Labour is facing a huge test to cling on to the West Yorkshire constituency where Cox was killed by a far-right terrorist in June 2016.

Kim Leadbeater hopes to contest the former seat of her sister, Jo Cox, for Labour
Kim Leadbeater hopes to contest the former seat of her sister, Jo Cox, for Labour. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Leadbeater, 44, said she had never seen herself as a “political animal” but added: “I care deeply about the area where I was born and have always lived, and where the people are second to none.” The byelection was called after Tracy Brabin, the local MP, was elected as the first mayor of West Yorkshire on Sunday.

Today in Focus podcast: What happens when UK cuts foreign aid

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Lunchtime read: Cruel, paranoid, failing – inside the Home Office

What’s going on at the Home Office has become an increasingly urgent question in recent years. It is the department of law and order, yet it is constantly found to have broken the law. It strains to be seen as competent and tough, yet struggles to show evidence that its policies are working. It has repeatedly been revealed to be treating people cruelly, yet it now claims that those days are behind it, even as its “new plan for immigration” is condemned by the UN’s refugee agency as inhumane. Something seems badly wrong at the heart of one of Britain’s most important ministries. How did it become so broken?

Sport

Thomas Tuchel blamed himself for fielding a much-changed lineup that lost narrowly to Arsenal, saying his side received a “wake-up call” that leaves them uncertain of Champions League qualification via the domestic route with two games left. The International Olympic Committee has insisted it is “moving fully ahead” with the Tokyo Games despite growing public unease in Japan after the state of emergency in the country was extended. Sam Kerr has spoken to the Guardian about how the pandemic has brought Chelsea closer together, why WSL title success was so sweet and the next challenge: Sunday’s Champions League final with Barcelona. Casey Stoney shocked her players on Wednesday by announcing she was stepping down as manager of Manchester United Women.

Andy Murray eased back into competition for the first time since early March as he and his fellow Briton Liam Broady pulled off an excellent victory in their doubles first-round match at the Italian Open in Rome. Mike Brown’s Harlequins career has been brought to an abrupt end after he was handed a six-week ban following his red card for stamping last weekend, ensuring he will miss the rest of the season. Formula One is to introduce new tests to ensure teams are not breaking the rules by using flexible rear wings. Caleb Ewan took victory on stage five of the Giro d’Italia as a crash-strewn finish in Cattolica ended the general classification hopes of Mikel Landa and Pavel Sivakov. And Pierre-Charles Boudot, France’s reigning champion jockey on the Flat, was charged with rape on Wednesday by French prosecutors investigating allegations made by a female work-rider after a party during a race meeting in February.

Business

It’s been another rough session on financial markets overnight as investors shed shares in the wake of the shock rise in US inflation yesterday. Higher prices in the US means interest rates could start rising around the world more quickly than had been assumed, in turn causing a selloff in stocks bloated by years of low borrowing costs. The FTSE100 looks like following Asian shares downwards this morning by around 0.3%, but the pound is flat at $1.140 and €1.164. Concerns about fuel shortages in the US might ease after a vital fuel pipeline reopened after it was shut down by a cyberattack.

The papers

“Anger as PM backs Covid inquiry but not until 2022” – the splash today on the front page of the Guardian, which also points to an exclusive interview inside with Tracey Emin about her gruelling journey to defeat cancer. The i has “Fears for end of lockdown after variant cases triple” while the Metro leads with “Boris court debt” about the £535 outstanding judgment against the PM.

The Times leads with the terrible situation in the Middle East: “Fears mount over threat of full-scale war in Gaza”. Others feature that on their fronts, including the Telegraph though its top story is “GPs told to encourage patients to go online”. The Mail continues to savage Boris Johnson following the Queen’s speech, with “Families’ social care bill since PM’s broken promise … £14bn”.

The Sun looks forward to the “Great British Mask Off” – on current plans it will be 21 June when they are no longer required in shops. The Financial Times has “Stocks retreat after US inflation surge sparks fears economy is overheating”. The Mirror commemorates Madeleine McCann: “On her 18th birthday … We’ll never give up, Maddie”.

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