SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Getty ImagesEnergy companies will face more robust financial checks from January after a host of companies failed owing to a wholesale price surge, the regulator Ofgem has announced.Bosses of firms will also undergo more stringent vetting.More than 20, mostly small, suppliers have collapsed following a spike in wholesale gas prices.Nearly four million other households have seen their supplier fail since the start of the pandemic.The regulator also said it was consulting on the future set up of the energy price cap, designed to protect customers who have not switched. It has been pointed to as part of the problem by some failed companies. “I am setting out clear action so that we have robust stress testing for suppliers so they can’t pass inappropriate risk to consumers,” said Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley. “I want to see more checks on staff in significant roles, and better use of data to help us regulate. We need a regime that can enable a sustainable market, to promote our transition to net zero.”Our priority has been, and will always be, to act in the best interests of energy consumers. The months ahead will be difficult for many, and we are working with the government and energy companies to mitigate the impact as much as we can, particularly for the most vulnerable households.”
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Getty ImagesUS lawmakers have voted to raise the national debt limit, just days before a potential US credit default. The measure, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign into law in the coming days, raises the US borrowing limit by $2.5tr (£1.9tr).Treasury officials had warned that the economy could slip into a recession if it was not raised by mid-December. The vote comes after a bipartisan deal was struck last week to raise the limit through a one-time-only rule change. That agreement, which was struck between Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, saw 14 Republicans vote along with every Senate Democrat to change the rules. The deal allows Democrats to raise the limit on their own through a simple majority, rather than by 60 votes, which would be needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Democrats and Republicans have normally voted together to raise or suspend the debt ceiling, but this year Republicans have said that Democrats should be responsible for doing it on their own.On Tuesday, the vote narrowly passed the Senate by a vote of 50-49. The House passed the bill by a vote of 221-209.It will now be sent to President Joe Biden for his signature. The measure also suspends the debt ceiling until 2023 – after the 8 November midterm congressional elections that could shift the balance of power in Washington.The bill increases the US borrowing limit to $31.4tr from $28.9tr and brings an end to a months-long row between both parties that continued despite both sides agreeing that a default would severely harm the US economy. The increased limit is in part needed to pay off the $7.85tr in additional debt added by the Trump presidency through tax cuts and Covid spending. “This is about paying debt accumulated by both parties,” Mr Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. “The American people can breathe easy and rest assured there will not be a default,” he added. What’s next for the US debt limitLong December looms for US DemocratsMr McConnell, whose party had condemned Democrats for their $1.9tr Build Back Better social spending plan, warned Americans in his remarks: “If they jam through another reckless taxing and spending spree, this massive debt increase will just be the beginning.”The US spends more than it takes in through taxes each year, requiring the government to sell bonds as a means of borrowing money. A 1939 law requires Congress to set a limit for how much debt can be held, leading to dozens of votes since to raise the figure.
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Seoul MilkSouth Korea’s biggest dairy brand has been forced to apologise over an advert depicting women as cows.The video by Seoul Milk shows a man secretly filming a group of women in a field, who later turn into cows. After facing a public backlash, the company removed the promo from YouTube, but it has since gone viral after being re-uploaded by internet users.Some also compared the man’s behaviour to “molka”, the illegal practice of secretly filming people.”We sincerely apologize to everyone who felt uncomfortable with the milk commercial released on 29th last month,” Seoul Milk’s parent company Seoul Dairy Cooperative said in an apology posted online.”We are accepting this matter seriously and will conduct an internal review, and take extra care to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. We bow our heads in apology,” it added.The clip starts with a man with a camera wandering through the countryside.”We finally managed to capture them on camera in a place of pristine cleanliness,” a male voice-over says.This is then followed by the man, hidden in bushes, filming a group of women drinking from a stream and doing yoga.When the man accidentally steps on a twig it startles the women who suddenly turn into cows.The advert ends with the words “Clean water, organic feed, 100% pure Seoul Milk. Organic milk from an organic ranch in the pleasant nature of Cheongyang.”The advert has sparked a national debate over sexism and gender sensitivity issues but the criticism was not confined to women being depicted as cows.Some also voiced concerns about the man surreptitiously filming the group of women, with spy cam crimes in South Korea having increasingly risen over the past few years. The continuing trauma of South Korea’s spy cam victimsSouth Korea’s spy cam porn epidemicMolka, which literally translates to “secret camera”, has become a particular problem for women in South Korea.Image source, Seoul MilkThis isn’t the first time a Seoul Milk has made headlines for the wrong reasons.In 2003, the company staged a performance in which nude models sprayed yoghurt at each other. The head of Seoul Milk’s marketing department and the models that took part in the event were fined for obscenity.
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Getty ImagesMore shared banking hubs will open in UK towns and villages as banks continue to close a swathe of branches.Major banks have signed a new voluntary agreement which means an independent assessment of local needs will be carried out each time a branch is shut.These reviews could recommend a shared branch is opened, an ATM installed or a Post Office upgraded. Banks will commit to deliver whatever is recommended.This should ensure vulnerable customers and businesses have access to cash.An estimated five million people still rely on cash, and basic banking services are considered key to the survival of notes and coins. For example, small businesses unable to deposit their takings nearby may choose to only accept card, rather than cash, payments.Cash access as vital as running water, says Age UKShops step in to supply cash as ATMs closeEach time a core banking service such as a cash machine or bank branch is closed, an assessment will be carried out by Link – the organisation which currently oversees the UK’s ATM network.The review will study the cash needs of the community, such as how easy it is to travel to the nearest alternative service, as well as the demographics and vulnerability of local residents. The criteria are set by a group of banks and consumer representatives.Assessment trials over the past year will lead to 11 new ATMs, improved cash services in 30 Post Offices, and five new shared banking hubs all opening in early 2022.At these hubs, run by the Post Office, customers of any bank can access their accounts, deposit cash and cheques, and withdraw money at any time. Trickier enquiries are dealt with by a representative from one of each of the major banks who each visit once a week.The BBC visited a prototype shared banking hub in Rochford, Essex, earlier this year and was told it had been “a lifeline” for many people living in the area.Running costs are the same as a small branch, but are shared between different banking groups that use it.The new shared bank branches are expected to open in Acton in London, Syston in Leicestershire, Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, Carnoustie in Angus, and Brixham in Devon.They have seen their last banks close and customers tend to have difficult journeys to reach the nearest branch services.Life after the last bank closedImage source, Getty ImagesPicturesque Brixham is a thriving fishing port popular with tourists, but when Lloyds closed in September it lost the last bank branch in town.A third of residents are over 65 and often need to travel for basic banking services as the local post office can struggle to cope with demand.Local businesses must also travel or queue for their banking needs, so many are welcoming the plan for a new shared hub.Debbie Fisher, the owner of the Buccaneer Boutique women’s clothing store in Brixham, said she still received cheques from some of her customers and liked to accept cash payments too.”Not having a branch is inconvenient as I have to go [to another town] before I open up the shop,” she said. “It would be fantastic to have a hub.”It is desperately needed to keep the town together.”From the summer of 2022 any community that has already lost its banking services can request an assessment by Link.While shared hubs may be welcomed in these local communities, the plan for five hubs and the promise of more to come will be dwarfed by the scale of bank branch closures across the UK.More than 4,000 branches have closed since the start of 2015, and another 220 are already scheduled to close next year.Consumer group Which? has called for an immediate halt to more closures, to allow the new plans and legislation to be introduced.”The alarming acceleration of bank branch closures has left many people who depend on them for essential banking services at risk of being cut adrift, which seems to fly in the face of work being done across the industry to protect access to cash,” said Which? chief executive Anabel Hoult.Natalie Ceeney, who chairs the Access to Cash Action Group, which drew up the plans, said concentrating solely on keeping branches open was “missing the point”, as they only served a small section of the community who were customers of that particular bank.”Bank branches are closing at a high rate. The alternative [to these plans] is nothing. [Under this new agreement] if there is a gap left by a bank branch closure, it will be filled,” she told the BBC.”Banks will continue to make their own commercial decisions. We have been making sure no community is left behind.”She said that voluntary agreement would be made a legal requirement with legislation brought by government in the next 18 months.Martin McTague, from the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “This new strategy will bring hope to communities which are losing bank branches and ATMs. “It is important that the new assessments of need outlined today are independent and fair – we will be watching their progress closely.”Cashback without purchaseThe pandemic has cut cash use by 35%, but millions of people – often vulnerable – still rely on notes and coins.Another system which trials showed to be successful in certain venues was cashback from shop tills, without the need to make a purchase.During trials, half of withdrawals were for less than £20 and four in 10 were for non-round amounts – suggesting people were taking out relatively small amounts available in their bank accounts.Cash machines are not set up to provide such a bespoke service.Some 2,000 shops are expected to offer the service by the end of the year.
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Nathalie IsaacAs the hospitality industry reels from the impact of new Covid curbs, pubs and restaurants have reported a wave of Christmas cancellations.The Bar 44 chain, which has four outlets, told the BBC 3,200 people had scrapped bookings for December.Natalie Isaac, its operations director, said only a “handful” of people would have cancelled before the pandemic.Others say that although they face no new rules, public caution is causing lower footfall and a loss of trade. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called for the government to provide financial support for businesses affected, but the Treasury has not unveiled any new measures.’People are worried’Bar 44, which has restaurants in Bristol and Cardiff, says 1,000 of the 3,200 lost bookings were down to the knock-on effects of cancelled concerts by Tom Jones and the Stereophonics.”Having to stay open but not getting the business is our big worry,” Ms Isaac explained. “This should be our bumper two weeks before Christmas, but the diary is worryingly empty. We’re significantly impacted and without furlough, we won’t be able to protect our staff.”Ms Isaac was unable to give a figure for the loss of trade across the month, as the venues are not operating at full pre-pandemic capacity. They have also been opening just five days a week, because of staff shortages that started before the new Plan B restrictions. “We’re slightly refilling with small groups, but people are worried to go out again as they don’t want to catch Covid during Christmas.”‘People don’t realise the impact of cancellations”Non-stop cancellations’ after Christmas party pleaUK alert level raised to four – what does that mean?The CBI said hospitality businesses and shops were facing a “double whammy” of collapsing demand and no financial help because of the government’s Plan B, aimed at fighting the spread of the Omicron variant.CBI director general Tony Danker said the restrictions were “balanced”, but ministers needed to clarify that they were temporary.”Whilst we have measures to keep the economy open, we have messages that have ended up closing much of it down,” he told the BBC.”We saved these businesses in the last 18 months. We kept them flourishing,” he said.”We can’t lose that now, to essentially if unintentionally close down the restaurant sector at this time of year. That’s a huge cashflow hit,” he added.”We need to revisit cashflow measures to support those businesses. We can’t pretend that the economy is still open when demand has been so suppressed for understandable reasons.”Image source, Getty ImagesA Treasury spokesperson said that the government had “acted early” to help control the virus’s spread while “avoiding damaging economic and social restrictions by allowing businesses to remain open”. “To continue to protect the NHS, as well as jobs and livelihoods across the country, our priority is to ensure everyone who is eligible gets their booster jabs as quickly as possible.”Our £400bn Covid-19 support package will continue to help businesses into spring next year and we will continue to respond proportionately to the changing path of the virus, as we have done since the start of the pandemic,” the spokesperson added. ‘Partial lockdown’ with no supportClive Watson, boss of pub chain, City Pub Group, said every kind of booking was now in decline since the Plan B announcement. “In an nutshell, the big corporate parties have really started to be cancelled, which were really lucrative,” he explained. “To a certain extent, these were being compensated by smaller groups still booking, but now they’re starting to cancel as well. “What we’re facing is a partial lockdown, but with no government assistance this time round.”Mr Watson said it was still worth staying open, but added that the impact would be sizeable if no further financial assistance came from the government. Corporate events ‘next to none’Image source, Marc HornbyAs people revise their Christmas plans, Marc Hornby, co-founder of the Caviar and Chips catering and hospitality group, says corporate event inquiries are now “next to none”. The country-wide external catering firm based in Birmingham has had to pivot to focusing on wedding events for 2022 and 2023 because of the impact of the current restrictions. “It’s been a significant drop – we’re seeing 25% of the business we’d usually see,” Mr Hornby told the BBC. “The biggest challenge has been the mixed messaging and the government not realising how much it costs to cancel events.” Recruitment has also been difficult for 18 months, but Mr Hornby said they had anticipated fresh restrictions, so had planned more small events. The group owns a pub in Kenilworth, opened in March 2020, a week before lockdown. After moving to takeaways during lockdown, it has reopened, but has also seen very few corporate bookings. Christmas trading ‘destroyed’Image source, Getty ImagesEmma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said that Plan B restrictions had “destroyed” the crucial Christmas trading time for pubs. “Further restrictions such as limits on group sizes, or even closing pubs, would be disastrous,” she explained. “Pubs need all the trade they can get this Christmas to make it through the quiet winter months ahead. “Without it, they will need a full financial package from the government, including support on VAT, business rates and a return of the local authority grants. “The chancellor needs to come to our rescue once more.”A spokesperson from restaurants operator Mitchells & Butlers, which runs brands such as All Bar One, O’Neill’s, Harvester and Toby Carvery, said: “We are deeply disappointed by the announcement of Plan B and the knock-on effect this will have on our industry as we continue to try to rebuild our businesses during the pandemic. “We will, of course, comply with the Plan B regulations. Very few of our businesses will be affected by the Covid pass provisions, and face masks are not required in our pubs and restaurants under the new guidance. “We have no plans to introduce any additional restrictions unless required to do so.”
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Getty ImagesThe UK government is expected to remove all 11 countries from England’s red list, easing travel restrictions.Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe are on the list. The red list was reintroduced in late November as precaution after the emergence of the Omicron variant.But ministers have cited the further spread of the variant as a reason for reviewing travel rules.Currently, all UK arrivals from red list countries must pay for and self-isolate in a pre-booked, government-approved hotel for 10 days.They must also take Covid tests within 48 hours of setting off for the UK and PCR tests within two days of their arrival.Travel expert Simon Calder tweeted: “Key point: will people currently in now pointless hotel quarantine be able to leave?” Strong rumour that red list will be emptied at 4am tomorrow, meaning no more hotel quarantine from South Africa, Nigeria and nine other African countries. Calling DfT repeatedly for confirmation.Key point: will people currently in now pointless hotel quarantine be able to leave?— Simon Calder (@SimonCalder) December 14, 2021
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SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Catharina VorsterTravellers staying in quarantine hotels after returning from red list countries say they’re frustrated by suggestions the current travel rules could soon be changed.Some have already paid thousands of pounds to stay in government-approved facilities, and there have been complaints of chaotic organisation and inedible food during their 10-day quarantine period.The red list was re-introduced in late November in response to the Omicron variant.The BBC has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for comment.’Some meals have been inedible’Image source, Lauren HopkinsWhen Lauren Hopkins spoke to the BBC last Tuesday, she was exhausted. She and her partner had arrived at Heathrow from South Africa, but found the quarantine hotel they’d booked for their return from South Africa wasn’t ready. They spent more than seven hours on the transfer bus while they awaited alternative accommodation, Lauren says the replacement hotel room they were eventually taken to is fine. However, the food is not.”It’s dire. We’ve not had any meals that have been nice, we’ve had a couple that have been inedible.”She watched the Downing Street press conference last week, when Boris Johnson was asked why fully-vaccinated British travellers coming from red-list countries couldn’t self-isolate at home instead of in hotels. He described this as a “fair challenge” given the way Omicron had spread around the world, and said the red list system would be “looked at”. Other ministers have since indicated that changes to the current travel rules will be considered because there is already community transmission of Omicron.For Lauren, this rubbed salt into the wound. “That led to our lowest day so far. Long-term it’s great. But that infuriated us.””Thinking about the sheer upheaval, the stress, the cost, everything we had to go through. We’ve gone through all of that for nothing.”Image source, Lauren HopkinsShe and her partner feel they would be safer quarantining at home, without hotel staff and security guards around them. For now, their spirits are being kept up by gifts from friends and family.”We’ve had daily cards and parcels of snacks, and games. That’s helped pass the time”.’We had to put ourselves into debt to pay the bill’Image source, Catharina VorsterFor Catharina Vorster, the process of getting her 16-year-old son to his quarantine hotel caused additional stress. She accused staff of “losing” him for a time.Last Monday, he flew back into Heathrow alone from South Africa, where he had been at school. “We were advised that an adult would need to quarantine with him as he is a minor. Both my husband and I are in the United Kingdom so we were advised that one of us would need to quarantine with him. We made the decision that my husband would do that as I will be expected to be at work”.Firstly, the family are unhappy about the cost for the two of them to stay. “We had to put ourselves into debt to pay the £3,715”.With no other choice, the parents arrived at the hotel they’d booked – having been advised by booking company CTM to do so.Lacking a UK mobile phone number, after landing their son used the wi-fi at Heathrow Airport to tell them he was on a bus. He said it was 10pm and the journey should take an hour.After waiting more than two and a half hours, Catharina was concerned. A number of buses had arrived in the hotel parking area but she had not seen her son.Hotel staff had a copy of his passport, but he was not in the hotel. No-one could tell Catharina where he was. Only when she and her husband Riaan started looking beyond the car park, extremely worried and on the verge of phoning the police, did they find him. “Another bus was waiting at the gate.”She’s angry about the lack of communication from staff about her son’s whereabouts, considering his age. “I’m fuming. He’s 16 years old and stuck on a bus for two and a half hours. It’s not rightThe BBC has contacted CTM for comment’It was one expense after another’Image source, Alison StittAlison Stitt says her experience has pushed her to the point of meltdown.She was in South Africa visiting her father for his 90th birthday, when the country went on the UK’s red list.It took days to re-arrange a flight home on the same date that a quarantine hotel room was available. They had to stay longer in their AirBnB and re-book their car hire while they waited – on top of extending their car parking and kennels bookings in the UK.Now, she and her husband David are at a hotel near Gatwick. Alison says the total cost of their extended stay in South Africa and paying for their quarantine facility, has been at least £5,500.”It was one expense after another. It’s all going on credit cards. It was meant to be a budget trip”.She describes the experience of going into quarantine as a farce. “We were herded into coaches after we landed. We got lucky coming to Gatwick, some were going to Manchester.” Alison says her room is clean and modern, but she doesn’t feel safe in the hotel, saying she’s seen guards sneezing with their masks down.The hotel had to be evacuated last week due to a fire alarm.”We know someone has tested positive in the hotel. They came to re-test us, saying that we had been exposed to someone with Covid during the fire alarm”.Image source, Alison StittShe says the food is “inedible and not healthy”.”We have complained. It’s absolutely not worth the money we’ve had to pay.”Everything comes in paper bags and plastic bags. We are washing up our plates in our sink, adjacent to the loo”.On the idea of red list rules potentially being changed or lifted, she said: “It has fuelled our argument that this whole fiasco was wrong.”It proves what a mockery it all is. We’re desperately hoping to claw this money back from the government.”CTM is the booking company that travellers have to go through to arrange hotel quarantine.In a statement, the company said that since the recent changes to the red list, thousands of travellers had successfully booked. It said service level experiences at each hotel within the Managed Hotel Quarantine Programme were the responsibility of the hotel operators. “CTM is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and other relevant parties to ensure transfers, accommodation, testing and security are increased in line with capacity as quickly as possible.”We appreciate that entering managed hotel quarantine can be a stressful experience for returning UK citizens, and we are committed to providing support wherever possible to those who require it given the limited points of contact they have in the quarantine process.”
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, StagecoachRival bus groups Stagecoach and National Express have agreed to merge.The deal, which involves an all-share takeover by National Express, comes after talks between the transport giants were revealed in September.It will create a combined firm worth about £1.9bn, with a fleet of about 40,000 vehicles and a workforce of about 70,000.Under the deal, National Express shareholders would own about 75% of the combined group and Stagecoach 25%.The proposal, which will be voted on by shareholders, values Perth-based Stagecoach at about £437m.National Express in talks to buy transport rival StagecoachStagecoach innovates as bus passenger numbers fallAbout 50 jobs are expected to be cut from the head offices, IT and corporate departments of the two firms, under plans to slash annual costs by at least £45m following the merger.But the companies stressed there would be no job losses among drivers, or depot closures, as a result of the deal.It’s 41 years since a nurse, Ann Gloag, and her brother Brian Souter, a former bus driver, began Stagecoach, and tapped into the newly privatised, deregulated bus market. Stagecoach grew to be one of the dominant transport companies in Britain, partnering with Virgin on railways, and with overseas operations from the USA to Malawi.But it’s scaled back to city buses, and the founders – now titled, Dame Ann and Sir Brian – have been reducing their stakes to just over a quarter between them. That’s worth more than £100m.Merger with the long-haul, Birmingham-based coach operator National Express means the loss of one of Scotland’s big corporate headquarters, and overlap of management roles means at least some jobs are likely to go at its Perth head office.In the race to become chief executive of the combined group, Martin Griffiths has lost out to his opposite number, Ignacio Garat.The country’s other one-time transport giant, FirstBus, is now also on a much smaller scale at its Aberdeen headquarters, having also sold its US school bus and transit operations.The business case for a merger has to do with deeper pockets for investment in new fleet, as buses shift to battery and possibly hydrogen, and as the market for rail is being reformed.This is being presented as a good time to invest in public transport, when governments are devising policy to reduce carbon emissions from private transport.National Express wants to tie its commuter and shuttle bus operations into Stagecoach’s city and town services, and to use the Scottish firms network of depots.It also sees a £1.5bn pipeline of potential future investment, including overseas. While Stagecoach has retreated, National Express is still in the USA and has a stake in German rail.The deal also signals the wind-down of an empire built by one of Scotland’s most successful entrepreneurs. Sir Brian Souter, now aged 67, was also one of the investors in Alexander Dennis bus-builders in Falkirk, and instead of seeking to expand internationally, that was sold to a Canadian transport group.Under the deal, Stagecoach will sell off its Megabus UK and Falcon South-West coach service operations, as well as its 35% stake in Scottish Citylink bus services.Stagecoach chairman Ray O’Toole will become chairman of the merged group, while National Express chief executive Ignacio Garat will keep the same role at the merged firm.Image source, National ExpressThe merger comes as both firms have been hit hard by the pandemic, with passenger numbers slumping due to lockdowns, remote working and a switch away from public transport.Government support to help transport firms through the crisis is also due to end soon.It follows a previous attempt at a merger in 2009, when National Express rejected a £1.7bn merger deal put forward by Stagecoach.Stagecoach chief executive Martin Griffiths said: “This is an exciting opportunity to bring together two of the UK’s iconic transport brands to create a strong, diverse business that is well-placed to grow the market for greener and smarter public transport for the benefit of all stakeholders.”National Express has bus and coach networks across the UK and Spain, while it also runs school bus services in America and a rail franchise in Germany.Stagecoach is UK-focused and is Britain’s biggest bus and coach operator.The companies said they expected the deal to be completed around the end of next year.