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China applies to join Pacific trade pact abandoned by Trump

BEIJING (AP) — China has applied to join an 11-nation Asia-Pacific free trade group in an effort to increase its influence over international policies.
Commerce Minister Wang Wentao submitted an application to the trade minister of New Zealand as a representative of the Comprehensive and Progress Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Commerce Ministry announced Thursday.
The CPTPP originally was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a group promoted by then-President Barack Obama as part of Washington’s increased emphasis on relations with Asia. China was not included in the initial group and Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, pulled out in 2017.
President Joe Biden has not rejoined the group.
An official Chinese newspaper, Global Times, said the application cements Beijing’s “leadership in global trade” and leaves the United States “increasingly isolated.”
The CPTPP, which took effect in 2018, includes agreements on market access, movement of labor and government procurement.
Other members include Canada, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Britain is negotiating to join. If China joins, that would quadruple the total population within the group to some 2 billion people.
China’s government has promised to increase imports of goods but faces complaints it is failing to carry out promises made when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 to open finance and other service industries.
China is also a member of various other trading arrangements, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes many nations in Asia that are not part of the CPTPP.

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Putin: Dozens in inner circle infected with coronavirus

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin says dozens of his staff have been infected with the coronavirus and that he will continue his self-isolation because of the outbreak.
The Kremlin announced earlier this week that he would self-isolate after someone in his inner circle was infected although Putin had tested negative for the virus and he’s fully vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V. But Putin said Thursday the infections were extensive.
“Cases of coronavirus have been identified in my immediate environment, and this is not one, not two, but several tens of people. Now we have to observe the self-isolation regime for several days,” he said by video link to a summit of the Russia-led Collective Treaty Security Organization.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that those infected were “mainly those who take part in ensuring the work and activities of the head of state, his security.” None of the cases are severe, he said.
Although Russia was the first country to roll out a coronavirus vaccine, less than 30% of the country is fully vaccinated.
The national coronavirus task force says about 7.2 million infections have been recorded in the country of 145 million, with 195,835 deaths.

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EU earmarks 30 billion euros for health crisis agency

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union said Thursday that it will fund its new health preparedness and rapid response agency to the tune of 30 billion euros ($35 billion) over the next six years, even pushing it higher if individual efforts from the member nations and private sector are taken into account.
Caught off guard by the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the 27-nation bloc long lagged behind the U.S. and Britain in vaccination rates before regrouping and meeting its goal of having 70% of EU adults vaccinated this summer.
With Thursday’s official launch of the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, or HERA, it wants to make sure the bloc will be ready when the next crisis strikes.
“We need to be better prepared for future health crises. HERA will establish new, adaptable production capacities and secure supply chains to help Europe react fast when needed,” EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said.
HERA will be able to draw from several of the EU’s Byzantine budget lines for a total of almost 30 billion euros ($35 billion). This however excludes investments at member nation level and from the private sector.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who first announced plans for such a medical response agency last year, said this week that the overall total until 2027 could reach 50 billion euros ($59 billion) by 2027.
During the crisis, the EU saw the limits of its health outreach because the essence of pandemic policies are still handled at national level. The EU was slow in getting the first shots in the arms of citizens and the public uproar about initial shortages was such that the need for HERA quickly became apparent.
“HERA will have the clout and budget to work with industry, medical experts, researchers and our global partners to make sure critical equipment, medicines and vaccines are swiftly available when and as necessary,” European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas.
While some nations like the United States and Britain fully centered on getting their own people vaccinated first, the EU continued to export doses amid the pandemic. Von der Leyen stressed that on top of delivering 700 million vaccine doses to Europeans, the 27-nation bloc had also sent as many shots to 130 nations.
“We are the only region in the world to achieve this,” she said in her State of the Union address on Wednesday.
HERA should be fully operational as of early next year.

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Zimbabwe orders government workers to get COVID vaccinations

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s government has ordered all its employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or they won’t be allowed to come to work.
The Public Service Commission, which is in charge of employment conditions for government workers, issued an internal notice Wednesday ordering employees to get vaccinated.
“All civil servants should be vaccinated without delay, and unvaccinated members shall not be allowed to report for duty,” said the notice, which has been seen by The Associated Press. The commission “urged” heads of government departments to make arrangements for their employees to be vaccinated “and to explain to any who elect not to be vaccinated that they will not be deemed to be working.”
It wasn’t made clear what would happen to employees who refused to be vaccinated, although state-owned newspaper The Herald reported that the government would adopt a policy where unvaccinated workers wouldn’t be paid.
Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa announced the mandatory vaccination program for government workers earlier this week. She didn’t give any timeframe for workers to receive vaccinations and also didn’t clarify what the repercussions would be for any who refused.
The government is Zimbabwe’s biggest employer and has about 500,000 workers.
Zimbabwe is one of the leading countries in Africa in terms of vaccinations, with more than 12% of the country’s 15 million people fully vaccinated. That compares to just 3.6% of people across Africa who have been fully vaccinated, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zimbabwe has received more than 11 million doses, mainly Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines.
The southern African nation announced last month that it was opening COVID-19 vaccinations to children between the ages of 14 and 17, one of the first countries in Africa to do that. It was already offering jabs to anyone 18 or older.

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Italy requires COVID-19 pass for all workers from Oct. 15

MILAN (AP) — Italian workers in both the public and private sectors must display a health pass to access their workplaces from Oct. 15 under a decree adopted Thursday by Premier Mario Draghi’s broad-based coalition government.
The measures are the first by a major European economy requiring proof of vaccination, a recent negative virus test or recovery from COVID in the previous six months for all categories of workers.
“The Green Pass is an instrument of freedom, that will help us make workplaces safer,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza told a press conference. “The second reason is to reinforce our vaccine campaign.”
Slovenia and Greece adopted similar measures this week. But Italy’s 2-trillion-euro ($2.35 trillion) economy, the third largest in the European Union, is a far larger target, and the measure underscores the government’s determination to avoid another lockdown even as the numbers of new virus infections creeps up, mostly among the unvaccinated.
Ministers said the measures were aimed at reinforcing Italy’s economic recovery, with GDP forecast to grow 6% this year, at a critical moment in the pandemic as schools reopen and cooler fall weather moves more activities indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. They also expressed concern about the impact of any possible new variants.
Workers face fines up to 1,500 euros ($1,765) and employers up to 1,000 euros if they do not comply. Public sector employees risk suspension if they rack up five absences for failure to show up with a Green Pass; private sector workers can be suspended after the first failure. The measures remain in effect as long as Italy is in a state of emergency, currently until Dec. 31.
Labor Minister Andrea Orlando said that no one risked being fired if they didn’t present a Green Pass, and the public administration minister, Renato Brunetta, acknowledged that checks in some workplaces would have to be random.
“It is very likely that the effect of the announcement will already bring in the next four weeks an acceleration in Green Passes, yes, but also of vaccinations,” Brunetta said. “The result could already be achieved, or partially achieved, or perhaps — optimistically — exceeded, before the decree even takes effect.”
Unions and right-wing parties lobbied unsuccessfully for COVID tests to be provided free of charge to workers. The price will be set at 15 euros for adults, and 8 euros for anyone under 18.
Italy surpassed the threshold of 80% of the eligible population having received at least one dose of the vaccine this month, with more than 81.7 million vaccine doses administered through Thursday. Three-quarters of the population, or 40.5 million people, are fully vaccinated.
While the Green Pass was supported by parties across the political spectrum, critics have signaled concerns about a gradual and ongoing erosion of civil liberties during the pandemic. Court challenges are likely, as the right to work is enshrined in Italy’s constitution.
Legal expert Vitalba Azzollini, a fellow at the Bruno Leoni Institute think tank, said the measures lack the necessary transparency to evaluate if they are proportionate to the situation, without specific goals for adequate vaccination coverage, or guidelines on exactly how often the Green Passes need to be checked.
In addition, she noted, such decrees are supposed to be for emergency situations but this one had been approved a full month before implementation.
“The Green Pass is not a nudge to get vaccinated, it is a not-so-gentle push,” she said.
Italy was the first country in the West to be hit by local transmission of the virus in February 2020, and the government took the extraordinary measure of closing all non-essential manufacturing for seven weeks as part of a draconian lockdown.
The Green Pass requirement covers 14.7 million private sector workers and 3.2 million in state-supported jobs.
Until now, only medical personnel have been obliged to be vaccinated, while the Green Pass mandate was in place only for school employees. Green Passes also are necessary for indoor leisure activities, such as dining, theater-going or museum visits, and for long-distance domestic travel.
Azzollini also underlined the difficulty in enforcing the Green Pass rules. She noted that even though medical personnel have been subject to an obligation to be vaccinated since April, only a handful have been suspended.

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With foreign funds frozen, Afghan aid groups stuck in limbo

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A month after the fall of Kabul, the world is still wrestling with how to help Afghanistan’s impoverished people without propping up their Taliban leaders — a question that grows more urgent by the day.
With the Afghan government severed from the international banking system, aid groups both inside Afghanistan and abroad say they are struggling to get emergency relief, basic services and funds to a population at risk of starvation, unemployment and the coronavirus after 20 years of war.
Among the groups struggling to function is a public health nonprofit that paid salaries and purchased food and fuel for hospitals with contributions from the World Bank, the European Union and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The $600 million in funds, which were funneled through the Afghan Health Ministry, dried up overnight after the Taliban took over the capital.
Now, clinics in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost Province no longer can afford to clean even as they are beset with COVID-19 patients, and the region’s hospitals have asked patients to purchase their own syringes, according to Organization for Health Promotion and Management’s local chapter head Abdul Wali.
“All we do is wait and pray for cash to come,” Wali said. “We face disaster, if this continues.”
Donor countries pledged during a United Nations appeal this week to open their purse strings to the tune of $1.2 billion in humanitarian aid. But attempts by Western governments and international financial institutions to deprive the Taliban-controlled government of other funding sources until its intentions are clearer also has Afghan’s most vulnerable citizens hurting.
The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union suspended financing for projects in Afghanistan, and the United States froze $7 billion in Afghan foreign reserves held in New York. Foreign aid to Afghanistan previously ran some $8.5 billion a year — nearly half of the country’s gross domestic product.
Without access to its own or foreign funds, the interim government in Kabul can’t even pay the import taxes needed to bring containers of badly needed food from a port in Pakistan, the country’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry Vice Chairman Yonus Momand said.
The West’s strategy is to strangle the Taliban’s finances to induce Afghanistan’s new leaders to respect the rights of women and religious minorities. The all-male, hard-line Cabinet appointed last week includes several ministers subject to U.N. sanctions and one with a $5 million FBI bounty on his head.
While it’s unclear how long Afghan central bank reserves will remain out of reach, American officials insist that humanitarian groups can sidestep Taliban authorities to deliver directly to the needy Afghans fearing for their lives and futures in the wake of the chaotic U.S. pullout.
“It’s definitely still possible to meet the basic needs of Afghans without rewarding the government with broader economic assistance and diplomatic recognition,” said Lisa Curtis, former South and Central Asia director of the U.S. National Security Council.
But the situation on the ground shows the limits of that approach. Fighting over the years has displaced over 3.5 million people — including over half a million since the start of the year. The price of basic goods has soared. Bank lines snake down streets as people wait hours, even days, to withdraw money so they can feed their families.
While individuals are allowed to withdraw a maximum of $200 per week from Afghanistan’s banks, organizations are unable to get any funds. The paralysis has hampered the work of local authorities who used World Bank development funds to pay for health services and clean water, as well as international charitable groups trying to run vast aid operations.
“The cash remains the main issue,” said Stefan Recker, Afghanistan director for Catholic relief organization Caritas. “We cannot pay our own staff, run our aid projects or implement badly needed new programs.”
Cut off from their bank accounts, groups dependent on international donors are using stop-gap methods to stay afloat. They are getting their hands on operating cash through a mixture of mobile payment service M-PESA, Western Union transfers and hawala — the informal money transfer system that helped power the economy when Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The ancient system, which existed in the country before banks, relies on the principle that if there are two people who want to send equal amounts of money between two locations, cash doesn’t need to change hands. International anti-poverty organization CARE is among the relief providers that rely on hawala dealers to transfer funds and record loans across provinces.
“It’s probably not a long-term solution, but the hawala system has been helpful for a long time,” Marianne O’Grady, CARE’s deputy Afghanistan director, said. “People trust in it, so it’s what we’re using.”
Meanwhile, some countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Uzbekistan, have avoided the messy debate over financial aid by dispatching planeloads of food and medicine to Kabul, betting that bags of rice will get distributed to the needy and not line the pockets of Taliban ministers who are on terrorism watch lists.
But many insist that informal money transfers and rice shipments are hardly the way to prevent Afghanistan’s financial and social collapse at a time when the stakes are so high: along with drought and the threat of famine, potential Taliban brutality and a collapsing health care system, Afghans face more desperate times as winter approaches.
Although the $1.2 billion raised at the U.N. this week exceeded expectations, uncertainty surrounds the outpouring of international sympathy. Aid workers want to know where exactly the money is going and when, as well as how the needs of cash-strapped local nongovernmental organizations will be addressed while Afghanistan’s banking system remains crippled.
“The U.N. had a lot to say about food delivery, but I heard nothing about plans to reestablish a system of public services,” said Vicki Aken, Afghanistan director for the International Rescue Committee. “What about paying the salaries of teachers and doctors?”
Those salaries now run through financial plumbing controlled by former insurgents with a brutal reputation. In maintaining its grip on the Afghan state’s foreign reserves, the U.S. hopes to pressure the Taliban to honor their promises to create a moderate and inclusive government.
Although Afghanistan’s new rulers vowed as recently as Tuesday to ensure the U.N. aid is distributed fairly, reports have emerged in recent days of Taliban fighters cracking down on journalists and peaceful protests.
“It’s a gray zone,” said Daniel Runde at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We spent a ton of money building up state capacity. Do we now want a broken-down banking system so doctors can’t administer vaccines? Do we care enough about women’s education to work with this regime?”
As the international community ponders the answer, doctors at a government-run pediatric hospital in Kabul say they have run out of antibiotics and gauze and are bracing for a harsh winter without heating as they treat a growing number of malnourished children.
“The economic conditions are getting worse, so the (cases) of malnutrition are increasing,” warned Noorulhaq Yousufzai, the doctor in charge of the clinic.

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North Korea says it tested rail-launched ballistic missiles

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Thursday it successfully launched ballistic missiles from a train for the first time and was continuing to bolster its defenses, after the two Koreas test-fired missiles hours apart in dueling displays of military might.
Wednesday’s launches underscored a return of the tensions between the rivals amid a prolonged stalemate in U.S.-led talks aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said the missiles were launched during a drill of a “railway-borne missile regiment” that transported the weapons system along rail tracks in the country’s mountainous central region and accurately struck a sea target 800 kilometers (500 miles) away.
State media showed what appeared to be two different missiles streaking up from rail-car launchers engulfed in orange flames along tracks surrounded by dense forest.
A rail-based ballistic system reflects North Korea’s efforts to diversify its launch options, which now includes various vehicles and ground launch pads and may eventually include submarines. Firing a missile from a train could add mobility, but some experts say North Korea’s simple rail networks running through its relatively small territory would be quickly destroyed by enemies during a crisis.
“Our military assesses that North Korea is continuously developing various mobile launch equipment,” said Col. Kim Jun-rak, a spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said the South Korean and U.S. militaries were continuing to examine the North’s launches.
The South Korean and Japanese militaries said earlier that North Korea’s two short-range ballistic missiles landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone but outside its territorial waters. The last time a North Korean missile landed inside that zone was in October 2019.
Pak Jong Chon, a senior North Korean official who has been seen as influential in the country’s missile development, said Wednesday’s tests were successfully conducted in line with the “strategic and tactical design and intention” of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed at a party congress in January to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of U.S.-led sanctions and pressure and issued a long wish list of sophisticated weaponry, including longer-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, spy satellites and tactical nuclear arms.
In another weapons display over the weekend, the North said it tested new cruise missiles, which it intends to make nuclear-capable, that can strike targets 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away, a distance putting all of Japan and U.S. military installations there within reach.
Hours after the latest North Korean launches, South Korea reported its first test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. As President Moon Jae-in and other top officials watched, the missile flew from a submarine and hit a designated target, Moon’s office said.
Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the North Korean leader, threatened a “complete destruction” of bilateral relations over Moon’s comments while he observed the test, when he said the South’s growing conventional missile capacities would be a “sure deterrence” against North Korean provocation.
South Korea, which doesn’t have nuclear weapons and instead is protected by the U.S.’s, has been accelerating efforts to build up its conventional arms, including developing more powerful missiles. Observers say Moon’s government, which has been actively pursuing reconciliation with North Korea, may have wanted to appear tougher in response to criticism that it’s too soft on the North.
Kim Yo Jong took offense to Moon describing North Korean weapons demonstrations as a provocation and said warned of dire consequences in inter-Korean relations if he continues on with what she described as slander of North Korea.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the North Korean photos indicated the rail-fired missiles were a solid-fuel, short-range weapon the North first tested from truck launchers in 2019. The missiles, likely modeled on Russia’s Iskander missiles, are designed to fly at relatively low altitudes where the air is dense enough to allow for maneuverability in flight, making interception by missile defense systems more difficult.
While the North is trying to broaden its launch systems, the analyst Kim questioned whether rail-mobile missiles would meaningfully improve the country’s military capabilities when the North’s simple rail networks would be easy targets during crisis.
Experts say North Korea is building up its weapons systems to apply pressure on the United States in the hopes of winning relief from economic sanctions aimed at forcing the North to abandon its nuclear arsenal. U.S.-led talks on the issue have been stalled for more than two years.
Kim Jong Un’s government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s overtures for dialogue, demanding that Washington abandon what it calls “hostile” policies first — a reference to the sanctions.
The United States said it had no hostile intent and called for North Korea to return to talks. “What we seek to do is to reduce the threat to the United States, to our allies in the region, … and we think we can do that through diplomacy,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
While testing various short-range weapons recently, North Korea has maintained its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, a sign it may not want to scuttle chances for diplomacy entirely.

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Pope questions vaccine skeptics, including cardinals

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) — Pope Francis said Wednesday he didn’t understand why people refuse to take COVID-19 vaccines, saying “humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines,” and that serene discussion about the shots was necessary to help them.
“Even in the College of Cardinals, there are some negationists,” Francis said Wednesday, en route home from Slovakia.
He noted that one of them, “poor guy,” had been hospitalized with the virus. That was an apparent reference to U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was hospitalized in the U.S. and placed on a ventilator last month after contracting the virus.
Francis was asked about vaccine skeptics and those who oppose vaccine mandates by a Slovakian reporter, given that some events during his four-day pilgrimage to the country were restricted to people who had gotten COVID-19 jabs. The issue is broader, however, as more and more governments adopt vaccine mandates for certain categories of workers, sparking opposition.
“It’s a bit strange, because humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines,” Francis said, noting that children for decades have been vaccinated against measles, mumps and polio “and no one said anything.”
He hypothesized that the “virulence of uncertainty” was due to the diversity of COVID-19 vaccines, the quick approval time and the plethora of “arguments that created this division,” and fear. Medical experts say vaccines have been tested and used on tens of millions of people and have been proven to be effective in reducing serious hospitalizations and deaths.
Significantly, Francis didn’t cite the religious objection used by some who refuse the vaccines. Some conservatives have refused to get the shots citing the remote and indirect connection to lines of cells derived from aborted fetuses.
The Vatican’s doctrine office has said it is “morally acceptable” for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses. Francis has said it would be “suicide” not to get the jab and both Francis and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI have been fully vaccinated with Pfizer-BioNTech shots.
Francis noted that the Vatican had vaccinated its residents, staff and their families “with the exception of a very small group” and “they’re studying how to help them.”
For those who are still afraid, he said: “They have to clarify that and talk with serenity.”

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Bulgaria to hold an early election after political deadlock

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgaria’s president has called a third parliamentary election this year that will be held on Nov. 14 after two previous votes failed to produce a government, authorities said Wednesday.
Parliament will be dissolved and a new caretaker government will be appointed in the European Union country of 7 million. Bulgaria already held parliamentary elections in April and July this year, but the country’s largest three parties fail to produce a working coalition government.
On the same day as November’s parliamentary vote, a presidential election will be held in which incumbent President Roumen Radev is seeking a second term. The president said holding the two votes together will save time and money.
“The two campaigns will be taking place at the same time and will merge. I will count on the support of all respectable Bulgarians on the big issues — the fight against poverty and injustice,” Radev told reporters.
Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who was at the helm for more than a decade, resigned in April after widespread anti-corruption protests against him and his center-right GERB party.
In July’s election, the anti-establishment There is Such a People party won the most seats but fell well short of the majority needed to form a government. The GERB party now lacks support from any of the other parties.
Daniel Smilov, a professor of political science at the University of Sofia, told The Associated Press that November’s early election will probably lead to another fragmented parliament, extending the political impasse in the EU’s poorest member.
“My hope is that the leading parties have learned lessons from the two previous failed parliaments,” he said. “What needs to happen is, either the old parties need to reform … or the new parties that pretend to bring change need to pull their act together.”
Radev is expected to present the interim government Thursday.
“The next official government will continue to work to eradicate corruption from institutions,” Radev said.
Bulgaria ranked 69th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index.
Political turmoil in Bulgaria is also taking place as the EU’s least-vaccinated nation struggles to contain rising coronavirus infections. Bulgaria has vaccinated just 23% of its people — far fewer than the EU average.

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UK’s Johnson replaces foreign secretary in Cabinet shake-up

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demoted his top diplomat and fired his education minister in a major government shakeup Wednesday, as he tried to move on from a series of political missteps and revive his promise to “level up” prosperity across the U.K.
In the biggest move, Johnson demoted Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has faced criticism for delaying his return from a holiday in Greece as the Taliban took over Afghanistan last month.
Raab was appointed justice secretary with the added title of deputy prime minister. Despite the grand title, that is a demotion — the deputy has no formal constitutional role.
The new foreign minister is ex-International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, a favorite of the Conservative Party’s grassroots who has won praise for her work negotiating trade deals with Australia and Japan since Britain left the European Union last year. Truss, who is Britain’s second female foreign secretary, will also remain minister for women and equalities.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan replaced Truss as minister for international trade.
There were no other changes to the top four Cabinet posts, with Rishi Sunak remaining Treasury chief and Priti Patel staying as Home Secretary. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also kept his job. He has been praised for his work overseeing the evacuation of thousands of British citizens and their Afghan allies from Kabul last month.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who has a key job leading Britain’s pandemic response, also stayed in his post.
Johnson fired Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who has been criticized for his performance during the pandemic, which has seen long periods of school closures, sudden policy shifts and the cancelation of major exams to get into university two years in a row.
Williamson was replaced by Nadhim Zahawi, who has served as vaccines minister, responsible for inoculating the country against the coronavirus.
Michael Gove, a longtime ally and sometime rival of Johnson, was appointed Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The department is key to Johnson’s aim of “leveling up” the U.K., spreading prosperity beyond the wealthy south that is the traditional Conservative heartland. That promise helped Johnson win a big election victory in 2019 by winning votes in Labour Party-dominated parts of the north of England.
Nadine Dorries was promoted to head the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, a position that will see her grapple with thorny issues such as the future of the publicly funded BBC. An outspoken politician who has often made headlines, Dorries has criticized “left wing snowflakes,” and in 2012 was suspended by the Conservative Party for taking time out from her job as a lawmaker to appear on the reality TV show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here,” filmed in Australia.
Johnson last made big changes in his Cabinet soon after his December 2019 election victory, when he sidelined lawmakers considered insufficiently loyal or lukewarm in their support for Brexit. That left him with a strongly pro-Brexit top team, but critics say it left many ambitious and competent lawmakers out of the government.
Opponents of Johnson’s Conservative government say that lack of depth has shown as the U.K. confronted the aftershocks of its departure from the EU along with the public health crisis of the coronavirus pandemic and its resulting economic blows. Britain has recorded more than 134,000 COVID-19 deaths, the highest toll in Europe after Russia.
Johnson’s office said the prime minister’s changes on Wednesday would lead to “a strong and united team to build back better from the pandemic.”
The Cabinet shuffle is due to continue on Thursday.