INDEPENDENT 2024-05-20 10:11:05


Putin loses more than 1,500 soldiers in faltering Kharkiv offensive

Russia has lost more than 1,500 soldiers in the past week in the grinding war in Kharkiv even as Vladimir Putin claimed he has “no plans” to take Ukraine’s second largest city.

As of yesterday evening, Russia has lost 1,572 soldiers in just the last seven days and 263 units of military equipment, including 75 drones, 66 army vehicles and eight tanks, Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said.

In the past 24 hours Russian troops have tried to break through Ukraine’s defences using aircraft and guided aerial bombs, and there have been around a dozen ground skirmishes.

Tens of thousands of Russian forces stormed across the border into the Kharkiv region last month to capture the city. But Mr Putin, speaking in Beijing last week, said his troops have “no plans as of today” to try and take control of Kharkiv city.

This comes as at least 11 people were killed and dozens were wounded after Russian forces struck a busy lakeside resort on the edge of Kharkiv and attacked villages in the surrounding region.

Paula Vennells ‘heading into corner where there is no way out’

The former Post Office boss is “heading into a corner where there is no way out” as she is set to give evidence at the Horizon IT inquiry, a fomer subpostmistress said.

Jo Hamilton, who was prosecuted after being falsely accused of stealing £36,000 from the company, said former Post Office chief exectuive Paula Vennells should apologise and come clean about the scandal.

Ms Vennells is set to give evidence to the probe on Wednesday but was said to believe there had been no miscarriages of justice – of which more than 700 people were affected by when handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015.

“You can fight all you like, the documents are there – but eventually she’s heading into the corner where there’s no way out,” Ms Hamilton said.

“We just want the truth. You’d have thought a bit of her humanity would have come out and she should have done the right thing.

“I don’t know – is she feeble? Is she really a feeble person? Was she over-promoted? The whole thing I find bizarre. I’m really intrigued to know what she’s going to come out with.

The Post Office came under fire after ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which put the Horizon IT scandal under the spotlight.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Hundreds of subpostmasters are still awaiting full compensation despite the Government announcing those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.

But the inquiry heard Ms Vennells did not believe there had been miscarriages of justice during evidence given by the firm’s current chief financial officer Alisdair Cameron on Friday.

Commenting on the evidence, Ms Hamilton added: “She did know. The tone of some of her emails – I’m sure of it. So she knew they were in trouble.

“I’m obviously not privy to all the disclosure like the lawyers are but I know there’s stuff that exists that shows she knew, and she just carried it on.

“Eventually, if there are criminal charges for perverting the course of justice, she might as well come clean now, because as I was told, if you do an early plea, you get a lesser sentence – except I hadn’t done anything.

“If I was her, I wouldn’t be in that position in the first place, but if I was her I would just put my hands up now and say ‘do you know what, we’re all in it up to our necks, I’m really sorry and this is what happened’ and then take it on the chin.

Solicitor Neil Hudgell, whose firm represents Ms Hamilton and 74 other subpostmasters, said: “Our clients have waited a very long time to hear Ms Vennells’ evidence, and it goes without saying that the week ahead is of monumental significance.

“It is not for me to speculate on what evidence Ms Vennells may give to the inquiry, but as the operational head of the organisation it is for her to take ownership and accountability for what went on during her term of office.

“Victims of this scandal are re-traumatised every time they hear denial, untruth or subterfuge and can’t begin to move on without answers, accountability and genuinely expressed regret and sorrow.

“We sincerely hope that Ms Vennells will deliver on her promise to bring much needed clarity and understanding to these proceedings.”

The Department for Business and Trade has received 187 claims as of 30 April and has made offers on 173 of these and paid 141.

Heston Blumenthal reveals bipolar diagnosis

Heston Blumenthal has revealed that he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is speaking out about the condition to break the stigma around neurodivergence in the workplace.

The esteemed chef, 57, is best known for his off-the-wall recipies like snail porridge that have made him a household name and familiar face on TV.

Blumenthal, who was previously diagnosed with ADHD in 2017, described his neurodivergence as his “superpower” but said that people like him are “woefully underrepresented” in the workplace.

He cited research he commissioned into the subject which found that one in 10 respondents (11 percent) had a diagnosed neurodivergence.

Of these neurodivergent people, 47 percent said they have found it harder to secure employment and a further 21 percent said they were not in any form of work.

Neurodivergence is an umbrella term for people with a wide range of conditions that causes their brain function to differ from what is considered normal.

“These are individuals who may have exceptional skills and unparalleled abilities yet because of traditional ways of working, we are missing out on the brilliance they can bring to UK business,” Blumenthal said.

“I hope that being open about my own mental health will raise awareness of the issue and I want to campaign to highlight the contribution neurodiversity can make to the workplace.”

The chef then put his own creativity down to being neurodivergent.

“My most artistic, innovative and exciting work is because I am neurodivergent, which I describe as my superpower,” he said.

“The world needs to move on from outdated and archaic misinterpretations of perceived difference, and embrace the opportunities neurodiversity presents.”

As reported by the NHS, bipolar is a mood disorder that affects around one in 100 people and is characterised by extreme mood swings that are both low and high.

Sinead Devine-French, chief science officer of The Positive Group, said: “Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace isn’t just a nice-to-have – it can be a strategic game-changer.

“Recognising that every individual brings a unique blend of strengths, cognitive experiences and perspectives enriches our thinking and propels our creativity.

“Leaders at the forefront know all too well the perils of the echo chamber. Increasing neurodiversity is their secret weapon to shatter this, enhancing the collective intelligence that thrives within diverse teams.”

Fire ants and Asian hornets: Public warned of invasive species

The public has been warned of a potential surge in damaging invasive non-native species this summer, including Asian hornets and Japanese Knotweed.

The UK’s chief plant health officer Nicola Spence has called for beekeepers and the wider public to be increasingly vigilant to the presence of the hornet after record sightings in the country last year.

Asian hornets threaten honey bees and insect pollinators.

The Environment Department (Defra) said the species is not established in the UK yet but early trapping is fundamental to eradication efforts.

It comes as the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL), which represents 83 nature organisations, warned that recent flooding and warming temperatures have increased the risk of problem species already in the UK growing and spreading.

This includes Japanese Knotweed, which can cause structural damage, Giant Hogweed, with sap that can cause burns to skin, and Himalayan Balsam, which out-competes native species and increases flood risks.

The WCL said the volatile conditions have also increased the risk of new species establishing themselves in the UK, like the Red Imported Fire Ant, Chinese Mitten Crab and Chinese Mystery Snail, which are making their way across Europe.

Richard Benwell, WCL chief executive, said: “Invasive species are already one of the biggest threats to the UK environment, from smothering waterways to outcompeting native species.

“They also cause billions of pounds in damage a year to homes and businesses, and even pose risks to human health.

The River Trust, Plantlife and Buglife are among the groups in the coalition, which is calling for Government action to mark Invasive Non-native Species Week from Monday.

“Investment in a fully-funded inspectorate and a strong invasive species strategy could make a contribution to halting nature’s decline and creating a more resilient economy,” Mr Benwell said.

Dr Rob Collins, director of Policy and Science at The Rivers Trust, said the weather conditions over winter have left its local trusts “struggling to keep a wave of invasive species at bay” as wet weather scuppers their efforts.

“The Government must properly support local conservation groups nationwide who are working tirelessly to stop our waterways being smothered by nature invaders,” he said.

The coalition is calling for the annual invasive species biosecurity budget to triple to £3 million with a further £3 million to fund a permanent dedicated invasive species Inspectorate.

It is also calling for long-term Government funding for Local Action Groups (LAGs) to create a biosecurity “citizens army”, as recommended by the Environmental Audit Committee.

Other recommendations include reforming the process of listing “GB Invasive Species of Special Concern” and proactively managing the listed species that are already widespread and causing harm.

Responding to WCL’s recommendations, a Defra spokesperson said: “Invasive species threaten our native biodiversity and cost the economy billions every year, which is why we support the Invasive Species Inspectorate in carrying out their role to protect the nation’s biosecurity.

“Through our Invasive Non-Native Species Strategy, we remain committed to going even further to detect, protect and eradicate the threats they pose, while increasing co-ordination and co-operation with the public, land managers and businesses to deliver this.”

Defra said members of the public can report any sightings of the Asian Hornet, which have very dark bodies, a wide orange stripe on the forth abdomen section and yellow leg ends, via the Asian Hornet Watch App.

It added that the National Bee Unit stands ready to respond quickly and effectively to any further possible sightings after attending every credible report last year and destroying 72 nests in 56 locations – mostly in Kent.

No inquest into death of Radio 2 DJ Steve Wright, says coroner

Steve Wright’s “unexpected” death will not be subject to an inquest, a coroner has ruled.

The Radio 2 DJ, 69, died in February of this year at his London home, and while the death was described as unexpected at the time, it was said not to be suspicious.

News of the passing was made public a day later by the DJ’s family, prompting a wave of tributes for the broadcaster of over five decades, who was credited with revolutionising the format of British breakfast radio shows.

Westminster Coroner’s Court said in a statement: “An inquest will not be required for Mr Wright.

“The coroner has now discontinued this case.”

Inquests are typically carried out into death sudden, unexpected deaths if there is any suspicion that a person has not died from natural causes – or if they were under state care of any kind at the time of their passing.

Following news of Wright’s death breaking, his close friend Mark Wells said he had undergone heart surgery “about 14 or 15 months ago”

“He had a bypass operation that had gone well and I think he was more ill than he was letting on,” Wells said.

Wright’s brother Laurence, 65, blamed his death on his diet and “lifestyle choices” in an interview with the Daily Mail.

“He was aware that he could have looked after himself better, in his lifestyle choices. Obviously, we all wish he had,” he said.

The DJ’s career began back in 1980 when he joined BBC Radio 1.

What followed was a glittering career across various stations including BBC World Service and BBC Radio 2 and ended at the BBC’s Pick of the Pops, which Wright presented until his death in February.

He was also known for his work as a presenter and regularly appeared on Top of the Pops between 1980 and 1989.

Wright received royal recognition only this year when he was named on the 2024 New Year Honours for services to radio.

Paying tribute to Wright, Tim David, BBC Director General said: “All of us at the BBC are heartbroken to hear this terribly sad news.

“Steve was a truly wonderful broadcaster who has been a huge part of so many of our lives over many decades. He was the ultimate professional – passionate about the craft of radio and deeply in touch with his listeners.

“This was deservedly recognised in the New Year Honours list with his MBE for services to radio.

“No-one had more energy to deliver shows that put a smile on audiences’ faces. They loved him deeply. We are thinking of Steve and his family and will miss him terribly.”

Wright is survived by his two children, Lucy and Tom.

Sun, sea and secret escapes: Why Crete should be your top holiday pick

A rich cultural heritage, glorious white-sand coasts and crystal clear seas – if there’s anywhere that ticks the boxes of a beautiful Grecian paradise, it’s the island of Crete.

Stonewashed waterfront cafes and wine bars line the historic 14th Century harbour, Chania, showcasing the early-day Venetian-influence that is now infused in Cretan life. Fringing the island are vast stretches of white-sand and pebble beaches, providing both lively and quiet pockets of paradise for everyone. History-enthusiasts shouldn’t miss a visit to Knossos Palace – a myth-laden 1600 BC fortress where tales of the minotaur are shared by local guides. While for those aching for the great outdoors, Samariá Gorge’s dramatic limestone trails lead to secluded swimming pools fringed with pretty waterfalls.

Crete is abundant with luxury hotels, offering immersive kids’ clubs, pristine Blue Flag shorelines and world-class restaurants. Book with British Airways Holidays and you can secure your holiday with a low deposit and pay the remaining balance off in as many or as few instalments as you like.*

With the added assurance of full ATOL protection (5985), as well as 23kg luggage allowance per person and a 24-hour holiday helpline all you need to do is sit back and dream of Crete. What’s more, British Airways Executive Club members can use their Avios Points for part payment on holiday packages (see ba.com/holidays for more details). Here we pick three incredible stays for the perfect break…

Located within a 10 minute drive of the old town of Rethymnon, and set on a beautiful, 1000m long sand and pebble “Blue Flag” awarded beach, LUXME White Palace is just one example of the ‘Luxury-Made-Easy’ ethos for which Grecotel is famous.

Stylish Grecian white walls adorn the open-style communal spaces here, providing light-filled interiors that lead out to the main deep blue seawater pool, with additional activity pools for children who wish to enjoy their own space. Even better, guests staying in the LUXME White Palace bungalows can step off the private terrace and directly into the ‘swim-up’ shared pool, while those booked into the Yali Suites can indulge in complete privacy with their own pool.

A wonderful waterfront promenade hosting seven restaurants overlooks the beach. Don’t miss adults-only The White with its degustation-style menu, while a visit to Tavernaki, will introduce you to traditional Cretan cuisine and the delights of meze and ouzo. Relaxed afternoons can be spent at ‘Long’ Beach Bar, sipping on an Athenian spritz or a premium wine from the resort’s two on-site wine cellars, against the enchanting backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea.

Exuding elegance and glamour through traditional Grecian furniture and renaissance-era artwork, this beachfront hotel – situated just 5km from the old town of Rethymnon, set on a prime beachfront location in the heart of the Cretan Riviera – Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort offers quirky decor, eclectically chic accommodation and luxurious facilities.

The central riad-style courtyard, decorated with ferns and palms, is a peaceful place to retire with a book. While the resort’s 69 rooms, 54 suites and 15 villas, shaded with terracotta roofing, contain handcrafted Italian tiles to provide a cool, refreshing feel.

The resort’s centrepiece is, unsurprisingly, the large seawater swimming pool – its inviting hues glistening in the sunlight from dawn to dusk. Around the edges, lily pad-style designer sun lounges provide a heavenly sunbathing spot, while soft mattresses, day beds and even a hydro massage ensure pure relaxation at all times.

Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort offers two dining options: Caramel The Restaurant’s Mediterranean buffet and the Gourmet à la Carte Restaurant. Dishes are mostly created from fresh, seasonal and local produce, much of which is sourced from Agreco Farm, located just 7 minutes from the resort. Fresh salads, delicious hot and cold platters and herbal teas are available in the buffet-style selection – while the Gourmet menu features everything from fruits de mer to succulent lobster spaghetti.

Just 15 minutes’ drive from Heraklion International Airport, and situated on a stunning sandy cove, Amirandes feels as though you’re stepping into an ancient Cretan village; one that encompasses 17 acres of pristine gardens filled with olive and pine trees.

Built to mirror the design of the ancient Minotaur Palace and infused with Minoan and Venetian influences to create an infinitely tranquil setting, Amirandes balances the old with the new. At the centre of the hotel sits an ancient saltwater lagoon – the first glimpse of the natural pools that make up this resort. An Olympic-sized infinity pool surrounded by traditional sandstone, 60 private pools – and, of course, the Mediterranean Sea complete the soothing ambience of the resort.

Book the kids into the complimentary Grecoland Children’s Club, for fun-filled days spent in paddling pools and building sandcastles or playing dress-up and discovering arts and crafts. Teens will be spoilt for choice with mini-golf, a basketball court, five-a-side mini-football pitch and tennis courts.

At the resort’s five restaurants, choose between seafood platters, Asian fusion and hot-off-the-grill steaks – while the central Minotaur restaurant is home to a 30-piece Picasso collection. For those wanting to sample local cuisine, book a table among the olive trees at nearby Logári Taverna – which brings Cretan flavours to life through humble family recipes.

All holidays with British Airways Holidays are ATOL protected and include 23kg baggage allowance per person and a 24-hour holiday helpline. Secure your Crete holiday now with a low deposit* at ba.com/whitepalaceba.com/amirandes and ba.com/caramel

*Based on two sharing. Full balance due four weeks before departure for short haul holidays. Subject to availability. T&Cs apply. See ba.com/deposits

Does the Tory exodus from Westminster signal a Labour landslide ahead?

Earlier this month, the prime minister suffered two defections to Labour in as many weeks, while his MPs keep announcing that they won’t stand at the next election. It all makes it very difficult for a Tory leader trying to prepare for an election.

The Northern Ireland secretary said in a letter to Rishi Sunak that he thought the time was right to look for some “new challenges” after 24 years as an MP. He did express his loyalty, however, telling the PM that he would campaign for the party at the election.

Victims of the blood scandal have been denied justice for too long

Of all the scandals that have emerged to blacken this country’s reputation for justice and sound governance, the contaminated blood scandal can claim at once to be the longest running, to have affected the greatest number of people, and to have been the most grievously neglected. Some of that will finally change when the report of the public inquiry – set up, it should be noted, only in 2018 – is published on Monday.

At the same time, it has to be recognised that much – perhaps most – of the immense hurt caused and the damage done by what has been described as the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS can never be remedied, and that whatever financial compensation is recommended will be far too little, far too late. Official apologies and recognition of fault are one thing – and long overdue – but money remains the only currency in which recognition of fault can be paid.

As many as 3,000 people died as a direct result of receiving contaminated blood. Parents were deprived of their children. Children were left without parents. Hundreds were infected with HIV (Aids), and tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – were infected with hepatitis C. The precise number is hard to establish, as the effects of hepatitis C may manifest themselves only after many years. As if the damage to health was not enough, individuals and whole families found themselves ostracised because of the stigma of blood-borne diseases such as Aids and HIV, for which there was then no treatment.