Spain launches package to protect hardest-hit renters

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

Spain has announced a package of measures for renters hit by the coronavirus crisis, but demanded that big property owners assume part of the cost.

The initiative highlights an issue that has become increasingly contentious in European countries hard hit by the virus and the accompanying state-decreed shutdown: how to provide and finance relief for people unable to pay their rent.

While Spain and other governments have already decreed mortgage payment moratoriums, the question of rent is more complex and sensitive because of landlords who depend on it for their own income.

Under the plan agreed by Spain’s left-wing government on Tuesday, evictions will be banned for six months, rental contracts about to expire will be extended, and micro-credits with zero interest and no commission will be granted to renters, payable over six to ten years.

“If we are asking people to stay at home, we should guarantee the constitutional right to housing,” said Pablo Iglesias, deputy prime minister and leader of the radical left Podemos party. He added:

All small property holders will receive the entire rent they are due but… big property owners and investment funds will have to assume – as is normal – part of the impact

He added that if a renter was unable to pay during the crisis, such an investor would either have to forgive half of the outstanding debt, or restructure all of it so that it was payable over three years.

The government said half a million families would be provided relief through the measure. It added that people who were not entitled to unemployment payments would receive E440 a month from the state and that the self-employed and businesses could delay social security payments up to six months.

US death toll overtakes 9/11 fatalities as virus continues to spread

Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

The US death toll from coronavirus has overtaken the number of people killed in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, as top government scientists warn that the total number of fatalities could rise to as many as 200,000.

According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, 3,170 people in the US have died from the virus, surpassing the 2,977 victims who were killed in the 9/11 attacks. The number of confirmed cases has risen to just under 165,000, far ahead of Italy which has almost 102,000 cases.

The grim statistic comes one day after President Donald Trump said the decision to extend strict social distancing guidelines until the end of April “could save 1m American lives”. Mr Trump, who originally wanted to reopen the economy by Easter, was persuaded to extend the guidelines after being briefed on the number of possible deaths.

Anthony Fauci, the widely respected head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force, at the weekend said that the US could see deaths in the range of 100,000 to 200,000. Deborah Birx, another doctor on the task force, on Monday told NBC News that the US could contain the number of fatalities within that range if the overall response was done “almost perfectly”.

In addition to surpassing the 9/11 count, the number of deaths exceeds the almost 2,500 Americans killed in Afghanistan, and is approaching the almost 4,500 who lost their lives in the Iraq war, according to Pentagon data. The two George W. Bush-era wars claimed the lives of a much higher number of Iraqi and Afghan citizens.

Cambridge University offers ‘safety net’ for final year students

Andrew Jack in London

Cambridge has joined a growing number of British universities in offering a “safety net” so that undergraduates who pass the exams in their final year will not receive a grade lower than in the previous year.

In a letter to students and faculty, Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor, called the approach “a radical rethink … to ensure that the methods of assessment we adopt are rigorous and fair, while taking into account the health and wellbeing of our students and staff”.

He said the university was also looking for ways to extend staff employed on fixed term contracts.

Liverpool, Warwick, Edinburgh and Exeter have announced similar safety nets.

US consumer confidence gauge falls to lowest since 2017

A gauge of US consumer sentiment fell to its lowest level in more than two years as the coronavirus pandemic intensified and markets tumbled.

The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index fell to 120 in March, from 132.6 the previous month, but exceeded economists’ expectations for a drop to 110. That was the weakest reading since July 2017.

“The intensification of Covid-19 and extreme volatility in the financial markets have increased uncertainty about the outlook for the economy and jobs,” said Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at the Conference Board.

“March’s decline in confidence is more in line with a severe contraction – rather than a temporary shock – and further declines are sure to follow,” she added.

The cutoff for the survey results was March 19.

UK to extend visas of overseas health workers

Robert Wright in London

The UK has set out a comprehensive package of measures to help overseas health workers in the UK to remain to fight the Covid-19 outbreak, including an automatic, fee-free extension to visas close to their expiry date.

The extension for staff with visas expiring before October 1 would help around 2,800 doctors, nurses and paramedics, the Home Office said on Tuesday.

The National Health Service has depended in recent years on the arrival of doctors, nurses and other staff from beyond Europe. NHS staff have taken around 40 per cent of the 20,700 Tier 2 visas for skilled migrants coming from outside the European Economic Area – the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

The Home Office said the visa extension, which would also apply to NHS staff’s family members, would give them “peace of mind” to focus on the battle against coronavirus.

The department plans to lift restrictions on the hours that overseas student doctors and nurses could work in hospitals. It will also allow overseas nurses due to undertake skills tests to postpone the exams and continue working.

Doctors, nurses and paramedics from all over the world are playing a “leading role” in the NHS’s efforts to tackle coronavirus, the home secretary said.

“We owe them a great deal of gratitude for all that they do,” Priti Patel said. “I don’t want them distracted by the visa process. That is why I have automatically extended their visas – free of charge – for a further year.”

US Midwest factory activity shrinks at slower rate than forecast

A gauge of factory activity in the Midwest fell less than feared in March even as the coronavirus pandemic began to take its toll on the US economy.

The Chicago Purchasing Managers Index slid to 47.8 last month, down from 49 in February, but exceeded economists’ expectations for a decline to 40. A reading below 50 indicates contraction and this marked the ninth consecutive sub-50 reading for the index.

Production and new orders indices saw monthly declines, but some firms reported an uptick in orders as customers stockpiled. Meanwhile, employment ticked up after having slipped in February.

The data comes after a gauge of activity in Texas’ manufacturing sector plummeted in March.

“The Chicago PMI can be considerably more volatile than the national Institute for Supply Management manufacturing index, and therefore today’s report may well have no bearing on the far more important ISM measure which will be released tomorrow,” Joshua Shapiro, economist at MFR, said.

The Chicago PMI survey ran from March 2 to 16.

Glencore mulls paying $2.6bn dividend as it strives to limit debt

Neil Hume in London

Glencore will decide later this year whether to pay a $2.6bn dividend because of the risk that production could be hit by measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

In order to keep net debt between $14bn and $17bn and retain a prized investment grade credit rating, the Swiss-based miner and commodity trader said on Tuesday it was “prudent” to defer a decision on a proposed 20 cents a share payment until its interim results in August.

“As well as prioritising the health and wellbeing of our people, their families and our communities, we are taking a cautious approach to protect our capital structure amid the current period of extreme uncertainty,” said Glencore chairman Tony Hayward in a statement.

“Therefore, notwithstanding that Glencore continues to generate material levels of positive free cash in the current environment, the board considers it prudent to defer the distribution decision We will review the opportunity for a distribution at our August results, when we will have an improved understanding of COVID-19’s impact on our business and its prospects.”

Coronavirus latest: US death toll overtakes 9/11 fatalities as Covid-19 continues to spread

Virus claims 367 more lives in England, figures reveal

In England 367 more people, who tested positive for coronavirus, have died over the past 24 hours, bringing the total of confirmed reported deaths to 1,651.

Patients were aged between 19 and 98-years-old and all but 28 patients (aged between 19 and 91-years-old) had underlying health conditions, NHS England said on Tuesday.

The UK has 22,141 cases diagnosed, the latest figures from Public Health England showed on Monday.

Science Group shares leap following ventilator order

Michael Pooler in London:

A small UK-listed company’s shares jumped by almost a third after revealing it had received a “letter of intent” from the government to make 10,000 ventilators to treat coronavirus patients.

Aim-quoted Science Group said on Tuesday that it was manufacturing 20 trial units of a device developed from scratch over the past month, which will be submitted for regulatory approval.

The research and development consultancy added that talks were underway with officials over a contract with an order expected once the green light is received.

As countries around the world scramble to source the life-saving machines, the UK government has placed a number of orders, including for a batch of 10,000 ventilators designed by the vacuum cleaner maker Dyson, which are also subject to regulatory testing.

Shares in Science Group were up 15 per cent in afternoon trading at 212p.

German unemployment set to spike

Guy Chazan in Berlin

German officials expect a sharp uptick in unemployment as a consequence of the coronavirus crisis, despite efforts to avert mass lay-offs through an expansion of the government’s short-time work programme.

“Unemployment in Germany will increase for the first time in many years,” said Hubertus Heil, labour minister. “We have to be realistic … we can save a lot of jobs .. but we can’t protect each and every one.”

Detlef Scheele, head of the Federal Employment Agency, said the next set of unemployment statistics in April would likely show an uptick in joblessness of 150,000-200,000, adding that many of the lay-offs were in the hospitality and tourism sectors.

The agency’s latest figures, published on Tuesday, showed a slight drop in the number of unemployed people in Germany. But the data missed much of the impact of coronavirus as it only measured up to March 12. It said the number of people without a job fell by 60,000 to 2.34m between February and March.

Germany has sought to avert a big spike in unemployment through a big expansion of the “Kurzarbeit” or short-time work scheme. Under the programme, companies hit by a downturn can send their workers home, or radically reduce their hours, and the state will replace a large part of their lost income.

Global airline industry forecast to burn through $61bn of cash reserves

Tanya Powley in London

The global airline industry will burn through $61bn of its cash reserves during the second quarter of this year, according to the latest trade body forecast.

Iata, the industry trade body, on Tuesday warned that carriers are facing an “enormous cash problem”, pointing to an estimated $35bn of ticket refunds that are due in the second quarter alone because of cancelled flights. It estimates that the industry faces a net loss of $39bn in the three months to end of June.

The cash outlook comes just a week after Iata warned that the coronavirus pandemic would slash airline revenues by $250bn this year. Governments around the world have been launching rescue packages for the aviation industry, including the US stimulus bill that earmarked $58bn in loans and loan guarantees for US passenger airlines and cargo carriers.

Alexandre de Juniac, Iata’s director-general, said:

Airlines cannot cut costs fast enough to stay ahead of the impact of this crisis. We are looking at a devastating net loss of $39 billion in the second quarter. The impact of that on cash burn will be amplified by a $35 billion liability for potential ticket refunds. Without relief, the industry’s cash position could deteriorate by $61 billion in the second quarter.

Iata noted that some countries, such as Brazil, Canada, Colombia and the Netherlands, have relaxed regulations to allow airlines to offer passengers travel vouchers in place of cash refunds. Mr de Juniac said that this was a “vital time buffer” to help the sector deal with its cash problems.

Singapore to punish companies that do not implement home working

Stefania Palma in Singapore

Singapore has said it is now an offence for companies not to implement working from home if they are able to do so, as the city state faces a jump in locally transmitted cases.

Companies that do not make “a serious enough effort” to roll out telecommuting will face punishments including orders to stop working or fines, based on their specific circumstances, said Josephine Teo, minister of manpower.

Only about 40 per cent of companies in Singapore’s business district have staff working from home. “There is certainly scope to do more, especially for private sector firms,” said Ms Teo.

In assessing companies, the government will consider whether they were aware of the recommended distancing measures; if they tried to implement them; and if their enforcement went far enough.

The manpower ministry will increase the number of enforcement officers fivefold to more than 100 to implement the new rules. Singapore will also expand grants that help companies implement home working.


Wall St opens lower with markets on track for worst quarter since 2008

US stocks fell at the open on Tuesday leaving the S&P 500 on track for its worst quarterly performance since the financial crisis.

The S&P 500 opened 0.4 per cent lower and was down more that 19 per cent in the first three months of the year — its biggest quarterly decline since December 2008.
Meanwhile, the Nasdaq Composite opened 0.4 per cent lower and was down nearly 14 per cent for the quarter.

Markets have stabilised in recent days after fears about the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic drove bouts of volatility that saw Wall Street suffer its quickest fall into bear market territory on record.

However, efforts by central banks and governments around the world, including a $2tn US stimulus package, to cushion from the blow helped calm investor nerves.

Doctor who met Putin tests positive for coronavirus

Henry Foy in Moscow

The head of Russia’s main hospital for treating coronavirus patients has tested positive for Covid-19, a week after he met with president Vladimir Putin.

Denis Protsenko, who is the head physician of the Kommunarka hospital outside of Moscow, is infected with the virus, state-owned newswire RIA Novosti reported on Tuesday.

Last Tuesday, Mr Protsenko showed Mr Putin around the hospital, and photos showed the two men shaking hands, talking, posing next to each other for photographs and standing together in a small elevator.

Mr Putin’s spokesman has said that Mr Putin is tested regularly, and everyone who comes into contact with him is screened before their meeting.

Oil price collapse will shrink output by a tenth by June, study shows

Derek Brower in London

Oil companies will by June stop producing up to 10m barrels a day, the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s output last month, as storage facilities fill up and production from weak companies starts to drop in the face of collapsing demand and crude prices, a report shows.

US oil production will drop by more than 4m b/d by the end of 2021, IHS Markit added.

“If there is no international agreement to curtail oil production then brutal unadulterated market forces will bring the oil market into balance,” said Jim Burkhard, head of oil markets at the consultancy. “The laws of supply and demand are fierce in extreme conditions.”

Upstream activity is starting to seize up in North America.

Global oil demand in the second quarter would be 16.4m b/d less than a year ago, IHS Markit said, predicting that the drop in April will be 20m b/d — a fifth of total global consumption last year.

The price of Brent crude, trading at just over $23 a barrel on Tuesday in London, will fall to $10/b during April, it forecast.

UK admits testing delays as it lags behind other nations

Jim Pickard in London

The British government has said it is unlikely to reach its target of 25,000 daily tests for coronavirus before late April.

Boris Johnson said on March 18 that the UK was closing in on the higher figure, telling the House of Commons: “We’re moving up to 25,000 a day.”

But a Downing Street spokesman said on Tuesday that the target would not be reached until “mid to late April”. On Monday the spokesman suggested that the figure could be reached by mid-April.

The UK is lagging behind other countries such as Germany, which is testing 70,000 people daily.

Public Health England said on Monday that 8,278 tests were carried out on 4,908 people as of 9am on Sunday. This was down from 9,114 tests at 9am on Saturday. More testing is seen as vital in checking whether health and social workers are free from the virus and can return to work.

The official said that Mr Johnson was seeking daily updates and wanted to see as many tests as possible before long.

He conceded that one reason for the delay was a lack of certain chemicals, re-agents and swabs.

Meanwhile, Downing Street played down comments from transport secretary Grant Shapps that households should only be shopping once a week: “The guidance is…you should be shopping for basic necessities for example food and medicines, as infrequently as possible,” the spokesman said.

Half a million German workers register for wage subsidies

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt

The number of German workers applying for government wage subsidies has surged close to 500,000 in the past month, underlining how the coronavirus pandemic has brought swaths of Europe’s largest economy to a standstill.

Germany’s Federal Labour Office said the vast increase in applications came from “almost all industries” with many workers in the retail, hotel and restaurant sectors rushing to apply for aid from Berlin under the so-called Kurzarbeit, or shorter work-time scheme.

The lockdown imposed on German households and businesses to slow the spread of coronavirus has forced many companies to close their doors.

Volkswagen, Daimler and Puma are among the companies applying for workers to be put on the scheme, which allows them to send workers home or radically reduce their hours while the state replaces a large chunk of their lost income.

Temporarily laid-off workers receive “Kurzarbeitergeld” or “short-work money” from the Federal Labour Office, which is also responsible for issuing unemployment benefits. The scheme promises them 60 per cent of their pre-crisis pay.

The German government has predicted that more than 2.35m workers will be put on Kurzarbeit, an even larger number than the 1.5m who benefited from the programme to help keep their jobs after the 2008 financial crisis.

In January there were 108,000 employees receiving the wage subsidy and last year there were an average of only 1,300 new applications for the scheme each month.

Turkey to accelerate bond purchases to help stimulate economy

Laura Pitel in Ankara

Turkey’s central bank plans to speed up a bond-buying programme in the latest stimulus measure aimed at helping navigate the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

The bank had a scheme to buy government bonds from Turkish commercial banks up to a limit of 5 per cent of its total assets — expected to be around 34bn ($5.2bn) — in 2020.

It said on Tuesday that these purchases would be carried out in a “front loaded manner” and that the previous limits could be revised, without providing further details.

The move will effectively allow the Turkish Treasury to raise funds without worrying about soaring costs of borrowing from international financial markets, said Haluk Burumcekci, an Istanbul-based economist and consultant.

“It means that there will be room for the Treasury to sell more bonds to the market. Because every primary dealer knows that they can sell to the central bank after buying from the Treasury.”

The central bank added it would buy government securities sold to Turkish banks by the country’s unemployment fund, enabling it to raise extra cash.

That scheme would be “out of the scope of the limits” set out for the open market operations portfolio, it said, raising the prospect of unlimited funding for the fund as Turkey confronts the prospect of a sharp rise in unemployment due to the lockdown.

“In essence this is similar to QE operations of big central banks. But we don’t know the targeted total size right now. It’s open ended,” Mr Burumcekci said.

EU seeks ways to unite bloc over economic response to pandemic

Sam Fleming and Jim Brunsden in Brussels

Brussels is set to propose a pan-European unemployment reinsurance scheme as part of measures aimed at increasing the EU’s joint response to the pandemic.

The European Commission is working on plans to raise funds for an €80-€100bn scheme aimed at supporting countries that are confronted by increasing jobless claims as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to EU officials and diplomats.

The idea is being mooted as part of a set of support measures that will be discussed by eurozone finance ministers on Tuesday next week.

Brussels’ intention is for finance ministers at the Eurogroup meeting to back the plan along with other measures in the pipeline such as the granting of precautionary credit lines by the euro area’s bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism. Ministers will discuss plans to bolster the European Investment Bank’s role in fighting the crisis.

Brussels is seeking ways to bridge the political gulf that has opened up between national capitals in recent days over what kind of joint economic response is required at EU level.

Next week’s finance ministers’ meeting will be key as Europe seeks to forge a common response to the economic crunch triggered by the pandemic.

Coronavirus latest: US death toll overtakes 9/11 fatalities as Covid-19 continues to spread

Fed sets up scheme to meet booming demand for dollars

James Politi and Brendan Greeley in Washington and Colby Smith in New York

The Federal Reserve has taken a step towards meeting the global demand for dollars, setting up a facility that would allow central banks and international monetary authorities to enter into repurchase agreements with the US central bank.

The Fed said the facility will work in tandem with the dollar swap lines already established by the central bank with its peers across 14 different countries in order to ease a global shortage of dollars resulting from the greenback’s surging value versus most other currencies.

“This facility should help support the smooth functioning of the US Treasury market by providing an alternative temporary source of US dollars other than sales of securities in the open market,” the Fed said in a statement on Tuesday.

Medics returning to work targeted by tax avoidance schemes

Emma Agyemang in London

Thousands of medics returning to the NHS are being targeting by unscrupulous tax avoidance schemes, authorities have warned.

HM Revenue & Customs issued an alert on Tuesday urging NHS returnees not to fall for the avoidance schemes which falsely claim workers can keep 80 to 85 per cent of their income.

The tax office said it had seen various tactics used by the schemes, but all tended to use an umbrella company structure and sought to disguise the true level of pay individuals earned.

Around 20,000 previously retired healthcare workers have re-joined the NHS to fight the virus, the government announced yesterday.

A HMRC spokesperson said: “It is shocking that unscrupulous promoters of tax avoidance schemes are targeting returning NHS workers during this difficult time. We urge people to be very careful to not inadvertently sign up to such arrangements, as we consider them to be tax avoidance”.

Umbrella companies work by collecting a worker’s earnings from their hiring firm or recruitment agency and then paying it to them after deducting tax and national insurance. Many companies are legitimate, but the industry is unregulated and includes hundreds of firms claiming to be umbrellas, but which are in practice fronts for tax avoidance schemes.

Sub-Saharan Africa faces extreme shortage of life-saving equipment

Neil Munshi in Lagos

There are just three ventilators in the Central African Republic, a country of almost 5m people, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, highlighting the extreme dearth of life-saving equipment in sub-Saharan Africa as the coronavirus pandemic ramps up in some of the poorest countries in the world.

“Covid-19 has the potential to tear through the Central African Republic at lightning speed if the country doesn’t get the support it needs to adequately protect itself against the virus,” David Manan, NRC’s country director for CAR, said in a statement.

“This could be replicated across the world’s poorest countries, where health infrastructure is virtually non-existent,” he added.

CAR has confirmed six cases of coronavirus so far, but like many African countries it has very limited testing capacity. The country is one of the world’s poorest and depends heavily on foreign aid to assist the more than 700,000 people who have been displaced by conflict.

The NRC and other humanitarian organisations have warned of the danger of massive outbreaks in crowded displacement camps in the violence-wracked western Sahel and other parts of Africa, where social distancing is impossible, water is rationed and sanitation is poor.

There were nearly 5,300 confirmed coronavirus cases across Africa as of Tuesday morning, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control

Northern Ireland introduces three-month business rate ‘holiday’

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Northern Ireland’s devolved government has frozen domestic rates and introduced a three-month business rates “holiday” in response to coronavirus after receiving £912m in additional funding from London to tackle the pandemic.

Conor Murphy of Sinn Féin, the finance minister, introduced the measures as he unveiled a £13.8bn budget package for the region, the first since the powersharing executive with the Democratic Unionists was restored in January after a three-year suspension that followed a spending scandal.

Business rates are a kind of property tax levied on most companies, while domestic rates apply to households.

In a six-minute budget speech on Tuesday to the regional assembly at Stormont outside Belfast, Mr Murphy said protecting lives and livelihoods from the pandemic was now the executive’s top priority. “There is no doubt that we remain in a challenging financial environment,” he said.

Some £100m of the special Covid-19 funding will pay for the business rates break, while the remaining £812m goes into allocations separate to the annual budget because of procedural issues.

The overall £12.2bn allocation for day-to-day current spending is 8 per cent higher than one year ago, the biggest annual rise for more than a decade, with a further £1.6bn set aside for capital projects.

UK ‘exceptionally’ revises its plan for bond sales in April

Tommy Stubbington in London

The UK government announced £45bn of bond sales in April in an “exceptional revision” to its plans as it ramps up its borrowing to fund its response to the coronavirus crisis.

The UK Debt Management Office will carry out four auctions a week throughout the month. At the time of the Budget three weeks ago the DMO had pencilled in £156bn of gilt sales for the 2020-21 financial year as a whole.

Yields edged up slightly following the announcement, but remain close to record lows, suggesting investors are relaxed about the flood of new debt. The Bank of England has provided a backstop for markets since announcing £200bn of bond purchases two weeks ago.

The increase will be funded by bonds of all maturities, the DMO said on Tuesday, a contrast to the surge in issuance during the 2008-9 financial crisis which was concentrated in short-dated bonds.

“Locking in such low borrowing costs for so long makes good sense ahead of a number of years of historically very high sovereign issuance and borrowing,” said UBS strategist John Wraith.

US, Canada and UK start to send citizens home from India

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

Western governments, including the US, Canada and the UK, have begun to organise evacuation flights to help their citizens stranded in India, after New Delhi suspended inbound passenger flights to staunch the import of coronavirus.

Tens of thousands of foreigners – many of them short-term holiday-makers – were caught out when India decided on March 19 that it would not permit any more incoming passenger flights to land after March 22 and cancelled nearly all outbound too.

Western governments have been working to organise charter flights to help some of their stranded citizens leave India and go home. On its website, the US Embassy in New Delhi said that it anticipated “several” flights would leave from New Delhi and Mumbai for the US this week.

The Canadian government has said four flights will leave Delhi starting on Saturday, and two flights from Mumbai. One-way tickets to Canada would cost around $2,900 per person, Ottawa said.

European governments have chartered a flight to help their stranded citizens leave the coastal state of Goa, where authorities have been so strict in enforcing the curfew that local residents complain they are unable to access food.

Britain, which has announced a worldwide partnership with airlines to help stranded nationals, says it will announce timings for flights for its citizens in India soon.

Poland imposes two-week shutdown on hotels and public places

James Shotter in Warsaw

Poland has ordered hotels and public places to close for at least two weeks, as it ratchets up efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus.

The rules, in force from midnight Tuesday, will ban people from visiting beaches, parks and other green spaces, as well as from using rental bike schemes, the prime minister said.

“We want at all costs to avoid what has happened in western Europe. We want to flatten the curve of infections, and at the same time not have to choose which patients [to treat],” Mateusz Morawiecki told an online news briefing.

Either the situation will be dramatic, or it will be longer-lasting, but easier to control. We can’t afford to relax.

The few shops still open will have be restricted, limiting the number of those inside to three per cash till. Elderly shoppers will have a specific two-hour daily slot until midday.

Other Polish measures to stem the spread of the virus include a ban on international travel and gatherings of more than two people as well as closing non-essential shops.

Poland has recorded 2,132 cases of the novel virus and 31 deaths.

UK senior ministers meet entirely via video conference

Sebastian Payne in London

Senior UK ministers for the first time met entirely through video conferencing at their weekly cabinet gathering on Tuesday.

Only Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, and a small number of other officials were present in the Downing Street cabinet room (observing social distancing, No10 stressed).

Chris Whitty, chief medical officer who is in self-isolation, and Patrick Vallance, chief scientific officer, updated the government on the spread of Covid-19 in the UK.

Ministers discussed efforts to support the National Health Service, improve the UK’s testing rate and attempts to repatriate Britons overseas.

The rising death toll “showed the vital importance of the public continuing to stick to the social distancing guidance which has been put in place by the government, based on scientific and medical advice”, Boris Johnson told the cabinet on Tuesday.

“The situation is going to get worse before it gets better – but it will get better,” the prime minister said.

Dubai’s Al Ras district begins two-week lockdown

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Dubai’s Al Ras district will be be locked down for two weeks from Tuesday.

The densely populated area will be closed off while it is disinfected as part of the attempts to protect the country against the spread of coronavirus, Dubai’s supreme committee for crisis and disaster management said.

The emirate’s health department will provide essential supplies to residents during this two-week period. Non-residents will not be allowed to enter the area, which is located on the Deira side of the city’s creek and is home to the city’s historic souq.

A night-time curfew remains in place across the rest of the United Arab Emirates until Sunday, with only key workers allowed to leave home between 8pm-6am.

China factory orders rebound at record clip in March

China’s purchasing managers’ index rebounded at the fastest rate on record this month to rise to its third-highest figure in the past decade.

China’s manufacturing PMI and non-manufacturing PMI, which measure sentiment of business executives, rose above 50 in March, analysis by Renaissance Capital showed on Tuesday.

Coronavirus latest: US death toll overtakes 9/11 fatalities as Covid-19 continues to spread

Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital, wrote:

This is probably the most embarrassing statistic for the West that China could possibly release. Not only did China stop the virus with just 3,309 deaths, they also appear to have done it with just a one month shutdown of the economy.

“It’s not all roses,” he added.

The new export orders are still so low that normally I’d be yelling from the rooftops about a global recession. But even here the rebound is incredibly good.

Coronavirus latest: US death toll overtakes 9/11 fatalities as Covid-19 continues to spread

Economists caution against getting carried away about what China’s PMI figures show.

“That improvement could be brief as these are month-on-month comparisons for survey respondents,” said Iris Pang, ING chief economist for Greater China.

Walmart to test employees for coronavirus symptoms

Walmart plans to introduce temperature checks for its staff across its retail chain stores in the US as part of its efforts to stall the spread of coronavirus.

The Arkansas-based company will begin taking the temperature of employees as they report for work at stores, clubs and other facilities, as well as asking them basic health questions.

“We are in the process of sending infrared thermometers to all locations over the next 1-2 weeks,” wrote John Furner, president and chief executive of Walmart US, and Kath McLay, president and chief executive of Sam’s Club, on the company blog.

Any associate with a temperature of 100 degrees will be sent home, asked to seek medical treatment if necessary, and told to not return to work until they are fever-free for at least 3 days.

The company issued guidance on the use of masks, which has been a contentious issue since the outbreak began as countries adopt different approaches.

“While the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], Walmart, and other health officials do not recommend masks or gloves for healthy people who don’t ordinarily use them for their jobs, we will make them available — as supplies permit — for associates who want to wear them,” said Walmart,f which has almost 5,000 stores in the US.

The masks will begin arriving this week. They will not be N-95 respirators – which should be reserved for at-risk healthcare workers – they will be high-quality masks.

Shipping groups make plea to help stranded mariners

Robert Wright in London

One consequence of halting most airline services, and tough new restrictions on entry and exit to many countries, has been a near-ending of the normal process of changeover of ships’ crews.

Since around 100,000 seafarers every month go on and off vessels at the beginning and end of their tours of duty, there are now tens of thousands of mariners stuck on vessels after the scheduled end of their contracts – and tens of thousands more unable to start work on vessels.

Shipping companies and ship managers are divided about the best approach, however.

Some shipping companies — including Denmark’s Maersk Line, operator of the world’s biggest container ship fleet — have decided the safest course is to keep the existing crews on vessels, to avoid the risks of importing Covid-19 to ships that are vital to keeping world trade flowing. Others have called for a carefully managed process of changeover that will allow fatigued crews to be relieved.

Read the full story here

Iran tightens distancing orders ahead of national holiday

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

Iran has warned people ahead of its traditional picnic day — celebrated for thousands of years — that any gatherings on Wednesday will be seriously dealt with.

The government of Hassan Rouhani has urged people to practice social distancing, which has been tightened with the closure of parks and main roads to prevent any celebration on the last day of the Persian New Year holidays when people spend time outdoors.

Officials have warned that people who ignore official warnings could face prosecution.

Iran’s coronavirus death toll reached 2,898 on Tuesday, up from 2,757 on Monday, while 44,606 people tested positive for the disease.

Those who have died after drinking tainted alcohol, based on a mistaken assumption that drinking alcohol can kill Covid-19, reached 320. While tens of others are in intensive care units or have lost their sight.

In an Islamic country where consumption of alcohol is banned and is only available on the black market at high prices, poorer people have found industrial alcohol accessible and affordable.

Switzerland’s ABB begins testing employees for Covid-19

Sam Jones in Zurich

Swiss engineering group ABB has begun proactively testing its own employees for coronavirus – breaking with government guidance that only those suffering from severe symptoms of the disease should seek a formal diagnosis.

The company, which employs more than 144,000 worldwide, has secured the services of a private laboratory in Switzerland to test employees, who can be swabbed at work, and receive results by text message.

Though the Swiss government has pursued one of the most aggressive testing policies in Europe, relative to its population size, officials still say testing kits are in short supply and should only be used with great discretion.

Bern’s Federal Office of Public Health issued guidance to cantons last week stipulating testing should be conducted only on those with “severe symptoms” or those in high risk categories.

ABB’s move underscores the extent to which governments around the world find themselves increasingly challenged in their capacity and status as protectors of public health, with the pandemic ravaging economies and depleting the medical resources of many states.

UK law firm asks partners for cash to shore up balance sheet

Kate Beioley in London

Law firm Allen & Overy, one of the UK’s elite “magic circle”, has called on its partners to inject capital to the business in order to shore up its balance sheet and mitigate against the impact of coronavirus.

It is the latest firm to take action to guard against a drop-off in earnings and the risk of clients paying late due to the toll the virus is taking on business. The news was first reported by Legal Week.

On Tuesday Allen & Overy, which turned over £1.6bn last year, said it was asking partners to contribute cash to the business and was altering the timescale for paying out profits to partners.

In a statement, A&O said it would also be “deferring certain investments and recruitment”, cancelling events and forgoing the next salary review expected in the first quarter of the next financial year. It said bonuses would still be awarded but paid between the normal payment date in July and October’s payroll.

Law firms tend to be thinly capitalised and are required to hold less cash on their balance sheets than banks and insurers, for example. Linklaters, Fieldfisher and Pinsent Masons are also considering whether to conserve cash by delaying equity payouts to partners.

A&O said it “retains good diversification across practices and one of the broadest international offerings among the global elite firms, so we are confident in our resilience if economic conditions worsen.”

Coronavirus latest: US death toll overtakes 9/11 fatalities as Covid-19 continues to spread

Virus spread picks up in Spain as death toll rises

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

Spain has reported a record 849 people have died in the past 24 hours after contracting coronavirus while the spread of the virus has picked up marginally after a deceleration in recent days.

In total 8,189 people have died, compared with 7,340 on Monday, government figures revealed on Tuesday. Overall, confirmed cases have increased 11 per cent to 94,417. This represents a rise on the previous daily rate of increase of 8 per cent, but is still well down on this month’s highs of 25 per cent and more.

The figures showed that 19,259 people have recovered to date and 5,607 have needed attention in intensive care.

Spain is under a two-week-old lockdown, which was intensified this week with a ban on all work deemed to be “non-essential”, in an attempt to bring down transmission of the virus and relieve stress on intensive care.

Italy pays steeper rate to issue first sovereign bonds this month

Tommy Stubbington in London

Italy paid the highest borrowing costs in eight months at its first bond sale since the intensification of the coronavirus crisis, as investors sought higher returns for added risk.

The Italian treasury raised €8.5bn — the maximum planned — across four different bonds, in the latest sign that European Central Bank’s massive debt purchases have stabilised a market which threatened to go into freefall two weeks ago.

The yield for the 10-year bond came in at 1.48 per cent, up from 1 per cent at the last sale at the end of February and the highest level since July last year.

“They have market access and auctions are working normally, and that’s encouraging,” said ING rates strategist Antoine Bouvet. “It’s more expensive for Italy to borrow now, but that takes a long time to feed through to their average funding costs.”

Analysis: Police methods during lockdown raise liberty fears

Police in England were last week granted the right to levy fines of £60 for first offences against a range of regulations banning unnecessary travel and gatherings of more than two people in public.

The Home Office, when announcing the new powers said it expected forces — which enjoy substantial discretion in how they use their powers — to apply their “common sense and discretion”.

But some forces’ behaviour prompted Jonathan Sumption, a former Supreme Court justice, and others, to warn on Monday of the risk of a “police state”.

Robert Wright in London explores whether tough tactics used by the police puts the traditional consensual approach at risk.

Read the full story here

12-year-old girl dies from coronavirus in Belgium as toll rises

Jim Brunsden in Brussels

The Belgian authorities have confirmed that a 12-year-old girl has died from coronavirus.

The death of a child from coronavirus is “very rare, but it is devastating for us”, said Emmanuel André, a scientist and spokesman for the Belgian government’s crisis centre. “We think in particular of her family and her close ones.”

Belgium’s death toll from the pandemic now stands at 705, an increase of 192 compared with yesterday’s data. The crisis centre said that close to half of the increase came from people who died before yesterday.

The centre said that the occupancy rate of intensive care beds in the country stood at 53 per cent.

Europe secures medical supply line to Iran

Michael Peel in Brussels

European countries have arranged the export of medical goods to Iran, in the long-awaited first deal under a financial channel set up to shield trade from US sanctions.

The mechanism known as Instex created by Germany, France and the UK “successfully concluded its first transaction”, Germany’s foreign ministry tweeted on Tuesday, after the Europeans had grappled for 18 months with transatlantic political pressure and technical difficulties.

“#GoodNews (finally),” tweeted Federica Mogherini, the former EU foreign policy chief, who in September 2018 unveiled the plan to set up Instex, as part of the European response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to exit a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran.

It was not immediately clear what the value of the transaction was or whether the medical goods were directly related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Josep Borrell, Ms Mogherini’s successor, said last week that the EU would send €20m of coronavirus humanitarian aid to Iran and back Tehran’s request for IMF funding to fight the crisis.

Daytime is the new primetime in TV business

Anna Nicolaou in New York

As millions stay home worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, use of streaming services has soared during the morning and afternoon hours — typically a dead zone for television while consumers are at work.

Daytime viewing on streaming services jumped 39 per cent from March 9-23, according to analytics company Conviva. In contrast, streaming use declined 2 per cent over the same period in “primetime” — between 8pm and 10pm when TV networks traditionally air their best shows.

“As we all adjust to the new normal, streaming and social video have become even more important to many American households,” said Bill Demas, chief executive of Conviva, adding that the growth in daytime streaming was “surprising”.

The streaming frenzy has prompted Netflix, Amazon and YouTube to reduce their picture quality in Europe to ease pressure on broadband networks.

Eurozone inflation rate dives in March as virus disrupts economy

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt

Inflation slowed across the eurozone in March as energy prices plummeted and economic activity came to a standstill in many areas due to the disruption caused by coronavirus.

The fall in prices raises the spectre of deflation in many southern European countries despite the radical monetary easing measures recently launched by the European Central Bank.

Harmonised consumer prices in the 19 eurozone countries fell to 0.7 per cent in March, from 1.2 per cent in February, a flash estimate from Eurostat revealed on Tuesday. That matches a three-year low set in October 2019 and is lower than the 0.8 per cent increase in prices expected by economists who were polled by Reuters.

Energy prices fell 4.3 per cent in March, reflecting the drop in oil prices after Saudi Arabia started a price war with Russia. However, unprocessed food prices rose 3.5 per cent as many Europeans reacted to the spread of coronavirus by bulk-buying staples such as pasta, flour and rice.

Several countries are flirting with deflation after prices rose by only 0.1 per cent in Italy, Greece and Portugal and by 0.2 per cent in Spain.

Excluding the more volatile energy, food and tobacco prices, underlying eurozone inflation slowed from 1.2 per cent to 1 per cent. The slowing rate of price growth, which reverses a recent trend of rising prices, means the European Central Bank is moving further from its main objective for inflation to be below but close to 2 per cent.

China to announce asymptomatic coronavirus cases from April

Christian Shepherd in Beijing

China will for the first time include asymptomatic coronavirus cases in its nationwide count, after experts criticised the government for leaving infections out from its official tally.

Starting from April 1, individuals who tested positive for Covid-19 but did not display symptoms would be announced daily, China’s national health commission said on Tuesday.

The commission added that a survey of asymptomatic cases will be carried out in areas heavily affected by the outbreak in order to improve containment measures.
1,541 asymptomatic individuals, 205 of whom arrived in China from overseas, had received medical attention from the beginning of the outbreak, it said.

The Chinese government’s refusal to publicly disclose cases that test positive but have no clinical symptoms has been a central concern of experts who doubt China’s claim to have “basically halted” transmission of the virus within the country.

In recent days, cases of newly confirmed asymptomatic cases have been reported in Gansu and Guangdong provinces, both brought to the regions from travellers leaving Hubei, the province most affected by the outbreak.

Thailand outlaws April Fool’s Day coronavirus tricks

John Reed in Bangkok

Thailand on Tuesday warned that it would criminally prosecute anyone who claimed to have coronavirus as an April Fool’s Day prank.

The government’s PR department warned “scaremongers not to spread false news or rumours” in a post on its official Twitter account.

Thailand’s government said that violators would be prosecuted either under the country’s Computer Crime Act, which it uses to police the internet, or an emergency decree dating to 2005 that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha invoked last week to impose emergency rules in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“People around the world are suffering from #Covid19 outbreak, and that’s reason enough why people should be more considerate and not use this as a prank or a joke,” the government said.

Thailand on Tuesday reported 127 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 1,651 since the outbreak began, 10 of whom have died.

Dubai to inject fresh capital into Emirates airline

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Dubai pledged to support Emirates airline with financial assistance during this “critical period”.

The government, the carrier’s current shareholder, will inject new equity into the company, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the crown prince, said in a statement on Tuesday. Details will be released at a later stage.

Emirates, one of the world’s leading long-haul carriers, has like most airlines been hit hard by global restrictions on travel and reduced demand because of the coronavirus pandemic. Scheduled passenger flights from its home base in Dubai have been suspended. The airline has grounded much of its fleet and cut staff salaries.

The support has been made available to Emirates because of its strategic importance to the economies of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates and “the airline’s key role in positioning Dubai as a major international aviation hub,” he said.

Russia reports largest daily rise in Covid-19 cases

Henry Foy in Moscow

Russia reported 500 new cases of coronavirus on Tuesday, its largest daily increase by far, as the total number of infections surged 27 per cent to 2,337.

Russia said the number of people who had died almost doubled overnight to 17. The country has fewer cases than other European states but has seen a major spike in infections over the past week, with cases roughly doubling every three days.

The government has called for a lockdown imposed on Moscow – allowing people to leave their homes only for essentials – to be spread across the country in a bid to stem the spread of the pandemic.

President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered senior officials to make preparations “in all regions, taking into account all calculated options for the development of the [virus] situation based on the experience of other countries.”

Retail sales slashed in Hong Kong

Primrose Riordan in Hong Kong

Retail sales in Hong Kong dropped by 44 per cent in February compared to the year before to HK$22.7bn (US$2.9bn) as the coronavirus outbreak ravaged the sector and people were forced to stay at home.

Comparing the first two months of the year with the same period the year before, sales of watches and clocks dropped by 58.6 per cent, clothing by 49.9 per cent, motor vehicles by 24.2 per cent and department store commodities by 41.4 per cent, according to estimates by Hong Kong’s statistics department.

But the department said supermarket sales increased by 11.1 per cent in the same period.

ONS releases death figures for March

Chris Giles in London

The first sign that coronavirus is causing more people to die in England and Wales than the government has indicated was revealed in official figures on Tuesday. 

In its weekly report into deaths in the two nations, the Office for National Statistics said that, by March 20, it had seen evidence of 210 deaths where Covid-19 was cited by an attending doctor as a potential factor compared with 170 people the Department of Health and Social Care recorded as dying in hospital from the virus.

The ONS said its number “is higher than the figures the [health department] publish as it includes deaths related to Covid-19 that took place outside of hospitals and those not tested for Covid-19”.

The 210 figure is likely to rise as more deaths are recorded and registered on national systems, a process which can take some time. 

London’s gin distilleries switch to making hand sanitiser

Robert Wright in London

Three London-area gin distilleries are switching some of their production to ensure the capital’s police force has enough hand sanitiser for officers during the Covid-19 outbreak, the Metropolitan Police has said.

The force, the UK’s biggest police service, said on Tuesday that staff at its Commercial Services Department had recently started to look for alternative sources of hand sanitiser because of shortages and had contacted a number of distilleries and breweries about supplies.

The force said three operators – Portobello Road Gin of Notting Hill, 58 Gin Ltd of Haggerston and the Copper Rivet Distillery in Chatham – were now helping the force. The sanitiser was being made to a formulation by the World Health Organization. The force said another company approached – Budweiser Brewing Group – was donating 6,000 litres of its own supplies of hand sanitiser free of charge.

Mark Roberts, the Met’s director of commercial services, said hand sanitiser was an “essential item” for the force’s officers and staff.

“I am extremely grateful to all of the suppliers who have agreed to work with us and provide us with this vital commodity, which will help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and ultimately save lives,” Mr Roberts said.

Border restrictions hit Macau’s gambling sector

Primrose Riordan in Hong Kong

Wynn Macau said the Chinese territory’s junket operators are likely to face liquidity problems as it reported a 19 per cent drop in net profit for 2019 to HK$5.06bn (US$650m) from HK$6.25bn the year before.

While casinos have re-opened, Macau and Hong Kong have introduced various border restrictions which have slowed the flow of gamblers into the city.

“These factors may cause gaming promoters to face a decrease in liquidity, limiting their ability to grant credit to their patrons, and difficulty in collecting credit they extend,” the casino operator said in a filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Wynn Macau said its VIP gaming business had also decreased in 2019, and the total VIP table games turnover was down over 30 per cent from HK$931bn in 2018 to HK$637bn last year.

Unemployment falls in Germany up to March 12

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt:

The number of unemployed people in Germany fell slightly over the past month, but the federal employment agency said its jobs data missed much of the impact from the coronavirus pandemic as it only measured up to March 12.

The agency said the number of unemployed people fell by 60,000 to 2.34m between February and March. After adjusting for seasonal fluctuations, it said the fall in jobless people was only 1,000 and the unemployment rate dropped from 5.3 to 5.1 per cent.

It warned that the shutdown of much of Germany’s economy to slow the spread of coronavirus would leave “clear traces in all areas of the economy”.

Most German companies have put hiring plans on hold and many of them are planning to lay off workers because of the coronavirus crisis, according to the Ifo institute in Munich which said last week that its employment barometer had fallen by a record amount from 98 in February to 93.4 in March, the lowest level in a decade.

But analysts are divided on how much the country’s short-term work subsidy scheme will cushion the blow. The German government has predicted that more than 2m workers will be put on Kurzarbeit, or shorter work-time, which allows companies to send workers home or radically reduce their hours while the state replaces a big chunk of their lost income.

The federal employment agency said on Tuesday that based on a preliminary estimate, there were 108,000 employees receiving short-term work allowances under the Kurzarbeit scheme in January, up from 89,000 in December and 42,000 a year ago.

Aldi to ease purchase caps in UK stores

Jonathan Eley in London

Aldi said it is easing limits on most of the products in its UK stores in a further sign that retail food supplies are back to normal after a sudden spike in demand in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The German-owned discounter, which has over 800 stores in the UK, was the first to limit items across all product lines.

It will continue to restrict shower gel, bleach, toilet and kitchen rolls, nappies, pasta, tinned tomatoes and beans, part-baked bread and alcohol to four items per customer.

Hand sanitiser, UHT milk and baby milk remains limited to two items per customer.

“While we would still encourage people to buy only what they need, product availability in store is good and the move will make it easier for people to shop for vulnerable people and those who are self-isolating,” it said.

US posts biggest daily case rise of any country

Steve Bernard in London

The US has recorded the biggest daily rise in cases of any country since the coronavirus outbreak began in December, even as the rate slowed, as it added more than 20,000 cases on Monday.

Its daily rate of growth slowed to 14 per cent from 16 per cent on Sunday.

Worldwide 61,404 people were diagnosed with Covid-19, bringing the total to 786,876. The global death toll increased by 3,723, as coronavirus claimed 37,839 lives.

Coronavirus latest: US death toll overtakes 9/11 fatalities as Covid-19 continues to spread

Italy recorded a significant drop in new cases, adding 4,050, the lowest rise for 13 days. Spain continues to struggle with the outbreak with the death toll rising by 913 to 7,716. It added 7,846 new cases after four days of falling daily numbers.

New recoveries rose by a record 14,075 on Monday, bringing the total number of people free from the virus to 165,387.

Vietnam to impose two-week lockdown

John Reed – Bangkok

Vietnam will from midnight implement a 15-day national lockdown, under a directive issued by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Tuesday.

Under mandatory social distancing rules, people will be required to maintain a distance of at least 2 meters from others, and allowed to leave home only to buy food or medicine or in an emergency.

Gatherings of more than two people will be prohibited except in public offices, schools and hospitals.

Vietnam’s communist government has taken aggressive steps to contain the disease since reporting its first cases in January. The country has recorded 204 Covid-19 infections and no deaths to date.

Rate of new cases in Germany slows even as death toll rises

Tobias Buck in Berlin

Germany is slowing the rate of new coronavirus infections, while the number of fatalities has risen, figures suggest.

The country reported 4,615 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, taking the number of confirmed infections to 61,913 since the start of the crisis, the latest data released by the Robert Koch Institute on Tuesday revealed.

This was the third day in a row that the number of new infections rose by less than 10 per cent. For much of last week, the growth rate was around 15 per cent and, before that, it was closer to 20 per cent.

The number of Covid-19 deaths jumped from 455 on Monday to 583 on Tuesday. That leaves Germany’s fatality rate substantially below that of other European countries.

Germany has had 66,885 coronavirus cases, and 645 deaths, shows Johns Hopkins University, which keeps a global tally of cases. The difference from Germany’s official count reflects delays in the flow of data from local health authorities to the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin.

Ukraine changes law to meet IMF demands

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

Ukraine’s parliament has given citizens the right to sell farmland, meeting one of two conditions needed to unlock an $8bn IMF loan programme that will be key to stabilising the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic.

MPs voted for the legislation late Monday while wearing masks, protective eyewear and gloves. Citizens, from next summer, will be able to buy up to 100 hectares from plots given to villagers years ago.

Villagers were given the land in the 1990s, but a moratorium prohibited them from selling their land. With this law, they can sell their land to farmers who could group the smaller plots into bigger plots and farm more efficiently. The right to sell land gives villagers the opportunity to use the land as collateral for loans.

MPs on Monday preliminarily approved banking legislation, the other condition required for an IMF programme, which would open the door to additional multi-billion-dollar support from foreign backers including the EU, World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Virus takes toll on mental health in Iran

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

Iranian couples have been contacting Iran’s state mental health helpline three times more frequently than before the coronavirus outbreak, an official said on Tuesday.

“Under coronavirus conditions, we receive 4,000 telephone calls every day from 8am…over arguments such as hygiene issues or when one of the couples go out… or how to raise kids,” said Behzad Vahidnia, director general of psychological affairs. “Children react differently, demonstrating impulsive behaviours and hyperactivity which add to tensions in the families.”

Iran’s health ministry has urged couples to practice more patience during self-isolation as public concerns rise about the socio-economic consequences of Covid-19 which has so far claimed 2,757 lives in the country and inflicted heavy economic damage.

Iran’s vice-president for economic affairs, Mohammad Nahavandian, said on Monday that the spread of the respiratory illness could cause Gross National Product to fall by up to 15 per cent, if it is not curbed within a few months.

India seals off New Delhi ghetto found to be spreading virus

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

Indian authorities have sealed off a crowded Muslim ghetto in New Delhi, from which followers of an evangelical Muslim sect have carried coronavirus to many different parts of the country.

Police have established a strict cordon around Nizamuddin West, where the Tablighi Jammat – a powerful movement of Islamic proselytizers, who encourage Muslims to practice their faith more rigorously – has its large headquarters, which doubles as accommodation for hundreds of missionary volunteers.

Indian authorities say the Tablighi held a huge conference – with around 1,800 people, including some foreign preachers from Southeast Asia – in mid-March just days before India imposed a nationwide lockdown.

Volunteer preachers from across India came to Nizamuddin to participate in the conference. After returning to their homes, many have fallen ill, and infected others in their own communities. Cases ranging from Jammu and Kashmir in the north and Telangana in the South have been traced back to the conference.

Authorities have found that 24 people still living in the crowded Tablighi headquarters were confirmed as infected, with hundreds of others in the building and residents of the nearby areas also showing symptoms. Overnight, hundreds of people were bussed out of the crowded neighbourhood and taken to hospitals and other facilities for observation and testing.

European markets gain ground

European markets opened with a bounce on Tuesday, as investors weighed upbeat data on China’s factory sector, which suggested the economy was reemerging from its paralysis and fuelling hopes of a similar rebound elsewhere once the crisis eases.

The benchmark Europe Stoxx 600 was up 1.4 per cent after the opening bell. The German Dax gained 1.9 per cent, while the French Cac 40 and London’s FTSE 100 gained 1.6 and 1.4 per cent, respectively.

US stocks also pointed towards positive moves when they open later in the day, with S&P 500 futures up 0.8 per cent.

BA to halt flights in and out of London Gatwick

Tanya Powley in London

British Airways has stopped flying from Gatwick Airport and will consolidate its London flight operations at Terminal 5 from Heathrow Airport.

It comes as airlines are looking at ways to cut costs as they battle the industry’s worst crisis in decades.

BA’s last flight from Gatwick was on Monday and there will be no more flights from the London airport until May.

The airline temporarily closed its operations at London City airport last week.

BA said:

Due to the considerable restrictions and challenging market environment, like many other airlines, we will temporarily suspend our flying schedule at Gatwick and London City, and have consolidated our operation at Heathrow.

We are contacting affected customers to discuss their options.

Covid-19 concerns prompt Britons to stock up

Jonathan Eley in London

British consumers spent almost £2bn extra at supermarkets during the four weeks ending March 21, boosting their sales by a fifth.

“Total till roll” data from Nielsen, which measures spending on groceries and personal goods such as toiletries, showed that the week ending March 21 was the peak, with sales up 43 per cent.

It was during this week that buying switched from tinned and dried products to meat and poultry. Frozen food sales rose 84 per cent in the week, while the closure of pubs and restaurants drove alcohol sales 67 per cent higher.

Panic buying was the exception rather than the rule.

“Shoppers typically added just one extra item to their basket during each shopping trip,” it said. Average basket sizes rose just £1 to £16 over the four weeks.

But shoppers made an average of three additional trips in the same period, which added up to 79m extra visits to stores.

Shell warns of ‘significant uncertainty’ on crude prices and demand

Anjli Raval in London

Royal Dutch Shell said it expects “significant uncertainty” on crude prices and oil demand as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

The energy major said on Tuesday that “global developments” on oil supply – namely a Saudi Arabia-led price war – “have caused further volatility in commodity markets”.

The company, ahead of its first quarter earnings, said new oil price assumptions would lead to a post-tax impairment charge of $400m to $800m.

Shell noted it takes a $6bn cash flow hit for every $10 a barrel movement in the Brent crude price. Yet it warned this was mostly applicable “to smaller price changes than we currently witness”.

The company did not disclose its new price assumptions. Brent crude this week fell to its lowest since 2002.

Still, Shell said its liquidity remains strong and it had financial flexibility in the form of two new credit facilities. Together with cash of around $20bn, available liquidity will rise from $30bn to more than $40bn, it said.

Corporate round-up: Galliford Try, Smiths Group

Here’s a round- up of companies reporting updates this morning:

Galliford Try: UK housebuilder has postponed its interim dividend and will consider paying it with the final one. It said it will not be providing guidance for financial years ending June 30 2020 and June 30 2021.

Smiths Group: The UK engineering group is withdrawing guidance for its fiscal year 2020. It is delaying the spinoff of its medical unit. It said: “Moreover, Smiths and Smiths Medical need to focus on navigating the external challenges – including the delivery of ventilators and other critical care devices. Therefore, the board has decided to delay separation until conditions improve. The intent to separate remains unchanged.”

Imperial Brands: The tobacco group announced a €3.5bn multi-currency revolving credit facility, which will be coordinated by NatWest, Santander and SMBC and is provided by a syndicate of 20 banks. It provides the business with committed bank financing until March 2023 and replaces the existing about £3bn facility.

Domino’s Pizza has appointed Dominic Paul as its chief executive, with effect from April 6. He will join the board on May 1.

UK stocks poised for worst quarter since 1987

Coronavirus latest: US death toll overtakes 9/11 fatalities as Covid-19 continues to spread

London’s benchmark stock index has shed a quarter of its value over the past three months, leaving it on track for its biggest dive in more than 30 years.

The FTSE 100 has dropped 26 per cent since the end of last year as of Monday’s closing level, the sharpest quarterly decline since the final quarter of 1987. The pan-European Stoxx 600 gauge has recorded a drop of a similar magnitude and is also set for its heaviest rout since the same three-month period in 1987.

“The first quarter of 2020 has undoubtedly been eventful with an initial stock market record that quickly turned into a bear market,” said Daniel Bergvall, economist at SEB.

Futures trading on Tuesday pointed to a tepid open for both indices as traders weigh whether intense stimulus measures from governments and central banks around the world will be sufficient to prop up the global economy.

A survey on China’s large manufacturing sector pointed to a stabilisation in March after a historic contraction in the previous month prompted by lockdowns across the country meant to halt the spread of Covid-19.

“The shape is almost a perfect V and offer a glimpse of hope that economic effect might be short lived,” said Mr Bergvall. He noted, however, that the survey “does not indicate that everything is normal, just that things are better than before.”

News you might have missed

Samsung Electronics confirmed that an employee at one of its computer chip manufacturing facilities has tested positive for coronavirus.

New York’s Attorney General called for an investigation into the sacking of Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker who helped organise a protest at the firm’s warehouse facility in Staten Island, New York.

China’s manufacturing sector rebounded to expand in March, government data showed on Tuesday, after falling sharply in February as work came to a halt in most of the country.

South Korean factory production contracted in February at its quickest rate since the global financial crisis, hit by falling demand and production disruptions linked to the impact of the coronavirus.

Newly popular video chat app Houseparty said on Monday that it was offering a $1m bounty for evidence that viral rumours that it had been hacked were in fact part of a “paid smear campaign”.

Coronavirus risks pushing emerging Asian economies into recession

John Reed in Bangkok

Coronavirus will knock almost 4 percentage points off gross domestic product growth in emerging Asian economies this year in a best-case scenario, the World Bank has warned.

The disease risks pushing the region into recession, and could force up to 11m people into poverty, the bank said in a report on Tuesday.

In an unusually bleak update of its regular survey of developing Asia-Pacific economies, the Washington-based institution said that Asian countries “now face the prospect of a global financial shock and recession”.

“First this region was recovering from trade tensions, then it was struggling on its own with a viral disease, and now it faces the prospect of a third shock — an unprecedented [economic] shock, and it could increase poverty across the region,” Ergys Islamaj, a World Bank senior economist, said ahead of the report’s release.

Read more here

Hong Kong Monetary Authority warns on loan portfolios

Primrose Riordan reports from Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s defacto central bank has said the territory’s banking sector needs to address how risks such as the virus outbreak could affect the asset quality of their loan portfolios.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority said the city was vulnerable to the impact of a number of events apart from the pandemic, including the US-China trade tensions and the local political crisis which started last year.

“Banks should carefully assess how the possible intensification of these risk factors could impact the asset quality of their loan portfolios particularly when the levels of corporate leverage and household debt-servicing burdens have been rising,” the HKMA said in its March report.

The authority also said the unemployment rate could rise “even faster” than it did in Hong Kong during the 2003 SARS outbreak due to the higher percentage of workers in the tourism sector and the greater reliance of the retail sector on tourism.

China delays university entrance exam by 1 month

Christian Shepherd in Beijing

China has delayed its notoriously competitive university entrance exam by one month, as coronavirus has kept many schools across the country closed since January.

With the exception of Beijing and central Hubei province, high school seniors will now sit the nationwide exam known as the gaokao in July, giving students an additional month to prepare, China’s education ministry announced on Tuesday.

Dates for the exam to take place in Hubei, the province where the outbreak has been most severe, and the capital of Beijing will be announced at a later date, the ministry said.

Schools in more remote areas of China with fewer confirmed Covid-19 cases, such as Xinjiang and Qinghai in China’s northwest, have in recent weeks allowed exam-year students to return to class. Larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai have kept instruction online.

China’s college entrance exam, which was taken by over 10m students in 2019, is a national obsession. It is often considered the most challenging and nerve-wracking experience of a Chinese person’s life.

A student that scores top marks in the exam can secure a highly sought-after spot in one of China’s elite universities, bolstering prospects of finding a well-paid job, while low marks can mean a drastic narrowing of future prospects.

Chinese families have in recent years often protested any changes to the exam that are perceived to disadvantage their children.

Human rights group warns internet shutdowns could prove ‘deadly’

John Reed in Bangkok

The internet shutdowns imposed by authorities in India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and other countries could prove “deadly” during the Covid-19 pandemic, and governments should lift them immediately, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

“During this global health crisis, shutdowns directly harm peoples’ health and lives, and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control,” Deborah Brown, a researcher with the New York-based organisation said.

Access to timely and accurate information is crucial during a health crisis, the group said.

Internet shutdowns have become increasingly common during elections, anti-government protests, and armed conflicts. Myanmar’s government is blocking the internet for more than 1m people in Rakhine and Chin states, where its military is fighting against ethnic armed groups.

In neighbouring Bangladesh, an internet blackout and phone restrictions have been imposed at camps housing Rohingya refugees, which Human Rights Watch said was “hindering humanitarian groups from addressing the Covid-19 threat.”

India has had the most internet shutdowns of any country, according to the group, with at least 385 ordered since 2012.

Houseparty offers $1m reward to trace hacking rumours

Hannah Murphy in San Francisco

Newly popular video chat app Houseparty said on Monday that it was offering a $1m bounty for evidence that viral rumours that it had been hacked were in fact part of a “paid smear campaign”.

The Silicon Valley company, which has exploded in popularity in recent weeks among young people under government lockdown looking to chat and play games with friends, said in a tweet that it was “investigating indications that…recent hacking rumors were spread by a paid commercial smear campaign to harm Houseparty”.

It added that it would give a $1m bounty “for the first individual to provide proof of such a campaign”.

Earlier on Monday, some users had started complaining on social media that their PayPal, Netflix, and Spotify accounts were hacked, blaming Houseparty.

The company, which was acquired by Fortnite developer Epic Games last year, said that it had found no evidence of a breach.

India’s biggest e-commerce businesses resume services in cities

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

E-commerce companies in India, including Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart, have resumed services in many cities after suspending them last week.

On its website, Amazon says it has “resumed services in select cities,” and is first “serving existing orders”. The services were suspended last Wednesday, amid confusion over India’s 21-day lockdown measures.

Despite the resumption, e-commerce companies continue to wrestle with severe challenges ranging from a shortage of delivery workers to major disruption in the transport of goods from factories to cities.

Big Basket, an online grocery store backed by China’s Alibaba, said it too had restarted services in some cities but warned that “due to a massive backlog of orders and some operational constraints, you may not find delivery slots.”

Softbank-backed Grofers said it is looking to induct new workers to help it cope with a massive surge in orders.

In a tweet, Albinder Dhindsa, Grofers founder and CEO, appealed to other business owners with idle, available workers to help make them available to Grofers. “If your company has idling semi-skilled workforce that can do with more income + work in a safe environment please reach out,” he tweeted. “We are hiring in our warehouses to increase in all cities.”

Meanwhile, logistics industry representatives have warned that many trucks – including some stuffed with essential goods – have been left stranded on India’s highways, as panicked drivers have fled. The flight of many migrant workers back to villages has also hindered the unloading of trucks once they arrive at their destinations, as laborers are now simply not available.

Yuanfudao raises $1bn as demand for online education soars

By Mercedes Ruehl in Singapore and Primrose Riordan in Hong Kong

Yuanfudao, one of China’s largest online education companies, has raised $1bn from investors including Tencent and Hillhouse Capital.

The fundraising, which values the company at $7.8bn, underscores how the coronavirus outbreak has boosted Asian “edtech” start-ups as millions of students have been prevented from attending school.

Yuanfudao, which offers online education products for K-12 students, said it saw a ten-fold increase in users over the past two months compared to the same period last year. The company suffered a two-hour system crash last month after 5m people took up its offer of free live courses.

It is now recruiting 10,000 people to meet the new demand. A spokeswoman for the company said 5,000 of those jobs would be in Wuhan.

Coronavirus case confirmed at Samsung chip factory

By Edward White

Samsung Electronics has confirmed that an employee at one of its computer chip manufacturing facilities has tested positive for coronavirus.

Production at the factory, located near Giheung, south of Seoul, has continued but a group of staff who were in contact with the infected person are currently self-isolating, a Samsung spokesperson said.

Samsung is the world’s largest producer of computer chips, smartphones and displays. Analysts have warned that any substantial disruption to Samsung’s chip production could wreak havoc on the South Korean economy and the global technology supply chain.

According to a person familiar with the situation, the infected employee, who worked on a semiconductor foundry line producing system chips, was diagnosed on Monday. South Korean health officials are currently assessing how the employee became infected.

The case is the first infection confirmed at a Samsung chip plant and is a worry for the tech giant which has insisted for several months that its chip-making facilities were unlikely to see disruption because production was highly automated and the factory environments are already tightly controlled with strict sanitisation measures.

The event also follows several temporary factory closures at other Samsung factories, including facilities making smartphones.

New York attorney general calls for investigation into Amazon firing

Dave Lee in San Francisco

New York’s Attorney General has called for an investigation into the sacking of Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker who helped organise a protest at the firm’s warehouse facility in Staten Island, New York.

Responding to reporting by the Financial Times, Attorney General Letitia James said the firing was “disgraceful”.

“In this midst of a pandemic,” she tweeted, “Chris Smalls & his colleagues bravely protested the lack of precautions that @amazon employed to protect them from #COVID19. Then he was fired. I’m considering all legal options & calling on the [National Labor Relations Board] to investigate.”

Amazon has said the firing of Mr Smalls was related to safety violations. “Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk,” the company said, adding that he had been told to stay at home, on full pay, due to close contact with a worker who later tested positive for Covid-19.

Mexico extends ban on non-essential movement

Jude Webber in Mexico City

Mexico declared a health emergency and extended a ban on non-essential movement until April 30, but stopped short of taking steps to enforce stay-at-home advice.

The ban came as the country’s health ministry reported 1,094 confirmed cases and 28 dead, a rise of 101 cases since Sunday.

Hugo López-Gatell, health undersecretary ruled out any state of exception or curfew but appealed for solidarity. “We are in the phase of rapid ascent [of cases]. We must not waste this opportunity for drastic mitigation … we’re in time … We all have to do our bit,” he said.

From April 30, the health, economy and labour ministries will draw up plans for a staggered return to work, he told a news conference. He said that at the weekend just 30 per cent of Mexicans were staying at home, but the country’s vast informal sector makes it impossible for many who live from day to day to comply with the voluntary ban.

Previously, Mexico had announced a social distancing campaign until April 19.
Mexicans aged over 60 with chronic illnesses including diabetes or who are pregnant must not go to work, even if they work in sectors deemed essential, according to the government measures. Among prominent cases, the governor of the state of Querétaro joined the governors of Hidalgo and Tabasco in testing positive for the virus.

South Korean schools move online as case numbers creep higher

By Edward White

South Korea is moving to nation-wide online school classes in April as the country struggles to fully stamp out the coronavirus.

Chung Sye-kyun, the prime minister, said that after repeated delays to the start of the new school year a decision had been made for students to begin online classes from April 9.

The move comes as health officials reported 125 new infections on Tuesday, up from 78 a day earlier and taking the total confirmed caseload to 9,786.

The daily infection rate has slowed sharply since peaking around 900 in late February but new clusters at churches, nursing homes and hospitals, as well as an increase in cases from overseas have frustrated containment efforts. The death of four people took the total death toll to 162.

The rate of recovered patients continues to outpace the infection rate, with 180 new recoveries taking the tally to 5,408.


China’s manufacturing sector expands as companies return to work

Ryan McMorrow reports from Beijing

China’s manufacturing sector rebounded to expand in March, government data showed on Tuesday, after falling sharply in February as work came to a halt in most of the country.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index rose to 52.0 during the month, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, from 35.7 a month earlier.

The 50-point level separates contraction from expansion. The March reading came in well above economists’ forecasts of 45 compiled by Reuters.

After coming to a standstill because of domestic work stoppages, China’s manufacturers now face plummeting global demand as the coronavirus locks down economies across most of the world.

In a statement, China’s statistics bureau said the reading “reflects that more than half of the surveyed enterprises have resumed work and resumed production, better than last month, but it does not mean that China’s economic operation has returned to normal.”

Amazon strike leader fired following walkout over coronavirus measures

Dave Lee in San Francisco

An Amazon worker has been fired after being among the leaders of a strike over an alleged lack of protection from coronavirus held at the company’s facilities in New York state on Monday.

“Today, I stood with my co-workers because conditions at JFK8 are legitimately dangerous for workers and the public,” Chris Smalls said in a statement distributed by Athena, a workers rights group. “Amazon thinks this might shut me up, but I’m going to keep speaking up.”

Amazon confirmed the sacking, but said it was over safety violations.

“Mr Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk,” a spokeswoman said. “He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of Covid-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world.”

Speaking to CNBC, Mr Smalls called the explanation “ridiculous”. The number of those participating in the strike is under dispute, with organisers claiming more than 50 walked off the job, while Amazon suggested it was 15.

Elsewhere, workers for Instacart, the app-based grocery delivery service, said they too would stop working in protest at low rates of pay and what they feel is a lack of adequate safety measures.

Instacart said it had put in place new measures to keep its shoppers safe, and to support sick workers if they are diagnosed.

“Today, we saw 40 per cent more shoppers on the platform compared to the same day and time last week,” the company said. “Over the last 72 hours, more groceries were sold on our platform than ever before.”

US government waives hospital rules to help tackle outbreak

by Hannah Kuchler

The US government is waiving many of the rules that govern hospitals, as it tries to give them flexibility to use new locations and rapidly hire staff during the coronavirus public health emergency.

Seema Verma, the administrator for the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services, which sets rules for all hospitals and oversees government-backed insurance programmes, said the “unprecedented temporary relaxation in regulation” would help staff and providers.

The changes – dubbed ‘hospitals without walls’ – make it easier for hospitals to set up temporary locations, from doctors’ offices and urgent care centres, to student dormitories, hotels and gymnasiums.

To encourage telemedicine visits, where patients are treated remotely, Medicare will reimburse at the same rates as for in-person appointments.

As staff shortages loom, CMS is also allowing clinicians, including physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists, to do more without a doctor’s supervision, if it does not break state law.

S Korean industrial production posts biggest fall since 2008 crisis

By Edward White

South Korean factory production contracted in February at its quickest clip since the global financial crisis, hit by falling demand and production disruptions linked to coronavirus.

Industrial output in February fell 3.8 per cent from a month earlier on a seasonally-adjusted basis, marking the biggest fall since December 2008 and a worse result than analysts expected, according to Reuters data.

South Korea’s technology and industrial exporters have been under increasing pressure since the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan in January. Initial problems were caused by falling demand and supply shortages stemming from China’s sweeping shutdowns.

In February, factories across the South Korea were forced to temporarily halt production amid a rising number of workers falling ill, including at plants owned by Hyundai, the world’s fifth-largest carmaker, and Samsung, the world’s biggest producer of computer chips, smartphones and screens.

Now as the pandemic causes a slump in consumer demand across key developed markets for South Korean products, including the US and Europe, the groups are facing more uncertainty over whether anyone will buy their products.

The government in Seoul has rolled out record economic stimulus measures and jawboning of the financial markets in a bid to shore up the economy.

China reports 48 new imported coronavirus cases

Health authorities in China have reported 48 new coronavirus cases to the end of Monday, all of which were imported cases. That takes the number of imported infections to 771. Overall, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in China stands at 81,518.

Experts have highlighted the existence of unreported cases, particularly for patients that show no symptoms.

There was one new death linked to the virus on Monday, taking the number of fatalities in China to 3,305.

The number of people treated and discharged from hospital rose to 76,052.

Asia-Pacific stocks track Wall Street higher

Asia-Pacific stocks gained on Tuesday following a positive lead on Wall Street as the number of new coronavirus cases in some hard-hit countries slowed.

Japan’s Topix nudged 0.2 per cent higher, the Kospi in South Korea was up 1.3 per cent and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 2.6 per cent.

Overnight on Wall Street, US benchmark S&P 500 ended the day 3.4 per cent higher as healthcare stocks climbed on expectations for new coronavirus tests and a potential vaccine. The $2tn emergency stimulus fund also helped soothe fears over the economic impact of the pandemic.

Futures tip the S&P 500 to open 0.4 per cent higher when US markets reopen.

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Virgin Australia seeks $860m government rescue package

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

Virgin Australia has sought a A$1.4bn ($862m) rescue package from the government to enable it to survive the collapse in passenger demand due to the coronavirus crisis.

The airline, which has Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and China’s HNA Group on its share register, has suggested a government loan could be exchanged for equity in the carrier if it was not paid back within three years.

It told the government the rescue package could be part of a wider aviation industry package worth about A$5bn that would ensure Australia retained healthy competition in the aviation sector following the crisis, a source close to the discussions confirmed to the Financial Times.

Qantas has said it does not need any financial assistance and raised more than A$1bn last week from debt markets to bolster its balance sheet.

The requests for financial assistance are contained in a letter from Paul Scurrah, Virgin chief executive, to the government, which was first reported by the Australian newspaper.

A Virgin spokesman told the FT the airline has been in discussions with the government about the support the whole industry will need if this crisis is prolonged.

“The support we’ve proposed will be necessary for the industry if this crisis continues indefinitely, to protect jobs and ensure Australia retains a strong, competitive aviation and tourism sector once this crisis is over,” said the Virgin spokesman.

The government has already provided A$1bn in aid to the aviation sector since the crisis began and has yet not decided on whether to provide the additional support requested by Virgin.

US capital enters loose lockdown

The Washington DC metropolitan area is entering a loose form of lockdown after authorities in the city, Maryland and Virginia issued stay-at-home orders on Monday.

Muriel Bowser, the mayor of the US capital, told residents to remain at home late on Monday afternoon following similar directives from the governors of the two states surrounding Washington DC.

“Staying at home is the best way to flatten the curve and protect yourself, your family, and our entire community from Covid-19,” she said in a statement.

Washington DC and the surrounding suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, known as the “DMV” area, are home to the majority of the US federal workforce.

Earlier on Monday, Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, said the number of cases in the DMV area had quadrupled in the past week to 2,709.

“A major outbreak among our critical federal workforce could be catastrophic,” he warned.

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