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Grant Shapps has defended France’s position on the UK’s ‘amber plus’ travel list, saying the decision was made due to cases of the Beta coronavirus variant in the north of the country.

On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the move was made because of the “prevalence of the so-called Beta variant, in particular in the Reunion bit of France“.

Reunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, is 6,000 miles from Paris.

Airfrance plane.
French minister Clement Beaune said the UK government should use ‘common sense’ and review the matter ‘as quickly as possible’.

But the transport secretary told Kay Burley the variant is also “an issue” in northern parts of the country.

“The Beta variant, it is not just – as has been reported – on an island thousands of miles away, it was also an issue in particular in northern France. So it has been an overall concern,” Grant Shapps told Sky News.

“And look, the big concern is that we don’t allow a variant in which somehow is able to escape the vaccine programme that we have got.

“We don’t want to have got this far with vaccinations, with just getting towards 90% of all adults having been vaccinated, and then throw it all away because a variant that the vaccine perhaps couldn’t handle came in.

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“Now all the evidence on all of that has been pulled together – the latest research on how the vaccine works with the Beta variant, the scale of the Beta variant and France and the rest of it – and then these decisions will, of course, be constantly reviewed which is exactly what will happen.”

It comes after a French minister described the UK government’s decision to keep quarantine measures for travellers coming from France while removing them for all other European countries as “discriminatory” and “excessive”.

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The foreign secretary told Kay Burley more countries will soon be added to the amber and green travel lists.

Earlier this week, Mr Shapps confirmed England would allow fully vaccinated visitors from both the EU and the United States to arrive without needing to quarantine from 2 August.

But he added that tougher rules will continue to be in place for France, which, although on the amber list, still requires travellers to quarantine on their return regardless of their vaccine status.

Mr Shapps said this advice would be reviewed at “the end of next week” as part of an ongoing assessment of travel rules.

But French Europe minister Clement Beaune described the move as “incomprehensible on health grounds” and accused the UK government of making decisions “not based on science”.

“It’s excessive, and it’s frankly incomprehensible on health grounds,” Mr Beaune told French TV channel LCI.

“It’s not based on science and [it’s] discriminatory towards the French.”

Mr Beaune said the UK government should use “common sense” and review the matter “as quickly as possible”.

Pic: AP
Grant Shapps said the situation with France and other countries will be kept under review

He added that the French government are not planning to place any increased measures on British citizens “for now”.

When Mr Beaune’s comments were put to him on Sky News, Mr Shapps said he understood the disappointment but disagreed with the French minister’s claim that the UK government are not following the science with decision making.

“It is always disappointing for any country to be anything other than on our green list, I appreciate that,” the transport secretary said.

“I spoke to my opposite number Jean-Baptiste just yesterday and we agree we’ll always follow the science on these things and make sure as we can be satisfied over whichever the variants are and whatever the prevalence is that the Joint Biosecurity Centre recommendations to us are followed.”

Mr Shapps added that he is “looking forward to the whole world being more accessible”.

Currently, only people who received two vaccines in the UK can avoid quarantine when arriving from amber list countries.

The UK government said the rule change would help to reunite family and friends whose loved ones live abroad.

But this rule also does not apply to France.

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British military laser could be used to target Russian drones in Ukraine




British military laser could be used to target Russian drones in Ukraine

A new British military laser could be used in Ukraine to shoot down Russian drones, the defence secretary has suggested.

The DragonFire weapon, which is expected to be ready for deployment by 2027 at the latest, could have “huge ramifications” for Kyiv’s conflict against Russia, Grant Shapps said.

New reforms aimed at speeding up procurement mean the laser, which was originally set to be rolled out in 2032, will now be operational five years earlier than planned, according to the Ministry of Defence.

Russia-Ukraine war latest: Moscow accuses British special forces of operating in Ukraine

A target drone showing damaged caused by 'DragonFire' a British military laser weapon system
A target drone and mortar casing showing the damage done by DragonFire. Pics: PA

A mortar casing showing damage done by 'DragonFire'

But Mr Shapps said he would look to see if the pace can be increased further “in order for Ukrainians perhaps to get their hands on it”.

“I’ve come down to speed up the production of the DragonFire laser system because I think given that there’s two big conflicts on, one sea-based, one in Europe, this could have huge ramifications to have a weapon capable particularly of taking down drones,” Mr Shapps said at the Porton Down military research hub in Salisbury.

“And so what I want to do is speed up what would usually be a very lengthy development procurement process, possibly up to 10 years, based on my conversations this morning, to a much shorter timeframe to get it deployed, potentially on ships, incoming drones, and potentially on land.

“Again, incoming drones, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how that could be helpful in Ukraine for example.”

Laser-directed energy weapons (LDEWs) use an intense beam of light to cut through their target.

The MoD hopes the DragonFire system will offer a low-cost alternative to missiles in shooting down attack drones and even mortars.

It has been developed by defence firms MBDA, Leonardy and QinetiQ and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

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The 'DragonFire' laser weapon system, which could be rushed on to the frontline in Ukraine to take down Russian drones.
Pic: PA
The DragonFire laser weapon system and a metal plate showing the damage it can do. Pics: PA

A metal plate showing damaged caused by 'DragonFire', a British military laser weapon system

The new procurement model, coming into effect next week, is aimed at speeding up the process of getting cutting-edge military developments out onto the field.

“It’s designed to not wait until we have this at 99.9% perfection before it goes into the field, but get it to sort of 70% and then get it out there and then… develop it from there,” Mr Shapps said.

Mr Shapps added: “In a more dangerous world, our approach to procurement is shifting with it. We need to be more urgent, more critical and more global.”

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A dysfunctional week for the Tories and Labour amid honeytrap scandal and ‘tax dodging’ claims




A dysfunctional week for the Tories and Labour amid honeytrap scandal and 'tax dodging' claims

We may have been in Easter recess the past couple of weeks, but on both sides of the party divide, there were those who did not get a rest from politics.

MP William Wragg undoubtedly had a dysfunctional week as the man at the centre of the Westminster honeytrap scandal.

He resigned the Conservative party whip as some colleagues looked on with a mixture of bemusement and anger at Number 10’s handling of the whole sorry affair.

Meanwhile, on the Labour side, deputy leader Angela Rayner can’t seem to shake off or shut down the persistent questions about whether she paid the right amount of tax when she sold her council house nearly a decade ago.

She insists she has done nothing wrong while there are Conservatives looking to weaponise the issue in this election year – with at least one local Tory councillor and other protesters this week hounding her on a visit to Teesside, with banners dubbing her a “tax dodger”‘ in the hope it will stick.

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This week in Electoral Dysfunction, Jess, Ruth and I chew over both the substance and the politics of these difficult situations and ask whether Number 10 and Labour are making tricky issues better or worse.

When it comes to Mr Wragg, who admitted sharing MPs’ and journalists’ phone numbers with someone he met on Grindr who had “compromising things” on him, there is widespread incredulity that a sitting MP would do such a thing, overlaid with some anger over Number 10’s handling of it – with some arguing that Rishi Sunak failed to move quickly enough to take control of the story, suspend Mr Wragg and look decisive.

Instead, ministers were dispatched to defend the MP as ”courageous”, while it was Mr Wragg himself who decided to give up the Tory whip his week. He is now sitting as an independent MP.

“Madness [to send pictures and give out personal details] and yet our leadership decided to defend him,” one former cabinet minister texted this week. “If it wasn’t so stupid. It would be genuinely funny. The script of the Thick Of It. A few of us messaged centre at weekend to say WTF. His resignation was inevitable.”

Ruth agrees, and says – while she has sympathy for Mr Wragg being in this “horrible situation” – that he is “somebody in an important job who has responsibilities” to the place he works and people with whom he works.

“The idea you throw all of that out of the window for a quick shag or to exchange a pic is so wilfully irresponsible that actually I don’t think [much of] the level of understanding, or acceptance or excuse that the government made on his behalf.

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Sexting MP ‘right to quit’

“I think it’s bad judgement and I think this is another one where you look at the judgement of the prime minister and go, you know this, this doesn’t fly.”

But aside from questions about the political handling from the centre – and there are issues around safeguarding a vulnerable MP, which I talk about in the pod – there are also wider questions, again, around MPs’ security in a world where contacts count and phone numbers are currency.

“People give numbers out all the time. Having people’s phone numbers is a massive currency in Westminster,” explains Jess, who points out that MPs are using personal phones in parliament.

“The trouble is that I think people think we have parliamentary phones but it’s just my personal phone, so they don’t own it. I’m way more careful about my parliamentary computer and the iPad they gave me.

“So I imagine what will come out of this is probably that we all have to have parliamentary-issued phones that are locked down by the security services. I imagine that’s where it’s going.”

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Starmer: Rayner tax story is ‘smear’

With a sex scandal engulfing the Conservatives once more, on the other side of the political divide, Ms Rayner is struggling to put to bed questions over whether she paid the right amount of tax when she sold her council house nearly a decade ago, before she became an MP.

Ms Rayner has made it clear she took tax advice at the time and has done nothing wrong, while Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has come out to defend her and accused the Tories of trying to smear her over a story with no substance.

Neither Ruth, Jess nor I think the story is getting much cut through, largely because of the complexity of it all, but that isn’t stopping the Conservatives pursuing Ms Rayner with real ferocity.

Ruth thinks the Tories are going in hard for a number of reasons.

First, she thinks Labour “hasn’t had this level of scrutiny for a long time”, so this is an opportunity for the party machine to “try to flex its muscles”. Second, Ms Rayner has been used as “an attack dog” for the party on these issues so “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”.

Read more:
Angela Rayner’s tax affairs – a smear or a real trust problem for Labour?

Michelle Donelan: Minister’s legal fees take total cost of libel case to £34,000

She also argues that “there is a purpose to man-mark her off the pitch”, but it won’t change the public’s view of Ms Rayner: “She’ll be a Marmite politician for the whole of her career because of the strength of her character. The people who love her will love her and the people who can’t stand her will turn the TV off when she comes on.”

Jess concedes the issue is hurting Ms Rayner but thinks she will ride it out and believes there’s a risk that “if it starts to look like the Conservatives are picking on her, it has a counter effect”.

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But, in a similar way to the Beergate story that hounded Sir Keir and Ms Rayner during 2021 – they were accused, and cleared, of breaking lockdown rules in Durham – the Conservatives show little sign of letting go of Ms Rayner or her tax affairs until they have wrung every single drop out of it.

And if, in an election year, they can try to make “tax dodger” land – or at least disrupt her campaigning – Conservative campaign headquarters will chalk it up as a win.

So while the hope from Ms Rayner’s and Sir Keir’s respective offices is that the story will burn itself out, it may be that Ms Rayner, in the end, has to do more to put it properly to bed: on that, all three of us agree.

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UK’s nuclear deterrent the ‘bedrock’ in Labour plans to keep Britain safe, Sir Keir Starmer says




UK's nuclear deterrent the 'bedrock' in Labour plans to keep Britain safe, Sir Keir Starmer says

Sir Keir Starmer will announce later today that the UK’s nuclear deterrent is the “bedrock” of his plan to keep Britain safe.

If elected, the Labour leader plans for his party to prioritise defence procurement to strengthen UK security and economic growth, with an aim to direct British defence investment to British business first, with a higher bar set for any decision to buy abroad.

It comes as Sir Keir confirmed his ambition was to boost the defence budget to 2.5% of GDP, if it fits with Labour’s fiscal rules, according to an interview with the i newspaper.

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He is expected to make the announcement during a trip to a shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, to see nuclear submarines being built – the first visit of its kind by a Labour leader in more than 30 years.

Sir Keir is set to say: “The changed Labour Party I lead knows that our nation’s defence must always come first. Labour’s commitment to our nuclear deterrent is total.

“In the face of rising global threats and growing Russian aggression, the UK’s nuclear deterrent is the bedrock of Labour’s plan to keep Britain safe. It will ensure vital protection for the UK and our Nato allies in the years ahead, as well as supporting thousands of high-paying jobs across the UK.”

The Labour leader will also affirm the party’s commitment to the Aukus security pact and will pledge that the submarines should be built in Barrow “for decades to come”.

EMBARGOED TO 0001 WEDNESDAY MARCH 13 File photo dated 11/03/24 of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who has said he is "committed" to allowing a vote on legalising assisted dying in the next Parliament. The Labour leader made the pledge to campaigner Dame Esther Rantzen, whose revelation that she had joined the Dignitas assisted dying clinic in Switzerland has put the subject under the spotlight in recent months. Issue date: Wednesday March 13, 2024.
Pic: PA

During the visit, Sir Keir will speak to workers, union members and apprentices from the shipyard, alongside shadow defence secretary, John Healey, and Australian high commissioner to the UK Stephen Smith.

The party is set to campaign on its commitment to the nuclear deterrent in key communities in the nuclear supply chain, including: Plymouth Moor View, home to the Devonport shipyard; Filton and Bradley Stoke, home of Abbey Wood; and Argyll, Bute and South Lochaber, home to HMNB Clyde.

Mr Healey will add: “A strong defence industrial strategy will be hardwired into Labour’s mission 1 in government to drive economic growth across the UK. We will make it fundamental to direct defence investment first to British jobs and British industry.”

Construction of the Ambush submarine at the BAE Systems in Barrow-in Furness.
Construction of the Ambush submarine in Barrow-in Furness. File pic: PA

‘Attempted distraction’ and ‘grotesque’ visit

Reacting to Sir Keir’s shipyard visit, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps claimed the trip was an “attempted distraction” from the “scandal” surrounding Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, who is continuing to face questions over her living arrangements and tax affairs before she became an MP.

He said Sir Keir and Mr Healey, “tried twice to put Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the nation’s armed forces”.

Referring to David Lammy, he said Labour’s shadow foreign secretary “even voted repeatedly to scrap Trident”.

“They are not the party to be trusted with our nation’s defences,” he added.

“This is just another attempted distraction from the Angela Rayner scandal. If Sir Keir Starmer cannot show leadership on this issue, how can he be trusted to make decision on national security.”

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‘Is spending 2.5% of GDP on defence enough?’

The SNP, which opposes having a nuclear deterrent in the UK, also criticised the visit as “grotesque” and accused Labour of throwing “billions more down the drain”.

Read more:
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The party’s defence spokesperson Martin Docherty-Hughes said: “Westminster has already wasted billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on nuclear weapons and expensive nuclear energy.

“It is therefore grotesque that Sir Keir Starmer is prepared to throw billions more down the drain when his party claim there is no money to improve our NHS, help families with the cost of living or to properly invest in our green energy future.

“This money would be better spent on a raft of other things – not least investing in the green energy gold rush, which would ensure Scotland, with all its renewable energy potential, could be a green energy powerhouse of the 21st century.”

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