Coronavirus latest: Arizona reports worst daily death toll as Covid hospitalisations hit record high


Peter Wells in New York

Arizona on Tuesday reported its deadliest day of the pandemic, underscoring the state’s status as one of the hottest coronavirus hotspot in the US.

Authorities attributed a further 335 deaths to coronavirus, the health department revealed this morning, up from six on Monday. That surpassed the previous single-day record of 297 fatalities reported on January 7.

That took the total number of deaths in Arizona since the start of the pandemic to 10,482, just days after the state became the 11th to reach the grim milestone of 10,000 coronavirus fatalities.

Arizona’s health department also revealed this morning that a further 8,559 people had tested positive over the past 24 hours. That compared to an average over the past week of a record 9,803 a day. Only California, Texas, Florida and New York – the most populous states in the US – have averaged more cases over the past week.

The latest figures come less than a day after Governor Doug Ducey warned that the risk of coronavirus was “still serious, and so is the pressure on our hospitals and medical personnel” but gave few hints that he would reintroduce restrictions on the economy.

In his state of the state address on Monday, Mr Ducey said he had been “entrusted by the people of Arizona with this responsibility” to deal with the public health emergency, but that he was “not going to hand over the keys to a small group of mayors who have expressed every intention of locking down their cities.”

The governor claimed other states and cities that had reintroduced restrictions on social gatherings and business had little to show for their efforts. “They’re still dealing with the worst of it, just as we are,” he said.

Adjusted for population, Arizona’s coronavirus metrics are as bad as they have ever been and are among some of the worst levels experienced by any state during the pandemic. For every 100,000 people, Arizona has averaged 135 new cases and 2.29 deaths a day over the past week.

That death rate is the highest rate in the US at present — well ahead of second-ranked Kansas at about 1.8 deaths per 100,000 a day over the past week, according to a Financial Times analysis of Covid Tracking Project and US Census Bureau data. Only New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, South Dakota, North Dakota and Iowa have experienced a higher rate at any point during the pandemic.

Arizona’s per capita infection rate over the past week is the highest rate in the US, ahead of second-ranked Rhode Island at about 107 and third-ranked California at about 105. Only North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Tennessee have ever notched up higher population-adjusted seven-day averages of cases, according to FT analysis of Covid Tracking Project and Census Bureau data.

There were a record 4,997 people in Arizona hospitals with coronavirus, according to the latest Covid Tracking Project data on Monday. Adjusted for population, that is nearly 69 patients per 100,000 people, a level that has only been exceeded by New York and New Jersey — each above 90 patients — during the worst of their crisis in April of last year.

Johnson’s fawning to Trump will have done the UK no favours with Biden


Kim Darroch is former British ambassador to the US and author of ‘Collateral Damage: Britain, America And Europe In The Age Of Trump’

It was only 24 hours after the storming of the Capitol that Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, finally broke with Donald Trump. I witnessed first hand Mr Johnson’s fascination with the US president when he was foreign secretary — and how this continued when he became UK prime minister. As well as a reminder of the importance of principles in foreign policy, I fear it will cost Britain in terms of our relations with the Biden administration.

I realised the haphazard nature of Mr Trump’s administration four years ago. It was an evening in January 2017. I was at Dulles Airport, and the plane of then prime minister Theresa May had just taken off. She was the first foreign leader to see the new US president, only a week after his inauguration. It had been a strange meeting, but a genuine coup. As her plane’s taillights disappeared, I judged the UK to be as well placed as we could hope at the launch of this Administration of Unknowns. 

A few hours later, we rethought this comforting assessment. Mr Trump signed an executive order barring passport holders from several majority Muslim countries from entering the US. Dubbed “the Muslim ban,” it caused chaos at airports around the world, with thousands of passengers caught mid-journey. Heathrow, as a major hub, was particularly disrupted. London pressed us to get the order rescinded but also wondered if we hadn’t been warned about this while Mrs May had been at the White House. We had learnt something fundamental about Mr Trump’s wilful and go-it-alone nature. 

We re-learnt that lesson regularly. In November 2017, for example, I woke to news that the US president had retweeted some Islamophobic video clips from Britain First, a far-right extremist group. Mrs May responded, in the mildest rebuke, that he had been wrong to do this. Mr Trump replied angrily she should spend her time focusing on “the destructive Radical Islamist terrorism taking place within the United Kingdom”. Then, the following year, we put huge effort into arranging a “special” UK visit, including a gala dinner at Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace. Mr Trump rewarded us by giving an interview to the Sun newspaper in which he said Mrs May had ignored his advice, wrecked Brexit and destroyed the prospects of a UK-US trade deal.

Urged on by London, I would remonstrate with my White House contacts about these gratuitous attacks; about their failure to warn us; and, more generally, about the absence of advance consultation on their big policy decisions. I always got the same response: “You think any of us knew this was coming?” It painted a picture of a man so self-obsessed as to be incapable of processing the impact of his decisions on others, and so undisciplined that he would broadcast them to the first person who listened. Sometimes it was a call to Fox News, sometimes just putting his head around the door of the White House media room.

Through much of this time, Mr Johnson was foreign secretary and a frequent Washington visitor. On policy, he was poles apart from Mr Trump: an advocate of action on climate change, a liberal on immigration, a supporter of the Iran nuclear deal. Yet he was also intrigued, I believe, by Mr Trump’s rise to power, by the devotion he inspired among supporters, and by his never-give-an-inch approach to the media. Mr Johnson also thought he could manage Mr Trump, build a much stronger relationship than Mrs May, and make domestic capital out of his support for Brexit and a UK-US trade deal. 

These were reasonable objectives. It’s important that the British prime minister be close to the US president. But Mr Johnson never knowingly understates, and this led him to statements he didn’t need to make: asserting that Mr Trump had “many, many, good qualities”, was “making America great again”, and even suggesting he was as good a candidate as Barack Obama for a Nobel Peace Prize.

None of this looks great now, in the wake of the Capitol’s sacking. Unlike Mrs May, the Johnson government also studiously avoided direct criticism of Mr Trump. It remained silent when he told Democrat congresswomen of colour to “go back” to where they came from, and declined to comment on Mr Trump’s handling of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Did this sidelining of our principles deliver for the UK? My guess is it wouldn’t have ended well even if Mr Trump had won the election. We might have got a UK-US trade deal, but at the cost of a massive increase in low-cost US agricultural exports into the UK.

With Joe Biden, it has started better than some anticipated, with Mr Johnson getting an early slot for his congratulatory call to the president-elect. But judging by what I’m hearing from Democrat friends, there will be a price to pay, somewhere down the track, for our obsequiousness to Mr Biden’s predecessor. They see German chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of Mr Trump as the gold standard, and reckon we fell way short. “What were you thinking?”, they say.

The lesson here? It is right and sensible to be judicious, to measure carefully the words that you use, and to consider the consequences. But ultimately, when basic values are challenged, you have to call it as you see it.

Democrats within touching distance of winning US Senate


Democrats moved to within touching distance of control of the US Congress after Raphael Warnock became the first African-American in Georgia to win a Senate seat and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff led his Republican opponent in a second contest in the state.

The rising prospect of a Democratic sweep in the two pivotal races would hand the party unified control in Congress for the first time in a decade, boosting Joe Biden’s chances of implementing his agenda as president when he takes office later this month.

It is also likely to trigger a bitter round of recriminations among Republicans, after they failed to secure Donald Trump’s re-election as president or preserve control of the Senate as a last-ditch opportunity to thwart Mr Biden.

Mr Warnock was declared the victor by the Associated Press in the early hours of Wednesday morning. With 98 per cent of votes counted, he had 50.6 per cent of the vote with a lead of about 53,000 over Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler.

In the other Georgia Senate race, Mr Ossoff led Republican incumbent David Perdue by slightly more than 17,000 votes. Many of the remaining ballots are expected to come from areas that favour Democrats.

US stocks and Treasury yields rose on the prospect of a bigger fiscal stimulus that could feed through to inflation.

US 10-year Treasury yields hit 1 per cent for the first time in more than nine months, rising 0.06 percentage points to 1.02 per cent in Asia trading, reflecting market expectations of higher government spending. Yields rise when bond prices fall.

The two run-off elections were triggered after no candidate earned more than 50 per cent of the vote in the November 3 general election, and took place in the shadow of Mr Trump’s repeated refusal to accept his loss to Mr Biden.

The Associated Press, which the Financial Times relies upon to call elections, has yet to declare Mr Ossoff, a 33-year-old documentary film producer, the victor against Mr Perdue, 71, the former chief executive of Dollar General.

But Mr Ossoff, who would be the youngest senator since Mr Biden was sworn in at the age of 30 in 1973, claimed a win on Wednesday in a video posted to social media.

“It is with humility that I thank the people of Georgia for electing me to serve you in the United States Senate. Thank you for the confidence and trust that you have placed in me.”

Mr Perdue’s campaign said in a statement that the “exceptionally close election . . . will require time and transparency to be certain the results are fair and accurate”.

“We will mobilise every available resource and exhaust every legal recourse to ensure all legally cast ballots are properly counted,” the statement said. “We believe in the end, Senator Perdue will be victorious.”

Mr Warnock thanked his supporters in a speech delivered over video-link early on Wednesday. “We were told that we couldn’t win this election. But tonight we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible,” he said.

“I am going to the Senate to work for all of Georgia,” he added.

Mr Warnock, the senior pastor of Martin Luther King Jr’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, will become only the 11th black senator in US history. In his video speech, he thanked his 82-year-old mother, who grew up picking cotton in the southern US state.

Ms Loeffler refused to concede and said she still had a “path to victory”.

“This is a game of inches,” Ms Loeffler told supporters at an event in Atlanta before the race was called. “We are going to win this election.”

On Wednesday morning, Mr Biden congratulated Mr Warnock and Mr Ossoff and vowed to press ahead with his platform.

“The American people demand action and they want unity. I am more optimistic than I ever have been that we can deliver both,” he said in a statement.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders were celebrating their wins and ramped up planning for legislative action in co-ordination with Mr Biden.

“Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff ran and won on the values of advancing equality and opportunity for working people across the state and the nation,” Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said in a statement. “In sending these two outstanding Democratic senators to Washington, Georgians cast their ballots for a fairer, accountable and more compassionate America.”

Economists were already factoring in a higher likelihood of additional fiscal expansion with Democrats in control of the Senate.

Video: Joe Biden faces multiple domestic crises

Aneta Markowska of Jefferies wrote in a note that she assumed $1tn in new stimulus over the next few months, adding “roughly two percentage points to growth over the next two years”. This meant that the economy would reach full employment earlier than expected, prompting the Federal Reserve to tighten monetary policy in early 2023 rather than 2024.

Republicans were considered the favourites heading into Tuesday’s run-offs, given that the party had dominated the political landscape in Georgia for decades. But Democrats were optimistic after Mr Biden’s narrow victory in the state’s presidential contest in November.

Returns on Tuesday indicated Mr Warnock and Mr Ossoff had reassembled the coalition that helped catapult Mr Biden to the White House, enjoying particularly strong support from black voters while also winning over some white suburbanites. In many Georgia counties, the Democratic Senate candidates outperformed Mr Biden’s November numbers.

It remained unclear how the Senate run-offs were affected by Mr Trump’s repeated attempts to undermine the result of the state’s presidential election, although data suggested turnout had fallen short of Republicans’ expectations in rural party strongholds.

“In a normal election cycle, without a president going psycho . . . I think the GOP would have significant advantages here. But that’s not the election we’re in,” Bill Crane, a political analyst in Atlanta, said ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

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Republican bid to overturn US election faces fierce backlash


A group of Republican lawmakers pressed ahead with plans to resist the certification by Congress of Joe Biden’s election victory, despite fierce criticism from both sides of politics that they were undermining democracy.

The rebellion, which is being cheered on by US president Donald Trump, includes at least 12 senators and as many as 140 members of the House, who are expected to vote against approving Mr Biden’s electoral college win on Wednesday during a normally routine joint session of Congress.

The effort, which is being led by Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican senator, is unlikely to overturn the US presidential result, given it is based on allegations of widespread voter fraud that have been roundly dismissed by state officials and a myriad of state and federal courts.

However, it could delay the congressional recognition of Mr Biden’s victory ahead of the January 20 inauguration. It could also further erode the incoming president’s legitimacy among conservative voters, given Mr Trump’s failure to concede defeat.

The opposition of a substantial number of Republican lawmakers to accepting Mr Biden’s move to the White House came at the start of a pivotal week in US politics.

Members of the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats, were on Sunday preparing to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as speaker for a new two-year term. Meanwhile, voters in Georgia prepared to cast their final ballots on Tuesday in two run-off Senate races that will determine control of the upper chamber of Congress and Mr Biden’s ability to enact his agenda.

Speaking on Sunday morning, the Republican objectors to Mr Biden’s victory insisted on the establishment of an independent commission that could report back on voter fraud allegations within 10 days. Speaking on Fox News, Mr Cruz said the US went into the election “deeply divided [and] deeply polarised” and “unprecedented” voter fraud allegations had produced a “distrust” in the result.

“I think we in Congress have an obligation to do something about that,” he said.

Ron Johnson, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, added on NBC: “We are not acting to thwart the democratic process. We’re acting to protect it. The fact of the matter is that we have an unsustainable state of affairs in this country where we have tens of millions of people that do not view this election result as legitimate.”

Their revolt was roundly attacked by Democrats, with Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, calling it “nothing more than an attempt to subvert the will of the voters” in a tweet on Sunday. But it is not backed by Republican leaders in the Senate either, and some party members have criticised it in scathing terms.

“The egregious ploy to reject electors may enhance the political ambition of some, but dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic,” warned Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, in a tweet on Saturday.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, added on Sunday that his colleagues had a “high bar to clear” in opposing Mr Biden’s certification.

“Proposing a commission at this late date — which has zero chance of becoming reality — is not effectively fighting for President Trump. It appears to be more of a political dodge than an effective remedy,” said Mr Graham in a tweet.

But Mr Trump on Sunday retweeted a call for Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the two Republican senators from Georgia facing a tricky run-off election on Tuesday, to join Mr Cruz’s effort, signalling that the president was still highly supportive of the effort.

Ms Loeffler told Fox News on Sunday she was “seriously looking” at joining the group. “We have to make sure that Georgia and all of Americans trust our voting process,” she said.

Spain and UK agree deal to keep Gibraltar land border open


Spain and the UK have reached an agreement in principle on the free movement between the British overseas territory of Gibraltar and Spain, less than a day before the frontier would have become the only hard land border created by Brexit.

“The border gate will be lifted and controls between Gibraltar and Spain will be able to be abolished,” Arancha González Laya, Spain’s foreign minister, said on Thursday.

“We’re going to avert the worst effects of a hard Brexit,” Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar chief minister, said shortly after.

Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, said the agreement would form the basis of a separate treaty between the UK and the EU regarding Gibraltar, adding “we remain steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and its sovereignty is safeguarded”.

The agreement will in effect make Gibraltar part of the Schengen free-movement area and convert Gibraltar’s airport and port into the EU frontier. More than 90 per cent of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum and since then Gibraltar has sought closer ties with the EU than it had pre-Brexit. Similarly, Ms González has said the Spanish “vision” was to “remove the border fence”.

But six months of negotiations over the free movement agreement stalled over how entrance into the Schengen zone, now to be inside the British overseas territory, would be policed.

Madrid had signalled that it would be willing to have officers from the EU border agency Frontex control passage through the airport and port as a temporary confidence-building measure, but it insisted that Spain, as an EU member, would be in charge of the external EU border. The Gibraltar government, for its part, was clear that it would not accept Spanish officials controlling its borders.

The issue is especially sensitive because of the sovereignty dispute that has continued since Gibraltar was ceded to Britain under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.

In announcing the agreement in principle, Ms González insisted that Spain would be the responsible party for the oversight of Schengen, but said that Frontex agents would assist with border controls during a four-year transition period. She declined to specify where Spanish customs and police agents would be during or after that period.

Mr Picardo insisted “people should absolutely not be concerned” that Spain’s Guardia Civil would be coming to Gibraltar.

It should take about six months to convert the deal into an EU-UK treaty, Ms González said, during which time frontier controls along the current Spain-Gibraltar border would be managed in line with Schengen regulations.

The free movement of people between the two territories is particularly important for workers in the region. About 15,000 people cross the border to work every day — most of them passing from the Spanish to the Gibraltarian side. Damage to the regional economy caused by a hard border would have devastated these workers, as job prospects are scarce in the Spanish frontier area of the Campo de Gibraltar, where unemployment is close to 40 per cent.

The New Year’s Eve deal will “pull down barriers to create a zone of shared prosperity”, Ms González said. “Without this agreement in principle, Gibraltar would have been the only location of a hard Brexit, and that concern weighed on the negotiations.”

Mr Picardo said: “This has not been easy, and we have gone to the wire. In fact I think we felt the wire cutting into our flesh as we finalised the agreement.” 

Saudi court sentences prominent female activist to nearly six years


A prominent Saudi women’s rights activist has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison by an anti-terrorism court in a high-profile case that has drawn widespread international criticism and intensified scrutiny on the kingdom’s human rights record.

Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for the right for women to drive, was charged with incitement to change the absolute monarchy’s political system, serving a foreign agenda and co-operating with individuals and entities accused of violating the kingdom’s anti-terrorism act, according to Saudi media affiliated to the state.

Ms Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months, effective from the date of her arrest in May 2018, with two years and 10 months suspended, meaning she could be released in a few months, said Lina al-Hathloul, her sister. She will be banned from travel for five years, her sister said on Twitter.

The sentencing comes as US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to put greater scrutiny on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s autocratic rule, under which hundreds of royals, businessmen, activists, bloggers and academics have been jailed.

Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s pick to be national security adviser, on Monday said Saudi Arabia’s sentencing of Ms Hathloul “for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling.”

“As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur,” he said on Twitter.

In October, Mr Biden said his administration would “reassess” the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia as he used the second anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the veteran journalist, to pledge that human rights would be a priority “even with our closest security partners”.

Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader, has spearheaded sweeping changes in recent years as he has pledged to modernise the ultra-conservative kingdom and reform the oil-dependent economy.

But the easing of social restrictions under his watch, including allowing women to drive and live independently and marry without the approval of male guardians, has been accompanied by waves of crackdowns against any hint of dissent.

Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi © Hasan Jamali/AP

The murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 triggered Riyadh’s worst diplomatic crisis in decades. But President Donald Trump stood by Prince Mohammed and was accused by activists of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

The paradox of Prince Mohammed’s rule was highlighted by the arrest of Ms Hathloul, 31, and more than 10 other female activists who had also campaigned for the lifting of a decades-old ban on women driving. They were detained just weeks before the ban was lifted in what was widely interpreted as a signal from the authorities that all forms of activism would be quashed.

Ms Hathloul’s family alleged that she had been tortured while she was detained, but a court last week cleared the authorities, saying there was no evidence to support the claims.

Her case was transferred to a court that typically hears terrorism cases last month.

Alqst, a London-based human rights organisation, said it was a “travesty of justice” that Ms Hathloul was “sentenced under the counter-terrorism law, based on charges relating solely to her peaceful activism”. It added that her trial “has been flawed from start to finish”.

Human rights groups say scores of activists remain in prison. This month, a court sentenced Walid Fitaihi, a Saudi-US doctor, to six years in jail on what Human Rights Watch described as “vague charges mostly tied to his peaceful political views and expression”.

US to require people flying from the UK to test for Covid


The Trump administration is demanding that travellers from the UK get a negative coronavirus test 72 hours before flying to the US, under new restrictions designed to stop the spread of the new strain of the disease.

The US government announced the measure on Thursday night, becoming the latest country to impose travel restrictions on British travellers since the discovery of the more contagious strain, which has ripped through the south-east of England.

Donald Trump, US president, is due to sign an order putting the restrictions in place on Friday, though they will not take effect until Monday.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement: “This additional testing requirement will fortify our protection of the American public to improve their health and safety and ensure responsible international travel.”

The US move comes after several other countries took similar measures to restrict movement from the UK. More than 50 countries have now banned travel from Britain altogether after a warning from Boris Johnson, British prime minister, about the highly infectious coronavirus variant.

Scientists say the new strain is up to 70 per cent more transmissible than others and believe it is responsible for a sudden jump in cases in London and the surrounding counties over the past few days.

France reopened its border earlier this week to anyone who tests negative, after a 48-hour closure which caused huge disruption to British-French freight routes.

The Trump administration had already cut travel from the UK by 90 per cent after imposing an entry ban in March on anyone who had been in Britain during the previous 14 days. That ban does not apply to US citizens however, or anyone who is granted an exemption for reasons of “national interest”.

Some politicians have called on the federal government to tighten the restrictions in recent days, either by banning flights outright or imposing testing requirements.

Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, earlier this week accused the Trump administration of failing to act quickly enough to restrict travel from Britain. “This is what happened in the spring. It is déjà vu. It is the same mistake the federal government made that killed thousands of people,” he said.

Under the rules, anyone flying from the UK will be required to take either a polymerase chain reaction test or a more rapid antigen test and provide written confirmation of a negative result to their airline. Airlines will be required to confirm the negative results, and to ban any traveller who refuses to take a test.

Several US air carriers had already announced they were due to impose similar restrictions, including United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Johnson and Von der Leyen intensify ‘hotline’ talks in push for Brexit deal


Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have begun an intensified phase of “hotline” talks as the two sides strive to agree a Brexit trade deal by Wednesday night.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, told ambassadors on Tuesday evening that the latest UK offer on fishing rights — the key remaining sticking points in the talks — was unacceptable.

But he stressed that negotiations were continuing, with many other issues already solved or close to being settled, according to participants at the closed-door briefing.

Although both sides say talks could continue after Christmas, they share a desire to close a deal by Wednesday night if at all possible, as exhausted negotiators hand the baton to their political bosses.

“Nothing’s impossible,” said one British official, while stressing that significant differences remained. “Getting home for Christmas is something everyone would like.”

Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson have held regular calls in the last 24 hours, according to British and EU officials, taking hands-on control of negotiations in a bid to reach a compromise on EU fishing rights in UK waters.

Mr Barnier told members of the European Parliament at a separate closed-door meeting on Tuesday that the two sides were still far apart on fish and he felt the issue would have to be solved by Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson, according to one meeting participant.

“EU negotiators are in a last push now to make progress and to clinch a deal acceptable for both sides,” said one diplomat after Mr Barnier’s presentation.

Mr Barnier told ambassadors that the EU side was prepared to negotiate until the end of the year, when Britain’s post-Brexit transition period will end, and even beyond.

But officials on both sides said they were striving to wrap up a deal before Christmas in order to leave the time between December 25 and the new year for ratification or other processes needed to bring the deal into effect.

The European Parliament has already said that it will not hold a ratification vote before the end of the year, with the EU now exploring a stopgap approach known as “provisional application”.

The EU has offered to sacrifice 25 per cent of its existing €650m-worth of fishing rights in UK waters as part of a six-year transition period. Mr Barnier said the UK was seeking a 35 per cent cut rising to 60 per cent if a wider range of species were factored in to the calculations. The UK transition offer was also shorter — only three years, he said.

A person briefed on the British negotiating position said Mr Barnier’s account was not accurate, without offering further details.

Mr Johnson on Tuesday was warned by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation not to “betray” the industry, whose main base is in the north-east of Scotland where the Conservatives hold three parliamentary seats.

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the body, said: “Repatriating only 35 per cent of the EU’s landings to the UK phased in over a period of several years would be a terrible deal for the fishing industry.”

But European fishing groups have made similar warnings about the prospective deal, suggesting both sides may end up disappointing their fishing sectors, which make up a tiny part of the UK and EU economies.

But Mr Johnson has, so far at least, managed to keep on side Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, who have been updated on the state of talks in Brussels and have been briefed that a deal could be agreed on Wednesday evening.

The Tory European Research Group has placed its lawyers on standby to go through any deal with a fine tooth comb over Christmas, ahead of a mooted parliamentary vote on December 30.

But there have not been any cries of “betrayal” from the ERG so far, even as deals on contentious issues like the “level playing field” take shape in Brussels. Some MPs do, however, remain worried about the fishing deal.

One Tory MP said: “We have confidence in the prime minister and great confidence in David Frost [Britain’s chief negotiator].” The MP added that a deal on the level playing field and the governance of a trade treaty was “very nearly there”.

Coronavirus: Boris Johnson tears up five-day festive bubble plans


A third of the population of England will be barred from spending Christmas with other households after Boris Johnson ripped up his plans to allow five-day festive bubbles of up to three different households.

Mr Johnson announced at a press conference on Saturday afternoon that he had made the dramatic U-turn after a rapid spike in coronavirus cases in London, caused in part by a more infectious new strain of the virus.

An estimated 18m people living in the new tier 4 areas, which include London and much of the surrounding region, will be ordered to stay at home for a fortnight starting on Sunday morning.

They will be barred from socialising with more than one person even outdoors — meaning no Christmas gatherings of entire families — while shops, leisure facilities, gyms and hairdressers will be closed.

People living elsewhere in England in tiers 1-3 will still be allowed family gatherings over the festive period, but only for Christmas Day itself, rather than the previously planned five days.

The new restrictions — which prompted alarm among business leaders — is a volte-face for the prime minister, who said earlier this week that it would be inhuman to prevent families gathering next week.

Mr Johnson said that the new virus — named VUI2020/12/01 — could be more than 70 per cent more infectious than the previous variant, although there was no evidence that it had a higher mortality rate. 

He said the government wanted people in all tiers to “stay local” at Christmas. “As prime minister, it is my duty to take the difficult decisions, to do what is right to protect the people of this country,” he said.

“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus, and the potential risk it poses, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.”

Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced a ban on travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK over the Christmas period.

She also slashed the amount of time that families in Scotland could spend in bubbles from five days to just Christmas Day itself — broadly in line with most of England.

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford announced that its tier 4 rules would come into effect from midnight on Saturday rather than the previous threshold of December 28.

Ms Sturgeon said that the new, more infectious strain of coronavirus had reached Scotland.

“If we don’t act decisively it will take hold here,” she said. “Four weeks ago London’s cases were very low too and now they’re running out of control. That’s what we face in Scotland in the face of this severe warning.”

London cases have doubled in just one week with the new variant accounting for 60 per cent of those new infections, according to Downing Street officials.

Mr Johnson said he knew how important it was for families to be together and for grandparents to see their grandchildren. But he said he believed there was no alternative way to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed and thousands losing their lives. 

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said the public were “getting confusion where they need certainty” after the U-turn. He said the public should support the “necessary” measures, but said Mr Johnson had failed to take decisive action quickly enough.

“My frustration is that when I challenged the prime minister on this . . . [for him] three days later to change his mind, just before Christmas, many families will be wondering ‘how on earth did this happen?’”

All Covid restrictions will be reviewed on December 30, including the areas which will be plunged into tier 4 on Sunday such as London, Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hastings, most of Surrey, Gosport and Havant, the East of England and all of Essex apart from Colchester.

The new restrictions will come into force only a fortnight after Mr Johnson ended a previous month-long lockdown in favour of a new regional system of restrictions.

The new measures prompted alarm among many business groups and Tory MPs.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, described the decision as “hugely regrettable news” and called for additional financial support.

“Retailers have invested hundreds of millions of pounds making stores Covid-secure for customers and staff, and Sage’s advice has said throughout that closing non-essential retail has a minimal impact on the spread of the virus,” she said.

London First, the lobby group, said the new rules were “a further hammer blow” to Londoners and warned the closure of non-essential retail in the capital could see many businesses go under.

“With such a prolonged period of stop-start measures the public will want to know how the new restrictions will reduce infection rates and the government must stand ready to pump further support to those firms unable to trade normally,” it said.

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs opposed to lockdown, said the restrictions should be put to a vote in the House of Commons. “As we deliver the vaccine to the most at-risk groups around the country, the public needs to see how this will translate into a return to normal life, with restrictions being lifted at every stage, and a clear road map to all our freedoms being restored as soon as this work is done.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Eley