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Boris Johnson rejects vaccine passports and mask mandates as U.K. faces surge of COVID-19 infections

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson watches as staff dilute a dose of the Pfizer vaccine before administering it as he visits a COVID-19 vaccination centre, in London, Oct. 22.Matt Dunham/The Associated Press

Not that long ago, Britain’s vaccination program was the envy of the world, as the U.K. raced ahead of almost every other country in immunizing its people against COVID-19.

The inoculation drive went so well that Prime Minister Boris Johnson made vaccines the cornerstone of the government’s pandemic strategy, eschewing mask requirements and vaccine passports.

But now the much-vaunted campaign has stalled – a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 16-to-29-year-olds are the most vaccine hesitant – and Britain lags behind Canada, France, Italy, Spain and several other countries in the proportion of people who have been fully vaccinated. Even the European Union as a whole – often mocked in Britain for its slow start on vaccinations – has almost caught up to the U.K.

Infections are surging in Britain now, topping 50,000 a day this week. The rolling seven-day average has increased 18 per cent. On Friday the ONS estimated that one in 55 people in England has been infected with the virus, the highest rate of infection since last January, when the pandemic peaked. Britain is recording more daily cases than France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined.

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An NHS COVID-19 vaccination health campaign advertisement in London.TOBY MELVILLE/Reuters

Mr. Johnson is coming under increasing pressure to kickstart vaccinations and reconsider the government’s resistance to mask mandates and vaccine passports. “The government has taken its foot off the brake, giving the impression that the pandemic is behind us and that life has returned to normal,” the British Medical Association said this week. “It is wilfully negligent of the Westminster government not to be taking any further action to reduce the spread of infection.”

New COVID-19 mutation of Delta variant under close watch in U.K.

One reason for the vaccination slowdown has been the government’s indecision over immunizing children. After months of debate, health officials began inoculating children 12 to 15 years old on Sept. 20, much later than Canada and many other countries – even though the government’s scientific advisory body, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, had concluded that there were only marginal benefits. That caused confusion about the shots, and as a result the take-up has been slow.

Britain has also become a victim of the early success of its vaccination drive, as immunity seems to be waning, particularly among elderly people who received their second shots last winter.

Mr. Johnson has continued to resist calls to impose new social restrictions and mandates.Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press

Several studies have shown that the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines fades after five or six months. The Zoe Covid Study, published in the British Medical Journal in August, found that the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine fell from 88 per cent to 74 per cent after six months, while the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot’s protection dropped from 77 per cent to 67 per cent. The U.K. has relied mainly on the AstraZeneca jab, which other studies have also shown loses its effectiveness faster than the Pfizer shot.

The government has launched a booster program for adults older than 50, but so far the pace of vaccinations has been sluggish. Experts say that’s partly because many people don’t have the same sense of urgency, especially since the government dropped almost all pandemic restrictions in July.

“We are at a tipping point with increased levels of infection against a backdrop of waning vaccine-induced immunity and the easing of all restrictions,” said Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick. “We must do everything to encourage those eligible to get their booster jabs and to vaccinate healthy 12-to-15-year-olds.”

On Friday the ONS estimated that one in 55 people in England has been infected with COVID-19, the highest rate of infection since last January, when the pandemic peaked.Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press

Mr. Johnson has so far resisted calls to impose new social restrictions and mandates. Instead, he’s sticking to his Plan A, which focuses on booster shots and vaccinating children. “Our plan always predicted that the cases would rise around about now, and we’re certainly seeing that in the numbers,” the Prime Minister said Friday. “We’re seeing high levels of infection, but they’re not outside the parameters of what was predicted.”

There have been some positive signs. The number of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 has been trending at about 1,000 a day, roughly a quarter of the level reached last January. Deaths have also been far lower – down from more than 1,000 a day to just over 100.

There’s growing concern about a new version of the Delta variant, called Delta Plus, which has surfaced in small but growing numbers across England.CARL RECINE/Reuters

However, health experts say both figures have been rising and they worry about the strain hospitals will come under this winter when the flu and other seasonal viruses take hold. Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned this week that daily COVID-19 cases could hit 100,000 this winter in a worst-case scenario.

There’s also concern about a new version of the Delta variant, called Delta Plus, which has surfaced in small but growing numbers across England. Scientists say it could be as much as 15 per cent more transmissible, but for now it has not been labelled a variant of concern.

The NHS Confederation, which represents National Health Service trusts, has urged the government to introduce mask requirements and vaccine certificates and to advise people to work from home. “The government should not wait for COVID infections to rocket and for NHS pressures to be sky high before the panic alarm is sounded,” said Matthew Taylor, the confederation’s chief executive.

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Turning empty offices into housing is a popular idea. Experts say it's easier said than done – CBC.ca

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Turning empty offices into housing is a popular idea. Experts say it’s easier said than done  CBC.caView Full Coverage on Google News

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Tiny wines find home in B.C.’s market, as Canadians consider reducing consumption

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VANCOUVER — Wine lovers have growing options on the shelf to enjoy their favourite beverage as producers in B.C. offer smaller container sizes.

Multiple British Columbia wineries over the last several years have begun offering their product in smaller, single-serve cans and bottles.

Along with making wine more attractive to those looking to toss some in a backpack or sip on the golf course, the petite containers leave wineries with options for a potential shift in mindset as Canadians discuss the health benefits of reducing alcohol consumption.

Vancouver-based wine consultant Kurtis Kolt said he’s watched the segment of the wine industry offering smaller bottles and cans “explode” over the last several years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when people were meeting outdoors in parks and beaches and looking for something more portable to take with them.

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“You’re not taking a hit on quality, you know? In fact, if someone is only going to be having a glass or two, you’re cracking a can and it’s completely fresh, guaranteed,” he said.

It’s also an advantage for people who want to drink less, he said.

“It’s much less of a commitment to crack open a can or a small bottle or a smaller vessel than it is to open a bottle,” he said.

“Then you have to decide how quickly you’re going to go through it or end up dumping some out if you don’t finish it.”

Last month, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction released a report funded by Health Canada saying no amount of alcohol is safe and those who consume up to two standard drinks per week face a low health risk.

That’s a significant change from the centre’s 2011 advice that said having 15 drinks per week for men and 10 drinks per week for women was low risk.

Health Canada has said it is reviewing the report.

Charlie Baessler, the managing partner at Corcelettes Estate Winery in the southern Interior, said his winery’s Santé en Cannette sparkling wine in a can was released in 2020 as a reduced alcohol, reduced sugar, low-calorie option.

“We’ve kind of gone above and beyond to attract a bit of a younger, millennial-type market segment with a fun design concept of the can and sparkling, low alcohol — all these things that have been recently a big item on the news,” he said.

Santé en Cannette is a nine per cent wine and reducing the alcohol was a way to reduce its calories, he said. The can also makes it attractive for events like a picnic or golf, is recyclable, and makes it easier for restaurants that might want to offer sparkling wine by the glass without opening an entire bottle.

At the same time, the lower alcohol content makes it an option for people who might want a glass of wine without feeling the same effect that comes from a higher alcohol content, he said.

“So the health is clearly one incentive, but I think more importantly, so was being able to enjoy a locally made product of B.C. from a boutique winery, dare I say, with a mimosa at 11 o’clock and not ruin your day,” he said.

Baessler said the winery has doubled production since the product was first released to about 30,000 cans a year, which they expect to match this year.

He said there’s naturally a market for the product but he doesn’t expect it to compete with the higher-alcohol wine.

“So this isn’t our Holy Grail. This is something that we do for fun and we’ll never compete, or never distract, from what is our core line of riper, higher-alcohol wine,” he said.

Jeff Guignard, executive director of B.C.’s Alliance of Beverage Licensees, which represents bars, pubs and private liquor stores, said the industry has seen a shift in consumers wanting options that are more convenient.

“It’s not a massive change in consumer behaviour but it is a definitely a noticeable one, which is why you see big companies responding to it,” he said.

Guignard said the latest CCSA report is creating an increased awareness and desire to become educated about responsible consumption choices, which is a good thing, but he adds it’s important for people to look at the relative risk of what they’re doing.

“If you’re eating fast food three meals a day, I don’t think having a beer or not is going to be the single most important determinant of your health,” he said.

“But from a consumer perspective, as consumer preferences change, of course beverage manufacturers respond with different packaging or different products, the same way you’ve seen in the last five years, a large number of low-alcohol or no-alcohol beverages being introduced to the market.”

While he won’t predict how much the market share could grow, Guignard said non-alcoholic beverages and low-alcoholic beverages will continue to be a significant piece of the market.

“I don’t know if it’s reached its peak or if it will grow. I just expect it to be part of the market for now on.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.

 

Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press

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Indian tycoon Adani hit by more losses, calls for probe

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NEW DELHI (AP) – Trading in shares in troubled Adani Enterprises gyrated Friday as the flagship company of India’s second-largest conglomerate tumbled 30% and then rebounded after more than a week of heavy losses that have cost it tens of billions of dollars in market value.

The debacle, which led Adani to cancel a share offering meant to raise $2.5 billion, has drawn calls for regulators to investigate after a U.S. short-selling firm, Hindenburg Research, issued a report claiming the group engages in market manipulation and other fraudulent practices. Adani denies the allegations.

Opposition lawmakers blocked Parliament proceedings for a second day Friday, chanting slogans and demanding a probe into the business dealings of coal tycoon Gautam Adani, who is said to enjoy close ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“We have no connection″ with the Adani controversy, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi told reporters outside Parliament on Friday.

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In an interview with CNN News 18, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman brushed off concerns that the losses would spook global investors and said India’s financial market was “very well regulated.”

“As a result, the investors’ confidence which existed before shall continue even now,” she said, adding that the controversy wasn’t “indicative of how well Indian financial markets are governed.”

Amit Malviya, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s information and technology chief, said in a television interview that the opposition was using Adani’s crisis to target the Modi government over a private company’s shares and their market movements. “Regulators are looking into” what happened, he said.

The market watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, has not commented. The Economic Times newspaper reported, citing unnamed SEBI sources, that it had asked stock exchanges to check for any unusual activity in Adani stocks.

Shares in Adani Enterprises fell as much as 30%, to 1,017 rupees ($12), on Friday. At the end of trading, the price had recovered to 1,531 rupees ($18.70) but was still down by 2%. The company’s share price has plunged more than 50% since Hindenburg released its report last week, when it stood at 3,436 rupees ($41). Stock in six other Adani-listed companies were down 5% to 10% on Friday.

So far there has been no indication that the company’s woes might threaten the wider financial sector in India. Its equities market is large enough to sustain the fallout at this moment, said Brian Freitas, a New Zealand-based analyst with Periscope Analytics who has researched the Adani Group.

“Adani stock forms a small part of the equities market and investor concerns right now are restricted to the company, not the whole system or market itself,” Freitas said. India’s Nifty and Sensex indexes were both higher on Friday.

It could take time for problems to surface, Shilan Shah of Capital Economics said in a report. “From the macro perspective there are few signs of contagion,” he said. “But it is too early to sound the all clear.”

The S&P Dow Jones indices said Thursday it would remove Adani Enterprises from its sustainability indices beginning Tuesday, following a “media and stakeholder analysis triggered by allegations of stock manipulation and accounting fraud.”

That might dent the Adani Group’s sustainability credentials and could affect investor sentiment, Freitas said.

Adani, who made a vast fortune mining coal and trading before expanding into construction, power generation, manufacturing and media, was Asia’s richest man and the world’s third wealthiest before the troubles began with Hindenburg’s report.

By Friday, his net worth had halved to $61 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index, where he dropped to the 21st spot worldwide.

He has said little publicly since the troubles began, though in a video address after Adani Enterprises canceled its already fully subscribed share offering he promised to repay investors. The company has said it is reviewing its fundraising plans.

Hindenburg’s report said it was betting against seven publicly listed Adani companies, judging them to have an “85% downside, purely on a fundamental basis owing to sky-high valuations.” Other issues in the report included concerns over debt, alleged use of offshore shell companies to artificially raise share prices and past investigations into fraud.

Adani’s speedy, debt-led expansion in recent years caused his net worth to shoot up nearly 2,000%. Even before last week, critics said his ascent was aided by his apparent close ties to Modi and his government. Analysts say he has been successful at aligning his priorities with those of the government by investing in key sectors, but point out that he also has major infrastructure projects in states that are ruled by opposition parties.

“The question now turns to the future of the Adani Group and how they will grow,” said Aveek Mitra, founder of Avekset Financial Advisory.

As a company heavily involved in infrastructure — from airports and ports to highways — it needs financing to grow in order to service its debt, which stands at $30 billion, out of which $9 billion is from Indian banks.

Adani may be able to sell some assets and continue its expansion, but at a much slower pace than earlier, Mitra said.

“Banks, financial institutions and investors will think five times before investing now,” he added.

Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma contributed to this report.

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