UK Set to Formally Apply for Trans-Pacific Trade Bloc Membership 

Britain will next week formally apply to join a trans-Pacific trading bloc of 11 countries, with negotiations set to start later this year, the government has said.Since leaving the European Union, Britain has made clear its desire to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which removes most tariffs between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.”One year after our departure for the EU we are forging new partnerships that will bring enormous economic benefits for the people of Britain,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.Trade minister Liz Truss told Times Radio: “On Monday I am putting in the letter of intent” and that she expected formal negotiations will start in the spring.Reuters reported on Thursday that Britain will not publish an assessment of the economic benefits of CPTPP membership before requesting to join it – contrary to earlier promises.Previous government economic analyses of Brexit have pointed to small boosts to economic output from additional trade deals.The government said joining CPTPP would remove tariffs on food and drink and cars, while helping to boost the technology and services sectors.”Applying to be the first new country to join the CPTPP demonstrates our ambition to do business on the best terms with our friends and partners all over the world and be an enthusiastic champion of global free trade,” Johnson said. 

Thousands Flee Hong Kong for UK, Fearing China Crackdown 

Thousands of Hong Kongers have already made the sometimes painful decision to leave behind their hometown and move to Britain since Beijing imposed a strict national security law on the Chinese territory last summer. Their numbers are expected to swell to the hundreds of thousands. Some are leaving because they fear punishment for supporting the pro-democracy protests that swept the former British colony in 2019. Others say China’s encroachment on their way of life and civil liberties has become unbearable, and they want to seek a better future for their children abroad. Most say they don’t plan to ever go back. The moves are expected to accelerate now that 5 million Hong Kongers are eligible to apply for visas to Britain, allowing them to live, work and study there and eventually apply to become British citizens. Applications for the British National Overseas visa officially opened Sunday, though many have already arrived on British soil to get a head start. FILE – A British National Overseas passports (BNO) and a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China passport are pictured in Hong Kong, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.Britain’s government said some 7,000 people with British National Overseas passports — a travel document that Hong Kongers could apply for before the city was handed over to Chinese control in 1997 — have arrived since July on the previously allowed six month visa. It estimates that over 300,000 people will take up the offer of extended residency rights in the next five years. “Before the announcement of the BN(O) visa in July, we didn’t have many enquiries about U.K. immigration, maybe less than 10 a month,” said Andrew Lo, founder of Anlex Immigration Consultants in Hong Kong. “Now we receive about 10 to 15 calls a day asking about it.” Mike, a photojournalist, said he plans to apply for the visa and move to Leeds with his wife and young daughter in April. His motivation to leave Hong Kong came after the city’s political situation deteriorated following the anti-government protests and he realized that the city’s police force was not politically neutral. The police have been criticized by pro-democracy supporters for brutality and the use of excessive violence. Mike said moving to Britain was important as he believed the education system in Hong Kong will be affected by the political situation and it will be better for his daughter to study in the U.K. Mike agreed to speak on the condition that he only be identified by his first name out of fear of official retaliation. Lo said that with the new visa, the barrier to entry to move to the U.K. becomes extremely low, with no language or education qualification requirements. British National Overseas passport holders need to prove that they have enough money to support themselves for six months and prove that they are clear of tuberculosis, according to the U.K. government. Currently, Lo assists three to four families a week in their move to the U.K. About 60% of those are families with young children, while the remaining are young couples or young professionals. Cindy, a Hong Kong businesswoman and the mother of two young children, arrived in London last week. In Hong Kong she had a comfortable lifestyle. She owned several properties with her husband and the business she ran was going well. But she made up her mind to leave it all behind as she felt that the city’s freedoms and liberties were eroding and she wanted to ensure a good future for her kids. Cindy, who spoke on the condition she only be identified by her first name out of concern of official retaliation, said it was important to move quickly as she feared Beijing would soon move to halt the exodus. FILE – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes questions in parliament in London, Britain, Jan. 20, 2021 in this still image taken from a video.Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week the visa offer shows Britain is honoring its “profound ties of history” with Hong Kong, which was handed over to China on the understanding that it would retain its Western-style freedoms and much of its political autonomy not seen on mainland China. Beijing said Friday it will no longer recognize the British National Overseas passport as a travel document or form of identification, and criticized Britain’s citizenship offer as a move that “seriously infringed” on China’s sovereignty. It was unclear what effect the announcement would have because many Hong Kongers carry multiple passports. Beijing drastically hardened its stance on Hong Kong after the 2019 protests turned violent and plunged the city into a months-long crisis. Since the security law’s enactment, dozens of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and the movement’s young leaders have either been jailed or fled abroad. Because the new law broadly defined acts of subversion, secession, foreign collusion and terrorism, many in Hong Kong fear that expressing any form of political opposition — even posting messages on social media — could land them in trouble. “This is a really unique emigration wave — some people haven’t had time to actually visit the country they’re relocating to. Many have no experience of living abroad,” said Miriam Lo, who runs Excelsior UK, a relocation agency. “And because of the pandemic, they couldn’t even come over to view a home before deciding to buy.”  

Toilet Brushes, Blue Pants: Symbols of Russia’s Protests

Blue underwear and toilet brushes, snowball barrages and snow graffiti — Russia’s protest movement in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has seen demonstrators get creative.Here’s a rundown of the unusual memes and symbols from recent anti-government rallies and what they mean.- Blue underwearSince December Russian protesters have hung blue boxer shorts on street signs, posted pictures clad in just blue underwear and held them at protests to show how the country’s best-known opposition figure claims he was poisoned.Navalny, who suffered an attack with the Novichok nerve agent in August, says agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB) placed the toxin in the lining of his blue underwear.When President Vladimir Putin marked the Orthodox ritual celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ this month by dunking himself in ice-cold water wearing blue swimming trunks, Navalny’s allies joked that Putin was sporting his top opponent’s undergarments.- Toilet brushesAfter spending five months in Germany recovering from the poisoning, Navalny returned to Russia this month and was immediately detained.The 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner called for mass rallies, spurring on the protests by releasing an investigation into a lavish property on Russia’s Black Sea coast that he alleged is owned by Putin.The complex, which Navalny says cost more than $1.35 billion, allegedly features everything from an underground ice rink to a casino.But what stuck out to the Russian opposition was the reported cost of a high-end toilet brush: 700 euros ($619). Several protesters brought what appeared to be considerably cheaper versions to last weekend’s rallies.- Snow toolsAt the demonstrations in Moscow, protesters pelted riot police and even a car that reportedly belonged to the FSB with snowballs.They also wrote their demands, including “Free Navalny”, on a snow-covered wall, which a police officer was filmed immediately wiping away.But the action at times grew violent, with protesters cracking a window of the reported FSB car and the TASS news agency reporting that snowball throwers damaged the driver’s eyesight.Investigators have since opened 21 criminal cases in connection with the rallies, including probes into violence against law enforcement officials.Four people nationwide were detained for building snowmen that held signs with political slogans, including “Freedom. Truth. Russia” and “Down with the Tsar.”- Protest anthemsMany of the demonstrators expected they would face consequences for attending the rallies, which saw more than 4,000 people detained nationwide.On TikTok, the video-sharing app popular with teenagers, users shared posts preparing for the protests with a song featuring the lyrics: “I will get jailed.”With protests planned this weekend, demonstrators have kept their spirits up with up tempo tunes.One doing the rounds features another detail from Navalny’s “Putin palace” report: a room from leaked architectural blueprints of the property and called the akvadiskoteka, or aquatic disco.Protesters played the most popular rendition of the song at the rallies last weekend. And they have taken to calling others to join this weekend’s planned demonstrations by referring to them with a euphemism: aquatic disco parties. 

NATO Sources: Foreign Troops to Stay in Afghanistan Beyond May Deadline

International troops plan to stay in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline envisaged by the insurgent Taliban’s deal with the United States, four senior NATO officials said, a move that could escalate tensions with the Taliban demanding full withdrawal. “There will be no full withdrawal by allies by April-end,” one of the officials told Reuters. “Conditions have not been met,” he said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “And with the new U.S. administration, there will be tweaks in the policy, the sense of hasty withdrawal which was prevalent will be addressed and we could see a much more calculated exit strategy.” The administration of then-President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban early last year calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops by May in return for the insurgents fulfilling certain security guarantees. FILE – U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020.Trump hailed the accord — which did not include the Afghan government — as the end of two decades of war. He reduced U.S. troops to 2,500 by this month, the fewest since 2001. Plans on what will happen after April are now being considered and likely to be a top issue at a key NATO meeting in February, the NATO sources said. The positions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are becoming increasingly important after the alliance was sidelined by Trump, diplomats and experts say. Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September in Doha, but violence has remained high. “No NATO ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, but we have been clear that our presence remains conditions-based,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “Allies continue to assess the overall situation and to consult on the way forward.” She said about 10,000 troops, including Americans, are in Afghanistan. Those levels are expected to stay roughly the same until after May, but the plan beyond that is not clear, the NATO source said. FILE – NATO soldiers inspect near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 25, 2020.Kabul and some foreign governments and agencies say the Taliban has failed to meet conditions due to escalated violence and a failure to cut ties with militant groups such as Al Qaeda, which the Taliban denies. The administration of Joe Biden, who replaced Trump on Jan. 20, has launched a review of his predecessor’s peace agreement. A Pentagon spokesman said the Taliban have not met their commitments, but Washington remained committed to the process and had not decided on future troop levels. A State Department representative said Biden was committed to bringing a “responsible end to the ‘forever wars’… while also protecting Americans from terrorist and other threats.” Afghanistan’s presidential palace did not respond to a request for comment. Rising concern The Taliban have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks about the possibility that Washington might change aspects of the agreement and keep troops in the country beyond May, two Taliban sources told Reuters. “We conveyed our apprehensions, but they assured us of honoring and acting on the Doha accord. What’s going on, on the ground in Afghanistan, is showing something else. And that’s why we decided to send our delegations to take our allies into confidence,” said a Taliban leader in Doha. A Taliban delegation this week visited Iran and Russia, and the leader said they were contacting China. Although informal meetings have been taking place between negotiators in Doha, progress has stalled in recent weeks after an almost one-month break, according to negotiators and diplomats. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters the insurgents remained committed to the peace process. “No doubt that if the Doha deal is not implemented there will be consequences, and the blame will be upon that side which does not honor the deal,” he said. “Our expectations are also that NATO will think to end this war and avoid more excuses for prolonging the war in Afghanistan.” NATO and Washington will have a challenge getting the Taliban to agree to an extension beyond May. If the situation remains unclear, the Taliban may increase attacks, possibly once again on international forces, said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the British think tank ODI. The lack of a resolution “gives voice to spoilers inside the Taliban who never believed the U.S. would leave willingly, and who have pushed for a ratcheting up of attacks even after the U.S.-Taliban deal was agreed,” she said. A Feb. 17-18 meeting of NATO defense ministers will be a chance for a newly empowered NATO to determine how the process would be shaped, said one source, a senior European diplomat. “With the new administration coming in there will be a more cooperative result, NATO countries will have a say.”  

Britain Focused on Collaboration with EU after Vaccine Row, Minister Says

Britain’s focus is on “collaboration” with the European Union on vaccines, the country’s vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi told The Sunday Telegraph, after a showdown between the two sides over vaccine exports.Zahawi told the newspaper in an interview that Britain’s focus was on collaborating with the bloc and that the country had tried to help Brussels with its vaccine supply problems and would continue to do so.  The EU had on Friday attempted to restrict some exports of COVID-19 vaccines by invoking an emergency Brexit clause before reversing part of its announcement within hours.   

WHO Team Visits Wuhan Hospital That Treated Early Cases

Scientists with the World Health Organization’s team investigating the source of the coronavirus that has infected more than 102 million people worldwide and killed more than 2.2 million have visited one of the hospitals in Wuhan, China, that treated some of the first patients.Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans said on Twitter that the stories she’d heard at Jinyintan hospital were “quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.”Just back from visit at Jinyintan hospital, that specialised in infectious diseases and was designated for treatment of the first cases in Wuhan. Stories quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.— Marion Koopmans (@MarionKoopmans) A woman wearing a face mask walks past a closed souvenir shop near Berlin’s famed tourist magnet Checkpoint Charlie, Jan. 29, 2021, during the coronavirus pandemic.Travelers from several European and African nations — Brazil, Britain, Eswatini, Ireland, Lesotho, Portugal and South Africa — will not be allowed into Germany. However, German residents traveling from those countries will be granted entry, even if they test positive for the coronavirus virus.Fourteen University of Michigan students were in quarantine after being diagnosed with the British variant of the virus. One of the students was reported to have traveled to Britain over the winter break.Health officials in South Carolina said they had detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.The U.S. remained the country with the most cases at more than 26 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million, Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center said Saturday.The Pentagon on Saturday announced it would delay a plan to vaccinate the 40 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying it needed to “review force protection protocols,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said in a tweet.  No Guantanamo detainees have been vaccinated. We’re pausing the plan to move forward, as we review force protection protocols. We remain committed to our obligations to keep our troops safe.— John Kirby (@PentagonPresSec) January 30, 2021The Pentagon has said it intends to vaccinate all the personnel who work at the detention center, or about 1,500 people. At that time, the vaccine will also be offered to the prisoners, none of whom has received a vaccination yet.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that as of Saturday morning, nearly 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been distributed in the U.S. and nearly 30 million had been administered.The CDC said 24 million people had received one or more doses, and 5.3 million people had received a first dose.The total included both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.   

Activists Rally Behind French-Vietnamese Woman’s Agent Orange Lawsuit

Activists gathered Saturday in Paris to support people exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, after a French court examined the case of a French-Vietnamese woman who sued 14 companies that produced and sold the powerful defoliant dioxin used by U.S. troops.Former journalist Tran To Nga, 78, described in a book how she was exposed to Agent Orange in 1966, when she was a member of the Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong, who fought against South Vietnam and the United States.”Because of that, I lost one child due to heart defects. I have two other daughters who were born with malformations. And my grandchildren, too,” she told The Associated Press.In 2014 in France, she sued firms that produced and sold Agent Orange, including U.S. multinational companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by German giant Bayer.Tran is seeking damages for her multiple health problems, including cancer, and those of her children in legal proceedings that could be the first to provide compensation to a Vietnamese victim, according to an alliance of nongovernmental organizations backing her case.So far only military veterans from the U.S. and other countries involved in the war have won compensation. The justice system in France allows citizens to sue over events that took place abroad.Backed by the NGO alliance Collectif Vietnam Dioxine, which called for Saturday’s gathering at Trocadero Plaza, Tran’s legal action is aimed at gaining recognition for civilians harmed by Agent Orange and the damage the herbicide did to the environment.U.S. forces used Agent Orange to defoliate Vietnamese jungles and to destroy Viet Cong crops during the war.Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. military sprayed roughly 11 million gallons of the chemical agent across large swaths of southern Vietnam. Dioxin stays in the soil and in the sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.Vietnam says as many as 4 million of its citizens were exposed to the herbicide and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses from it, including the children of people who were exposed during the war.”That’s where lies the crime, the tragedy, because with Agent Orange, it doesn’t stop. It is passed on from one generation to the next,” Tran said.The court in Evry, a southern suburb of Paris, heard Tran’s case Monday.Bayer argues any legal responsibility for Tran’s claims should belong to the United States, saying in a statement that the Agent Orange was made “under the sole management of the U.S. government for exclusively military purposes.”Tran’s lawyers argued that the U.S. government had not requisitioned the chemical but secured it from the companies through a bidding process.The court’s ruling is scheduled to be given May 10.

Sources: Lithuanian President Nominates Belarus Opposition Leader for Nobel Prize

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has nominated Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya for the Nobel Peace Prize, two sources with knowledge of the matter said Saturday.Nauseda nominated the activist, who has been living in Lithuania since fleeing her homeland in the wake of a disputed August 9 presidential election, to show his support for the Belarusian democratic movement and its demand for free elections, one of the sources said.Months of mass protests erupted in Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory over Tsikhanouskaya in the poll. Thousands of protesters were rounded up and nearly all opposition political figures were driven into exile or jailed.A former teacher, Tsikhanouskaya ran for president after her husband, an opposition blogger with political ambitions, was detained ahead of the election. From her Vilnius office she has demanded that Lukashenko stand down, free jailed protesters and hold free elections.Last week she urged the European Union and the United States to be “braver and stronger” in their actions to help end Lukashenko’s rule.Nominations for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize are to close January 31 and the winner is scheduled to be announced in November. Thousands of people can make nominations for the award, including members of national parliaments, former laureates and leading academics.Last year’s winner was the U.N. World Food Program. 

Downdetector: Social Media Platform Reddit Hit by Outages in US

Social media company Reddit was experiencing problems on its website on Saturday, according to outage monitoring website
Customers reported trouble logging in and sending messages on its website. The outage affected regions such as New York, Boston and Washington in United States and Toronto in Canada, according to an outage map on Downdetector’s website. 
It was not immediately known what caused the glitches. Reddit did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Reddit has come into THE the forefront after a social media chatroom on its platform, “Wallstreetbets,” led to a so-called “Reddit rally,” which has helped attract a flood of retail cash into stocks such as GameStop Corp., burning hedge funds that had bet against the company and roiling the broader market. WallStreetBets has about 6 million members. 

US Issues Mask-Wearing Mandate

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a mask-wearing mandate late Friday to apply on all forms of public transportation, part of the U.S. effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. The order, which goes into effect Monday (at 11:59 p.m. EST, 4:59 GMT Tuesday), requires people to wear masks “while boarding, disembarking, and traveling on any conveyance into or within the United States,” and “at any transportation hub that provides transportation within the United States.”The order said: “”Requiring masks on our transportation systems will protect Americans and provide confidence that we can once again travel safely even during this pandemic.” Also Friday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed an extension to an order that was scheduled to expire Sunday concerning evictions for failure to pay rent or mortgage payments. The CDC director said in a statement, “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a historic threat to our nation’s health. Despite extensive mitigation efforts, COVID-19 continues to spread in America at a concerning pace. The pandemic has also exacerbated underlying issues of housing insecurity for many Americans. Keeping people in their homes and out of congregate settings, like shelters, is a key step in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.”As the number of COVID-19 infections continues to climb and highly contagious variants of the virus have emerged, some countries are imposing new travel restrictions. A man walks on an empty Promenade des Anglais during a nationwide curfew, from 6 p.m to 6 a.m, due to restrictions against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Nice, France, Jan. 29, 2021.France is prohibiting all travel to and from non-European Union countries.  Under the new policy beginning Sunday, travelers from EU countries seeking entry into France will have to provide evidence of a negative coronavirus test. Travelers from several European and African nations — Brazil, Britian, Eswatini, Ireland, Lesotho, Portugal, and South Africa – will not be allowed into Germany.   However, German residents traveling from those countries will be granted entry, even if they test positive for the coronavirus virus.  Fourteen University of Michigan students are in quarantine after being diagnosed with the British variant of the virus.  One of the students is reported to have traveled to Britain over the winter break. Health officials in South Carolina say they have detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.Johnson & Johnson One-dose Vaccine 66% Successful US pharmaceutical maker calls vaccine 85% effective in preventing serious illness U.S. pharmaceutical and medical device maker Johnson & Johnson says after a global trial, the COVID-19 vaccine it has developed is 66% effective in preventing infection.The one-dose vaccine, which was developed by the company’s Belgian subsidiary, Janssen, appears to be 85% effective in preventing serious illness, even against the South African variant.Of the 44,000 people who participated in the trial in the U.S., South Africa and Brazil, no one who was given the vaccine died, the company said.The U.S. has agreed to buy 100 million doses of the vaccine with an option to buy 200 million more, according to the company.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the fourth vaccine approved to fight the pandemic.Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Saturday that there are more than 102 million global COVID-19 cases.  The U.S. remains the location with the most cases at 25.9 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million.