Top story: Pandemic fears mount that virus ‘could get out of control’
Morning everyone. I’m Martin Farrer and these are the top stories this Friday.
Fears that the coronavirus outbreak will be officially declared a global pandemic have grown after the first case was confirmed in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria’s health ministry said the case was found in Lagos, one of Africa’s biggest cities, with a population of 20 million people. Africa has recorded only two cases up to now, one in Algeria and one in Egypt. The spread of contagion to countries with poor public health systems has alarmed the World Health Organization, which said it could “get out of control”. The news was also greeted by financial markets as another sign that attempts to contain the virus have failed. Shares in Asia Pacific were hammered for the fifth day running and world stock markets are on course for their worst week since the depths of the global financial crisis in 2008.
In the UK, schools and offices could shut for months if a pandemic takes hold, according to the chief medical officer, while government and NHS documents show England only has 15 specialist beds for severe respiratory cases. The risk of large public gatherings is also threatening sporting events. Two leading cyclists, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish, are among riders who will be tested for the coronavirus after the UAE Tour was cancelled when two participants contracted Covid-19. But Uefa has insisted that the European Football Championship will kick off in Rome as planned in June. In South Korea, members of a sect at the centre of the biggest outbreak outside China say they feel scapegoated for the spread of the disease. “We’re being treated like criminals,” says one worshipper in Seoul.
Out of credit – Universal credit has led to an increase in mental health problems among people claiming it, according to the first major study to quantify the impact of the controversial benefit system. The study published in The Lancet says the roll-out of the system has led to a 6.6% increase in psychological distress among claimants, or around 63,674 people. The report suggests more than 21,000 may have become clinically depressed. Stress factors included a five-week wait for a first payment, leading to claimant debt, rent arrears and the removal of benefits. Professor Dame Margaret Whitehead, co-author of the report, called on the government to reform the system.
Labour clashes – Labour leadership rivals Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy have clashed over Brexit and antisemitism in a televised hustings event. In a veiled assault on Starmer’s record as shadow Brexit secretary, Nandy called the party’s policy for a second referendum an “absolute disaster”. She also said the party had suffered a “collective failure of leadership” at the top over antisemitism. Starmer dismissed her claims as “nonsense” and said he spoke out on the issue.
Syria flashpoint – Dozens of Turkish troops have been killed in a bombing raid by pro-Syrian government forces in Idlib, ratcheting up tensions in the war-torn country. Turkish officials said 33 military personnel died in the airstrike on Thursday night while sources among the factions fighting in the area near the Turkey-Syria border said the deaths followed a precision strike on a two-storey building in the village of Balioun. Turkey supports rebels fighting the Syrian regime but that has pitted them against Russian forces who have fought alongside Syrian government troops in a ferocious three-month long assault on Idlib.
Home alone – Priti Patel, the home secretary, has become embroiled in another controversy about her relations with officials after it was reported that she tried to oust the Home Office communications chief. It is claimed that she asked her permanent secretary to sack Andy Tighe on Christmas Eve, but the top civil servant, Philip Rutnam, refused. Tighe has since taken retirement but Patel’s relationship with Rutnam has deteriorated amid claims of her bullying of staff.
Saved for the nation – Historic England will announce today that the lifesize dinosaurs that have captivated visitors to Crystal Palace park since the 19th century will be added to its heritage at risk register after cracks started to appear in the models. The Victorian Jurassic Park evolved from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to nurture appreciation of giant creatures such as the megalosaurus and iguanodon. But it is thought ground movement and changing water levels are causing the statues to deteriorate with some losing teeth, toes and tails.
Today in Focus podcast
Ballots went out to Labour members this week as the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as leader intensifies. The candidates – Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy – all made their pitches to a live audience at this week’s Guardian hustings in Manchester with Anushka Asthana.
Lunchtime read: ‘I was a sexual badass,’ says pop firebrand Halsey
Halsey, the chart-topping American pop firebrand, says that her outspoken commentary about the industry means that “nobody wants to be her friend”. But she is wildly popular with her audience and has opened up about her struggles with bipolar disorder (“artists need to take better care of themselves”), relationships (“I was a sexual badass”) and the industry (“Art still works!”) as she releases her third album, Manic, and prepares for a UK tour.
Mikel Arteta could not hide the pain of Arsenal’s agonising Europa League defeat to Olympiakos, which removes their most likely to route to Champions League football. Another scintillating Bruno Fernandes display swept Manchester United into the last 16 and on this showing they are serious contenders for a second crown in three years. Celtic were knocked out of the competition as two late goals gave Copenhagen a 3-1 away win and a 4-2 aggregate victory while Wolves advanced 6-3 on aggregate despite a 3-2 defeat to Espanyol, with Pedro Neto missing an open goal as Jonathan Calleri hit a hat-trick. Chelsea’s women have never won the League Cup but they have the chance to break their duck against Arsenal this weekend.
Wales are confident Liam Williams will be available for selection against England at Twickenham next week more than four months after the Lions full-back suffered an ankle injury in training during the World Cup. Ian Watmore, a former FA chief executive and senior civil servant, will succeed Colin Graves as the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board. And a female wrestler has made history by winning a state high school wrestling championship in North Carolina, while competing against boys.
The market meltdown is set to worsen again in Europe and the US today with FTSE100 futures pointing to a drop of more than 3% at the opening bell this morning and the Dow Jones in Wall Street on track to shed 2%. A range of indicators flashed serious warnings including the Vix volatility index, also known as the fear index, which spiked to its highest level since 2011. Brent crude oil – a barometer for world growth – is close to dipping below $50 a barrel. The pound is on $1.288 and €1.172.
Coronavirus occupies the front of most of the papers today. The Times and the Telegraph both agree on the lead story today – “Top sports events under threat from coronavirus’”, says the former, and “Major events in doubt as coronavirus fears grow” for the latter. The Guardian says “Coronavirus ‘may be as damaging to global economy as 2008 crisis’” while the FT has “Virus triggers worst run on markets since financial crisis”. The i says “Virus outbreak poses shutdown threat to Britain” and Mirror’s splash headline is “Virus panic”.
The Mail prefers to go with “Canada: we won’t protect Harry & Meghan” and the Express says “PM threatens EU: play ball or it’s no-deal”.
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