Covid: Biden signs executive orders on food aid and worker protections

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Media caption,
President Biden: "Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better"

US President Joe Biden has issued two more executive orders as he continues to roll back his predecessor's agenda.

He signed one order on boosting food assistance and another on raising the federal minimum wage to $15.

Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, said the action would "provide a critical lifeline" to millions of families.

It comes a day after the new US president signed a raft of orders to boost the fight against coronavirus.

This included expanding testing and accelerating vaccine distribution.

Mr Biden said it would take months to defeat the pandemic but America would "get through this" if people stood together.

The Trump administration was widely accused of failing to get to grips with the pandemic.

The US has recorded the highest coronavirus death toll of any country in the world, with more than 410,000 fatalities, according to data collated by John Hopkins University. It has recorded more than 24.6 million cases.

What will the two orders do?

Mr Biden signed the two executive orders on Friday.

The first increases food aid for children who rely on school meals as a main source for nutrition, but are unable to access them because of remote learning.

It also creates a guarantee that workers can access unemployment benefits if they refuse a job on the grounds that it could jeopardise their health.

The second is aimed at expanding protections for federal workers, by restoring collective bargaining rights and promoting a $15 (£11) hourly minimum wage.

Mr Deese said the orders were "not a substitute" for a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill that Mr Biden wants Congress to pass, but an essential lifeline for people who need immediate assistance.

"The American people cannot afford to wait," he told reporters. "So many are hanging by a thread. They need help, and we're committed to doing everything we can to provide that help as quickly as possible."

What else has Biden done?

The day after taking office, Mr Biden signed 10 executive orders as part of a sweeping "wartime" Covid action plan.

This included increasing vaccinations and testing, and expanding the production of essential equipment.

Mr Biden said that the "bold practical steps" that he was taking would not come cheaply.

"Let me be clear - things will continue to get worse before they get better," he said, adding that he expected the number of dead to top half a million by next month.

Media caption,
Reporter asks why Biden's mask absent on federal land after executive order

"This is a wartime undertaking," he said, repeating that more Americans had already died in the pandemic than in the whole of World War Two.

He mentioned the vaccine, saying that its rollout had been a "dismal failure so far", and described his plan for 100 million jabs in his first 100 days in office as "one of the greatest operational challenges our nation has ever taken on".

But when challenged by a reporter who suggested the target might be too low, he snapped back: "When I announced it you all said that it's not possible. Come on. Give me a break, man."

Some US media commentators have argued that Mr Biden's goal of one million doses administered daily to Americans is not ambitious enough.

The daily average for coronavirus vaccine doses over the last week, including under the Trump administration, already sits at 980,000, according to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker.

Mr Biden also promised to be transparent about setbacks, and allow scientists to work free from political interference.

"I'm convinced the American people are ready to spare no effort to get this done," he concluded. "We can do this if we stand together."

Speaking separately chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci spoke about the vaccine rollout, saying the Biden administration was "amplifying" the programme that was already there.

If, as hoped, 70-85% of the population was vaccinated by the end of summer, there would be "a degree of normality" by autumn, he said.

Dr Fauci said his main concern was persuading people who were sceptical about the vaccine to take it.

He added that the administration was in talks with manufacturers to produce more vaccine, amid reports of supply problems. Some regional officials say they have run out of available vaccine.

Nearly 20 million shots have been administered so far.

Dr Fauci, who served under Mr Trump, also welcomed the new administration's emphasis on science.

"The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know and what the evidence, what the science is... it is something of a liberating feeling," he said, whereas under Mr Trump, "you didn't feel that you could actually say something and there wouldn't be any repercussions".

What is Biden's Covid plan?

The Trump administration had been criticised for a lack of strategy at the federal level.

"The American people deserve an urgent, robust and professional response to the growing public health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak," an introduction to the plan said.

It said Mr Biden believed the government "must act swiftly and aggressively to help protect and support" essential workers and the most vulnerable.

Although executive orders do not require congressional approval, much of the funding for the planned measures is contained in the $1.9tn stimulus package announced by Mr Biden last week.

He will need co-operation from the Senate and House of Representatives for the package to be adopted smoothly.

The aim is to reopen most schools safely within 100 days, and establish vaccine centres at stadiums and community facilities.

International travellers will need to test negative before departing for the US and self-quarantine for 14 days on arrival.

On top of the already announced rules on wearing masks and social distancing on all federal government property, face coverings will become mandatory in airports and on many planes, trains and buses.

There will be more funding for state and local officials to help tackle the pandemic, and a new office will be established to co-ordinate the national response.

The Defense Production Act will be used to speed up production of personal protective equipment and essential supplies needed for vaccine production. Mr Trump used the same piece of legislation to compel the production of items in short supply last year.

Image source, Getty Images

In a further break with the previous administration, Dr Fauci said the US would join the Covax scheme designed to deliver Covid vaccines to poor countries.

Speaking by video call to the World Health Organization in Geneva, he also stressed that the US would continue to provide funding for the WHO, in line with Mr Biden's move to reverse Mr Trump's decision to leave.