Wednesday, February 1

Thursday briefing: Fears Russia may use chemical weapons


Top story: Moscow ‘setting stage for false flag’

Hello, Warren Murray with enough to get you started.

Western officials have warned of “serious concern” that Vladimir Putin could use chemical weapons on Kyiv as Russian propagandists spread what the US has called “false claims about alleged US biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine”. “We should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them,” wrote the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki. Experts have pointed to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, where Russia is involved. The Kremlin has produced no evidence to support its weapons lab claims, which were called “preposterous” by Psaki and have been dismissed by Ukraine’s government.

Zelenskiy accuses Russia of genocide in hospital bombing – video
Zelenskiy accuses Russia of genocide in hospital bombing – video

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has called a Russian strike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol “the ultimate evidence of genocide”. Zelenskiy said children were buried under rubble and the regional governor said 17 people were wounded when the hospital was destroyed by a Russian airstrike on Wednesday afternoon. We have made a series of slider images from satellite photos to show how Mariupol has been hit. The UK is gearing up to send state-of-the-art Starstreak anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine, as well as Javelin anti-tank missiles, and will continue to supply NLAW anti-tank weapons, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, has said.

In the last few hours, the US has moved to drastically bolster support to war-ravaged Ukraine with a $13.6bn aid package. The House of Representatives voted to rush through the package that would increase military and humanitarian support. Senate approval is expected within days. It includes $6.5bn for the US costs of sending troops and weapons to eastern Europe and equipping allied forces there, and $6.8bn to care for refugees and provide economic support to allies. The House also passed a bill banning Russian oil imports. Make sure to keep up with further developments at our live blog.


Chancellor’s spring dilemma – Rishi Sunak is facing intense pressure from Conservatives to take action in this month’s spring statement to alleviate the cost of living crisis, which has been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sunak’s February package of a £200 energy bill cut, to be paid back over five years, and a £150 council tax rebate have been criticised as too meagre to cushion the blow significantly for many households. Anti-poverty campaigners and thinktanks are calling on the chancellor to uprate benefits by more than the planned 3.1%, and many backbench Tories would love him to ditch the 1.25 percentage point increase in national insurance contributions, proceeds of which are earmarked to fix health and social care. Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee, has called on ministers to follow Ireland’s approach of cutting fuel duty.


Bad drainage doomed train – A drainage system wrongly built by Carillion and unchecked by Network Rail led to the Stonehaven train crash. Three people died on 12 August 2020 in the worst fatal event on the UK railways in 18 years, when a Scotrail passenger train from Aberdeen to Glasgow derailed at Carmont, near Stonehaven, after hitting debris washed by heavy rain on to the track. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch also noted the outdated “crashworthiness” of the 1970s-built HST model involved. The train drivers’ union Aslef called for moves to immediately start to take the HST train type out of service. A separate report on the crash is due in coming months from the rail regulator, ORR, in conjunction with Scottish police and British Transport police.


Covid rise in over-55s – Covid cases appear to be rising in older people as increased socialising, waning immunity and the more transmissible BA.2 Omicron variant threaten to fuel a resurgence of the virus. One in 35 people tested positive between 8 February and 1 March, with cases either level or rising in those aged 55 and over. Scientists on Imperial College’s React-1 study said the R value – the average number of people an infected person passes the virus to – remained below 1 for those aged 54 and under, meaning cases were in decline. But for those aged 55 and over, R stood at 1.04. Latest government figures show that as of this Tuesday there were 11,639 confirmed UK Covid-19 patients in hospital.


Shrewsbury report delayed again – Families have voiced frustration after publication of the final report into the Shrewsbury and Telford maternity scandal was delayed for a second time. The Ockenden review investigated 1,862 maternity cases at the NHS trust in which mothers and babies may have been harmed over almost 20 years. It was delayed from December 2021 until this month, but this week families were told publication had been delayed again due to “parliamentary processes” that need to take place. Rhiannon Davies, whose daughter Kate Stanton-Davies died under the care of the trust shortly after she was born in 2009, said: “We’ve had this date ahead of us, everyone’s lives are on hold and we’re holding our breath to finally get this report.” A new date for the report’s delivery has yet to be confirmed.


‘Anti-feminist’ wins – South Korea has a new president: the conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, who narrowly defeated the ruling party’s Lee Jae-myung with 48.6% of the vote to 47.8%. As an avowed “anti-feminist” he has pledged to abolish the ministry for gender equality, claiming South Korean women do not suffer systemic discrimination – despite voluminous evidence to the contrary.

Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s incoming president
Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s incoming president. Photograph: Getty Images

Yoon will be sworn in as president on 10 May, taking over from Moon Jae-in. South Korean presidents get a single five-year term.

Today in Focus podcast: Could Nato be doing more?

Nato has refused to intervene militarily in the Ukraine war. Dan Sabbagh explains what more the world’s most powerful military alliance could do – and why full intervention is off the table for now.

Today in Focus

Could Nato be doing more?

Lunchtime read: Hack your happy hormones

Can we really harness our brain chemicals to give ourselves a blast of positivity? Researchers share their shortcuts to boosting oxytocin, serotonin and more.

Happy cartoon characters
Illustration: Adam Higton/The Guardian

Sport

Karim Benzema scored a 17-minute hat-trick in an epic comeback as Real Madrid overturned a 2-0 aggregate deficit to dump PSG out of the Champions League, while Manchester City made it through to the quarter-finals after a 0-0 second-leg draw with Sporting gave them a 5-0 aggregate win. England began life on the road without Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad on a stop-start second day of the first Test against West Indies.

Novak Djokovic cannot enter the US while he remains unvaccinated from Covid-19 and will not be allowed to compete at the Indian Wells and Miami ATP Masters 1000 tournaments this month. The sacked Formula One driver Nikita Mazepin has been included on a list of people who face sanctions from the European Union over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. England’s netball captain, Serena Guthrie, has announced her retirement from the sport after revealing she is pregnant with her first child. And Eddie Jones will hold a crucial training session on Thursday morning before finalising his England team to face Ireland with Kyle Sinckler understood to be among the players hampered by injury or illness this week.

Business

Asian markets have surged after oil prices dropped, easing fears of accelerating inflation. Wall Street’s S&P 500 index rose 2.6% for its biggest daily gain in 12 years as prices swung wildly amid uncertainty about the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine. This morning the FTSE is pegged to open higher, going by futures trading. The pound is worth $1.317 and €1.190 at time of writing.

The papers

The Guardian print edition’s splash today is “‘An atrocity’: Russia bombs Ukraine children’s hospital” about which there is opprobrium everywhere. “Barbaric” says the Mirror which uses the same picture as the Guardian of a pregnant woman being stretchered out of the ruins. The Metro has “A new low for Putin – Russians hit baby hospital”.

Guardian front page, 10 March 2022

The Times underpins the same picture with “Aiming at mothers and babies” while the Daily Mail accompanies it with “Depraved” while the Express deplores “The ultimate in depravity”. The Financial Times says “Zelenskiy accuses Russians of hospital ‘atrocity’ in plea for world’s assistance”.

“Evil upon evil” – the Sun shows a bloody-faced woman leaving the scene wrapped in a quilt. The same patient is shown on the front of the i picking her way down a mangled stairwell – that paper says “Putin bombs children’s hospital”. The Telegraph uses pictures of both the aforementioned victims while headlining its front-page lead “Russia ‘plotting chemical attack’”.

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