Scottish independence debate looms large as UK votes in local, regional elections

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Britain holds its first local and regional elections since Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, with Scotland the main focus due to calls for a new independence referendum that could reshape the country.

Voting begins at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) for local councils in England, regional mayors, including in London, and for the devolved legislatures in Wales and Scotland.

Polls on what has been dubbed “Super Thursday” close at 10:00 pm, with most results expected from Friday, over the weekend and into early next week.

Most attention is being paid to the vote for the Scottish Parliament as the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) wants a new independence referendum when the pandemic subsides.

The SNP’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is seeking a parliamentary majority after boosting her popularity with strong public engagement during the pandemic.

She stressed in a televised debate on Tuesday: “Getting through this crisis is my priority.”

The SNP has capitalised on widespread disillusion with the UK parliament in London to become the dominant political force in Scotland but currently forms a minority government.

In Glasgow, Lorna McClure, a 60-year-old cleaner, said she was “all for Nicola Sturgeon”.

“I think she is really good for Scotland and I want independence,” she told AFP.

But Raghav Jay, a 35-year-old MBA student said: “I think I would rather if Scotland stayed within the UK. So I’d prefer a party which is going to support that.”

The latest polls suggest the SNP will gain a slim majority for the first time since 2011, keeping it in power, although other surveys have indicated a coalition was likely.

Securing the powers from London to hold a new referendum on independence and a “yes” vote is less certain, however, with indications of a fall-off in support for going it alone.

‘Reckless, irresponsible’

Most Scots rejected Brexit, which has boosted independence sentiment, although fears of fresh economic upheaval after the pandemic are bolstering support for staying in the UK.

The SNP promises an independent Scotland would seek to rejoin the European Union but the practicalities of that are sparking concern.

“We need strength in unity and to start having new borders… would be madness,” said Alec Telfer, 64, president of the Blackface Sheep Breeders Association in Selkirk.

Scots cast two votes: one for a constituency MSP (member of the Scottish parliament) and one electing regional MSPs in a proportional representation system.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the 2014 referendum where 55 percent of Scots voted “no” closed the debate for a generation.

“This is not the time to have a reckless and I think, irresponsible, referendum,” he said Wednesday.

The SNP insists it will only hold a referendum that is legally valid, although Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond, and his newly formed Alba party, want an immediate vote.

Red Wall

Local council elections in England will test backing for Johnson’s Conservative Party after he led Britain out of the EU and through the pandemic, suffering Europe’s highest death toll but also its fastest vaccine rollout.

Johnson has recently shrugged off a scandal over costly renovations to his Downing Street flat.

The results will be watched to see whether Johnson’s party manages to hold on to gains in the 2019 general election and previous local votes after the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The main opposition Labour party, led by Keir Starmer since last year, is hoping for gains in its so-called “Red Wall” seats in northern England that it lost to the Tories in 2019.

It also wants to hang on to the northeastern port town of Hartlepool, which has had Labour MPs since the 1970s, in a UK parliamentary by-election being held at the same time.

Victory there would boost Johnson, and heap pressure on Starmer, as he tries to reposition the party after the hard-left leadership of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

In London, Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan—Britain’s most prominent Muslim politician—is predicted to win a second, four-year term in the high-profile mayoral race.

No candidate has the profile of Jihyun Park, who is standing as a councillor for the Conservatives in Bury, near Manchester, northwest England.

She arrived in Britain 13 years ago after fleeing a North Korean prison camp.

“The UK people welcomed me to this land and I finally found my freedom. I want to pay back,” she told AFP in February.


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Mum gets noise complaint letter from neighbour about children’s ‘constant screaming’

A mum was left shocked when a neighbour posted a letter complaining about her children’s “constant screaming” and “unbearable noise”.

Leona Palmer, 49, received the note headlined “noise nuisance” after a party for her triplet sons’ eighth birthday during the UKs lockdown, The Sun reports.

Ms Palmer and her husband arranged to have an outdoor bouncy castle for the celebration on April 18 at their home in Burbage, Leicestershire.

The family had organised a ‘rota system’ for relatives to visit so that they could stick to the government’s rule of six during the kids’ party.

But a typed letter later arrived from the local resident moaning about “unbearable” noise and warned it “will not be tolerated”.

During the event, a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) arrived at their home following a complaint from the neighbour, but no further action was taken.

Neighbour complains about ‘unbearable’ noise

“We had a bouncy castle on the Saturday for the boys’ eighth birthday and arranged a rota system for family to come around in the garden so that we didn’t break the rule of six,” Ms Palmer told Leicestershire Live.

“We had a PCSO attend the house after a complaint from a neighbour saying that we had 15 people in the garden.

“Obviously this did not get the desired effect as we only had six people round.”

The following Thursday, Ms Palmer received a furious letter from the neighbour which threatened to report them to authorities.

It read: “We are writing to make you aware that your children’s constant screaming and shouting is having a detrimental effect on our peaceful enjoyment of our garden and home environment.

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“On many occasions the noise can be heard clearly inside our house with all windows and doors shut. The noise is at times unbearable.

“This was a quiet neighbourhood until you moved in and we have had to endure the noise for two summers and we are no longer prepared to suffer another year.

“While we appreciate children can often get excited and might at times be noisy, but it is the constant shouting and screaming that we cannot endure any longer.”

Mum ‘shocked’ at neighbour’s complaint

Ms Palmer said she was shocked when she read the letter as she has never had any complaints since moving into the area.

“Especially after being in lockdown with children, I was shocked as we have never received a complaint since moving in three years ago,” the mother-of-three said.

“Due to COVID, the only outside space the children can go is their own garden.”

The neighbour threatened that authorities would be called if the noise continued.

The letter continues: “Would you please consider others around you and your neighbours and take measures to stop the noise, as if things do not improve we will report you to the environmental health authorities as this level of noise constitutes anti-social behaviour and will not be tolerated any longer.”

Ms Palmer’s local council, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council (HBBC), said it has not received any such complaints in 2021.

A spokesperson for the council said: “Noise from children is not abnormal noise and is to be expected from a family home.

“HBBC can investigate further if the noise is beyond what would be expected as the norm in such circumstances and would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.”

This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission

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UK sends Navy ships to Jersey as post-Brexit fishing dispute deepens

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday sent two Navy patrol vessels to Jersey over concerns that French fishermen could blockade its main port in an escalating post-Brexit row.

France warned Tuesday it was weighing its response after the UK imposed rules governing access for French fishing boats near the Channel Islands, and said it could involve the electricity supply via underwater cables.

French fishermen also plan to converge on the island’s main port St Helier on Thursday, although authorities have said they do not intend to block access.

But Johnson announced on Wednesday that he was sending two patrol vessels “as a precautionary measure”, adding that a blockade “would be completely unjustified.”

British MP Tobias Ellwood accused France of “shameful behaviour,” saying “it would be wise to dispatch” a Royal Navy vessel.

French maritime minister Annick Girardin accused Jersey, the largest Channel Island, of dragging its feet over the issuing of licences to French vessels under the terms of Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with Brussels.

Jersey, a self-governing British Crown dependency off the coast of France, has said it will require boats to submit further details before the licences can be granted, and pleaded for patience.

Johnson spoke to Jersey Chief Minister John Le Fondre on Wednesday, when the pair “stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions,” according to a statement from Downing Street.

“The Prime Minister underlined his unwavering support for Jersey,” it added.

A spokesman for Johnson’s government earlier called threats over Jersey’s electricity supply “unacceptable and disproportionate.”


The deepening row over fishing is one of several disputes that have emerged between the UK and the European Union since London left the bloc’s single market and customs union at the start of the year.

Jersey External Affairs Minister Ian Gorst told BBC Radio on Wednesday: “It would seem disproportionate to cut off electricity for the sake of needing to provide extra details so that we can refine the licences.

“I do think a solution can be found. I am optimistic that we can provide extra time to allow this evidence to be provided.”

Paris and London have increasingly clashed over fishing in recent weeks, as French fishermen say they are being prevented from operating in British waters because of difficulties in obtaining licences.

On Thursday morning, around 100 French fishing vessels will sail to Jersey port to protest over the issuing of the licences, the head of fisheries for the Normandy region, Dimitri Rogoff, told AFP.

Rogoff said however that they would not try to blockade the port and would return to France in the afternoon.

In the latest move, Britain on Friday authorised 41 French ships equipped with Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) technology—which allows ships to be located—to fish in waters off Jersey.

But this list was accompanied by new demands which France’s fisheries ministry has said were not arranged or discussed with Paris, effectively creating new zoning rules for the waters near Jersey.

UK government minister Nadhim Zahawi said the two sides need to work “constructively” on “operational challenges that we need to fix together”.

“This is an issue for the (European) Commission to work with our team,” he told Sky News.


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Marise Payne caught up in Indian COVID-19 scare at G7 as summit takes aim at China over Uyghurs

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has been caught up in a COVID-19 scare after two positive cases forced an Indian delegation into self-isolation during an international summit in London.

Ms Payne led an Australian delegation invited as a guest, alongside India, to G7 talks in London, where international leaders took aim at China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

But Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Wednesday revealed he had been exposed to possible COVID-19 cases and would not meet with fellow leaders in person.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode. That will be the case with the G7 Meeting today as well,” he tweeted.

Mr Jaishankar instead met with Ms Payne via videolink, saying the pair agreed to “further strengthen our many convergences” in the Indo-Pacific.

RELATED: Australia limits arrivals from India over escalating COVID-19 outbreak

The summit had been touted as a major resumption of in-person diplomacy more than a year since the pandemic began.

But as India grapples the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, including more than 400,000 cases on Friday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to deny claims hosting the talks was premature.

“It’s very important to try to continue as much business as you as you can as a government,” he said.

“We have a very important relationship with India, with our G7 partners. As I understand it, what’s happened is that the individuals concerned are all, they’re all isolating now.”

Mr Johnson confirmed he would meet with India’s delegation via Zoom.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said measures, including daily testing of diplomats, had been imposed to ensure the summit was safe to proceed.

“Immediately (when) we saw those tests, they were in twice into self-isolation,” he said.

“(The measures) are working very effectively to isolate any conceivable potential risk in this case.”

Ms Payne was present as in-person talks went ahead without the Indian delegation, with diplomats separated by glass panels.

The Group of Seven took aim at China over crackdowns on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and Tibet and human rights abuses of the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.

“We continue to be deeply concerned about human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang … especially the targeting of Uyghurs,” it said in a statement released shortly after the talks

“We strongly support independent and unfettered access to Xinjiang to investigate the situation on the ground.”

Beijing and Canberra have been locked in an escalating trade stoush for more than a year, seemingly prompted by Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 last April.

China has slapped a range of sanctions on Australian products, but the G7 pledged to resist Beijing’s “coercive” behaviour.

“We will work collectively to foster global economic resilience in the face of arbitrary, coercive economic policies and practices,” it said.

“We urge China to assume and fulfil obligations and responsibilities commensurate with its global economic role.”

The summit also focused on security in the Indo-Pacific, a fraught topic as China takes an increasingly assertive stance in the region.

The UK last week dispatched a massive naval fleet to the Indo-Pacific, while Australian politicians and public servants have raised the prospect of war in the region.

US President Joe Biden has also framed US-China relations as a battle “to win the 21st century”.

After her visit to Europe, Ms Payne will travel to Washington to meet representatives of the Biden administration.

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Switzerland says Moderna COVID-19 vaccine deliveries will be delayed

ZURICH (Reuters) – Moderna has warned Switzerland that its COVID-19 vaccine deliveries would be delayed, the Swiss health ministry said on Thursday, leading to February shortfalls that the country expects the U.S. company to make up in March.

The delays follow European supply issues with vaccine maker AstraZeneca, as well as Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, as demand for COVID-19 shots is sky high but supplies remain tight and production limited.

Switzerland, which has received a combined 531,600 vaccines so far from Moderna and from Pfizer and BioNTech, said it still expects first-quarter vaccine deliveries to meet their contractual requirements.

It had hoped to get 1 million doses in February, though with Moderna’s delay it could miss that target.

The Swiss Federal Health Ministry did not give a reason for the delays, referring questions to Moderna.

Moderna did not return messages seeking comment.

The delay to Moderna’s shipments was first reported by Swiss newspaper Blick, which said a planned 300,000-dose shipment due Feb. 1 would likely fall short.

Some of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, like European countries, have already received fewer Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine doses than they had planned, leading them to alter vaccination schedules.

“The next shipments from Pfizer and Moderna arrive in the first week of February,” a Swiss Federal Health Ministry spokeswoman told Reuters.

“The cantons will be informed soon so they can plan their vaccination activities.”

Switzerland, with 8.6 million people, hopes to vaccinate everyone who wants a COVID-19 shot by summer.

Swiss contract drugmaker Lonza, which manufactures ingredients for Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, said on Wednesday it may be “a couple of months” before new Swiss plants dedicated to producing the shots will be at “cruising speed”.

Moderna’s Europe-bound vaccine must make a winding journey from Lonza in Switzerland to fill-and-finish facilities in Spain, before being trucked to a Belgian logistics center, from where it is distributed to individual countries.

Reporting by John Miller; editing by Jason Neely and Hugh Lawson

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Changing of the guard: Northern Ireland status quo upended by Brexit?

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Which way do the political winds blow in Northern Ireland? The centennial of the decision to remain in the United Kingdom has been overshadowed by the infighting within the Democratic Unionist Party of the now outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster, pushed out by her own rank and file. We ask if that signals a further tack to the right for the Christian fundamentalist, pro-Brexit DUP, which opposed Theresa May’s trade deal but with Boris Johnson now finds itself with a trade border in the Irish Sea. 

Brexit’s unintended consequences include a spike in sectarian tension, with recently the worst rioting seen in years. More than two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, why is there still sectarian tension and for that matter, some of Europe’s worst poverty on both sides of the divide? 

But there is also strong evidence against a return to a state of near civil war known as The Troubles: a solid 56 percent of Northern Irish voters opted to remain in the EU. That means Unionists and Republicans found themselves on the same side. Is their cause best served by sticking with Britain, or a unification referendum with Dublin?

Produced by Charles Wente, Juliette Laurain and Léopoldine Iribarren.

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Australia likely to be added to Europe’s green light travel list

Britain’s borders will reopen for international travel in just over two weeks, with “a handful” of approved countries set to be part of Europe’s “green” travel list.

According to The Sun, sunseekers looking for a European break this month can head to Gibraltar or Malta, which are just two idyllic locations set to be included on the green list for quarantine-free travel after May 17 – due to be announced this Friday.

A handful of countries will be given coveted green status in a new travel traffic light system based on jab rollout and COVID rates – meaning Brits can visit with just two tests on their return.

Outside of Europe, Australia, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand and Malta are all likely to be on the green travel list, but holiday favourites Spain and Greece will have to likely wait until a review in June, sources say.

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They are likely to be on the “amber” list meaning people can visit but they will have to quarantine for 10 days when they return to the UK.

But insiders think most top destinations including France will be given the green travel go-ahead by the school summer holidays in July.

One of the UK’s top doctor’s, Jonathan Van Tam, will present country data to ministers on Tuesday local time as they meet to approve the first tranche of green and amber countries.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is due to unveil the full list on Friday – with travel industry bosses braced for a flurry of bookings this weekend.

Earlier this week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his medical advisers were “confident” the current coronavirus case data means they can push ahead for the May 17 unlocking milestone that will see a slow return to travel for leisure.

Travel destinations will be ranked green, amber or red according to virus risk, Downing Street said in a statement late Saturday, with the government to provide more details on Monday. International travel is currently banned except for a handful of permitted reasons.

“We are doing everything we can to enable the reopening of our country … as safely as possible,” Mr Johnson said.

The government said the new system “will help ensure the UK’s vaccine progress isn’t jeopardised and provide clear guidance for travellers”.

The British government will implement the traffic light system of risk that will see the world carved up into green, amber or red zones based on vaccine rollout and case rates, as well as new variants found.

Insiders warn only a “handful” of countries will be approved for low-risk green quarantine-free travel in the first round.

Other countries rumoured to be on the green list based on their vaccination success include the US.

While green zones mean quarantine-free travel, people heading to those countries will need to take one pre-departure coronavirus test up to 72 hours before returning to the UK (type unspecified).

Entry by travellers from “red list” countries will continue to be outlawed, with anyone coming through those countries forced to quarantine at their own expense in a government-approved hotel when they arrive.

They will be required to take a COVID-19 test on day eight after their return.

There are approximately 40 countries on the red list released by the UK government, including India, which logged 400,000 new coronavirus cases in a single day on Friday, local time, is on the red list.

This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission

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Nameberry reveals Australia’s most searched baby names for 2021

While names like Charlotte, Oliver and Noah topped birth registries in Australia last year it seems expectant parents are now thinking more outside the box.

Baby name search engine site Nameberry have released the most-searched for names in Australia, with Luna coming out on top for girls while Arlo was the number one search for boys.

Luna, which means moon in Italian, has grown in popularity since Chrissy Teigen and John Legend welcomed daughter Luna Simone in 2016.

Arlo, which comes from the Celtic word Aherlow which means “between two highlands”, has grown in popularity in the last 10 years especially in the UK and US.

RELATED: Australia’s most popular baby names for 2020

Top five searched-for Australian girls’ names

1. Luna

2. Isla

3. Aurora

4. Mia

5. Maeve

Top five searched-for Australian boys’ names

1. Arlo

2. Hugo

3. Oscar

4. Leo

5. Theodore

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In New Zealand, Aurora is the most-searched for name for girls, followed by Luna, Ivy, Hazel and Mabel.

For the boys, Arlo is also the top choice there followed by Asher, Felix, Leo and Milo.

In the US, Silas is the top search for boys while Luna remains the most popular searched name for girls.

Like Australia, in the UK both Luna and Arlo are the top-searched girls’ and boys’ names on Nameberry.

But the other names in the top five searches for girls are all different, with Luna followed by Ophelia, Elodie, Iris and Maeve, while the boys’ top five are rounded out by Oscar, Hugo, Albie and Atticus.

Here’s how the rest of the world fares:


Girls’ names

1. Luna

2. Olivia

3. Lyra

4. Helena

5. Lavinia

Boys’ names

1. Santiago

2. Ethan

3. Kai

4. Mateo

5. Rafael


Girls’ names

1. Luna

2. Maeve

3. Chloe

4. Ophelia

5. Ivy

Boys’ names

1. Arlo

2. Silas

3. Levi

4. Finn

5. Atticus


Girls’ names

1. Kailani

2. Lisann

3. Luna

4. Teagan

5. Juliann

Boys’ names

1. Jordi

2. Milo

3. Arlo

4. Ethan

5. Asher


Girls’ names

1. Aurora

2. Mila

3. Iida

4. Luna

5. Noa

Boys’ names

1. Atlas

2. Mason

3. Rufus

4. Severus

5. Ari


Girls’ names

1. Ava

2. Niamh

3. Esme

4. Penelope

5. Anouk

Boys’ names

1. Arlo

2. Ezra

3. Tobias

4. Emrys

5. Xavier


Girls’ names

1. Luna

2. Anna

3. Anastasia

4. Aurora

5. Josephine

Boys’ names

1. Hugo

2. Leo

3. Archie

4. Felix

5. Otto


Girls’ names

1. Abena

2. Kayla

3. Akosua

4. Bridget

5. Adelaide

Boys’ names

1. Jayden

2. Denzel

3. Kofi

4. Dominic

5. Samuel


Girls’ names

1. Anjali

2. Reshma

3. Kavya

4. Kiara

5. Niharika

Boys’ names

1. Aarav

2. Aryan

3. Danger

4. Sahil

5. Reyansh


Girls’ names

1. Fiadh

2. Ada

3. Caoimhe

4. Eabha

5. Zoe

Boys’ names

1. Tadhg

2. Cormac

3. Ronan

4. Eoin

5. Atticus


Girls’ names

1. Ellie

2. Maya

3. Mia

4. Ivy

5. Thea

Boys’ names

1. Eli

2. Ben

3. Arlo

4. Ethan

5. Tai


Girls’ names

1. Enola

2. Alice

3. Elena

4. Bianca

5. Giulia

Boys’ names

1. Soren

2. Elias

3. Cassius

4. Marco

5. Orion


Girls’ names

1. Luna

2. Aurora

3. Mia

4. Mina

5. Rio

Boys’ names

1. Kai

2. Lorenzo

3. Eneko

4. Ezra

5. Jiro

New Zealand

Girls’ names

1. Aurora

2. Luna

3. Ivy

4. Hazel

5. Mabel

Boys’ names

1. Arlo

2. Asher

3. Felix

4. Leo

5. Milo


Girls’ names

1. Jasmine

2. Olivia

3. Zara

4. Rebecca

5. Aisha

Boys’ names

1. Jayden

2. Denzel

3. Francis

4. Adriel

5. Bryan


Girls’ names

1. Alizeh

2. Esha

3. Zara

4. Alisha

5. Reyna

Boys’ names

1. Ludo

2. Danger

3. Qadir

4. Jhon

5. William


Girls’ names

1. Luna

2. Maeve

3. Astrid

4. Athena

5. Mae

Boys’ names

1. Azriel

2. Zachary

3. Abiah

4. Asher

5. Ethan


Girls’ names

1. Alice

2. Clara

3. Julia

4. Violet

5. Diana

Boys’ names

1. Charles

2. Dorian

3. Lucifer

4. Theodore

5. Adam


Girls’ names

1. Lilibet

2. Lilith

3. Polina

4. Anastasia

5. Elena

Boys’ names

1. Victor

2. Igor

3. Remus

4. Joey

5. Emrys

South Africa

Girls’ names

1. Pedi

2. Luna

3. Swati

4. Amara

5. Keziah

Boys’ names

1. Jayden

2. Kai

3. Leo

4. Micah

5. Zuko


Girls’ names

1. Aria

2. Ava

3. Luna

4. Maya

5. Olivia

Boys’ names

1. Santiago

2. Louis

3. Jack

4. Elias

5. Hugo


Girls’ names

1. Anastasia

2. Cora

3. Julia

4. Celia

5. Nora

Boys’ names

1. Finn

2. Silas

3. Caspian

4. Adrian

5. Atlas

United Arab Emirates

Girls’ names

1. Aria

2. Liya

3. Mariam

4. Noor

5. Zara

Boys’ names

1. Aryan

2. Silas

3. Jonah

4. Vihaan

5. Malakai

United Kingdom

Girls’ names

1. Luna

2. Ophelia

3. Elodie

4. Iris

5. Maeve

Boys’ names

1. Arlo

2. Oscar

3. Hugo

4. Albie

5. Atticus

United States

Girls’ names

1. Luna

2. Maeve

3. Aurora

4. Isla

5. Aurelia

Boys’ names

1. Silas

2. Atticus

3. Arlo

4. Theodore

5. Finn

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China Long March 5B rocket parts expect to crash on Earth in weeks

A large piece of space debris, possibly weighing several tonnes, is currently on an uncontrolled re-entry phase (that’s space speak for “out of control”), and parts of it are expected to crash down to Earth over the next few weeks.

If that isn’t worrying enough, it is impossible to predict exactly where the pieces that don’t burn up in the atmosphere might land. Given the object’s orbit, the possible landing points are anywhere in a band of latitudes “a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand”.

The debris is part of the Long March 5B rocket that recently successfully launched China’s first module for its proposed space station. The incident comes roughly a year after another similar Chinese rocket fell to Earth, landing in the Atlantic Ocean but not before it reportedly left a trail of debris in the African nation of Cote D’Ivoire.

At the time, experts noted this was one of the largest pieces of human-made debris ever to fall to Earth. We cannot say with certainty what fate awaits this latest piece of space junk.

Litter from space

Australia already holds the record in the category of “who can be hit by the biggest piece of space junk”. In 1979, the 77-tonne US space station SkyLab disintegrated over Western Australia, peppering the area around the southern coastal town of Esperance with fragments.

At the time, the event was met with excitement and a sense of lightheartedness, and many pieces were collected by space enthusiasts. Esperance Shire Council flippantly issued NASA with a fine for littering, and a US radio station later raised enough money to pay the debt.

Although there have been no recorded deaths or serious injuries from people being hit by space debris, that’s no reason to think it’s not dangerous. Just one year before SkyLab’s demise, a Soviet remote sensing (spy) satellite, Cosmos 954, plummeted into a barren region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, spreading radioactive debris over several hundred square kilometres.

With the Cold War at its height, the sensitivity of the nuclear technology on board Cosmos 954 led to an unfortunate delay in locating and cleaning up the wreckage, because of the distrust between the Soviet Union and the Canadian/US recovery effort.

The clean-up operation took months but located only a portion of the debris. Canada billed the Soviet Union more than $C6 million, having spent millions more, but was ultimately paid just half the amount.

Since the late 1970s, pieces of space debris have fallen to Earth regularly and are viewed with increasing concern. Of course, more than 70 per cent of the planet is covered by oceans, and only a minuscule fraction of the remaining 30 per cent is covered by your house. But for anyone falling foul of the extremely long odds, the consequences would be truly disastrous.

It was just a quirk of fate that Cosmos 954 did not land on Toronto or Quebec City, where the radioactive fallout would have necessitated a large-scale evacuation. In 2007, pieces of debris from a Russian satellite narrowly missed a Chilean passenger plane flying between Santiago and Auckland. As we send more objects into space, the chances of a calamitous crash-landing will only increase.

Who pays to clean up the mess, anyway?

International law sets out a compensation regime that would apply in many circumstances of damage on Earth, as well as when satellites collide in space. The 1972 Liability Convention, a UN treaty, imposes liability on “launching states” for damage caused by their space objects, which includes an absolute liability regime when they crash to Earth as debris.

In the case of the Long March 5B, this would impose potential liability on China. The treaty has only been invoked once before (for the Cosmos 954 incident) and therefore may not be regarded as a powerful disincentive. However, it is likely to come into play in the future in a more crowded space environment, and with more uncontrolled re-entries. Of course, this legal framework applies only after the damage occurs.

Other international guidelines regarding debris mitigation and long-term sustainability of space activities set out voluntary standards intended to limit the probability of collisions in space, and minimise the break-up of satellites either during or after their missions.

Some satellites can be moved into a graveyard orbit at the end of their operational life. While this works well for certain specific orbits at a relatively high altitude, it is impractical and hazardous to start moving the vast majority of satellites around between orbital planes. Most of the millions of pieces of space junk are destined either to orbit in an uncontrollable manner for many years or, if they are in low Earth orbit, to gradually descend towards the Earth, hopefully burning up in the atmosphere before contact with terra firma.

A globally co-ordinated space traffic management system will be vital to avoid collisions that would result in loss of control of satellites, leaving them to tumble helplessly in orbit or fall back to Earth.

Comprehensively tracking every satellite’s movement and functionality is even harder than it sounds, because it would inevitably require countries to be willing to share information they often currently regard as confidential matters of national security.

But, ultimately, global co-operation is essential if we are to avoid an unsustainable future for our space activities. In the meantime, don’t forget to gaze upwards every now and then – you might spot some of the most spectacular litter on the planet.

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Right-wing anti-lockdown leader wins Madrid’s snap election

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Madrid residents on Tuesday handed a resounding victory to the region’s hardline leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso who has soared in prominence for stubbornly resisting virus restrictions.

With nearly all the votes counted, the results showed a solid win for Ayuso, a rising star in the right-wing Popular Party (PP), who won almost 45 percent of the votes, handing a stinging defeat to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists.

“Today begins a new chapter in the history of Spain,” a teary-eyed Ayuso declared in her victory speech, her words echoing that of PP chief Pablo Casado who declared the result to be “a turning point for national politics”. 

With 95 percent of the votes counted, Ayuso more than doubled her party’s showing in the 2019 ballot, winning 65 of the regional parliament’s 136 seats, while the Socialists shed 13 seats to secure just 24. 

Falling shy of an absolute majority of 69 seats, the 42-year-old will be forced to seek support to rule from the far-right Vox which secured 13 seats — an option she has said “wouldn’t be the end of the world”.

With the left facing with a major defeat, Pablo Iglesias, head of the far-left Podemos, junior partner in Spain’s ruling coalition, announced he was stepping down from politics. 

“We have failed, we have been very far from putting together a sufficient majority,” he said, just seven weeks after standing down as deputy prime minister to run as his party’s candidate in a risky gamble he ultimately lost.

“When you are no longer useful, you need to know when to withdraw,” he admitted. 

Although the party secured more votes than last time, with just 10 seats it will remain a minor player in the regional parliament while its hard-left rival Mas Madrid secured 24. 

Heroine of hospitality 

At the helm of Spain’s richest region for just over 18 months, Ayuso has been one of the leading critics of Sanchez’s leftist government and its handling of the pandemic.

An outspoken hardliner, she has won widespread support for resisting government pressure to impose tighter restrictions on the local economy.

Madrid is the only major European capital that has kept bars, restaurants and theatres open since the national lockdown ended in June 2020. 

Just over 5.1 million people were eligible to vote in Tuesday’s election, which comes after a bitterly-fought and divisive campaign in a region that has been ruled by the PP for 26 years. 

From the early hours, there were long queues outside polling stations, with turnout standing at 76 percent, some 11 percentage points higher than 2019.

Although Madrid has suffered Spain’s highest numbers of infections and deaths, Ayuso consistently defied calls to shut bars and restaurants, with the hospitality sector regarding her as a heroine.

‘Beer is important’ 

Her call for a snap election caught the political establishment by surprise but was an astute move aimed at cashing in on the political capital she had clearly accrued.

With “freedom” her campaign slogan, the populist leader focused on people’s need for normality, despite the pandemic.  

“Having beers is important,” she said last month. “After a bad day, a beer cheers you up.” 

Although critics had said her lax restrictions had ultimately cost lives in a region where almost 15,000 coronavirus patients have died — one in five of Spain’s overall toll of 78,000 — her business-focused approach paid off at the polls.

“Ayuso deserves to be loved for what she’s done in keeping bars open and saving jobs,” said 63-year-old civil servant Jose Luis Cordon after casting his ballot for the PP. 

Although the left had tried to warn voters about Ayuso’s likely tie-up with Vox, their words appeared to fall on deaf ears. 

Despite the left taking a drubbing, analysts said it wouldn’t have a major impact on Spain’s ruling coalition, although it would likely exacerbate the antagonism between the PP and the government. 


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