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News brief: U.K. COVID surge, Potter guilty verdict, holiday shopping


American travelers are scrambling to get to their holiday destinations in time for Christmas.


United and Delta Airlines have canceled dozens of flights because of staffing shortages caused by COVID cases. And in Europe, a number of countries have imposed travel restrictions and requirements to curb the spread of the highly infectious omicron variant that we know is spreading rapidly there. Many bars, restaurants and museums have closed. Outdoor mask mandates have been reimposed. And quarantine requirements have returned. But in the U.K., where omicron is spreading rapidly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been more hesitant to reimpose those restrictions.

MARTÍNEZ: For more, we turn to NPR's London correspondent, Frank Langfitt. Frank, what kind of COVID numbers are you seeing in the U.K.?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah, the highest we've ever seen, A - yesterday, nearly 120,000 there is encouraging data, though, that I want to point out to people. Several new studies here suggest omicron doesn't hit people as hard. Yesterday, the U.K. Health Security Agency put out a study saying that people infected with omicron were 50 to 70% less likely to need to go to the hospital compared to past variants. Dr. Jenny Harries - she runs the agency. She spoke to the BBC this morning.


JENNY HARRIES: So I think there's a glimmer of Christmas hope in the findings that we published yesterday, but it definitely isn't yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat.

LANGFITT: And, A, the reason for that is, of course, omicron is still very - it's very, very infectious and could still end up putting a lot of people in the hospital here. In England, the bed occupancy rate now is almost 95%, so there is a concern that this could still overwhelm the health system.

MARTÍNEZ: So how is Prime Minister Boris Johnson responding to this?

LANGFITT: He's been very hesitant. I mean, he's held off announcing any new restrictions. Of course, Christmas is tomorrow, and I think he knew there would be an uproar if he said something. He put in mild restrictions, put them to a vote last week. Ninety-nine members of his own Conservative Party rebelled against it. We may see restrictions next week in England, particularly pubs and restaurants? Other parts of the U.K. - they're already announcing changes. After the 26, Wales is going to limit groups, the numbers of people getting together in pubs, theaters and restaurants. And after the 27, Scotland is going to shut down nightclubs for three weeks.

MARTÍNEZ: London, I know, has been the epicenter of this wave of infections. How are Londoners responding there?

LANGFITT: Well, something very interesting - you rarely would see something like this - fewer people shopping in central London this week than last. Certainly, people are now heading out to the smaller towns outside of London. Omicron has really hit young people here mostly so far - a lot of people isolating at home or out of work. I know one restaurant where, you know, a fifth of the staff is out. But not the same kind of fears we've seen with past waves. And the reason is because we're not seeing the huge hospitalizations or death numbers so far. And a big reason for that also is the vaccination program. I was talking to Anthony Harnden. He advises the U.K. government on vaccine policy.

ANTHONY HARNDEN: We've had high coverage. And we've implemented the boosters early and aggressively. And so I think from a vaccine point of view, I think we have done everything we could have done.

LANGFITT: And right now, they're averaging about 800,000 people receiving the booster each - every day. Over half the people in the country over age of 12 have already had the booster. And they're going to continue to give vaccinations on Christmas Day and the 26. That's celebrated as Boxing Day here.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's London correspondent, Frank Langfitt. Frank, thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, A.


MARTÍNEZ: A former police officer from suburban Minneapolis could be headed to prison for many years.

MCCAMMON: Kimberly Potter, who is white, was convicted of two counts of manslaughter for shooting and killing Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, earlier this year. She says she mistakenly grabbed her handgun instead of her taser during a traffic stop.

MARTÍNEZ: Reporter Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio is here. Matt, what happened during this traffic stop in April that led to Potter's conviction? Well, I'll

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: take you back to last spring. It was a tense time here in the Minneapolis area. The trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd was winding down. Just nine days before the jury in that trial delivered guilty verdicts, Anthony Luckey, a police officer in the suburb of Brooklyn Center, pulled over a Buick for several minor traffic violations. Riding with Luckey in the squad car that day was Kimberly Potter, his training officer, who'd been on the force for 26 years. As Luckey tried to arrest Wright on a warrant for a firearms charge, Wright slipped back into his car. That's when Potter can be heard on body camera video shouting, Taser. But instead, she fires a single shot with her handgun.

MARTÍNEZ: And jurors saw that body camera video a lot over a week and a half. What else did they hear?

SEPIC: Well, defense attorneys argued that Potter made a mistake by grabbing her gun instead of her taser. But at the same time, they asserted that the shooting was justified in the end because a third officer was in danger as he tried to grab Wright's gearshift. Prosecutors pointed out that Wright did not have a gun himself, and a use-of-force expert they hired said Wright never threatened to hurt anyone, only escape. And police could have arrested him later. Potter testified last week and, through tears, said that she didn't mean to kill Wright and that she was sorry.


KIMBERLY POTTER: I was very distraught. I just shot somebody. I've never done that.

MARTÍNEZ: What was the reaction from Daunte Wright's family and the community?

SEPIC: Well, A, here's what it sounded like outside the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis in the moments after the judge read the two guilty verdicts.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty.

SEPIC: And Wright's mother at a brief news conference said the guilty verdicts came as a big relief.


KATIE BRYANT: The moment that we heard guilty on the manslaughter one, emotions, every single emotion that you could imagine just running through your body at that moment. I kind of let out a yelp.

MARTÍNEZ: Matt, did Potter or her attorneys say anything about the verdict?

SEPIC: Potter stood expressionless as the judge read the verdicts. Her defense attorneys tried to convince Judge Regina Chu to allow Potter to remain free ahead of her sentencing hearing. But Judge Chu denied that request, and Potter was booked into the state women's prison, where she'll serve her sentence.

MARTÍNEZ: And how much prison time does she potentially face?

SEPIC: Well, under state guidelines, the presumptive sentence for first-degree manslaughter for somebody with no prior criminal history is seven years. And typically, two-thirds of that is served in prison, with the rest on supervised release. In Minnesota, defendants convicted on multiple counts for the same act are sentenced only on the most serious charge. But the prosecution is already on the record that it intends to argue for an upward departure from the state's sentencing guidelines. And that sentencing hearing, A, is set for February 18th.

MARTÍNEZ: That's reporter Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio. Matt, thank you.

SEPIC: You're welcome.


MARTÍNEZ: All right. It's Christmas Eve, and it's your last chance to pick up those last-minute gifts for the folks on your list.

MCCAMMON: Shoppers are spending more than ever this year, despite COVID-19 and those warnings about supply-chain issues. But many are also saying, maybe let's not buy anything this year.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Alina Selyukh is here to lay out all of the weirdness of this holiday season. So, Alina, first, the obvious question - how has the omicron variant affected holiday shopping?

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Well, shopping in person - it's affected it a little bit. A company called Placer AI tracks how often people visit stores, and they noticed the impact of this new variant in the past couple of weeks. But here's the kicker. Omicron or not, people are still shopping more than they did last year.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, you've been talking to shoppers about their holiday spending. What are people buying this year?

SELYUKH: In that sense, it's a surprisingly typical year. Last year, everyone seemed to be gifting hand sanitizer and masks and other, you know, sad pandemic necessities. This year we're back to AirPods and PlayStations and toys like Barbies and Legos. Like last year, air fryers are still sizzling hot. The holiday shopping season is on track to set a new record. The National Retail Federation forecasts shoppers will spend up to $859 billion.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, one of the words or phrases I think of that make, really, 2021 - supply chain disruption...


MARTÍNEZ: ...Because I think everyone was thinking about it and wondering how it would affect now, the holiday shopping season. So how did it go?

SELYUKH: Well, shoppers are definitely seeing many more out-of-stock messages this year than they did before. And I spoke with a lot of folks who were so concerned about shipping delays that they got started on their holiday lists much earlier than normal. I talked to Shannon Pitton in western Colorado, who started shopping first week of November. Three weeks ago, she ordered a little play sofa for her 5-year-old and 2-year-old.

SHANNON PITTON: As soon as you hit purchase, it said, hey, there's supply chain issues (laughter). This is expected to be here, like, February 10. And I was like, oh, well, it is what it is. I mean, Happy Valentine's Day (laughter).

SELYUKH: She is in good spirits about it because there are a couple of other gifts Santa is bringing her kids on time for Christmas morning.

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, my God. So she hits the purchase button, and then supply chain issues.

SELYUKH: Happy Valentine's Day, kids (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Got to be kidding me. All right, so stuff from three weeks ago is still not here. I mean, is it safe to say that today is too late, way too late to order holiday gifts?

SELYUKH: I mean, you might still be able to walk into a store, but not all gifts have to come from stores. You know, this year, there's definitely an explosion of DIY holiday gifts. Folks are knitting scarves, paying into vacation funds, regifting books. Samantha Romero and her husband in eastern Virginia have been quilting and packing festive jars with hot cocoa mix.

SAMANTHA ROMERO: It's easy to forget how much handmade gifts can mean. And I think I lost that over the years. And especially with COVID last year, we really didn't do much of anything. And, you know, I started to think back on what made me happy in Christmases past. And I remembered making cookies and pies with my mom and handing them out to neighbors and friends. And that seemed to mean more than anything to me.

SELYUKH: So her advice is if you are still not sure what to get someone, yet today, make them cookies.

MARTÍNEZ: But, Alina, how will people know I love them unless I buy them something from a store?

SELYUKH: Make them cookies (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Alina Selyukh, thank you very much.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "CAN'T TALK NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.