Plans to use coronavirus contact-tracing apps in parts of Europe facing setbacks

Doubts were growing on Thursday over whether ambitious plans by European governments to use contact-tracing apps to fight the spread of the coronavirus will be able to be implemented with any real effectiveness soon.

In contrast, there appeared to be some movement forward in the sprint to find a vaccine against COVID-19, bolstered by a $1 billion investment from the U.S. vaccine agency.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged Wednesday to have a “test, track and trace” program for COVID-19 in place by June 1 as part of a strategy to persuade the country that it’s safe to move on to the next stage of easing the lockdown and restarting the economy.

But the government also appeared to backtrack on an earlier pledge to make a smart phone app a pillar of that program.

Security minister James Brokenshire told the BBC on Thursday that he remains “confident” that the tracing system will be in place by June 1, but acknowledged that an app intended to help track the virus was not ready. He suggested “technical issues” were the reason for its failure to be introduced as planned by mid-May.

Experts say that being able to quickly identify people exposed to the virus can help stop the spread of the contagious respiratory illness, but efforts to put apps in place have come up across technical problems and fears of privacy intrusions.

The French government has also been forced to delay deployment of its planned contact-tracing app. Initially expected last week as the country started lifting confinement measures, it won’t be ready before next month due to technical issues and concerns over privacy.

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Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said Thursday that the country’s contact-tracing app would begin tests “in the coming days.” But he made no mention of whether Italy had hired teams of contact-tracers to actually conduct interviews and get in touch with people who had been in contact with COVID-19 patients, as other European countries have done.

Spain’s Economy Minister, Nadia Calvino, said Wednesday in parliament that Spain is making preparations to test a European Bluetooth-based app at the end of June in the Canary Islands.

In China, the country’s communist leadership was taking extensive precautions to prevent any infections as it opens its National People’s Congress on Friday and a parallel meeting of advisers on Thursday. The meetings in Beijing were delayed for nearly two months due to the pandemic.

An outbreak at the congress would be a potential public relations nightmare as President Xi Jinping showcases Beijing’s apparent success in curbing the coronavirus that emerged in the central city of Wuhan late last year.

About 5 million people worldwide have been confirmed infected, and over 328,000 deaths have been recorded. That includes more than 93,000 in the U.S. and around 165,000 in Europe, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University, based on government data. Experts believe the true toll is significantly higher.

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Top Senate Republican says still mulling if more coronavirus relief needed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican leader of the U.S. Senate said on Tuesday the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress were still evaluating the need for more coronavirus relief legislation and would discuss plans in a couple of weeks.

“We still believe with regard to the coronavirus we need to assess what we’ve already done, take a look at what worked and what didn’t work, and we’ll discuss the way forward in the next couple of weeks,” McConnell told reporters after President Donald Trump spoke to a Senate Republican luncheon.

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Merkel, Visegrad states: We'll dismantle border controls when pandemic allows

BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the Visegrad Four group of countries on Tuesday agreed that in was in their interests to gradually dismantle border crossing restrictions and controls as soon as the coronavirus pandemic allowed.

The V4 is made up of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

After her video conference with the V4, Merkel had a bilateral meeting with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and they confirmed that they wanted to reduce restrictions on people and businesses in the border region insofar as infection levels allow, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

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UK COVID-19 death toll nears 43,000: official data

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom’s COVID-19 official death toll has reached nearly 43,000, underlining the country’s status as the worst-hit in Europe and raising more questions about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis.

New official figures for England and Wales brought the death toll to at least 42,990, a Reuters tally showed, which includes previously published data from Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well recent hospital deaths in England.

Tuesday’s data from the Office for National Statistics also painted a grim picture in care homes, which have been especially hard hit by the virus that has killed more than 317,700 worldwide.

The death toll in care homes across the United Kingdom surpassed 10,000 as of May 8, the data showed.

While different ways of counting make comparisons with other countries difficult, the figure confirmed Britain was among those hit worst by the pandemic.

Such a high UK death toll increases the pressure on Johnson. Opposition parties say he was too slow to impose a lockdown, too slow to introduce mass testing and too slow to get enough protective equipment to hospitals.

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UK COVID-19 death toll nears 43,000: official data

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom’s COVID-19 official death toll has reached nearly 43,000, underlining the country’s status as the worst-hit in Europe and raising more questions about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis.

New official figures for England and Wales brought the death toll to at least 42,990, a Reuters tally showed, which includes previously published data from Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well recent hospital deaths in England.

Tuesday’s data from the Office for National Statistics also painted a grim picture in care homes, which have been especially hard hit by the virus that has killed more than 317,700 worldwide.

The death toll in care homes across the United Kingdom surpassed 10,000 as of May 8, the data showed.

While different ways of counting make comparisons with other countries difficult, the figure confirmed Britain was among those hit worst by the pandemic.

Such a high UK death toll increases the pressure on Johnson. Opposition parties say he was too slow to impose a lockdown, too slow to introduce mass testing and too slow to get enough protective equipment to hospitals.

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Coronavirus: Wirral and Bury join councils that say reopening schools not safe yet

Two more councils have said they will defy government instructions for schools in England to start reopening from next month because it is not safe to do so.

Politicians in Wirral and Bury said children should not be forced to go back to the classroom under the timeline to gradually loosen coronavirus lockdown measures drawn up by Boris Johnson.

The prime minister wants all pupils in reception, year one and year six to start lessons again from 1 June.

Several councils – including Hartlepool and Liverpool – have already declared they think it is too early for this to happen.

Now two more have joined them, as the number of deaths in the UK climbed to at least 34,000.

Wirral’s deputy leader Janette Williamson told Sky News it’s “not safe” yet and still a “life or death” situation so the council is taking a “more cautionary approach to this”.

“We’re not confident the health and wellbeing of children and staff are guaranteed,” she said.

Thomas Usher, Wirral council’s cabinet member for education, added “we don’t expect parents and carers to send their children in from 1 June if they’re not comfortable with doing so” to any of the around 140 schools in the area.

He added “it’s up to the government to make it clear” what punishment those who don’t want their children to return to school might face.

In Bury, cabinet member for children Tamoor Tariq said reopening schools would “pose an unacceptable risk to pupils, staff and communities of vulnerable people”.

He cited “real concerns” with COVID-19 testing, availability of PPE, “limitations” of the proposed “track and trace” programme and an “inconsistent level of central government support for our recovery”.

The Department for Education was asked to comment but none was received at the time of publication.

Schools are currently only open for the youngsters of key workers.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jon Van-Tam tried to dampen down fears about schools reopening by explaining that children are not “high output transmitters” of the virus.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing on Monday, he said: “Unlike flu, where we are very clear that children drive transmission in the community to adults, it really does not seem to be the same kind of signal with COVID-19.

“Children are not these kind of big high output transmitters as they are with flu,” he added.

He also said that most children have only “extremely mild” COVID-19 symptoms and the infection rate among them is “about the same” as in adults, but “possibly a little lower” in younger aged children.

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove also vowed on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday that “we can provide a safe environment for teachers and for children”.

Talks between teachers’ union representatives and government scientific advisers, intended to provide assurance about the government’s proposals to enable children to return safely, ended on Friday with union leaders saying the meeting had raised more questions than answers.

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Economic recovery task force asks City of Penticton to relax patio regulations, remove permit costs amid COVID-19

The City of Penticton’s economic recovery task force is looking to city council for support to relax patio regulations and remove permit costs amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In a report to go before city council on Tuesday, economic development specialist Andrew Kemp says it is likely restaurants will only be able to open at half capacity, due to physical distancing guidelines, making it difficult to survive financially.

Kemp suggests the city should remove permit costs and relax design standards for storefront patios and sidewalk retail display areas to encourage businesses to take advantage of outdoor space.

“Utilizing outdoor space, where transmission of virus is much less of a concern, businesses may be able to increase the number of seats,” Kemp said in the report. “In addition, patios and sidewalk uses add vibrancy to the streetscape.”

The task force also recommends tackling property crime issues by promoting safety and security and supporting local bylaw officers and RCMP, as well as bolstering security of the industrial park through a Crime Prevention campaign and promoting recovery efforts through the “Love Local Penticton” campaign.

Slackwater Brewing is also asking for more flexibility when it comes to design regulations for patios. In a letter to council, co-founder Liam Peyton says the city’s building manager has informed him that the fencing around the patio is not in compliance with a local bylaw, even though it passed an occupancy inspection.

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The patio deck is made of cedar and the letter implies a material change would be required to meet current regulations.

“Encouraging patio and al fresco dining appears to be a pillar of Dr. Bonnie Henry’s post-COVID reality, so we feel it is important to maintain our patio, status quo, as a viable option for Penticton diners as relief from restrictions is now on the horizon,” Peyton said.

Also on Tuesday’s agenda, city council will consider sending a letter to B.C.’s attorney general, David Eby, in support of flexible liquor licensing regulations for businesses who are looking to expand their outdoor seating areas as B.C. begins its COVID-19 restart plan.

B.C. will enter phase two of its economic reopening plan on Tuesday, which includes restaurants, retail and personal service establishments. The businesses are allowed to reopen under strict health and safety protocols. Under phase two, people are still asked to stay close to home and avoid non-essential travel between communities.

Health and medical services, such as dentistry, physiotherapy and the re-scheduling of elective surgeries will also resume.

B.C. has no plans to resume large gatherings, including concerts, conferences or professional sports, until a vaccine is available. International travel and tourism will also remain restricted.

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Are schools ready to open or are children being used as guinea pigs? Two sides of the debate

Plans to start gradually reopening schools have proved controversial, with unions challenging the government over its target for some classes tor return on 1 June.

Schools have been told to prepare for early year settings, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to return to the classroom in smaller sizes from the start of next month, and to start reintroducing more face-to-face lessons for Year 10 and Year 12 students.

All primary school students would also be back in school for a month before summer under the government’s goal – advice one headteachers union has told its members to ignore as it is not “realistic”.

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The Independent spoke to Steve Chalke, the founder of the Oasis trust – an academy trust with around 50 schools in England – and Alex Rawlings, the headteacher of Quarry Bank Primary School in the West Midlands, about their differing views on plans to get children back to school as the country faces the coronavirus pandemic.

1. Are you planning on reopening your school(s) on 1 June? Do you support these plans?

Steve Chalke: “Yes. But it is an important thing to say that some won’t be reopening at all, because they never shut. I think that has been lost in this conversation. Many of our schools have stayed open throughout to care for and work with the children of key workers and those who are most vulnerable. What we will be doing on 1 June in scaling up what we are doing a little bit.

“Our plan at one school is different for the plans for each of the other schools. We have 35 primaries. The reason they are different is because we have 35 different buildings. Some are bigger, some are smaller, some have wider corridors, some have narrower corridors, and they have different size classrooms, for example.

“We are supportive of the government plans to open schools on June 1 because we are ready. Oasis is having a conversation in each locality with its school leaders, its parents, its community. We are talking with the unions and the government and that is why we are going to open on 1 June.”

Alex Rawlings: “We are planning on a phased return of school on 2 June. We will be using 1 June to prepare the classrooms and school site. Our children in Early Years will start on 2 June followed by our Year 1 and Year 6 children on 8 June. We will remain open for our key worker and vulnerable children.

“I wholeheartedly support the return to school for children, but only when we know it is safe.

“The government has not done enough to convince a lot of parents nor school leaders that it is safe to return.”

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2. What are you planning to help your school reopen to students?

Steve Chalke: “In some of our schools, we are doing a rota. Instead of having children in all day, we are having a cohort in the morning, and a different cohort in in the afternoon … There is a gap when we can cleanse everything, clean it down, wipe everything.

“Some schools will have fewer children in a classroom than others. The government has said you can have up to 15 in a classroom. Depending on the sizes of our classrooms, we are deciding how many children can go in them.

“We have ordered and have got PPE equipment … Any staff member or any child that wants PPE, it is there for them.

“The way Oasis is geared up is there is a central team that supports all our schools. Some of this work, like ordering of PPE, has been done centrally so we can make sure all our schools have got that. We prepared a whole list of questions for our schools to ask themselves as they get ready.

“We have done a full risk assessment of each individual schools, so we have had a meeting for all 35 schools … and we worked out the bespoke plan for each of the schools in that meeting.”

Alex Rawlings: “I’m currently putting together plans to return as safely as we can. Some of those plans include additional hand washing stations, spacing of tables and chairs in classrooms, purchasing lidded bins so that waste can be disposed of according to the governments guidance, and buying coloured wristbands so groups of children can identify themselves from other groups and keep their distance.

“It is however incredibly hard to plan for the reopening of school when the guidance changes on a daily basis. Boris Johnson originally said only Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children were to return, then the guidance made reference to nursery and even now government officials neglect to mention nursery children returning also.

“Schools had invested significant resources to planning a return that made sense to them and their communities. The government also released a document on Friday night explaining that schools should avoid using rota systems to accommodate children. Hundreds of schools would have been back to square one of planning, with only two weeks, including half-term, until schools are expected to open to those year groups.”

3. What are the main difficulties schools face with regards to opening during coronavirus?

Steve Chalke: “You should never do anything you haven’t thought about and carefully planned for. To open without doing the planning we have been able to do is a risk too far.

“But then there is another answer. In the end, it isn’t PPE and it isn’t actively planning and risk assessment forms that get you there: it is trust.

“The real foundation on which phased return to any school is built is trust. By that I mean, trust between school staff and leaders, and trust between parents and the school. If you have got all that trust going on and good communication, that is the final ingredient you need to open school. If you don’t have trust and a good relationship, it will be really hard because scaremongering breaks out and rumours start flying.”

Alex Rawlings: “Inconsistent guidance from government which causes a lack of confidence in reopening and the logistics of following the guidance are hugely limiting.

“Gavin Williamson said we were having a tentative start of reopening schools, when actually he has insisted that four out of eight year groups attend school. Those classes are halved, which requires double the space and double the supervision, which means that schools have to be at 100 per cent staffing capacity to safely open. With lots of adults shielding or self-isolating, schools do not have the staffing capacity to reopen – we will only just be able to, hopefully.

“The most difficult aspect to sort is to try to increase parental confidence in school’s ability to keep everyone safe. Everyone knows it is going to be impossible to keep 3 and 4 year olds apart at a distance of two metres. In every workplace in the country you are to socially distance unless you have adequate PPE. Schools have been told that social distancing isn’t attainable whilst working with children and that it isn’t recommended that schools use PPE routinely.

“Adults will never have confidence in government plans to reopen until they can tell everyone what makes a school classroom uniquely safe when compared to any other workspace in the entire United Kingdom.”

4. What are the benefits of getting children back in the classroom, as opposed to home learning?

Steve Chalke: “I think they are huge. A report done for the Institute of Fiscal Studies has shown a massive gap between the rich and the poor in the amount of homework study being done. It said the more middle class you are or wealthy you are, the more digital access you have, more laptops and and the more time parents have got to spend with you … But it is much worse than what they are saying.

They are saying across this period, wealthy children will have done seven days more work by the end of this than others. I think this is woefully underestimated. All our schools are in poor communities, some of our kids haven’t been receiving dinners as government system has failed all together.

“Why do we need to get these schools open? For learning to continue. Around four million children in England live in poverty. The children commissioners office say two million live in homes where there is domestic abuse, where there is parental substance misuse or parental mental health issues. All of those figures come before lockdown. How do you think those figures have gone up? The longer these children wait for a return to school, the greater the negative impact on their learning, their health and on their safety.”

Alex Rawlings: “The benefits to getting children back are clear – children will receive improved education provision and they will see their friends, which is really important.

“Parents have worked incredibly hard with their children at home but it is very difficult to turn a dining room in to a classroom and it is obviously not as successful as being in a classroom environment.”

5. What are your concerns (if any) about the plans to reopen on 1 June?

Steve Chalke: “Where the type of things we have been talking about haven’t been done, I would be very wary of opening a school. But I think there are still two weeks to go.

“My advice is to a school that is on its own, that don’t feel they have got the support they need, I think I would really happy to provide people with an understanding of the kind of approach we have adopted.”

Alex Rawlings: “Children are being used as guinea pigs.

“The government are trying to push a narrative that if you care for children then you will promote the reopening of schools. Every member of our school staff cares deeply for the children in their care and want nothing more for them to return, but only when it is safe to do so.

“There has not been enough time, clear guidance or scientific evidence to suggest that it is the right time to do so.

“Everyone keeps referring to the Danish model and how that has worked. It is a ridiculous comparison. Denmark’s deaths are in the hundreds, ours are in the tens of thousands. Denmark were one of the first countries to close its schools (we were one of the last) and they returned when only a few hundred people were in intensive care being treated for coronavirus, we have thousands.”

6. Do you feel the science is clear enough to show schools are safe to reopen on 1 June?

Steve Chalke: “Yes. I think the problem is the unions and all the people commentating on this aren’t the scientists. So what we have tried to do throughout the whole process has really talk to people who are in the middle of the science. I heard Brian Cox say – and I agree with this totally – anyone who tell you they are following the science doesn’t understand science. Science is a debate.”

Alex Rawlings: “On Friday night, the government released the science that was supposed to convince schools that it was safe to open. This document contains no science, just a regurgitation of their own guidance.

“The science hasn’t been adequately shared despite it being promised. The Department for Education’s own scientific advisor conceded to having not read the guidance and had not been consulted about reopening of schools during an Ed Select Committee meeting, only for the Department for Education to release a statement later saying that he knew.”

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We want to work with teachers to restart schools: UK PM's spokesman

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government wants to work with teachers and trade unions to help some students return to schools from June 1, the British leader’s spokesman said on Monday, trying to ease growing concerns.

Some teachers have criticised the government for moving too quickly to return some students to schools, part of concerns in Britain that the country is not ready even for the tentative easing of rules to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We continue to want to work with teachers, head teachers and the unions in order to find a way to have a controlled and careful return of some year groups from June 1 at the earliest,” the spokesman told reporters.

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Spain aims to reopen borders to tourism in late June

MADRID/VALENCIA (Reuters) – Tourism-dependent Spain aims to reopen borders to visitors around the end of June as its coronavirus lockdown fully unwinds, a minister said on Monday, in a much-needed boost for the ravaged travel sector.

Madrid last week surprised its European Union partners by imposing a two-week quarantine on all overseas travellers and effectively keeping borders closed, saying that was needed to avoid importing a second wave of the COVID-19 disease.

But the move was meant to be temporary and Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos said it would be phased out in parallel with travel being allowed within Spain, whose regions are easing restrictions in different phases.

“We can’t allow foreigners to travel while the Spanish population is confined,” he told TVE broadcaster.

“From late June, we’ll start the tourism activity, I hope … We must make Spain an attractive country from the health point of view.”

Tourism accounts for over 12% of Spain’s economic output. Even with a reopening of borders in late June, the industry’s revenues will fall by between 93 billion ($100 billion) and 124 billion euros ($134 billion), lobby group Exceltur estimated in a report last month.

One of the worst-hit nations with 27,650 deaths and 231,350 infections, Spain is slowly easing a strict lockdown in place since mid-March which had meant for weeks people could not even go out for exercise.


Restaurants and bars were gradually reopening – even though staff knew customers would be scarce.

In the Mediterranean city of Valencia, restaurant manager Cristina Gonzalo and her staff were out early preparing their beachside bar. Dressed in white shirt and matching mask, a waiter painstakingly measured out space between tables to ensure they conform with social-distancing requirements.

Gonzalo said she had doubts about the reopening but was happy to be helping staff, who had been furloughed under the government’s temporary layoff program.

“They did not receive the money to shop for essentials and they were desperate,” she said.

The epidemic has put health services under severe stress and battered the economy, which could shrink between 9.5-12.4% this year, followed by a 6.1-8.5% bounce back in 2021, Bank of Spain governor Pablo Hernandez de Cos said.

Unemployment rose sharply in March and April, pushing the number of people depending on unemployment benefits to a record 5.2 million.

Including furloughed workers and people on medical leave, as many as 7 million people are depending on the state, almost 30% of the working population, according to data that Spain sent to Brussels in early May.

In a change from the previous morning time, the government was to announce the latest 24-hour tally of coronavirus cases and fatalities at around 5 pm (1500 GMT) from Monday onwards.

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