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The push to save the celebration comes despite the fact that other religious festivals — including Christian ones — have been marked in a muted fashion in recent months.

The UK government on Tuesday unveiled plans to temporarily relax coronavirus restrictions for five days, from December 23 to 27, allowing up to three households to celebrate together in “Christmas bubbles.” This means small groups of family and friends will be able meet in person for what may be the first time in months.

England is currently under its second national lockdown and the UK as a whole has recorded more than 1.5 million Covid-19 cases.

“This year, Christmas will be different,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “Many of us are longing to spend time with family and friends, irrespective of our faith or background, and yet we cannot throw caution to the wind. The virus doesn’t know that it’s Christmas.”

The previous day, Johnson cautioned that while the festive period may be “the season to be jolly … it is also the season to be jolly careful, especially with elderly relatives.”

Rules relaxed for Christmas

The message that stricter autumn rules could lead to a more relaxed Christmas period has been repeated across Europe.

In France, a second national lockdown was imposed at the end of October, but despite non-essential businesses across the country being closed, the government has permitted the sale of Christmas trees, by decree.

A slowdown in the spread of the virus means France’s lockdown will begin to ease this weekend, President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday. The restrictions could be lifted further on December 15, if the daily number of cases drops under 5,000 and there are only 2,000-3,000 in hospital ICUs.

“We will therefore once again be able to travel without authorization, including between regions, and spend Christmas with our family,” Macron said.

In a speech earlier this autumn, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Italians could enjoy Christmas if they abided by the country’s Covid-19 restrictions. But since then, officials have struck a more cautious note.

Sandra Zampa, an undersecretary at Italy’s Ministry of Health, said on November 11 that the government wanted to avoid large Christmas parties. Instead, she said gatherings would likely be limited to close relatives such as parents, children and siblings. “I don’t think we can go any further,” Zampa said in a local television interview.

The Irish government is set to ease restrictions for nearly two weeks around the Christmas period and is considering allowing up to three households to gather for the holidays, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told state broadcaster RTE on Wednesday.

And in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel asked the public to obey social distancing restrictions in October, in order to preserve the country’s Christmas celebrations.

“We must do everything to ensure that the virus does not spread in an uncontrolled way. Every day now counts,” she said on October 17. “How the winter will be, how our Christmas will be, that will be decided in the coming days and weeks.”

German MPs are currently considering a draft proposal which would allow up to 10 people to celebrate Christmas and New Year together, CNN affiliate n-tv reported.

Celebrations shifted online

Christmas occupies a unique and outsize place in the religious calendar. But since the epidemic began, Passover, Easter, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Rosh Hashanah and Diwali have all been celebrated across Europe.

Muslims wearing protective masks perform Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Mevlana mosque in Berlin on May 24.

All were marked quietly, without government debate. None attracted the fervor inspired by the prospect of a pandemic Christmas.

Anjana Singh, 48, runs Amikal, a Hindu community group in Berlin. Singh organized an all-day virtual Diwali celebration to replace the more traditional festivities this November.

“Usually we have a lot of spectators, 500 to 1,000, this is how usually we celebrate Diwali,” she told CNN. “In February it was evident that corona was here. So Amikal decided, let’s do it online.”

“Christmas could also easily be celebrated online,” she added. “Through the digital platform we all can be together, yet we can be safe.”

The exterior of the Tate Britain art gallery in London is lit up by neon lights to mark Diwali on November 14.

The sense that some festivals are prioritized over others also exists in Britain. Many Muslims in northern England were caught off guard in July when the government restricted people’s movements in some areas, just hours before Eid al-Adha prayers were due to begin.

“I think it was right to go into lockdown during the Eid period,” said Nadir Mohamed, the executive director of the Centre for Muslim Policy Research, a think tank based in London.

“I think it wasn’t so much that people disagreed with the lockdown itself, it was … a very last hours sort of thing,” he said. “There was no effective, or timely communication [about the restrictions.]”

Secular and spiritual event

Elizabeth Oldfield, the director of Theos, a Christian think tank, told CNN that Christmas’ importance now extends beyond religion, making it a national and secular event as well as a spiritual one.

“Christmas is less the crux of the [Christian] theological year compared to Easter,” Oldfield told CNN.

This year, she pointed out, “Christians weren’t able to mark Good Friday or celebrate Easter Sunday, which for the majority of Christians is really important.”

She added: “This ‘saving Christmas’ is almost entirely a cultural, civic Christian [idea.] This is not about religion at all, it’s about national identity, civic identity.”

Oldfield also said governments know that a large number of people celebrate Christmas in Europe, compared to other religious days. In the UK alone, a 2018 survey by polling company YouGov found that nine out of 10 people celebrated Christmas with gifts.

“Sometimes I feel there are two festivals at the same time,” Oldfield said. “There’s the secular, pagan and consumer-led festival which brings its own joys and then there’s the actual Christian festival.”

The Christmas markets still going ahead in 2020

Mohamed said: “Christmas is an occasion that isn’t seen in the UK as a purely Christian thing. We’re way past those days, everyone gets involved in the festivities one way or another.”

Regardless of government efforts, some hallmarks of a European Christmas have already been canceled due to Covid-19.

In Belgium, all Christmas markets have been canceled, as has the market in the German city of Cologne. The Viennese Christmas Dream market in Austria, the Strasbourg Christmas Market in France and the Basel Christmas Market in Switzerland are all going ahead, however.

On November 10, Estonia announced that all events in the country, including Christmas parties, would be canceled, though the government added that: “Celebrating Christmas with family is, of course, allowed.”

Restrictions set to return

In Britain, government medical adviser Susan Hopkins has said that if people mix during the Christmas break, everyone will need to reduce their contacts again following the holiday.

“Coming into Christmas, we’ll need to be very careful about the number of contacts that we have and to reduce transmission before Christmas and get the cases as low as possible,” Hopkins said on November 18.

But other experts believe people should not risk gathering for the holidays at all.

“We have not made nine months of sacrifices to throw it all away at Christmas,” Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol, tweeted on November 19.

Epidemiologist Shikta Das agrees with Scally.

“The pandemic is going to stay here. The government is doing its [best] but these decisions won’t help. We will go into lockdown after Christmas and the R rate will go up,” Das told CNN.

“If you have a very ill person in your family, it’s probably better not to meet. Probably not a very good idea,” she added.

If Europe does choose to celebrate Christmas with a softening of lockdowns, there may be a price to pay in the new year.

Canada has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in the three weeks since its citizens celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving in October. Its largest city, Toronto, went back into lockdown earlier this week.

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said the country was a cautionary tale for the holiday season.

“The question is, have you got the disease under enough control to start with, and can you, in a sense, allow people a little bit more freedom over … the Christmas period, which generates a sense of confidence and a sense of joy in the community, which people need right now — without letting the virus let rip again within our communities. And this is a very important tradeoff,” Ryan said at a news briefing on Monday.

Oldfield points out that it is natural for people to want to gather together to celebrate.

“Sometimes this saving Christmas [idea] feels bonkers, because you don’t want more deaths in return for your pigs-in-blankets,” she told CNN. “But at the same time there’s a very deep theological [concept] about thriving through human connection. This is really [happening] because we just want to be together.”

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)


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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers

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Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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