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ROBERT HARDMAN: Mandarins ban almost all veterans from Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph

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robert hardman mandarins ban almost all veterans from remembrance sunday at the cenotaph

Year after year, it is always one of the most moving sights in the calendar. For as far as the eye can see, there are veterans of all ages — a few frail witnesses to Monte Cassino or the Burmese jungle or the huts of Bletchley Park; old sweats from Korea or Malaya or Aden; the ranks of those who served in the Falklands or Ulster or the Gulf or Afghanistan . . .

There, too, are many more to whom our debt is just as great: the war widows, the families who grew up without a father, the support services which have done their bit in times of trouble.

They all line up neatly, more than 10,000 of them, standing to attention behind the Royal Family and the political leaders. 

The civil servants presiding over this event have decided that it is too risky. Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph is, officially, 'a closed ceremony' for VIPs only. The public is being asked to mark the occasion at home

The civil servants presiding over this event have decided that it is too risky. Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph is, officially, ‘a closed ceremony’ for VIPs only. The public is being asked to mark the occasion at home

Looking down on it all from her Foreign Office balcony is the one veteran who has attended this event more times than anyone in history — the Queen. 

And yet the only person who says a word is the Bishop of London, conducting the short service which precedes the great Royal British Legion parade.

Remembrance Sunday is always captured beautifully by the BBC cameras. It is always humbling for those lucky enough to attend in person. And it is all in honour of those who never had the chance to be there at all.

But what a sorry sight the monarch will behold this year as she stands before the Cenotaph. It will be exactly 100 years since our greatest national monument was unveiled by her grandfather, King George V, in the midst of a previous pandemic.

Looking down on it all from her Foreign Office balcony is the one veteran who has attended this event more times than anyone in history — the Queen

Looking down on it all from her Foreign Office balcony is the one veteran who has attended this event more times than anyone in history — the Queen

Yet there will be next to no veterans present, no spectators and no parade. The civil servants presiding over this event have decided that it is too risky. Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph is, officially, ‘a closed ceremony’ for VIPs only. The public is being asked to mark the occasion at home.

To which the ‘Glorious Dead’ might well wonder what on earth has happened to the country for which they gave their all. For this is not an appropriate response to the current crisis. It is cringeworthy.

Of course, it is inconceivable that we should expect anything like a traditional Cenotaph gathering in the midst of this pandemic. 

The very idea of gathering thousands of elderly men and women from all over the country and lumping them together cheek by jowl for several hours would be insane — and criminally irresponsible, too.

However, that certainly does not mean that we have to shut down the most sacred and important event in our national calendar.

Unlike any other state occasion, the Remembrance Sunday service takes place entirely in the open air. It also happens on a major thoroughfare broad enough for six lanes of traffic.

In other words, with some careful and sensible planning, a reduced, socially-distanced assembly could be arranged with all appropriate dignity and solemnity. 

Besides, this is an event where you are dealing with people who have spent much of their life on parade and following orders. They are also people with a professional understanding of managing risk as opposed to avoiding it altogether.

I understand that the Royal British Legion originally proposed to have a tiny wreath-laying unit from each of the 300 ex-Forces organisations which make up the annual parade. 

So everyone from the Royal Marines Association and the Royal Green Jackets Association to the Royal Air Forces Ex-Prisoners of War Association, the WRENS and the Russian Convoy Club could each delegate a wreath-layer plus one or two ex-comrades (certainly well within the ‘rule of six’).

They would line up many yards apart, certainly more than two metres distant (this lot tend to speak imperial rather than metric anyway), and march past the Cenotaph at sensible intervals.

No chance, said the officials from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the ministry which runs this event, citing Public Health England advice.

Instead of having a respectable, well-spaced cohort drawn from across the Services, they have permitted just a token presence. The DCMS has yet to confirm a figure but I am told that two dozen younger veterans will represent the entire spectrum of ex-Forces organisation. It is pathetic.

Last month, more than 200 RAF personnel were permitted to gather indoors at a sensible distance in Westminster Abbey to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The Prime Minister was there too, to read the lesson. However, he appears to have taken his eye off this particular ball.

Our Commonwealth allies will also be represented by a much-reduced delegation of High Commissioners. As for the media, it is all so terribly fraught with danger that, at present, the Government has found space for exactly one newspaper reporter to cover the entire event.

One bit of good news, though. There are no plans to reduce the number of politicians on show. The whole event, of course, serves as an illustration of the broader Whitehall mentality towards this virus. At the very moment when we want a bit of ‘can do’ thinking, we get ‘can’t do’ dithering and meek inertia.

The conclusion which the nation and the wider world can draw is this: you can’t possibly stand in the open air near the Cenotaph because it’s just too risky. But never mind. Wherever you live, why not pop to Sainsbury’s before you take the whole family down to the pub for Sunday lunch. Because that is still fine regardless of which Covid ‘tier’ you live in.

The Government has actually created a Remembrance Sunday exemption for all parts of England, stating that people are allowed to participate and spectate at local memorial services, providing they maintain a social distance. Yet the most important event of all looks set to be a dismal affair.

In other words, with some careful and sensible planning, a reduced, socially-distanced assembly could be arranged with all appropriate dignity and solemnity. Besides, this is an event where you are dealing with people who have spent much of their life on parade and following orders

In other words, with some careful and sensible planning, a reduced, socially-distanced assembly could be arranged with all appropriate dignity and solemnity. Besides, this is an event where you are dealing with people who have spent much of their life on parade and following orders

One of the most striking elements of this pandemic is the contrast between the resourcefulness of those whose jobs and livelihoods are on the line versus the ponderous bumbling of those who know that the pay-cheque will be in the post regardless.

Sadly, it is the latter who continue to write the Covid rules.

Fortunately, other Remembrance events are available. Take the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln. It is run by a charity who will be holding their annual Remembrance Sunday service at their outdoor memorial, to which members of the public can book a place.

The dwindling band of Bomber boys all understand the risks of the coronavirus (just as they understood the risks all those years ago when they volunteered for the most dangerous job of the war and almost half were killed). 

Since the start of the pandemic, 37 Bomber Command veterans have died with a Covid infection. But everyone also knows the importance of remembrance, too.

‘I hear quite a few veterans say ‘I’d rather die of this bug than die of loneliness’ and there are some who are determined to be here,’ says the IBCC’s chief executive, Nicky van der Drift. 

‘We always read out the names of those who have passed away in the last year — it always makes me cry just drawing up the list. I am afraid that we have lost five in the last week alone. It is why we are going to do all we can to make this a safe but correct act of remembrance.’

If only the same could be said for the Cenotaph.

This week, we saw the Queen leading by example as she went with the Duke of Cambridge to visit staff at the germ warfare HQ at Porton Down. It was an event loaded with a broader, simple message: ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ 

I am afraid that, as things stand, Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph will be saying something rather different.

This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk

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Nearly 100,000 people in England catching Covid-19 every day, ‘worrying’ Government-led study finds

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nearly 100000 people in england catching covid 19 every day worrying government led study finds

Nearly 100,000 Britons are getting infected with coronavirus every day, according to results of Government-led surveillance study that suggests the UK is hurtling towards a second peak that could rival the first.

The REACT-1 project — which has been swabbing tens of thousands of people every week — estimated there were around 96,000 people getting infected every day in England by October 25.

Imperial College London experts behind the research warned cases were just weeks away from surpassing levels seen during the darkest days of the pandemic in March and April. Previous projections have estimated there were slightly more than 100,000 daily cases in spring, which led to over 40,000 deaths in the first wave. 

The study warned infections are doubling every nine days, suggesting there could be 200,000 daily cases by the first week of November. 

Imperial researchers said it was possible that the recent wet and dreary weather had played a role in the surge in infections, by driving people indoors where the virus finds it easier to spread. But they warned it was more likely a small dip in adherence to social distancing rules across the board had opened the door for the highly infectious disease to spread more rapidly.

Imperial’s best guess is that 1.3 per cent of everyone living in England was carrying the disease by October 25, the equivalent of one in 75, or 730,000 people. Covid-19 prevalence was highest in Yorkshire and The Humber (2.7 per cent) and the North West (2.3 per cent).

The study, which will likely be used to pile more pressure on No10 to impose a national lockdown, also estimated the virus’ reproduction ‘R’ rate — the average number of people each Covid-19 patient infects — was nearly three in London, a finding the researchers described as ‘scary’. It was lower in the North West, where millions of people are living under draconian lockdowns.

Overall, the R rate was around 1.6 across England in the most recent week, compared to 1.16 in the previous round. Experts have repeatedly warned it is critical the reproduction rate stays below the level of one to prevent cases from spiralling. 

It comes after another 310 Covid-19 victims were recorded last night and 367 the day before, in the highest daily toll since the end of May. But the 26,688 infections reported yesterday was actually the first week-on-week fall in a month — though the central testing programme is missing asymptomatic and mild cases of the virus, which make up the vast majority of infections.

The REACT-1 study - commissioned by the Department of Health - has been swabbing tens of thousands of people since summer. The latest findings from the most recent phase (round six, in dark blue) show increases in transmission in every region of England

The REACT-1 study – commissioned by the Department of Health – has been swabbing tens of thousands of people since summer. The latest findings from the most recent phase (round six, in dark blue) show increases in transmission in every region of England

Researchers sent swabs to 85,971 volunteers in England between October 16 and October 25. In total, 863 were positive (1.28 per cent) - more than double the 0.6 per cent the week before. Pictured: How cases have surged since summer, according to findings from all six phases of the study

Researchers sent swabs to 85,971 volunteers in England between October 16 and October 25. In total, 863 were positive (1.28 per cent) – more than double the 0.6 per cent the week before. Pictured: How cases have surged since summer, according to findings from all six phases of the study

The study also found prevalence of infection was highest in Yorkshire and The Humber at 2.72 per cent, up from 0.84 per cent the week before. This was followed by the North West at 2.27 per cent, up from 1.21 per cent. Prevalence was lowest in East of England at 0.55 per cent, up from 0.29 per cent

The study also found prevalence of infection was highest in Yorkshire and The Humber at 2.72 per cent, up from 0.84 per cent the week before. This was followed by the North West at 2.27 per cent, up from 1.21 per cent. Prevalence was lowest in East of England at 0.55 per cent, up from 0.29 per cent

Rates of the disease also increased across all age groups, with the greatest rise in those aged 55-64 at 1.20 per cent, up three-fold from 0.37 per cent in a week. In those aged over 65, prevalence was 0.81 per cent, having doubled from 0.35 per cent. Rates remained highest in 18 to 24-year olds at 2.25 per cent

Rates of the disease also increased across all age groups, with the greatest rise in those aged 55-64 at 1.20 per cent, up three-fold from 0.37 per cent in a week. In those aged over 65, prevalence was 0.81 per cent, having doubled from 0.35 per cent. Rates remained highest in 18 to 24-year olds at 2.25 per cent

The study found that the virus' reproduction 'R' rate - the average number of people each Covid-19 patient infects - was 1.6 across England in the most recent week, compared to 1.16 in the previous round. The R is thought to be hovering between 1 and 1.5 in the north and greater than two in the South East and South West. In London it's estimated to be nearly three

The study found that the virus’ reproduction ‘R’ rate – the average number of people each Covid-19 patient infects – was 1.6 across England in the most recent week, compared to 1.16 in the previous round. The R is thought to be hovering between 1 and 1.5 in the north and greater than two in the South East and South West. In London it’s estimated to be nearly three

Reacting to the study, Professor Igor Rudan, joint director of the Centre for Global Health and WHO Collaborating Centre, University of Edinburgh, said: ‘This study should be considered very accurate and reliable scientific evidence that shows that a very large second wave of Covid-19 pandemic is underway. It will inevitably lead to a very large number of infections, severe episodes and deaths in the coming weeks and months.

‘Efforts will be required to reduce the national reproduction number below one again. The measures that were in place over the past two months across most of Europe were clearly insufficient to prevent the new large growth of infected cases and fast spread of the virus. I commend the authors for this excellent effort.’

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said: ‘This latest REACT study contains some sobering numbers… eighteen to 24-year-olds remain the age group with the highest level of infections, but in the 55 to 64 age group, the number infected people has tripled, demonstrating how the virus spreads into more at risk people if left unchecked. We can expect this situation to continue to deteriorate if authorities remain slow to react.’

The study – commissioned by the Department of Health – sent swabs to 85,971 volunteers in England between October 16 and October 25. In total, 863 were positive (1.28 per cent) – more than double the 0.6 per cent the week before.

Prevalence of the virus among people aged 55 to 64 increased more than threefold in the last week and in the over-65s – who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 – the rate doubled.

Professor Paul Elliott, director of the programme at Imperial, said the findings were ‘worrying’. He believes that Brits have universally relaxed how strictly they have been following social distancing rules.

Although these may only have been small changes, he warned: ‘A little shift in everybody’s behavior can have a big effect [on the trajectory of the virus].’

Professor Elliot added: ‘The findings paint a concerning picture of the situation in England, where we’re seeing a nation-wide increase in infection prevalence, which we know will lead to more hospitalisations and loss of life.

‘We’re also detecting early signs that areas which previously had low rates of infection are following trends observed in the country’s worst-affected areas.

‘Now more than ever we must all work together to curb further spread of the virus and avoid subsequent overwhelming of the health service.’  

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Daily Covid-19 infections hit 24,701 in first DROP for a month but deaths rise to 310 

Britain’s daily number of Covid-19 cases dropped week-on-week on Wednesday for the first time in a month.

Health chiefs announced 24,701 more infections, down slightly from the 26,688 positive coronavirus tests last Wednesday. 

It means it was the first time the daily number of cases has fallen on the amount recorded the week before since September 28, when the tally was affected by a counting blunder. 

But deaths are continuing to rise. Another 310 coronavirus victims were recorded today, up from the 191 posted this time last week. Wales today recorded 37 deaths — its highest amount of coronavirus in a single day since April.

The disparity between the official testing figures and REACT-1’s estimates may be explained by multiple factors.

REACT-1 is technically four days out of date, because it only covers up to October 25.

So the virus may have slowed down somewhat in those five days as local lockdowns start to take effect.

Although this is unlikely to have played a very significant role because official testing is only catching a fraction of the true infections.

It is more likely the case that it is a blip in the official testing programme, which is struggling to swab more than 300,000 people a day.

Most people suffer very mild or no Covid symptoms at all, so they never reach out to get a test.

The REACT-1 study has the benefit of randomly testing people regardless of their symptoms, therefore painting a more accurate picture of the current crisis. 

 

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The study found that the virus’ reproduction ‘R’ rate – the average number of people each Covid-19 patient infects – was 1.6 across England in the most recent week, compared to 1.16 in the previous round.

The R is thought to be hovering between 1 and 1.5 in the north, which has been bearing the brunt of the second wave of infections and where swathes have been under Tier Three local lockdowns. 

However, the R is thought to be greater than two in the South East and South West, which have up until now managed to dodge the worst of the crisis, and nearly three in London.

Experts have repeatedly warned it is critical the R rate stays below the level of one to prevent cases from spiralling. 

News that it is almost three times greater than that in the capital was described as ‘scary’ by Professor Elliot.

The high R numbers in the south are to be interpreted with caution, though, because they have wide confidence margins.

This is because transmission is a lot lower in the south compared to the north, so pinning down a precise R number is more difficult.

Professor Elliot added: ‘It’s a scary number in London, but an imprecise estimate. Putting a lot of attention to the exact R is unwise because of low prevalence but our study shown signs of sustained increase [in transmission].  

‘In the South there is rapid increase [in cases] and rapid growth, but at much lower levels in the North. I’d say the South is where the North was a few weeks back.’ 

The team at Imperial concluded that the current three-tiered lockdown system was either ‘not working, or not being adhered to enough’.

Professor Elliot said: ‘It’s possible the latest lockdown measures have not trickled through into our data. 

‘But, as of today, seeing increased rates across the country, be it behavioral or current policy, it [the current strategy] is not sufficient enough.’

Steven Riley, an infectious disease expert who co-led the study, warned the country was hurtling towards a repeat of the crisis in spring.

He said: ‘There’s a clear trend that hospital admissions are rising exponentially. Our data shows this exponential rise is to continue over the next two weeks.

‘Comparing [the winter wave] to the very peak in March is difficult, it’s probably still a bit lower [now] and the overall rate of growth is still lower.

‘But being slightly lower and slightly slower than March still means it is going up quickly and is already at a high level.’

Professor Riley said there ‘had to be a change’ in either public adherence or policy changes before Christmas to avoid another catastrophic death toll. 

The study also found prevalence of infection was highest in Yorkshire and The Humber at 2.72 per cent, up from 0.84 per cent the week before.

This was followed by the North West at 2.27 per cent, up from 1.21 per cent.  Prevalence was lowest in East of England at 0.55 per cent, up from 0.29 per cent.

Rates of the disease also increased across all age groups, with the greatest rise in those aged 55-64 at 1.20 per cent, up three-fold from 0.37 per cent in a week.

In those aged over 65, prevalence was 0.81 per cent, having doubled from 0.35 per cent. Rates remained highest in 18 to 24-year olds at 2.25 per cent.    

This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk

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Don’t lock Britain down again, plead business chiefs, MPs and medics

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dont lock britain down again plead business chiefs mps and medics

Business leaders, campaigners and MPs last night pleaded with Boris Johnson to resist a devastating new lockdown.

They warned that it would wreak economic carnage and devastate thousands of businesses. It came as scientists said up to 85,000 could die in a second virus wave.

With Emmanuel Macron announcing a new national lockdown for France, the FTSE 100 plunged to its lowest point in six months as the threat of stricter curbs sent shockwaves through the City.

Business leaders, campaigners and MPs last night pleaded with Boris Johnson to resist a devastating new lockdown

Business leaders, campaigners and MPs last night pleaded with Boris Johnson to resist a devastating new lockdown

Julian Metcalfe, the founder of Pret and Itsu, said another lockdown would be ‘impossible’, adding: ‘Society will not recover if we do it again to save a few thousand lives of very old or vulnerable people. 

‘The young people of this country will be paying for this for the next 20 to 30 years. It’s terrible what’s happening. Just because France does this with its socialist government, doesn’t mean we have to.’

As a new alliance of scientific experts warned against an ‘increasingly panic-ridden’ response to the pandemic, which could see vital treatment for other medical conditions postponed, scientists dramatically ramped up pressure for a circuit breaker-style lockdown, or even a return to full national curbs. 

Julian Metcalfe, the founder of Pret and Itsu, pictured with wife Brooke De Ocampo, said another lockdown would be 'impossible',

Julian Metcalfe, the founder of Pret and Itsu, pictured with wife Brooke De Ocampo, said another lockdown would be ‘impossible’,

On a dramatic day:

  • Mr Macron announced a second national lockdown for at least the whole of November;
  • Germany announced a four-week shutdown of restaurants, bars and theatres;
  • Another 310 coronavirus deaths were recorded in the UK, but the daily number of cases dropped week-on-week for the first time in a month;
  • It emerged that up to 10 per cent of the population could be tested for coronavirus every week after government officials asked local health chiefs to deploy 30-minute saliva kits;
  • Figures showed that fewer than 20 people aged under 40 have died from coronavirus since the second wave began; 
  • NHS bosses said hospitals in some parts of England were treating more Covid-19 patients than at the peak of the pandemic;
  • A Cabinet minister warned that the Government was prepared to prevent large families meeting at Christmas, while a police chief advised families to avoid making plans;
  • A major study said up to 50,000 cases of cancer had gone undiagnosed during the pandemic and the NHS could take two years to recover;
  • Police said members of the public had a ‘civic duty’ to inform on neighbours and businesses flagrantly breaching virus restrictions.

A leaked Sage committee document yesterday revealed that ministers had been told to prepare for a ‘worst-case scenario’ of 85,000 deaths this winter in a second wave, with 500 deaths a day for at least three months and more than 300,000 people hospitalised.

Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte said  a circuit breaker would be a complete disaster that would bankrupt industries

Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte said  a circuit breaker would be a complete disaster that would bankrupt industries

Meanwhile, a Government-commissioned study suggested that nearly one million people in England were currently infected with coronavirus – and that the country stood at a ‘critical point’. The Imperial College London research said there were an estimated 96,000 new infections a day, cases were doubling every nine days and the national R rate was up to 1.6.

It suggested the virus is spreading fast in the South of England and urgent action was needed to bring it under control.

The Mail has been told that ministers are looking at the possibility of tightening Tier Three restrictions in many areas, which could include ordering the closure of restaurants.

More than a million people living in Nottinghamshire are to be plunged into the toughest Tier Three rules from tomorrow, with tattoo parlours, tanning and nail salons, piercing services, museums and galleries all ordered to close.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly stated his determination to avoid a return to the ‘nuclear deterrent’ lockdown that shut down Britain in the spring. But fears are growing that the pressure from Mr Johnson’s scientific advisers will prove overwhelming if cases continue to rise.

Charlie Mullins, the former Tory donor who runs Pimlico Plumbers, warned the country cannot afford another lockdown

Charlie Mullins, the former Tory donor who runs Pimlico Plumbers, warned the country cannot afford another lockdown

Business chiefs last night urged caution. Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of the CBI, said that while public health came first, there could be ‘no hiding from the potentially devastating impact on firms and individuals if Tier Three is rolled out nationally’.

Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte added: ‘A circuit breaker would be a complete disaster. The industry is already at death’s door. It would bankrupt industry and bankrupt the Government.’

Fears of more crippling lockdowns sparked a rout on global stock markets yesterday, dragging shares in Britain’s biggest companies to the lowest level since April.

Yesterday, business groups and company bosses joined Tory MPs in northern seats in urging the Prime Minister to resist calls to extend curbs by shutting shops and restaurants, or to bring in a national ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown.

John O’Reilly, chief executive of Rank Group, which owns 77 Mecca bingo halls and 51 Grosvenor casinos, said: ‘For hospitality businesses like ours, this is death by a thousand cuts. The long lockdown, local restrictions, the 10pm curfew and now renewed lockdowns through Tier Three are causing enormous economic damage to businesses.’

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Roger Barker, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, said: ‘Full-scale lockdowns are a painful prospect for business. Controlling the virus is crucial for the long-term health of the economy, but there’s no denying the challenges that Covid restrictions represent for many firms.’

Ian Cass, managing director of small business group the Forum of Private Business, said: ‘If Tier Three were introduced across England, then many business owners will be asking themselves whether they are better off closing down for good and walking away.’

Charlie Mullins, the former Tory donor who runs Pimlico Plumbers, warned: ‘The Government is not in the real world – they don’t understand businesses and they need to listen.’

He added: ‘We can’t afford to do another national lockdown. The Government’s got it all wrong – we can’t keep trying to hide from the virus, we need to find a way to work with it. Boris has lost his bottle and it’s all an overreaction.’

Luke Johnson, former chairman of Pizza Express, said: ‘There is obsessive maniacal focus on Covid cases and deaths, but not on the collateral damage of lockdown – business are failing, unemployment and suicide are rising, and heart problems and other treatments not being dealt with.

‘It is very easy for those on the public sector payroll, members of Sage, civil servants, politicians and local authority staff to arbitrarily commit to lockdowns, because they personally will never face the prospect of losing their job because of it.

‘If you’ve grown a business over 20 years, put your life and soul and home on the line only to see your entire life’s work and all those destroyed, it’s a bleak experience. But that is the prospect facing an increasing number of entrepreneurs.

‘It’s truly heart-breaking.’

Environment Secretary George Eustice said there was 'no point having a lockdown in those parts of the country where the incidence of the disease is very low'

Environment Secretary George Eustice said there was ‘no point having a lockdown in those parts of the country where the incidence of the disease is very low’

Some 55 Tory MPs in the newly formed Northern Research Group this week wrote to the PM to demand that he draws up an exit plan for how areas can get rid of restrictions. A senior figure in the group last night said its members would ‘lose our s**t’ if ministers gave in to demands to close more businesses such as restaurants.

Downing Street last night insisted the Prime Minister was sticking to his strategy of controlling the virus through local lockdowns. A spokesman said: ‘As a responsible government, we continue to prepare for a wide range of scenarios, including the reasonable worst-case scenario.’

Environment Secretary George Eustice said there was ‘no point having a lockdown in those parts of the country where the incidence of the disease is very low’.

But he was unable to give a timeframe for how long tiered restrictions were expected to last. 

This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk

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Deputy head girl Jeni is one of three students who died at university in Newcastle this term

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deputy head girl jeni is one of three students who died at university in newcastle this term

As far as undergraduate accommodation goes, Park View student village is the pinnacle of luxury.

The recently refurbished Newcastle University halls of residence boast en-suite rooms with double beds. Each flat contains a communal kitchen with a wide-screen TV.

Behind freshly painted purple and blue walls, there are laundry facilities students can control via smartphones, and a games room.

But the biggest selling point of all for this £75 million refurbished block — for anxious parents leaving their children for the first time — is the 24-hour security in the form of CCTV cameras and security officers, so, as the narrator of the virtual tour reassures viewers: ‘You feel safe and looked after at all times.’

Antonia Hoyle investigates how covid restrictions and dealers advertising on social media are fueling student drug use, following the death of Jeni Larmour (pictured)

Antonia Hoyle investigates how covid restrictions and dealers advertising on social media are fueling student drug use, following the death of Jeni Larmour (pictured)

How horribly ironic those words sound now. On October 3, 18-year-old fresher Jeni Larmour died in these halls, after she is believed to have taken the Class B drug ketamine. Hers was the first of four drug-related deaths in the city over that weekend.

Hours later school leaver Mark Johnston, 18, was pronounced dead after reportedly taking the Class A drug MDMA at a flat just minutes away. The following morning, a 21-year-old student from neighbouring Northumbria University died in hospital, also suspected to have taken MDMA.

And that afternoon, police were called back to Park View student village, where another female 18-year-old student had died, also believed to have taken ketamine.

An 18-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of supplying drugs after the second girl’s death. Since then, a further ten people have been arrested and released on bail. No charges are expected until the end of the month.

Architecture and urban planning student Jeni had arrived at Newcastle University less than 48 hours earlier. Her mother Sandra had barely returned to the family home in Northern Ireland before learning her daughter had died. As distraught Sandra paid a heartbreaking tribute to her ‘beautiful princess’ and ‘best friend’, parents of other newly-arrived students — most struggling to adapt to constrictions placed on them to curb the pandemic — were left shaken.

After all, if undergraduates on this cossetted Newcastle University campus aren’t safe, what hope for the rest of the nation’s students?

Yet as our investigation has found, both Newcastle University and Northumbria University, a former polytechnic also located in the heart of Newcastle, have long struggled to control their student drug use, which is rife among its undergraduate population.

School leaver Mark Johnston, 18, (pictured) was pronounced dead after reportedly taking the Class A drug MDMA

School leaver Mark Johnston, 18, (pictured) was pronounced dead after reportedly taking the Class A drug MDMA

It appears the situation has only worsened — thanks not just to social media making the drugs more accessible, but also Covid restrictions meaning thousands of students — many away from home for the first time — are currently barricaded in halls of residence.

This month, it was revealed dealers were advertising their services to Newcastle students via Instagram, making obtaining drugs as easy as buying a pint of beer — or, indeed, easier, now bars close at 10pm.

Coronavirus infections are serious here — recently 1,752 of Newcastle University’s 28,000 students tested positive, while 770 positive tests were recorded at Northumbria University in one week. The following week, a further 749 students at Newcastle University tested positive.

Lockdown has left many students confined to halls of residence, where they take drugs without the supervision a pub or nightclub might offer. Equally important, many feel emotionally isolated — forced to mix only with those in their immediate vicinity, the lure of illegal substances as a social lubricant is strong.

A toxic mix, then, and most students seem to believe drug taking will continue, despite the tragic deaths.

‘It’s an accepted part of university life,’ one Northumbria University student, visiting the city’s bars with his flatmate, told the Mail. ‘It’s really easy to get drugs. They are definitely still going on despite Covid, and the 10pm curfew makes no difference.’

Jeni (pictured) who was raised in County Armagh, had been her school's deputy head girl and had a job in her local shop

Jeni (pictured) who was raised in County Armagh, had been her school’s deputy head girl and had a job in her local shop

They are ubiquitous at post-curfew parties, he adds: ‘We have what are called “afters”, which are parties in someone’s flat after you’ve been out. They can go on until 9am the following morning. The deaths here will make me think twice.’

A ‘drugs amnesty bin’ has been installed for Newcastle University students to dispose of unwanted drugs. How many will use it remains to be seen.

‘When I first came to university it was a surprise to me how many people did drugs. At any party, on any night out, people will offer you some,’ says Maddie Roberts, 20, a third-year Business student at Newcastle University, who is campaigning for drugs testing kits, which reveal whether or not substances contain harmful components, to be made readily available on campus.

For Jeni Larmour, the prevalence of drugs must have seemed shocking. Raised by a loving family in a tight-knit rural community two miles outside Newtownhamilton in County Armagh, her grandparents and uncle both have farms across the road from her parents’ home.

A bright and ambitious young woman, Jeni had been her school’s deputy head girl. She had a job in her local shop, was involved in her school choir, and enjoyed being a member of the cadets. The idea she would take drugs seems incomprehensible to many.

‘I don’t believe she would willingly have taken drugs,’ says Piper Hebditch, 18, who met Jeni through the Army Cadets Round Britain sailing challenge in 2018.

Undergraduate students at Newcastle University have reported receiving cards with details of an Instagram account they could message for drugs (file image)

Undergraduate students at Newcastle University have reported receiving cards with details of an Instagram account they could message for drugs (file image)

Piper, a student from Peterborough, recalls a ‘confident’ friend who liked a party but maintained a naïve wonder at the world: ‘She was so enthusiastic, even when we were up at 4am in 2 degree weather in the middle of the Irish Sea. The look of amazement on her face when we saw the seals or dolphins could warm even the coldest of hearts.’

And for all her confidence, as she waved goodbye to her mother from her £140-a-week city centre digs on Friday, October 2, it would be hard not to feel overwhelmed.

Before refurbishment, the halls she chose had a reputation for being the university’s party block. ‘If you need time alone or don’t really enjoy a party atmosphere, don’t choose here,’ says one online review, while ‘noisy’ and ‘great for socialising’ are other verdicts. Even if students wouldn’t have considered taking drugs before, the seed is soon planted in their mind.

This month, undergraduates reported cards left under their doors with details of an Instagram account they could message. ‘When you go to the account there are images of drugs and they tell you what they sell,’ said one 19-year-old psychology student from Newcastle University.

Other dealers are brazenly approaching students on the street. ‘The other day there was a red van driving around with a couple of lads in it. It pulled up next to me and one of them said, “Do you want any ket (ketamine)?” one Newcastle University student told the Mail. ‘I saw him pull up alongside other people, too. People will come up to you often and ask you if you want to buy drugs.’

A 20-year-old maths student at Newcastle University was convicted of dealing cocaine from his halls in 2005 (file image)

A 20-year-old maths student at Newcastle University was convicted of dealing cocaine from his halls in 2005 (file image) 

Some suppliers are as young as the students they sell to — indeed, they may be students themselves.

In 2005, a 20-year-old maths undergraduate at Newcastle University was convicted of dealing cocaine from his halls while in 2018 former Northumbria University geography graduate Omar Sharif, 24, was convicted of dealing MDMA and raping women he had drugged.

One Northumbria University student who admitted taking drugs regularly, said he sourced them through ‘a friend of a friend’, adding ‘the appeal of drugs (over alcohol) is that there’s no hangover and it’s cheaper’.

Whereas previous generations may have dabbled with cocaine, ketamine — an anaesthetic originally used as a horse tranquiliser — is now the most popular student drug, one that Maddie Roberts says is both ‘readily available’ and ‘not particularly expensive’.

One student from Northumbria University added: ‘People do ket to help them chill out. The appeal is that it is cheap. You might pay £10 for a cocktail but £5 for a drug which lasts all night.’

Yet it is a known depressant that can also cause spasms, agitation and high blood pressure, and prove fatal because of its effects on the heart. When it is cut with other powders to make it go further, it is particularly dangerous — a practice some experts believe has become particularly commonplace since lockdown.

‘At the start of the pandemic, there were fears that because of border closures there would be less drugs coming into the country,’ one drug charity worker explains. ‘It seems like that could be a good thing — but often that means the drugs would be cut with things to make the volumes go higher, and that’s where you get the bad batch of drugs.’

A Northumbria University student who uses ¿ket¿ to ¿chill out', heard about contaminated supplies of ketamine and MDMA from his dealer (file image)

A Northumbria University student who uses ‘ket’ to ‘chill out’, heard about contaminated supplies of ketamine and MDMA from his dealer (file image)

He adds: ‘In normal circumstances these substances would be taken in clubs where there are paramedics.’

While police investigate, unconfirmed rumours abound that contaminated supplies of ketamine and MDMA caused the four deaths. ‘I heard about what happened to the girls through my dealer,’ says the Northumbria University student who uses ‘ket’ to ‘chill out’. He adds: ‘It was apparently a mix of ketamine and fentanyl (opioid). It was bad drugs and too much and they had no way to know.’

Peer pressure is making youngsters who wouldn’t have dreamed of taking drugs experiment.

‘It’s part of the university culture these days to do drugs,’ a female student at Northumbria University says. ‘I think more students do them than not. People will do it any time — I was with friends of friends in a pub toilet when they asked me to cough loudly so that other people couldn’t hear them sniffing cocaine. I didn’t feel like I could say no.’

Others are using drugs to self-medicate from the traumatic effects of lockdown on student life — with lectures moved online and the bright new start freshers had anticipated crumbling with every further restriction.

A Northumbria University student told us he believes drug use could also soar if students are confined to their halls. ‘With students being inside now they might do things they wouldn’t normally,’ he says. ‘A lot of the time people might go crazy because they come from a small town and have never experienced that party life and they just go nuts.’

University students were reportedly given £3 testing kits to check if drugs were safe or not in 2016 (file image)

University students were reportedly given £3 testing kits to check if drugs were safe or not in 2016 (file image)

Matthew Crawford, 20, a Civil Engineering student at Northumbria University, who says it is ‘stupidly easy’ to get hold of drugs, adds: ‘Even if you say no the first time, if you’re stuck in for two weeks with six people you don’t know it could be really easy to just think: “Yeah, you know what, I’ll do a bit of this.” ’ Sonya Jones, Young Person’s Team Manager at drug, alcohol and mental health charity We Are With You, stresses that students need to feel supported following the tragedy: ‘Many university students are cooped up in their rooms, unsure of when they will be let out and coming to terms with a very different first-year experience than they ever could have imagined.’

So what are both universities doing to help? Northumbria University has a zero tolerance approach to students taking drugs in university accommodation (it evicts them). If Newcastle University students are found in possession of illegal substances, however, their eviction is suspended if there are no further offences.

Its messages seem conflicting — in 2016, its students were reportedly given £3 testing kits to check if drugs were safe or not. But the following year, it teamed up with police to do random drug searches with sniffer dogs after drugs were found in halls.

A Newcastle University spokesperson said they worked hard to educate students about the dangers of drugs and support those affected by their own use.

A spokesperson for Northumbria University said: ‘We have a zero tolerance attitude to students taking drugs.’

Whether either strategy will work remains to be seen.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Condron and Alex Storey.

This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk

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