Top story: ‘Extreme’ levels of debt risks cuts to local services

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

Thousands of jobs are set to go and local services face cuts as councils in England count big income losses from commercial investments in office blocks, retail parks, airports and cinemas – all badly hit by the pandemic. The investments – part of an effort to find alternative income sources during austerity cuts – have been badly hit by virus lockdowns. Guardian analysis indicates that more than 30 local authorities receive at least a quarter of their annual income from commercial investments. MPs will warn today that some local authorities have taken on “extreme” levels of debt to finance their commercial property spree, risking cuts to services and a big bill for local taxpayers. The most notorious of the property speculators is tiny Spelthorne district council in Surrey, which has built up a £1bn portfolio in four years, snapping up assets such as BP’s head offices at Sunbury-on-Thames for £380m. Conservative-led councils in south-east England are among the most exposed, accounting for more than half of the commercial property acquired between 2016 and 2019. You can see four of the worst-hit councils here (Spelthorne, Manchester, Luton, Runnymede).

In other coronavirus news, the health secretary, Matt Hancock has said he favours a local response to the Covid-19 outbreaks, announcing there would be “more targeted local action and less national lockdown”. Students at British universities should not expect automatic tuition fee refunds for disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak, according to MPs, despite complaints from thousands of those affected.

You can catch up on all the latest developments, as always, at our global live blog.

Immigration – The home secretary, Priti Patel, will today unveil further detail on the future of immigration in the UK in an attempt to prepare businesses and organisations for the biggest overhaul of the system in decades. The Home Office has previously revealed the core principles behind the forthcoming points-based system, which is meant to be introduced when the transition period for leaving the European Union ends on 1 January. It comes as company directors warned that only one in four businesses were prepared for Britain’s full departure from the European Union in five months’ time. Research by the Institute of Directors found manufacturing firms in particular are unlikely to be ready for the end of the transition period with a lack of clarity on rule changes a bigger impediment to Brexit preparation than the need to focus on the coronavirus pandemic.

Polish election – The vote looks set to go down to the wire with the latest exit polls putting the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, ahead of his liberal challenger, Rafał Trzaskowski, by just two percentage points (51.0% to 49.0%). Both candidates gave speeches last night suggesting they were confident of victory. The result is seen as crucial for the future direction of Poland and its relations with the rest of Europe. A win for Duda could put the country on a collision course with the EU, while Trzaskowski would portray a more liberal and pro-EU face of Poland.

Plain packaging – Cigarette sales have decreased by about 20m a month after plain-packaging rules and tougher taxes were introduced three years ago, researchers have found. Prof Anna Gilmore, director of the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG), said: “The underlying rate of decline in tobacco sales almost doubled after these policies were implemented.” The UK was the second country in the world to implement plain packaging laws, Australia was the first, despite suggestions from the tobacco industry that this would increase sales of smuggled cigarettes.

Mont Blanc time capsule – One of France’s most famous glaciers is yielding more secrets as it melts – this time a clutch of newspapers with banner headlines from when Indira Gandhi became India’s PM in 1966. The copies of Indian newspapers the National Herald and the Economic Times were probably aboard an Air India Boeing 707 that crashed on the mountain on 24 January, 1966, killing 177. They were found last week by a local cafe owner at 1,350 metres (4,455ft) near the Chamonix skiing hub. “They are drying now but they are in very good condition,” said Timothee Mottin.

One of the 1966 newspapers found at the Bossons glacier near Chamonix in the French Alps. Photograph: Bernard Barron/AFP/Getty Images

Coronavirus Extra

In the US, a 30-year-old patient has died after attending a “Covid party” in Texas, believing the virus to be a hoax. On Sunday Florida recorded the biggest daily case rise of any US state, including New York. It comes as a group of 84 of the world’s richest people have called on governments to permanently increase taxes on them and other members of the wealthy elite to help pay for the economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. The group, including Ben and Jerry’s ice cream co-founder Jerry Greenfield and Disney heir Abigail Disney, called on “our governments to raise taxes on people like us. Immediately. Substantially. Permanently”.

Today in Focus podcast: Tech reporter Julia Carrie Wong on becoming the target of a hate campaign

In November, Julia Carrie Wong reported on the continued presence of white nationalist organisations on Facebook – and a weeks-long campaign of racist and sexist harassment followed. She discusses the impact it had on her and why she believes Facebook has played a role in creating the conditions that enable that kind of harassment to happen.

Julia Carrie Wong on becoming the target of a hate campaign
Julia Carrie Wong on becoming the target of a hate campaign

Sorry your browser does not support audio – but you can download here and listen –

Lunchtime read: Naomi Klein: ‘We must not return to pre-Covid status quo’

Climate, equality and fairness must be at the heart of the post-pandemic recovery, activist and author Naomi Klein tells the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. Klein says there are so many ways people can think about responding to the crisis that do not accept the idea that we have to return to the pre-Covid status quo or, she says, worse, “with more surveillance, more screens and less human contact”. She argues the virus has forced people to think about “interdependencies and and relationships” – from the food we eat to the things we touch – and has led to people thinking about issues such as racism, inequality and climate.

Naomi Klein: ‘The virus has forced us to think about interdependencies and relationships.’ Photograph: Adrienne Grunwald/The Guardian


Jofra Archer, goaded by Tino Best, produced a superb spell for England but Jermaine Blackwood had the last laugh as West Indies rallied to win the first Test. José Mourinho is targeting Europa League qualification for Tottenham Hotspur after watching his team edge to a derby win over Arsenal. On Monday, the court of arbitration for sport will announce its verdict on Manchester City’s appeal against their two-year Champions League ban.

Lewis Hamilton revealed he is in a lifelong struggle to fight racism after he gave the black power salute following his win at the Styrian Grand Prix. Ugo Monye writes that player welfare must be more than a slogan, with the unprecedented amount of rugby to be played in the next 12 months sure to take a huge physical toll. And UK Sport has denied seeking to win Olympic medals at any cost following revelations it secretly spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on testing an experimental substance on 91 elite athletes before London 2012.


Shoppers have shunned the high streets in England and Northern Ireland, with retail footfall collapsing by 65% compared with the same month last year, according to research by data company Springboard. The latest figures are an improvement on the 73% year-on-year decline in May, but highlight the challenges facing retailers and hospitality companies as they try to encourage worried customers to return as the coronavirus lockdown eases. At the same time online shopping has soared, as consumers browse and order from the comfort and safety of their home.

The pound is buying $1.27 and €1.12.

The papers

Photograph: The Guardian

There’s a range of stories on today’s front pages. The Guardian splashes with “Councils lose millions after virus hits investments” . The FT leads with “Johnson’s proposal for state aide sets stage for Scotland and Wales clash”. The i has “Pubs and cafes face al-fresco smoking ban plea”, saying peers are to challenge ministers to stop outdoor smoking in return for permission to serve “pavement drinks”. The Times leads with “Brexit era brings rise in holiday insurance costs”. The Telegraph’s main headline is “Migration crackdown to bar EU criminals” and the paper also carries a large picture of Trump in a face mask. The Daily Mail leads with “Chinese fixer targets 45 prime ministers” in what it says is “new evidence of Beijing’s infiltration of British establishment”. The Express splashes with “Get ready! £93m blitz kickstarts Britain’s EU exit”. The Mirror’s front page is “Time to honour our Jack”, about Jack Charlton’s family calling for the former footballer to be knighted.

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