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Dominic Cummings: Ex-PM advisor says UK COVID-19 strategy was ‘out of control’

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Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, said that the UK prime minister considered COVID-19 to be a “scare story” and that the government’s strategy had failed the British public.

Johnson said key people in government and in No 10 were skiing in the middle of February 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, Cummings said: “The government and No 10 was not operating on a war footing in February. Lots of people were literally skiing,” he said.

Cummings is giving evidence to the committee about the British government’s response to COVID-19.

He told the committee that the COVID-19 response was a case of “lions led by donkeys” and that senior officials including Johnson, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and himself had failed the public.

Over the past few weeks, he has made explosive claims about the government and Johnson’s own response to the pandemic, including claims that Johnson said that he was willing to let “bodies pile up in the streets” rather than take the UK into a third lockdown.

‘A scare story’

Asked on a number of occasions about that quote, which Johnson has denied, Cummings did not elaborate on it.

But Cummings did say that Johnson saw COVID-19 as “a scare story” in February 2020 and compared it to swine flu.

He also said that the controversial idea of herd immunity – letting people get sick with COVID-19 to enable natural immunity build-up in society – was very much part of the government’s strategy in March 2020 because Johnson believed the British public would never accept a lockdown.

When Hancock said on March 15, 2020: “We have a plan. Herd Immunity is not part of it” he was lying, Cummings said.

“I am baffled as to why No. 10 is trying to deny it,” Cummings told the committee.

‘We’re completely f**ked’

He said that he had repeatedly called for Hancock to be fired for lying to the British public and to officials in meetings, as well as for procurement during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cummings also said that officials in No. 10 realised as late as mid-March that there was no strategy for dealing with COVID-19.

“There is no plan. We’re in big trouble. We’re going to kill thousands of people. I think we are absolutely f**ked,” a senior official said.

He described the strategy in Whitehall as “an out of control movie”.

‘Nuclear Dom’

Cummings is referred to in the UK media as ‘Nuclear Dom’ due to his outspoken and controversial pronouncements. He outlined much of what he planned to say in a 42-tweet tirade posted between May 17 and May 22.

Cummings was the former director of the Vote Leave campaign which led the campaign to take the UK out of the European Union. When Johnson became prime minister, he joined him in Number 10 as an advisor but was sacked by Johnson in November 2020.

His own actions during the pandemic have seen him make headlines, including when it emerged that he had broken the government’s lockdown rules to go on a drive to a castle in northeast England. In a widely ridiculed press conference he later said he did so to test his eyesight.

 

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Mark Rutte’s party gains most seats in Dutch general election

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Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s political party won the most seats in the Dutch parliament, according to a preliminary forecast by ANP news agency based on a count of 88.5% of the votes.

“I note that the result of this election is that Dutch voters gave my party an overwhelming vote of confidence,” Rutte said as exit polls were released.

Voting stopped on Wednesday after being spread out over three days due to the pandemic. The general election came a few months after the government’s resignation over a child welfare benefits scandal.

Yet caretaker PM Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party looks likely to win 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, increasing their current number of seats by two, according to the preliminary forecast.

This means Rutte will likely form his fourth coalition government and become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. He has already been in office for over a decade.

The liberal party Democrats 66 (D66) came in second in ANP’s forecast with 24 seats, an increase of five seats compared to 2017.

The Party for Freedom, a right-wing nationalist party, was set to win 17 seats, which would be three seats fewer than they won four years ago.

The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) was expected to gain 15 seats compared to their previous 19 seats in parliament in 2017.

The GroenLinks (GL) and Socialist Party (SP) both looked likely to reduce their seats, winning nine seats compared to 14 for both parties in the last election. The Labour Party (PvdA) was also set to win nine seats, according to the forecast.

The forecast also suggested that the right-wing Eurosceptic party Forum for Democracy (FvD) will increase their seats from two in 2017 to eight.

The Party for the Animals which stands for animal welfare looked likely to win six seats.

There were also several parties that won seats for the first time, including the pro-European Volt Party which was likely to win three seats, according to the forecast.

Turnout was at 82.6 per cent, according to exit polls.

Forming a government could take weeks as Rutte’s party needs to build a coalition. The Prime Minister has said coalition talks would likely start with the D66 party and the CDA.

Rutte’s government resigned in January ahead of the general election over a welfare benefits scandal. It had emerged that the tax authorities wrongly accused 26,000 families of fraud and demanded the repayment of thousands of euros between 2013 and 2019.

The government also faced large protests over COVID-19 restrictions; Rutte has nonetheless been viewed as a steady and modest leader.

 

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Dutch election: Will voters plump for change during a pandemic?

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The fallout from a political scandal, an ongoing global pandemic, an economic downturn, simmering civil unrest: any one of these challenges would make for a fraught election campaign.

But in the run-up to this week’s national election (COVID-19 has seen voting spread out over three days, from March 15-17), political parties in the Netherlands were confronted with the reality of all four happening at once.

Unease at scandals and ongoing social issues aside, the Dutch electorate appears to be keenly aware of the need for stability during a time of crisis that is gripping the whole world, not least the Netherlands.

Some, though, are concerned with the country’s direction and are railing against what they see as regressive measures to combat the spread of coronavirus.

In short, while the result is broadly expected to be an endorsement of continuity, some are seeing Wednesday’s pandemic poll as a bellwether election for other major elections across Europe later this year.

EMA speaks on safety of AstraZeneca vaccine

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Europe’s medicines regulator is to give an update into its investigation on whether there is a link between the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and serious blood clotting issues after multiple countries suspended its use.

Emer Cooke, Executive Director at the European Medicines Agency (EMA), is to deliver remarks at 14:00 CET. The press briefing will be played live in the video player above.

In a statement released on Monday, the EMA said it retains the view that “the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing COVID-19, with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death, outweigh the risks of side effects.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also issued the same opinion on Monday with its chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, affirming that the rates at which blood clots have developed in people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine “are in fact less than what you would expect in the general population.

Over a dozen European countries have temporarily suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Austrian authorities were the first to issue such an order on March 7, suspending the use of a batch of the jab after a vaccinated woman died as a result of multiple thromboses — formation of blood clots within blood vessels. Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia also suspended the use of the same batch.

Last week, authorities in Denmark, Norway and Iceland suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine as a precautionary measure.

They were followed on Sunday and Monday by Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Slovenia.

Authorities in the UK, where more than 11 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab have been administered, continued to urge people to get the vaccine on Monday, underlining that “the number of blood clots reported after the vaccine is not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population.”

 

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https://www.euronews.com/2021/03/16/astrazeneca-vaccine-european-watchdog-to-give-briefing-on-safety-concerns

 

Pilots, civilians given life terms over Turkey’s 2016 coup

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A Turkish court sentenced several military and civilian personnel at an air base to life prison sentences Thursday, proclaiming them guilty of involvement in a failed coup attempt in 2016, the state-run news agency reported.

A total of 475 defendants, including generals and fighter jet pilots at the Akinci air base, on the outskirts of the capital Ankara, were on trial for the past three years, accused of directing the coup and bombing key government buildings, including a section of the parliament building.

The massive trial was one of two main trials against suspected members of a network led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating the failed attempt.

Gulen, who was also named among the defendants, has denied involvement in the coup that resulted in around 220 deaths and injured thousands. About 30 coup-plotters were also killed.

The court convicted four men — civilians accused of being the go-between Gulen’s movement and some military officers — of crimes against the state, attempts to kill the president and murder, and sentenced them to 79 separate life sentences, the Anadolu Agency reported.

At least 21 defendants — pilots and commanders — were also given life sentences, Anadolu reported. Sentences for other defendants were still being read out.

The court ruled for Gulen, an alleged top operative in his movement, and four other defendants still wanted by the Turkish authorities to be tried separately over the charges.

Prosecutors accused the coup-plotters of using Akinci air base as their headquarters. Turkey’s then military chief, Gen. Hulusi Akar, who is the current defense minister, and other commanders were held captive for several hours at the base on the night of the coup.

The prosecutors charged the defendants with attempts against the state and the constitutional order, an attempt to assassinate the president, leading a terrorist organization and murder, among other charges.

The trial, which opened on Aug. 1, 2017, was part of a post-coup crackdown that has imprisoned around 77,000 people and seen another 130,000 fired from their government jobs.

On the opening day, dozens of the defendants were paraded into the courthouse handcuffed, with two paramilitary police officers on each arm, as some protesters threw stones and shouted “Murderers!”

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Culled mink resurface after burial in Denmark

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The mink are buried in trenches that are 2.5 meters (8.25 feet) deep and 3 meters (10 feet) wide. A first layer of about 1 meter of dead mink are then covered with chalk before another layer of animals is laid, covered again with chalk and then with dirt, Elmegaard told The Associated Press.

But because the soil where they are buried is sandy, some have re-emerged. “We assume it is the mink that were in the upper layer that pop up,” he added calling it “a natural process.”

“Had the earth been more clayish, then it would have been heavier and the mink would not have resurfaced,” he told the AP. The animals who resurface are reburied elsewhere, and authorities guard the site to keep away foxes and birds.

Denmark culled thousands of mink in the northern part of the country after 11 people were sickened by a mutated version of the coronavirus that had been observed among the animals.

Earlier this month, the Social Democratic minority government got a majority in parliament to back its decision to cull all of Denmark’s roughly 15 million mink, including healthy ones outside the northern part of the country where infections have been found. The proposed law also bans mink farming until the end of 2021.

The government had announced the cull despite not having the right to order the killing of healthy animals, an embarrassing misstep that caused it to scramble to build political consensus for a new law.

The coronavirus evolves constantly as it replicates but, to date, none of the identified mutations has changed anything about COVID-19’s transmissibility or lethality.

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EU is willing to be “creative” to get a Brexit trade deal

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EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said “genuine progress” had been made on several issues “with an outline of a final text,” little more than a month before Britain’s transition period as a former EU member runs out.

And she said that on the divisive issues of fisheries, governance of any deal and the standards the U.K. must meet to export into the EU, the bloc is “ready to be creative, but we are not ready to put into question the integrity of the single market, the main safeguard for European prosperity and wealth.”

In the EU single market, goods and services can freely flow from one of the 27 member states to another without barriers like customs or checks, and it is seen as a cornerstone of the EU. With Britain deciding to walk out, von der Leyen insisted it should feel the cold.

“One thing is clear. Whatever the outcome, there has to be and there will be a clear difference between being a full member of the union and being just a valued partner,” she told legislators at the European Parliament. Britain however is seeking to maintain many of the advantages of membership while insisting on full sovereignty within its borders and its fishing waters.

The EU legislators will have to approve any deal and many scoffed at the extended negotiations past a slew of deadlines which ever more reduces its powers to seriously vet the deal ahead of the Jan. 1 cutoff date.

“We cannot just simply agree to anything that comes up in the last minute. This parliament needs time for scrutiny and for debating any possible agreement,” said Greens leader Ska Keller.

“We will look very closely if this is an agreement that is of mutual benefit, that safeguards social and environmental standards, and that does not endanger the peace in Northern Ireland. And we will not hesitate to defend those rights and standards.”

There are widespread fears in the EU that Britain will slash those standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep.

Britain has long said the EU is making unreasonable demands and is failing to treat it as an independent, sovereign state, especially when it comes to the control of its fishing waters. It insisted EU negotiator Michel Barnier was sticking far too long to negotiating lines which would make any compromise impossible.

It made von der Leyen’s concession to be “creative” all the more significant. It even applied to fisheries. For a long time, demands were that EU trawlers would be allowed to continue to roam British waters like before, as if Brexit had never happened.

On Wednesday, von der Leyen sounded more conciliatory. “No one questions the U.K. sovereignty in its own waters, but we ask for predictability and guarantees for our fishermen and fisherwomen who have been sailing in these waters for decades, if not centuries.”

Negotiators from both sides are still talking remotely after an EU official tested positive for COVID-19, forcing Barnier into quarantine. He might be free to travel and negotiate face-to-face again as of Thursday, and observers expect a breakthrough once that happens.

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Scotland becomes first country to make tampons and pads available for free

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Scotland has become the first country to allow free and universal access to menstrual products, including tampons and pads, in public facilities, a landmark victory for the global movement against period poverty.

The Scottish Parliament voted unanimously in favor of the Period Products bill on Tuesday, months after lawmakers had initially signaled their support.
It means period products will be available to access in public buildings including schools and universities across Scotland. According to the new rules, it will be up to local authorities and education providers to ensure the products are available free of charge.
“The campaign has been backed by a wide coalition, including trades unions, women’s organisations and charities,” Monica Lennon, the lawmaker who introduced the bill last year, said ahead of the vote. “Scotland will not be the last country to make period poverty history.”
After the vote, Lennon said the decision was “a signal to the world that free universal access to period products can be achieved.”
The bill’s accompanying financial memorandum estimates it could cost around £8.7 million a year by 2022, depending on the number of women who will take advantage of the free products. In a document supporting the legislation, Lennon said it was reasonable to expect 20% uptake of the scheme given the fact that official inequality statistics show that nearly 20% of women in Scotland live in relative poverty.
The new law was praised by a number of equality and women’s rights groups as well as politicians from across the parties represented in the Scottish Parliament.
“Proud to vote for this groundbreaking legislation, making Scotland the first country in the world to provide free period products for all who need them. An important policy for women and girls,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on her official Twitter page after the vote.
One in 10 girls in the United Kingdom have been unable to afford period products, according to a 2017 survey from Plan International UK. The survey also found that nearly half of all girls aged 14 to 21 are embarrassed by their periods, while about half had missed an entire day of school because of them.
Scotland’s move follows a string of recent attempts to tackle period poverty in the country.
In 2018, the government announced that students in schools, colleges and universities across the countries would be able to access sanitary products for free, through a £5.2 million investment. In 2019, it allocated another £4 million to make period products available for free in libraries and recreational centers.

Europe pushes to rescue Christmas despite sacrifice of other religions

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2020 has been far from festive, but as the year comes to an end, many of Europe‘s governments are scrambling to avoid stringent lockdowns over the Christmas holidays.

The push to save the celebration comes despite the fact that other religious festivals — including Christian ones — have been marked in a muted fashion in recent months.
The UK government on Tuesday unveiled plans to temporarily relax coronavirus restrictions for five days, from December 23 to 27, allowing up to three households to celebrate together in “Christmas bubbles.” This means small groups of family and friends will be able meet in person for what may be the first time in months.
England is currently under its second national lockdown and the UK as a whole has recorded more than 1.5 million Covid-19 cases.
“This year, Christmas will be different,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “Many of us are longing to spend time with family and friends, irrespective of our faith or background, and yet we cannot throw caution to the wind. The virus doesn’t know that it’s Christmas.”
The previous day, Johnson cautioned that while the festive period may be “the season to be jolly … it is also the season to be jolly careful, especially with elderly relatives.”

Rules relaxed for Christmas

The message that stricter autumn rules could lead to a more relaxed Christmas period has been repeated across Europe.
In France, a second national lockdown was imposed at the end of October, but despite non-essential businesses across the country being closed, the government has permitted the sale of Christmas trees, by decree.
A slowdown in the spread of the virus means France’s lockdown will begin to ease this weekend, President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday. The restrictions could be lifted further on December 15, if the daily number of cases drops under 5,000 and there are only 2,000-3,000 in hospital ICUs.
“We will therefore once again be able to travel without authorization, including between regions, and spend Christmas with our family,” Macron said.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte urged people to abide by the country’s Covid-19 restrictions in order to enjoy Christmas, in a speech earlier this autumn. but Italy has since struck a more cautious note.
Sandra Zampa, an undersecretary at Italy’s Ministry of Health, said on November 11 that the government wanted to avoid large Christmas parties. Instead, she said gatherings would likely be limited to close relatives such as parents, children and siblings. “I don’t think we can go any further,” Zampa said in a local television interview.
The Irish government is set to ease restrictions for nearly two weeks around the Christmas period and is considering allowing up to three households to gather for the holidays, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told state broadcaster RTE on Wednesday.
And in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel asked the public to obey social distancing restrictions in October, in order to preserve the country’s Christmas celebrations.
“We must do everything to ensure that the virus does not spread in an uncontrolled way. Every day now counts,” she said on October 17. “How the winter will be, how our Christmas will be, that will be decided in the coming days and weeks.”
German MPs are currently considering a draft proposal which would allow up to 10 people to celebrate Christmas and New Year together, CNN affiliate n-tv reported.

Celebrations shifted online

Christmas occupies a unique and outsize place in the religious calendar. But since the epidemic began, Passover, Easter, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Rosh Hashanah and Diwali have all been celebrated across Europe.
All were marked quietly, without government debate. None attracted the fervor inspired by the prospect of a pandemic Christmas.
Anjana Singh, 48, runs Amikal, a Hindu community group in Berlin. Singh organized an all-day virtual Diwali celebration to replace the more traditional festivities this November.
“Usually we have a lot of spectators, 500 to 1,000, this is how usually we celebrate Diwali,” she told CNN. “In February it was evident that corona was here. So Amikal decided, let’s do it online.”
“Christmas could also easily be celebrated online,” she added. “Through the digital platform we all can be together, yet we can be safe.”
The sense that some festivals are prioritized over others also exists in Britain. Many Muslims in northern England were caught off guard in July when the government restricted people’s movements in some areas, just hours before Eid al-Adha prayers were due to begin.
“I think it was right to go into lockdown during the Eid period,” said Nadir Mohamed, the executive director of the Centre for Muslim Policy Research, a think tank based in London.
“I think it wasn’t so much that people disagreed with the lockdown itself, it was … a very last hours sort of thing,” he said. “There was no effective, or timely communication [about the restrictions.]”

Secular and spiritual event

Elizabeth Oldfield, the director of Theos, a Christian think tank, told CNN that Christmas’ importance now extends beyond religion, making it a national and secular event as well as a spiritual one.
“Christmas is less the crux of the [Christian] theological year compared to Easter,” Oldfield told CNN.
This year, she pointed out, “Christians weren’t able to mark Good Friday or celebrate Easter Sunday, which for the majority of Christians is really important.”
She added: “This ‘saving Christmas’ is almost entirely a cultural, civic Christian [idea.] This is not about religion at all, it’s about national identity, civic identity.”
Oldfield also said governments know that a large number of people celebrate Christmas in Europe, compared to other religious days. In the UK alone, a 2018 survey by polling company YouGov found that nine out of 10 people celebrated Christmas with gifts.
“Sometimes I feel there are two festivals at the same time,” Oldfield said. “There’s the secular, pagan and consumer-led festival which brings its own joys and then there’s the actual Christian festival.”
Mohamed said: “Christmas is an occasion that isn’t seen in the UK as a purely Christian thing. We’re way past those days, everyone gets involved in the festivities one way or another.”
Regardless of government efforts, some hallmarks of a European Christmas have already been canceled due to Covid-19.
In Belgium, all Christmas markets have been canceled, as has the market in the German city of Cologne. The Viennese Christmas Dream market in Austria, the Strasbourg Christmas Market in France and the Basel Christmas Market in Switzerland are all going ahead, however.
On November 10, Estonia announced that all events in the country, including Christmas parties, would be canceled, though the government added that: “Celebrating Christmas with family is, of course, allowed.”

Restrictions set to return

In Britain, government medical adviser Susan Hopkins has said that if people mix during the Christmas break, everyone will need to reduce their contacts again following the holiday.
“Coming into Christmas, we’ll need to be very careful about the number of contacts that we have and to reduce transmission before Christmas and get the cases as low as possible,” Hopkins said on November 18.
But other experts believe people should not risk gathering for the holidays at all.
“We have not made nine months of sacrifices to throw it all away at Christmas,” Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol, tweeted on November 19.
Epidemiologist Shikta Das agrees with Scally.
“The pandemic is going to stay here. The government is doing its [best] but these decisions won’t help. We will go into lockdown after Christmas and the R rate will go up,” Das told CNN.
“If you have a very ill person in your family, it’s probably better not to meet. Probably not a very good idea,” she added.
If Europe does choose to celebrate Christmas with a softening of lockdowns, there may be a price to pay in the new year.
Canada has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in the three weeks since its citizens celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving in October. Its largest city, Toronto, went back into lockdown earlier this week.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said the country was a cautionary tale for the holiday season.
“The question is, have you got the disease under enough control to start with, and can you, in a sense, allow people a little bit more freedom over … the Christmas period, which generates a sense of confidence and a sense of joy in the community, which people need right now — without letting the virus let rip again within our communities. And this is a very important tradeoff,” Ryan said at a news briefing on Monday.
Oldfield points out that it is natural for people to want to gather together to celebrate.
“Sometimes this saving Christmas [idea] feels bonkers, because you don’t want more deaths in return for your pigs-in-blankets,” she told CNN. “But at the same time there’s a very deep theological [concept] about thriving through human connection. This is really [happening] because we just want to be together.”

EU threatens to pull out of Brexit talks if UK refuses to compromise

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The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has warned David Frost that without a major negotiating shift by Downing Street within the next 48 hours he will pull out of the Brexit negotiations in London this weekend, pushing the talks into a fresh crisis.

In talks via videoconference on Tuesday, Barnier told his British counterpart that further negotiations would be pointless if the UK was not willing to compromise on the outstanding issues.

Should Barnier effectively walk out on the negotiations it would present the most dangerous moment yet for the troubled talks, with just 36 days to go before the end of the transition period.

While Brussels might hope such a move would put the UK prime minister under pressure to give Frost new negotiating instructions, it might also embolden those within the Tory party who believe no deal is the better outcome.

During a speech in the European parliament on Wednesday, the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU was willing to be “creative” to get a deal with the UK but admitted an agreement was in the balance with “very little time ahead of us”.

Physical talks are on hold after a member of the EU negotiating team tested positive for coronavirus, but Barnier is expected to leave quarantine on Thursday evening. He is due to head to London on Friday for a last-ditch push for an agreement once he receives a negative coronavirus test.

“These are decisive days for negotiations with the United Kingdom,” Von der Leyen told MEPs. “But, frankly, I cannot tell you today if in the end, there will be a deal.”

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