Friday briefing: China suspends transport for 20m people

Alison Rourke
Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Top story: death toll in China hits 26, as infections rise to 830

Good morning and welcome to today’s briefing with me, Alison Rourke.

China has shut down transport in 10 cities, confining at least 20 million people as it struggles to control the outbreak of the coronavirus. As the death toll rose to 26, with 830 people infected, footage emerged online of quarantine measures being taken to control the virus, including barriers being erected in the city of Wuhan where officials are racing to build a new 1,000-bed hospital. Patients have reported being turned away from overflowing medical centres and there have also been reports of hospitals running out of diagnostic testing kits.

In Britain, 14 people have been tested for the virus, with five cleared, but nine are still waiting for their results. Public Health England has not given a breakdown of where the people were tested but Downing Street said four of the suspected cases in Scotland were believed to be Chinese nationals. Another patient is understood to have been tested at Belfast’s Royal Victoria hospital.

While the spread of the virus is dominating international news, the story is being downplayed by Chinese state media. Friday’s front page of the the Communist party’s People’s Daily, led with president Xi Jinping’s warm wishes for lunar new year’s eve, including a picture of him attending a spring festival gala at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. On CCTV, prime-time news bulletins have featured the virus as the fifth or sixth item over the past two nights.

You can follow our updates about the virus on our live blog.

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HS2’s damning report – The high-speed rail project is years behind schedule and billions of pounds over budget because of failures by the government, a National Audit Office report has found. It said the risks of HS2 were not understood and that costs could escalate beyond £100bn. The NAO said it was “impossible to estimate with certainty” how much the project would eventually cost. Boris Johnson is expected to make a decision within weeks on the future of the 250mph network, something he postponed in November in a move widely viewed as a means of avoiding a political landmine in the run-up to the election. Simon Jenkins writes that whatever the decision, HS2 no longer has anything to do with trains, let alone economics, politics or the north-south balance; it is about Johnson and what sort of leader he intends to be. And the Guardian’s transport correspondent, Gwyn Topham, looks at how the project went so wrong.

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Harry Dunn– The Home Office has described the US secretary of state’s decision to reject an extradition request for the suspect charged in connection with the death of Harry Dunn as a “denial of justice”. Anne Sacoolas, 42, was charged with causing Dunn’s death by dangerous driving. She was granted diplomatic immunity after the crash and returned to the US. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Home Office said: “We are disappointed in this decision, which appears to be a denial of justice.” The statement added that the Home office was “urgently” considering its options.

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Trump impeachment – Democratic prosecutors in Washington gave their third day of evidence against the president. Jerry Nadler told the Senate that Trump’s conduct was “not America first” but “Donald Trump first”. Impeachment, he continued, is the “constitution’s final answer to a president who mistakes himself for a king”. Adam Schiff, who has borne much of the brunt of the president’s ire over the trial, said that “right matters” and “you know that what [Trump] did was not right”, in an increasingly restless chamber as the Democrats methodically laid out their case. You can read today’s five key impeachment trial takeaways here. The Democrats will continue tomorrow and Trump’s lawyers could start their defence on Saturday.

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Tesco – The supermarket giant will remove shrink-wrapped multipacks of baked beans, soup and tuna as part of a drive to slash its use of plastic packaging. The policy will apply from March to Tesco’s label products as well as from major brands such as Heinz, Green Giant, John West and Princes. “We are removing all unnecessary and non-recyclable plastic from Tesco,” said chief executive Dave Lewis. Tesco said shoppers would not end up paying more because the packs would be replaced with permanent multi-buy deals on individual tins.

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Slow-cook space cookies – Astronauts on the international space station have baked chocolate-chip cookies for the first time. But it wasn’t a quick job: after four attempts, the right cooking time turned out to be a whopping two hours, instead of 20 minutes for Earth-baked cookies. They cooked in a small electric oven that was sent up to the space station in November. And how did they taste? No one knows. Still sealed in individual baking pouches and packed in their spaceflight container, the cookies remain frozen in a Houston-area lab after splashing down two weeks ago in a SpaceX capsule. They were the first food baked in space from raw ingredients.

The slow-cooked space cookies are yet to be tasted. Photograph: NASA/PA

Today in Focus podcast: How did Isabel dos Santos become Africa’s richest woman?

Dos Santos, the billionaire daughter of the former president of Angola, claims to be a self-made businesswoman but the Luanda Leaks, a cache of 715,000 emails, charts, contracts, audits, and accounts, help explain how she actually built her business empire. And: why are the world’s oldest trees dying?

Lunchtime read: How Pet Shop Boys became a curious national institution

Pet Shop Boys are returning to their roots, with the release of Hotspot, their third album in a trilogy that is putting “electronic purism” back in the driver’s seat, writes Alexis Petridis. The three albums (Electric in 2013 and Super in 2016) followed a succession of releases where, as Neil Tennant puts it, they variously “pretended to be a rock band” (Release), “made a zany one with everything and the kitchen sink on it” (Yes) and “went to LA and made an album about being old” (Elysium). Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe say they feel a little out of place in the current pop climate’s obsession with authenticity and ordinariness (“authenticity is a style,” notes Tennant, “and it’s always the same style”) and its lyrical penchant for what they waspishly term “narcissistic misery”. But neither man has lost their love for recording: “Making music, there is still a magic about going into a studio and finding that sort of euphoria and excitement of something new,” says Tennant. “It’s a supremely enjoyable and satisfying career, and, you know, you can’t stop doing it. I mean, if you run out of ideas, that’s when you stop.”


Roberto Firmino scored in the 84th minute as Liverpool yet again won late in the match to stay 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League table. Although Firmino grabbed all the headlines at Molineux, Sachin Nakrani argues Jordan Henderson might be Liverpool’s most important player of all. Ashleigh Barty needed to dig deep but moved safely into the Australian Open fourth round with a steely win over big-hitting youngster Elena Rybakina. Premiership Rugby tried to argue that Saracens deliberately underpaid the star England forward Maro Itoje to get round the salary cap, the report into their breaches of the cap reveals. In cricket, fast bowler Stuart Broad is eager to supply more Wanderers theatrics after his 2016 star turn – and wants another shot at Australia. Over in the States, broadcaster ESPN has been accused of fat-shaming teenager Zion Williamson during his electric debut for New Orleans Pelicans.


Households in the UK waste 4.5m tonnes of food each year, according to the government’s waste advisory body. The good news is the figure is down by the equivalent of 7% a person over the past three years, but more still needs to be done to stop the annual £14bn-worth of food waste, or around £700 for an average family with children. “This means we are starting to wake up to the reality of food waste, but we are too often turning a blind eye to what is happening in our homes,” says Marcus Gover, chief executive of the Waste and Resources Action Programme, who published the report. Potatoes are the single most wasted food.

The pound is buying €1.187 and $1.312.

The papers

Coronavirus again dominates this morning’s front pages. “Killer virus: 6 tested” is the Mirror’s headline. The Mail has “Is the killer virus here?”. The Times says there are “Growing fears over virus as tests begin in Britain” and the Telegraph has “Coronavirus warning as first UK cases feared”. The i has “Patients are tested for killer virus in Britain”. The Guardian’s headline is “Six people tested in UK for new coronavirus”. It also gives prominence to: “HS2 late and billions over budget due to Tory failures, report finds”.

The Express leads on “Brexit gets a double boost” after the US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin suggested a deal by the end of the year was an “absolute priority”. It also reports six suspected virus patients being tested in the UK.

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