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Austria Lifts ‘lockdown of the Unvaccinated’ As Europe Slowly Opens Up




Austria has lifted its “lockdown of the unvaccinated”, Switzerland is gearing up for a “turbo” reopening and Germany‘s finance minister has demanded an end date for Covid curbs as more countries prepare to ease pandemic controls.

It follows the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and France, wholast week began to take steps to return to a semblance of normal life, with the Danish government declaring Covid-19 “should no longer be categorised as a socially critical disease” after 31 January.

Although infections, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, are still hitting record highs, data continues to show hospital and intensive care admissions are not surging in line with cases.

Austria‘s chancellor, Karl Nehammer, said that from next Saturday, shops and restaurants would be able to stay open until midnight and the maximum number of people able to participate in events would rise from 25 to 50.

The country this week also became the first EU member state to make vaccination legally compulsory for adults under a law making those who refuse the jab liable for fines of up to EUR3,600 from mid-March, after an introductory phase.

Nehammer’s announcement came as Austria lifted a lockdown that – while proving difficult to enforce – has in principle barred those who have not been jabbed from leaving their home except for essential reasons since 15 November.

Restrictions on movement for the unvaccinated were lifted on Monday, although they remain barred from eating in restaurants or shopping for non-essential items as part of government efforts to boost western Europe’s lowest vaccination rate.

So-called “2G” rules banning those who have not been been vaccinated or recovered from the virus from non-essential shops will end on 12 February, with restaurants and tourist attraction also open to those with just a recent negative test a week later.

New daily coronavirus infections have been rising in Austria, but pressure on hospitals has eased and the wave is expected to reach a peak on around 7 February, the public health director, Katharina Reich, said.

In Switzerland, meanwhile, experts who studied both Swiss and German infection rates said Omicron was significantly more infectious, but seemingly less severe, than the Delta variant and was “unlikely to cause record numbers of admissions to ICUs”.

The finding followed a call last week by an alliance of Swiss businesses and rightwing parties to ease curbs – including working from home rules and a Covid pass needed to enter indoor public places such as restaurants, cinemas and gyms – that the group said were “disproportionate” and causing “enormous suffering” to companies.

Amid estimates that up to 40% of Swiss companies were experiencing staff shortages due to quarantine rules, the Swiss health minister, Alain Berset, has called for remaining restrictions to be lifted from 16 February, saying he wanted a “turbo” reopening of the economy.

Germany‘s finance minister, Christian Lindner, also said the government should be laying the foundations for a smooth return to normal, arguing that even though the peak of the Omicron wave may still be several weeks away, business required a “planning horizon”.

Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control on Monday suggested that the country, which is recording record high infections numbers, had failed to hit its goal of vaccinating 80% of the population before the end of January.

As of Monday, 75.8% of Germans had received at least one vaccine dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, putting the country behind other large European countries including Italy, France and Spain. German MPS are expected to vote next month on making vaccinations mandatory.

The World Health Organization has said it is “plausible” that the Omicron variant, which seems to cause less severe symptoms in the fully vaccinated, may signal the pandemic’s transition towards a more “manageable” phase and eventual endgame, but warned the situation remains unpredictable.

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Priti Patel’s Rwanda Asylum Seeker Plan Faces First Legal Challenge





Priti Patel’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is facing its first legal challenge after a charity instructed lawyers to demand the disclosure of documents because of fears the policy is contrary to international law.

In a pre-action letter to the Home Office, which is expected to lead to a judicial review claim, the solicitors Leigh Day stated that the charity Freedom from Torture “has serious concerns about the lawfulness of the policy”.

It has requested “disclosure of information regarding the policy”, including documents outlining it, risk assessments and the memorandum of understanding signed by the UK and Rwandan governments.

Under the deal, signed off by Patel and praised by Boris Johnson as a way of saving hundreds of people from trafficking, those arriving by small boat across the Channel would be flown with a one-way ticket to Rwanda.

Britain has promised Rwanda an initial GBP120m as part of an “economic transformation and integration fund” but the UK will be paying for operational costs too. However, no details have been released by the Home Office.

The home secretary issued a rare ministerial direction to overrule concerns of civil servants about whether the scheme would deliver value for money.

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Patel has been the subject of significant judicial criticism for repeatedly failing to disclose key policy documents, including those relating to the confiscation of phones from newly arrived refugees and contentious plans to task Border Force to “push back” boats carrying refugees across the Channel.

Freedom from Torture, a London-based charity, was part of a successful challenge to stop the pushback of boats in the Channel. The government officially withdrew those plans on Sunday, just days before a judicial review of the tactic was due to be heard in the high court.

A crowdfunding appeal will be launched by the charity to help raise funds to cover the costs of the legal challenge, which it hopes will lead to the Home Office policy being withdrawn.

Sonya Sceats, the chief Executive at Freedom from Torture, said: “The outpouring of compassion for those fleeing Ukraine and Afghanistan has shown that the public wants people seeking safety to be welcomed. But instead, this government is planning to ship refugees halfway around the world to Rwanda. We shouldn’t have to resort to legal action for this government to treat refugees with basic human dignity – but here we are again.

“This cruel plan is not only deeply immoral and likely unlawful, it would also deny torture survivors and others access to vital trauma services like those provided by Freedom from Torture. Up and down the country, people are beginning to mobilise against this government’s cynical efforts to stoke fear and xenophobia against refugees. This action is one part of a wider fight by the caring public to tell the government that this heartless policy is not in our name.”

Fewer than 200 people who came to the UK without authorisation would have been sent to Rwanda last year, analysis of government figures found.

The Refugee Council said 172 people could have been sent to the east African country had a deal been in place. It estimates that this year the number is not likely to be much higher.

The figures cast doubt on Johnson’s claim that “tens of thousands” of people who have arrived in the UK without authorisation could be given a one-way ticket to Rwanda.

A Home Office spokesperson said the agreement requires Rwanda to process claims in accordance with the UN Refugee Convention, ensuring protection from inhuman and degrading treatment.

“Our new migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda fully complies with all international and national law. Whilst we expect the Partnership to be challenged in the court, we will defend any legal challenge robustly.”

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Ukraine Crisis: Putin Says Russia’s Security Proposals ‘ignored’ by the West – Live





Our central and eastern Europe correspondent, Shaun Walker, is also at the palace:

It turns out that the last time a British prime minister was in Ukraine was John Major in 1996.

Back then, just five years after Ukrainian independence, the questions on the agenda were British support for Ukraine and the clean-up of the Chernobyl site.

It’s taken 22 years for another British prime minister to arrive, and Johnson is only staying in town for a few hours.

Luke Harding

Just arrived at the Mariinski palace where Boris Johnson is holding talks with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Snow in the ornamental gardens and a district chill in the air. Weeks into this crisis the big question unclear: will #Russia invade?

February 1, 2022

Nicola Sturgeon has called on the prime minister to tackle the corrupting influence of Russian oligarchs in London’s financial industry and the Conservative party, suggesting that his inaction has directly contributed to Vladimir Putin’s sense of impunity over Ukraine.

As Boris Johnson flew to Kyiv on Tuesday – in a show of solidarity and with hopes of distracting from the continuing domestic crisis around Downing Street’s lockdown parties – Sturgeon urged him to “rebuild his government’s tattered reputation” by taking overdue action on Russian funding in the Conservative party and “Londongrad”-style influence operations in the UK.

Writing for the Guardian, Scotland’s first minister said: “We cannot be blind to the circumstances which have led to the current crisis, and that includes the situation where wealth with direct links to the Putin regime has been allowed to proliferate here in the UK with often the scantest of regard paid to its provenance or to the influence it seeks to bring to bear on our society.

“[Johnson] must recognise that both his government and his party have enabled this situation, and he must acknowledge that the most resolute action he can take is at home, to rebuild his government’s tattered reputation.”

During his brief trip to Kyiv, Boris Johnson is also doing some local sightseeing. He is holding talks shortly with Volodymr Zelenskiy at the president’s official residence, a vividly turquoise baroque palace overlooking the Dnipro River.

The architect of the Mariinski building is Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who also designed the winter palace in St Petersburg, as well as other imperial masterpieces.

After a press conference scheduled for 6.45pm local time (4.45pm GMT), Johnson and Zelenskiy are due to visit St Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv’s oldest standing church.

Dating back to the 11th century, it was built to celebrate Prince Yaroslav’s victory over tribal raiders. The prince’s tomb is on the ground floor. The cathedral’s wedding-cake bell tower – a later baroque addition – is one of the capital’s most famous sights, now dusted with snow.

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Belgian Civil Servants Given Legal Right to Disconnect From Work




Belgian civil servants will no longer need to answer emails or phone calls out of hours after the country became the latest in Europe to offer workers the right to disconnect.

The law, which comes into effect on Tuesday, means 65,000 federal officials are able to make themselves unavailable at the end of the normal working day unless there are “exceptional” reasons for not doing so.

There are also government plans to extend the right to private-sector employees despite the opposition of some business groups.

Petra De Sutter, the Belgian minister for public administration, said the law was necessary to combat a culture of people feeling they should always be available.

That perception is said to have been exacerbated by the necessity to work from home during the Covid pandemic, a situation that is likely to lead to permanent changes in people’s habits.

In a recent survey on remote working more than four out of five (84%) Belgians, of which 40% held managerial positions, said they would like to continue to work from home for two or more days a week post-pandemic.

Without the right to disconnect, said De Sutter, “the result will be stress and burnout and this is the real disease of today”.

The federal government is also examining a proposal to move to a four-day week of 38 to 40 hours for full-time staff, meaning longer working days but a three-day weekend.

Belgium has followed a trend set in Europe by Volkswagen in Germany, which decided in 2012 to ban certain employees from accessing emails after hours in order to avoid burnout.

In France, the sense that a different work-life balance needed to be struck was turned into action in 2017, when organisations with more than 50 workers were required to start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their company smartphones and laptops.

Portugal went further last year by approving legislation under which employers with more than 10 staff can be liable to fines if they text message, phone or email workers who are off the clock. Companies must help pay for expenses incurred by remote working.

However, the Portuguese parliament rejected a proposal to include a legal right to switch off work-related messages and devices outside office hours.

Last November, the European parliament backed a resolution calling on the European Commission to draft an EU-wide law that would protect workers who wished to “disconnect”.

Alex Agius Saliba, a Maltese MEP, who drove the vote, said: “We cannot abandon millions of European workers who are exhausted by the pressure to be always ‘on’ and overly long working hours.

“Now is the moment to stand by their side and give them what they deserve: the right to disconnect. This is vital for our mental and physical health. It is time to update worker’s rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age.”

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