Asia: what you might have missed
More than 300,000 cases of the coronavirus have now been confirmed globally, an increase so far on Saturday of 28,758, Steve Bernard writes from London. The death toll currently stands at 12,953, increasing by 1,566.
The total number of dead in Italy from the Covid-19 outbreak rose to 4,825 on Saturday in the worst day for fatalities since the crisis began as the country’s number of infections continued to rise at a rapid pace.
Another 53 people with coronavirus have died in England, bringing the total to 220. The patients who died were aged between 41 and 94 years old and all had underlying health conditions, according to NHS England. Two more deaths were recorded in Wales, bringing its total to five, and another death in Scotland, taking the number to seven. Northern Ireland has recorded one death.
The number of coronavirus cases in Brazil jumped to 1,128 on Saturday, the highest in Latin America, with 18 fatalities as the country struggles to contain the spread of the disease.
US vice-president Mike Pence said the government had ordered “hundreds of millions” of N-95 masks for health care facilities and hospitals as the country of 320m people faces up to a shortage of the medical supplies needed to battle coronavirus. The move comes as officials across several states have warned of the limited amount of vital equipment.
Researchers find a lost sense of smell might be a symptom of coronavirus. While the best-known symptoms are a cough, fever and shortness of breath, researchers say there is evidence from several countries that a sizeable proportion of patients who tested positive had their olfactory sense inhibited.
Cayman Islands seeks to deter public gatherings
The Cayman Islands’ chief medical officer has called for residents to stop gathering in groups.
“The government has been increasing its measures to protect the people of Cayman by a staged reduction in travel and deterring people from gathering,” John Lee said on Saturday. “These are absolute key ways to suppress the transmission of the Covid-19-causing virus, so please, do not gather together except as a household.”
The Cayman Islands, a British territory in the Caribbean Sea near Cuba, has yet to record a case but had tested just 88 of its 62,000 people by Saturday.
“Of serious concern is the possibility of asymptomatic transmission of the virus, which would allow it to spread without us knowing from person to person,” Dr Lee said. “In particular, children are likely to be able to transmit the virus without any symptoms as they do not seem to be so much affected.”
All businesses in Italy to shut down as outbreak worsens
All businesses in Italy must shut down temporarily, in another effort to slow the spread of coronavirus in the country, Miles Johnson reports.
Prime minister Giuseppe Conte ordered all businesses, with the exception of those considered essential to supply chains, to close until April 3 as Italy faces its “most difficult crisis in our post-war period”, he said in a video message on social media.
Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and postal service will remain open, Mr Conte said.
The decision came after the total number of deaths related to coronavirus in Italy rose to 4,825, the worst day for fatalities since the crisis began.
Asia-Pacific cities tighten curbs on movement to restrict virus spread
Millions of Asia-Pacific residents are spending the weekend amid closed services and restrictions on movement as governments around the region fear a second wave of coronavirus infections.
In Hong Kong, residents woke up on Sunday to a partial lockdown as the number of confirmed cases imported from abroad increased sharply in the previous days. From Monday, public recreational facilities such as sport grounds and museums will be shut and civil servants will work from home.
In Bangkok, residents rushed to buy last-minute supplies before shopping malls, non-food markets, barber shops, swimming pools and most other public venues are closed from Sunday. Supermarkets and food markets will remain open in the Thai capital, where 8m people live, and restaurants will be allowed to offer only take-away service.
Malaysia and Indonesia are expected to use their armed forces in the coming days to help police and civil authorities impose restrictions on public gatherings and movement. The Malaysian army is expected to hit the streets as early as today and in Jakarta, troops are scheduled to deploy from Monday.
UK regulator tells companies to delay financial statements
Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority said it would tell companies to delay preliminary financial statements due to stress caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
In a statement on Sunday, the FCA said it would ask companies to “observe a moratorium on the publication of preliminary financial statements for at least two weeks”.
The authority noted that listed companies and auditors are facing “unprecedented practical challenges during the coronavirus crisis”.
Issuing preliminary financial statements is common among UK-listed companies but is not required by either the Listing Rules or the Transparency Directive, the FCA said.
Singapore detects 47 new coronavirus infections
Singapore reported 47 new coronavirus cases in the 24 hours to midnight on Saturday, according to the city-state’s health ministry.
Of the new Covid-19 infections, 39 were imported from outside Singapore and eight were local cases.
The imported cases, who had travelled from Australia, Europe, North America and elsewhere in Asia comprised 33 returning residents and six short-term visitors, the ministry said on its website.
Outbreak halts Malaysia’s deportation of illegal immigrants
Authorities in Malaysia have suspended deportation of illegal Indonesian immigrants due to the coronavirus outbreak, Indonesian state-run media reported on Sunday.
The Antara news agency attributed the delay to a lockdown by the Malaysian government.
In Indonesia, as of Saturday, the virus had infected 450 people and claimed 38 lives. The country’s death rate is the highest among countries in south-east Asia, the agency said.
Malaysia has reported 1,183 cases and eight deaths as of Saturday.
China records 46 new cases as national death toll reaches 3,261
Nicolle Liu reports from Hong Kong
China’s National Health Commission recorded 46 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, of which 45 were detected in arrivals from abroad.
Six patients died, five of them from Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak, bringing the national death toll to 3,261.
The total number of infections in China reached 81,054, while 72,244 have been discharged from hospital.
Hong Kong reported 17 additional confirmed cases on Saturday, taking the total number to 273, with four fatal cases.
Of the new cases, 13 patients have a travel history during the Covid-19 incubation period.
Authorities have put a partial lockdown policy back in place to combat a potential second wave of infections in the territory caused by visitors and returning residents.
Macau reported one confirmed case on Saturday.
Australia unveils third economic stimulus in wake of virus’ rapid spread
Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney
Australia has unveiled its third consecutive economic stimulus package in just 10 days to tackle the coronavirus crisis, bringing the total value of support measures to A$189bn (US$109bn), a sum equivalent to a tenth of the size of its economy.
The move follows the rapid spread of the virus and a government warning on Sunday that all non-essential domestic travel should now stop and stricter measures would be applied to enforce social distancing.
“What we are saying is non-essential travel should be avoided,” Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, told reporters as he announced the stimulus package.
“The measures that we will be considering tonight means that state premiers and chief ministers [of territories] may have to take far more draconian measures to enforce social distancing.”
He said the closure of Bondi Beach on Saturday, where thousands of beachgoers had continued to congregate despite advice on social distancing was a wake-up call for the entire country.
Mr Morrison said more severe measures would be applied in the coming days to slow the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 1,000 Australians.
“People cannot be cavalier about these things and must take them extremely seriously because lives and livelihoods are at stake,” said Mr Morrison.
The latest A$66bn stimulus package unveiled on Sunday includes support for small and medium sized businesses, with the government establishing a 50-50 partnership with banks to guarantee A$40bn in new lending.
The government is expanding eligibility for welfare benefits and providing a temporary A$550 per person supplement to payments.
People suffering financial distress will be allowed early access to A$20,000 held in their pension funds over the next two years.
Nissan plans temporary layoffs at 3 plants in Spain
Kana Inagaki reports from Tokyo
Nissan plans to temporarily lay off about 3,000 employees at three plants in Spain after the coronavirus outbreak triggered a shutdown of production across Europe.
The job cuts, announced to employees last week, will involve Nissan’s plant in Barcelona and its nearby sites in Montcada and Sant Andreu. The group employs about 5,000 employees in Spain, mostly in Catalonia.
“The company continues to follow all advice from governments and has implemented a range of measures to ensure the welfare of employees and communities,” Nissan said in a statement.
The latest measures are separate from a reduction of 12,500 jobs that the loss-making carmaker announced last May. According to a presentation given to analysts at the time, the company had said it would cut 470 jobs in Spain.
Nissan suspended production in Barcelona from March 13 after supplies to the plant were disrupted by the outbreak.
The group’s closures in Europe includes Nissan’s Sunderland plant in the UK, which employs 6,000 workers.
Top Mexican official warns coronavirus crisis could last until October
Jude Webber reports from Mexico City
Mexico’s coronavirus tally rose to 251 confirmed and 697 suspected cases on Saturday with two deaths as the health official in charge of managing the national response warned that the epidemic could last until October.
Hugo López-Gatell, health undersecretary, said on Twitter that Mexico was still in the first phase – which he has said is imported rather than local contagion – but he was bringing forward measures due in the second phase “because of what we have learned in other countries, which took action a little after the inflection point”.
However, Mexico has only conducted a small number of tests and critics say the government is too relaxed about the scale of the looming health and economic crisis.
From Monday, Mexico is closing schools and launching a “healthy distance” campaign. “Thanks to these measures, we will manage to reduce the number of daily cases,” Dr López-Gatell said.
But he added: “We have to prepare ourselves for a long epidemic. Even if in August the number of cases starts to fall, this can go on until October.”
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been widely criticised for playing down the gravity of Covid-19, continuing to kiss children, hug supporters and hold mass rallies and for putting his faith in religious talismans to protect him.
But on Friday, after arriving for a weekend tour of the southern state of Oaxaca, he posted an image of himself with a little girl and said: “I’d like to cover her in kisses, but I can’t because of the safe distance”.
A local referendum on whether a $1.4bn brewery project by Constellation Brands – maker of the Corona beer – should be built in Mexicali, near the US border, went ahead on Saturday.
The poll continues on Sunday and Mr López Obrador says it will be binding, meaning that if residents worried about the plant’s water use win, the project will be halted despite being 65 per cent built.
New York City appoints ‘Covid-19 food tsar’ to ensure supplies
New York City has appointed a “Covid-19 food tsar” to oversee the city’s food supply chain during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kathryn Garcia, the city’s head of waste management, will work with food distributors to “take any action necessary to ensure the city’s food supply continues without disruption”, according to mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Our city is facing an unprecedented threat, and we must respond with a wartime mentality,” Mr de Blasio said in a statement issued on Saturday. “I’m expanding and restructuring my senior team to help maximise the city’s response to this pandemic.”
Ms Garcia will continue as sanitation commissioner.
China says 89.1% of major projects are back on track
Nicolle Liu reports from Hong Kong
China has ramped up efforts to resume major infrastructure projects to stabilise investment and expand domestic demand affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Excluding Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak, 89.1 percent of the country’s 11,000 key projects had restarted as of March 20, according to Ou Hong, an official with the National Development and Reform Commission.
The key projects include major railways, highways, waterway, airports and power plants.
Officials said the government had fast-tracked funding approvals, issued more local government bonds and reduced taxes.
Authorities also pledged to solve the problems of labour shortages, transport and the supply of raw materials.
Mexico warns tough response to coronavirus would hit country’s poorest
Jude Webber reports from Mexico City
Some of Mexico’s neighbours have imposed states of emergency, curfews and other exceptional measures to combat the spread of coronavirus but with half the economy of Latin America’s second biggest economy in the informal sector – where workers have no benefits and often live day-to-day – the government has ruled out following suit for now.
Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s health undersecretary, told the government’s daily coronavirus news conference that extremely restrictive measures could backfire at this point and have grave consequences for Mexico’s poorest. Nearly half the 130m population lives in poverty.
“At all times, we are taking care to maintain the right balance between ensuring safe [social] distancing … without affecting the economy. Whole families can be bankrupted … if we take extraordinarily extreme measures,” he said.
The impact of those working in the informal economy was felt by all Mexicans, Dr López-Gatell added.
“If we asphyxiate the national economy, if we asphyxiate society, this can have devastating consequences that are much more serious than the coronavirus epidemic,” he said.
Mexico’s health ministry has invented a Wonder Woman-like superheroine called Susana Distancia – which translates as your “sana distancia” or safe distance – and is posting educational videos on social media urging people to keep 1.5 metres apart to help fight the virus.
Guatemala imposes 8-day curfew to fight coronavirus spread
Jude Webber reports from Mexico City
Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, has imposed a curfew on the Central American country for eight days, starting on Sunday.
In a televised address with his masked cabinet, the president, who is also a medical doctor, said he was very worried by the situation.
The curfew was passed unanimously in a cabinet vote. It will take effect from 4pm until 4am and can be extended beyond eight days.
Guatemala has 17 confirmed Covid-19 cases, one of whom died.
Vietnam issues blanket ban on foreigners entering the country
John Reed reports from Bangkok
Vietnam on Sunday began barring entry to all foreigners, including people of Vietnamese descent, after a spike in new coronavirus cases was traced back to people arriving from abroad, including the UK.
The country’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, on Saturday issued a directive announcing the move and suspending flights carrying foreign passengers, without giving a time frame for how long it would stay in place.
Vietnam’s communist government has adopted some of the toughest policies seen in Asia to contain Covid-19, including mandatory 14-day quarantine for arriving foreigners.
Foreign experts, business managers, and highly skilled workers will be exempted from the entry ban, but will need to present a certificate showing they are free of the virus, and follow quarantine procedures, Mr Phuc said.
Vietnam Airlines, the state-owned carrier, on Friday, announced it was suspending all flights from abroad until the end of April.
Vietnam has reported 94 coronavirus cases and no deaths to date.
S Korea tightens entry requirements after 98 new cases reported
By Song Jung-a in Seoul
South Korea on Sunday reported 98 new coronavirus cases as the country began conducting tests on all arrivals from Europe and strengthened its “social distancing” campaign to contain the disease.
The new cases brought the total number of infections to 8,897 in the country, while the death toll increased by two to 104.
The government strengthened the screening process for both its citizens and foreigners flying from Europe, placing even those with negative test results under a 14-day self-quarantine from midnight.
The tougher measures come a day after prime minister Chung Sye-kyun called for the suspension of operations at religious, indoor sports and entertainment facilities for 15 days, saying that the next two weeks would be “critical” in fighting the spread of Covid-19.
Such facilities have been seen as “susceptible to cluster infections”, he said.
Meanwhile, US president Donald Trump has offered help to North Korea in its fight against the virus according to Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said Pyongyang welcomed the letter, saying it was a “good example showing the special and firm personal relations” between the two leaders.
North Korea has yet to report any case of Covid-19 but experts suspect Pyongyang may be covering up an outbreak.
The country has tightened its borders and quarantined thousands of people, according to state media. Analysts have warned that the country is particularly vulnerable, given its poor public health system.
El Salvador imposes quarantine over fears of impact from neighbours
Jude Webber reports from Mexico City
El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, on Saturday announced a 30-day nationwide quarantine for Central America’s smallest country and warned that Mexico and Nicaragua were headed for a “devastating” impact of coronavirus because of their lack of preparation.
“We are taking swift measures, which are going to contain mistakes, which are going to be hard, but believe me, you don’t want to see a relative dying on a screen,” he said in a televised address.
“From tonight we have decided to impose a 30-day quarantine at home for the country, with the exception of some sectors which keep the country going.”
El Salvador, with three confirmed cases, has already imposed strict measures to try to contain the spread of coronavirus. To ease the impact, Mr Bukele last week announced a three-month moratorium on utilities, telephone and internet bills as well as payments for credit cards, loans and mortgages.
But presenting graphs showing the upward spike in the number of cases in Italy, Spain and the US, he said Mexico was among countries not doing enough.
“Now the epicentre of the pandemic is Italy. Very soon that epicentre is going to move to the Americas, it’s a logarithmic progression,” he said. “I am afraid of what is happening in Mexico and Nicaragua, countries which are not imposing any restrictions – it could be devastating.”
Mr Bukele last week criticised Mexico as “irresponsible” for allowing suspected Covid-19-positive passengers to board a flight to El Salvador, which was later cancelled. Mexico denied the accusation.
Singapore to refuse entry to all short-term visitors
Stefania Palma reports from Singapore
Singapore will ban all short-term visitors from entering or transiting through the country in an effort to stem a second wave of coronavirus cases.
Starting at 11.59pm on March 23, short-term visitors, irrespective of nationality, will not be allowed to enter or transit via the city-state.
The labour ministry will continue to grant entry to holders of work permits providing essential services including transport and healthcare.
The health ministry said these new measures came “in view of heightened risk of importation of Covid-19 cases into Singapore”.
The number of infections has more than doubled to 432 in the past week. Almost 80 per cent of new patients in the past three days were imported.
Residents, citizens and holders of a long-term visit pass returning to Singapore will undergo a 14-day home quarantine.
China central bank official says economy stabilised despite pandemic
Nicolle Liu reports from Hong Kong
The Chinese economy hit by the spread of the coronavirus outbreak is now stabilised by the recent relief measures, a central bank official said on Sunday.
The country’s industrial output shrank at the fastest pace in the first two months of this year and marked a record urban unemployment rate in February of 6.2 per cent.
Chen Yulu, a deputy governor at the People’s Bank of China, forecast a gradual decline in prices of consumer goods from the second quarter, saying China’s consumer price index was inflated by the pandemic affecting supply.
The A-share market has gradually digested the impact of the pandemic and businesses have returned to work, said Li Chao, vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission.
A survey in early March showed that 98 per cent of the 2,700 listed companies had resumed operations, while more than 80 per cent of employees of small and medium-sized enterprises were back at work, Mr Li added.
An index compiled by the Financial Times showed that despite a steady increase in traffic and coal consumption, other areas of the economy continued to stagnate.
Cities deserted as India hopes curfew will slow coronavirus spread
Stephanie Findlay reports from New Delhi
Indians woke up on Sunday morning to an eerie calm as the country of nearly 1.4bn people observed a nationwide curfew in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Normally frenetic railway stations packed with commuters, taxis and auto rickshaws were deserted on Sunday morning following prime minister Narendra Modi’s appeal to avoid an explosion in cases by limiting social behaviour.
In New Delhi, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday banned public gatherings of more than five people, warning that his government may put the capital city under a complete lockdown if the health crisis worsens.
So far, 324 people have tested positive for coronavirus in India but the government maintains there is no community transmission, sparking fears that officials may be underestimating the scale of infection.
India has swiftly imposed travel bans that include barring entry of its own citizens from the EU, Turkey and the UK, leaving people stranded across the globe.
More than 50 stranded students protested at the High Commission of India in London on Saturday pleading to return home, the India Today news weekly reported.
This weekend, India turned back a KLM flight carrying 100 stranded Indians rushing to return back to the country before a ban on all international flight arrivals comes into force on Sunday. Indian authorities have said they are trying to resolve the issue.
Thailand reports sharp single-day spike in coronavirus cases
John Reed reports from Bangkok
Thailand on Sunday reported 188 new coronavirus cases, the largest jump by far in a single day.
The announcement by the kingdom’s Ministry of Public Health came on the same day that Bangkok, where the majority of the country’s Covid-19 infections have been reported, closed malls, swimming pools, restaurants and most other public venues to contain the spread of the disease.
Thailand, one of the countries first affected outside China. has now reported 599 cases of the disease and one death.
“Most of the new cases were found in Bangkok and were among young people who continue to have social activities, which can lead to more infections,” Taweesin Wisanuyothin, a health ministry spokesman said in remarks reported by Reuters.
Kuala Lumpur sends in troops to enforce coronavirus lockdown
Stefania Palma reports from Singapore
Malaysia on Sunday deployed the armed forces to help the country’s police enforce a national lockdown that kicked off last week.
The prime minister’s office said in a statement that strict action would be taken against those who did not comply with the order.
The police and armed forces will carry out joint patrols in rural and urban areas as well as border and hospital controls, among other activities, the defence ministry said.
Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s prime minister, has asked the public to stay at home throughout the lockdown, which will run until March 31, but which might be extended if it fails to curb contagion.
Malaysian citizens are banned from travelling abroad and foreign nationals are barred from entering the country.
Establishments such as schools, houses of worship and business locations are shut, save for supermarkets, public markets and convenience stores.
Mass gatherings including sports, religious or cultural events are banned.
Malaysia on Sunday reported an additional death caused by coronavirus, taking the total to nine. The country counts 1,183 confirmed cases.
Australian rules football season suspended over coronavirus
Australian football officials on Sunday suspended this year’s season after just one round due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The women’s season has been cancelled, the AFL, which runs the sport, announced. Two already scheduled men’s games will be played.
“To say this is the most serious threat to our game in 100 years is an understatement. It is unprecedented in its impact,” said AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan.
International passengers to Beijing to be diverted to other airports first
Nicolle Liu reports from Hong Kong
International passengers will not be able to fly directly to Beijing from midnight tonight, after China imposed a rule requiring quarantine inspection, customs clearance and baggage claim to be conducted at 12 airports elsewhere in the country.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China said flights from outside China would be diverted to Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, Taiyuan, Hohhot, Shanghai Pudong, Jinan, Qingdao, Nanjing, Shenyang, Dalian, Zhengzhou or Xi’an.
Passengers cleared to fly onward would be allowed to continue to Beijing on their original flight.
Customs clearance of cargo would be conducted in Beijing, CAAC said.
Emirates cuts 110-plus destinations from network over coronavirus
Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai
Emirates has cut more than 110 destinations as restrictions on air travel are tightened and demand drops due to the coronavirus crisis.
The airline, owned by the government of Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, has now suspended about 75 per cent of its route network of 150 or so destinations.
The latest closures include routes to the UK, US, Europe and Australia. Some will be suspended until the end of June, according to the carrier’s website.
The airline has been asking flight and cabin crew to take early holidays and unpaid leave, staff say, after earlier encouraging non-operational staff to do so.
Customers have been queueing for hours at Emirates offices as they seek refunds for cancelled flights or to rebook alternative destinations.
India suspends long-distance trains over coronavirus spread
Amy Kazmin reports from New Delhi
India is suspending its long-distance railway services until March 31 to help curb the spread of coronavirus, the Ministry of Railways announced on Sunday.
Over the past week, several patients who were subsequently confirmed as infected with coronavirus had made long-distance, inter-city train trips in the days prior to their diagnosis.
Health officials are concerned infected pathogens could spread to fellow travellers in crowded train compartments.
The past few days have also seen Mumbai-based migrant workers rushing to returning to their native villages, after the state of Maharashtra announced the closure of all workplaces until at least March 31, again raising concerns that some could unwittingly carry the virus into the rural hinterland.
The suspension applies to all long-distance and intercity trains and to most suburban trains in and around Mumbai and Kolkata. However, the ministry said freight services would continue uninterrupted.
Typically, 23m people ride Indian trains every day. But on Sunday, about 3,700 trains — with departure times between midnight Saturday and 10 pm on Sunday — were cancelled as part of the one-day “people’s curfew”.
Some Indian states with a low local coronavirus caseload had appealed for a suspension of railways into their states, fearing an influx of infected travellers.
Pakistan provinces seek army’s help in coronavirus lockdown
Farhan Bokhari reports from Islamabad
Two of Pakistan’s four largest provinces have sought the deployment of troops ahead of a possible lockdown following the spread of coronavirus, senior government officials told the Financial Times on Sunday.
“Troops will be deployed in Sindh and Balochistan in aid of civil authority to enforce a lockdown,” one senior government official in Islamabad said.
The decision to deploy soldiers follows a sharp increase in the number of people infected by the Covid-19 virus. Pakistan has more than 600 cases as of Sunday, roughly eight times the number of cases reported little more than a week ago.
Nearly half the victims are in Sindh, the southern province that is home to about 48m of Pakistan’s nearly 200m people.
Sparsely populated Balochistan borders Iran, one of the most heavily affected countries. Health officials believe the coronavirus has spread across Pakistan mainly from Muslim pilgrims who returned from Iran.
Pakistan’s leaders, including prime minister Imran Khan, have publicly sought a lifting of US sanctions on Iran to enable Tehran to intensify its fight against the coronavirus.
Mr Khan’s government, which signed a $6bn three-year loan agreement with the IMF effective from July 2019, has also called for global debt relief for countries in the developing world hit by the virus.
On Tuesday, the government is due to announce a package of economic relief following calls from business leaders to ease the mounting economic pressure across the country.
Iran’s supreme leader rejects US offers of medical help
Monavar Khalaj reports from Tehran
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has rejected recent offers of medical assistance by US officials to assist the Islamic republic to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
“The US rulers have said several times, ‘We are ready to help you with medicines and treatment. Just ask us’,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech marking the Iranian new year broadcast on state-run television on Sunday.
“These are one of those very strange comments,” he said. “You face shortages yourself. If you have something, spend it for yourself.”
Iranian officials have said in recent days that the sanctions imposed by Washington after the US abandoned the nuclear deal agreed between the Islamic republic and world powers have created obstacles in its abilities to curtail the spread of the virus.
Although food and medicines are not subject to US restrictions, imports face delays because Iran is cut off from the international financial system.
Tehran has warned the US sanctions would not only undermine Iran’s health system but also endanger the fight against the pandemic all over the world.
Ayatollah Khamenei referred to allegations that the Covid-19 virus originated in the US.
“You are accused of producing the virus,” he told the US. “I do not know how much truth is in that. But when there is such an allegation, which wise person will trust you to bring us medicine.”
Hong Kong reports more cases as restaurant shutdown looms
Nicolle Liu writes
Hong Kong reported 44 new cases, of which 29 had travelled abroad, according to the health authority, reaching a total of 317.
These infections include students returning from overseas, a cluster involving a number of people visiting the nightlife area Lan Kwai Fong and a tour group, said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan of the Centre for Health Protection. A bridegroom and some wedding guests tested positive.
Prof Gabriel Leung, an adviser to the government and the dean of HKU’s medical school, said authorities might have to consider an order to shut down bars and restaurants in the next few days if the outbreak worsens.
Concern that India in community transmission stage
Amy Kazmin in New Delhi
Indian public health authorities are adamant that the country is still in the second stage of the coronavirus outbreak — with all confirmed cases either imported by travellers coming from abroad — or locally transmitted to returned travellers’ direct contacts, such as friends, relatives or work colleagues.
But the emergence of three Indian coronavirus patients with no known link to travellers returned from overseas has fanned fears that India has entered stage three of the outbreak — where the virus is circulating in communities.
Among those patients is a Chennai-based hairdresser from Uttar Pradesh, who returned to Tamil Nadu by train after a visit home and a few days in New Delhi. The man, who had no known contact with recent returned travellers, was confirmed as infected with coronavirus a few days after his arrival in Chennai. Similarly, a woman who attended a large wedding in Pune has been confirmed as infected.
Officials say that these individuals are likely to have had unwitting contact with imported cases. But independent public health experts fear that these seemingly stray cases are a harbinger of what lies ahead, as New Delhi finally increases testing. In the past three days, cases have doubled to 340.
K Sujatha Rao, India’s former health secretary and the author of a book called Do We Care: India’s Health System, tweeted this:
Russia to provide support to Italy after Giuseppe Conte’s call for help
Henry Foy reports from Moscow
The Russian military is set to send equipment and personnel to Italy to help the country fight the coronavirus outbreak, after Italy’s prime minister turned to president Vladimir Putin for support this weekend.
Giuseppe Conte requested support from Mr Putin in a Saturday telephone call, the Kremlin said, adding that Russia would provide vehicles, equipment and specialists to Italy, which has become the world’s hardest-hit country by the pandemic.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Sunday that it had nine IL-76 military supply planes ready to take around 100 people to Italy alongside equipment that the Kremlin said would include disinfectant-spraying trucks and protective gear.
The eight medical teams include “leading specialists of the Russian Ministry of Defence in the field of virology and epidemiology, who have significant international experience in combating epidemics, along with modern equipment for diagnosis and disinfection,” the ministry said in a statement.
Despite EU sanctions against Russia imposed in response to its 2014 invasion of Crimea, Rome has sought to maintain good ties with Moscow and called for increased dialogue between the Kremlin and Brussels.
Virus spread in rural India prompts health system worries
Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports
India’s small town of Bhilwara — with a population of around 400,000 people some 280km from Jaipur in Rajasthan — has emerged as a hotspot for coronavirus, with 12 confirmed cases in the community.
The emergence of cases in a far-flung town highlights how the virus has already probably started to circulate in India’s hinterland, where weak rural medical infrastructure would struggle to cope with critically ill patients.
Those confirmed as infected included a prominent local doctor and several staff members at his private hospital. Authorities have imposed a curfew in the district and are carrying out surveys to try to find those who might have visited the hospital and could have been exposed. The district’s borders have also been sealed to try to prevent people from leaving.
Fears rise of spread in war-torn Afghanistan
Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad
Fears are intensifying that coronavirus will spread in Afghanistan, as aid officials warned that the extent of the infection was difficult to gauge because the country has no centralised government.
The war-torn country has recorded 34 cases with 10 on Sunday, Reuters reported health minister Ferozuddin Feroz as saying.
“There is fear of a rise in the number of Covid-19 cases in the country especially in Kabul with around 6m people,” Feroz was quoted saying.
Afghanistan borders Iran and Pakistan, which have faced significant challenges in tackling an increase in cases.
“There are literally thousands of people who routinely cross over from Iran to western Afghanistan every week. With Iran having the highest incidence of coronavirus right next door [to Afghanistan] the risk is very high [for Afghanistan],” said a UN official in Islamabad.
In the past two years, large parts of Afghanistan have been captured by the Taliban as the US seeks a peace settlement which eventually allows the withdrawal of American troops from the country.
“In areas where the Taliban are in control, there is a big black hole on information. Nobody knows the extent of the problem there,” said a Pakistani government official.
On Friday, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan ordered the opening of the border at Chaman along the Balochistan province for trade convoys to enter Afghanistan. “Despite global pandemic of Covid-19, we remain committed to supporting our Afghan brothers and sisters” he wrote on Twitter.
The Pakistani government official said Pakistani forces along the border were under orders to test incoming travellers from Afghanistan for symptoms.
Good morning Europe: an overnight round-up
Joshua Oliver in London
• Hong Kong: to close more public venues
• Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam: to enact new entry rules as many Asian nations face second wave of infections
• Italy: Almost all businesses to close in push to slow spread after its worst day; nearly 5,000 people have died there, making it the most affected country in the world
• UK: Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority to allow companies to delay reporting financial statements
• India: suspends long-distance railway services until March 31 and imposes a curfew
• US: New York City mayor Bill de Blasio appoints “Covid-19 food tsar” to work with distributors to ensure supplies in the city
Covid-19 deaths reach more than 13,000
Steve Bernard, data visualisation journalist, reports:
More than 13,000 people have died from the virus to date. The death toll leapt by 1,626 today, with Italy being hardest hit recording 793 deaths, 546 in Lombardy.
A record number of cases have also been recorded with an increase of 32,358 people being infected bringing the global tally to 308,682 cases worldwide, according to calculations by the Financial Times.
Spain, the second most affected country in Europe after Italy, is struggling to contain the virus despite the country being in lockdown. 339 people had died from the virus on Sunday, bringing the total death toll to 1,720. Spain’s total number of cases had risen by 3,076 on Sunday to bring the total number of people infected with the virus to 28,572.
Several other European countries saw cases rise by more than 1,000 — Germany, France, Switzerland and the UK.
The daily number of recoveries continues to increase with yesterday seeing 3,927 more people reporting being free from the virus. The total of recovered cases stands at 95,834.
Belgium nears epidemic peak, health minister says
Jim Brunsden in Brussels reports
Belgium’s health ministry announced that 586 new cases of coronavirus were recorded on Saturday, taking the total number of confirmed infections in the country to 3,401. Belgium’s death toll from the virus has risen to 75 people.
The country’s health minister said in an interview that Belgium was now entering the peak of the epidemic, predicting that the crisis situation would last at least another eight weeks.
Speaking to De Zondag newspaper, Maggie De Block said: “We are heading now towards the peak of the epidemic, after which the curve will go down.”
She said that the precedents of China and South Korea suggested that “this situation will last at least another eight weeks. That would be the normal curve”.
The Belgian population has been living under confinement conditions since Wednesday, with compulsory teleworking for the vast majority of businesses, all but the most essential shops closed, and all social gatherings banned.
German chemical suppliers offer emergency aid to hospitals
Martin Arnold reports from Frankfurt
The German chemicals industry is planning an emergency delivery of disinfectant for hospitals across the country to break a supply bottleneck that threatened to leave medical staff dangerously exposed to coronavirus.
Makers of key chemicals used to produce disinfectant are this week planning to deliver 700 tonnes of ethanol, 35,000 litres of hydrogen peroxide and 12,000 litres of glycerine to 370 pharmacies that supply hospitals in Germany.
Hand disinfectant is vital to protect hospital staff from catching coronavirus when treating patients. But soaring demand for the product and logistical problems in delivering it have threatened to cause supply shortages, according to Germany’s pharmacy and chemical industry associations.
“Many of our member companies are ready and actively contributing to emergency care,” said Wolfgang Große Entrup, head of the German chemical industry association. “In some cases, disinfectants and raw materials are even supplied to hospitals free of charge.”
The rate of new coronavirus infections and deaths in Germany slowed on Sunday, according to the Robert Koch Institute, which said 18,610 people in Germany were infected with the disease — an increase of 1,948 from the previous day. The public health institute said 55 people had died of the disease, up from 46 on Saturday.
Three earthquakes hit Croatia as the country tries to fight coronavirus
Valerie Hopkins in Budapest
Three powerful earthquakes hit Croatia’s capital Zagreb on Sunday morning, damaging the city’s parliament — and its efforts to encourage people to stay at home — as cases of coronavirus continue to rise.
The first earthquake, which measured 5.3 on the Richter scale, hit shortly after 6am, followed by two aftershocks of 5.2 and 3.7, which critically injured one 15-year-old girl.
Croatia’s premier Andrej Plenkovic said the earthquakes were the strongest in 140 years and urged residents of Zagreb to stay outdoors but to maintain distance from one another.
The earthquake may complicate Croatia’s ability to cope with its 235 registered cases of coronavirus and threaten patients with other medical conditions. Local portal N1, a CNN affiliate, reported that hospitals pushed hospital beds in the parking lots, while women in labour gave birth in their cars.
Watchdog gives guidelines to pension trustees
Josephine Cumbo, pensions correspondent, writes:
The UK regulator has given guidelines to pension trustees as more employers are requesting to defer scheduled payments to repair funding shortfalls.
Trustees should consider requests from employers seeking to pause their pension payments if they are facing a cash crunch due to the coronavirus crisis, the Pensions Regulator said.
These requests “may be appropriate” in the circumstances, but the watchdog advised trustees to consider any request “carefully” to ensure that any support given is part of a coordinated and fair response.
You should get clarity on the timing for requests, challenging deadlines which are unnecessarily short and making sure you receive adequate information to make informed decisions.
Australia to close pubs and churches but schools stay open
Jamie Smyth in Sydney reports
Pubs, clubs, casinos and places of worship will close in Australia on Monday to slow the spread of the coronavirus but schools will remain open.
The partial shutdown, which the prime minister announced on Sunday, follows the closure of Sydney’s Bondi beach when thousands of beachgoers flouted social distancing rules.
Restaurants and cafés can provide takeaway food and home delivery services. Many services, including shopping centres, pharmacies and hairdressers, will remain open, said Scott Morrison.
Social distancing keeping the healthy physical distance between individuals is our biggest weapon in fighting this virus. The failure of the public to do that will put people at risk.
Schools will be open for parents who want their children to attend.
Cases have increased to more than 1,300, prompting some states and territories to close their internal borders within Australia.
On Sunday, Mr Morrison advised against non-essential domestic travel. He unveiled a third economic stimulus package in 10 days, bringing the total value to A$189bn, equivalent to a tenth of the size of the economy.
Royal Horticultural Society to shut gardens
Rachel Banning-Lover in London
The Royal Horticultural Society is to close its four gardens in the UK from Sunday, as concerns grow that British people are not taking social distancing seriously.
Many parks and public gardens were packed on Saturday as people made the most of the sunny weather to seek fresh air and exercise.
The statement by RHS follows the National Trust’s decision to close its parks and gardens before Mothering Sunday, celebrated today in the UK. The trust had predicted that would attract more to its open spaces despite government advice on social distancing.
Scottish government warns against travel to the Highlands
Mure Dickie reports from Edinburgh
The Scottish government has told people not to try to avoid coronavirus by travelling to Scotland’s sparsely populated Highlands and islands, saying the arrivals are “endangering lives”.
“I am furious at the reckless and irresponsible behaviour of some people travelling to the Highland and islands,” said Fergus Ewing, the Scottish National party government rural economy and tourism secretary. “People should not be travelling to rural and island communities full stop.”
Angus MacNeil, SNP member of the UK parliament for the Western Isles, on Friday tweeted a photograph of camp beds set up in a village hall on the island of Barra, saying they were there to cope with a potential outbreak.
Jack Ma donates more than a million tests to Africa
Neil Munshi, west Africa correspondent, reports
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has received 1.1m coronavirus test kits from Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, as cases have risen in the region experts say is least prepared for the pandemic.
Africa has nearly 1,200 cases in 41 countries. The healthcare systems in many of its countries are likely to be overwhelmed, experts have warned. Equipment shortages like those being experienced in the west have long been routine. Mr Ma’s foundation pledged last week to provide 100,000 masks, 20,000 tests and 1,000 protective suits each to all 54 African countries.
Many African nations have closed their borders. Nigeria said on Saturday that it would close its international airports for a month starting on Monday as cases rose to 26. Africa’s most populous nation has ramped up efforts to increase social distancing, but many churches in southern Nigeria were packed on Sunday.
Goldman Sachs: Recession looms after market pummelling
Katie Martin in London
The question investors are asking before markets open later: are we there yet?
Markets have been hit hard in the past four weeks, so it is reasonable to wonder whether they might soon rebound.
The answer, analysts are warning, is no.
“The sharp drawdowns over the past couple of weeks have meant that market-based benchmarks of cyclical growth or risk appetite are now more clearly at recessionary levels,” Goldman Sachs said on Sunday.
Although some assets have seen moves similar to the depths of the  global financial crisis, most have not. Given the increasingly harsh quarantines being rolled out across the world, this does not yet seem an excessive market response.
Goldman said it foresees a recession that is likely to end up being worse than, not just the more modest global recessions of the early 1990s and 2000s, but also deeper than the early 1980s and the global financial crisis.
Moreover, the uncertainties around the depth and duration of the hit to the global economy remain high and the momentum in our own, and other, economic forecasts continues to be sharply negative with downside risks.
Unless investors can be confident that the worst has passed or that even uglier economic outcomes can be avoided, it will be hard for markets to stabilise, the bank said.
The broad challenge is that this crisis is unique in its source and speed — rather than starting in the financial system and emanating out to the real economy, it begins with a sudden stop in the real economy and works its way into financial markets — and it is still possible to imagine scenarios where the stop is longer and leads to much larger economic losses than in our own central case.
The bank predicted last week that the US economy would shrink at an annualised pace of 24 per cent in the second quarter.
Spain struggles to contain virus despite lockdown
Daniel Dombey in Madrid
Almost 400 people have died in Spain in the past 24 hours after contracting coronavirus, the government said on Sunday.
That 30 per cent increase brings the death toll to more than 1,700, health ministry figures show. Confirmed cases total 28,572, a 14 per cent increase on a day before, of which 1,785 people are in intensive care while 2,575 have recovered.
Fernando Simón, the doctor helping lead Spain’s effort against the virus, said that more than 10 per cent of the documented cases — 3,475 people — were medical staff, acknowledging that “this affects [the authorities’] response”.
Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, has warned that the coming week could be the worst, as the health system struggles to deal with the the spread of the disease, despite an increase in hospital beds, masks and diagnostic tests.
The Madrid region is the worst affected — 9,702 people have been infected, 834 are in intensive care and 1,021 have died.
Political economists call for eurobonds
Letter from Thomas Piketty and others
The Covid-19 crisis will make or break the eurozone. The European Central Bank has said it will do whatever it takes. It has signalled it will use whatever monetary policies it can to finance and support the fiscal effort.
No member state should have to seek a bailout or sign a memorandum of understanding to access emergency EU funding. This is a European crisis. It requires a European solution.
Rather than have each member-state issuing their own debt to fund their fiscal efforts, we call on the European Council to agree a common eurobond.
We need a common debt instrument in order to mutualise the fiscal costs of fighting this crisis. Now is time for action. Now is the time for solidarity. It is time for eurobonds.
For a full list of signatories, click here.
Russian aid convoy heads to Italy
Henry Foy in Moscow
Russia said two of the military transport planes carrying medical specialists and equipment to Italy had left an airbase outside Moscow, as part of a nine-aircraft aid convoy to the country most affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
The Russian Air Force planes will deliver the eight medical teams to the Pratica di Mare airbase south-west of Rome, the ministry of defence said on Sunday.
Most of [the medical specialists] are leading experts in their field, they were directly involved in the elimination of outbreaks of African swine fever, anthrax, the development of a vaccine against ebola and plague vaccines.
The assistance follows a call between Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte and Russian president Vladimir Putin on Saturday evening, in which the Kremlin said that “the two leaders agreed on close interaction in fighting the coronavirus”.
Hotel group Marriott makes more cuts and stops executives’ pay
Leslie Hook reports
Hotel chain Marriott will place thousands of its employees on partially paid leave, the latest in a series of staffing cuts due to the impact of coronavirus.
The world’s largest hotel company has seen falling occupancy rates and said on Tuesday that it would put tens of thousands of hotel staff on unpaid leave. Now two-thirds of corporate staff will receive 20 per cent of their normal salary.
Chief executive Arne Sorenson and Chairman Bill Marriott will stop getting paid, and Marriott executives will see their salaries cut in half.
Read more here.
IIF urges G20 to resolve oil price war and co-ordinate virus response
Laura Noonan in New York
G20 leaders should “resolve the global price war on oil markets” started by two of their members and the US should drop Donald Trump’s trade tariffs as part of a co-ordinated effort to cushion the economic blow from the coronavirus, a global banking lobby group said.
The coronavirus, coupled with the oil producer price war, has “led to a global economic recession, a sudden shock in global capital markets, credit stress in a number of jurisdictions, signs of a dollar shortage, and unprecedented outflows from emerging markets”, the Institute of International Finance said.
To limit further fallout, the Washington-based group urged policymakers to avoid the “beggar thy neighbour” policies of the Great Depression and instead to encourage free trade, as in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
“The United States – followed by other countries – should reduce the tariffs put in place over the past two years (even on a temporary basis),” said the lobby group that represents 450 companies in 70 countries.
Consumers and producers alike need a more efficient system during difficult times, not another tax.
Sadiq Khan urges Londoners not to use public transport
Jim Pickard reports
Sadiq Khan has said Londoners should stay away from the public transport system unless they are key workers such as firefighters, police and National Health Service staff.
The London mayor, speaking on the BBC this morning, said people should stay at home and not use public transport unless it was “genuinely essential”.
“These are extraordinary times which need and demand extraordinary measures,” Mr Khan told The Andrew Marr Show.
“It’s really important, only if you have to get around our city, you get around our city and that means critical workers should be able to go round our city,” he said.
“Nobody else should be using public transport. Nobody else should be leaving their home.”
Mecca pilgrims among those recently infected in Saudi Arabia
Ahmed Al Omran in Riyadh reports
Saudi Arabia has reported dozens more cases, some of whom are Turkish pilgrims in Mecca, bringing the number of those infected to 511.
The kingdom said on Sunday, of the 119 more people infected, 72 are Turkish pilgrims in a hotel in the holy city who came in contact with a case reported last week, a health ministry spokesman said.
The kingdom banned pilgrimages this month as a precautionary measure. Another 40 cases came when infected people mixed with others in social settings, the spokesman said.
Saudi Arabia has not reported any deaths from Covid-19.
First doctor dies from coronavirus in France
Victor Mallet in Paris reports
France has announced the first death of one of its front-line doctors fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
The victim was named by French television as Jean-Jacques Razafindranazy, an emergency doctor at the Compiègne hospital in northern France. The hospital treated some of the first coronavirus patients in France after a cluster of infections was identified in the Oise department north of Paris.
Olivier Véran, health minister, did not identify the man but paid tribute to all those dealing with the virus, praising the “extraordinary courage shown by all doctors, carers, first-aid specialists and all those who allow us to save lives every day”.
Richard Branson pledges $250m to save Virgin jobs
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York
Richard Branson has pledged to put $250m (£214m) from Virgin Group’s balance sheet towards saving the 70,000 jobs in his company, which is exposed to industries that have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Because many of our businesses are in industries like travel, leisure and wellness, they are in a massive battle to survive and save jobs,” Sir Richard wrote in a blog post on Sunday.
Almost all Virgin’s aircraft have been grounded with staff agreeing to take eight weeks’ unpaid leave over the coming months to help to preserve jobs. Virgin’s health clubs and hotels have shut, a planned cruise line launch has been delayed, “and all bookings to our holiday company have stopped”, he said.
Virgin is separately in talks with the UK government about an infusion of capital into the industry that officials have said could result in the state taking stakes in airlines.
Read more here.
Germany asks carmakers to produce medical equipment
Martin Arnold reports from Frankfurt
German carmakers are in talks with the government about converting some of their recently closed down production facilities into plants to make medical equipment, such as masks and ventilators.
The request to industry from Germany’s economy ministry, first reported by Bloomberg, comes as political leaders across Europe and the US are pressing private sector companies to shift their capacity to supply products that are needed to deal with the pandemic.
Volkswagen, which has closed its factories across Europe, said in a statement that it was preparing to help with the efforts. The group has more than 125 3D industrial printers and has set up an “international task force” to look at how it could help.
The ministry on Sunday declined to comment.
Portugal to repatriate hundreds of cruise passengers
Peter Wise in Lisbon reports
Portugal has launched an operation to repatriate more than 1,330 passengers from a cruise ship that docked in Lisbon carrying citizens from 39 countries, the interior ministry said.
The MSC Fantasia, a 138,000-tonne ship registered in Panama, left Brazil two weeks ago carrying about 2,500 passengers and crew. The cruise was originally scheduled to end in Genoa on March 27, but the itinerary was changed mid-voyage because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of the passengers are from EU countries, the UK, Brazil and Australia, the ministry said. Passengers who test negative for the Covid-19 virus will be escorted to Lisbon airport and flown home in special flights co-ordinated with their embassies in Portugal.
The 27 Portuguese citizens on board will be allowed to disembark from Sunday if their test results are negative. Other passengers will be flown home from Tuesday, pending authorisation by Portugal’s health authorities, the government said.
The operation comes as Portugal reported 1,600 confirmed coronavirus cases, an increase of 320 cases, or 25 per cent, in 24 hours. Health authorities said the number of lives claimed by the disease had risen to 14, two more than on Saturday.
Emirates to suspend passenger flights next week
Simeon Kerr in Dubai
Dubai’s Emirates airline said it would suspend passenger flights by March 25 as it responds to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Dubai government-owned carrier said the “painful but pragmatic” move would allow the group to preserve business viability and secure jobs worldwide. Cargo operations will continue.
To help cut costs, Emirates said it was encouraging staff to take paid or unpaid leave, and was reducing basic salaries for most employees from between 25 per cent to 50 per cent for three months. Tim Clark and Gary Chapman, the presidents of Emirates and ground handling arm Dnata, will not be paid during this same period.
Emirates has cut around 80 per cent of its route network in the wake of the collapse in demand.
Macron’s close border threat to Johnson
Victor Mallet in Paris and Jim Pickard in London
French President Emmanuel Macron called Boris Johnson on Friday and threatened to close the border with the UK to passengers that night unless the British took stronger measures to stop the spread of the virus, according to the French newspaper Libération.
The Elysée presidential palace declined to comment on what it called “this rumour” but did not deny the call took place.
The reported ultimatum from the French appeared to be a hardening of a warning from Edouard Philippe, Mr Macron’s prime minister, who said on Tuesday night that “we would find it hard to accept on our territory British citizens who would circulate freely in their country and then come to France” unless the UK adopted stricter controls.
The EU has banned entry for the next month by foreigners unless they are on essential business, but the UK is excluded from the ban because the transition period for the completion of Brexit will last at least until the end of the year.
Downing St did not deny the report, saying only: “As the prime minister said on Friday these new measures were taken based on scientific advice and in keeping with the government’s action plan set out two weeks ago.”
Dubai World Cup to be postponed as UAE shuts down
Simeon Kerr in Dubai
The Dubai World Cup will be postponed as the United Arab Emirates heads towards a shutdown. The $35m horse race, one of the world’s oldest, is the highlight of the emirate’s sporting calendar.
The ruler, an accomplished equestrian, takes a keen interest in the event. The 25th edition of the event had been scheduled to take place without spectators.
Bolivia imposes ‘total quarantine’
Andres Schipani in São Paulo
Bolivia ordered a “total quarantine” on Sunday to tackle the rise in coronavirus cases in one of South America’s poorest countries.
“It is a tough decision but necessary for everyone’s good. From Sunday we must be at home 24 hours a day because we will be safe there,” said interim president Jeanine Áñez. “It is the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”
Private and public transportation are suspended, the measure says, adding that only one person per household is allowed to come out to shop for groceries or medicines.
Markets will only open in the morning until noon, and those who do not comply with the two-week curfew face fines and arrests.
The government will grant a Bs500 ($72) cash transfer to families with children of school age to ease the economic hardship stemming from the outbreak.
Bolivia has 19 confirmed cases but health minister, Aníbal Cruz, said that “there is a high probability” of community transmission starting soon.
First cases reported in densely populated Gaza Strip
Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv
The blockaded Gaza Strip reported its first cases of Covid-19 infections, with the Hamas-run Ministry of Health saying two residents who had returned from Pakistan had tested positive for the coronavirus.
International aid organisations, including the World Health Organization, have warned that an outbreak of Covid-19 in the Gaza Strip could quickly overrun the scant medical resources of the tiny enclave, home to more than 2m Palestinians living in one of the most crowded places on earth.
Gaza authorities have placed everybody returning via the border crossing with Egypt into quarantine either at the Rafah crossing, in local health facilities or in monitored home quarantine since about March 15.
Another 57 people in the occupied West Bank, mostly in the Christian pilgrimage town of Bethlehem, are under quarantine, but testing facilities lag far behind Israel’s, where nearly 1,000 have tested positive.
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade for nearly a decade, which has decimated its economy, while four wars between the Islamist militant group Hamas and the Israeli military have left the government dependent on international aid to provide even basic medical care.
Even under normal circumstances, Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip face hurdles in getting permission to leave for medical care outside. Donors are now building emergency field hospitals for a predicted surge in cases.
Spain extends lockdown for another fortnight
Daniel Dombey in Madrid
Spain is set to extend its lockdown for another two weeks until April 11 in an attempt to bring the surge in coronavirus cases under control, Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, has announced.
Speaking after the number of people who have died from the virus rose by 394 in a day — reaching 1,720 — Mr Sánchez said that he would ask parliament for a two-week extension of the state of alarm, the legal regime that gives the government sweeping temporary powers.
Acknowledging the “very tough” prospect of a month-long lockdown, he pleaded for “responsibility and discipline”.
He added that regional authorities would take control of care homes for the elderly, which have been particularly vulnerable to the virus. In some cases as many as 25 people have died of the virus in one home.
The army will be stepping up its activities, in terms of guarding critical infrastructure and providing logistical support.
Primark becomes latest high street chain to close stores
Murad Ahmed and Jonathan Eley in London
Primark will close all its 189 UK stores from Sunday night after cancelling all new orders from suppliers, as the coronavirus outbreak shuts down the UK high street and delivers a critical blow to the retail industry.
Associated British Foods, the family-controlled conglomerate that owns the cut-price fashion chain, has already shut its other 187 venues across Europe and the United States over recent days.
The moves are another devastating blow for the British retail industry and its global supply chains, with Topshop, River Island, Clarks, John Lewis, Timpson, TK Maxx and Ikea having also closed their UK stores over the past week.
Read more here.
Spain calls for ‘Marshall plan’ to help EU economy recover
Daniel Dombey in Madrid
Spain has called for EU finance ministers this week to draw up a “Marshall plan” to help Europe’s economy recover from the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are asking the EU to do the same as what we ourselves are doing,” said prime minister Pedro Sánchez. “The biggest mobilisation of economic and material resources in history.”
Europe is at war with the coronavirus, so we have to respond with all our weapons and all our instruments; there is no excuse not to mobilise all these resources.
Noting that eurozone finance ministers would be meeting by video conference this week, he called on them “to articulate a big Marshall plan — a big public investment plan for the whole EU — and begin this process of reconstruction that we are going to need in the economic domain when all this is over”.
The original Marshall plan was a $13bn US initiative — worth perhaps 10 times that amount at at today’s rates — to aid the reconstruction of postwar Europe.
Noting that many homes would be affected by unemployment in coming months, Mr Sánchez redoubled Spanish calls for a European wide system of unemployment insurance to complement national systems and for so-called coronavirus bonds to mutualise debt.
Germany to ban gatherings of more than two people
Martin Arnold in Frankfurt
Germany plans to ban any public gatherings of more than two people, except for families and members of the same household, in the latest ratcheting up of restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some states, such as Bavaria, had already announced their own lockdown on people’s movements, prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel to call a meeting with the heads of all states to co-ordinate blanket restrictions across the country.
Armin Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and the favourite to become head of the ruling CDU party, said fines of €25,000 could be imposed on anyone violating these restrictions, which require people to keep 1.5m apart in public. Mr Laschet told the DPA news agency there would be a “zero tolerance policy against rule breakers”.
The restrictions will require all restaurants to close immediately, except for takeaway services. Any personal care companies, such as hairdressers, tattoo studios and massage parlours, must close. Medically required treatments are still allowed.
The ever-tightening lockdown of the German economy is expected to trigger a deep recession. Economists at Commerzbank predict that Germany could recover in the second half of the year if the virus is contained by then, but they still expect Europe’s largest economy will shrink 3.5 per cent this year.
In Bavaria, people have been only allowed to leave home to go to work, do food shopping, visit the doctor or pharmacy, do exercise, see their partner or to help others.
The rate of new coronavirus infections and deaths in Germany slowed on Sunday, according to the Robert Koch Institute, which said 18,610 people were infected with the disease, an increase of 1,948 from the previous day. The public health institute said 55 people had died of the disease in Germany, up from 46 on Saturday.
Scotland’s Sturgeon issues stark warning
Jim Pickard in London
Nicola Sturgeon is carrying out a press conference in Edinburgh: “Life should NOT feel normal, so if your life still feels normal ask if you are doing the right things or if you might be putting yourself and others at risk.”
Scotland’s first minister advised those seeking refuge in remote Scottish areas to realise they cannot “out-run the virus” and risk infecting rural communities.
We have advised ferry companies to no longer take non-essential travellers..ferries will be for those who live on our islands.
Johnson likely to step up advice to stay at home
Jim Pickard in London
Boris Johnson’s news conference is expected to start within minutes, and he is likely to step up his advice for people to stay at home.
Reports have come in of vast numbers of people visiting parks and country estates over the weekend to enjoy the spring weather.
A total of 281 have died of the infection out of 5,683 cases, the UK said on Sunday.
In a tweet on Sunday the prime minister said:
Number of US cases surpasses 30,000
Germany to fine anyone who violates latest ban
Guy Chazan in Berlin
Angela Merkel has said that Germany’s new curbs on gatherings of more than two people will be strictly enforced, on pain of fines, and urged Germans to comply in the name of slowing the spread of coronavirus.
“These aren’t just government recommendations, they are rules, and it is in everyone’s interests to abide by them,” she said. “The police will monitor them and where they see violations, there will be consequences — and penalties.”
She appealed to those who have not been observing Germany’s social distancing rules to comply with the new restrictions. “Please, go along with this,” she said. “Do something right for our country, show some heart, and some common sense.”
Ms Merkel was speaking after a phone conference between the federal government and the prime ministers of Germany’s 16 regions which ended with a decision to clamp down further on public life, following a decision last week to close most retail outlets and limit the hours of most bars and restaurants.
They agreed to ban all gatherings of more than two people throughout the country — apart from members of the same household. They also moved to shut down all restaurants and other businesses like hair salons, tattoo shops and massage parlours.
A statement issued on Sunday evening said Germans “can only be present in public if they’re alone, with members of their own family or with one other person who is not part of their own household”. The new restrictions will be in force for two weeks.
The rules are something of a compromise — some of Germany’s states had argued for a stricter lockdown that would have confined people to their own homes.
Ms Merkel told reporters that the leaders had wanted to reduce social contact “but also … allow people to leave their houses, so they can go out and do essential tasks and also breathe some fresh air”. “You can do that together with your family, with those you live with, and, if you live alone, with a second person.”
Maintain social distancing outdoors, UK’s Johnson urges
Jim Pickard in London
UK prime minister Boris Johnson has implored the public to stay at least two metres apart in public places as part of social distancing efforts.
Speaking at his Sunday afternoon press conference, Mr Johnson said:
Take this advice seriously…we will keep the implementation of these measures under constant review and will bring forward further measures if necessary
Facebook joins effort to alleviate network congestion in Europe
Javier Espinoza in Brussels
Facebook has followed Netflix and YouTube in efforts to alleviate potential network congestion in Europe by reducing the quality of videos on its platforms.
A spokesperson said:
To help alleviate any potential network congestion, we will temporarily reduce bit rates for videos on Facebook and Instagram in Europe. We are committed to working with our partners to manage any bandwidth constraints during this period of heavy demand, while also ensuring people are able to remain connected using Facebook apps and services.
French coronavirus treatment study results expected in two weeks
Victor Mallet in Paris reports
France expects to have results within two weeks from an emergency clinical trial of chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, to treat people suffering from the coronavirus, health minister Olivier Véran said on Twitter.
Donald Trump wrongly asserted three days ago that the US Food and Drug Administration had already approved chloroquine for coronavirus patients and that it would be available “almost immediately”. FDA chief Steven Hahn later said there were plans for a clinical trial.
Mr Véran, who is a doctor, advised prudence among those excited about the possibilities of a drug to treat coronavirus, but said the trial had started in hospitals in Paris and elsewhere in France on patients with breathing difficulties. “It wouldn’t be the first epidemic in which we place hope in a treatment but alas it turns out to be a disappointment,” he told LCI television.
But he said that if the drug turned out to be effective it would quickly be manufactured and distributed. “Within two weeks we should have consolidated data,” he said.
Italy bans internal movement as death toll rises
Miles Johnson in Rome
Italy has banned internal movement across the country as 651 people have died from coronavirus in the past 24 hours.
Official numbers on Sunday showed that the number of confirmed cases in Italy rose 10.3 per cent to 59,138, a deceleration compared with the 13.9 per cent daily increase on Saturday. Active cases, which strips out the recovered and the deceased rose 9.2 per cent to 42,681, compared with a 12.7 per cent increase the day before.
The number of deaths announced on Sunday was lower than the 793 on Saturday, which was Italy’s worst day for fatalities. The latest toll is 5,476.
The ministers of interior and health on Sunday signed an order that prohibits Italians moving from one municipality to another unless urgent.
Italy has introduced more stringent restrictions on movement this weekend, banning running and cycling. On Saturday police reported more than 11,000 for breaking the lockdown rules.
US Senator Rand Paul tested positive for coronavirus
Republican senator Rand Paul announced on Twitter that he is in quarantine after testing positive for covid-19. The former presidential candidate is “feeling fine” and was tested “out of an abundance of caution due to his extensive travel and events”, he said.
Merkel goes into quarantine after contact with infected doctor
Guy Chazan in Berlin
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is to self-quarantine, her spokesman Steffen Seibert announced on Sunday evening, after coming into contact with a doctor with coronavirus.
After giving a press conference on Sunday she was informed that a doctor who had given her a preventative pneumococcal vaccine on Friday evening had since tested positive for the virus.
Subsequently, the chancellor had decided to go immediately into quarantine at home. Mr Seibert said that she would be tested regularly in the next few days, because a test at the present time would not be conclusive. He said she would carry out her duties while staying at home.
Twenty-three prisoners die in attempted jail-break in Colombia
Gideon Long in Bogotá
Twenty-three prisoners died and 83 were injured in an attempted jail-break at one of Colombia’s most notorious prisons, where inmates have complained that dire sanitary conditions make them vulnerable to coronavirus.
Justice Minister Margarita Cabello said seven guards were injured during the night-time mutiny at the La Modelo jail in Bogotá, two of them critically. There were disturbances at other prisons too.
She said no one escaped and that there have been no confirmed cases of Covid-19 anywhere in the national prison system.
Video footage, apparently taken by inmates on mobile phones, showed prison buildings burning, inmates bleeding badly and in one case prisoners holding rifles aloft. The authenticity of the footage could not be independently confirmed.
La Modelo is known for violence. The jail houses left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries from the country’s long civil conflict.
US cases rise as New York outbreak worsens
Alistair Gray in New York
The scale of the coronavirus crisis facing the US was laid bare today when confirmed cases across the country surged to almost 30,000 and New York emerged as an international hotspot.
Figures presented by New York state governor Andrew Cuomo showed that the number of confirmed US cases had increased by about 8,000, or almost 40 per cent, from Saturday.
The death toll across the US now stands at about 375. New York state has recorded the most, with almost 115, followed by Washington with 95 and California with almost 30.
Separate data from Johns Hopkins University show that the US has the fourth-largest number of confirmed cases globally, behind only China, Italy and Spain. The country has more than Iran, France and South Korea. Almost 320,000 people have tested positive globally and almost 14,000 have died.
New York has the biggest number of confirmed cases in the US. One in 20 people in the world who is known to have the virus lives in the state, with the number of cases surging from 10,000 to 15,000 as of Sunday. Those in New York City itself rose from about 6,000 to 9,000.
While New York has about 15 times more confirmed cases than any other US state, Mr Cuomo said at a briefing that this was in part because it was conducting more tests than elsewhere.
Read more on this story here.
GameStop shifts to ‘delivery-at-the-door’ model
Dave Lee in San Francisco
After several days of criticism over its decision to keep its stores open, US video games shop chain GameStop is shifting to a “delivery-at-the-door” model at all locations.
The company’s chief executive George Sherman said in a statement that GameStop qualified as “essential retail” because, as well as games, it also sold “a wide array of products and devices that are important to facilitate remote work, distance learning, and virtual connectivity”.
The retailer had initially refused to close its doors, instead attempting other measures, such as only allowing in 10 customers at a time, and shutting down demo stations. According to a memo obtained by games news site Kotaku, staff were given a flyer to present to law enforcement officers who questioned why a store was still open. Employees quoted complained of inadequate measures to keep stores clean and staff safe.
The chain has suffered sharply declining sales, with gamers moving to downloading their titles rather than buying physical copies. In January, GameStop told shareholders it had revenue of $1.83bn over 2019’s Christmas sales period — a 28 per cent drop on the previous year. Mr Sherman said the impact had been greater than they anticipated but were hoping new console releases from Microsoft and Sony would reverse the trend in 2020.
“It’s inevitable that games specialist retailers will come under increased pressure during the next few months and I think a few, particularly smaller independent stores, are sadly likely to fold,” said Piers Harding-Rolls from Ampere Analysis. “Bigger chains like GameStop may well accelerate their store closure strategies.”
But he added: “Companies with evolved multi-channel distribution strategies will be better placed of course to weather the storm. Social distancing means that digital games consumption will increase over the next few months.”
Ireland warns of ‘health system under stress’
Arthur Beesley in Dublin
Dublin said more than 40,000 people were waiting to be tested for Covid-19 as health chiefs warned that the country’s overstretched health service is facing a historic challenge to assert control over the coronavirus outbreak.
Paul Reid, chief of Ireland’s health service executive, said the next few days will be critical in the escalating battle against the disease, as the rate of testing increases to 4,500 daily outside hospitals. “This week is a very significant, huge week in the history of the healthcare system in Ireland, very significant because we can save lives by our actions,” he said.
“In the coming weeks the public will witness our health system under stress — and I want to be upfront about this — probably like we’ve never known before, putting issues like overcrowding in winter into context.”
On Sunday evening the Irish republic reported a fourth death from the disease, hours after the Northern Ireland authorities reported a second death there on a day when the number of confirmed cases on the island of Ireland rose above 1,000.
There were 121 new cases in the republic, bringing the total to 906 — and 20 new Northern Ireland cases, taking the number in the region to 128. The overall total on the island is now 1,034 and the authorities in both jurisdictions are bracing for a big rise.
With large parts of the Irish economy at a standstill due to the pandemic and many thousands out of work, Leo Varadkar’s administration has resolved to boost the €3bn package introduced less than a fortnight ago for hospitals, sick pay and business supports.
Simon Coveney, deputy premier, said: “I want to reassure people that the government are going to introduce a significant and supportive economic package in the coming days that will go well beyond what we have announced to date.”
International Olympic Committee in talks to postpone Tokyo games
Leo Lewis in Tokyo and Murad Ahmed in London
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is set to be postponed by up to two years, as the Japanese government and games organisers respond to worldwide coronavirus lockdowns and mounting pressure to delay the world’s biggest sporting event.
The IOC has given itself four weeks to agree the extent of a delay meaning a formal announcement may not come until next month, but on Sunday the International Olympic Committee gave its first indication that the postponement was likely. The IOC said that it would need the “full commitment and co-operation” of Japanese authorities, sports bodies, broadcasters and sponsors, and that “cancellation was not on the agenda”.
Read more on this story here.
Death toll in France increases by 112
Victor Mallet in Paris
France on Sunday announced a further 112 deaths from the coronavirus, the same increase as on Saturday, bringing the total number of victims in the country to 674.
“In France we are facing an epidemic that continues to spread and worsen,” Jérôme Salomon, director-general of health, told a news conference in Paris.
However, the rate of increase in the French death toll is now substantially lower than in neighbouring Italy or Spain. In France the highest number of additional deaths announced was on March 20, when 128 new fatalities were recorded. There are now 16,018 cases confirmed by tests, although the true number of infections is known to be much higher.
France has imposed some of the tightest controls in Europe on people’s movements for the past six days. The restrictions, which confine people to their homes except for certain types of work and for essential shopping and occasional physical exercise, are due to last for two weeks but may be extended.
The worst affected areas in France are the Paris conurbation and the Grand Est region in the east, where some hospitals are struggling to provide intensive care to coronavirus patients with breathing difficulties who need ventilators.
Mr Salomon thanked neighbouring Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg for accepting the transfer of some seriously ill patients to their hospitals. President Emmanuel Macron has also mobilised the armed forces to set up a field hospital in Mulhouse and to move patients from overstretched hospitals to those in other regions with spare capacity.
The French naval helicopter carrier Tonnerre is transporting 12 coronavirus patients from the island of Corsica to the mainland.
Ohio becomes latest state to issue ‘stay at home’ order
Ohio residents have been told to stay at home except for certain activities, becoming the latest US state to tighten rules aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus.
The “stay at home” order will remain in effect until at least April 6. Residents will be allowed to leave their homes under “common sense exceptions”, including shopping for necessary supplies, governor Mike DeWine said.
“Again — this is an order, but it’s a reasonable order that is consistent with what has to be done. If everyone cooperates we’ll save a lot of lives. The healthcare system won’t get overwhelmed. Use common sense,” Mr DeWine tweeted.
Ohio has 351 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including three deaths.
Other states including California, New York and New Jersey have ordered most residents to stay home.
West Bank to go into lockdown for two weeks
Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv
The occupied West Bank will be in complete lockdown after 10pm on Sunday, as confirmed coronavirus cases hit nearly 60, prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced.
Some 3m Palestinians will not be allowed to leave their homes except for emergencies, and pharmacies, supermarkets, bakeries and banks will be the only businesses allowed to remain open during the two-week lockdown.
Some 650,000 Israeli settlers, whose homes dot the West Bank, will not be subject to the restrictions, but Mr Shtayyeh asked Palestinian workers to stop working in Israeli factories within the settlements.
The wide-spread closure comes weeks after the Christian pilgrimage site of Bethlehem was placed under a full closure, in the hopes that the virus, brought to the West Bank by a group of Greek tourists, could be contained.
The area, occupied by Israel since 1967, and administered in uneasy tandem between the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority, now has 57 confirmed cases. Testing has lagged Israel, which has nearly 1,000 confirmed cases, and where the government is mulling a similar nationwide closure.
Mr Shtayyeh’s decision will devastate the $18bn Palestinian economy, which depends on a combination of international aid, remittances from construction workers who travel to Israel and a small service sector.
In order to mitigate the loss of income, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers are now being allowed to spend the next two months outside the West Bank, as long as their Israeli employers are able to provide them housing.
Syria records first coronavirus case
Chloe Cornish in Beirut
Damascus has recorded its first coronavirus patient, Syria’s health minister said on Sunday night. The man in his twenties had “come from abroad”, state media reported. No further details were given.
Until the announcement, Syria had been the only country in the Middle East to have no registered cases of Covid-19.
Nearly a decade of civil war has gutted Syria’s healthcare system, and the World Health Organisation says there are just 57 fully-functioning hospitals in the entire country.
The government has now ordered restaurants and cafes to shut, suspended public transport and lifted certain import restrictions to allow manufacturers to buy raw materials needed to produce sanitisers.
Greece to require notice from residents if they leave home
Kerin Hope in Athens
Greece announced tight restrictions on movement on Sunday to combat the spread of coronavirus, including a requirement for people to carry a special permit or send a text message to government authorities if they intended to leave their homes.
Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced the new measures after Greek experts warned of a likely jump in new infections. Many Athenians ignored a partial lockdown that took effect on March 14, banning gatherings to 10 people, and flocked to beaches near the capital during a spell of warm weather last week.
Mr Mitsotakis said in a television address: “This is perhaps the last step and it must be taken promptly so it is not in vain. Staying at home is the most profound way of showing our collective sense of responsibility towards society.”
Trips to the supermarket or pharmacy, medical appointments and dog-walking would be approved, he said. The measures would be in force for 15 days at least, and a fine of €150 would be imposed for any violations.
Since closing schools and universities on March 10, the government has gradually closed cinemas, theatres, bars cafes, gyms, museums, hairdressers and almost all shops. On Saturday, city parks were shut down.
The number of new confirmed cases of Covid-19 reached 624 on Sunday, rising by 94 in the largest one-day increase to date. Two more fatalities were recorded, bringing the total to 15, health authorities said.
Pakistan enforces regional lockdowns as cases rise
Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad
Pakistani authorities on Sunday night enforced lockdowns in the southern Sindh province and the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region which borders China, among fresh measures to combat the coronavirus as the number of people diagnosed with the ailment rose to over 750.
On Sunday, a Pakistani doctor who treated coronavirus patients at a hospital in Gilgit-Baltistan died just two days after being diagnosed with the virus, highlighting the risk to medical professionals. Altogether, five people have died so far across Pakistan since the first coronavirus patient was diagnosed.
A government doctor in Islamabad told the FT that the health ministry had placed orders for quick delivery of “supplies to protect our doctors and nurses. They are our frontline troops against coronavirus”.
However, officials and businessmen warned of the disruptive impact of coronavirus as part of the country was forced to lock down. From Karachi, the local capital of Sindh, a government official who spoke to the FT said the lockdown in the province made no exceptions except for grocery stores, bakeries and hospitals. “The two main airports in Sindh at Karachi and Sukkur will remain shut during the lockdown. People will not be allowed to travel outside their own cities,” he said. “A lockdown must be enforced at all costs.”
Pakistan’s train services have already been suspended while bus travel between cities has been restricted.
On Friday, prime minister Imran Khan told journalists that he was reluctant to impose a nationwide lockdown, citing concerns over its impact on the country’s poorest population including many who work on daily wages. But experts from agencies have warned that half-hearted measures carried the risk of a faster spread of the coronavirus and far more devastating consequences for the country than seen so far.
Norwegian state-run oil group suspends share buybacks
Richard Milne in Oslo
Equinor is suspending its share buyback programme and looking to cut costs as the Norwegian state-controlled oil group seeks to shore up its finances after a plunge in oil prices and falling demand due to coronavirus.
The Norwegian company said late on Sunday night that the second tranche of its programme — under which it was due to buy back $675m from May until October — will be postponed until further notice.
Equinor, formerly known as Statoil, will also reduce operating costs, capital expenditure and spending on exploration and will provide an updated outlook for the year at the end of this month.
“As a result of significant improvements in recent years, Equinor has a strong balance sheet and is in a good position to deal with the current circumstances, as well as uncertainties in front of us. We are now taking actions to remain resilient in a period of low prices, volatility and market uncertainty, in line with our contingency plans,” said Eldar Saetre, Equinor’s chief executive.
Norwegian companies have come under pressure to review their dividend and share buyback plans amid large-scale government and central bank support for business over the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
Italy’s Eni said this week it would scrap a share buyback programme for this year while weighing a “strong reduction” in capital spending. BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil have all said they would make spending cuts.
St Louis Fed president warns US jobless rate could hit 30%
James Politi in Washington
James Bullard, president of the Saint Louis Fed, said the US jobless rate could reach 30 per cent in the second quarter as economic activity ground to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, Mr Bullard said there was more the Fed could do to contain the damage to the US economy, even after slashing interest rates to zero, boosting asset purchases and reviving 2008-era facilities to boost credit markets. Mr Bullard also called on a heavy dose of fiscal stimulus, as Republicans and Democrats haggled the details of a package worth nearly $2tn to rescue the US economy on Capitol Hill.
“This is a planned, organised partial shutdown of the US economy in the second quarter,” Mr Bullard told Bloomberg, suggesting economic output could be cut in half. “The overall goal is to keep everyone, households and businesses, whole… it is a huge shock and we are trying to cope with it and keep it under control.”
McDonald’s to temporarily close restaurants in the UK and Ireland
McDonald’s will temporarily close all of its restaurants in the UK and Ireland by Monday evening at the latest.
“This is not a decision we are taking lightly, but one made with the well-being and safety of our employees in mind as well as in the best interests of our customers,” McDonald’s UK said.
Gilead restricts remdesivir ‘compassionate use’ amid surge in requests for drug
Hannah Kuchler in New York
Gilead is restricting new “compassionate use” grants of its drug remdesivir to pregnant women, children and the seriously ill, after it became overwhelmed with requests for the drug that some hope could treat the coronavirus.
The US biotech company said the emergency access system for the drug that has not yet been approved — where cases are reviewed one by one — was never designed to cope with a pandemic. Instead, it has now stopped accepting most new requests and is working with regulatory agencies around the world to expand access.
Gilead has already provided the antiviral drug to several hundred patients in the US and Europe, and many more will have access through clinical trials.
“Gilead is working to rapidly assess the safety and efficacy of remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19 through multiple ongoing clinical trials,” a spokesperson said. “Enrollment in clinical trials is the primary way to access remdesivir to generate critical data that inform the appropriate use of this investigational medicine.”
New Zealand’s central bank launches NZ$30bn in quantitative easing
Jamie Smyth in Sydney
New Zealand’s central bank has announced a NZ$30bn (US$16.8bn) quantitative easing programme to tackle a rise in interest rates on government bonds and higher funding costs for the nation’s banks.
Adrian Orr, Reserve Bank of New Zealand governor, said on Monday the negative implications of the coronavirus outbreak had continued to intensify and further monetary stimulus is needed to keep interest rates on government bonds low. The quantitative easing programme will purchase up to NZ$30bn in government bonds, across a range of maturities in the secondary market over the next 12 months, he said.
“The programme aims to provide further support to the economy, build confidence, and keep interest rates on government bonds low,” said Mr Orr.
Mr Orr warned financial conditions had tightened unnecessarily over the past week, reducing the impact of the low official cash rate of 0.25 per cent on achieving the bank’s mandate. Heightened risk aversion has caused a rise in interest rates on long-term New Zealand government bonds and the cost of bank funding.
The launch of quantitative easing in New Zealand follows its government’s launch of a NZ$12bn stimulus package — equivalent to 4 per cent of its economy — last week. Australia’s central bank launched a quantitative easing programme last week, which is also aimed at boosting the economy.
US stock futures hit ‘limit down’ as investors await stimulus deal
US stock futures fell 5 per cent on Sunday evening, the most allowed in pre-market trading, as lawmakers in Congress continued to negotiate a deal intended to support the domestic economy amid fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.
Futures for the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average hit their “limit down” minutes after pre-market trading began. Nasdaq futures were down 4.9 per cent.
Oil prices also dropped. Brent crude, the international benchmark, slipped 6.6 per cent to $25.06 per barrel.
US financial regulators signal sympathetic approach to loan modifications
Laura Noonan in New York
America’s top banking regulators have issued a joint statement spelling out a sympathetic approach to loans that are restructured because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis.
The statement from regulators, including the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, marks their latest effort to encourage banks to work proactively to cushion the pandemic’s economic impact.
The regulators say they will view loan modifications linked to the coronavirus as “positive and proactive actions that can manage or mitigate adverse impacts on borrowers, and lead to improved loan performance and reduced credit risk”.
It also stressed that modifications for borrowers who were up to date on payments before the crisis would not be treated as troubled debt restructurings (TDRs), a bad loans category that banks have to test for impairments and disclose.
“The agencies’ examiners will exercise judgment in reviewing loan modifications, including TDRs, and will not automatically adversely risk rate credits that are affected, including those considered TDRs,” the statement said, adding that “examiners will not criticize prudent efforts to modify terms on existing loans for affected customers”.
Several banks have already announced payment and interest holidays for borrowers whose income have been hit by the pandemic’s rapid spread.
Banks and regulators are also in talks about further measures to support lending through the crisis, the FT reported earlier on Sunday.
Trump activates National Guard in hardest-hit states
James Politi in Washington
Donald Trump said he had “activated” the National Guard, the reserve forces of the American military, to help the hardest-hit states, including California, New York and Washington, grapple with the coronavirus outbreak.
At a press briefing on Sunday evening, Mr Trump said the reservists would “carry out approved missions to stop the virus” while the governors of the three states would “remain in command”.
The decision comes as the US president has faced growing pressure to more forcefully assist the areas of the country that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, which has left more than 340 people dead in the US and more than 30,000 people ill. The Trump administration has also ramped up its supply of medical equipment, and would help set up “federal medical stations” to help healthcare systems in the hardest-hit parts of the country which are already facing shortages and trouble coping with the inflow of patients.
Mr Trump expressed hope that Republicans and Democrats could still agree on a stimulus plan despite some disagreements over the terms of the $2tn package on Capitol Hill, saying he did not think they had “any choice” but to strike a deal. “Our goal is to get relief to Americans as quickly as possible,” he said.
Mr Trump said the administration and lawmakers were considering whether to allow members of Congress to vote remotely, given that three had tested positive for coronavirus and others are in self-isolation due to possible exposure to the disease.
Power of US supercomputers harnessed to help find coronavirus treatments
Richard Waters in San Francisco
Some of the most powerful supercomputers in the US are being harnessed together to help in the search for treatments and vaccines to fight Covid-19. The initiative, announced by Donald Trump late on Sunday, will pool spare capacity on a number of the most powerful machines currently in use in the public and private sectors, including by the Department of Energy, IBM, Google, Amazon and Microsoft.
Commitments made so far add up to a single computing resource equivalent to 265 petaflops, according to IBM — equal to 265 quadrillion operations per second, and more than the theoretical limit of 200 petaflops of the world’s biggest supercomputer, the DoE’s Summit system.
Pooling capacity on a series of machines into a single resource will mean that researchers can run massively complex simulations that couldn’t be handled by even the most powerful computing clouds that are in use at the biggest tech companies, said Dario Gil, head of research at IBM, which organised the initiative with the White House and DoE. The Summit system, for instance, has already been used to model a number of chemical compounds that might help to tackle the coronavirus, narrowing the list of promising candidates that can then be used in experiments.
“Within the respective clouds we have massive amounts of computation capacity,” Mr Gil said. “But those systems are not designed to work synergistically all at once, in the context of performing scientific calculations.”
The IBM executive said there was no guarantee that throwing a huge amount of raw computing power at the fight against coronavirus would shorten the time before effective treatments are available. But he said it would speed up the chemical simulations conducted by researchers by a factor of “ten or a hundred”.
3M and Honeywell to accelerate production of masks
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York
3M pledged fresh investment to accelerate its production of N95 respirators on Sunday, as Honeywell announced a new production line to make “millions” of the masks which hospitals need to protect healthcare workers against coronavirus.
Some 500,000 masks were on their way to New York and Seattle, two US cities hit hard by the pandemic where hospitals are already suffering shortages, 3M said.
The company had already increased production from 400m masks a year to more than 1.1bn, of which 35m a month are being made in the US. Mike Roman, 3M’s chairman and chief executive officer, said on Sunday that the unspecified sum of additional investment would enable it to increase its global output to almost 2bn a year within 12 months.
“We are working with the US and other governments, investigating alternate manufacturing scenarios, and exploring coalitions with other companies to increase capacity further,” he added.
The announcement came as Honeywell said it would “immediately” expand its manufacturing operations in Rhode Island, which makes safety glasses and face shields, to produce N95 face masks for the US Department of Health and Human Services. The new production line would create at least 500 new jobs, it said.
Shortages have prompted several governments to mobilise industry to step up production of masks and other protective equipment. Donald Trump said on Saturday that Hanes Brands, the apparel company, was retrofitting parts of its plants to produce masks, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company pledged on Friday to donate 480,000 N95 masks which it had kept for fighting wildfires to be used in California’s hospitals.
Cases in Brazil surpass 1,500 with 25 fatalities
Andres Schipani in São Paulo
Brazil’s confirmed cases of coronavirus continued escalating on Sunday, topping 1,546 with 25 fatalities. This is the highest number in Latin America as the region’s largest country appears on track to have an Italy-like curve of infection, experts say.
João Doria, the governor of São Paulo, home to most of the cases, will begin a 15-day state-wide quarantine on Tuesday, with all non-essential shops closing. The national government has not yet imposed lockdowns and on Saturday president Jair Bolsonaro called Mr Doria a “lunatic” for having declared one in Brazil’s biggest state.
Mr Bolsonaro added governors are “terrorising” populations by doing so as he continues in public denial, calling the lockdowns and quarantines an “excess of medicine that is toxic”. His stance has sparked outrage, with multitudes of Brazilians banging pots and pans from windows and balconies yelling “Bolsonaro out!” in protest against him every night this week.