News & Current Affairs

November 1, 2008

Regional DR Congo talks planned

Internally displaced Congolese people leave Goma, 31 October 2008

Fears are growing for thousands of people who have fled into the bush

The Rwandan and Congolese presidents have agreed to try to end fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila agreed to attend a regional summit after talks with a senior EU official on Friday.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband are due to meet the two men and visit Goma on Saturday.

The UN refugee agency has described the situation as “a total disaster”.

Aid groups say they are struggling to reach 250,000 people fleeing fighting between government and rebel forces.

European Union Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said the only way to resolve the crisis was through a summit involving all regional leaders.

He said agreement had been reached on the prospect of a regional summit after two days of talks in the Congolese capital Kinshasa and the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

“They are both fully agreed on the idea of having this summit,” Mr Michel told.

But renegade rebel general Laurent Nkunda had not yet been asked to join the talks, Mr Michel added.

A ceasefire is holding in and around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, but aid agencies say the situation there remains highly volatile.

Gen Nkunda’s forces are positioned some 15km (nine miles) from the city, which they have threatened to take unless UN peacekeepers guarantee the ceasefire and security there.

Refugee stampede

As diplomatic efforts to end the crisis gathered pace on Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday called leaders in Africa, Europe and the US to urge them to “do all they can to bring the parties to a neutral venue for negotiations”.

Congolese soldier with refugee women in Goma - 30/10/2008

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, the current African Union chairman, and AU Commission chief Jean Ping said the summit could be held in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam or the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Food, water and medicine in the city are scarce, and many international relief workers have pulled out after reports widespread rape and looting by retreating Congolese troops.

The BBC’s Orla Guerin witnessed scenes of chaos at a refugee camp in Kibati outside Goma, as desperately hungry people surged towards aid distribution points.

Children were trampled underfoot and panicked aid staff were forced to beat back the heaving crowd.

Some who reached Kibati told the BBC they had more chance of getting food in the forests than inside Goma.

Trading accusations

The UN refugee agency said camps sheltering 50,000 refugees in Rutshuru, 90km north of Goma, had been forcibly emptied, looted and then burnt to the ground.

“There are some 50,000 people who were in those camps,” said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond. “We don’t know where they would be, we’re afraid that they may have just dispersed off into the bush.”

The UN has more than 17,000 peacekeeping troops in DR Congo – the largest UN force in the world – but correspondents say it is struggling to cope with the scale of the current crisis.

The origin of the ongoing conflict in eastern DR Congo is the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

Gen Nkunda says he is fighting to protect his Tutsi community from attack by Rwandan Hutu rebels, some of whom are accused of taking part in the genocide.

The Congolese government has often promised to stop Hutu forces from using its territory, but has not done so.

There have also been accusations of collusion between DR Congo’s army and Hutu guerrillas.

The Congolese government, for its part, has accused Rwanda of backing Gen Nkunda.

Rwanda denies this, but it has twice invaded its much larger neighbour in recent years.

Map


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September 26, 2008

Pilot completes jetpack challenge

Pilot completes jetpack challenge

A Swiss man has become the first person to fly solo across the English Channel using a single jet-propelled wing.

Yves Rossy landed safely after the 22-mile (35.4 km) flight from Calais to Dover, which had been twice postponed this week because of bad weather.

The former military pilot took less than 10 minutes to complete the crossing and parachute to the ground.

The 49-year-old flew on a plane to more than 8,200ft (2,500m), ignited jets on a wing on his back, and jumped out.

Yves Rossy aimed to reach speeds of 125mph

Mr Rossy had hoped to reach speeds of 125mph.

It felt “great, really great”, said Mr Rossy: “I only have one word, thank you, to all the people who did it with me.”

He said weather conditions on Friday had been perfect and his success signalled “big potential” for people to fly “a little bit like a bird” in the future.

Known as “Fusionman,” he was aiming to follow the route taken by French airman Louis Blériot 99 years ago when he became the first person to fly across the English Channel in a plane.

In Dover, Mr Rossy flew past South Foreland lighthouse – which the building’s manager Simon Ovenden said Blériot used as a target during his pioneering flight – and looped onlookers before landing in a field.

“It’s a remarkable achievement, we saw the climax of his attempt as he came down to earth with his parachute. It’s been an exciting afternoon,” said Geoff Clark, a 54-year-old spectator from Chatham, in Kent.
His quote consistently is: I’m not worried about risk, I manage risk
Kathryn Liptrott
National Geographic Channel

Mark Dale, the senior technical officer for the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, described Rossy’s flight as a “fabulous stunt”.

In an interview earlier this week, Mr Rossy said: “If I calculate everything right, I will land in Dover. But if I get it wrong, I take a bath.”

The flight was broadcast live for the National Geographic Channel. Its producer, Kathryn Liptrott, told the  Mr Rossy was fearless.

“When we’ve talked to him and asked him are you worried about risk his quote consistently is: I’m not worried about risk, I manage risk.

“He flew Mirage fighters for the Swiss army, he now flies an Airbus. And in his sort of heart he’s a pilot and a parachutist and what they do is manage risk.”

The longest flight he had previously taken lasted 10 minutes.

The wing had no rudder or tail fin, so Mr Rossy had to steer it using his head and back.

As well as a helmet and parachute, he wore a special suit to protect him from the four kerosene-burning turbines mounted just centimetres from him on the wing.

September 19, 2008

Court orders Diana photos damages

Court orders Diana photos damages

Princess Diana

The photographs were taken off the Italian Riviera in 1997

A British photographer who took pictures of Princess Diana on Mohamed Al Fayed’s yacht has been ordered to pay damages to the Harrods owner.

Jason Fraser, 41, was cleared two years ago of breaking French criminal privacy laws by taking the photos in 1997.

But a court in Paris overturned the verdict and ordered Fraser to pay Mr Al Fayed 5,000 euros (£3,900). He was also fined a total of 3,000 euros (£2,400).

Fraser, of London, said he hoped the latest ruling would be overturned.

Car crash

“I remain confident and would expect a French supreme court to now confirm my continuing faith in the common sense of the French legal system,” he said.

The publishers of France Dimanche, which printed the pictures, were fined the same amount.

The photographs, which show the princess kissing her boyfriend, Mr Al Fayed’s son Dodi, were taken just days before the couple were killed in a Paris car crash in August 1997.

The yacht was off Portofino on the Italian Riviera but proceedings were able to take place in France because the photos were printed in British tabloids on sale in the country and featured in local publications.

September 16, 2008

France frees sailors from pirates

France frees sailors from pirates

French commandos capture Somali pirates (11 April 2008)

French commandos arrested six alleged pirates in April

French commandos have freed two sailors seized by pirates off the Somali coast, the French presidency has said.

One pirate was killed in the operation and another six captured, it said.

The couple were seized in a sailing boat in the Gulf of Aden earlier this month by pirates who reportedly wanted a ransom of some $1.4m (£0.8m).

President Nicolas Sarkozy said the French operation should serve as a warning, and called for international efforts to counter escalating piracy.

France will not allow crime to pay
President Nicolas Sarkozy

The waters off Somalia, which is wracked by conflict, are among the most dangerous in the world. Attacks by pirates are common and hamper the delivery of food aid.

In the latest reported incident, a Hong Kong-owned tanker was seized late on Monday in the Gulf of Aden.

International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center told the AFP news agency that 22 crew members were taken hostage.

French commandos launched a similar raid against Somali pirates in April.

‘Safe and sound’

President Sarkozy said the 30-man operation had taken just 10 minutes.

He said he had given the go-ahead late on Monday when it was clear that the pirates were heading for the lawless port of Eyl, where many well-armed pirate gangs are based.

He said it would have been too dangerous to free them if they arrived in Eyl, reports Reuters news agency.

map
Puntland encourages such steps and calls on other governments whose nationals are being held to do the same thing the French have done
Bille Mohamoud Qabowsade
Puntland spokesman

A minister in the semi-autonomous Puntland region recently told the BBC that when he visited Eyl, he could see at least 10 boats being held by pirates there.

“The two French nationals are safe and sound,” the French statement said.

Tahiti-based sailing enthusiasts Jean-Yves and Bernadette Delanne were on their way from Australia to France, through the Gulf of Aden, when they were captured on 2 September.

“This operation is a warning to all those who indulge in this criminal activity,” Mr Sarkozy said at a press conference on Tuesday. “France will not allow crime to pay.”

“I call on other countries to take their responsibilities as France has done twice.”

Attacks against fishing boats, cargo ships and yachts have surged over recent months and foreigners, who can be exchanged for large ransoms, are frequent targets.

Warships from France and other nations have been patrolling the Somali coast to protect ships carrying aid to the country, where up to a third of the population needs food aid.

On Monday, European foreign ministers agreed to set up a “co-ordination unit” to improve security patrols.

France, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, has a military base in neighbouring Djibouti.

Welcomed

In April, French commandos made six arrests in a helicopter raid on Somali pirates after they had been paid a ransom to free the crew of another French yacht.

The six seized alleged pirates were handed over to French justice officials to be tried.

According to Reuters, the pirate group holding the Delanne couple were also demanding the release of their compatriots held in France.

Authorities in the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland welcomed the French move.

Puntland’s administration claims it is powerless in the face of the growing power of the pirates, who are well-armed and employ a lot of people.

“The state of Puntland encourages such steps and calls on other governments whose nationals are being held to do the same thing the French have done,” Puntland presidential adviser Bille Mohamoud Qabowsade told AFP.

The IMB says pirates off Somalia use “mother ships” that travel far out to sea and launch smaller boats to attack passing vessels, sometimes using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Somalia has been without a functioning central government for 17 years and has suffered from continual civil strife.

Battles between Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian-backed government soldiers have forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in the last 18 months.

September 14, 2008

Two die after Paris boat accident

Two die after Paris boat accident

A father and his six-year-old son who were trapped in a sunken pleasure boat which hit a bridge pillar on the River Seine in Paris have died, say police.

The pair were underwater near Notre Dame cathedral for 20 minutes before divers pulled them from the vessel.

Ten others were rescued from the water after the vessel sank. All 12 on board were French nationals, police said.

Officials are investigating if the boat collided with a larger tourist vessel before hitting the Archeveque bridge.

Paris police headquarters said the father and son died overnight in hospital after the accident just before 2200 local time (2100 BST) on Saturday.

The 10 other people rescued were said to have been hurt, but it is not known if their injuries were serious.

The Seine is always busy with pleasure boats on Saturdays but serious accidents are extremely rare.

Pope holds huge Mass in Lourdes

Pope holds huge Mass in Lourdes

Pope Benedict XVI has told tens of thousands of pilgrims in the southern French town of Lourdes that love can be stronger than all the world’s evil.

The 81-year-old pontiff gave the homily during an open-air Sunday Mass at the highly-revered Roman Catholic shrine.

Benedict is in Lourdes to mark the 150th anniversary of what many Roman Catholics believe was a vision of the Virgin Mary by a young local girl.

On Saturday, he also celebrated an outdoor Mass in the capital, Paris.

More than 200,000 pilgrims made the trip to Lourdes for Benedict’s first papal Mass at the shrine.

The pontiff is making a three-day pilgrimage to the sanctuary, which is visited each year by six million believers.

There is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weakness and sins
Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict looked elated and moved by the rapturous welcome he received from the crowds – some of the faithful had queued through the night to make ensure their place.

Security has been tight, with more than 3,000 police officers drafted in to the area.

After his arrival at the shrine, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Benedict prayed at the Grotto of Massabielle, also known as the Cave of Apparitions.

The riverside site is where 14-year-old peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous told local clergy in 1858 the Virgin Mary had appeared to her.

When he arrived on Saturday night, Benedict also drank water from a spring that believers say has miraculous healing powers.

Pope Benedict XVI has celebrated his first Mass at Lourdes

Saying Mass from under white canopies shaped like sails, the Pope told his listeners to be true to their faith because “it tells us that there is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weakness and sins”.

He said: “The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us.”

Pope Benedict arrived in Paris on Friday for his first visit to France since becoming Pope in 2005. He was welcomed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he praised for promoting the role of religion in society.

France staunchly upholds a 1905 law that enshrines the separation of Church and state, but Mr Sarkozy has supported efforts to ease the country’s strict secularism law.

France is a Roman Catholic country but Sunday Mass attendance is now below 10%.

Before his visit, a French newspaper poll showed that more than half of those questioned had a positive view of the Pope.


Did you attend the mass in Lourdes? You can send us your comments

September 13, 2008

Thousands stranded by XL collapse

Thousands stranded by XL collapse

The collapse of the UK’s third largest package holiday group has left tens of thousands of Britons stranded abroad.

The decision to place XL Leisure Group into administration has also left thousands of staff facing the axe.

Chairman Phil Wyatt said he was “totally devastated” by the failure which has grounded XL’s 21 planes. The company flies to about 50 destinations.

There are 67,000 stranded who booked directly with XL, and another 23,000 who booked via other companies.

The Civil Aviation Authority(CAA) also said the firm had 200,000 advance bookings.

‘Sad day’

CAA EMERGENCY HELPLINE
Customers abroad: +44 (0) 2891 856547
Customers in the UK with advance bookings: 0870 5900927

“We’ve made every effort, myself and my fellow directors, to find new funding for the business – and it’s a very sad day for me personally. I am totally devastated,” XL chairman Phil Wyatt said.David Clover, a spokesman for the CAA, said it was making arrangements to help customers of the four tour companies within the XL group.

“In respect of people who are currently abroad we’re making arrangements and working very closely with the travel industry to organize repatriation flights.

“Clearly though, with XL Airways no longer operating, we’re having to bring in substitute aircraft to bring people home.”

He said package deals are covered by the CAA’s Air Travel Organizers’ Licensing (Atol) scheme and those customers will be offered repatriation flights or their money back if they have an advance booking.

Struggling

However, those who booked directly with the airline or XL.com – who are in the minority according to the CAA – will face a fee.

Anyone yet to take their flights should check their insurance policies, and with their banks or credit card companies about refunds, he added.

XL – which carried 2.3 million passengers last year – is the latest travel business to face financial difficulties, as the industry struggles with high fuel costs and an economic downturn.

But an agreement has been reached whereby Straumur investment bank has acquired XL’s German and French subsidiaries, which Straumur considers to be financially viable and sustainable businesses.

They will continue operations as separate commercial entities.

Share prices in holiday firms TUI Travel and Thomas Cook were up 6% and 7% following the collapse of their rival.

Economic downturn

“As the travel industry matures in Europe, there was always going to be pressure on those operating in the mid-market,” said Lastminute.com chief executive Ian McCaig.

A statement on the XL group’s website said: “The companies entered into administration having suffered as a result of volatile fuel prices, the economic downturn, and were unable to obtain further funding.”

XL COMPANIES
XL Leisure Group
XL Airways UK
Excel Aviation
Explorer House
Aspire Holidays
Freedom Flights
Freedom Flights (Aviation)
The Really Great Holiday Company
Medlife Hotels
Travel City Flights
Kosmar Villa Holidays

BBC travel correspondent Tom Symonds added that the industry would be facing an “enormous challenge” as it deals with the fall out of XL’s collapse.

“XL wasn’t just an airline it was a fundamental link Britain’s package holiday industry,” he said.

“Getting these people to and from their holidays will be an enormous challenge not least because of the shortage of aircraft caused by so many airline collapses in recent weeks.

“XL can’t use its own airliners for among other reasons it has no insurance now.”

The CAA said it was working with the travel industry to bring stranded holidaymakers home, and denied it had been responsible for the grounding of XL’s planes.

Airlines BA, Easyjet, BMI, Flybe and Ryanair have offered to fly some of the stranded passengers home.

Easyjet chief executive Andy Harrison told that its fuel efficient planes had helped it cope with the high cost of aviation fuel although on Thursday it said it would cut up to 60 jobs to remain competitive.

Fuel pressures

Mr Wyatt added that spiralling oil prices had increased the firm’s costs “year-on-year by over $80m”.

“So where many people have been making hay with high oil prices, this is the repercussions of that hay – 1,700 people potentially out of work today in the UK,” he said.

Rival TUI warned that rising fuel costs meant that “airlines with less than robust business models” – such as XL and Futura – were now failing.

It added that the government should take steps to ensure all holiday companies must belong to the Atol scheme, which offers package holiday makers financial protection.

In the US, one flight from Orlando to Manchester managed to set off, while one bound for Gatwick was grounded. A source at the airport said accommodation was being found for the “distressed” passengers.

In the UK, air traffic control prevented three XL aircraft from taking off from Manchester Airport.

The XL group, which is based in Crawley, West Sussex, runs an airline and owns several travel companies, including Travel City Direct, Medlife Hotels Limited, The Really Great Holiday Company, Freedom Flights and Kosmar Holidays.

‘Going nowhere’

The company flies mainly from bases at Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow airports.

Travel writer Simon Calder warned that many thousands of XL customers hoping to fly to the Caribbean, Mediterranean, North Africa and North America, from airports across the UK in coming weeks and days “simply won’t be going anywhere”.

Jim Duwaine, from Portsmouth, said he was given the news when he arrived at Gatwick where he had been due to catch an early morning flight to Menorca.

HELP OFFERED TO XL CUSTOMERS
Flybe – offering flights for 90 euros (£71.50)
BA– offering a one-way discount
Easyjet– flights offered for £75
BMI – provided aircraft to CAA for transport people home
Ryanair – has offered spare plane to CAA for transport

He said: “Absolutely devastated. Got up at midnight planning on going on holiday, but got let down, unfortunately. We’re here, just trying to get some other flights, but it’s not looking good. I think everyone else has got the same idea.”

Other holidaymakers have said they have been quoted vastly inflated prices for replacement flights.

Robert Spurgeon, of Norwich – an XL customer who had been due to fly to Tenerife from Gatwick – said: “We’ve not been told anything but my wife’s been quoted £2,000 for alternative flights.”

Also among those affected are a 130-strong choir on tour to Canada from Wales who were booked on Zoom and lost £50,000 when it folded last month, and then re-booked with XL.

XL is the current kit sponsor of West Ham United but football club said it would end the sponsorship deal and play on Saturday in an unbranded kit.


Are you struggling to make your way home from your holiday destination? Have you paid for a holiday that you may not be able to take? If you were an employee of XL what are your views? Send us your comments

September 12, 2008

Disruption continuing over tunnel

Disruption continuing over tunnel

Misery is set to continue for thousands of Eurostar passengers with services unlikely to resume on Friday.

The Channel Tunnel is closed after a fire broke out on a freight train about seven miles from Calais. Fire fighters are still tackling the blaze.

Thirty-two people on board were led to safety. Fourteen had suffered minor injuries, including smoke inhalation.

The operator said in a statement it “did not expect” to operate any services on Friday.

The fire broke out on a UK-bound lorry aboard the shuttle train at about 1400 GMT on Thursday, around 11km (7 miles) from the French entrance, the operator Eurotunnel said.

Map

The French Interior Ministry said the lorry, which is understood to have overturned on the train, was carrying the chemical phenol, a toxic product used by the pharmaceutical industry.

At 11.40pm on Thursday fire crews were still working to put out the fire, but the situation was said to be under control.

Chief Fire Officer Bill Feeley of Kent Fire and Rescue Service said about 100 of his firefighters were tackling the blaze.

“The fire itself, because it’s in a tunnel, it’s in a confined space, produces a lot of smoke and a lot of heat for our firefighters to contend with.

“We’re working from one end as the French fire service works from the other, and I know they’ve been in audible contact, so that’s how close they are.”

A train was sent to collect the people from the service tunnel and take them back to France.

The Foreign Office said seven of those evacuated from the tunnel were British.

The French state train company SNCF said its services would not resume until Friday.

The tunnel carries Eurostar express trains between London, Paris and Brussels, as well as freight and passenger shuttles between Folkestone and Calais.

Travel chaos

Traffic built up at the British end of the tunnel, with queues of lorries and cars tailing from the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone.

Kent police have closed junctions eight to nine of the coastbound section of the M20 and sections of the motorway have been used to queue lorries as part of Operation Stack.

The Highways Agency has told motorists to expect delays of up to an hour on the M20.

Motorists at the Channel Tunnel entrance were being given vouchers by staff to board ferries at Dover.

Some of the stranded passengers said Eurostar has agreed to reimburse them for their stays overnight in London.

A spokesman said anyone who had been unable to use the tickets because of the fire would be given as much help as possible with continuing their journey.

Eurolines, which is part of National Express, said it had capacity to take Eurostar passengers to Paris and Brussels by coach, via cross-Channel ferry services.

The Channel Tunnel has suffered several incidents since it opened to traffic in 1994 although only one – a fire in 1996 – caused serious injuries.

In August 2006, 34 people had to be led to safety after a fire broke out on a lorry being carried on a freight train.

The fire caused £200m worth of damage burned for over five hours, wrecking the concrete lining and facilities over about half a mile of tunnel.

Security exercises are staged in the Channel Tunnel by police, fire and ambulance services from both England and France to ensure preparedness for such incidents.

Graphic

Have you been affected by this incident? Were you due to travel through the Channel Tunnel today? Send us your comments and experiences

September 8, 2008

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev in August 2008

President Sarkozy (L) brokered a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to arrive in Moscow for talks with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the crisis in Georgia.

He is joined by the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the European Commission head, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Sarkozy is expected to press Russia to fully implement a peace plan he brokered to end the fighting.

Meanwhile, Georgia has gone to the UN’s highest court over what it claims are Russian human rights abuses.

Judges at the International Court of Justice in the Hague are being asked to impose emergency measures to halt what Georgia says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Russia in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian forces remain in South Ossetia and large parts of Georgian territory after it responded heavily to Georgian attempts last month to recapture the separatist region.

Difficult goals

After talks in Moscow, the three senior European figures are due to go on to the Georgian capital, Tblisi, to meet President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Russia says it is honoring the terms of a six-point plan agreed to end the conflict.

However, European nations do not agree.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions but Russian peacekeepers may take unspecified “additional security measures”
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

President Sarkozy wants Russian troops to pull back from their current positions in Georgia – well beyond the boundaries of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The European trio is also expected to press the Russians on arrangements for a strengthened international effort to monitor developments on the ground.

Some European leaders have already warned that there can be “no business as usual” with Russia until the peace plan is fully implemented, and the European Union has suspended talks on a new partnership agreement with Moscow.

However, with winter approaching, individual European countries continue to consume Russian oil and gas as usual.

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and its continuing failure to implement the agreement to the letter, will have profound consequences for Russian relations with the EU.

It will also make it difficult for President Sarkozy to achieve his goals in Moscow, he says.

‘Climate crisis’ needs brain gain

‘Climate crisis’ needs brain gain

CMS (M. Brice/Cern)

The UK alone has invested more than half-a-billion pounds in the LHC

The most brilliant minds should be directed to solving Earth’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, says Sir David King.

The former UK chief scientist will use his presidential address at the BA Science Festival to call for a gear-change among innovative thinkers.

He will suggest that less time and money is spent on endeavors such as space exploration and particle physics.

He says population growth and poverty in Africa also demand attention.

“The challenges of the 21st Century are qualitatively different from anything that we’ve had to face up to before,” he told reporters before the opening of the festival, which is being held this year in Liverpool.

“This requires a re-think of priorities in science and technology and a redrawing of our society’s inner attitudes towards science and technology.”

Huge expense

Sir David’s remarks will be controversial because they are being made just as the UK is about to celebrate its participation in the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest physics experiment.

The Collider, built at the Cern laboratory under the Swiss-French border, is starting full operations this Wednesday.

It will seek to understand the building blocks of matter, and, in particular, try to find a mechanism that can explain why matter has mass.

This international venture is extremely expensive, however. The UK alone has contributed more than £500m to the LHC – the largest sum of money to date invested by a UK government in a single scientific project.

Sir David said it was time such funding – and the brains it supports – were pushed to answering more pressing concerns.

“It’s all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it’s all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilization is really crucial.”

Big ideas

Chief among these challenges for Sir David is the issue of climate change. When he was the government’s top scientist, he made the famous remark that the threat from climate change was bigger than the threat posed by terrorism.

He said alternatives to fossil fuels were desperately needed to power a civilization that would number some nine billion people by mid-century – nine billion people who would all expect a high standard of living.

“We will have to re-gear our thinking because our entire civilization depends on energy production, and we have been producing that energy very largely through fossil fuels; and we will have to remove our dependence from fossil fuels virtually completely, or we will have to learn how to capture carbon dioxide from fossil fuel usage,” he said.

Finding and exploiting clean energy sources was now imperative, he said; and Sir David questioned whether the spending on particle physics research in the shape of Cern’s Large Hadron Collider was the best route to that goal.

He even doubted whether Cern’s greatest invention was an outcome that could only have come from an institution that pursued so-called “blue skies research”.

“People say to me: ‘well what about the world wide web? That emerged from Cern’. Brilliant. Tim Berners Lee was the person who invented that. What if Tim Berners Lee had been working in a solar [power] laboratory? Perhaps he would have done it there as well. The spin-out would have come from the brilliant individual.”

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