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why this was a disaster ten years in the making

There would have been no demand for masks, visors or droplet repellent PPE. Mass testing and track and trace systems would have been next to worthless. And there would have been no need for lockdown.

Why? Because an influenza pandemic would have been unstoppable. Just as was shown by Excercise Cygnus in 2016 when ministers simulated a flu pandemic, many tens of thousands would have died but there would have been nothing much to do, other than bury the dead.

This is the narrative pushed by Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary, and Sally Davies, the former chief medical officer, who were responsible for Britain’s pandemic planning, but it will never survive the scrutiny of the public inquiry to come.

As epidemiologists like Prof Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, have pointed out, past pandemic strains of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 are extraordinarily similar. Both are droplet spread, if anything Covid spreads faster than influenza, both cause asymptomatic infections and both have similar infection fatality rates.

“SARS-CoV-2 behaves in most ways like a pandemic influenza strain,” wrote Prof Balloux in a recent Twitter thread. “The only major epidemiological difference between COVID 19 and flu pandemics is the age risk distribution, with influenza being highly dangerous to young children in addition to the elderly. At this stage, COVID 19 is really ‘like pandemic flu’, but not like ‘seasonal endemic flu'[which is much less lethal]”.

Mr Lesh says the real problem in Whitehall was “failure of imagination” and a ­misjudgment about society’s  tolerance for risk.

He said: “The thinking was, as with previous pandemics and Excercise Cygnus, you would let it run through and manage the deaths. They thought people’s tolerance for risk was higher, and that people would also be far less tolerant of social distancing measures.”

“If they looked at the SARS outbreak for example, my guess is they thought we would never accept that sort of mitigation in the west. So in some ways, you could say it was a benign assumption – that western publics would not be willing to make the sacrifices of the relatively more collectivist societies of Asia”.

Group think and western ­exceptionalism were certainly part of the problem but, as Mr Davies points out it was money too. The Institute for Government’s report on the pandemic finds that “failures in planning and funding cuts meant public services were not well prepared to handle the coronavirus crisis”.

Years of austerity overseen by former chancellor George Osborne saw the NHS protected but the capacity of its sister public health services dramatically cut.

“The Treasury is very effective at controlling spending but has historically been less good at understanding what it is getting for its money”, said Mr Davies.

“Also, the priority of governments since 2010 has been to keep tax as low as they can and – within public spending – to focus on efficiency over resilience.

“Those are perfectly reasonable political judgments to make, but clearly that has come back to bite us.”

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Worst heat wave in years creates dangers across California

What forecasters say is shaping up to be the worst heat wave in several years caused rolling blackouts Friday due to power shortages and is setting up dangerous conditions across California.

The broiling conditions that began Friday may rival the deadly seven-day heat event of July 2006, the National Weather Service said.

The valleys, mountains and deserts of Southern California are likely to see both daytime and nighttime temperatures challenge records through at least Thursday, and elevated humidity will make conditions feel two to five degrees warmer during the day.

“People really need to take it seriously,” said Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the weather service in Oxnard. “Drink a lot of water. Find shade.”

Virtually no stretch of the Southland will be spared from conditions that Hoxsie said will be “hot, hot and hot.”

“We’re expecting the heat to continue through the weekend and into next week, probably peaking on Monday, Tuesday,” she said. “We have an excessive heat warning out for the Antelope Valley through Tuesday and the interior valleys through Monday.”

Air quality officials issued an advisory Friday warning that the heat wave is pushing lung-damaging ozone pollution to “very unhealthy” levels and that much of Southern California will experience elevated smog through Monday.

On Friday afternoon, ozone pollution in some areas reached its highest level in a decade as a result of high temperatures and wildfires, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The air district said that ozone, the invisible gas in smog that triggers asthma and other health problems, could reach “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” levels in the afternoon hours from Saturday through Monday. The advisory covers areas including the Santa Clarita, San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, the Inland Empire and the Coachella Valley.

California declared a statewide Stage 3 emergency Friday evening for the first time since 2001 due to excessive heat driving up electricity use and ordered utilities to implement power disruption programs.

The California Independent System Operator had issued a statewide flex alert earlier Friday, asking residents to conserve electricity between 3 and 10 p.m. That alert asked consumers to set air conditioner thermostats to 78 degrees or higher, turn off unnecessary lights and not use major appliances.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said its customers were not affected because the department generates and imports its own electricity and was able to meet the city’s demand.

There were a scattering of power interruptions in Southern California, but it was unclear how widespread they were. The emergency notice was issued at 6:36 p.m. and lifted at 8:54 p.m. One thousand megawatts of electricity were taken out of service, the corporation said.

David Song, a public information officer for Southern California Edison, said that approximately 132,000 of the utility’s 5 million customers were without power as of 7:30 p.m. because of rotating power outages it had put in place. The outages were scattered throughout Southern California Edison’s service area and were set to last about one hour for each outage group. These groups include customers from a cross section of cities so that an entire city is not affected, he said.

Song urged customers to take steps as simple as turning off the lights in a room once they leave in order to save power, emphasizing that “every little bit helps.”

“In past instances we encouraged customers to go to the movies or the mall to get away with the heat,” he said. “We understand with COVID that’s not a reality. … We’re mindful to customers and what they’re going through right now, especially staying home.”

In Los Angeles, the DWP was able to provide excess power to the California Independent System Operator on Friday evening. The DWP, spokesman Joe Ramallo noted, has never had to institute rotating outages due to not having enough power to meet demand.

Forecasters said this heat wave could rival the 2006 heat wave, when Los Angeles County recorded its all-time highest temperature: 119 degrees in Woodland Hills on July 22.

The Times reported that coroners in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Kern counties connected about 130 deaths to the heat, with diagnoses including hyperthermia and heatstroke. But state researchers later estimated that the toll in those counties was more likely in the range of 350 to 450.

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Zhang Yuhuan: Chinese court overturns man’s murder conviction after 27 years in prison

Zhang Yuhuan, 53, was freed on Tuesday after the Supreme People’s Court in eastern Jiangxi province found him “not guilty” on the basis of a lack of sufficient evidence, Chinese state media Global Times reported.

The result came after a long-running legal battle to overturn the conviction, and highlights ongoing issues within China’s legal system.

In 1993, two boys were found dead in the city of Nanchang, Jiangxi province, according to the report. Police suspected the boys’ neighbor Zhang of killing them.

In 1995, Zhang was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, meaning his death sentence would be commuted to a life sentence if he didn’t commit any other crimes within a two-year period, state-run China Daily reported.

But Zhang appealed to a higher court, arguing that he was not the killer and claimed that police had tortured him during interrogation, according to the report.

The higher court ordered a retrial, but that was not held until November 2001, China Daily reported. The intermediate court upheld the original judgment, and a later appeal was rejected.

Zhang and his family continued to insist that he was innocent — and finally in March last year, the Jiangxi Supreme People’s Court reopened the case, according to the report. On Tuesday, he was found not guilty.

“After we reviewed the materials, we have found there is no direct evidence that can prove Zhang’s conviction. So we accepted the prosecutors’ suggestion and have declared Zhang innocent,” judge Tian Ganlin was quoted as saying.

Zhang can now apply for state compensation, Global Times reported.

According to the China Daily report, Zhang said the wrongful conviction had cost him the best years of his life. His two sons are now married and have their own children.

“It’s hard for the compensation to make up for the damage of the wrongful conviction to me and my family, but I still hope to get compensated quickly to repair my house and care for my mother,” Zhang said.

Criminal justice

For years, human rights advocates have criticized China’s legal system, alleging that it allows unfair trials, torture and other ill-treatment in detention.

China has made attempts to reform its legal system. According to the Global Times report, China officially adopted the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” in 1996.

China's deadly secret: More executions than all other countries put together
In 2013, an influential Communist Party legal commission issued new guidelines asking for fairer due process in China’s much maligned court system.
However, problems with the country’s legal system remain. China’s judicial system has a conviction rate of around 99%, according to legal observers. It also remains beholden to the ruling Communist Party. Courts are seen first and foremost as a “political organ,” according to the country’s Chief Justice Zhou Qiang.

It remains uncommon for people to have convictions overturned — although Zhang is not the first.

In 2013, a man who served 17 years of a life sentence for murdering his wife was freed after a Higher People’s Court in Anhui province ruled that the “facts about the alleged homicide were unclear and the evidence inadequate.”
In 2016, China’s top court overruled a rape and murder conviction of Nie Shubin — more than two decades after he had been executed.

Ruan Chuansheng, a law professor at the Shanghai Administration Institute, said that the ruling in Zhang’s case showed the advancement of the rule of law, according to China Daily. But he also said judicial authorities could help prevent wrongful convictions by excluding evidence gained through torture.

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In five years as Toronto police chief, what did Mark Saunders accomplish?

It was perhaps the best-kept secret in Toronto police history.

With little fanfare and not a hint of what was coming, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders announced his resignation at a midday press conference this week, surprise news landing after two weeks of growing calls for police reform in Toronto and across North America.

Saunders, 57, gave little explanation for his departure except to say he wanted more time to be a father and husband.

“Family is the most important thing to me right now,” Saunders told reporters about his departure, eight months before his extended contract was set to expire. “And sorry if anybody is shocked in a bad way.”

Saunders’ rise to top cop is well documented. After an unofficial campaign for the support of the Toronto police board, Saunders — a longtime front-line cop who’d led the homicide squad and had the backing of outgoing chief Bill Blair and the powerful Toronto Police Association — bested a polished and progressive front-runner in Peter Sloly (now chief of police in Ottawa, where he said this week he intends to stay).

Back in April 2015, the hope was that Saunders, Toronto’s first Black police chief, could be a change agent capable of making cost-cutting and trust-building reforms precisely because he was a “cop’s cop” with the backing of the front-line.

More than five years later, did he succeed?

The goal: Cutting costs and “modernizing” the police service

A ballooning budget. An outdated policing model. Low levels of trust.

Saunders’ first year in the job was spent developing a plan to address big problems he inherited as chief. His modernization “action plan” aimed at overhauling police service delivery, decreasing costs and improving declining public trust. The goals and recommendations were drawn up by a task force made up equally of police and community members — including former Toronto budget chief David Soknacki and community advocate Idil Burale.

To Saunders’ credit, Burale told the Star this week, “he chose to include me on the (task force) even though I was publicly critical of him and an avid Sloly-for-chief supporter.”

The task force made 33 recommendations, including changes to training and hiring, greater partnerships with the community, investments in technology and giving more work to non-uniform staff. The overarching aim was to redefine policing and bring about “comprehensive and long-lasting change.”

Saunders cited the task force as a highlight of his term this week, saying it gave “the community equal ownership of what the Toronto Police Service should look like.”

But results have been mixed. And amid calls for reform and an upcoming motion to city council to cut the police budget, Saunders and the board have been criticized for a lack of significant change.

The police budget passed $1 billion in 2019 and 2020; last week, Soknacki said, “there is a sense that a lot of changes that could have been made more quickly and deeper have not been made.”

Some big gains have been made. A freeze on hiring and promotions in part saved about $100 million between 2016 and 2018. And, after decades of failed negotiations with the union, the service rolled out far more efficient shift schedule.

“That’s going to have huge benefits down the road, putting the right number of people at the right places at the right time,” said Toronto police board chair Jim Hart, who stepped into the role last fall.

Andy Pringle, who was chair of the Toronto police board from 2015 until last fall, praised Saunders for having the courage to go ahead with the changes. “Some of these things we put in place, he was going to get criticized internally, for trying to move too far, too quickly,” he said.

Shelley Carroll, the Toronto city councillor who sat on the police board when Saunders was hired, said Saunders “laid the foundation for change” even if “getting it fully implemented has met with frustration.”

Both Hart and Mayor John Tory cited cost savings from civilianizing work previously done by officers, resulting in more cost savings. Saunders has “definitely created a more efficient organization,” Hart said, noting that between 2015 and 2019, the number of calls for service per deployed officer went up by nearly 20 per cent.

Tory also noted the service’s investments in technology, including the “connected officer” program — a “godsend” for freeing officers of paperwork and constant trips back to the police division.

One swift action taken as a result of the task force was ending the controversial Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) unit. The unit had become notorious for its high rate of carding, the practice of stopping and documenting people not suspected of committing a crime, which disproportionately impacted Black and brown men.

Tory acknowledged that when it comes to modernization, “we are nowhere near where we have to be.” But he said Saunders and the board get a “bad rap” when critics don’t recognize how big of a challenge it is to change the course of a ship that’s been steaming ahead in one direction for a long time.

“It’s about the art of the possible, and how fast you can bring these changes in a big, complex organization,” Tory said.

To Burale real meaningful change has not been achieved: “I know there’s been some symbolic efforts to convey ‘change’ but at the end of the day, from an outsider perspective, TPS has not changed towards the spirit of the (task force) report,” she said.

The result: Some gains, both big and bureaucratic, but overall? Not enough.

The goal: Fighting gun violence

Undoubtedly, Toronto’s rising gun violence was the biggest crime-fighting challenge of Saunders’ tenure. The number of people injured or killed by gun violence each year has steadily increased. 2018 saw the most homicides in the city’s history, including 51 gun deaths. Last year saw a record 490 shootings.

At his news conference, Saunders said he wants to keep working to reduce violence by addressing the root causes of crime — “I see a lot of young Black boys being killed by Black boys,” he said.

Waves of crime bring inevitable calls from the police union, and some commentators, that more officers are needed. Saunders resisted coming to council cap in hand — except as staffing fell over a wave of natural retirements, Pringle said.

“I think Mark has been thoughtful and courageous in how he has approached it, he has tried to approach it fairly and proactively targeting it through intelligence, he’s also tried to address it through the court system and making sure things change so the really bad people don’t get right back on the street,” Pringle said.

Some of Saunders’ law-and-order attempts to combat the violence were harshly criticized — and did not prove successful. Last summer, Toronto police launched the $4.5 million Project Community Space to give officers increased visibility in “high-risk areas.” The initiative led to higher solve rates for gun cases, but did not reduce the shootings; Toronto saw the most people killed or injured by guns in 15 years.

Despite Saunders’ talk about the root causes of crime, initiatives like “Project Community Space” undermine that approach, said Sam Tecle, a community leader with the youth organization Success Beyond Limits, based in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood.

“It’s a flawed concept, throwing more policing at these kinds of complex, community-based issues,” he said.

Asked about Saunders’ record on crime, Hart, the current board chair, said Toronto is “one of the safest cities in North America” despite its rapid growth.

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Hart added that Saunders if very interested in targeting the root causes of crime. “I think he’s done the best job he can possibly do on the policing side, I think he would like to do more on the community side.”

Burale said Saunders’ was “very much a cop’s cop” who saw “understood everything first and foremost from a police operations lens.” That meant something like carding could be useful for public safety because it helped solve crime — even though it further alienated people.

“I appreciate that he made progress in evolving his thinking on these topics in the last five years,” she said. “Sadly, to some this coming to terms might have been too slow and late.”

Louis March, founder of Toronto’s Zero Gun Violence Movement, said Saunders put in a “good effort,” but the reality is gun violence went up during his tenure. There’s only so much that can be achieved when investments are not going to the community but rather to policing, March said.

“We can’t arrest ourselves out of this,” he said, noting Saunders was “but one of the players on the bench.”

The result: Despite aims to address “root causes,” too many boots on the ground — to little effect

The goal: Increase public trust and improve race relations

When Saunders stepped into the role of chief, police already had a fractured relationship with Toronto’s Black community.

Just days into his tenure, Saunders expressed support for carding and drew blowback when he referred to the innocent people stopped by police as being “collatoral damage.” He admitted later it was a poor choice of words, saying the better way to put it was “social cost … in which members of the community do not feel that they are being treated with dignity and respect.”

Nonetheless, Saunders’ five years at the helm did little to improve relations with the Black community, former board chair Alok Mukherjee said in a recent interview — “it’s a spotty legacy.”

Saunders did not seize opportunities to connect with the Black community during flashpoint moments, said writer and educator Neil Price, who was previously hired by the police board to study the impact of carding. Key moments included the beating of Black teen Dafonte Miller — off duty Toronto police officer Michael Theriault is charged with aggravated assault, alongside his brother — and the reaction to the fatal shooting of Andrew Loku.

In the days after Loku’s death, members of Black Lives Matter Toronto camped out outside Toronto police headquarters, but Saunders never came down to speak with them — “I don’t think he ever recovered from that,” Price said.

Saunders has also faced criticism for the force’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment on the job; during his time, several female officers have filed complaints to Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal alleging discrimination based on sex, saying the workplace was toxic for women.

Public trust also took a hit following the investigation into Bruce McArthur, the serial killer who preyed on eight men from the city’s Gay Village. Saunders drew criticism for suggesting in an interview with the Globe and Mail that community members failed to come forward to police to help catch the killer.

Saunders’ defenders point to initiatives spearheaded or supported by the chief — including the service’s recent move to begin the collection of race-based statistics.

Following Loku’s death, Saunders and the board established an anti-racism advisory panel; the committee is examining disparities in police service to racialized people and the intersection of race and mental health. Tory has previously pointed to the committee as aiming to restore and rebuild trust.

That’s also the aim of the neighbourhood officer program, rejuvenated under Saunders’ watch. Although some community members have expressed concerns about more officer presence, early research out of Humber’s Criminal Justice Degree Program has shown many others feel safer and more connected to police.

“I’ve seen with my own eyes, the kind of relationship they are building up as part of building trust back up in the police,” Tory said.

Overall, Tory said, trust is not lost overnight and it’s not restored with a new chief or a single policy change. “It takes a long time to earn it back and I think we’re on that track.”

Hart also pointed to Saunders’ renewed commitment to outfitting front-line officers with body cameras, calling it a “huge piece to build public trust and accountability.”

Overall, though, Price said it wasn’t enough. Saunders was “affable, decent and well-intentioned,” but it was a “disappointing tenure… He was not the right guy for the times.”

The result: Some gains, many losses and a “spotty” legacy

Saunders’ last day is July 31.

With files from Jim Rankin and Star staff

Wendy Gillis
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star. Reach her by email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis
Betsy Powell

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Great Barrier Reef experiences third bleaching event in five years

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has experienced its third coral bleaching event in five years, according to researchers who blamed the rapid warming of the planet due to human emissions.

A bleaching event occurs when coral expels a type of algae that provides up to 90 per cent of their energy and gives them their colour.

This expulsion can happen when coral is under stress due to warm ocean temperatures.

Now, a new survey has found the south of the reef is bleaching extensively for the first time.

Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University said: “We surveyed 1,036 reefs from the air during the last two weeks in March, to measure the extent and severity of coral bleaching throughout the Barrier Reef region.

“For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef – the northern, central and now large parts of the southern sectors.”

Taking 11 flights over nine days in March, Professor Hughes navigated the full length of the Great Barrier Reef to survey reefs from the air.

According to aerial analysis, coastal reefs along its entire length – a stretch of about 1,500 miles (2,300 kilometers) from the northern Torres Strait to the reef’s southern boundary – have been severely bleached.

Bleached Acropora on Lizard Island (Kristen Brown/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies)

In February, researchers said the area recorded its highest monthly sea surface temperatures since records began in 1900.

Professor Hughes said: “We are all in shock really at how quick this has happened. Three severe bleaching events in five years is not something we anticipated happening until the middle of the century.”

Professor Morgan Pratchett, also from Coral CoE at JCU, led studies to determine how bad the recent bleaching event has been.

He said: “A pale or lightly bleached coral typically regains its colour within a few weeks or months and survives.

“We will go back underwater later this year to assess the losses of corals from this most recent event.

“The north was the worst affected region in 2016, followed by the central region in 2017. In 2020, the cumulative footprint of bleaching has expanded further to include the south.”

Experts have also observed how the time frame between these bleaching events is shrinking, so the coral reef has less time to fully recover.

A white tipped shark swimming over bleached acropora cora (Morgan Pratchett/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies)

The bleaching event this year is not only the largest, but also the most severe on record, with much of the damage likely to be irreparable.

Professor Hughes also added that the number of reefs avoiding bleaching is dwindling each year.

He said: “As summers grow hotter and hotter, we no longer need an El Niño event to trigger mass bleaching at the scale of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Of the five events we have seen so far, only 1998 and 2016 occurred during El Niño conditions.

“We have already seen the first example of back-to-back bleaching-in the consecutive summers of 2016 and 2017.”

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Ryanair to cut 3,000 jobs and Michael O’Leary to take 50pc paycut as airline says recovery will take two years

Ryanair has said it expects up to 3,000 jobs to be lost as part of a restructuring of the airline.

he budget airline group announced that a restructuring programme could also involve unpaid leave and pay slashed by up to 20%, as well as the closure of “a number of aircraft bases across Europe” until demand for air travel recovers.


Grounded Ryanair aircraft at Dublin Airport. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Chief executive Michael O’Leary, whose pay was cut by 50% for April and May, has agreed to extend the reduction for the remainder of the financial year to March 2021.

Ryanair said its flights will remain grounded until “at least July” and passenger numbers will not return to 2019 levels “until summer 2022 at the earliest”.

It expects to operate fewer than 1% of its scheduled flights between April and June, and carry no more than half of its original target of 44.6 million passengers between July and September.

For the 12 months to the end of March 2021, its forecast is that it will carry fewer than 100 million passengers. Its target for the period was 154 million.

The airline group said it is in “active negotiations” with Boeing to cut the number of planned aircraft deliveries over the next 24 months.

It expects to report a net loss of more than 100 million euros (£87 million) between April and May, with “further losses” in the following three months.

“The Ryanair Airlines will shortly notify their trade unions about its restructuring and job loss program, which will commence from July 2020.

“These plans will be subject to consultation but will affect all Ryanair Airlines, and may result in the loss of up to 3,000 mainly pilot and cabin crew jobs, unpaid leave, and pay cuts of up to 20%, and the closure of a number of aircraft bases across Europe until traffic recovers. Job cuts and pay cuts will also be extended to Head Office and Back Office teams,” a statement read.

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Pandas Mate After 10 Years Together At Hong Kong Zoo

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If being quarantined during the coronavirus pandemic has you feeling a little horny, you’re not alone.

Two giant pandas at a Hong Kong zoo mated successfully on Monday for the first time in almost 10 years together at the park.

Staff at the Ocean Park theme park and zoo announced female Ying Ying and male Le Le, both 14, finally sealed the deal around 9 a.m. local time after showing signs that they had entered their hormonal estrous cycle, or mating cycle, in late March.

Giant pandas are notoriously bad at breeding, at least in captivity, so news of the bonking bears had staff thrilled.

“Since Ying Ying and Le Le’s arrival in Hong Kong in 2007 and attempts at natural mating since 2010, they unfortunately have yet to succeed until this year upon years of trial and learning,” said Michael Boos, executive director of zoological operation and conservation. “The successful natural mating process today is extremely exciting for all of us, as the chance of pregnancy via natural mating is higher than by artificial insemination.”

Images released by the park, which has been empty of visitors since Jan. 26 due to the coronavirus outbreak, show the black-and-white beaus embracing and doing the deed.

Zoo staff noticed that last month that Ying Ying had begun spending more time in the water, while Le Le was leaving scent markings around his habitat as he looked for his panda paramour — both apparently signs that the bears were feeling a little more randy than usual.

Vets at the zoo have been monitoring the pair closely and will continue to do so in the hopes that Ying Ying is expecting.

“If successful, signs of pregnancy, including hormonal level fluctuations and behavioral changes may be observed as early as late June, though there is always a chance that Ying Ying could experience a pseudo-pregnancy,” said Boos.

“We hope to bear wonderful pregnancy news to Hong Kongers this year,” he added, “and make further contributions to the conservation of this vulnerable species.”

According to the zoo, a panda’s gestation period ranges between 72–324 days, but the pregnancy can only be detected by an ultrasound about two weeks before birth.

Reacting to the news, people on social media were both happy for the bears — and jealous.

Panda numbers are slowly increasing in the wild. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature shifted giant pandas from the endangered category to being listed as vulnerable due to a 17% rise in the number of pandas between 2004 and 2014.

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U.S. House Democrats call for $760 billion in infrastructure spending over five years

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Democrats on Wednesday will unveil a proposed $760 billion infrastructure spending bill over five years that aims to rebuild sagging roads and bridges and reduce carbon pollution.

FILE PHOTO: The new Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge (R) that is to replace the current Tappan Zee Bridge (L) over the Hudson River is seen in Tarrytown, New York, U.S., August 24, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The proposal is also intended to get U.S. President Donald Trump to return to the bargaining table. Trump campaigned in 2016 on boosting infrastructure spending by at least $1 billion over a decade but focused first on tax cuts and health care reform after taking office.

“America’s infrastructure is in crisis,” Democrats will say, according to a fact sheet. “For decades we have relied on a 1950s-era transportation system that has failed to keep pace.”

In April, Trump and Democratic leaders agreed to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure, without hashing out a way to pay for it. Weeks later, Trump abruptly canceled a follow-up meeting after criticizing congressional investigations.

The Democrats’ plan calls for new spending on roads, bridges, rail, public transit, water, internet expansion, electric grids, aviation and “brownfield” land that was possibly contaminated after previous industrial use.

Democrats want to spend $329 billon over five years on surface transportation, with a focus on fixing the 47,000 structurally deficient U.S. bridges. They would also provide $1.5 billion to support the development of an electric vehicle charging network.

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

With a presidential election looming, many doubt Congress will be able to tackle infrastructure this year but lawmakers face a Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize surface transportation spending.

A Senate panel in July voted to authorize $287 billion in federal government spending over five years on surface transportation needs, a 27% jump, but Congress has not been able to agree on how to pay for it.

Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee said in a statement they believe Congress can pass infrastructure legislation this year; they argue Congress must find a new way to fund road repairs since existing gasoline tax revenue has not kept pace.

Congress abandoned the practice of largely requiring road users to pay for road repairs and has not hiked the federal gas tax since 1993. Since 2008, Congress has transferred about $141 billion in general revenues to the Highway Trust Fund.

To maintain existing spending, Congress will need to find $107 billion over five years, government auditors say.

Democrats would invest $105 billion in transit, $55 billion in rail spending and $30 billion in airport investments. They would also dedicate $86 billion to expand internet access.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Kim Coghill

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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RNLI blames trapped tourists and beach selfies as call-outs double over festive period in four years

Tourists hunting beach selfies on perilous stretches of coast have helped fuel an almost doubling in call-outs to the RNLI over the festive period, it has been claimed. 

The lifeboat charity revealed it is now 600% busier over the Christmas break compared to 40 years ago – with launches also up from 85 in 2014 to 155 in 2018.

Rescue crews have reported the rise appears to be linked to the increasing number of people visiting the coast for a break, who are unfamiliar with the dangers they can face. 

While a common source of call-outs in the 1980s was embattled fishing vessels, lifeboats are now more likely to be deployed to tourists trapped by the tide, the charity said. 

It is believed the rise of social media may have inspired visitors to seek out beauty spots to serve as the backdrop for a family Christmas picture they can post online. 

However, although a large expanse of sand can be alluring as the setting for a festive selfie, the changing tide can leave areas of the beach impassable within minutes. 

“We believe more and more people are staying in the country in the festive period; more and more people are going to the seaside and are not aware of the dangers of the sea,” a spokesman for the RNLI told the Telegraph.

“We had a lot of wind recently and people know that the wind is dangerous, but on a calm winter’s day people think it is nice and safe, they walk around the headland and, figures reveal, there are a lot of people who are not necessarily in the water but are on a cliff edge, walking, something like that.

“With camera phones these days, people go out and want a nice Christmas Day picture, they want a nice family selfie (but find themselves in trouble). 

He added: “Even if you go back five years, cameras with selfies have since come in and then you’ve got all your Instagram and things for your best pictures – everyone has different means and motives for visiting the coast.” 

The RNLI is expecting this Christmas to be just as hectic for its volunteer crews and has launched a fundraising drive to help preserve its future.

Phil Eaglen, a volunteer for the crew in Wells, said: “The RNLI has experienced a shortfall in funds, but we are rescuing more people than ever before.”

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Court of Appeal overturns convictions 47 years after four men jailed – Channel 4 News

Nearly 50 years after being found guilty of stealing handbags at a London tube station – three men had their names cleared today at the Old Bailey.

They were convicted on the evidence of a corrupt police officer in 1972. Winston Trew, Sterling Christie, George Griffiths alongside another man, Constantine Boucher, who’s not been traced became known as “The Oval Four”.

Their convictions rested on evidence given by a British Transport Police  Detective Sergeant named Derek Ridgewell whose career ended in disgrace.

Winston Trew who’s now 69, has always maintained his innocence.

He served eight months of a two year prison sentence back then.

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