NBC’s Gabe Gutierrez reports on the growing number of Covid-19 cases in South Dakota and the difficulty the state is having in its attempts to deal with it.
Christmas comes early as UK farms sell out of trees | Christmas
Christmas trees are up already – and so are sales. Growers have sold 24% more trees so far this year than at the same time in 2019, according to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association.
Some British farms had their entire crop snapped up by mid-November over fears that the pandemic has made it harder to import trees, according to Olly Combe, this year’s champion Christmas tree grower.
A stocklist kept by the UK’s 320 tree growers has “nothing left on it”, said Combe, the owner of York Christmas Trees, a family-run farm in Yorkshire that sells about 11,000 trees a year.
His prize for winning the BCTGA show earlier this month was to supply a 20ft Nordmann fir to Downing Street. He has trees left for regular customers but has been turning away new business. “I have a friend in Lincolnshire with a slightly bigger business, and he has sold out. Nothing left to sell.”
Farms sell mostly to wholesalers, who have tended to order fewer trees in advance in recent years, he said. “They don’t want to be left with trees on Christmas Eve,” Combe said. “Well, that won’t happen this year. I just don’t think those trees will be there.”
Heather Parry, managing agent of the BCTGA, said: “It feels like it’s really buzzing. Wholesalers are up 24% in sales on last year. People will be in smaller groups so we expect there to be more smaller trees around.”
The UK produces about 5.5 million trees – which take about 10 years to grow – and imports another 1.5 million, mostly from Denmark and Belgium, but a combination of labour shortages and the pandemic has slowed the supply chain, she said.
Another factor is the acceleration of Christmas creep: retailers are usually the ones blamed for ringing sleigh bells earlier and earlier, but this year consumers are equally responsible.
Philippa Dickens, an artist who lives in a village near Burford in Oxfordshire, is buying two trees.
“We’re all locked away so getting the tree and decorating it brings a bit of joy,” she said. “You put the lights on and it’s sparkly and you’ve got the anticipation of Christmas. My husband thought I was completely mad.”
Dickens plans to give away the first Christmas tree, which she bought in a pot two weeks ago, to someone who is shielding. “I’ll buy a normal main one in December.”
Joseff Thomas, a 30-year-old equities analyst, went to a pick-your-own-tree farm in Kent to collect his 9ft blue spruce on 7 November. “I think they were quite surprised to see us,” he said. “They say that people keep Christmas in their own way and for me that means starting early. But this was even earlier than normal. My girlfriend can get a bit annoyed when I play the same Christmas playlist on an almost daily basis.”
Mintel, the market research firm, believes Christmas sales will be almost at the same level as last year despite economic uncertainty. Nick Carroll, an associate director at Mintel, said retailers had been trying to spread out their sales to avoid a Black Friday spike, which would have been harder to deal with due to social distancing in warehouses.
Thomas and his girlfriend are hoping to be able to visit their families in Wales over the Christmas period, and he is hopeful that he won’t return to a needle-strewn floor. “I did do a lot of research into Christmas trees and I’m hoping that with a good watering schedule this will last all the way through,” he said.
But the early sales to wholesalers won’t mean a shortage of Christmas trees at garden centres, Combe said. “Don’t worry, we won’t run out,” he said. “There is stuff around.” He advised people to wait until the first or second week of December. “That’s when the trees are in their best condition,” he said. “It’s great buying trees early, but they’re a perishable product. It’s effectively a giant cut flower. Nobody wants a bare tree on Christmas Day.”
Questions over HS2 and new roads as coronavirus prompts transport inquiry | Transport
The case for a complete rethink of public transport priorities in the aftermath of Covid-19 – including a fresh look at arguments for and against the HS2 high speed rail line – is to be the subject of a major parliamentary inquiry beginning this week.
The pandemic has led to a dramatic fall in commuting into towns and cities, as well as a national financial crisis highlighted last Wednesday by the chancellor Rishi Sunak in his spending review. Pressure to reduce carbon emissions is also raising questions about the desirability of the £27bn road-building programme.
The issues will be central to an investigation entitled “Reforming public transport after the pandemic” by the all-party parliamentary select committee on transport which will begin taking evidence on Wednesday.
The committee’s Tory chairman Huw Merriman told the Observer that the pandemic had led to big changes in behaviour and attitudes to work, commuting and lifestyles that could have a permanent impact on demand for different types of public transport.
“Transport investment is at a pivotal moment. The pandemic has changed the way we travel,” Merriman said. “For meaningful numbers of us, it could change it for good. Our climate change commitments require us to shift away from diesel towards greener forms of energy. Changes to the way we appraise capital spending projects mean that the government no longer has to use value for money as the sole indicator.
“With so much uncertainty, pressing the accelerator too early could lead to vast transport infrastructure projects which are either not needed or are sited in the wrong parts of the country to level up.”
But he added that delaying big projects could also have economic costs. “The danger in putting the brakes on is that a ‘wait and see’ policy could starve the economy of a vital and immediate capital stimulus and lead to a loss of our skills base and supply chain – all for technology advances which never arrive and a pandemic which ended and saw commuters return to the office. It is absolutely vital that the government builds nimbleness into projects in order to keep up with the changes in consumer behaviour and technological advances.”
While Boris Johnson gave the go-ahead to the construction of HS2 between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds in February, weeks before the first Covid-19 lockdown, the increase in the number of people working from home and holding meetings remotely has caused opponents to questions its worth again.
Last night the former Tory cabinet minister David Lidington, a long-time opponent of HS2, said Covid-19 would almost certainly have cut the projected increase in business travel which was a major reason for building the line. It had, he believed, also created a greater “public reluctance” to cram on to trains to get to work that was likely to last some time.
“These factors suggest that there is likely to be a fairly considerable drop in the demand for business travel between cities compared to the modelling that the department [for transport] had been using. It is likely that the case for an increase in passenger numbers is a lot weaker now than it is was. Are people in government looking at this now? They should be. The Treasury has always been very sceptical about HS2.” A report by the House of Lords’ economic committee in 2015 concluded that the case for HS2 was “heavily dependent” on increased business travel.
Among those giving evidence to the select committee this week will be the transport expert Stephen Joseph, now a visiting professor at the university of Hertfordshire. Joseph said: “Changes in travel during the pandemic have thrown previous transport patterns and ways of thinking up in the air, and the government needs to recognise this.
“Some of this may be temporary, but city centre office workers are unlikely to go back to 9 to 5, five-day-a-week commuting. Many business meetings can work better and more efficiently online. From now on we might see more flexible working, in local hubs and centres as well as at home, with more local travel. The risk is of a car-led recovery, which we are seeing now – that will generate congestion in cities, towns and villages and also isn’t compatible with decarbonisation, where transport is the biggest source.”
Andrew Adonis, the former Labour transport secretary and leading enthusiast for HS2 said the case for pressing ahead with the entire scheme would remain strong despite the pandemic.
He said: “I doubt long-term public transport demand will be much affected by Covid-19. Even in the short window between the two lockdowns, passenger numbers shot up quickly. Conceivably it will return to say 90% of former passenger demand, with more home-working. But even a 10% difference on current passenger numbers doesn’t affect freight demand, and changes in population levels and immigration are the biggest factors driving transport demand, where the trends are sharply upwards not downwards.”
Philip Green profile: from ‘zero to hero’ and back again | Philip Green
Sir Philip Green is most at home in a grey tracksuit pacing the decks of his £100m superyacht Lionheart floating in the tax haven of Monaco shouting into one, two or sometimes even three mobile phones simultaneously.
It is where he is this weekend ahead of what looks the end of the road for his Topshop fashion empire. And it is where the Guardian found the former self-crowned “King of the high street” when the newspaper tracked him down to ask him to reassure his 13,000 staff that he would look out for them the last time his business appeared to be teetering on the brink of collapse last summer.
Then, as now, Green – who has spent most of his career polishing his image with models, pop stars and celebrities – did not want to talk. He threatened reporters with a visit from the Monégasque police and “unpleasant things”.
Green, 68, whose family owns Arcadia Group – which includes Topshop, Burton, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge – is in crisis talks trying to secure emergency funding to stave off a collapse into administration. Accountants at Deloitte are said to have been lined up to take over as administrators as soon as Monday.
But there has been no word of concern from Green, 68, for his 13,000 staff whose jobs are at risk. Most of the employees are being supported by the taxpayer via the government’s furlough scheme.
While his workers face unemployment at Christmas, Green is reportedly planning a festive break at a luxury resort in the Maldives. Green is said to be booked into the One & Only Reethi Rah resort, where private villas costs up to £30,000-a-night and guests arrive by seaplane.
Other guests to have enjoyed the resort’s 12 pristine white sand beaches and three swimming pools are said to have included Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Gordon Ramsay and Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich. The Beckhams have also reportedly stayed for Christmas, taking an 11-night break said to have cost £250,000. A spokesman for Arcadia declined to comment when asked about the trip, or the progress of talks this weekend to save the business.
Green, who went to the now defunct private Carmel College, known as “the Jewish Eton”, but left at 16 with no O-levels, has become accustomed to a life of luxury and excess. For a large part of his career he spent weekdays living in a suite at the five-star Dorchester hotel, in Mayfair central London, before flying by private jet to join his family on Lionheart on Friday nights.
Seeking to avoid the coronavirus pandemic, Green has spent most of the past year permanently onboard the 300ft yacht, which features a helipad, pool, 15 crew cabins and room for 12 guests. It is the third yacht that Green has commissioned from Italian shipbuilder Benetti Yachts.
If Green pushes ahead with the trip to the Maldives, local people are likely to remember him from his previous visits. He picked the Indian Ocean archipelago as the location for his 55th birthday party, which lasted five days, and reportedly featured a troupe of topless dancers and performances by George Michael and Jennifer Lopez. It was said to have cost about £20m.
So many of his famous friends – including Kate Moss and the Vogue editor Anna Wintour – arrived by private jet that the local airport authorities refused to allow any more to park. The party for his 60th, billed as PG60, was held at the Rosewood Mayakoba resort in Mexico, with performances from Robbie Williams, Stevie Wonder and the Beach Boys. His presents have included a £7m Gulfstream jet and a £250,000 gold Monopoly set.
Green is not afraid to confront people who challenge him. They include the veteran MP Frank Field and a long list of journalists who questioned his business operations or tax affairs.
“When the king of the high street, Sir Philip Green, appeared before the Commons he said he regarded his workers as part of the family,” Field said this weekend. “The workers now need that family.”
In 2003 Green described the Guardian’s then financial editor Paul Murphy – born in Oldham and raised in Portsmouth – as a “fucking Irishman” who “can’t read English”. In the short conversation with the Guardian, which the newspaper printed in full, he said the words “fuck” or “fucking” 14 times.
Challenged later about his bad language, Green said: “Do I say fuck off? “Yes, if people don’t behave themselves,” according to a profile in Tatler.
Green is, by his own admission, not a modern man. He told Sunday Times journalist Oliver Shah in his unauthorised 2018 biography of Green titled Damaged Goods, that the #MeToo debate had gone too far. “Where’s this all going to end,” Green said. “There’s no stag parties, no hen parties, no more girls parading in the ring at the boxing. So they’re all banned?”
Perhaps it was not a surprise to Arcadia employees that Green was soon caught up in the #MeToo scandal with a string of sexual and racial harassment allegations, including claims he groped a female employee and told a black executive his “problem” was that he was still “throwing spears in the jungle”.
Two other female employees received hundreds of thousands of pounds each after alleging Green had grabbed one woman by the face and put another in a headlock. Green’s lawyers admitted he acted in a “tactile” way and has “prodded and poked individuals”. Green has repeatedly said he “categorically denies any unlawful … racist or sexual behaviour”.
Green will be forever associated with the downfall of BHS. He sold the department store chain to the former bankrupt Dominic Chappell for £1 in March 2015. The company collapsed with the loss of 11,000 jobs 13 months later, leaving a pension deficit of about £571m.
A high-profile parliamentary investigation into BHS’s demise concluded that the owners had systematically plundered the company, and described the hole in the pension fund as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”.
It led to calls for Green to be stripped of his knighthood, awarded by Tony Blair for services to the retail industry in 2006. Green had boasted that he had Blair on speed dial. Blair described Green as “the person who thought up the dream and dreamt the dream into reality”.
More than 100 MPs voted in favour of a motion for his knighthood to be cancelled and annulled by the honours forfeiture committee. It was the first time that MPs had proposed someone be stripped of a knighthood.
The threat was dropped when Green agreed to pay £363m into the BHS pension scheme in 2017. “Once again I would like to apologise to the BHS pensioners for this last year of uncertainty, which was clearly never the intention when the business was sold in March 2015,” he said at the time. “I hope that this solution puts their minds at rest and closes this sorry chapter for them.”
Tina Green, who said she thought her future husband was dreadful when she first met him at a party in 1985, lives in Monaco, where the family own a luxury apartment and Lionheart is often berthed.
She collected a £1.2bn dividend from Arcadia in 2005, the biggest in British corporate history. No tax was paid on the dividend because of her Monaco base. The Greens, who had once amassed a £4.9bn estimated fortune, fell off the UK’s list of billionaires in 2019.
Veteran retail analyst Richard Hyman said: “He’s gone from zero to hero, and now it looks like he’s going back to zero again.”
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