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UK to use firefighters to deliver food, collect bodies in coronavirus crisis

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom will use firefighters to help deliver food, retrieve dead bodies and drive ambulances as it braces for the looming peak of the coronavirus outbreak that has already claimed the lives of more than 22,000 people across the world.

Britain initially took a strikingly modest approach to the worst health crisis since the 1918 influenza epidemic but then changed tack to impose stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million British people could die.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered a virtual lockdown of the world’s fifth largest economy to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus banning Britons from leaving their homes for all non-essential reasons.

So far, 578 people in the United Kingdom have died after testing positive for coronavirus and the number of confirmed cases has risen to 11,658. The UK toll is the seventh worst in the world, after Italy, Spain, China, Iran, France and the United States, according to a Reuters tally.

Under a deal struck between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Fire chiefs and Fire and Rescue Employers, firefighters will continue to respond to their usual emergencies but will now also carry out new tasks.

“We face a public health crisis unparalleled in our lifetimes. The coronavirus outbreak is now a humanitarian emergency and firefighters rightly want help their communities,” said Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary.

“Many fear the loss of life in this outbreak could be overwhelming and firefighters, who often handle terrible situations and incidents, are ready to step in to assist with body retrieval.”

As well as collecting those who die should there be mass casualties, firefighters can drive ambulances, and take food and medicine to the vulnerable under the agreement.

To cope with the outbreak, Britain has already asked tens of thousands of retired doctors and healthcare workers to return to work, while hundreds of thousands of people have volunteered to assist the state-run National Health Service.

On Friday, the capital’s ambulance service appealed to former paramedics and control room staff for help, and London’s police force asked officers who have retired in the last five years to come back.

“It is important that we take all reasonable steps to bolster our numbers,” London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said.

BRITAIN CLAPS

Britons across the country took to their balconies and front doors on Thursday evening to applaud health workers and bang pots and pans to show support for those working for the nation’s much-loved NHS.

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There has been criticism that the government has not acted quickly enough to provide protective equipment to frontline healthcare staff and it is also scrambling to source thousands of ventilators to treat those with severe breathing problems caused by the virus.

The government has admitted that it missed an opportunity to join a European Union procurement scheme to source the equipment because of an email mix up.

“There was an issue in terms of communications so the tendering process on those schemes had already started,” Business Secretary Alok Sharma told BBC radio on Friday.

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Economy

UK's plan B if 'Team Johnson' is incapacitated? Answer is unclear

LONDON, March 27 (Reuters) – What would happen if British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s case of coronavirus – so far he has “mild symptoms” – were to become more serious or even incapacitate him and his team? Under Britain’s uncodified constitution, the answer is unclear.

Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock both said they were able to keep working from self-isolation at home after confirming they had tested positive for the virus.

But the fact that two such crucial members of the British government have contracted the disease – and their top medical adviser is now self-isolating with symptoms – has raised questions about how the government would function without them at a time of global crisis.

With only an unwieldy collection of sometimes ancient and contradictory precedents to go by, there is no simple, formally-enshrined “Plan B” or succession scenario, experts said.

“We’ve not been in that kind of situation, we’ve not had to think about it from that point of view before,” Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, told Reuters.

Whereas in the United States the vice president steps up if the president dies or becomes incapacitated, Britain has no formal deputy or caretaker prime minister who would take over.

Downing Street has already said, however, that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab would deputise if necessary.

Nor is there any guidance for such circumstances in the Cabinet Manual which sets out the rules and conventions for the running of government, and there is little precedence.

When asked about who would stand in for the prime minister, his spokesman said: “The prime minister has the power to delegate responsibility to any of his ministers, but for now it is the prime minister and then the foreign secretary.”

CHURCHILL’S STROKE

In June 1953, then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered a stroke while in office. His illness was kept so secret that some senior ministers were unaware.

Churchill surprised doctors by recovering to carry on his duties, returning to Downing Street and running the cabinet two months later.

More recently, Tony Blair twice underwent treatment for a heart condition while prime minister in the early 2000s, each time briefly cutting back on his workload for a couple of days.

Officials said had he been incapacitated, his then-deputy John Prescott would take over until a new leader was elected.

There is no suggestion Johnson is unable to perform his job, and his spokesman said he could carry on as before, although he was now doing so via teleconferencing.

Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service from January 2012 to September 2014, agreed that Johnson and ministers could continue to operate by video, but said there were potential drawbacks.

“It is a cabinet government but the prime minister’s role is crucial at this time, not least … because of the visible leadership that the country needs,” he told Sky News.

MUDDLE THROUGH?

Kerslake said officials would need to know there was a system for what would happen if senior ministers were unable to do their jobs.

Losing Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who coordinates policy across government, would be a serious blow.

“He is critical to all of this,” Kerslake said. “If, for whatever reason, he was ill, who takes over from him?”

Haddon said some powers were specifically vested in cabinet ministers, so there was an issue of what happened if they were unavailable.

“If you got to a stage where … you had secretaries of state who aren’t able to perform their functions, then there are question marks about whether junior ministers in their department act on their behalf,” she said.

One lawmaker in Johnson’s party, who has repeatedly tried to bring in a law to formalise who would replace a prime minister in the event of incapacity, said last week no one seemed to know what would happen.

“In a national emergency, you don’t want to be scrabbling around worrying about who’s in charge,” Peter Bone told the Mirror newspaper.

However, Haddon said naming Raab as Johnson’s substitute would prevent a political squabble among senior ministers over who fronted press conferences or chaired meetings.

“It is valuable for them to work out contingencies for various scenarios and they have obviously done a certain amount of thinking about that,” she said.

She said prime ministers and cabinet ministers were often absent and government operated in their absence.

“Secretaries of state go on holiday and their department functions without them. The prime minister goes on holiday and the rest of government is able to continue working,” she added.

“If there are things that (are) invested in a secretary of state and it is not proper for someone to act on their behalf, that’s when it becomes a problem.” (Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Collett-White)

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Britain's PM Johnson has coronavirus, self-isolates in Downing Street

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for coronavirus and is self-isolating at his Downing Street residence but said he would still lead the government’s response to the accelerating outbreak.

Johnson, 55, experienced mild symptoms on Thursday, a day after he answered at the prime minister’s weekly question-and-answer session in parliament’s House of Commons chamber, and received the positive test result around midnight.

“I’ve taken a test. That has come out positive,” Johnson said on Friday in a video statement broadcast on Twitter. “I’ve developed mild symptoms of the coronavirus. That’s to say – a temperature and a persistent cough.

“So I am working from home. I’m self-isolating,” Johnson said. “Be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team to lead the national fightback against coronavirus.”

British health minister Matt Hancock said later on Friday morning that he has also tested positive and is self-isolating at home with mild symptoms.

Johnson is the first leader of a major power to announce a positive test result for coronavirus. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into isolation earlier this month after his wife tested positive for the virus.

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both been tested, so far with negative results.

Johnson chaired a government meeting on the coronavirus on Friday morning via teleconference.

ISOLATING IN DOWNING STREET

It was not immediately clear how many Downing Street staff and senior ministers would need to isolate themselves given that many have had contact with Johnson over recent days and weeks.

The moment Johnson felt symptoms he took steps to avoid close contact with anyone, a spokesman said, adding that ministers would need to self-isolate if they developed symptoms but that he was unaware of further testing among senior ministers.

Johnson will have his meals delivered to the door of an apartment at Number 11 Downing Street, while he self-isolates for seven days from the warren of corridors and rooms that make up the seat of British political power at Number 10 Downing Street.

“The doors between Number 10 and Number 11 have been closed off to all other staff who work in the building,” a Downing Street spokesman said. “The PM will work from the office and the study in Number 11.”

His finance minister, Rishi Sunak, who traditionally works out of Number 11 Downing Street, is not self-isolating, a Treasury source said.

Britons paid tribute to health workers on Thursday evening, clapping and cheering from doorways and windows. Johnson and Sunak took part, but came out of separate entrances on Downing Street and did not come into close contact, according to a Reuters photographer at the scene.

It was not immediately clear whether Johnson’s 32-year-old partner, Carrie Symonds, who is pregnant, had been tested.

QUEEN IN GOOD HEALTH

Queen Elizabeth last saw Johnson on March 11 and she remains in good health, Buckingham Palace said. The 93-year-old monarch usually sees the prime minister once a week but has recently conducted the regular audience by telephone.

“The queen last saw the PM on the 11th March and is following all the appropriate advice with regards to her welfare,” a palace spokesman said.

So far, 578 people in the United Kingdom have died after testing positive for coronavirus and the number of confirmed cases has risen to 11,658. The death toll is the seventh highest in the world, after Italy, Spain, China, Iran, France and the United States, according to a Reuters tally.

Prince Charles, the 71-year-old heir to the British throne, tested positive for coronavirus earlier this week. He is in good health and is now self-isolating at his residence in Scotland with mild symptoms along with his wife Camilla, who tested negative, his office said.

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France, Malaysia charter flights to bring home citizens stranded in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – France and Malaysia have organized chartered flights to fly out hundreds of their citizens stranded in Cambodia after Southeast Asian nation sealed borders and canceled flights in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are trying to find solutions for stranded French tourists who have their flights canceled or can not go through transit hubs in the region anymore,” Hugo Wavrin, political and press counselor at the French Embassy in Cambodia told Reuters on Friday.

A special charter flight departed on Thursday with 413 French people on board, Wavrin said.

He said another 100 French nationals will be leaving Cambodia on Saturday and many more will be leaving in the next two days aboard regular commercial flights.

Malaysia also sent a special plane to take home 111 stranded Malaysian nationals on Wednesday, said Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn.

At the same time, Cambodia coordinated with Malaysia to repatriate six Cambodians stranded in Malaysia, Sokhonn said in a Facebook post on Thursday.

Cambodia reported two new coronavirus cases on Thursday, taking its total to 98, the health ministry said.

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Economy

Macron told EU leaders "survival of European project" at stake in virus crisis

PARIS, March 26 (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron warned his fellow European Union leaders on Thursday that the coronavirus outbreak risked undoing the bloc’s central pillars such as its no-border zone if they failed to show solidarity in this crisis, a diplomat said.

“What’s at stake is the survival of the European project,” he told the 26 other leaders in a conference call, according to a French diplomat. “The risk we are facing is the death of Schengen,” Macron added, according to the same source. (Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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Italy to extend coronavirus schools shutdown past current April 3 limit: minister

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s education minister on Friday said schools across the country would remain closed beyond the current April 3 limit due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Our aim is to ensure that students return to school only when we are completely sure that it is safe, health is the priority,” Education Minister Lucia Azzolina told State broadcaster RAI.

Schools and universities have been closed nationwide since March 5, as part of a lockdown to curb the spread of the virus which has so far killed more than 8,000 people in Italy, the highest death toll of any country in the world.

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World News

Exclusive: Brazil scales back environmental enforcement amid coronavirus

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil will cut back on efforts to fight environmental crimes during the coronavirus outbreak, an official at environmental agency Ibama told Reuters, despite concerns that reduced protection could lead to a spike in deforestation.

Ibama Director of Environmental Protection Olivaldi Azevedo said the outbreak has left him little choice but to send fewer enforcement personnel into the field because of the highly contagious virus.

He estimated that one-third of Ibama’s field operatives are close to 60 years old or have medical conditions that put them at greater risk for severe symptoms of the virus.

Ibama has not hired new agents in years because of government budget cuts and its ranks are rapidly aging.

“There’s no way you can take these people who are at risk and expose them to the virus,” Azevedo said. “There is no choice between one thing and the other. It’s an obligation.”

Two sources at Ibama, who were not authorized to speak to the media, said rank-and-file field agents are worried about their own health and the risk they could spread coronavirus to the rural regions where they operate.

Deforestation experts said that while health concerns must be a top priority, the policy may have grave environmental consequences.

“Weakening enforcement definitely means a greater risk of deforestation for obvious reasons,” said environmental economist Sergio Margulis, author of a paper on “Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon.”

The additional risk comes in the wake of soaring deforestation and a spike in fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest after right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, sparking global outcry that he was emboldening illegal loggers, ranchers and land speculators.

Brazil is home to roughly 60% of the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, which absorbs vast amounts of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

Bolsonaro has defended development plans for the Amazon region by arguing that they are the best way to lift more Brazilians out of poverty. But the spike in deforestation threatens to derail a South American free trade deal with Europe and hurt exports.

ESSENTIAL BUT UNDERSTAFFED

In a decree last week, Bolsonaro defined environmental enforcement as an essential service during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing Ibama to keep sending agents into the field.

But Azevedo said even essential services, such as health care and police, must be cut back to protect at-risk workers.

Bolsonaro’s press office directed questions to the Environment Ministry. The Environment Ministry, which oversees Ibama, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The most important operations will be prioritized, while some areas will need to be cut back, Azevedo said, adding that protecting the Amazon is a priority.

“There won’t be a reduction in enforcement agents in the Amazon,” he said, predicting some parts of the rainforest may even see falling deforestation.

Ibama sources said the pandemic presented more logistical challenges given that many hotels and restaurants are closed and flights have been canceled en masse.

Azevedo said that while agents can still choose to fly, Ibama is allocating vehicles and prioritizing ground transportation to reduce the risk of contagion.

Some agents drive for days to reach their assignments in the Amazon, one of the sources said.

Researchers agree that reduced enforcement allows for more deforestation. However, a deep recession triggered by the pandemic could create rising unemployment, which can boost criminal activity, but also depress prices for illegally acquired wood and land.

Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher for non-profit Amazon institute Imazon, said it was impossible to predict the reaction of criminals, who are hard to study. Commodity prices remain high and a weakening Brazilian real currency means farmers are seeing greater profits for their exports. Demand to clear new land for farming therefore remains strong, he said.

Illegally clearing and selling land is inherently speculative, so Barreto said criminals may still deforest with the hope of impunity, then sit on the land until they can sell.

Deforestation was already up 71% from a year earlier in January and February, according to preliminary government data, and researchers will be watching March and April data closely.

“My guess is that deforestation will not go down,” said Carlos Nobre, an earth systems scientist at University of Sao Paulo.

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Business

Britain's Tesco limits online shop to 80 items during coronavirus crisis

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s biggest supermarket group Tesco will limit the number of items customers can order in an online shop to 80 during the coronavirus emergency, it said on Friday.

It said a typical online order before recent weeks would contain fewer than 60 items but the average has notably increased due to the number of very large shops over 100 items.

Tesco said the threshold of 80 has been set so that it does not restrict customers doing a normal weekly shop.

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World News

Haiti hospital chief kidnapped amid coronavirus emergency

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – The director of one of Haiti’s top hospitals was kidnapped on Friday, prompting staff to refuse to take in new patients in protest as the impoverished country battles an outbreak of the novel coronavirus amid a spike in gang violence.

Dr. Jerry Bitar, a surgeon, was kidnapped shortly after leaving for work at Hospital Bernard Mevs from his home in an upmarket neighborhood of the capital, hospital staff told Reuters.

Kidnappings for ransom have sharply increased this year amid a political and economic crisis in Haiti, which according to the World Bank is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Police confirmed 15 kidnapping cases in January alone. Gangs appear to strike indiscriminately, with victims ranging from Haitian schoolchildren, lawmakers and businessmen to foreign aid workers.

A crowd gathered outside the facility in solidarity with Bitar, who runs the hospital together with his twin brother, while staff chanted in unison calls for his release. Haitian media outlets also pleaded for bandits to free Bitar.

“In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, it is abnormal to take the hospital’s doctor,” said Jean Wilguens Charles, a local resident whose friends have received treatment at the hospital. “We demand his liberation without conditions.”

Medical assistant Claude Devil said the hospital usually attended all Haitians, including those who had no money to pay for services, but would not take in new patients while still attempting to look after existing ones as best possible.

“There are several patients waiting to be operated but we cannot work without the doctors’ order,” he said.

The relevant authorities are following the case, a Health Ministry spokesman said.

The Bernard Mevs hospital is a trauma and critical care center and is not treating coronavirus cases currently, but could need to if the disease spreads substantially in the country, where healthcare services and sanitation infrastructure are inadequate.

According to a 2019 study by the Research and Education consortium for Acute Care in Haiti (REACH), Haiti has only 64 ventilators for a population of around 11 million, which makes it especially vulnerable to an outbreak of the highly contagious coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19.

“This is a serious concern, especially given the relatively high proportion of the population considered to be at an elevated risk,” the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote in a paper published on Friday, co-authored by its analysts Jake Johnston and Kira Paulemon.

Haitian authorities have so far confirmed eight cases of the coronavirus. President Jovenel Moise last week declared a state of emergency, ordering schools, factories, and places of worship shut to prevent the spread of the virus, closing the country’s borders to people and imposing a curfew.

But the streets continue to buzz as many in the country, where more than half the population lives under the poverty line, ignore recommendations to stay at home or practice social distancing. Many do not have access to sources of news.

Even with the best intentions, tricky access to clean water makes it difficult for Haitians to frequently wash their hands, the hygiene mantra that health experts are preaching as a top defense against the spread of the coronavirus.

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Economy

Airbnb hosts to provide free rooms for British health workers

LONDON, March 29 (Reuters) – Airbnb hosts will provide free rooms for workers in Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) to support their work during the coronavirus outbreak, the company said on Sunday.

Nearly 1,500 places to stay have been made available under the scheme amid a slump in bookings on the home rental start-up as travel restrictions and curbs on social gatherings come into force around the world.

Britain has looked to bolster its public health service to deal with the crisis, including establishing a field hospital in a one-time Olympic venue and turning a theme park into a testing facility for health workers.

“By working together, we can ensure that frontline workers can find a free and convenient place to stay as they continue their critical work,” said Patrick Robinson, Director of Public Policy at Airbnb.

Airbnb has done similar schemes in Italy and France in response to the outbreak, and aims to house 100,000 emergency personnel around the world during the epidemic.

The company has suspended marketing activities to save money, and executives are taking a pay cut as the firm battles with a downturn in bookings triggered by the spread of coronavirus.

Airbnb’s bookings in major cities across the world have suffered as travellers cancel trips and stay at home to protect themselves and prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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