INDEPENDENT 2024-02-17 16:34:03


Troops retreating from Avdiivka captured by Putin’s army as town set to fall

Ukrainian troops retreating from the eastern frontline town of Avdiivka have been captured during a dangerous retreat, a Ukrainian military commander has revealed.

“At the final stage of the (withdrawal) operation, under the pressure of the overwhelming enemy forces, a certain number of Ukrainian servicemen were captured,” Ukrainian Brigadier-General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi wrote on Telegram.

He said Ukrainian troops had now moved to the second line of defences near Avdiivka.

The withdrawal from Avdiivka was announced by the newly-appointed Ukrainian military chief Oleksandry Syrskyi earlier on Friday.

It is the first Ukrainian area to fall to Russia since the takeover of the nearby besieged Bakhmut last May, an attack that was led by the mercenary Wagner Group.

“Based on the operational situation around Avdiivka, in order to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen, I decided to withdraw our units from the city and move to defence on more favourable lines,” Gen Syrskyi wrote.

Earlier this week, a crack 3rd Assault Brigade was rotated in to defend the city from a Russian encirclement after the Kremlin’s forces pushed into the northeast and south of the city.

Ten arrested at pro-Palestine march near Israeli embassy in London

Ten people were arrested at a pro-Palestine march in central London on Saturday afternoon which called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The arrests were for a string of alleged offence, with one detained on suspicion of support for a terrorist organisation.

A man holding a placard near Hyde Park was also arrested on suspicion of inciting racial hatred. Officers who made the arrest were then allegedly attacked, resulting in six people being arrested on suspicion of assaulting an emergency worker, the Metropolitan Police said.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign said that between 200,000 and 250,000 people were expected to attend the demonstration, which started at the south side of Marble Arch at 1.30pm.

Demonstrators held banners calling for a “ceasefire now” and chanted “free, free Palestine” in the streets of the capital. Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader, was among those present at the march.

Saturday’s demonstration was the second time since the 7 October terror attacks by Hamas, which is proscribed by the UK government, that a pro-Palestine protest has taken place near the Israeli embassy.

A static rally was held near the embassy on 9 October. Police said the start time allowed for a synagogue event to finish.

Speakers were due to address crowds near the Israeli embassy and they must stop by 5pm, while protesters must leave by 6pm, police said.

The Met said “there will be some who ask why” a decision to allow the protest so close to the embassy was allowed but that it is a “common misconception” that forces can allow or refuse permission for a protest to take place.

“A real risk of serious disorder” sufficient for the Met to request that the home secretary ban the protest has not been seen at recent demonstrations and was not expected on Saturday, the force added.

The march set off along Park Lane and was due to continue to Knightsbridge and Kensington Road, ending at the junction with Kensington Court where the speeches will take place.

Around 1,500 police officers from forces across the UK are set to be on public order duties during the demonstration.

Protesters were to be kept more than 100m away from the embassy grounds, behind barriers controlled by officers and face arrest if they do not do so.

Conditions under Section 12 of the Public Order Act meaning that any person participating in the march must not deviate from the route.

Police also said no gazebos or other stalls were allowed to be erected in a specified area at Marble Arch.

Two other people were arrested for refusing to remove face coverings when required to do so by officers under Section 60AA of the Public Order Act.

The Met said it was keeping the use of further police powers under review.

At least 28,663 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its military operation in the strip in October in response to the October 7 attacks, where militants killed some 1,200 people and took another 250 hostage.

Israel is being urged not to send ground forces into Rafah on the Egyptian border, where many of the strip’s citizens are now living after areas closer to their homes became engulfed by fighting.

Fury at NHS hospital’s sign banning samosas in library

An NHS HR boss has apologised after a printed sign singled out “very smelly” Indian dishes being brought into a library.

The sign was put up next to computers at the York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust library before it was hastily removed on Friday.

It read: “Please do not bring any food any food into the library space.

“Especially not samosas, pakoras or filled chapatis as they are very smelly.”

Dr Partha Kar, diabetes consultant at Portsmouth hospital, told The Independent that the sign had undone months of work towards equality at the NHS which lists nearly 16 per cent of professionally qualified clinical staff as Asian.

He said: “You can’t control some idiot putting up a sign like that. It’s silly and you gain nothing out of it – all you gain is people’s aggravation.

“The trust responded to me saying it’s unacceptable it has been taken down. So I’m presuming that it wasn’t an accident and someone from the trust put that up.

“I think the concept of not bringing food into the library is absolutely bang on the money. But when you start saying not this, or that it becomes a problem.

“Fish and Chips with salt and vinegar doesn’t quite smell like Chanel blue either.

“Just say don’t bring food and drink into the library full stop.”

Head of HR Polly McMeekin, posted an apology on X claiming the sign had been taken down. She added: “Thanks for flagging. Agree totally unacceptable.

“Thankfully removed yesterday by York and Scarborough Hospitals NHS Library team as soon as they discovered it.

“Really disappointing and not in line with York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals behaviours at all.”

But Dr Kar added: “It’s just unprofessional on so many levels. If it’s meant as tongue in cheek then it is a really bad joke.

“Is it blatantly racist? Yes it is. But we don’t know if it’s done consciously or if they are trying to make a joke that has fallen completely flat.

“With one sign you undo a good 18 months of work towards equality that I know goes on behind the scenes in the NHS on a difficult, emotive subject.

“It would be good to hear from the trust if they are looking into it. There are lessons to be learned for other trusts as well.

“People online have gone nuts. They want to find out who they are and have them sacked but I think that is a little bit silly too.

“If someone has done it then you need to sit them down with them and have a word and explain this is 2024 not 1947 so can we be aware of the trust’s values?”

“It’s just wrong anyway. According to every single food survey an Indian curry is one of the top things English people eat.”

Many responded to the viral post blasting the need to specifically mention food of Indian origin.

Prof Nitin Shrotri, a consultant urologist and Vice Chair at the Centre for Race Equality in Medicine, wrote on X: “Most people are nice, a few are naughty and very few are really nasty. I hope whoever put this up gets called out. It was totally uncalled for.”

NHS Psychiatrist Raja Ahmed joked: “That’s my retirement plan. To open a Pakora and Samosa stall in front of a big university hospital in the UK.”

An on-call NHS manager, who did not want to be named, said she assumed there would be an investigation into who put up the sign.

She told The Independent: “As soon as we were made aware of the poster it was removed and we apologise for any upset it has caused.

“It is not in keeping with the trust views and behaviours.”

York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has been approached for further comment.

Trump fined more than $350m in New York fraud case: Latest updates

Justice Arthur Engoron has delivered his verdict in Donald Trump’s New York civil fraud trial that sees the former president, his company, and his associates with $355m in fines — with interest $463.9m — and a three-year ban on doing business in the state.

The judge had already ruled that Mr Trump inflated his wealth on financial statements that were given to banks and insurers to make deals and secure favourable loans.

New York Attorney General Letitia James who brought the case had sought $370m in disgorgement from the entities.

On Thursday, another Big Apple justice, Judge Juan Merchan, denied Mr Trump’s motion to dismiss the case brought against him by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg for allegedly falsifying business records to conceal a “hush money” payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels, setting a trial date of 25 March.

And, in Georgia, Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis took to the witness stand to defend herself and former boyfriend Nathan Wade against a motion arguing they should be disqualified from prosecuting the sprawling racketeering case brought against Mr Trump and others over their alleged effort to interfere in the 2020 election in the Peach State.

Good job, no savings: meet the young professionals with less than a grand in the bank

Once upon a time, there was a young woman with £40,000 in the bank. This princely sum was garnered over a decade of scrimping and saving, with a little bit of help from the government’s lifetime ISA scheme – where they gifted you £1k if you managed to deposit £4k in a year – and topped up by, oh-so-inevitably, the Bank of Mum and Dad (in this case just mum). She felt safe and secure, knowing that if something happened – a sudden job loss or unexpected health condition – she would have a financial buffer to help weather the storm.

Then, she did what you’re supposed to do when you finally acquire that level of cash: she bought a house. And, within the year, nearly every last penny of those once-lofty savings had been obliterated. She – or should I say “I” – had officially joined the 11 million-strong contingent of working-age Brits who currently have less than £1,000 of savings in the bank.

This is according to a new report from the Resolution Foundation and the abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, which found that those with access to less than a grand accounted for about one in three working-age households. It calculates that the UK has a £74bn shortfall when it comes to money set aside for emergencies and retirement, compared to if each household had a minimum of three months’ salary saved.

When I saw this, I almost laughed out loud. Three months’ salary? I’d be lucky to store up three days’ worth.

I bought my property in the autumn of 2022. At first, it wasn’t so bad financially, despite living alone for the first time and having to pay all the bills as a single-income household. However, last year, as prices rose, the cost-of-living crisis started to bite and unexpected outgoings like a new roof took their toll. I found myself having to repeatedly dip into the meagre savings I still had. Every month, I deposited £200 into my rainy day fund. Every month, I moved it back to my current account, along with a bit extra, during the week before payday. As it currently stands, I have – deep breath – exactly £305.69.

To put this in context, I work full-time in a job with a salary that puts me in the top 25 per cent of earners in the UK. I don’t consider myself to have a particularly extravagant lifestyle; I don’t own a car, rarely buy clothes other than the occasional £5 Vinted top, and am in the insanely fortunate position of not having had to pay for a holiday in nearly a decade, thanks to my previous gig as a travel editor.

I do, admittedly, have a penchant for restaurant dinners and spicy margaritas. If I really wanted to, I could give up these precious nights out with friends. But sometimes I think, to what end? Yes, it’s irresponsible, but it doesn’t feel like I’ll ever be able to save sufficient funds to cover the big stuff – sorting out the damp-proofing, getting married, retiring (ha, the very idea!) – so why not spend the disposable income I do have on treats that will bring me joy?

This sentiment is shared by Grace*, a 40-year-old mum of one in a well-paid, full-time editing job. She currently earns £50k; her partner is also employed full-time. Still, they struggle to put anything aside each month.

She and her partner have a grand total of £102 of savings although, she’s quick to add, the amount of debt they’ve accrued thanks to an unexpected tax bill means that they’re really in the red. “I’ve always lived a very hand-to-mouth existence,” she tells me. Having had an early career typified by badly paid jobs, Grace assumed she would finally start saving when she earned more money. “But I just have a nicer life when that happens,” she says. “If you’ve had to have a reasonably tight belt for a while, the temptation is to enjoy being able to relax for a little bit. Lifestyle creep is real. Earning more, you think: we can go to the cinema instead of watching Netflix; we can afford to pay for a babysitter and have a meal out.”

“Lifestyle creep” is the idea that, as our income increases, so does our standard of living. Things that were previously considered luxuries become the norm. It’s why you see stories about undeniably wealthy people claiming to be struggling – their outgoings have grown in line with their finances. A new kitchen, second home, private school fees and several holidays a year are now not considered “nice-to-haves” but “necessities”. MP George Freeman is perhaps the perfect example of the phenomenon; he hit headlines last month for saying he’d quit his role as science minister because he could no longer afford his mortgage payments. This was despite being on a salary of almost £120,000 a year, putting him in the top 1 per cent of all British earners.

The mortgage issue highlighted by Freeman is real, though. Grace’s mortgage rate was previously 1.5 per cent; it will leap to more like 5 per cent when they remortgage, costing hundreds of pounds more a month. Meanwhile, childcare alone costs them £1,500 a month: “Everything’s so expensive.”

While Ophie, 35, from Kent, earns significantly less than Grace, she has far fewer major outgoings. She works three jobs – as an artist, bartender and shop assistant – that add up to more than a full-time job. Renting a flat with her husband, who is employed full-time, Ophie is free from the costs of being a homeowner; doesn’t own a car; and doesn’t have children. Still, she says, she currently has just £130 in savings.

“At one point, that would have terrified me,” she tells me. “The thought of not having an escape route… Now, I’m just numb to it.”

Having never been out of work since leaving education, Ophie has nevertheless always found it a challenge to put money aside. “The cost-of-living crisis hasn’t helped as a follow-up to Covid,” she says. “But also my entrance into the working world was during the financial crisis. It’s always been a struggle.”

Ophie has accepted that, if a big unexpected bill comes their way, she and her husband will simply “make it work”. Most recently, their beloved dog needed an operation that pet insurance wouldn’t cover. The £900 cost of the procedure went straight on credit, to be paid back in monthly instalments. “I’m quite nonchalant about it these days,” she says of borrowing. “I’ve sadly gotten used to it.”

Assistant headteacher Clare* from East London, who currently earns £46,000 a year, reports a similar struggle. The mother of three has a personal and a joint bank account – both are currently overdrawn. “I had some savings before I met my husband,” she says. “I was always good with money. But we bought our first house and did it up, and then had two kids, before moving to a bigger house which we also renovated. In terms of moving up the pay scale at work, our SLT (senior leadership team) took a pay freeze to help the school’s finances about four years ago.”

She says it’s “scary” to find herself in this financial position aged 40, but tries to look on the bright side: “I live in a lovely house and we can afford to pay the bills so we are very lucky.”

So how did we get into a position where so many of us have no monetary safety net?

Education is one area in which the UK has been historically weak. Two-thirds of young adults who experienced financial difficulties believe better financial education could have helped them, research conducted by think tank the Centre for Social Justice revealed. Although financial education was officially added to the curriculum for secondary schools run by local authorities in 2014, it was largely incorporated into non-core subjects such as PSHE, with the FT’s Financial Literacy and Inclusion Campaign (Flic) finding that pressure on teachers and lack of time impacted on the delivery of provision. Meanwhile, it still isn’t even compulsory for free schools and academies.

And getting in there early does make a difference. A 2022 survey by the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) found that children who received a meaningful financial education were more likely to save money more regularly, feel more confident about managing their money, and demonstrate positive day-to-day money management skills.

There is at least some indication that things might be changing on this front; in November 2023 it was announced that the UK’s failures when it comes to teaching financial education would be investigated by MPs in a formal review. The UK Strategy for Financial Wellbeing has set a goal of two million more children and young people receiving a meaningful financial education by 2030.

The answer proposed by the Resolution Foundation, the think tank behind the original savings research, is to build upon the existing auto-enrolment pension scheme. It has suggested upping the contributions from 8 to 12 per cent – with employers and employees putting in 6 per cent each – and ringfencing 2 per cent of the total money into an easy-access “sidecar savings” scheme of up to £1,000, which people can dip into pre-retirement when they’re in need.

As for Grace, although she’s recently been thinking more about saving, there remains little incentive to do so. “There’s nothing to encourage us to save, really,” she says. “The government doesn’t want you to save – they want you to spend so that it benefits the economy. So really, by going out to dinner, I’m helping us all!”

*Names have been changed

Versatile Vienna: from concerts and culture to wild swimming

The elegant city of Vienna, Austria’s capital, perches daintily on the Danube River, and is renowned for being a hotbed of culture. Art and music are woven into Vienna’s very DNA; it has been called the ‘City of Music’ because so many famous musicians, such as Beethoven and Mozart, lived here, and it’s where you’ll find one of the world’s most beautiful paintings – Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss – among a whole host of museums and galleries to lose yourself in. What’s more, it also boasts a wealth of wonderful natural sites and outdoor activities to enjoy, from vast parks, to pretty forests, refreshing pools and stretches of river, all within the city.

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Here are just some of the reasons why Vienna makes the perfect choice…

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Boutique Hotel Donauwalzer offers bright, quirky decor, a sleek art deco bar and easy access to the sites, museums, galleries and shops of Vienna. Or immerse yourself in Austrian culture at the Best Western Plus Amedia Wien, located in the city’s third district. Here you can enjoy a lavish buffet breakfast of local delicacies before heading out to explore the local markets and enjoy summer strolls along the Danube.

Alternatively, up the elegance factor with a stay at the Grand Ferdinand, a beautifully restored landmarked building in an enviable location. With St Stephen’s Cathedral, Hofburg Palace, the Museums Quarter, City Park and Vienna State Opera all within walking distance, it makes the perfect luxurious base to explore this fascinating city.

Culturally, you can’t do better than starting with The Kiss. The final painting of what was known as Klimt’s Golden Period, its depiction of two entwined lovers makes use of gold leaf and flakes of gold, silver and platinum, creating a stunning luminous effect that needs to be seen first-hand. Located in the beautiful, 300-year-old Upper Belvedere Palace, the piece rubs shoulders with works by other famous artists, including Monet and Van Gogh. While you’re here, make sure to enjoy a stroll through the landscaped gardens of this elaborate Baroque palace complex.

For even more inspiring artworks and cultural events, head to the MuseumsQuartier Wien, better known as MQ; the area is home to a cluster of museums, galleries and theatres, with dozens of exhibitions that will appeal to adults and children alike.

Finally, immerse yourself in Viennese history with a trip to Hofburg, the former Imperial Palace of the Habsburg dynasty. Once you’ve visited the grand Imperial apartments and the Sisi Museum – dedicated to the Empress Elisabeth, or ‘Sisi’, of Austria – make your way to the Palace’s Spanish Riding School, where you can watch the handsome Lipizzaner horses train, exercise, practice and perform dressage.

You can enjoy all the fun of the fair at the Prater amusement park, from roller coasters to ghost trains, but its standout attraction is the Wiener Riesenrad, or Big Wheel, which sits just by the entrance. Constructed in 1897, it stands 212ft high, and offers incredible views over the city. The iconic structure has even featured in several films, including 1940s film noir The Third Man, and James Bond classic The Living Daylights.

If you’re here in the warmer months, you might be surprised to discover that there are several outdoor swimming spots within the city, perfect for a refreshing dip. Along the Danube you’ll find the likes of Strandbad Gänsehäufel, one of the most popular stretches of the river with locals; An der Unteren Alten Donau, which has piers from which you can dive straight in, comfortable wooden reclining seats and a wide boardwalk; and the lively An der Oberen Alten Donau, known for its pier parties and night swimming.

After any exertion, it’s time to do as the Viennese do, and spend the afternoon in a Kaffeehaus. Kaffee und kuchen is a popular Austrian tradition, and the best-known cake in the country is the Sachertorte, a rich, luxurious combination of chocolate sponge, dark chocolate ganache and a thin layer of apricot jam. Try it in the red-velveted, gilt-mirrored surrounds of the Hotel Sacher, where it’s said to have been first invented, or at the historic Cafe Central, which dates from 1876 and has played host to writers, intellectuals and public figures including Leon Trotsky and Sigmund Freud.

You can also escape into nature via one of the many gorgeous green spaces dotted across Vienna. Prater Park is carpeted in forest and meadow, perfect for picnicking, while the national park of Lobau, known as the city’s jungle, houses more than 800 types of plant and over 100 bird species. There is even a wine region – where you’ll find sprawling vines and rolling hills – in the city’s 19th district.

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With Navalny, Russia has taken another step into Stalinist barbarity

The circumstances in which Alexei Navalny died are, typically, unclear, but they are plainly suspicious. And so, with his death, Russia has taken another step into Stalinist barbarity.

He was, after all, in the “care” of the Russian prison service, incarcerated in an Arctic penal colony – where he should never have been sent in the first place – and generally maltreated in solitary confinement, denied healthcare and his wife’s letters.

Navalny was the nearest thing Russia had to a leader of the opposition. Therefore, his jailers would have known full well that he was an enemy of Vladimir Putin. They did not need to be ordered to mistreat him. Whether Navalny was directly poisoned, say, or merely succumbed to his depredations and collapsed, he was still assassinated by the Putin regime.

If Sunak is going to lose, what should he do in the next nine months?

The main significance of this week’s by-elections, for a prime minister hoping for something to turn up, is that nothing turned up. The voters confirmed that the public mood as portrayed by the opinion polls is accurate: people intend to vote Labour; they want the Conservatives out; and a chunk of the core Tory vote has defected to Reform.

Rishi Sunak can try his hardest to minimise Tory losses, but his chances of avoiding defeat at the general election now depend on a big and unexpected disruption to national life.

Which means that the working assumption is that he has another nine months in No 10, before the election that he has pencilled in for 14 November – although I still think it could be 12 December, exactly five years after the last.

I noticed, incidentally, that the demand for a “general election now” is not as insistent as Keir Starmer likes to pretend. A We Think opinion poll this week found the cursed ratio: 48 per cent want an election “immediately”, while 52 per cent do not. Most are happy to let Sunak have his last few months in office.

So the big question now is what he should do with the time he has left. To which the obvious answer is that he should do the right things for the country. That is why the headlines this week, about Jeremy Hunt cutting future public spending plans to pay for tax cuts, struck such a discordant note. The last thing he and Sunak should be trying to do is buy votes. It is not going to work, and it is the wrong thing for the country.

There is not enough time now for the voters to feel so much better off by polling day that tax cuts or real pay rises are going to make a difference. In any case, the disaffection with the Conservatives seems to go deeper than numbers in voters’ bank accounts: we are near that cleansing moment in a democracy where the people decide that it is time for change.

Sunak should not be trying to buy votes; nor should he be hankering too hard to leave a legacy. Theresa May did that: because the end of her premiership was also advertised long in advance, she tried to bounce the Treasury into agreeing a big increase in education spending. When Philip Hammond said no, she latched on instead to a promise on the never-never: net zero carbon by 2050.

In a sense, Sunak has already done the right thing by trying to inject some democratic realism into that net zero target, but the trouble is that too many people think he was trying to buy core Tory votes. Equally, I think he was right and brave to cancel the rest of HS2, releasing public investment for better use elsewhere. He should do more of that, making decisions that are in the national interest but that a Labour government might find hard to make.

Above all, though, he and Hunt should forget about tax cuts. Every public service is run down and in urgent need of more money. Many of them could do with a strong dose of radical reform too, of course, but the money comes first. The NHS, housing, criminal justice, asylum, defence: the demands are huge. People would always like to pay less tax, but at the moment public opinion, faced with a choice between tax cuts and public spending, prefers better public services. The best legacy is to do the right thing.

The same goes for Starmer and Rachel Reeves, if Labour wins. They must know that taxes are going to have to rise in the early years of a Labour government. Reeves needs to avoid boxing herself in any further by ruling out tax rises, even if it means that her definition of “closing tax loopholes” is going to have to be broad.

There is an interesting quotation from Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, in the extract from Tom Baldwin’s biography of Starmer published today. She says: “Keir is the least political person I know in politics … His natural instinct is, ‘Forget the politics – is this right or wrong?’”

She obviously thinks this is naive: “There’s lots of grey in politics – it’s not necessarily as clear-cut as that.” But usually, doing the right thing for the country is the best politics. That is why I was struck by something George Osborne said in his podcast with Ed Balls, Reeves’s predecessor as shadow chancellor. He suggested that a Labour government – he did say “if there is one” – should negotiate a customs union with the EU.

This would ease some of the barriers to trade with the EU and reduce the costs of Brexit. Indeed, it was essentially what Theresa May’s compromise withdrawal agreement sought to do. More significantly, Osborne observed that it would trap the Tory party. The Tories would be bound to oppose the policy and to promise to reverse it, but this promise would become an albatross around their necks if the customs union was seen as good for jobs and pay.

Again, Labour should be careful not to rule out a customs union too emphatically before the election: ruling out rejoining the EU or its single market is one thing; anything else should fall under the heading of “making Brexit work better”.

Those, then, are my tests for the next nine months and the period immediately after the general election: will Sunak, and Starmer, “forget the politics” and do the right thing?