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Wednesday briefing: Strife-torn Lebanon reels from Beirut port explosion

The Guardian logo The Guardian 05/08/2020 Warren Murray
a steam engine train with smoke coming out of it: Photograph: AFP/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Top story: Food fears after grain stockpile destroyed

The seat of the explosion at Beirut’s port. © Photograph: AFP/Getty Images The seat of the explosion at Beirut’s port.

Hello, Warren Murray bringing you the top stories.

A day of both mourning and a massive search, rescue and relief effort has begun in Beirut, Lebanon, in the aftermath of the chemical explosion at a port that killed at least 78 people and caused extensive damage for miles around. Authorities said a huge store of the highly reactive chemical ammonium nitrate ignited and blew up, sending a shockwave across the city, shattering windows, collapsing roofs and destroying homes. We are covering the situation live this morning.

The blast, at 6.08pm Tuesday local time, was so powerful it was felt in Cyprus, 120 miles away. It left cars with blown-out windows strewn on highways and a city in shock. Video footage showed whole neighbourhoods in ruins. The port’s granaries were destroyed, prompting fears of a food crisis across a nation already suffering bread shortages and paralysed by the twin crises of coronavirus and an economic meltdown. Lebanon imports about 90% of its wheat – used for making the staple flatbread – and the port granaries held about 85% of the country’s cereals. After the explosion thousands of people sought treatment in nearby hospitals, which were struggling to cope or had been damaged. Ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to help.

Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely in a warehouse for six years. He is due to convene an urgent cabinet meeting today and is calling for a two-week state of emergency. The country is grappling with an economic crisis, which has slashed incomes and jobs and led to soaring nationwide poverty, and also rising tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah militant group along Lebanon’s southern border. Boris Johnson confirmed that UK nationals were among those caught up in the aftermath. Staff at the British embassy were accounted for, some having sustained non-life-threatening injuries, he said.

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Coronavirus latest – Schools should be last to close and first to reopen if there is a second wave of Covid-19, with regular testing for pupils and teachers, the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has insisted. Pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops should be shut ahead of schools in the case of emergency restrictions, with attendance of children in nurseries and primaries prioritised over secondaries if necessary. The government’s failure to impose special border measures such as mandatory self-isolation in the run-up to lockdown was “a serious mistake”, MPs conclude in a damning report in which they cite evidence suggesting thousands of cases arrived from overseas as a result.

Just 36 out of the UK’s 100 biggest companies reduced CEO pay in light of the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis, according to analysts. FTSE-100 CEOs are now handed, on average, the same as nearly 120 full-time workers and of the 36 companies that did cut CEO pay, measures were “superficial or short-term”. Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour opposition, says ministers have one month to fix test-and-trace and halt a second wave or Britain will face a “long and bleak winter”. Starmer calls for mass testing of asymptomatic people and for Boris Johnson to state the “hard decisions” he is prepared to take in order to keep schools open. Our coronavirus live blog coverage continues.

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Midweek catch-up

> The government will help fund Manchester’s first city-centre park in 100 years. The 6.5-acre Mayfield park is part of a £1.4bn development to transform the urban area between Piccadilly station and Mancunian Way along the River Medlock.

> Lockdown has provoked a mental health crisis among the LGBTQ community, with younger people confined with bigoted relatives the most depressed, UCL and Sussex University researchers have found.

> Britons spent 40% of their waking hours watching TV during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, with 12 million new sign-ups to streaming services.

> The secessionist Hutt River micronation has decided to rejoin the Commonwealth of Australia after the death of its founder, “Prince Leonard”, was followed by his heir’s decision to sell up the Hong Kong-sized farming property and settle a tax debt.

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Poo proof of penguins – Satellite images have revealed 11 previously unknown emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, boosting the number of known colonies of the imperilled birds by 20%. The discoveries were made by spotting the distinctive red-brown guano patches the birds leave on the ice.

The finds were made possible by higher-resolution images from a new satellite, as previous scans were unable to pick up smaller colonies. Emperor penguins are the only penguins that breed on sea ice, rather than land, making them especially vulnerable to the climate crisis.

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Old scholar – Giuseppe Paternò set his sights on obtaining a university education as a Sicilian child in the 1930s. Poverty, war and family life got in the way. Now, at 96, he has become Italy’s oldest graduate. “I’ve finally realised my dream,” the former railway worker and second world war veteran said after graduating with a degree in philosophy from the University of Palermo.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Italy’s oldest student, Giuseppe Paternò, 96. Photograph: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters © Provided by The Guardian Italy’s oldest student, Giuseppe Paternò, 96. Photograph: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Paternò enrolled in 2017. “I’d use an old typewriter to complete my assignments,” he said. With a few exams left, Covid-19 risked stalling his graduation, but he got to grips with remote learning and his dream came to fruition last Friday when he graduated first in his class with top honours. “It’s one of the happiest days of my entire life,” he said. “I’m considering carrying on for a master’s degree. My mother lived to be 100.”

Today in Focus podcast: Six months of coping with Covid

The Guardian’s international correspondent Michael Safi looks at the different ways countries have been affected by the virus and its impact on people’s lives from Portugal to Pakistan.

Lunchtime read: ‘Grief, confusion, unpredictability …’

Raised by a “hustler”, always worried the acting work might dry up, Billy Crudup is now riding high in Apple TV’s hit The Morning Show. He talks about childhood, coronavirus and #MeToo.

Sport

Centuries from Paul Stirling and Andy Balbirnie masterminded a brilliant run chase to give Ireland a seven-wicket win over England with one ball to spare in the third ODI. Joe Root will wait on a late fitness test for Ben Stokes before deciding on the make-up of his England XI for the Test series opener against Pakistan today. Scott Parker has said Fulham must not repeat the same expensive mistakes after sealing an immediate return to the Premier League thanks to Joe Bryan’s two goals in extra time that left Brentford’s spirit crushed.

Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund are close to agreeing a fee for Jadon Sancho, with the England forward having agreed personal terms on a five-year contract at Old Trafford. Defending champion Rafael Nadal has pulled out of the US Open citing concerns over coronavirus. Mark Allen, the No4 seed, joined Shaun Murphy in crashing out of the World Snooker Championship on a day of major shocks at the Crucible. And Tiger Woods has shrugged off the absence of spectators as he prepares for the US PGA Championship, which starts on Thursday at Harding Park in San Francisco.

Business

Virgin Atlantic has declared itself bankrupt and is seeking protection from creditors in the US. Virgin Australia went into administration in April. On Tuesday Virgin Atlantic also filed with the high court in London obtaining approval to convene meetings of affected creditors to vote on 25 August on a restructuring plan.

The world’s offshore windfarm capacity could grow eightfold by the end of the decade to 234GW, led by a surge in China, according to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). Last year a record 2.4GW of offshore wind power came onstream in Chinese waters, followed by the UK with 1.8GW and Germany with 1.1GW. A pound at time of writing will buy you $1.309 or €1.107 while the FTSE is trending about a quarter of a percent higher.

The papers

The Duchess of Cambridge puts on a face covering and front-page eds everywhere go a bit potty. “Kate’s still majestic in a mask” says the Metro – while in actual news its splash is “Open border led to Covid killing more”. “Staying safe in style? Kate’s got it covered” says the Mirror, which helpfully adds an unmasked cameo of the duchess in case we might have forgotten what she looks like. The redtop’s splash is “Lock up PC’s killer for longer” as the sentence of Andrew Harper’s killers is sent to the attorney general for review.

“Chic to cheek – it’s Kate’s corona cover-up” says the Mail, running the pic beside its splash about the “Real health cost of lockdown”, which cites the “huge toll on Britain’s wider health” as patients with other serious conditions languish untreated. The Guardian print edition splashes with our Keir Starmer exclusive: “Fix virus testing or face ‘long, bleak winter’”.

“PPE chaos revealed” is the splash headline in the i, which says it has uncovered “desperate NHS attempts to find lifesaving kit”. The Times says “Pensioner revolt over end of free TV licence” – like the Guardian its front page picture shows the explosion in Beirut. The Express has “Thousands lose out in state pensions blunder” (Kate’s there too). The Telegraph says “Close pubs and shops to reopen schools” –that’s the children’s commissioner – and oh yes, here’s Kate again, but this time with gloves instead of mask, helping out a charity. The FT goes with “Investors move behind Microsoft as TikTok defends sale of US arm”.

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