Four years into the Covid pandemic, the virus continues to evolve rapidly, affecting the UK population and healthcare system. Approximately 1.2 million people in England and Scotland are now estimated to have Covid; the latest significant strain is the JN1 variant of Omicron. Despite lower peaks than in previous years, the virus still causes multiple waves, exacerbated by reduced vaccination scope and emerging variants. Hospitalisations have declined, with fewer than 5,000 weekly admissions in England since early 2023, thanks to vaccine effectiveness. The anti-vax movement has influenced public perception, but vaccines have significantly reduced Covid mortality. Long Covid remains a concern, affecting almost two million people in the UK and adding financial strain to healthcare services. Excess deaths in 2023 were still above the five-year average, indicating ongoing challenges for the NHS, including treatment backlogs. The pandemic has underscored health inequalities and the importance of comprehensive public health strategies. Future measures include seasonal vaccines and improved indoor air quality to combat evolving variants.
Dozens of farmers were arrested on 31 January after breaking into the huge Rungis wholesale food market south of Paris, during their ongoing protests. Emmanuel Macron’s government had warned farmers not to approach the market, which feeds twelve million people a day. But that failed to take into account the level of anger over what farmers view as unacceptably low pay, stifling red tape, unworkable European policies, and unfair competition from foreign rivals. 91 farmers managed to enter the Rungis site and were arrested for ‘damaging goods’, though they claim they caused no harm. While progress was reported in discussions with new prime minister Gabriel Attal, the protests reflect the deep-seated grievances of farmers against policies they view as detrimental to their livelihoods. At present 4,500 tractors are blocking eighty spots along major roads.
On 31 January, Russia and Ukraine conducted a prisoner exchange. Russia claimed that each side received 195 soldiers, but Volodymyr Zelensky said that 207 Ukrainian soldiers had been returned. This was the 50th exchange since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the first such swap since the recent plane crash which Russia claimed had 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war on board. There are continuing doubts in Kyiv regarding this assertion, especially because no photographs have been released showing dozens of dead bodies. Both sides have called for an international investigation, and the details of the incident remain unverified. In another development, the International Court of Justice has ruled that Russia violated terrorism and anti-discrimination treaties: see
On 28 January a drone strike on a military outpost in Jordan led to the deaths of three US soldiers and injuries to many others. Joe Biden, attributing the attack to radical Iran-backed militant groups in Syria and Iraq, has vowed retaliation at a time and manner of the US's choosing. Tehran denied involvement, stating that regional resistance groups make their decisions independently. Iran’s envoy to the UN, Amir Saeid Iravani, has threatened decisive action against any possible attacks on Iranian territory or interests abroad. He dismissed reports of communication between Iran and the USA on the matter. Biden has said, ‘I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East… That’s not what I’m looking for.’ Meanwhile, a federal judge has dismissed an unprecedented lawsuit by a group of Palestinians who accused Biden’s administration of complicity in genocide, as being outside the scope of the court. However, he urged Biden to reflect on his ‘unflagging’ support for Israel. See
Paramilitary leader Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, known as ‘Hemedti’, recently visited the Rwandan genocide memorial in Kigali, sparking controversy; his paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has been accused of similar atrocities in Sudan's civil war. His tour in January to leaders in six African countries raised concerns because despite allegations of widespread atrocities by RSF fighters, he was received like a head of state. In West Darfur, a UN report has revealed that RSF fighters and allied militias have killed up to 15,000 non-Arabs from the Masalit tribe, with thirteen mass graves identified since the war began. Approximately 550,000 Masalit refugees have been displaced to camps in Chad, and their land has been forcibly taken over by new settlers. On 1 January Hemedti signed an agreement with a civilian coalition called Taqaddum, supposedly aiming to end hostilities and provide security to civilians. However, so far the RSF has failed to govern or demonstrate a genuine commitment to govern.
On 31 January Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi were sentenced to 14 years in prison for illegally profiting from state gifts. The court also imposed a fine of approximately £4.2 million on the couple and barred him from holding public office for ten years. On the previous day he and the vice-chairman of PTI, his political party, were given a ten-year sentence for leaking classified state documents. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-68138591 These convictions come just a week before a general election in which he is disqualified from participating. The sentences are expected to run concurrently, but this has not been officially confirmed. Khan's legal team plans to appeal the rulings in the High Court. He has been in jail since August; Bushra Bibi, who had been out on remand, surrendered herself at the jail. The charges revolve around allegations (which they strongly deny) that they sold or kept state gifts received during their time in office including a jewelry set from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. See also last week’s article.
Ethiopia's national ombudsman has revealed that nearly 400 people have died of starvation in the Tigray and Amhara regions in recent months. Local officials had previously reported such deaths, but the federal government had denied these claims. The UN and the USA had suspended food aid in Tigray and Ethiopia after discovering a ‘large-scale’ scheme to steal humanitarian grain. but lifted the pause in December after implementing reforms. However, Tigray authorities claim that food is not reaching those in need, citing technical issues and funding shortages. Only 14% of the 3.2 million people targeted for food aid in Tigray had received it by 21 January. The Tigray Food Cluster, a group of aid agencies, has urged immediate scaling up of operations to prevent severe food insecurity and malnutrition, particularly among vulnerable children and women. Approximately 20.1 million people across Ethiopia require humanitarian food assistance due to drought, conflict, and economic challenges.
Thailand's constitutional court has ruled that the Move Forward party's campaign promise to amend the strict royal insult law during the 2023 election amounted to an attempt to overthrow the monarchy. The case was initiated by a conservative activist lawyer, who argued that the party's pledge to amend the lèse-majesté law violated Section 49 of the constitution. The nine judges unanimously ruled against Move Forward, stating that its efforts to change the law undermined and weakened the monarchy, posing a significant danger to the state's security. Move Forward was ordered to cease any activities violating Section 49. The party is not being disbanded, but the lawyer has said he might make a new petition asking the election commission to do so. Move Forward's leader warned that the ruling could further make the royal institution increasingly ‘a factor behind conflicts in Thai politics’.