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Boris Johnson: We have a sense of how the Comeback Kid plans to approach the COVID inquiry – but will it work? | Politics News

You can’t write him off.

Boris Johnson has found his way back into the public’s good books before and if his hopes of a political comeback are still alive, the coming week could be a decisive moment.

The preparations are under way. The former prime minister has spent many hours with barristers, studying 6,000 pages of material to put together a testimony that reflects favourably on his leadership during the pandemic.

The early drafts have been briefed to The Times. These do not provide a full account of what Mr Johnson is preparing to say but do offer a glimpse into his redemption strategy.

That strategy is two-pronged. On the one hand, he will wholeheartedly apologise for his mistakes – perhaps realising that some of his former colleagues have come off badly after failing to show contrition.

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Cummings says PM was known as a ‘trolley’

However, the mea culpa will only go so far. Like others who have gone before him, Mr Johnson wants the history books to remember him favourably.

His argument will be that his government got the big calls right: increasing hospital capacity at speed, procuring ventilators and, of course, the vaccine rollout.

He will also carefully position himself in the division that is forming between the scientific and medical advisors and his former cabinet colleagues.

Like Matt Hancock, Mr Johnson will avoid criticism of Rishi Sunak and his controversial Eat Out to Help Out Scheme. He will claim that Sir Patrick Vallance and Sir Chris Whitty were consulted before it was launched. That is something they both reject.

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Hancock defends COVID strategy

Mr Johnson has the advantage of going after many of his former colleagues. It means he has time to prepare his response to the unflattering depictions that have been made by former colleagues.

Dominic Cummings, his former advisor, described him as a “trolley”, constantly veering from side to side and incapable of taking decisive action. As apologetic as he is feeling, Mr Johnson is unlikely to accept that characterisation.

He will undoubtedly have opinions of his own about Mr Cummings but he may deem it unwise to engage in personal attacks. It is not something that is playing well with the public.

Mr Johnson’s team deny this leaked draft has come from his camp but he may well have wanted to get his narrative out before it is painstakingly unpicked by lawyers.

We have a sense now of his version of events, but will it bear scrutiny?

Sycamore Gap: People urged to stay away as work starts on removal of historic tree | UK News

Work has started as part of a “complex and difficult” operation to remove the Sycamore Gap tree from Hadrian’s Wall after it was felled in an act of vandalism.

The National Trust said workers were using chainsaws to remove branches ahead of the removal of the historic attraction, which is expected to take place on Thursday.

A crane will be used to lift the 50ft tree off the delicate Roman wall, before it is taken away from the area and put into safe storage at a trust site.

People are being urged to stay away from the area while the operation is taking place.

Andrew Poad, the site’s general manager for the National Trust, said it needed to be moved now to make the site safe for visitors and to preserve Hadrian’s Wall. Historic England previously said it had sustained damage when the tree fell on it.

“We’ve explored every option for moving the tree and while it isn’t possible to lift it in one go, as the tree is multi-stemmed with a large crown, we have aimed to keep the trunk in as large sections as possible, to give us flexibility on what the tree becomes in future,” he said.

“We’re encouraging people to stay away from the site while these complex and difficult operations take place.”

The stump, which could generate new shoots, will be kept in place and is currently behind a protective barrier.

Seeds have been collected – which the National Trust said could be used to grow new saplings.

Work begins in the removal of the felled Sycamore Gap tree, on Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland. Picture date: Wednesday October 11, 2023.
Work begins in the removal of the felled Sycamore Gap tree, on Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland. Picture date: Wednesday October 11, 2023.

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The much-photographed and painted lone sycamore, one of the most famous trees in the world and an emblem for the North East of England, was based in a dip in the Northumberland landscape.

There will be public consultation about what happens next at the site, which has UNESCO designation and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Work begins in the removal of the felled Sycamore Gap tree, on Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland. Picture date: Wednesday October 11, 2023.

Northumbria Police arrested a boy aged 16 and a man in his 60s after the tree was felled a fortnight ago. They have been released on bail pending further inquiries.

Ovarian cancer: Improvement work under way amid concerns treatment in Scotland is a ‘postcode lottery’ | UK News

Improvement work is under way amid a report that treatment for ovarian cancer in Scotland is a “postcode lottery” and has left some women with no option but to pay for private healthcare.

MSP Carol Mochan said she was “dismayed” to read a newspaper’s report of a “two-tiered health system, where the wealthy can afford treatment and even those on average incomes have little choice but to spend most of their savings on surgery to keep them alive”.

During topical questions at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, Ms Mochan added: “If you are poor, it seems your [option is to hope] you can get surgery on the NHS before it is too late.”

Jenni Minto, minister for public health and women’s health, said regional cancer networks have undertaken improvement work to reduce ovarian cancer surgery waits.

She added: “The Scottish government continues to monitor these activities and support progress in improving overall care for ovarian cancer patients.

“The NHS continue to prioritise cancer care and where there is an urgent suspicion of cancer, they make every effort to ensure a patient is seen quickly – with median waiting times to treatment for those on our urgent pathways being four days.”

Ovarian cancer is called a “silent killer” as it is often detected once it has advanced and spread, making treatment more difficult.

Treatment will usually involve a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.

The Sunday Post report claimed that women in northern and eastern Scotland are able to access treatment and surgery quickly, while those in the west face delays unless they can pay for their own.

One woman from Ayr opted for private surgery as she did not want to play “Russian roulette” with her life.

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The concerns come two years after the launch of Scotland’s flagship Women’s Health Plan to help tackle health inequality.

Ms Mochan, Scottish Labour MSP for South Scotland, stated: “There has rarely been a time since the foundation of the NHS where it has been so dangerous to be a woman who is not well-off in Scotland.

“And depending on where you live, the situation could be even worse.”

Ms Minto, SNP MSP for Argyll and Bute, said she had read the same article.

She said: “I absolutely understand the concern that this is causing.”

The minister said the Scottish government had met with clinical leads to “understand current practice and how we can continue to improve outcomes”, with improvement work already under way.

Ms Minto added: “The Scottish ovarian cancer clinic networks [have] set out some immediate actions, but also some short-term actions.

“For example, including increasing theatre capacity and also mutual support between health boards.”

Ministers told to ‘sit up and take notice’ over concerns about AI being trained on artists’ work | Science & Tech News

Copyrighted music, literature and art must be protected by law that prevents them from being freely used to train artificial intelligence, MPs have warned.

The creative industries have been among the most vocal in their opposition to how powerful AI models like ChatGPT are being developed to generate new work.

By training them on huge amounts of existing media, including text and images, they can produce fresh content on demand that imitates what already exists.

Concerns around their use by film and TV studios to write scripts or even replace actors are a key driver of ongoing Hollywood strikes, while music labels are seeking to prevent pop stars’ vocals from being freely cloned and photographers have spoken out against online art generators.

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Music industry calls for AI protection

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee said the UK government must take into account such issues when determining how to regulate the technology.

It said an original plan to exempt data mining by AI from copyright protection law risked undermining the value of Britain’s artistic and cultural industries.

Committee chair Dame Caroline Dinenage, a Conservative, said ministers must “sit up and take notice”.

“The government must now start to rebuild trust by showing it really understands where the creative industries are coming from and develop a copyright and regulatory regime that properly protects them as AI continues to disrupt traditional cultural production,” she added.

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Ministers have indicated they will reconsider the initial proposals, and any exemption for AI data mining could be restricted to non-commercial research purposes and works that creators have licenced for a further purpose.

It comes ahead of the UK hosting a global summit on AI regulation, the first of its kind, in the autumn.

It will be hosted at Bletchley Park, where codebreakers like Alan Turing worked during the Second World War. The site was crucial in the development of technology, as Turing and others used the Colossus computers to help break Nazi codes.

UK ‘hampered by skills shortage’

Despite the concerns around AI, the committee has said the government must also do more to help the creative industries “push the boundaries” of technology.

In a new report, it cites West End stage show ABBA Voyage – which utilises avatars of the Swedish pop group – and digital exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum – as examples of how the creative and tech industries can be effectively brought together.

Ms Dinenage said the UK’s adoption of creative technology was being “hampered by a shortage in technical skills”.

She said the government should address the gap in its upcoming cultural education plan, encouraging more people into industries like visual effects.

Rail passengers warned of six days of disruption as train drivers refuse to work overtime | UK News

​​​​​​​Disruption to rail journeys are expected across the country this week as train drivers refuse to work overtime for six days.

ASLEF announced last month that its members would withdraw non-contractual overtime, known as rest-day working, with 16 of the country’s 35 rail operators from Monday 3 July to Saturday 8 July.

Train companies affected are: Avanti West Coast; Chiltern Railways; Cross Country; East Midlands Railway; Greater Anglia; GWR; GTR Great Northern Thameslink; Island Line; LNER; Northern Trains; Southeastern; Southern/Gatwick Express; South Western Railway main line; SWR depot drivers; TransPennine Express; and West Midlands Trains.

The action may impact visitors to the first week of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

It is understood that there have been no negotiations between the union and the rail operators since the action was announced on 19 June.

Mick Whelan, ASLEF’s general secretary, said at the time: “Once again, we find ourselves with no alternative but to take this action.

Aslef General Secretary Mick Whelan arrives at the Department of Transport in Westminster, London, ahead of a meeting between members of the rail unions and Minister of State for Rail and HS2, Huw Merriman, after a week of disruption to rail services because of strikes. Picture date: Monday January 9, 2023.
ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan

“We have continually come to the negotiating table in good faith, seeking to resolve this dispute.

“Sadly, it is clear from the actions of both the train operating companies and the government that they do not want an end to the dispute.

“Their goals appear to be to continue industrial strife and to do down our industry.

“We don’t want to inconvenience the public.

Rail strikes: Full list of July dates, lines and services affected by industrial action

“We just want to see our members paid fairly during a cost-of-living crisis when inflation is running at above 10%, and to not see our terms and conditions taken away.

“It’s time for the Government and the companies to think again and look for a resolution.”

A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group responded: “ASLEF’s leadership continues to disrupt customers’ travel plans.

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Rail union boss ‘not at fault’

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“They rejected a fair and affordable offer without putting it to their members which would take average driver base salaries for a basic salary for a four-day week without overtime from £60,000 to nearly £65,000 by the end of 2023 pay awards.

“Train companies will work hard to minimise the impact of the overtime ban but the impact of ASLEF’s action will vary across the 16 train operators and customers are advised to check their travel plans before setting off.

“We ask ASLEF to recognise the very real financial challenge the industry is facing and work with us to deliver a better railway with a strong long-term future.”

Thousands taking antidepressants for pain despite insufficient evidence they work, say experts | Science & Tech News

Hundreds of thousands of Britons are taking antidepressants for chronic pain without enough evidence they work, according to a large study.

Researchers looked at drugs commonly prescribed by the NHS including amitriptyline, duloxetine, fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram, paroxetine (Seroxat) and sertraline.

They concluded only duloxetine had robust evidence for pain relief.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recommends them as an option where the root cause is unknown, including for some cancer pain, and conditions that can cause neuropathic pain, such as stroke.

It said it had reviewed the study in detail but decided an update to guidelines was currently unnecessary.

The research looked at 176 trials and almost 30,000 patients, and included institutions such as University College London, and the universities of Bath, Bristol and Southampton.

It also raised concerns about a lack of long-term data on the drugs’ safety.

Lead author Professor Tamar Pincus said the findings raised a “global public health concern”, with people prescribed the drugs without “sufficient scientific proof they help, nor an understanding of the long-term impact on health”.

“Our review found no reliable evidence for the long-term efficacy of any antidepressant, and no reliable evidence for their safety for chronic pain at any point,” she said.

“Though we did find that duloxetine provided short-term pain relief for patients we studied, we remain concerned about its possible long-term harm due to the gaps in current evidence.”

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Professor Pincus said there were around 15 million low-dose amitriptyline prescriptions in England in 2020 to 2021 – and hundreds of thousands likely taking it for pain – but the drug is “probably not very healthy”.

“The fact that we don’t find evidence whether it works or not is not the same as finding evidence that it doesn’t work,” she added.

“We don’t know – the studies simply are not good enough and, similarly, we don’t know whether it harms or not.”

Patients ‘shouldn’t panic’

The authors are urging people to continue drugs they have been prescribed and to raise any concerns with their GP.

Dr Ryan Patel, from King’s College London, explained that antidepressants are prescribed for pain because “the systems that regulate mood and pain overlap considerably”.

He said the study showed “when clinical trials are designed poorly under the assumption that everyone’s experience of pain is uniform, most antidepressants appear to have limited use for treating chronic pain”.

The chair of the Royal College of GPs said doctors aim to treat chronic pain with a mix of psychological, pharmacological and physical treatments – and to prescribe “the lowest dose of medicines, for the shortest time”.

Professor Kamila Hawthorne said patients “shouldn’t panic” and reiterated they should continue with their medication until they’ve discussed things with their GP.

Nice said its recommendation for antidepressants as a treatment option came after a thorough look at the benefits and harms.

It said evidence showed they can help with “quality of life, pain, sleep and psychological distress, even in the absence of a diagnosis of depression”.

Williamson accused teachers of looking for an ‘excuse’ not to work during pandemic, Hancock’s leaked messages suggest | UK News

Sir Gavin Williamson accused teachers of looking for an “excuse” not to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to leaked messages from Matt Hancock published by The Daily Telegraph.

In May 2020, as teachers prepared for classrooms to reopen, the then education secretary had messaged Mr Hancock asking for help in securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools.

He said this was so staff could not use a lack of it as “a reason not to open”.

He added: “All of them will but some will just want to say they can’t so they have an excuse to avoid having to teach, what joys!!!”

It was a rather different view to the one he expressed in public that same month, praising teachers for “going above and beyond the call of duty”, adding: “You have simply been outstanding and we are so grateful for what you’ve done”.

Five months later, Mr Hancock messaged Sir Gavin to congratulate him on his decision to delay A-level exams for a few weeks, due to the virus.

Mr Hancock, then the health secretary, wrote: “Cracking announcement today.

“What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are.”

Sir Gavin Williamson. Pic: AP
Sir Gavin Williamson. Pic: AP

Sir Gavin responded: “I know they really really do just hate work.”

Mr Hancock’s reply was two laughing face emojis and a bullseye.

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The decision to close schools was made by the government in March 2020, although some schools had already made the choice for themselves.

Over the following year, children endured a rollercoaster of reopenings and closures, as the country tried to strike a balance between containing the virus and resuming normal life.

Unions and schools had repeatedly said they did not want to put teachers or vulnerable children at risk.

But the government also faced a problem in that parents were having to stay home to look after children during school closures, preventing them from returning fully to work.

A number of reports since then have documented the negative consequences for students.

In January 2021, research from the Social Mobility Foundation said the closures could wipe out a decade of progress closing the gap between less privileged pupils and their peers.

And in May 2021, a study by think tank Social Finance found that disadvantaged children were the least likely to return to school after lockdown.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman vows to stop Channel migrant crossings – and will ‘make Rwanda scheme work’ | Politics News

The new home secretary has vowed to stop small boats crossing the Channel and to find a way to “make the Rwanda scheme work”.

Suella Braverman, in her first speech in the job, received a standing ovation at the Conservative Party conference after promising to stop the illegal migrant crossings.

“We have got to stop the boats crossing the Channel. This has gone on for too long. But I have to be straight with you, there are no quick fixes,” she said.

“The problem is chronic. Organised criminal gangs are selling a lie to thousands of people. Many are drowning in the Channel.

“Many are leaving a safe country like France and abusing our asylum system.”

Ms Braverman told the Birmingham conference said she will work closely with France “to get more out of our partnership” both on the French coastline and “further upstream” against the criminal gangs smuggling people over.

This announcement was met with a standing ovation from the audience and prompted her to say she had not finished yet.

The home secretary added that in order to prevent illegal migration “we need to find a way to make the Rwanda scheme work”.

She hit out at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) overriding the UK Supreme Court so the government’s first deportation flight to Rwanda was unable to take off.

Her predecessor, Priti Patel, launched the scheme to send migrants, who came into the UK via small boats in the Channel, to Rwanda in a partnership with the African country.

But no flights have yet left the UK due to the ECHR’s decisions, with Ms Braverman saying: “We need to take back control.”

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Modern slavery

She also said the largest group of migrants in small boats are currently coming from Albania, which she said is “a safe country”.

Ms Braverman said many of them claim to have been trafficked as modern slaves “despite them having paid thousands of pounds to come here, or having willingly taken a dangerous journey across the Channel”.

She said many are not modern slaves and their claims of being trafficked “are lies”.

Dover’s Tory MP Natalie Elphicke told Sky News she welcomed the measures and added that the British people will “absolutely help people in need of asylum” but the situation is abused daily in the town.

Ms Braverman also said there are “egregious examples of convicted paedophiles and rapists” making last-minute claims of modern slavery to block their deportation.

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Demonstrators outside the Royal Courts of Justice, central London, protesting against the Government's plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, while a High Court hearing over the policy is ongoing. Picture date: Monday September 5, 2022.
The Rwanda flights have yet to take off due to legal challenges

Not racist to want to control borders

In her wide-ranging speech, the home secretary said legal migration needs to be controlled so those who emigrate to the UK assimilate.

“It’s not racist for anyone, ethnic minority or otherwise, to want to control our borders,” said Ms Braverman, whose parents came from Kenya and Mauritius in the 1960s.

“It’s not bigoted to say that we have too many asylum seekers who are abusing the system.

“It’s not xenophobic to say that mass and rapid migration places pressure on housing, public services and community relations.

“I reject the Left’s argument that it is hypocritical for someone from an ethnic minority to tell these truths.”

Police officers detain one of the Extinction Rebellion activists who protested at the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain September 2, 2022. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Ms Braverman took aim at Extinction Rebellion protesters

Police should not take the knee

She also promised to back the police and to ensure they investigate every neighbourhood crime.

Members applauded when she said officers must have powers to “stop protesters who use guerrilla tactics” and warned activists from environmental groups Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion that they will be jailed for breaking the law during protests.

She also said it was wrong for police to take the knee, join in political demonstrations and for male officers to strip search female suspects.

“More PCs, less PC,” she said to a roar of applause.

The home secretary also pledged to ensure the Prevent terrorism referral scheme is “fit for purpose”.

Four women selected to live and work in remote part of Antarctica with colony of penguins | UK News

Four women are to give up their home comforts to live and work in a remote part of Antarctica.

Clare Ballantyne, Mairi Hilton, Natalie Corbett and Lucy Bruzzone make up the team picked to take on the responsibility for managing historic site Port Lockroy, on Goudier Island.

They were among 6,000 people who expressed an interest in the roles – including running the world’s most remote post office and counting the island’s penguins – which were advertised by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) charity.

The team will travel 9,000 miles to reopen the bay for the first time since the pandemic, taking care of the charity’s flagship site – home also to the world’s most remote museum.

Penguins in Antarctica

They will be based on the island – in a region without running water or a flushing toilet – for five months, which means they will spend Christmas together.

As well as dealing with sub-zero temperatures and almost constant daylight, the women will share the island with a colony of gentoo penguins, which Ms Hilton will be in charge of monitoring.

“This will be my first time in Antarctica and I’m very excited to set eyes on the white continent. I have no idea what to expect when we get there – how cold it will be, will we have to dig our way through the snow to the post office?” Ms Hilton, from Scotland, said.

“I’m a conservation biologist, so personally I can’t wait to see the penguins and other wildlife like seabirds and whales.”

Mairi Hilton
Mairi Hilton and Lucy Bruzzone (below)
Lucy Bruzzone

Scientist Ms Bruzzone will be base leader, managing the team and co-ordinating all ship visits to the island.

She has already spent three months in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard on an Arctic expedition, and described her new adventure as a “lifelong dream”.

Newly appointed postmaster Ms Ballantyne, who has just completed a masters in earth science at Oxford University, will deal by hand with approximately 80,000 cards which are mailed each year from the site to more than 100 countries.

“I’m most looking forward to stepping on to Goudier Island and taking in the cacophony and pungent smell of the penguins, the backdrop of the glaciers and Fief mountains – and being able to call it home for the next few months,” the 23-year-old from Lincolnshire said.

Natalie Corbett
Natalie Corbett and Clare Ballantyne (below)
Clare Ballantyne

Newlywed Ms Corbett, who has worked in retail for more than a decade, will be in charge of running the gift shop and will leave behind her husband for the trip, which she dubbed a “solo honeymoon”.

The team will be joined by Vicky Inglis, who will help settle them in for the first 10 weeks.

The 42-year-old from Aberdeenshire who started working for UKAHT full-time in the summer, said: “Port Lockroy holds a very special place in my heart. Having spent five months out there before the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m excited to be travelling with the new team to introduce them to the magic of the Antarctic.”