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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate at Parliament in London

A senior Conservative lawmaker accused the British government on Thursday of intimidating and attempting to “blackmail” those lawmakers they suspect of wanting to force Prime Minister Boris Johnson out of power.

Johnson is facing growing calls to step down over a series of scandals, including admitting he had attended a party at his Downing Street office at a time when Britain was under a strict COVID-19 lockdown.

Some younger Conservative lawmakers have spearheaded attempts to unseat their leader and opposition leaders have demanded he resign. The heat was turned up in parliament on Wednesday when one of the party’s longest-serving representatives told the prime minister in parliament “In the name of God, go.”

Johnson, who won a large majority in 2019, has vowed to fight on, saying he would lead the Conservative Party into the next election.

But in another blow to his shaky standing, William Wragg, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, accused the government of blackmail.

“In recent days, a number of members of parliament have faced pressures and intimidation from members of the government because of their declared or assumed desire for a vote of confidence in the party leadership of the prime minister,” Wragg said in a statement before a meeting of the committee.

“Moreover, the reports of which I’m aware, would seem to constitute blackmail.”

Colleagues should report such cases to the speaker of the House of Commons and the police, he said.

In response, Johnson told broadcasters he had “seen no evidence, heard no evidence to support any of those allegations”, echoing an earlier statement from his office which said if there was evidence, the allegations would be looked at.

“MORAL DECAY”

Christian Wakeford, a lawmaker who defected from the Conservatives to Labour this week, said the government had threatened to withhold funding for a new school in part of his constituency if he refused to vote with the government.

“I was threatened that I would not get the school for Radcliffe if I didn’t vote in one particular way,” Wakeford told the BBC.

This had made him question whether he was in the right party, he said.

“This is a town that has not had a high school for the best part of 10 years and how do you feel when holding back the regeneration of a town for a vote, it didn’t sit comfortably.”

Opposition lawmakers said it was further evidence that Johnson should quit.

“The moral decay at the heart of Johnson‘s government may be even worse than we thought,” said Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, while the main opposition Labour Party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner described the accusations as “disgusting”.

Anger is running high, but so far the threshold for a confidence vote in Johnson has yet to be breached, with several Conservative lawmakers saying they would wait until an investigation into the parties had been completed.

That probe is being led by Sue Gray, a civil servant. The political editor for ITV said on Twitter that Gray had found an email from a senior official warning Johnson‘s principal private secretary that a party on May 20, 2020, should not go ahead.

Johnson has said he attended what he thought was a work event on that day, to which staff had been told to “bring their own booze”. Johnson said on Tuesday nobody had told him the gathering was against COVID rules.

Wragg referred to the work of government whips, parliamentary enforcers whose job is to ensure Conservative lawmakers back government policy and stay in line.

“It is of course the duty of the government whips office to secure the government’s business in the House of Commons (lower house of parliament),” he said.

“However it is not their function to breach the ministerial code in threatening to withdraw investments from members of parliament’s constituencies which are funded from the public purse.”

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Innovation is finally weakening the market grip of Britain’s “Big Four” banks, but “challenger” lenders are finding it slow and expensive to build up market share, the Financial Conduct Authority said on Thursday.

High street banking has long been dominated by HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds and NatWest, prompting Britain to make it easier for new banks to enter the market, and for customers to switch banks with little fuss.

“There are signs that some of the historic advantages of large banks may be starting to weaken through innovation and digitisation and changing consumer behaviour,” the FCA said in an update of its strategic review of retail banking business models.

But building market share has been an “expensive and slow process” for new banks and mid-tier lenders like Santander and Nationwide, though those based purely online such as Starling and Monzo are making progress with around 8 per cent of personal customer accounts, the FCA said.

“Despite this, traditional challengers have provided additional choice and value for those consumers that have opened accounts with these challengers,” the FCA said in its update of a 2018 report.

But customer inertia is acting as a barrier to expansion among challengers, and the Big Four banks continue to achieve higher returns on capital, a key measure of profitability, than most other banks, but the gap has narrowed, it added.

Purely digital challengers don’t appeal to everyone and are likely to co-exist alongside other business models for the foreseeable future, the review said.

Banking industry body UK Finance said the review showed that customers are benefitting from a competitive retail market giving them a much better incentive to shop around.

“Nearly 90 per cent of UK adults now use online, mobile or telephone banking services, but as the FCA highlights, technology is not for everyone, so the industry has set out commitments to ensure there is access to cash and banking services both now and in the future,” UK Finance said.

Competition in the mortgage market has intensified following the introduction of requirements on banks to “ring-fence” their retail deposits with extra capital, it said.

Critics say liquidity ‘trapped’ inside the fence is being used to offer cheap mortgages, increasing the Big Four’s market share.

“Smaller banks and building societies have struggled to compete with larger firms in the low-risk lending segment. Some have exited altogether; others have sought yields in other segments, including higher risk areas of the market,” the FCA said.

A government-sponsored review of ring-fencing said in an interim report on Wednesday the rules have not damaged competition in home loans.

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Germany’s Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems (TKAG.DE) will build three advanced submarines for the Israeli Navy in a deal worth 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion), the Israeli Defense Ministry said on Thursday.

The parties also signed an industrial strategic cooperation agreement that amounts to more than 850 million euros, the ministry said.

The first of the submarines, part of a new series called Dakar, will be delivered within nine years, the government said.

Israel’s Navy operates five German-built Dolphin-class submarines, with a sixth under construction in Germany. The three Dakar submarines will replace three of the ageing Dolphins.

“I would like to thank the German government for its assistance in advancing the agreement and for its commitment to Israel’s security,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“I am confident that the new submarines will upgrade the capabilities of the Israeli Navy and will contribute to Israel’s security superiority in the region.”

The agreement also includes the construction of a training simulator in Israel and the supply of spare parts.

“The Dakar class will be of a completely new design, which is to be specifically engineered to fulfil the operational requirements of the Israeli Navy,” Thyssenkrupp said.

The announcement comes only a few days before Israel’s cabinet is due to discuss forming a panel to investigate the decision-making process behind purchases of submarines and missile boats from Germany worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Israeli prosecutors last year charged several Israelis, including a businessman, a former naval officer and a former cabinet minister, with bribery, money laundering and tax invasion in connection with deals from 2009 to 2016.

Thyssenkrupp has said an internal investigation found no evidence of corruption in its handling of the sales and Israeli authorities have taken no action against the conglomerate.

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Benedict, now 94, has been living in the Vatican since resigning as pontiff in 2013

Former Pope Benedict XVI failed to take action against clerics in four cases of alleged sexual abuse in his archdiocese when he was Archbishop of Munich, a report found on Thursday.

Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW) was asked to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising between 1945 and 2019.

The report, commissioned by the archdiocese, said there were at least 497 victims of abuse, mainly young males. Many other cases had probably not been reported, said the lawyers.

A spokesman for the former pope did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Benedict, now aged 94, has been living in the Vatican since resigning as pontiff in 2013.

The lawyers were tasked with finding out who knew what and any action they took. Attention has focused on Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, who was Archbishop of Munich and Freising between 1977 and 1982.

Presenting the report for WSW, lawyer Martin Pusch said Ratzinger had done nothing against the abuse in four cases.

“In a total of four cases, we reached a consensus that there was a failure to act,” said Pusch, adding the former pope had “strictly” denied responsibility in response to the accusations.

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Britain’s financial watchdog said on Wednesday it planned to introduce restrictions on marketing cryptoassets and other high-risk investments like crowdfunding and retail mini-bonds.

The changes would strengthen risk warnings on ads and ban incentives to invest, such as new joiner or refer-a-friend bonuses, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said.

A surge in investment scams, particularly online since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, has prompted the regulator to take action, such as refusing one in five licence applications from consumer investment firms in the year ended March 2021.

“We are concerned that too many consumers are just ‘clicking through’ and accessing high‑risk investments without understanding the risks involved,” the FCA said.

The planned rules cover high-risk investments such as cryptoassets, including cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, as well as crowdfunding, peer-to-peer agreements, mini-bonds and speculative illiquid securities.

The draft rules, put out to public consultation, also prepare the ground for the government to bring in promotions of cryptoassets under the watchdog’s conduct remit for the first time following a finance ministry announcement on Tuesday.

“When it does, the FCA plans to categorise qualifying cryptoassets as ‘Restricted Mass Market Investments,’ meaning consumers would only be able to respond to cryptoasset financial promotions if they are classed as restricted, high net worth or sophisticated investors,” the FCA said in a statement.

“Firms issuing such promotions would have to adhere to FCA rules, such as the requirement to be clear, fair and not misleading.”

Under the proposed rules, firms that approve and publish promotions must have relevant experience and understanding of the investments being offered, the watchdog said.

“Those looking to make certain high-risk investments would also be asked more robust questions about their knowledge and investment experience, after research found many consumers were investing without being aware of the risks,” it added.

The FCA will set out final rules in the summer.

The crackdown is part of a wider FCA strategy to buttress consumer protection, including a proposed consumer duty on firms.

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An analysis by The Times newspaper showed that 58 Conservative lawmakers had criticised the prime minister REUTERS/Paul Childs/File Photo

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday dismissed calls to resign from opponents and some of his own lawmakers, fighting to save his premiership amid a deepening revolt inside his party over a series of lockdown parties in Downing Street.

Johnson, who in 2019 won his party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years, is now fighting to shore up his authority after a series of revelations about parties in his Downing Street residence during COVID lockdowns.

Johnson has repeatedly apologised for the parties and said he was unaware of many of them.

However, he attended what he said he thought was a work event on May 20, 2020 to which staff had been told to “bring their own booze”. Johnson said on Tuesday that nobody had told him the gathering was against COVID rules.

“I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take,” Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmaker David Davis told parliament.

Davis cited a quote from a Conservative lawmaker, Leo Amery, to then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain over his handling of war in 1940: “You have sat there too long for the good you have done. In the name of God, go.”

Asked directly by an opposition lawmaker if he would resign, Johnson said: “No”.

Toppling Johnson would leave the United Kingdom in limbo for months just as the West deals with the Ukraine crisis and the world’s fifth largest economy grapples with the inflationary wave triggered by the COVID pandemic, with UK inflation rising to the highest level in nearly 30 years.

To trigger a leadership challenge, 54 of the 360 Conservative MPs in parliament must write letters of no confidence to the chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee.

Implored to stay by one supporter, Johnson said he had not yet “sat here quite long enough, indeed nothing like long enough.”

As many as 20 Conservative lawmakers who won their seats at the last national election in 2019 plan to submit letters of no confidence in Johnson, the Telegraph reported. A handful of others have already said they had written such letters.

An analysis by The Times newspaper showed that 58 Conservative lawmakers had openly criticised the prime minister.

Leading rivals within the Conservative Party include Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, 41, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, 46.

‘PORK PIE REVOLT’

Downing Street lockdown parties – some held when ordinary people could not bid farewell in person to dying relatives – have undermined Johnson’s authority.

Johnson on Tuesday denied an accusation by his former adviser that he had lied to parliament about a lockdown party, saying nobody had warned him the “bring your own booze” gathering might contravene COVID-19 rules.

“As he waded through the empty bottles and platters of sandwiches – he didn’t realise it was a party? Does the prime minister realise how ridiculous that sounds?” Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, told parliament.

“Every week, the prime minister offers absurd and frankly unbelievable defences to the Downing Street parties, and each week it unravels.”

Starmer, who welcomed the defection of lawmaker Christian Wakeford who earlier on Wednesday left Johnson’s Conservatives to join Labour, asked Johnson if a prime minister should resign if he had misled parliament.

“My decision is about much more than your leadership and the disgraceful way you have conducted yourself in recent weeks,” Wakeford said.

“I can no longer support a government that has shown itself consistently out of touch with the hard working people of Bury South and the country as a whole.”

LOCKDOWN PARTIES

Support for Johnson and his party has plummeted after a series of revelations about the parties and other mis-steps.

His own former spokeswoman resigned after she was captured laughing and joking on camera about how to cast a Christmas party if asked about it by reporters.

Such was the revelry in Downing Street at one event that staff went to a supermarket to buy a suitcase of alcohol, spilled wine on carpets, and broke a swing used by the prime minister’s young son.

The Mirror said staff had bought a wine fridge for Friday gatherings, events that were regularly observed by Johnson as he walked to his apartment in the building.

Johnson has given a variety of explanations of the parties, ranging from denials that any rules were broken to expressing understanding for the public anger at apparent hypocrisy at the heart of the British state.

He said people must wait for the outcome of an internal investigation by a senior civil servant before reaching conclusions.

Opponents have portrayed him as a charlatan who demanded the British people follow some of the most onerous rules in peacetime history while his staff partied.

The growing internal Conservative rebellion was cast as the “pork pie plot” because one alleged rebel lawmaker was from Melton, the home of the Melton Mowbray pork pie. Pork pie is also London slang for a lie.

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Signage showing health information is seen on the window of a shop in Bolton, England

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the end of COVID-19 measures including mandatory face masks in England as he looks to live with the virus after a peak in cases caused by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Johnson’s light touch approach to dealing with Omicron saw him introduce work-at-home advice and vaccine passes as well as more mask-wearing on Dec. 8, although he stopped short of more onerous restrictions seen globally.

While cases soared to record highs, hospitalisations and deaths have not risen by the same extent, in part due to Britain’s booster rollout and the variant’s lesser severity.

Johnson’s pledge to avoid lockdowns and live with the virus contrasts with a zero tolerance approach to COVID-19 in China and Hong Kong, and tougher restrictions in many other European countries.

“Many nations across Europe have endured further winter lockdowns… but this government took a different path,” Johnson told lawmakers, saying the government had got the toughest decisions right and that numbers going into intensive care were falling.

“Our scientists believe it is likely that the Omicron wave has now peaked nationally… because of the extraordinary booster campaign, together with the way the public have responded to the Plan B measures, we can return to Plan A.”

Johnson said none of the so-called Plan B measures would remain in England when they lapse on Jan. 26, as face masks would not be legally enforced anywhere and COVID passes would not be mandatory.

The government said it would also no longer ask people to work from home, effective immediately.

Johnson cited official figures that showed infection prevalence levels falling from a record high.

But scientists warned that cases could still turn higher again if people’s behaviour returned to normal quickly.

“There’s no guarantee that the levels are going to continue to fall as they are at the moment,” University of Warwick virologist Lawrence Young told Reuters, who said he favoured a more gradual approach given that cases are still high.

“I just don’t think we’ve got any room for complacency at the moment, but I do understand the economic imperative. People want to get back to normal.”

PANDEMIC ‘NOT OVER’

Johnson has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic overall, and Britain has reported 152,872 deaths, the seventh highest total globally. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed their own anti-coronavirus measures, generally with tougher restrictions, but have also begun to ease them.

Johnson hopes to reset his agenda following furore over the lockdown gatherings at his office, which has some in his party plotting to remove him.

The lifting of Plan B measures, along with the navigation of Omicron without resorting to a stringent lockdown, could help Johnson appease vocal opponents of restrictions in his own caucus amid the party unrest.

Johnson said if data supported it, he may end the legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive before the regulation lapses in March.

“But to make that possible, we must all remain cautious during these last weeks of winter,” he said, warning of continued pressure on hospitals.

“The pandemic is not over.”

Susan Hopkins, the Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, said she expected cases would continue to fall, but it would not be linear.

“We believe that overall, we will continue to see declines in cases. That may plateau at some points as the infection is in various different populations,” she said at a news conference.

“People’s behaviour and how they react to the removal of Plan B will determine how fast infection can spread in the population.

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People shop at a supermarket in London. British inflation is widely expected to peak in April

Inflation in Britain rose faster than expected to its highest in nearly 30 years in December, intensifying a squeeze on living standards and putting pressure on the Bank of England to raise interest rates again.

The annual rate of consumer price inflation increased to 5.4% from November’s 5.1%, the highest since March 1992, the Office for National Statistics said. Economists polled by Reuters had expected a rise to 5.2%.

Financial markets now price in a more than 90% chance that the BoE will raise its main interest rate to 0.5% on Feb. 3. Last month it became the world’s first major central bank to tighten policy since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Bank of England was already feeling uncomfortable about its monetary policy stance. Today’s upside surprises to both the headline and core inflation readings will certainly not have helped,” said Ambrose Crofton, global market strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

Two-year British government bond yields, which are sensitive to financial markets’ interest rate expectations, came within a whisker of their highest level since 2011.

Inflation has risen sharply across most advanced economies, reflecting a global rise in energy prices and supply chain difficulties.

But the BoE appears more concerned than the U.S. Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank that labour shortages and wage pressures will cause inflation to be slow to fall back once immediate price pressures have passed.

Speaking to lawmakers on Wednesday, Governor Andrew Bailey said financial markets expected energy prices would take longer to fall than had been the case two months ago, while BoE staff had found tentative signs inflation was pushing up pay settlements.

“Please don’t think we don’t think these are serious pressures. They are,” Bailey said, when challenged over whether the central bank had been complacent about price risks.

A surge in cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant had negligible impact on inflation, ONS statisticians said.

Instead, prices for food, hospitality and household goods were the main factors pushing up inflation in December while fuel prices – the main driver in previous months – remained at recent highs.

“Not only does this provide additional evidence that inflation is becoming endemic rather than transitory, it also bodes ill for households facing multiple rises in the cost of living this spring,” said Kitty Ussher, chief economist at the Institute of Directors.

APRIL PEAK?

British inflation is widely expected to peak in April when regulated household energy bills look set to increase by around 50%. Last month the BoE forecast a peak of around 6%, but now some economists see 7% as more likely.

Inflation was just 0.6% in December 2020, and the BoE repeatedly had to revise up its forecast last year. A new inflation forecast is due on Feb. 3. The last one in November showed inflation staying above its 2% target until mid-2024.

Rising inflation is also turning into a political problem for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, which faces calls from the opposition and charities to offset the rise in energy bills, which comes at the same time as a tax increase on wages to fund higher health and social care spending.

“I understand the pressures people are facing with the cost of living, and we will continue to listen to people’s concerns,” finance minister Rishi Sunak said after the inflation data.

Wednesday’s figures showed that core CPI – which excludes more volatile food, energy, alcohol and tobacco prices – rose to a record 4.2% from November’s 3.9%.

Retail price inflation – an older measure that the ONS says is no longer accurate, but which is still widely used by government and businesses – rose to a 30-year high of 7.5% from 7.1%.

Factory price inflation showed tentative signs that cost pressures may have peaked, cooling to 9.3% from 9.4% in November. Inflation for costs paid by producers for material and energy also decreased, to 13.5% from 15.2%.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Kyiv

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that Russia could launch a new attack on Ukraine at “very short notice” but Washington would pursue diplomacy as long as it could, even though it was unsure what Moscow really wanted.

On a visit to Kyiv to show support for Ukraine, the top U.S. diplomat said Ukrainians should prepare for difficult days. He said Washington would keep providing defence assistance to Ukraine and renewed a promise of severe sanctions against Russia in the event of a new invasion.

The Kremlin said tension around Ukraine was increasing and it was still waiting for a written U.S. response to its sweeping demands for security guarantees from the West.

The pessimistic statements highlighted the gulf between Washington and Moscow as Blinken gears up for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday that a Russian foreign policy analyst called “probably the last stop before the train wreck”.

Blinken promised “relentless diplomatic efforts to prevent renewed aggression and to promote dialogue and peace”. He said a Russian build-up of tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s borders was taking place with “no provocation, no reason”.

“We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice, and that gives President (Vladimir) Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine,” he said.

He did not spell out how quickly Russia might move. Independent security analysts say they do not believe Moscow has so far assembled the logistics and medical units it would need to launch an immediate attack.

Russia has also moved troops to Belarus for what it calls joint military exercises, giving it the option of attacking neighbouring Ukraine from the north, east and south.

It continues to deny any such intention. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Western weapons deliveries to Ukraine, military manoeuvres and NATO aircraft flights were to blame for rising tensions around Ukraine.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said he did not believe there was a risk of a large-scale war. He reiterated that Moscow had no plans to attack, strike or invade Ukraine.

His comments prompted a rally in Russian and Ukrainian government bonds, hammered in recent weeks by the escalating tensions.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russia of trying to sow panic in Ukraine. He said diplomacy offered the only way out, and it was an “indestructible principle” that no decisions about Ukraine could be taken without its involvement.

“The basic principle is simple: a strong Ukraine is the best instrument to restrain Russia,” he said.

‘HOPES ARE DIM’

The United States says Russia may be poised for a new invasion of Ukraine, eight years after it seized Crimea and backed separatist forces who took control of large parts of eastern Ukraine.

Russia says it feels menaced by Kyiv’s growing ties with the West. It wants to prevent Ukraine ever joining NATO and for the alliance to pull back troops and weapons from eastern Europe.

“It’s not clear what Russia’s central demand is or is not. They’ve put a number of things on the table,” Blinken said.

“Some of them are clearly absolute non-starters like closing NATO’s door to new members,” he said, adding that Washington remained ready to discuss anything that enhanced “everyone’s security on a reciprocal basis”.

This could include arms control, risk reduction, and the scale and scope of military exercises, he said.

Blinken said he would not present a written response on Russia’s proposals to Lavrov in Geneva on Friday – something Moscow has repeatedly demanded.

Both sides need to take stock of a series of talks on the crisis last week, he said. After Friday, Blinken added, the diplomatic possibilities might become clearer.

But Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who is now a foreign policy analyst, said Moscow would not be appeased by the U.S. and NATO offer of arms control talks and was seeking a much more sweeping rearrangement of Europe’s security order.

“The Lavrov-Blinken meet is probably the last stop before the train wreck. But hopes are dim, the positions are incompatible,” said Frolov.

Describing Russia’s military deployment in Belarus as a “huge escalation”, Frolov gave a dire assessment of the crisis.

“I think barring a U.S. surrender and their delivering Ukraine to Russia, some kind of a military option is all but inevitable now.”

DEFENCE AID

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Blinken in Kyiv for stepping up military assistance, which has included Javelin anti-tank missiles, after President Joe Biden’s administration last month approved an additional $200 million.

Britain says it has begun supplying Ukraine with anti-tank weapons.

Blinken said more assistance was scheduled in coming weeks, and it would be further increased in the event of Russian aggression.

Ryabkov called on the West to stop supplying Ukraine with weapons, the Interfax news agency reported.

Blinken will hold talks in Berlin on Thursday with Germany’s foreign minister and the Quad grouping that also includes Britain and France.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the European Union – which has not been involved until now in negotiations with Russia – must draw up proposals in the coming weeks for a new security deal that it would then thrash out with Moscow.

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Britain’s accounting watchdog on Wednesday fined KPMG 4.3 million pounds ($5.85 million) for audits of drinks store chain Conviviality, whose brands included Bargain Booze and Wine Rack, before it went into administration in 2018.

The Financial Reporting Council said KPMG, one of the world’s “Big Four” accounting firms, will also have to report to the watchdog identifying the causes of the deficiencies in the 2017 audit, and the steps and remedial action which the firm has taken.

In the latest in a string of sanctions from the FRC, the KPMG’s fine was reduced to 3 million pounds for admissions and early settlement of the case, the FRC said.

KPMG audit partner Nicola Quayle was fined 110,000 pounds, cut to 80,850 pounds for early settlement. She also received a severe reprimand.

“I’m sorry that our work wasn’t good enough in this instance,” said Jon Holt, chief executive of KPMG in Britain.

“I am committed to resolving, and learning from, our past cases and this development marks another step forward in dealing with these matters. We have fully cooperated with the FRC throughout their investigation,” Holt said.

Conviviality was listed in London in 2013 and grew rapidly through a series of acquisitions, reporting significant increases in revenue, profit and net assets.

But in early 2018, the company issued a series of trading updates which resulted in its shares being suspended ahead of the company going into administration, the FRC said.

Failings admitted by KPMG included not revising initial assessments of the risks of a material misstatement following information obtained during the 2017 audit, the watchdog said.

There was also a failure to obtain sufficient audit evidence in relation to accrued franchise licence revenue.

“The audit failings in this case were serious, spanned several significant areas of the financial statements,” said Claudia Mortimore, the FRC’s deputy executive counsel.

KPMG is also facing a fine for misconduct in how FRC inspectors were misled during spot checks of audits of builder Carillion and software company Regenersis.

KPMG was fined 13 million pounds last year for holding a major conflict of interest when it advised on the sale of British bed manufacturer Silentnight.

The FRC is also investigating KPMG’s audit of Carillion in the run-up to the builder going bust, which could result in another fine.

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Britain’s payments regulator on Tuesday fined five payments companies including Mastercard a total of 33 million pounds ($45.01 million) for cartel behaviour involving prepaid cards issued to vulnerable people on welfare benefits.

Mastercard received the largest fine of 31.56 million pounds ($43.04 million). The other companies fined were allpay, Advanced Payment Solution, Prepaid Financial Services and Sulion.

The Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) said the firms broke competition law by agreeing not to compete or poach each other’s customers on pre-paid cards offered by local authorities to distribute welfare payments to vulnerable people.

The cartel meant recipients of the cards – who included the homeless, victims of domestic abuse and asylum seekers – could have missed out on cheaper or better-quality products, the regulator said.

The PSR previously announced in March last year it planned to fine the five companies in preliminary findings. It said on Tuesday it had concluded the investigation.

The regulator said during the course of the investigation, all the parties settled and admitted breaking the law.

“This investigation and the significant fines we have imposed send a clear message that the PSR has zero tolerance for cartel behaviour,” said Chris Hemsley, Managing Director of the Payment Systems Regulator.

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A patient suffering from Covid-19 in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Liberec Hospital

The Czech government will on Wednesday consider making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for workers in key professions and people over the age of 60 after the daily tally of new coronavirus cases hit a record high.

Authorities said 28,469 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Tuesday, more than double the 12,371 reported for Tuesday of last week. Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus variant in the central European country of 10.7 million people.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s centre-right government will consider what further steps to take after shortening quarantine and isolation times as part of new measures while also launching mandatory testing of employees at companies from this week.

Asymptomatic essential healthcare workers and social service personnel who test positive for COVID-19 are allowed to continue working.

Hospitalisations, which peaked at more than 7,000 in early December, dropped to 1,635 on Tuesday from 1,761 reported for Monday.
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An analysis by The Times newspaper showed that 58 Conservative lawmakers had criticised the prime minister REUTERS/Paul Childs/File Photo

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on Wednesday fighting to shore up his premiership after a revolt by his own lawmakers who are angry over a series of lockdown parties in Downing Street.

Propelled into the top job to “get Brexit done”, Johnson in 2019 won his party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years but now faces calls to resign after a series of revelations about gatherings in Downing Street during COVID lockdowns.

Johnson has repeatedly apologised for the gatherings, and said that he didn’t know about many of the events, though he attended what he said he thought was a work event on May 20, 2020.

To trigger a leadership challenge, 54 of the 360 Conservative MPs in parliament must write letters of no confidence to the chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee.

As many as 20 Conservative lawmakers who won their seats at the last general election in 2019 plan to submit letters of no confidence in Johnson, the Telegraph reported.

“Group of 2019 MPs to submit letters to try to hit the threshold of 54 to trigger a contest,” BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg said. “They might hit 54.”

An analysis by The Times newspaper showed that 58 Conservative lawmakers had criticized the prime minister.

The letters are confidential, so the chairman is the only person who knows how many lawmakers have actually written them.

Johnson will address parliament on Wednesday after his Cabinet is expected to approve plans to end the recent restrictions imposed to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in England.

The “Plan B” measures were introduced by the government last month as the Omicron strain spread rapidly across Britain. They included guidance to work from home where possible, masks for indoor settings and vaccine passports for mass events.

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The number of people with COVID-19 in French hospitals rose by 888 to 25,775, the health ministry said on Monday, the biggest one-day increase since early November 2020 – before the start of the country’s vaccination campaign.

The last time the number of COVID patients was over 25,000 was on Dec. 17, 2020.

Health ministry data on Monday also showed that the number of people with COVID-19 in intensive care units rose by 61 to 3,913, after being flat to stable for four days.

France’s Institut Pasteur said last week that it expected to see a peak of new Omicron variant coronavirus infections in mid-January, followed by a peak in hospital admissions in the second half of January.

On Sunday, the ministry reported more than 278,000 new infections, which was a decline of 6% against a week earlier and the first week-on-week fall this year.

On Sunday, the seven-day moving average of new infections fell to 294,452, after setting a record high of just over 297,000 on Saturday. That was the first fall time since mid-November, when new infections averaged around 10,000 per day.

On Monday, the ministry reported 102,144 new cases and the seven-day average again rose slightly to 295,631. It also reported 296 new deaths, taking the total to 127,263.

Parliament gave final approval on Sunday to the government’s latest measures to tackle COVID-19, including a vaccine pass contested by anti-vaccine protesters.

The new law, which had a rough ride through parliament with opposition parties finding some of its provisions too strict, will require people to show a certificate of vaccination to enter public places like restaurants, cafes, cinemas and long-distance trains.

Currently, unvaccinated people can enter such places with the results of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Nearly 78% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry.

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A former senior adviser to Britain’s Boris Johnson said on Monday he was willing to “swear under oath” that the prime minister knew a party was being held at his residence during a Covid-19 lockdown, accusing him of lying to parliament.

British media have reported that at least 11 gatherings took place at 10 Downing Street – the prime minister’s official residence and office – or in other government departments between May 2020 and April 2021, when COVID-19 rules limited how many people could meet socially. An internal inquiry is being carried out to establish the facts.

Johnson last week apologised to parliament for attending a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of Downing Street on May 20, 2020, but said he had thought it was a work event.

Dominic Cummings, an architect of Britain’s departure from the European Union and a former senior adviser to Johnson who left government under acrimonious terms in November 2020, said on Twitter that the prime minister had agreed that the drinks party should go ahead.

“Not only me but other eyewitnesses who discussed this at the time would swear under oath this is what happened,” he said on his blog.

Last week ITV News published an email invitation from Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds to a May 20, 2020 event, asking attendees to “bring your own booze”.

Cummings said that after Reynolds was told to cancel the invite by at least two people Reynolds checked with Johnson if it should go ahead.

“The PM agreed it should,” Cummings said in his blog.

Johnson’s spokesman denied earlier on Monday that the prime minister had been made aware of the May 20 event.

“It’s untrue to say that the prime minister was told or warned ahead of that,” the spokesman said.

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Britain will freeze funding for the BBC for two years and debate whether a universal licence fee should continue, the government said on Monday, sparking accusations of “cultural vandalism”.

While the government did not want to “destroy” the 100-year-old British “beacon”, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries told parliament that it could not receive more money at a time when households were being hit by rising taxes and energy bills.

Created to educate, inform and entertain, the BBC has been admired around the world for its high-quality news output, drama and documentaries by broadcasters such as David Attenborough.

But in recent years it has struggled to navigate the heightened political and cultural disputes gripping Britain, notably about Brexit, with critics saying its London-centric, metropolitan viewpoint fails swathes of the country.

“It is nobody’s intention to destroy the BBC,” said Dorries, a member of the ruling Conservative Party. “It’s a beacon.”

Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, and Chairman Richard Sharp, said the freeze would necessitate tougher choices that would impact licence fee payers.

Analysts have said a below-inflation settlement will require cuts to BBC output, which includes global, national and local radio, online content and broadcast and on-demand television.

Lucy Powell, the opposition Labour spokeswoman for culture, told parliament that the funding freeze was an attack on one of the biggest institutions in British public life, and accused Dorries of “cultural vandalism”.

FROZEN FUNDS

BBC’s news bulletins recorded some of the highest viewing figures for 20 years during the pandemic, and it remains more trusted than competitors, but it has admitted it could do more to be impartial.

Under the new agreement the licence fee – a tax on all television-owning households – will be frozen at 159 pounds ($217) a year until 2024, before it can rise in line with inflation for four years.

Serious questions needed to be asked about the future of the licence fee in 2028 and beyond, Dorries said and in particular whether a universal charge with criminal penalties for evasion was still appropriate when the public can subscribe to many platforms, like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

She said she was starting a debate, adding that analysis on alternatives had not yet been done.

However, on Sunday she tweeted that this licence fee announcement would be “the last”, saying the days when elderly people could be threatened for not paying had to end.

“This is 2022, not 1922,” she said. “We need a BBC that is forward-looking and ready to meet the challenges of modern broadcasting.”

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A demonstrator holds a placard while taking part in a protest against the Dutch government's restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Amsterdam, Netherlands, January 16, 2022. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

Thousands of protesters packed Amsterdam’s streets on Sunday in opposition to the government-imposed COVID-19 measures and vaccination campaign as virus infections hit a new record.

Authorities were granted stop and search powers at several locations across the city and scores of riot police vans patrolled neighbourhoods where the demonstrators marched with banners and yellow umbrellas.

Regular anti-coronavirus protests are held across the country and Sunday’s large gathering was joined by farmers who drove to the capital and parked tractors along the central Museum Square.

The crowd played music, chanted anti-government slogans and then marched along thoroughfares, blocking traffic.

The Netherlands had one of Europe’s toughest lockdowns for a month through the end-of-year holidays.

Amid growing public opposition, Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Friday announced the reopening of stores, hairdressers and gyms, partially lifting a lockdown despite record numbers of new COVIC-19 cases.

Infections reached another record high above 36,000 on Sunday, data published by the Netherlands Institute for Health (RIVM) showed. The Netherlands has recorded more than 3.5 million infections and 21,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Rutte’s government ordered the lockdown in mid-December as a wave of the Delta variant forced the health system to cancel all but the most urgent care and it appeared rising Omicron cases would overwhelm it.

Non-essential stores, hairdressers, beauty salons and other service providers were allowed to reopen on Saturday under strict conditions.

Bars, restaurants and cultural venues have been instructed to remain closed until at least Jan. 25 due to uncertainty about how the Omicron wave will impact hospital capacity.

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People queue to get tested after the Christmas holiday break at Doce de Octubre Hospital in Madrid, Spain

A surge in coronavirus cases caused by the Omicron variant may have peaked in some parts of Europe but medics say the impact will continue to be felt across the region, with hospitals still at risk of facing a rush of admissions.

Health experts and politicians warn against complacency, saying it is not yet clear whether their data reflect the full impact of the Christmas and New Year holidays, when families gathered for long periods indoors and the risk of intergenerational spread of the virus may be greater.

Also, although vaccination and the lesser severity of the Omicron variant mean hospitalisations are lower than in previous waves of COVID-19 infections, Europe still accounts for about half of global cases and deaths.

But there are growing signs that the surge of infections caused by the Omicron variant, first identified in southern Africa and Hong Kong, is levelling off or even falling in some areas.

Britain’s seven-day average of cases has fallen by 30,000 from its peak, Spain’s prime minister has said infection numbers are stabilising and a French public health institute has said the wave will peak in mid-January. read more

“We see a number of places where the peak is being reached or has been reached. It may be a bit earlier than anticipated, but remember the region is very diverse,” Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s Europe director, said this week.

“So we have to keep in mind the eastern part of the region, the Central Asian republics, where this peak still may come.”

Health officials in Sweden and Switzerland have said the peak in those two countries is projected to be reached towards the end of this month.

“We could get to the peak within the next two weeks if contacts among people stay on the same level. If people are more cautious, it will take longer,” Tanja Stadler, head of Switzerland’s COVID-19 science task force, told reporters on Tuesday. read more

The trend echoes the Omicron wave in Africa, which the WHO’s Africa office said appeared to be plateauing, making it the shortest surge in cases to date. read more

Denmark, where cases are dominated by Omicron, eased some restrictions this week, with the health minister saying the epidemic in the country was now under control. read more

Britain’s Office of National Statistics has said the growth in infections has slowed in England. One in 15 people were estimated to have been infected in the week ending Jan. 6, the same as the previous week.

CAUTION PREVAILS

Despite the positive signs, politicians remain cautious.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Thursday that while the rate of hospitalisation was starting to slow, the health service would remain under pressure in the next few weeks. read more

“Omicron’s far greater transmissibility still has the potential to lead to significant numbers of people in hospital,” he said.

He said there were encouraging signs that infections were falling in London and the east of England but “we’re still currently seeing infections rise in other parts of the country and the data does not as of yet reflect the impact of people returning to work and school” after Christmas and New Year.

Scotland, which introduced tougher restrictions to combat Omicron than England, will start lifting those measures on Monday.

But, showing the stabilisation in case numbers is not being seen everywhere, Italy’s National Health Institute said on Friday that weekly incidence and hospital bed occupancy continued to increase this week.

German virologist Christian Drosten warned on Friday that there were far too many Omicron cases and that this reduced any gains from it being milder than other variants, and Germany’s health minister said more coronavirus restrictions might be needed if hospitals are overwhelmed.

With Omicron initially spreading quickly among younger people, epidemiologists have said its impact on hospital admissions might be unpredictable as it moves into older age groups, even if headline case numbers come down.

But the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app, which collects data on self-reported symptoms to estimate prevalence in Britain, has found the Omicron wave has peaked, and that cases among the elderly have steadied at a low level.

“Just as it went up very fast, it also came down very fast and I think it is good news, it means that there will be easing of pressures on the hospitals,” Tim Spector, lead scientist on the app, told Reuters.

Even so, the Omicron variant will not disappear, he said.

“It’s just so infectious, there’s no way we can pretend that it’s going to get down to trivial levels, but it should be it should be manageable levels,” he said.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to lift Plan B COVID restrictions in England, the Telegraph reported on Friday, as government scientists warn on dropping of Plan B prematurely.

COVID passports and work from home guidance are widely expected inside Whitehall to be lifted from Jan. 26 for England, the report said, adding that some rules on face masks may remain.

An announcement could come as soon as this week, it said.

On Friday, the government published minutes from a Jan. 7 meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that said the epidemic had the potential to continue to grow nationally.

The group also warned that if there were a reversal of current interventions like Plan B in England, before the peak in infection was passed it could lead to increase in overall impact of the wave on hospitalisations.

Plan B, introduced last month to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, includes ordering people to work from home, wear masks in public places and use COVID passes to enter some venues.

Johnson said last week that England could withstand a surge in COVID-19 infections without shutting down the economy, resisting imposing stringent lockdown measures
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We’re still a way from equality, says Germany’s first LGBTQ+ commissioner

As Germany’s first ever LGBTQ+ commissioner, a role created under the new coalition government’s plans for cultural modernisation, Sven Lehmann believes he has his work cut out.

The 42-year-old, a member of parliament for the Greens, was given the title of Commissioner for the Acceptance of Sexual and Gender Diversity by the new Social Democrat-Green-Liberal coalition, which took over last year after elections ended 16 years of conservative-led rule.

“Since marriage for all became law, since it has been possible for everyone to marry the partner they want, many have believed that now absolute equality has been achieved,” Lehmann said. “But it hasn’t.”

Germany is known as being progressive on sexual equality, partly because of Berlin’s century-old reputation as a haven for sexual experimentation, but it came late to marriage equality, only allowing same-sex marriages in 2017.

In a host of situations, laws continue to discriminate against same-sex couples. Children born to two women still only have one legal parent until the other goes through a lengthy and expensive adoption process.

Olaf Scholz’s government plans to change this as part of a host of social reforms including simplifying citizenship laws and immigration procedures and giving the vote to 16-year-olds, but Lehmann, who has been with his husband since coming out aged 22, lamented that the young still faced challenges.

“We have come very far in Germany, but not far enough,” he said. “When I think about the fact that many young people are afraid to come out at school or in their sports clubs. Then we haven’t come far enough yet.”

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