INDEPENDENT 2024-02-18 04:33:54

Zelensky warns ‘artificial shortage’ of weapons only helps Putin

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has urged allies to help plug Ukraine’s “artificial deficit of weapons” just hours after his military chief announced a withdrawal from the eastern city of Avdiivka, which Kyiv has been struggling to hold for months.

Addressing world leaders, diplomats and military officials gathered at the Munich Security Conference, Mr Zelensky warned that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatened not just Europe but every country, as it was “war against any rules at all”.

“Keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in the deficit of artillery and long range capabilities allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” he said in his opening address at the annual German conference, which is the world’s largest forum for discussing security policy. There have been delays over Western support for Ukraine, particularly in military aid from the US, in recent months.

“Russia has only one specific advantage at this time: the complete devaluation of human life. Constant Russian meat assaults prove this,” Mr Zelensky added.

He said that Ukrainians had proven that they can force Russia to retreat, citing the gains in the north, east and south of Ukraine.

“We can get our land back, and Putin can lose, and this has already happened more than once on the battlefield.”

“Our actions are limited only by the sufficiency and length of range of our strength,” he added, pointing to the situation in Avdiivka.

Ukrainian commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi said earlier on Saturday that he was withdrawing troops from the pulverised city to save soldiers’ lives as they were under threat of being encircled and cut off. Outnumbered Ukrainian forces have been battling a brutal Russian assault for four months.

Ukrainian diplomats have told The Independent that in some areas Ukraine is outnumbered one to six in terms of military hardware and that they were having to ration artillery at great risk to the lives of their servicemen and women.

The front lines are now dubbed “the meat grinder”. Ukrainian commanders in past interviews with The Independent have said Moscow is throwing “an unlimited supply of men at the problem” and that Russian commanders were sending barrages of their soldiers to overwhelm Ukrainian units “like zombies”.

President Zelensky referenced the heavy Rusisan death toll, suggesting that Moscow had achieved little in its assault on the Avdiivka bar losing thousands of soldiers in a significant “depletion of their army”.

“We’re just waiting for weapons that we’re short of,” he added, pointing to a lack of long-range weapons. “That’s why our weapon today is our soldiers, our people.”

His speech also came just a day after Russia announced the death of prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny who was being held in a penal colony in the Arctic Circle.

The Ukrainian president joined some 60 world leaders gathered at the conference held in Germany this weekend, after whistlestop tours to Berlin and Paris, where he signed long-term bilateral security agreements with Germany and France, following a similar agreement with Britain last month.

Ukraine’s European allies are appealing to the US Congress to approve a package that includes aid for Ukraine amounting to $60bn (£47.6bn) that would go largely to US defence entities to manufacture missiles, munitions and other military hardware for the battlefields in Ukraine. The package faces resistance from House Republicans, particularly from Trump-supporting legislators.

The Nato secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, who was also speaking at the Munich conference, warned Congress’s delay has meant the flow of US weapons and ammunition plummeted, with a direct impact on the front line.

“Every week we wait means that there will be more people killed on the front line in Ukraine,” he said.

Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas, whose country directly borders Russia, raising fears of a potential invasion, warned any further delays threatens global security.

“If America isolates itself, it eventually is going to cost you more,” she said, warning that if “aggression pays off somewhere, it serves as an invitation to use it elsewhere, jeopardising global security.”

Bronwen Maddox, the head of British think tank Chatham House, who is attending the conference, told The Independent the issue of growing American isolation, no matter who is in the White House, was at the centre of discussions across the conference.

“Part of the debate… has been trying to make the point to the US that Russia doesn’t just affect Europe, it affects the US and everyone,” she said.

Casting a shadow over the conference was the impending US election and the possibility of a win by Donald Trump. Republicans aligned to the former president have expressed growing skepticism for funding a war in Eastern Europe.

President Zelensky acknowledging this said he was willing to show Mr Trump the “real” war by taking him to the front.

“If Mr Trump comes, I am ready to go to the front with him,” he said at the conference. “If we have a conversation about how to end the war, we must demonstrate to the decision-makers what this real war means, not what they write on Instagram.”

In his speech, Mr Zelensky pointedly reminded the world that no one escaped the threat of the ongoing war in Europe.

“This war defines more than just the place of Ukraine or the entire of Europe,” he said. “This is Russia’s war against any rules at all.”

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.

David Cameron to visit Falkland Islands

David Cameron has said the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands is “not up for discussion” as he prepares to visit in a show of support for its population.

The new Argentinian president, Javier Milei, pledged during his recent election campaign that he would gain sovereignty over the islands.

He has said Buenos Aires had “non-negotiable sovereignty” over the islands, although he has vowed to get the islands back through “diplomatic channels”.

Downing Street insists the issue of sovereignty is “settled”.

A referendum in 2013 saw islanders overwhelmingly vote to remain a self-governing UK overseas territory.

Ahead of his visit, foreign secretary Lord Cameron said: “The Falkland Islands are a valued part of the British family, and we are clear that as long as they want to remain part of the family, the issue of sovereignty will not be up for discussion.”

He described the islands as a “modern, prosperous community” and said locals “should be proud” of what they had built.

Lord Cameron will pay his respects to the British armed forces personnel who served and lost their lives during the Falklands War in 1982 after Argentinian forces invaded.

He is also expected to thank the military serving on the islands today.

The visit will be the first part of a trip that will also see him become the first foreign secretary to visit Paraguay. After that he will travel to a meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Brazil and then on to New York.

Mr Milei, who has been nicknamed “El Loco” or the madman, is reported to have said during a televised election debate: “What do I propose? Argentina’s sovereignty over the Malvinas islands is non-negotiable. The Malvinas are Argentinian.

“Now we have to see how we are going to get them back. It is clear that the war option is not a solution. We had a war – that we lost – and now we have to make every effort to recover the islands through diplomatic channels.”

Mr Milei has also proposed that the UK hand over the Falklands in a similar way to how Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in the late 1990s.

Disabled grandmother drowns in funeral bills after losing two children

A disabled grandmother who lost two of her children in the space of two years “couldn’t afford to put the heating on” after paying thousands in funeral bills.

Carole Collins says she had sleepless nights and struggled to eat as the burden of funeral costs suffocated her grief.

The 62-year-old from Andover lost her son, Wayne Eastman, after he took his own life on 20 May 2018. Despite only being able to afford the “bare minimum” for his funeral, the cost still racked up to approximately £4,500.

“When my son died at the age of 33, it was so unexpected. We didn’t have any money to put towards his funeral, so we set up a GoFundMe page, but that only raised around £200,” Ms Collins told The Independent.

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As a recipient of benefits, Ms Collins received around £1,000 from the government towards her son’s service but had to pay the rest herself.

She suffered another devastating loss when her daughter, Nicky Wren, passed away just two years later on 16 May 2020 following a long battle with cancer.

The grieving mother was left to take on the emotional and financial responsibilities of the 39-year-old’s three children and pets, as well as pay for her funeral.

The costs came to just under £3,898, excluding extra for a burial plot and headstone.

Ms Collins received around £1,000 towards the funeral from the government but she was still left to pay the remainder out of her own pocket, and after taking on her daughter’s children, this caused her significant financial stress.

“If it was just myself, I could live off a bit of toast and coffee,” she said. “But because of the kids, I couldn’t cut back on groceries.

“You don’t sleep at night when you have money worries. Everyone kept telling me I’d lost weight. I couldn’t bring myself to eat a thing.”

It comes as the cost of dying reaches a record high in the UK, with one in five families experiencing “notable financial concerns” when paying for a funeral, according to SunLife’s Cost of Dying report for 2024.

Ms Collins said after her daughter’s funeral, it took her around 12 months to get on top of her finances.

“All the bills were out of the window: credit card debts, council tax, loan companies,” she said. “I couldn’t afford to put the heating on through the winter.

“I had to go onto an IVA [individual voluntary arrangement] because I had no choice. It was like robbing Peter to pay Paul all the time. You can’t afford to live in this country and you certainly can’t afford to die.”

It has been almost four years since Nicky passed away, and Ms Collins is still paying off costs built up from her funeral.

“Once one thing starts crumbling, the rest is like dominoes,” she said.

According to SunLife’s report looking at the growing expenses for the bereaved, the average cost has soared to £9,658. This figure, which includes the price of a funeral, professional fees and other send-off costs, is the highest in the 20 years SunLife has been tracking them.

The latest report shows a basic funeral in the UK, which includes a burial or cremation, all funeral director fees, a mid-range coffin, one funeral limousine, as well as doctor and celebrant fees, has increased to £4,141 from £3,953 last year.

If you need to speak to someone, Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123.

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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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.

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Rishi Sunak cannot afford to become consumed by by-election defeats

At a time when Vladimir Putin is asserting his brutal power ever more blatantly, when Ukrainian forces are being pushed back, and when the situation in Gaza is bleaker than ever, the British prime minister cannot afford to be distracted by the protest votes for a minority party in by-elections.

The Reform UK bandwagon may appear to be picking up speed. In Wellingborough, Ben Habib won 13 per cent of the vote and in Kingswood, Rupert Lowe won 10 per cent. This suggests that national opinion polls, putting the party on an average of 10 per cent, are accurate.

The prime minister has responded by launching an appeal for all voters who oppose a Labour government to unite behind the Conservative Party, making the argument that “a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives will just help Starmer”. That this is obviously true does not conceal Rishi Sunak’s desperation.

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?