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Covid-19: ‘There is no choice between lives and livelihoods,’ OECD chief Gurría says

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As European countries move into their second Covid-19 lockdowns of the year, the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development backs measures seen by many as tough. Ángel Gurría tells FRANCE 24: "If you win the battle against the virus first, you will have less economic consequences." He adds that "there is no choice between lives and livelihoods; it's a false dilemma".

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Mexican economist Ángel Gurría has been Secretary-General of the OECD since 2006 – throughout the global financial crash and subsequent recovery.

With hopes now high for viable vaccines against Covid-19, he's telling world leaders that the solutions to health and economic crises must carry the elements of our solutions to the environmental crisis too: "The single most important inter-generational responsibility is with the planet. That means the recovery, where we are going to make investments that have an impact for the next 30, 40 years, must absolutely have the sustainability of the planet in mind".

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On the recently announced Pfizer vaccine, Gurría says: "It is a game changer […] The possibility of a vaccine being close is of enormous consequence. We still have to wait for it to be finalised, approved and distributed in sufficient amounts that it can get everywhere, so we are calculating that we are going to spend most of 2021 still living with the virus. But it changes expectations; the whole mood has improved considerably since the announcement."

On the refusal of Donald Trump, leader of the OECD's biggest single funder, to concede defeat in the US presidential election, Gurría sounds an upbeat note: "I believe that we will have an orderly transition of power in the United States come 20th January 2021. I believe in the institutions in the United States, I believe that the political forces in the United States will eventually align."

Finally, as talks drag on over a new Brexit deal on the future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom, Gurría says he still expects a deal to be struck: "I believe that the common interest will lead to a deal […] The impact in Europe is going to be limited to the trade with the UK. The impact in the UK is going to be very serious, not only because of the flows of trade and flows of investment, but also because the overall business mood will be affected. So I am still counting on a deal."

Produced by Mathilde Bénézet

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Brexit architect Dominic Cummings steps down as PM Johnson’s top advisor

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Dominic Cummings, the controversial brains behind the 2016 campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, on Friday stepped down as Prime Minister Boris Johnson's top aide.

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Amid speculation that he would leave the government at the end of the year, Dominic Cummings was pictured Friday leaving from the front door at 10 Downing Street.

Cummings was due to leave at the end of the year, reports said, but he was seen walking out of Johnson's 10 Downing Street office on Friday carrying a cardboard box.

A government source confirmed he would no longer be officially employed from "mid-December".

Cummings, a chief architect of the campaign to have Britain leave the European Union, has been a divisive figure inside the Conservative government since Johnson became prime minister 16 months ago. His position weakened earlier this year after he drove hundreds of miles across England after contracting Covid-19, violating national lockdown rules and leaving the impression that elite officials didn't have to obey the same onerous rules as everyone else.

The episode fuelled criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic after delays in the expansion of testing and efforts to avoid a second national lockdown in England. That lockdown was finally imposed last week, but it couldn’t stop the UK from becoming the first country in Europe to pass 50,000 deaths during the pandemic.

'Boris's brain'

Nicknamed “Boris' brain'', Cummings has also been the target of complaints from senior members of Johnson’s Conservative Party, who say that unelected advisers in the prime minister’s Downing Street office were effectively running the government, sidelining ministers and Parliament.

Bernard Jenkin, chairman of an influential committee of Conservative lawmakers, said Cummings’ resignation is an opportunity for Johnson to “reset how the government operates”.

“I would suggest there are three words that need to become the watchwords in Downing Street: they are respect, integrity and trust,” Jenkin told the BBC. “And certainly in the relationship between the Downing Street machine and the parliamentary party, there’s been a very strong sense that that has been lacking in recent months.”

Despite winning an 80-seat majority in last December’s general election, Johnson’s government has been forced into a series of embarrassing policy reversals in recent months, stoking criticism that Cummings was giving the prime minister bad advice.

In addition to his stance on lockdown, Johnson has backtracked on decisions to let the Chinese technology giant Huawei participate in building Britain’s new mobile phone network; one to use an algorithm to assign grades to students after annual school tests were cancelled due to the pandemic; and a third not to extend free meals to poor children when schools were closed as Britain faced rising unemployment due to the pandemic.

'Weirdos and misfits'

In a January blog post, Cummings called for changes in the way government works, claiming that the civil service didn’t have enough expertise in some fields. He infamously said “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” could help the government develop better policies.

In that post, Cummings said he wanted to make himself “largely redundant” within the next year.

In his Thursday interview with the BBC, Cummings said rumours that he had threatened to resign this week were untrue, but that “his position hasn’t changed since my January blog”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps downplayed Cummings’ departure, saying he has achieved many of the things he set out to do.

Adversarial approach

Cummings’ signature policy goal was Brexit – ensuring Britain’s departure from the EU – and that process is scheduled to be completed at the end of this year. More recently, he has taken the lead in rolling out mass testing to help control Britain's Covid-19 outbreak, and that programme is now being rolled out.

“It’s always been good to have somebody in the room who sort of shakes things up, asks why, doesn’t take no for an answer,” Shapps said. “And that’s been very much the way Dominic Cummings has been able to bring his talents to No 10, but he’s ready to move on.”

But Cummings has been criticised for creating an adversarial relationship between the prime minister’s office and those he thought stood in his way, including civil servants, the BBC and backbench lawmakers.

Jenkin said there has also been a breakdown in Johnson's government, with Johnson appointing inexperienced Cabinet ministers then dictating policies to them, rather than having ministers take responsibility for their departments.

Cummings’ departure is an opportunity to reshuffle the government and bring in more experienced ministers, Jenkin said.

“If you don’t have the corporate memory, well then history repeats itself and people make the same mistakes, or certainly mistakes that can be avoided,” Jenkin said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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As schools shut across the US, Europe made it a mission to keep them open

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But as he announced the new restrictions, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin emphasized that schools and childcare facilities should stay open. "This is necessary because we cannot and will not allow our children and young people's futures to be another victim of his disease. They need their education," Martin said.There has been a similar story in many European countries including Germany, France and England, which made it their mission to keep in-person learning going, even as they imposed strict measures to combat the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. In contrast, major cities in the United States, including Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia, are shutting schools and moving classes online in a bid to stave off rising infection rates.Younger students attend class in Knutsford, England, at the start of a four-week national lockdown on November 4."There are rates of infection at which is too dangerous to keep schools open, and that has happened in a number of places in Europe," Anthony Staines, professor of Health Systems at Dublin City University, told CNN.But he said that the major response should be "effective, highly resourced public health.""Schools do spread this virus, but they're not a major route of spread," he added.Staines said it was appropriate for different places to employ different measures "because their economic situation is different, the spread of the virus is different." Israel, for example, faced major outbreaks linked to schools.School closures "may be part of a response for a period of time" but "with appropriate knowledge, information and understanding, closing schools is not required," he added."European countries have made a choice, I suppose, that trying to keep schools open is very important."

US school shutdowns

Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) announced Thursday it was suspending all face-to-face instruction because of the city's rapidly increasing infection rate. Classes will move entirely online, starting Friday until January 11. The DPSCD said the decision was made with the city's health department, after the infection rate neared 5% last week and has been increasing this week. If the rate improves, the district will consider reopening learning centers before January 11, it said in a statement.New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned at his Thursday briefing that the city is preparing to shut its schools if the test-positivity rate continues to increase.New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned that public schools, like this one in Kew Gardens, could be on the verge of closure.The city is currently seeing a 2.6% test-positivity rate on a seven-day average. De Blasio previously said schools would close if that figure reached 3%. The mayor said that if schools shut, "our hope would be to make it a very brief period of time," adding that despite growth in the positivity rate, there was still time to turn the number around. The School District of Philadelphia announced Tuesday all schools will remain fully virtual until further notice.The city's schools have been using digital learning since September 2 and were supposed to start the transition process to a hybrid model on November 17. Chief of Schools Evelyn Nunez told school leaders in a letter obtained by CNN that remote learning would continue for now, "to help safeguard the health and well-being of our staff, students and families."Boston public schools had begun a phased reopening, with the city's highest-need children returning from October 1. Three weeks later, just as kindergartners were due back, the city returned to remote learning."It was devastating for me to have to close the schools," Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told CNN's Jim Sciutto and Poppy Harlow at the time, citing the city's positivity rate moving from 4.4% to 5.7% in a week as the major factor.Walsh told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on The Situation Room the city felt the number was "a little on the edge there for us to continue to have in-person learning for our high-needs students. It was a really difficult decision."Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement she was "heartbroken" about closing schools. "Our families are desperate for these services for their children, many of whom are non-verbal and unable to use technology in the home," she said.Des Moines and Iowa City are also closing schools for two weeks.

European alternative

Not all leaders believe that such a step is necessary, however. France and England entered month-long second national lockdowns on October 28 and November 4 respectively. In both countries, non-essential businesses, restaurants and bars have closed, with residents only allowed to leave home for work, medical reasons, exercise or grocery shopping.One key difference from the spring lockdowns in these two countries is that they have chosen to keep schools open.Amanda Spielman, chief education inspector at UK education watchdog Ofsted, said in a report published this week that the decision to keep schools open during England's second lockdown was "very good news indeed." "The impact of school closures in the summer will be felt for some time to come — and not just in terms of education, but in all the ways they impact on the lives of young people," she said.The Ofsted report, published on Tuesday, found that some children had seriously regressed because of school closures earlier in the year and restricted movement.A ventilation system installed in a classroom in Mainz, western Germany, on November 12.It found that younsters without good support structures had in some cases lost key skills in numeracy, reading and writing. Some had even forgotten how to use a knife and fork, the report said. Some older children had lost physical fitness or were displaying signs of mental distress, with an increase in self-harm and eating disorders, while younger children had lapsed back into using diapers, it found.Some children in Europe, the US and across the world have been missing schooling during the pandemic because of a lack of access to technology — and it's hitting low-income students much harder."In places that have shut schools extensively, there is significant risk of educational interruption," Staines said, adding that "children from poorer and more deprived backgrounds lose more and take a lot longer to recover from what they've lost."He said school also "provides an extensive childminding service," allowing families to participate in the economy. A fall in referrals to social services also raised alarm in the UK that abuse may be going undetected. German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged this risk on October 28 when she announced a partial national lockdown to fight rising infections in the country, saying restaurants and bars would close and people should minimize contacts for four weeks from November 4.Merkel said schools and kindergarten would stay open, with strict hygiene measures, not only as "an educational mission," but because spring had shown "what dramatic social consequences it has when children cannot go to school or the daycare center.""This has a direct impact upon families. To say it clearly: Violent assaults against women and children have increased dramatically," the German leader said.The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported in August that children accounted for fewer than 5% of coronavirus cases in the European Union and UK. It said closures were unlikely to provide significant extra protection for children's health.While they may present a small risk to grandparents, Staines said, "the major risk to grandparents is the older adults in the house."Many European schools have introduced measures like ventilation, mask-wearing and holding classes outside or in small, distanced groups."Both Europe and the United States have made a mess of managing Covid," added Staines. "Lockdowns are not for controlling infections in populations, lockdowns buy you time to bring in public health measures. They buy you time to do contact tracing," he said."Make schools safe by making the rest of society safe. So as the rate of infection falls in the community, the risk of schools falls."

Nadine Schmidt, Maria Fleet, Amy Cassidy, Elizabeth Stuart, Annie Grayer, Evan Simko-Bednarski, Sheena Jones, Jennifer Henderson, Gregory Lemos, Barbara Wojazer, Lindsay Isaac and Claudia Otto contributed reporting.

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Italy extends ‘red zones’ as number of Covid-19 cases hits new record

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Restrictions aimed at slowing a surge in coronavirus cases will be extended in various Italian regions, with both Tuscany and Campania set to be designated as high-risk "red zones", the health ministry said on Friday.

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Italy registered a record 40,902 new coronavirus infections over the previous 24 hours, bringing the total since the disease came to light in February to 1.107 million – a threefold increase in barely a month.

Looking to limit the spread, the government last week created a three-tier system, with varying degrees of curbs in each area, initially placing four regions in a red zone, two in an orange zone and the rest in a moderate-risk yellow zone.

It tweaked the zoning at the start of this week and revised it again on Friday after reviewing the latest data, including local infection rates and hospital occupancy.

Tuscany and Campania will be added on Sunday to the red list, joining the wealthy northern regions of Lombardy, Piedmont and Valle D'Aosta, the province of Bolzano and Calabria in the toe of Italy.

People living in these areas are only allowed to leave their homes for work, health reasons or emergencies. Bars, restaurants and most shops must remain closed.

Nine regions in orange zone

Nine regions will now sit in the intermediary orange zone – Emilia-Romagna, Friuli, Marche, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Liguria, Puglia, Sicily and Umbria. Just five remain in the yellow zone, including Lazio, centred on Rome, and Veneto.

Campania has jumped straight from the yellow to red zone after medics warned that the health system there was close to collapse, with huge queues building outside hospitals and some patients put on oxygen in their cars as they awaited admission.

But even in the north, officials have warned that hospitals are struggling to cope as the number of coronavirus sufferers climbs ever higher and staff battle exhaustion.

"We had just four cases here in Lombardy in August. Now we have more than 800 (intensive care) beds occupied by COVID-positive patients," said Enrico Storti, director of the intensive care unit in a hospital in the northern town of Lodi.

"We now know what to do, we are now for sure better prepared compared with the first wave … but we are also tired and it is not easy to find the same energy, to find the same strength that we were able to use in the first hit," he told Reuters.

(REUTERS)

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Nagorno-Karabach villagers burn down their houses before Azerbaijan handover

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Villagers in Nagorno-Karabakh set their houses on fire Saturday before fleeing to Armenia ahead of a weekend deadline that will see parts of the territory handed over to Azerbaijan as part of a peace agreement.

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Residents of the Kalbajar district in Azerbaijan that was controlled by Armenian separatists for decades began a mass exodus this week after it was announced Azerbaijan would regain control on Sunday.

Fighting between the separatists backed by Armenian troops and the Azerbaijan army erupted in late September and raged for six weeks, leaving more than 1,400 dead and forcing thousands to flee their homes.

In the village of Charektar, on the border with the neighbouring district of Martakert which is to remain under Armenian control, at least six houses were on fire Saturday morning with thick plumes of gray smoke rising over the valley, an AFP journalist saw.

"This is my house, I can't leave it to the Turks," as Azerbaijanis are often called by Armenians, said one resident as he threw burning wooden planks and rags soaked in gasoline into a completely empty house.

"Everybody is going to burn down their house today… We were given until midnight to leave," he said.

Fresh ceasefire agreement

On Friday at least 10 houses were burned in and around Charektar.

The ex-Soviet rivals agreed to end hostilities earlier this week after previous efforts by Russia, France and the United States to get a ceasefire fell through.

A key part of the peace deal includes Armenia's return of Kalbajar, as well as the Aghdam district by November 20 and the Lachin district by December 1, which have been held by Armenians since a devastating war in the 1990s.

Russian peacekeepers began deploying to Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday as part of the terms of the accord and took control of a key transport artery connecting Armenia to the disputed province.

Russian military officials said the mission consisting of nearly 2,000 troops would put in place 16 observation posts in mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor.

(AFP)

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Austria goes into national lockdown Tuesday as Covid-19 cases rise

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Austria will introduce a national lockdown on Tuesday in a bid to bring its soaring coronavirus infections under control, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Saturday.

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Non-essential shops will close and the current curfew from 8pm to 6am will be expanded into an all-day requirement to stay at home, with specific exceptions such as shopping for essentials or exercise, Kurz said. People should work from home wherever possible, he added.

The lockdown is due to last almost three weeks, with the last day set for December 6.

The Austrian government had so far used a lighter touch in dealing with the second wave of coronavirus cases than the first.

A nighttime curfew this month failed to stop infections from accelerating. Daily new cases hit a record of 9,586 on Friday, nine times higher than at the first wave's peak.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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France records sharp rise in Covid-19 deaths as Europe tightens restrictions

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The number of confirmed new Covid-19 cases and deaths in France rose sharply in the last 24 hours, according to French health ministry data published Saturday as a number of European countries announced new restrictions to stem a deadly second wave.

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France registered 32,095 new Covid-19 cases over the previous 24 hours to reach a total of 1,954,599. Deaths in hospitals in France from Covid-19 rose by 359 over the previous 24 hours to reach a total of 44,246 so far, according to French health ministry figures.

The rise in infections and deaths in France came as a swathe of new restrictions were announced or came into force in a number of European countries.

Schools closing in Austria and Greece

Austria on Saturday announced schools and non-essential shops would close from Tuesday, just two weeks after a partial lockdown was imposed.

"There are still many who say that infections don't happen at school, in shops or services," Chancellor Sebastien Kurtz told a news conference.

"But the truth is the authorities can no longer trace 77 percent of new infections, which means they no longer know where contamination is happening."

Greece, battling a saturated national health system, announced it would shut all schools after imposing a nationwide night curfew from Friday.

"Closing elementary schools was the last thing we wanted to do. This is a measure of how serious the situation is," Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias said. Secondary schools had already been shuttered.

In Italy, the regions of Tuscany and Campania — of which Florence and Naples are the respective capitals — plunged into "red zones" of tough restrictions, which now cover 26 million of the 60 million population.

"There is no other way if we want to reduce the numbers of dead," Health Minister Roberto Speranza said, as the country's death toll rose by 544 to 44,683, one of Europe's worst.

New anti-virus curbs also came into force in Ukraine on Saturday, with all non-essential businesses ordered closed for the weekend.

'Don't kill the economy'

There were protests in several Germans cities against enforced mask-wearing, with police saying they used water cannon to disperse nearly 1,000 people in Frankfurt.

France's Riviera resort of Nice saw 1,500 take to the streets to demand a more coherent set of restrictions to fight the disease.

Hundreds of demonstrators also turned out in Portugal, defying a weekend curfew imposed on seven out of every 10 of the population of 10 million.

The curfew bans driving on public roads after 1 pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

"The pandemic is on and we have to be protected, but without killing the economy," said 33-year-old Carla Torres, who works in Lisbon's hospitality industry.

Poland became the latest country to report record figures with 548 coronavirus deaths over 24 hours, just days after the government decided against introducing a nationwide quarantine.

EU body expects favourable opinion on vaccines

Lifting the gloom, the European Medicines Agency added to growing hopes that an effective vaccine could be available soon.

The EU body said it expected to give a favourable opinion on a vaccine by the end of the year if test results proved positive. That would allow distribution from January.

But if the hurdles of testing and distribution are overcome, another challenge awaits: will people take a vaccine?

"My fear is that not enough French people will get vaccinated," French Prime Minister Jean Castex told Le Monde newspaper.

French restaurant and bar owners announced legal action against government measures which closed them from the end of October.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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Marie Antoinette’s silk shoe goes on the block in Versailles

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A silk shoe that belonged to Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France who was executed during the French Revolution, will go up for auction on Sunday with a starting price of €10,000 ($11,800).

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The sale takes place in the Palace of Versailles, where the queen – who has gone down in history as a symbol of the excesses of the French monarchy – and King Louis XVI held court before they were guillotined in 1793.

The shoe bears her name on its heel and Jean-Pierre Osenat, of the auction house that is conducting the sale, said she is thought to have worn it regularly during daily life at the palace.

During the French Revolution, the shoe ended up in the possession of Marie-Emilie Leschevin, a close friend of the queen's head chambermaid, and whose husband was later killed by the guillotine.

Her family held on to it for generations before it came to auction 227 years after her death.

"This auction is coming at a time when French people are facing real uncertainties regarding their values, and many of them are clinging onto the history of France," said Osenat. "Marie Antoinette is someone who arouses the interest of the whole world."

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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WHO dashboard documents record daily Covid-19 cases

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The World Health Organization's coronavirus dashboard on Sunday showed a record daily number of new Covid-19 cases over the weekend as France registered 27,228 new cases and a further 302 deaths over the past 24 hours, according to health ministry data.

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The WHO's figures for Saturday showed that 660,905 coronavirus cases were reported to the UN health agency, setting a new high watermark.

That number, and the 645,410 registered on Friday, surpassed the previous daily record high of 614,013 recorded on November 7.

Within Saturday's new case numbers, the WHO's Americas region registered a one-day record high of 269,225 new confirmed cases.

Within each week, the pattern of cases being reported to the WHO tends to peak towards Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and dip around Tuesday and Wednesday.

According to the WHO's figures, there have been more than 53.7 million confirmed cases of the disease in total since the start of the pandemic, while over 1.3 million people have lost their lives.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Friday that there was "a long way to go" in getting the virus under control globally.

France sees slight fall in new case rate

France meanwhile registered 27,228 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 and a further 302 deaths from the disease in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Sunday, although there were signs of a fall in the rate of new cases.

France has now recorded 1,981,827 confirmed COVID-19 cases in all, while 44,548 people have died from the virus – the seventh-highest death toll in the world.

Nevertheless, the data marked a slight decrease compared with the previous day's Covid-19 figures in terms of new confirmed cases and deaths.

France is in the middle of its second, national lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, following its March-May shutdown.

President Emmanuel Macron's government has set a December 1 deadline for this lockdown, although the government has said it could extend it beyond that if it feels the numbers are not falling fast enough.

The government is coming under pressure from shops and businesses to loosen restrictions in time for the Christmas shopping period.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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VkusVill: Russian retail chain criticised for removing LGBT family from ad campaign

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A Russian retail chain has been criticised for removing and apologising for an advert that featured a lesbian family.

VkusVill, an organic grocers chain, initially ran the ad on Wednesday as part of a series spotlighting their regular customers.

The image of a lesbian family was displayed on the company’s website under the company’s slogan “Recipes for family happiness”.

But on Sunday, after their site was targeted with a series of hate messages, the ad was removed and VkusVill posted an apology.

A new advert prominently featured photographs of heterosexual couples and seemed to blame a small group of its staff for the original choice of photos.

“There was an article in this place that hurt the feelings of a large number of both our customers and employees,” a statement read.

“We regret that it happened, and we consider this publication a mistake that became a manifestation of the unprofessionalism of individual employees.”

“Our company’s goal is to enable our customers to receive fresh and delicious products daily, not to publish articles that reflect any political or social views. By no means we wanted to become a source of discord and hatred.”

The statement and apology were signed by VkusVill’s founder and several other senior executives.

But the decision to replace the original advert has been strongly condemned online by LGBT+ campaigners and other users.

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