Coronavirus latest: New Zealand slashes rates and says ‘financial system sound’

New Zealand dollar sinks

New Zealand’s dollar fell more than 1 per cent against its US counterpart as the country’s central bank on Monday announced a rate cut.

The currency was recently trading down by 1.6 per cent against the buck, buying just under 60 US cents. It marks the lowest level in more than a decade for New Zealand’s currency.

Ireland urges its citizens in Spain to return home

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Ireland urged thousands of its holidaymakers to return home from Spain by Thursday, as the escalating coronavirus pandemic prompted Dublin to order pubs and hotel bars to shut in a bid to hold back the disease.

As 40 new infections on Sunday brought the total in Ireland to 169, the government said as many as 25,000 Irish tourists in Spain should return home within four days after Madrid imposed a country-wide lockdown.

“After Thursday I think it may be difficult to provide any guarantees that people will be able to get home easily,” Simon Coveney, deputy premier, told national television.

“What I’m saying to people very directly is that you should plan to come home regardless of how long your holiday was supposed to be.”

The closure of bars from Sunday night — before the St Patrick’s Day national holiday on Tuesday — came after social media showed weekend revellers crammed into pubs in defiance of government demands to limit mass gatherings to less than 100 people.

A statement from the office of prime minister Leo Varadkar said: “While the government acknowledges that the majority of the public and pub owners are behaving responsibly, it believes it is important that all pubs are closed in advance of St Patrick’s Day.”

Mr Varadkar warned earlier on Sunday that he may seek new “enforcement powers” from parliament to curtail large gatherings in bars.


New Zealand central bank slashes rates

New Zealand’s central bank has sharply cuts its main interest rate as it seeks to fend off the economic fallout from the global coronavirus outbreak.

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s official cash rate has been cut by 0.75 percentage point to 0.25 per cent. It promised to hold rates at that level for at least the next year.

The bank added that the country’s “financial system is sound, with strong capital and liquidity buffers, but faces significant uncertainties from the impacts of Covid-19”

Here’s more:

The negative economic implications of the COVID-19 virus continue to rise warranting further monetary stimulus.

Since the outbreak of the virus, global trade, travel, and business and consumer spending have been curtailed significantly. Increasingly, governments internationally have imposed a variety of restraints on people movement within and across national borders in order to mitigate the virus transmission.

Financial market pricing has responded to these events with declining global equity prices and increased interest rate spreads on traditionally riskier asset classes.

The negative impact on the New Zealand economy is, and will continue to be, significant. Demand for New Zealand’s goods and services will be constrained, as will domestic production. Spending and investment will be subdued for an extended period while the responses to the Covid-19 virus evolve.

Norway offers firms at least $10bn to combat virus threat

Richard Milne in Oslo

Norway’s government is offering at least NKr100bn ($10bn) in loans and guarantees to local companies to try to ward off the worst effects of the coronavirus.

Prime minister Erna Solberg announced the measures on Sunday evening and said further actions could be taken as Norway faces up to a double crisis as the recent drop in oil prices also hits western Europe’s largest petroleum producer.

“We are in crisis. Not everything is going to be perfect from the beginning. But if we stretch ourselves a bit, we can find good and practical feasible solutions,” said Ms Solberg.

Aker Solutions, one of Norway’s largest oil services companies, announced at the weekend that it would temporarily lay off 6,000 people while airline SAS, which operates in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, said it would lay off 10,000 workers.

New Zealand’s central bank to make statement at 7pm London time

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand has said it plans to make a statement at 7pm London time (8am local time).

The coronavirus outbreak deepened this weekend, with a large rise in the number of cases in Europe. Markets were of course very volatile last week, which had prompted a series of global central bank interventions.

Horse racing in the UK set to move behind closed doors

Spectators are set to be barred from horse racing events across the UK as the sport moves to a “behind closed doors” policy in a sharp change of tack after authorities initially held out on imposing restrictions.

The British Horseracing Authority said this evening it would meet tomorrow to discuss its approach and that this was “likely to mean that racing moves behind closed doors later in the week, initially until the end of March”.

The move comes after the sport came in for heavy criticism after the Cheltenham meet proceeded last week, despite the worsening outbreak, with around 150,000 spectators attending.

“Racing has worked hard to look after our customers and our staff by following the government’s guidance and taking proportionate action,” said Nick Rust, BHA chief executive.

We will agree plans to limit attendance to participants and staff only at race meetings from this week and put in place the contingency plans developed by the industry.

He said a decision on the staging of the Aintree Grand National in early April would be made “as soon as possible”.

Christine Lagarde apologises for botched communication of ECB strategy

Martin Arnold reports:

Speaking to the ECB’s top decision-making body in a call on Friday, the central bank’s president said she was sorry for comments that led to the biggest single-day fall in Italian government bonds in a decade, two people involved in the call told the Financial Times.

In Thursday’s press conference Ms Lagarde said it was not the ECB’s role to “close the spread” in sovereign debt markets — referring to the gap between Italian and German bond yields that is a key risk indicator for Italy.

The remarks stirred fears the ECB was retreating from being a lender of last resort to Italy just as concerns intensified about the economic impact of coronavirus, which has infected 24,747 people and killed 1,809 killed. Economists predict Italy is heading into a deep recession, while the country’s €25bn of extra spending will inflate its already high debt levels.

In Thursday’s press conference Ms Lagarde also rebuffed suggestions that she hoped to emulate the legacy of Mario Draghi, her Italian predecessor as ECB president whom she replaced in November, saying that she did not seek to be “whatever it takes, number two”.

Her apology at the start of a conference call to discuss a different matter on Friday was welcomed by several ECB governing council members, who had been unsettled by her comments to the media.

Read the full story.

Chicago expects another rush of travellers after chaotic evening for US aviation

Claire Bushey writes:

O’Hare Airport in Chicago is expecting a crush again today like the one last night that jammed more than 3,000 travellers arriving from overseas in hours-long lines to clear customs.

Chicago officials have asked the Federal Aviation Administration to stagger flight arrival times and also to allow passengers to remain on planes with access to food, water and restrooms, releasing them in waves as Customs and Border Patrol agents are prepared to receive them.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a press conference that the Department of Homeland Security has agreed to activate an existing contract that would deputise 40 Chicago Fire Department emergency medical technicians to screen arriving travellers to take their temperatures.

But the department still must agree to waive training requirements before they can bolster the ranks of screeners.

“CBP has got to have more people,” she said.

The Salvation Army was passing out food and water to travellers at one of the world’s busiest airports on Saturday night. If the federal government does not work closely with state and local officials to implement policy changes like President Trump’s travel ban and the increased screening for passengers, “we’re going to see other disasters like this one”, Ms Lightfoot said.

Chicago is also limiting how many patrons can squeeze into the city’s bars, prompted by St Patrick’s Day revelers who yesterday crowded into drinking establishments even as Covid-19 spreads.

The city capped capacity for any establishments selling liquor at 50 patrons.

Illinois Gov JB Pritzker said on Sunday morning that he was weighing whether to close the state’s bars and restaurants, and Ms Lightfoot said at press conference local governments could resort to more stringent measures if necessary.

Qatar to stop most inbound flights to Doha

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Qatar will from Wednesday stop inbound flight arrivals to Doha for two weeks as coronavirus spreads across the Gulf region.

The ban will not apply to cargo operations and transit flights, officials announced in a televised press conference. Nor will it apply to returning citizens.

Qatar Airways is one of the world’s leading long-haul operators, using Doha as a hub to link global destinations.

The new restrictions, which follow other efforts from neighbouring Gulf states, come as Qatar also offered 75bn riyals ($20.6bn) in financial incentives to the banking sector to encourage lenders to postpone payments for six months.

The ministry of health on Sunday announced 64 new cases, bringing the overall national toll to 401, after the virus spread through a residential compound last week.

From Sunday night, Qatar will also suspend public transport in the capital.

Kudlow expects Trump to issue order deferring interest on student loans

Aime Williams in Washington

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Sunday that he expected Donald Trump to issue an executive order deferring the interest on student loans for the rest of the year.

Speaking on CBS News, Mr Kudlow also echoed earlier remarks by Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, who said that administration officials would work with lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week on measures to help America’s struggling travel industry.

“We will have a number of new proposals with respect to the airlines,” said Mr Kudlow. “We’ve got issues on cruise ships. We’ve got issues on the whole leisure story. But I just feel, look, this is a story that will be very challenging in the short run.”

However, Mr Kudlow, who said he expected the US would be “back to a strong economy” by the end of the year, declined to give any details on what government assistance for airlines and other sectors might look like, but said they could take the form of loan guarantees.

He conceded that “the employment story… may become more tenuous in the weeks ahead” as businesses face diminished trade, but did not outline the number of layoffs the White House was projecting and preparing for when asked.

US dollar rises in early dealings; euro under pressure

The dollar is climbing in early Asia Pacific trading on Monday, with the euro under particular pressure after a dramatic weekend.

In recent trade, the dollar index, which measures the currency against half a dozen developed market peers, was up 0.31 per cent. Much of the gain was against the common currency, which fell half a per cent against the greenback.

Japan’s yen jumped around 0.6 per cent against the dollar to ¥107.35. The currency is often seen as a haven, although its performance has been volatile during the coronavirus crisis.

Foreign exchange trading volumes are typically light at this hour, with action having only kicked off in New Zealand.

Austria urges citizens in UK, Russia, Ukraine and Netherlands to return

Sam Jones reports from Zurich:

Austria has urged citizens in the UK, Russia, Ukraine and the Netherlands to return home amid fears for their safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Vienna announced it would close flight connections to the four counties earlier on Sunday.

A short text message sent out automatically by the Austrian foreign ministry to all registered citizens travelling in the countries reads:

“Travel warning (security level 6) for UK, Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine! Travelers are advised to return to Austria! Your State Department.”

Level 6 is the highest level of risk on the Austrian government’s classification system for its citizens abroad.

The four countries are foremost among those to have taken a more gradualist or hands-off approach to containing the disease. The UK in particularly stands out among Western European nations in having done relatively little so far to restrict public life.

Austria, in contrast, has been among those to take the hardest line in trying stymie the spread of the virus by enforced social distancing and the shutdown of many public spaces. All restaurants, bars, cafés and most shops selling non-essential products, were ordered to close on Sunday.

Austria has so far confirmed 860 cases, as of mid-afternoon Sunday.

The government has put the national militia on standby to be called out and 25,000 police have had their leave cancelled.

Chatham House calls for united international response

Directors of the think tank Chatham House have said the coronavirus pandemic requires a united public statement from global leaders.

In a letter to the Financial Times, Jim O’Neill, chair, Robin Niblett, director, and Creon Butler, research director, global and finance, wrote that the “disjointed global economic response … has blown into the open the need for an immediate reaffirmation of international political and economic co-operation.

We urgently need a joint public statement from the leaders of the world’s major countries affirming the many things on which they do already agree, and some on which they should be able to agree.

Egyptian central bank orders lenders to extend repayment deadlines

Heba Saleh in Cairo reports:

The Central Bank of Egypt has said it is ready to intervene immediately to maintain banking and monetary stability after the government announced measures to combat the new coronavirus including school and university closures.

The central bank instructed the country’s lenders to extend by six months credit repayments for small and medium enterprise and to refrain from levying fines on late payments. It told banks to cancel fees and commission on ATM withdrawals and e-payments for six months.

Banks are also required to make credit available immediately for importers of basic and strategic goods, especially food, to cover the needs of the market.

The government has already announced the allocation of $6.5bn to address the impact of Covid-19. Details of how it will be spent have not been made public..

Tourism is expected to be one of the hardest hit sectors, having barely recovered from the upheavals that followed the country’s 2011 revolution and a terrorist attack in 2015 against a Russian airliner.

Majority of British people remain unconcerned about virus

Alan Smith, head of visual and data journalism, reports:

Most British people still aren’t concerned about contracting coronavirus, according to the latest polling by YouGov.

Based on responses from over 2,000 adults between March 12 and 13, 59 per cent said they were either not very scared, or not scared at all.

Nevertheless, concern is undoubtedly rising — when the last YouGov survey asked the same question just two weeks previously, the figure was 70 per cent.

The polling data also reveals that, among British people in the age group most at risk, the over 65s, the majority still do not consider themselves scared of contracting the virus at this point.

The survey also reflects how crucial the week ahead is for the UK government, as opinions on how it is dealing with the pandemic continue to polarise.

Overall, 55 per cent of those polled last week said the government was doing well, broadly the same as two weeks earlier. However, those considering the government to be reacting badly rose during the same period from 26 per cent to 30 per cent.

LVMH to use perfume factories to produce hand sanitiser

Leila Abboud reports from Paris:

France’s richest man Bernard Arnault is ordering his company’s perfume factories to start manufacturing “substantial quantities” of hand sanitiser that will be donated to hospitals that are at risk of shortages.

Luxury conglomerate LVMH said it will convert facilities that usually churn out expensive perfumes for Christian Dior, Guerlain, and Givenchy in an effort that will continue “as long as necessary”.

“Through this initiative, LVMH intends to help address the risk of lack of product in France and enable a greater number of people to take the right action to protect themselves from the spread of the virus,” the company said.

LVMH is France’s most valuable company worth €155bn even after falling 23 per cent since the beginning of the year.

No word on if they will add scent to the formulas, but that might be an nice touch for tired hospital workers.

Italy’s embattled Lombardy region faces sharp rise in deaths

Miles Johnson and Davide Ghiglione report from Rome:

Over 252 people have died from coronavirus in the northern Italian region of Lombardy alone in just 24 hours as the country’s latest infection count showed total cases continued to increase sharply.

Numbers released by the Italian authorities on Sunday showed the total number of cases rose by 17 per cent to 24,747 over the last day, with the total number of deaths in the country rising by 368 to a total of 1,809 people.

The number of active cases, which excludes the dead and 2,335 recoveries, stood at 20,603, or an increase of 2,853 in one day.

The total number of those infected recovering in intensive care rose by 154 to 1,672. The availability of respirators and intensive care facilities has become extremely tight in Lombardy, where just under half of Italy’s active cases are located.

Over the weekend the Lombardy region’s head of welfare warned its health system was close to “the point of no return”, and said there were only 15 or 20 intensive care beds left available.

Northern Italy has been hit by the largest outbreak of coronavirus outside China, pushing the country’s national health service to breaking point and underlining the challenge that other European countries could soon face should their strategies to contain the disease fail.

Netherlands to close schools, bars and restaurants

Tom Hancock in London reports

The Netherlands has said all schools, bars, restaurants will be closed from Monday until April 6, after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country rose to 1135.

“From March 16 to April 6 … schools and daycare centers will be closed,” Arie Slob, Dutch Minister of Education announced at a televised press conference, according to Agence France-Presse.

Schools catering for those children whose parents occupy “essential jobs” could remain open, Mr Slob added.

Dutch sports clubs, saunas, coffee shops and brothels will also be closed, Bruno Bruins, Dutch health minister, told the press conference.

The country’s prime minister Mark Rutte had initially resisted closing schools, but changed course after coming under pressure from educators and medical specialists, Reuters reported.

Electrolux warns of hit to supply chain

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent reports:

Electrolux warned that the coronavirus outbreak in Italy could cause supply chain disturbances for the world’s second-largest maker of consumer appliances.

The Swedish company has five factories in Italy, representing a quarter of its European production and 10 per cent of global capacity.

Electrolux withdrew its financial guidance for the year and warned of a “considerable risk of a material financial impact” on the first half of this year.

The company said the initial outbreak in China had caused delays in deliveries and higher logistics costs, but that it had mitigated the impact and did not expect any material effects from that alone.

But the situation in Italy was more serious, with Electrolux reducing production in Italy from next week. It added that the move would bring production closer in line with expected sales volume, which it said would with “high probability” decline due to the restrictions being placed on movement in many European countries.

SAS lays off 90% of workforce

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent reports:

SAS is laying off 90 per cent of its workforce as the Scandinavian flag carrier suffers the consequences of the dramatic plunge in demand for air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chief executive Rickard Gustafson said the airline, which is part-owned by the Swedish and Danish governments, would temporarily lay off 10,000 workers and cut many of its flights.

He said:

We are experiencing a societal crisis the likes of which we have rarely seen, which has gone from country to country and industry to industry. An airline without revenues doesn’t survive for very long.

But Mr Gustafson insisted that SAS would survive and had decent liquidity.

SAS will continue to fly domestically as well as trying to serve destinations such as Frankfurt and London.

Norwegian Air Shuttle, a low-cost airline from Oslo that has challenged SAS in the past decade, has urged Norway’s centre-right government to rescue airlines. “We are not talking about months, but weeks,” chief executive Jacob Schram said on Friday.

Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister, said: “It is important to create the conditions for SAS’s long-term survival and development. This is important for all three Scandinavian countries.”

Gulf states impose sweeping restrictions as cases climb

Simeon Kerr in Dubai reports

Gulf states are ramping up measures to contain the spread of coronavirus as infections across the region rose to 872.

In the United Arab Emirates, the capital Abu Dhabi on Sunday closed beaches and parks until the end of the month after Saturday’s decision to end access to cultural centres such as the Louvre museum and other tourism sites such as theme parks.

Dubai, the region’s tourism hub, announced the closure of public venues including cinemas, gyms, theme parks and massage parlours. The measures will last until April, pending review.

The expansion of restrictions in the UAE came as the authorities clarified an edict banning the issuance of new visas from Tuesday.

Dubai airport, the world’s busiest in terms of international passengers, said the restriction on new visas would not apply to passengers arriving from countries eligible for a visa on arrival, mainly those from developed countries including the US, the UK and Australia.

New restrictions have fostered a sense of unease among some in the UAE’s large expatriate population as rumours swirled of an impending lockdown.

Dubai’s Emirates airline on Sunday was forced to deny rumours on social media about its intention to suspend all flights from Tuesday. The airline has been cancelling routes as states impose travel restrictions and overall demand plummets.

The UAE, the most outward facing Gulf state, has yet to reach the levels of restriction seen in Kuwait, where the government has imposed a virtual lockdown, closing malls and salons after last week ending commercial flights and keeping schools closed. Only a limited number of bank branches are open.

Danish supermarket finds novel way to tackle sanitiser hoarding

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent reports:

One Danish supermarket has come up with a surprising but effective weapon against hoarding hand sanitiser during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Meny supermarket in Hellerup, a northern suburb of Copenhagen, hung up a sign telling its customers that while the first bottle of anti-bacterial gel would cost DKr40 ($6), every bottle over that would cost DKr1,000 each, according to the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet.

“I did it so that people would look at themselves in the mirror before taking it in their shopping basket. Before, there were many customers who bought four or five at a time, and it’s so much more important than yeast,” Rasmus Vejbaek-Zerr, the shop’s manager, told the newspaper, referring to customers also hoarding yeast and flour to bake with.

EU looks to restrict exports of medical equipment

Jim Brunsden in Brussels reports:

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced on Sunday that Brussels had adopted an “authorisation scheme” to restrict exports of protective equipment for doctors, saying the gear is needed inside the EU.

The measure “means that such medical goods can only be exported to non-EU countries with the explicit authorisation of the EU governments,” she said in a video posted on Twitter. “This is the right thing to do because we need that equipment for our health care systems.”

Ms von der Leyen also called on governments on coordinate border closures, saying that the bloc could not afford to risk the breakdown of the single market.

“We need to keep goods flowing across Europe without obstacles,” she said, adding that Brussels would present guidance for national governments on Monday.

The commission president warned that shops could face shortages if the issue is not resolved. She said:

If we do not take action now, shops will start facing difficulties in refilling their stocks of certain products coming from elsewhere in the single market. In this moment of crisis, it is of utmost important to keep our internal market going.

“Protecting people’s health should not block goods and essential staff from reaching patients, health systems factories and shops,” she said. “Just imagine if as we increase production of medical equipment, factories cannot get the components they need in time. Thousands of bus and truck drivers are stranded at internal borders on parking lots, creating health risk and disrupting our supply chains.”

In tandem with restricting exports of medical equipment outside of the bloc, Ms von der Leyen criticised national restrictions on sales within the EU.

National bans on selling protective equipment to other member states are not good … We need to help each other. No country can produce on its own what it needs. Today, it’s Italy that rapidly needs large quantities of medical goods, but in a few weeks other countries will need it too.

Premiership Rugby set to be suspended

Murad Ahmed in London reports:

Premiership Rugby, the top club competition in English rugby union, is set to be postponed, becoming the latest sporting competition to be halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sunday’s Premiership Rugby Cup Final between Harlequins and Sale had already been suspended after a number of Harlequins staff showed symptoms of the virus.

One person familiar with the talks said that the entire rugby season would be suspended for the foreseeable future, following other professional football, tennis, golf, Formula One and other sporting competitions around the world.

A Premiership Rugby spokesperson said:

The welfare of fans, players and staff is our first concern and it’s crucial to get these important decisions right. We are working closely with our own medical experts, DCMS and Public Health England, and our clubs. That advice will allow us and our clubs to make a well-informed decision in the coming days.

Today’s Premiership Rugby Cup final has been postponed, so it’s sensible to wait for latest advice so we can make an informed decision for the rest of the season, in the coming days.

Americans told to ‘hunker down’ as restrictions set to increase

A senior US health official has warned Americans they should get ready for restrictions on day-to-day life to be ramped up as the US prepares to deal with a surge in coronavirus cases.

Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Americans “should be prepared that they’re going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing”.

His comments come as US cases push towards 3,000 and President Donald Trump imposes sweeping measures in a bid to stem infection rates – including banning travel from Europe. A host of states are considering shutting down bars and restaurants, meanwhile, and Canada has said shutting its border with its southern neighbour remains an option.

Dr Fauci said his preference was for US policy on the virus to be as proactive as possible. He said he had made this view known to the Trump administration and that “they generally listen”.

“I think we should really be overly aggressive and get criticised for over-reacting,” he added.

You always want to be ahead of the curve. The golden rule that I say is ‘When you think you are doing too much you are probably doing enough or not enough’.”

Stocks of hand sanitiser ingredient run low in Europe

Michael Pooler and Judith Evans in London report:

A key ingredient for hand gels and alcohol wipes is in short supply in Europe, with prices for the chemical jumping sharply on the back of a surge in demand because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stocks of isopropyl alcohol are running low, according to several suppliers and buyers of the chemical on the continent, leading to worries that everyday products vital to prevent the spread of Covid-19 will become more expensive and scarce.

Read the full story here.

Opinion: How coronavirus became a corporate credit run

Rana Foroohar writes:

It was only hours after US president Donald Trump told us, in an address from the Oval Office last week, “this is not a financial crisis”, when markets began acting very much as though it was.

Investors dumped assets resulting in the worst trading day since 1987. Bond markets seized up, putting pressure on banks, and the US Federal Reserve swooped in with yet more emergency funding for short-term borrowing markets (known as repurchasing or repo markets), a tactic which suggests we may see quantitative easing to infinity — and beyond.

So when exactly does a coronavirus-triggered corporate market meltdown officially turn into a full-blown financial crisis? That’s a question many market participants, and banks in particular, must be asking themselves.

Read Rana Foroohar’s full Financial Times op-ed here

UK coronavirus cases reach 1,372

Laura Hughes and Sarah Neville in London report:

The number of people diagnosed with Covid-19 in the UK has reached 1,372*, with the number of deaths hitting 35. All those who died had underlying health conditions or were aged over 60.

The increase in fatalities comes as a further 14 people who tested positive for the virus have died in England, bringing the reported death toll there to 34. The patients were aged between 59 and 94 years old and had underlying health conditions, NHS England said.

One person in Scotland has died.

*This post has been amended to reflect the latest number of cases.

Carluccio’s restaurant chain asks for rent holiday as footfall plummets

Nic Fildes in London reports

Carluccio’s has opened talks with landlords over a three-month hiatus on rent payments to cope with the dramatic hit to its business from the coronavirus.

Mark Jones, chief executive of the Italian themed restaurant chain, said footfall has plummeted 40 per cent in central London due to the spread of the virus and the associated restrictions on travel and work.

That has now spread to the provinces, with footfall down nearly 30 per cent in Newcastle for example, and the possibility of a total shutdown as has happened in some European companies has forced the restaurant sector to react.

“My single biggest fear is being forced to close,” he told the Financial Times of the UK government’s plans for dealing with the epidemic in the coming days, adding that he expects that other casual dining companies would also be seeking rent relief to survive.

EU toughens border health checks

Michael Peel in Brussels and Richard Milne in Oslo report:

Brussels is planning an emergency EU anti-coronavirus package to toughen cross-border health checks and ease the movement of goods and people, as tensions grow over decisions by some member states to all but seal their frontiers.

The European Commission is drawing up the proposals after countries including Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic ignored its calls for co-ordination and instead imposed blanket border closures to halt the spread of the virus.

Read the full story here.

ECB board member says it could buy even more bonds

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt reports:

The European Central Bank could further increase its planned bond-purchases from the €120bn extra it announced last week to deal with future market turbulence, according to one of its executive board members.

“If necessary, we can further expand the programme,” said Fabio Panetta, referring to ECB’s €20bn-per-month bond-buying scheme, which it beefed up by promising to buy a further €120bn of bonds this year in response to the economic and market impact of coronavirus.

Mr Panetta, who joined the ECB board from the Banca d’Italia at the start of the year, also said the ECB may consider providing liquidity to non-bank institutions if the market turbulence deepens.

“Liquidity tensions could emerge among non-bank intermediaries,” he said, adding that the ECB “could consider whether and how to expand the number of intermediaries to provide liquidity and the rules for participating in our refinancing operations”.

Italian government bonds suffered their biggest single-day fall for a decade on Thursday after ECB president Christine Lagarde said it was not its role to “close the spread” in sovereign debt markets — referring to the gap between Italian and German bond yields that is a key risk indicator for Italy.

Her comments stirred fears that the ECB was retreating from being a lender of last resort to Italy just as concerns intensified about the economic impact of coronavirus, which has infected more than 21,000 Italians and killed over 1,400, prompting a nationwide lock-down.

However, Mr Panetta said in an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper on Sunday: “The turbulence that hit the Italian government securities market in recent days represents an unwanted event, which will have to be reabsorbed.” He added

Strong unjustified increases in spreads, driven by the serious health emergency — capable of segmenting the euro area securities market and hampering the transmission of monetary policy- – will be vigorously countered.

German border closures mark step-up in efforts to battle virus

Guy Chazan in Berlin reports:

Germany is to close its borders with France, Austria and Switzerland, according to German government sources, in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

German interior minister Horst Seehofer is to give a press conference outlining details of the shutdown at 7pm local time in Berlin. The new restrictions will not affect Germans returning home after trips abroad, and will also not be applied to commuters and to goods traffic, the German news agency DPA reported.

The closure of the border is the latest in a series of increasingly draconian measures adopted by the authorities to slow the spread of the disease. Schools have closed throughout Germany, and events with more than 50 attendees have been banned. In the capital Berlin, museums, galleries and theatres have been shuttered, as have gyms, swimming pools and nightclubs.

German media said that the decision to close the border was coordinated between Angela Merkel’s federal government and the authorities in the states bordering on Austria, Switzerland and France — Bavaria, Baden Württemberg, Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate.

The shutdown will be enforced by the federal police with help from police in the border states. Bild Zeitung reported that the measure was being taken not only to slow the corona pandemic but also to prevent foreigners bulk-buying goods in German supermarkets, which has led to some supply problems in border areas.

Norway to hold press conference just for children

Richard Milne in Oslo reports:

Norway’s prime minister will hold a special press conference on Monday just for children on the coronavirus pandemic, with adult journalists banned.

Norway closed its schools for at least two weeks on Thursday and health authorities have advised children not to gather in groups and to keep a distance of one metre from each other when meeting.

Prime minister Erna Solberg, children and family minister Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, and education minister Guri Melby will answer questions from the children’s programme of state broadcaster NRK and the children’s weekly newspaper Aftenposten Jr. “The press conference is not open to adult journalists,” the invite said.

European countries search for ventilators as virus cases surge

Tobias Buck in Berlin and Davide Ghiglione in Rome report:

Governments across Europe have intensified their search for ventilators as doctors and hospitals prepare for a continuing surge in patients infected with the Covid-19 virus.

Italy, the country at the epicentre of the European outbreak, told the country’s only ventilator manufacturer to quadruple monthly production, even deploying members of the armed forces to help meet the new quota.

Germany has ordered an additional 10,000 ventilators from a domestic supplier and France is conducting a nationwide survey into its own stocks including outside the public health system as it anticipates shortages. Boris Johnson, the UK’s prime minister, on Sunday hosted a call with domestic manufacturers to increase the national production.

Ventilators are machines designed to put oxygen into the lungs of patients with acute respiratory difficulties. They are of critical importance for those in danger of lung failure, a typical cause of death for patients infected with the coronavirus.

Read more on this story here

Singapore voices concerns at UK’s stance on virus control

Stefania Palma in Singapore reports:

Singapore has raised concerns over the UK abandoning efforts to contain the coronavirus as the city state reported 14 new confirmed cases, the largest daily jump yet that takes the total to 226.

Nine of the cases are imported while five are linked to previous cases.

“The UK has been the most public in acknowledging that there is no point in containing and they are simply at the phase of trying to delay the spread,” said Lawrence Wong, minister for national development and co-chair of Singapore’s coronavirus task force, adding that Switzerland and Japan, to a lesser extent, had adopted a similar approach.

If countries allowed the virus to spread, “the next peak … may well be higher than what we have faced in the initial wave when the virus was from just one epidemic centre [China],” said Mr Wong, adding Singapore was also “watching America quite closely”.

More cases outside China than within as European infections surge

Reported cases of the Covid-19 virus outside of China have now surpassed those within, reports Steve Bernard, senior data visualisation journalist.

As China’s new case numbers have dropped significantly, the rest of the world is experiencing a dramatic daily increase. Europe is the main contributor with 75% of new cases coming from the region.

Northern Ireland reports 11 new cases

Arthur Beesley in Dublin reports:

Northern Ireland has reported 11 new coronavirus infections, taking the total to 45 and the number on the island of Ireland to 174. There are 129 cases in the Irish republic.

Mnuchin pledges support for US airlines, hotels and cruise businesses

Aime Williams in Washington reports:

US Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin has said that the administration will return to Congress this week to discuss measures to help airlines, hotels and cruise ship businesses as he looks to reassure rattled financial markets.

“There is no question the travel industry has been impacted like we’ve never seen before,” said Mr Mnuchin on Fox News. “The president is absolutely determined that we will use whatever tools we have. And whatever tools we need, we will go to Congress and get.”

Mr Mnuchin, who worked with the Democrat leader of the House Nancy Pelosi this week to pass an economic stimulus package through the House of Representatives with bipartisan support, added he was expecting a “big rebound” in financial markets this year.

He said:

If the medical professionals are correct, and we’re doing all the things, I expect we’ll have a big rebound later in the year. So this isn’t like the financial crisis … this will have an end to it as we confront the virus.

Irish bars set for emergency shutdown

Arthur Beesley in Dublin reports:

Ireland’s bars face an emergency shutdown before St Patrick’s Day this week as Dublin intensifies the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Leo Varadkar, the prime minister, said he may seek new “enforcement powers” from parliament to ban large gatherings in bars after social media showed hundreds of weekend revellers crammed into pubs ahead of Ireland’s national day on Tuesday.

His warning came after a second coronavirus death on Saturday and 39 new infections, bringing the total to 129 as Ireland braces for a huge escalation of cases.

Mr Varadkar said on Twitter:

The taoiseach has already cancelled St Patrick’s Day parades that were expected to draw hundreds of thousands of spectators into cities, towns and villages. But he did not shut pubs last week when he closed schools and universities, saying instead that indoor gatherings should be limited to 100.

Publicans, who have complained that such social-distancing guidelines are unworkable, now expect the government to go further and close down the trade completely. “It seems obvious to us that the closure of pubs is on the cards and should happen with pretty immediate effect,” said Donall O’Keeffe, chief of the Licensed Vintners’ Association of 600 Dublin pubs.

“It is our expectation that the government will call for a closure. We will fully support that,” he told RTE, the national broadcaster.

Deploy military in fight against virus, urges New York governor

Hannah Kuchler in New York reports:

New York governor Andrew Cuomo has called on US president Donald Trump to deploy the military in the fight against coronavirus, warning that the pandemic could “crush” the nation’s healthcare system.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Mr Cuomo said active duty army corps should be used to expand hospital capacity. The US had fewer staffed hospital beds per head than China, South Korea, or Italy, he said.

He wrote:

States cannot build more hospitals, acquire ventilators or modify facilities quickly enough. At this point, our best hope is to utilise the Army Corps of Engineers to leverage its expertise, equipment and people power to retrofit and equip existing facilities — like military bases or college dormitories — to serve as temporary medical centers. Then we can designate existing hospital beds for the acutely ill.

Mr Cuomo also criticised delays in testing, saying that even Friday’s moves to expand capacity were “insufficient” and many labs in New York were still having to rely upon low volume manual testing.

Global fatality numbers pass 6,000

Total deaths have now surpassed 6,000 while the total number of cases has reached 162,064, an increase of 6,000 on yesterday, writes Steve Bernard, senior data visualisation journalist.

Germany to close borders with neighbouring countries

Guy Chazan in Berlin reports:

Germany is to close its borders with France, Austria and Switzerland from Monday morning, according to German media reports.

Exceptions will be made for commuters and goods traffic.

UK has least restrictive controls

The UK has taken the least restrictive measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, compared with other nations, including the US, Italy and Spain.

Liz Faunce and Chris Campbell, visual journalists, have collated the latest information on government measures.

UK aviation regulator warns of ‘real’ threat to business survival

Tanya Powley, transport correspondent, reports:

The UK’s aviation regulator has warned that the threat to the survival of some businesses in the aviation and package holiday sectors “is real” as the industry deals with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Richard Moriarty, chief executive of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said:

This is the most challenging period for aviation and package holiday businesses we have witnessed. The threat to the survival of some businesses is real the longer this goes on.

He said companies will need to take “very difficult actions to secure sufficient liquidity”.

We are doing all we can to help airlines, airports and tour operators. This includes working very closely with them on specific operational issues that arise as well as being clear about our expectations on consumer rights.

He added that once the pandemic is behind us the industry will hopefully see a strong recovery of demand.

Hundreds of community support groups set up in the UK

Robert Wright in London reports:

More than 200 “mutual aid” groups have been set up around the UK to provide assistance to people facing difficulties during the coronavirus outbreak, organisers have said.

A group calling itself, ‘Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK’, said it was coordinating via online fora such as Facebook and Whatsapp and offering help with shopping, dog-walking, picking up prescriptions and other practical tasks for people who were self-isolating because of exposure to Covid-19.

The group said it was also offering emotional support via telephone calls to those self-isolating either because of exposure to the virus or because they faced an elevated risk if they encountered the infection.

The government has called for people with either a new, persistent cough or a high temperature to stay at home for seven days. It has indicated that it will ask whole families to isolate themselves later in the outbreak and will seek at the outbreak’s height to “cocoon” vulnerable people such as the elderly.

Anna Vickerstaff, one of the coordinators of the effort, said they had set up the network because they wanted to make sure no-one in their communities was being left to face the crisis alone.

Emma Wood, organiser of a group in Lewes, Sussex, said she had spent Saturday morning walking around the town putting postcards through letterboxes and leaflets in the local library, cafes and shops.

The group said 208 groups had so far been formed.

Georgia to close Russian border

Max Seddon in Moscow reports:

Georgia said on Sunday it would close its border with Russia in response to the global coronavirus outbreak.

Georgi Gakharia, Georgia’s prime minister, and Zurab Abashidze, special representative for relations with Russia, informed Russia that they would close the countries’ land border on Monday.

The move will not affect Russian and Georgian citizens who wish to return home, Georgia’s government said. Cargo traffic will also be unaffected.

Georgia has recorded 30 cases of the coronavirus, and closed its border with Armenia, which has confirmed 23 cases, earlier this week.

Abercrombie & Fitch withdraws guidance and closes stores

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York reports:

Abercrombie & Fitch, the US clothing retailer, is withdrawing the earnings guidance it gave investors just 10 days ago as it closes stores outside the Asia Pacific region for the next two weeks.

The Ohio-based company withdrew the first-quarter and full-year 2020 outlook it had issued on March 4, saying it could not predict the effect on demand of the coronavirus pandemic, but said it still expected “material adverse impacts”.

The store closures follow similar moves from Apple, Nike, Patagonia and other brands. “All of our stores associates will continue to receive pay in alignment with business-as-usual operations,” the retailer said.

Fran Horowitz, chief executive officer, said:

The decision to close all our stores outside of the APAC region has been done with a focus on the wellbeing of our associates, our customers, our partners, and our communities, and it is in keeping with our commitment to being a responsible corporate citizen.

London-based Goldman employee tests positive

Kaye Wiggins in London reports:

A Goldman Sachs employee based at its European headquarters in London has tested positive for coronavirus, the bank said in a memo to staff.

The staff member has not been in the office since March 9 and is in isolation at home, the memo said. The bank received confirmation of the positive test on Friday evening.

The bank has contacted people who’ve had close contact with the individual affected, and carried out “specialist cleaning” of the areas of the office that they were in contact with as well as common areas. Other employees who didn’t have close contact with the individual can return to work on Monday.

It said:

We have been preparing for this over the last couple of weeks and we are prepared for the possibility of other cases in the future.

In the memo, the bank told staff they must stay at home if they were feeling unwell even with mild symptoms such as a scratchy throat or runny nose.

The bank’s Plumtree Court office in central London, opened last year, has more than a million square feet of space as well as the largest trading floor in London, according to the bank’s website. More than 6,000 employees are based there.

Bloomberg News first reported the case. A spokesman for the bank declined to comment beyond the contents of the memo.

Oscar launches first online locator for coronavirus testing in US

Hannah Kuchler in New York reports:

Oscar, the New York-based health insurance start-up, has launched the first online locator for coronavirus testing in the US, after President Trump wrongly claimed that Google was working on a nationwide site that would be ready soon.

The health insurer — co-founded by the brother of the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — said it will make the tool available to the general public, allowing them to take a survey to gauge their risk of having Covid-19 and then show them a list of local testing sites.

The launch comes after President Trump claimed on Friday that Google had put 1,700 engineers on building a nationwide site that would help Americans identify whether they were at risk and where to go for a test.

But in fact, the project was from Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences unit and a Google sister company, and was not designed to help Americans across the country.

Verily said in a statement on Friday:

We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.

Now, it appears Google may try to create the nationwide site. The New York Times reported that Jared Kushner spoke to Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai on Friday night. In a series of tweets on Saturday, Google said that it would work with the US government on such a site, as well as promoting information about Covid-19 on its homepage.

Chaos at US airports as European travel ban goes into effect

Claire Bushey in Chicago reports:

Travellers arriving at several major US airports waited in line for hours on Saturday as President Donald Trump’s ban on European travel went into effect.

Long lines formed in Chicago, Dallas and New York. Chad Wolf, acting secretary for the US Department of Homeland Security, said on Twitter that the department was “aware” of the delays “for passengers who are undergoing increased medical screening requirements.”

It takes 60 seconds for medical professionals to screen a person, he added, and the department is attempting to add capacity and coordinate with airlines to speed the process.

Passengers posted photos of lines at immigration and customs on social media.

Illinois Gov JB Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted their frustration with the situation at O’Hare International Airport.

“This is unacceptable,” the mayor said on Twitter. “The reactionary, poorly planned travel ban has left thousands of travelers at ORD forced into even greater health risk. @realDonaldTrump⁩ and ‪@CBP: No one has time for your incompetence. Fully staff our airport right now, and stop putting Americans in danger.”

Mr Pritzker was blunter: “The federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.”

Lisbon becomes worst-hit Portuguese region as cases climb

Peter Wise in Lisbon reports:

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Portugal rose to 245 on Sunday, an increase of 76 cases, or 45 per cent, over 24 hours, health authorities said.

For the first time, the Lisbon region became the most affected area with 116 cases. The north of Portugal, currently with 103 cases, had previously been the worst-hit region.

Nine European countries, including Italy, Spain, France and Switzerland, have been identified as the origin of 42 cases in Portugal. In total, health officials have identified 14 separate chains of transmission.

In a new emergency measure, Portugal’s maritime authority has banned people from gathering on beaches for leisure or sport and advised against bathing. The decision came after several popular beaches attracted crowds during hot weather last week.

Emulating quarantined Italians who have been singing from their balconies, residents of towns and cities across Portugal applauded the country’s health service workers on Saturday night in an initiative coordinated on social media.

Singapore clamps down on new arrivals as cases jump

Stefania Palma in Singapore reports:

Singapore has tightened restrictions on travellers arriving to the city state after reporting a jump in new infections in the past week heavily driven by imported cases.

All travellers who have visited Japan, Switzerland, the UK or countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the 14 days prior to entering Singapore will now receive a two-week “stay-home notice” and may be tested for coronavirus even if asymptomatic. This means people will have to stay in their own residence at all times.

Any short term visitors of Asean nationality will be required to submit information on their health — which will have to be approved by Singapore’s health ministry — before traveling. Those who do not secure the ministry’s authorisation will be denied entry into Singapore.

Both measures will come into effect on March 16 at 11:59pm. The health ministry has also advised Singaporeans to defer all non-essential travel abroad.

The city state counts 212 confirmed cases. More than three quarters of the 25 cases reported in the last three days were imported. The ministry said a number of patients from Asean countries had travelled to Singapore seeking medical care, imposing “a significant burden on Singapore’s health resources”.

Opinion: This is not ‘panic’, it is a reasonable response to a crisis

Simon Wessely, director of the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit for Emergency Preparedness and Response at King’s College London, writes:

I am one of the many scientists called on to give advice to government at times like these.

When my colleagues and I speak to those charged with communicating to the public, we start with three basic principles: don’t give premature reassurance; don’t tell people not to panic; get doctors and scientists on television as soon as possible.

Usually the official asks what is wrong with telling people not to panic. First, those who are already panicking are unlikely to listen. Second, those who aren’t will start to wonder if they should. But, most important, we know that during emergencies most people don’t panic for most of the time.

True panic, or collective behavioural disorganisation, usually happens in only two circumstances.

The first is when people fear they are in a dangerous situation but see no way out. A fire in a nightclub where exits have been blocked is a classic example. The other is when people perceive they are being denied a life-saving treatment, especially due to official disorganisation.

Read Simon Wessely’s full Financial Times op-ed here

Spanish cases surge past 7,000

Daniel Dombey in Madrid reports:

The number of coronavirus cases in Spain has jumped to 7,753, a 35 per cent increase on the previous day’s total of 5,753.

Overall, 288 people have died to date — more than double the number on Saturday. At present, 382 people are in intensive care, while 517 people have recovered.

Madrid remains the worst affected region of the country, with 3,544 cases.

China to quarantine international travellers

Don Weinland reports:

International passengers landing in Beijing will be sent to quarantine centres for 14 days starting on Monday, in the strongest measures taken by China to prevent a resurgence in coronavirus cases from inbound travellers.

All asymptomatic travellers entering the capital from abroad would be sent to the centres at their own expense, a Beijing official said at a press conference. In some exceptional circumstances, incoming passengers would be allowed to quarantine at home.

Cases of coronavirus among incoming international travellers outnumbered domestic cases for the first time in China on Friday, as Europe and the US report soaring new case numbers and official figures plummet in China.

The Chinese government in recent days has sought to reframe the pandemic as a global crisis, not one focused on or originating in China. A senior Chinese diplomat even suggested last week that the virus may have been planted in the country by the US military.

Hong Kong extends quarantine on arrivals

Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong reports:

Hong Kong has announced a compulsory home quarantine for people arriving in the territory who have been to Ireland, the UK, the US and Egypt in the past 14 days. The quarantine will apply from Thursday.

Authorities said more than half of the 46 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Hong Kong in the past 14 days were imported. Seven other cases involve patients visiting places outside the territory during part of the incubation period, according to the Centre for Health Protection.

The territory earlier introduced quarantine measures to people arriving from Korea, Iran, Hokkaido in Japan and the Schengen Area in Europe.

Myanmar and Vietnam to quarantine travellers from affected countries

John Reed in Bangkok reports:

Myanmar and Vietnam on Sunday became the latest countries to impose strict quarantine requirements on travellers from countries with high numbers of reported coronavirus cases.

Myanmar’s ministry of health and sport announced that visitors from South Korea, China, Italy, Iran, France, Spain, and Germany. would face either a mandatory 14-day quarantine or return home if they arrived in Myanmar unannounced.

Visitors with a history of travel to the US over the past 14 days will be subject to “surveillance”, according to the ministry.

Separately, Vietnam’s health ministry on Sunday said that all passengers arriving from or through China, South Korea, the UK, and Schengen countries would face compulsory quarantine and testing for coronavirus, Reuters reported.

Vietnam has reported 56 coronavirus cases to date. Myanmar has to date reported no cases of Covid-19, but doubts have been voiced about the veracity of this claim in a country that shares a long border with China.

In a report on a briefing by government spokesman Zaw Htay on Friday, the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported: “Myanmar does not share the customs of greeting with handshakes, hugs or kisses that [western] countries have.”

The paper went on to say:

It also does not have a high number of credit card users compared to other nations, as the person handling credit cards at the counter would be in close contact with hundreds of different people in a day.

Global recession already here, say top economists

Chris Giles in London, Brendan Greeley in Washington and Martin Arnold in Frankfurt report:

The world economy has fallen into recession, suffering from a “wicked cocktail” of coronavirus and the dramatic action to limit its spread, according to four former IMF chief economists.

As the virus has spread from China to the rest of the world, economists no longer feel they have to wait for data to confirm the world is in recession, even though official forecasts remain more optimistic.

The former top officials agreed that addressing the public health needs was the first priority, but said that with a sharp downturn likely, governments should be preparing to spend significant sums to protect businesses and households.

Serving policymakers and officials have so far sought to contain alarm over the economic consequences of the coronavirus. Mark Carney, Bank of England governor, has declined to predict a UK recession while Christine Lagarde, European Central Bank president, said only that it would be a “major shock”.

Read more on this story here

Nike to close stores in US, Canada and Europe

Nike is to close stores in countries around the world for almost two weeks from Monday in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus. The closure will include shops in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

The US sportswear company said:

The well-being of our teammates and consumers is our top priority so we have decided to close our stores in multiple countries around the world including in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand to limit the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19). These closures will go into effect from Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 27.

Nike added that its stores in South Korea, Japan and most of China remained open.

Swiss cases surge past 2,000

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Swiss authorities have reported a surge in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus overnight, with more than 2,200 now infected in the wealthy alpine country.

The Federal Office of Public Health said on Sunday afternoon it had confirmed 841 additional cases — a leap of more than 60 per cent in 24 hours.

On Saturday, Switzerland had 1,359 cases. According to the FOPH, 14 have so far died of the disease.

So far Bern has taken a relatively gradualist approach to locking down public life.

The government moved on Friday to ban all gatherings of more than 50 people, effectively closing many restaurants, bars, and cafe, but leaving it up to businesses to decide exactly how to respond.

In Zürich, the country’s largest city and commercial centre, many restaurants, bars and cafes remained open on Saturday evening.

Schools across the country have also been shut down. The border with Italy, whose neighbouring Lombardy region remains the worst-hit area in Europe by the pandemic, is now completely closed to all but Swiss citizens returning home.

Switzerland’s highly-federalised political structure means that more restrictive measures have been left up to individual cantons to enforce.

The Italian-speaking southerly canton of Ticino, only a few dozen kilometres from Milan, has gone into a full-lockdown as of today, with restaurants, bars, shops and businesses ordered to close from midnight Saturday onwards.

Malaysia reports biggest daily jump in cases

Stefania Palma in Singapore reports:

Malaysia has reported 190 new confirmed cases, the largest daily jump yet, that brings the country’s total to 428.

Most new patients are linked to a cluster involving a mass religious gathering at Kuala Lumpur’s Sri Petaling mosque.

The health ministry on Friday said about 16,000 people attended the event, 14,500 of which were Malaysians and the remaining being foreign nationals. Noor Hisham Abdullah, health director general at the ministry, has described the screening of the participants as a “mammoth and daunting task”.

So far, 42 cases have fully recovered and have been discharged from Malaysian hospitals.

France to cut train travel and airport use

Victor Mallet in Paris reports

France will progressively cut back long-distance travel to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the government announced on Sunday, adding to earlier moves to close cafés, restaurants and non-food shops.

Elisabeth Borne, ecological transition minister responsible for transport, announced the latest measures at a news conference in Paris. Long-distance train movements will be gradually cut to half their normal level, and airport use reduced with the closure of certain terminals, although borders and airports remain open.

“The idea is to limit trips as far as possible,” she said. “Everyone will be able to return home there will be no sudden transport stoppage.”

Meanwhile, Bruno Le Maire, finance minister, urged the French not to go on a panic-buying spree, insisting there were no food shortages in the country and that 90-95 per cent of the usual product lines were available in supermarkets.

“There are no shortages and there will be no shortages if everyone behaves responsibly,” he said. “Continue to do your food shopping as before.”

Denmark to cover three-quarters of sacked employees’ salaries

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent, reports

Denmark’s government will cover three-quarters of employees’ salaries who would otherwise have been fired as part of a package to protect Danish businesses and citizens from the worst economic effects of the coronavirus.

Mette Frederiksen, the centre-left prime minister, said on Sunday that the government would cover up to DKr23,000 ($3,400) per employee per month with companies paying the other 25 per cent.

For hourly workers — those not on a fixed salary — the government will cover 90 per cent of their wages up to DKr26,000 a month.

“The echo of what we do now will be heard in the future,” said Ms Frederiksen. “It is now that we build a path so that companies and employees can best get through the crisis.”

The measures, agreed between the government, employers and trades union, will apply to all private Danish companies hard hit by coronavirus who are planning to fire at least 30 per cent of their workers or more than 50 employees. The temporary compensation scheme will be backdated to March 9 and apply until June 9. To receive the money, employees will have to give up five vacation days.

“It is an investment that will be very expensive. But the alternative would be that even more would be made unemployed at a time when the opposite is needed,” said finance minister Nicolai Wammen.

Afghanistan’s open borders raise fears of contagion

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

President Ashraf Ghani expressed deep concern about Afghanistan’s vulnerability to coronavirus, particularly from neighbour Iran, which is suffering from one of the biggest outbreaks of the disease.

Afghanistan has confirmed 16 coronavirus cases, all linked to Iran. But authorities have struggled to shut down the flow of traffic across the border.

Mr Ghani said in an emergency video conference of South Asian leaders to discuss the coronavirus crisis:

We are in unknown territory and our vulnerability comes from our openness. We have open borders and the flow cannot be stopped … Iran has become the central node for preventing the spread of the disease to the rest of South Asia.

Afghanistan has ordered its schools and communal prayers to stop in a bid to control the spread of the disease. But he said Kabul was now wrestling with questions of “how do we keep women, children and youth occupied”.

Maldives faces foreign exchange crisis as virus hits tourism

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

The Maldives has warned that it faces an imminent foreign exchange crisis – and a huge shortfall in government revenues – as tourist arrivals plummet due to the global coronavirus crisis.

Tourism accounts for a quarter of the gross domestic product of the Maldives, and China and Italy – the two countries worst hit by the virus – are the archipelago’s first and third largest source of foreign tourists.

In a video conference with other South Asian leaders, Ibrahim Solih, president of the Maldives, said that tourist arrivals in February had fallen 14.2 percent year-on-year, and that in the first weeks of March, the decline was 22 percent.

“If the current trend continues, we will have a 35 percent drop [in tourism revenues] this year,” Mr Solih said. “Maldives is now facing a serious shortfall in foreign current earnings. If the foreign currency shortfall continues, it will have a detrimental impact on the Maldives, which has an extremely high dependency on imports.”

Mr Solih said that the foreign exchange crisis was also “seriously hindering the government’s ability to respond appropriately to the crisis.”

The Maldives, with a population of around 436,000 people, currently has 13 confirmed coronavirus cases.

UK urges citizens to leave Argentina as it suspends European flights

Sarah Provan in London reports:

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has urged non-resident British nationals in Argentina to leave the country since the last direct flight to the UK is due to depart on Monday.

President Alberto Fernández on March 12 announced a 30-day suspension of all international flights from Europe, including the UK, US, China, Japan, South Korea and Iran, to Argentina.

The Argentine government has prohibited non-resident foreigners who have transited through those countries within the past 14 days to come into Argentina. For those already in Argentina who have travelled from those countries they too face a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period so as to limit the spread of the virus. Argentina has confirmed 31 cases.

This is what the FCO’s update from late Saturday says on its website:

The FCO strongly encourage non-resident British nationals in Argentina to consider leaving to avoid difficulties they will face if flights out of the country and the region are further restricted and they are unable to get home.

UK Foreign Office advises against travel to US

Laura Hughes in London reports:

The Foreign Office said it was advising against all but essential travel to America after US President Donald Trump extended a ban on travel between the US and European countries to include the UK and Ireland.

An FCO spokesperson said: “We are advising against all but essential travel to the USA following the US government announcement imposing restrictions on travel from the UK (and Ireland) effective from midnight on Monday 16 March EST / 0400 on Tuesday 17 March GMT.”   

Indian states order shutdowns as cases increase

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

India has said that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country has jumped to 107, up from around 84 on Saturday, with two fatalities.

The cases – still nearly all in people who had a history of travel to affected areas or their immediate close contacts – are scattered across the country, with the western state of Maharashtra and the southern state of Kerala recording the largest numbers.

Of the total cases, 17 are foreigners, including a group of 16 Italian tourists that had been on holiday in Rajasthan.

Many Indian states, including Gujarat, Delhi, Bihar and Telangana, have ordered shutdowns of schools, colleges, shopping malls, cinemas and other public places, to try to curb the spread.

Karnataka, where Bangalore – the Silicon Valley of India – is located, has ordered the most sweeping closures in India, with all pubs, restaurants and other commercial establishments also ordered to close.

India has closed its borders to the entry of most foreigners, save for diplomats, UN officials, and some residents, and is appealing to its citizens to avoid all international travel.

Trump tests negative

Donald Trump’s doctor on Saturday announced that the US president had tested negative for coronavirus. The graphic shows those people in Mr Trump’s circle who have come into contact with Covid-19.
To read more on this story click here.

Ryanair to slash flights to Spain as country goes into lockdown

Tanya Powley, transport correspondent, reports:

Ryanair will be “severely” reducing the number of flights it operates across its group to and from Spain, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands following the Spanish government’s decision to “lock down” the country to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The low-cost airline said its group of airlines, including Buzz and Lauda, will be cutting flights from midnight on Sunday until midnight on March 19. It comes just a day after Ryanair cancelled all flights to and from Poland after a similar move by the government there.

Airlines around the world are scrambling to shore up their businesses following a sharp rise in cancellations and travel bans. The chairman of Virgin Group is sending a letter to the UK government urging it to provide up to £7.5bn of emergency state support to rescue the UK aviation industry which has been decimated by the coronavirus impact.

Other short-haul airlines such as easyJet are also currently working through the process of cancelling flights to Spain and other countries which have implemented a country lock down.

Ryanair said it would contact all affected customers by email to advise them of their options.

Norway to expel foreigners without residence permits

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent reports:

Norway is preparing to expel foreigners without a residence permit due to the coronavirus crisis.

Norway’s centre-right government held an emergency cabinet meeting after which it said it had adopted measures to expel foreigners without residence permits without giving further details.

Foreign diplomats were left scrambling to understand the implications of the move, which came after Norway closed its borders to foreigners on Saturday.

“We are working to establish what this means in practice,” Richard Wood, the UK’s ambassador to Norway, wrote on Twitter.

Israel closes holy sites

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

The Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s old city have been shuttered indefinitely to slow the rate of infections in Israel, say Islamic religious authorities.

The mosque, the third holiest religious site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, attracts thousands of worshippers daily, but numbers had been dropping in recent weeks over fears of contagion. Prayers at the eighth century mosque will be held in an open courtyard between the neighbouring buildings, an official told Reuters.

Jerusalem is home to holy sites for Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and religious authorities have responded to the government’s calls for social distancing by asking worshippers and pilgrims to avoid large congregations.

Israel is putting all overseas visitors and returning Israelis into a 14-day isolation, effectively shutting off the country from much of the world, as airlines have cancelled flights en masse and the borders with Egypt and Jordan have been sealed.

Czech government prepares to put country into lockdown

James Shotter in Warsaw reports:

Czech prime minister Andre Babis said on Sunday that the government was likely to put the whole country in quarantine, in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

In an interview with a Czech TV station, Mr Babis said that he would be putting forward the measure at a cabinet meeting later today, and he expected the proposal to be accepted.

The Czech Republic has already taken a number of far-reaching steps in its efforts to combat the virus, including closing the country’s borders, forcing non-essential shops too close, and banning public gatherings of more than 30 people.

The health ministry said on Sunday morning that 214 cases of the novel virus had now been confirmed, up from 189 on Saturday evening.

Rouhani rules out restrictions on Iran businesses

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran reports:

President Hassan Rouhani has assured Iranians that the country has a sufficient supply of consumer goods and has ruled out any businesses being subjected to restrictions in a bid to help curtail the spread of coronavirus.

The president said:

The nation will be assured that their required commodities including those for hygienic and medical purposes or consumer or daily goods are being supplied every day. There is enough reserves, the required purchases have been done and ports are full of commodities.

A day after rumours spread that some cities such as the capital Tehran would be quarantined, Mr Rouhani stressed that economic activities must go on normally in the lead up to the Nowruz new year holidays, which start on March 21. “There will not be such a thing neither now nor during Nowruz holidays,” he said.

Tehran mayor Pirouz Hanachi said that the capital could not be quarantined because supply of basic needs and compensation for the economic losses would not be possible in the face of US sanctions.

Iran said 724 people have so far died from the illness, up from 611 a day before while 13,938 have tested positive since the coronavirus hit the country on February 19.

Australian stock exchange ASX tells employees to work remotely

Philip Stafford in London reports:

ASX, the Australian stock exchange, has told most of its employees to work remotely after one of them at its central Sydney site tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday.

Employees at its main Bridge Street office, its data centre which houses the servers for trading, back-up sites, interstate and overseas offices have been told to work from home until further notice, the exchange said in as statement on Sunday morning.

It has made exceptions only for a core group of employees who will remain on ASX sites to manage daily market operations such as technology and surveillance.

The employee has mild symptoms of Covid-19 and is not required to be hospitalised, the ASX said. It added that the employee had had close contact with a further 20 co-workers and it has since undertaken a deep clean of the Bridge Street office.

The statement said:

Our employees have the capacity to work remotely, which is a normal and regular part of ASX’s business continuity plan and testing activity. Many already work flexibly and/or remotely from our various sites.

Greece orders hotel shutdown

Kerin Hope in Athens reports:

Greece has ordered resort hotels to stay shut until April 30, delaying the start of the tourist season as it ramps up measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Hotels will lose a significant chunk of annual revenue, as most resorts on the mainland and islands are heavily booked over Easter.

Yiannis Retsos, president of SETE, the leading Greek association of hoteliers and tour operators, said:

This is a necessary and proper action. We need to remain ready for brave decisions when it comes to protecting public health … to see the bigger picture and methodically prepare for the day after.

City hotels will not be affected by the shut-down, the economy ministry said.

The government said all organised beaches would be closed after thousands of Athenians people crowded the coastline on a warm spring day, ignoring official advice on social distancing.

Goldman to allow Apple Card customers skip March payments

Laura Noonan, in Dublin reports:

Goldman Sachs’ Apple Card has promised to allow customers to skip their March payments if they are adversely affected by the coronavirus, in the latest example of banks acting to ease the financial stress of the pandemic.

An email sent to Apple Card customers on Saturday night said “the rapidly-evolving Covid-19 situation poses unique challenges for everyone and some customers may have difficulty making their monthly payments.”

It asked affected customers to enroll in a Customer Assistance Program to skip their March payment “without incurring interest charges”. Apple Card is only in the US market.

Goldman’s Marcus consumer lending platform is also offering affected customers a one-month interest free deferment, a person familiar with the situation told the FT.

Global case numbers push towards 160,000

As governments across the world implement increasingly severe measures to stem the spread of coronavirus, cases continue to rise.

Steve Bernard, senior data visualisation journalist, has mapped the latest figures.

French local elections go ahead despite lockdown

Victor Mallet in Paris reports:

French citizens emerged from a coronavirus lockdown only hours after it was imposed to cast their ballots in municipal elections, with President Emmanuel Macron deciding to go ahead with the voting “to ensure the continuity of our democratic life”.

On Saturday night, the government dramatically reinforced control measures, ordering the closure of all cafés, restaurants, non-essential shops and places of entertainment to try to slow the spread of Covid-19. Schools will open only for the children of health workers.

Edouard Philippe, prime minister, urged everyone to stay at home except for food shopping and exercise, and told employers to organise teleworking where possible, although public transport will continue to operate and the borders remain open.

According to the health ministry, 91 people in France have died from the virus.
People in central Paris trickled into voting stations in the morning, with analysts predicting that turnout — which had already fallen over the years to below 64 per cent in the last local elections in 2014 — was likely to be limited by fears of catching the disease.

Norway set to clamp down on use of mountain cabins

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent reports

Norway’s local authorities will soon be able to ban people from using their much-loved mountain cabins in a move that has brought home the scale of the coronavirus pandemic in the rich Scandinavian country.

Norwegians had decamped en masse to their remote cabins, popular for cross-country skiing, after the nation’s schools and kindergartens closed on Thursday and Friday, leading to several municipalities warning of their health systems and other public services being overwhelmed in case of local outbreaks.

Hemsedal, a small community of 2,500 people known for its ski trails, warned on Friday that it was expecting 25,000 people to come to cabins this weekend.

Prime minister Erna Solberg urged people to return home from the cabins on Saturday and warned that civil defence forces could be used if people refused to comply.

Norway’s government will now make new rules that allow local authorities to ban people from a different municipality from staying in their cabins, and will check on Sunday evening if people are complying, before then bringing in a potential ban.

Norway’s crisis response is under scrutiny after the entire leadership of its health authorities was put in quarantine after one of its top managers was exempted from self-isolating on returning from Spain, only to develop coronavirus.

Egypt sets aside $6.4bn to combat virus

Heba Saleh in Cairo reports:

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president has announced the allocation of $6.4bn to fund a “comprehensive plan” to combat the new coronavirus. Details have not been announced on how the money will be spent.

Schools and universities have been ordered closed for two weeks starting today in an effort to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus as cases mount in the country to 109.

Mostapha Madbouli, the prime minister, said on Saturday the suspension of classes was necessary because there were 22m students in schools and 3m in universities accounting for a quarter of all Egyptians. He said all schools and universities will be sanitized during the closure of studies and he urged parents to “do all that is necessary to protect their children from going out on the street.”

The education minister said on Saturday that seven students at different schools had tested positive for the virus.

Some 45 Coronavirus cases were found among workers and tourists on a Nile cruise boat last week. Other visitors from the US, France and Greece tested positive after their return to their countries. So far there have been only two deaths in Egypt.

Austria puts civil defence forces on standby amid lockdown

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced further stringent measures to lockdown public life and put civil defence forces on standby as the country prepares for an explosion of coronavirus cases.

Speaking to the Austrian parliament, Mr Kurz said all gatherings of more than five people were now prohibited. Public places such as playgrounds, sports venues and cinemas will close alongside restaurants, bars and cafes, starting on Monday.

The government has also instructed all non-essential shops to shut indefinitely, such as those selling clothes, cosmetics, books and furniture.

To support the measures, the chancellor ordered the drafting of the civil militia. Austrians who passed through obligatory national service within the past five years are now on standby to be called up. Leave for 25,000 police officers has also been cancelled.

Austria will also now suspend all flights to the UK, Ukraine and Russia.

“Austria, and everyone Austrian, now has to isolate themselves,” Mr Kurz said, reiterating the government’s public information campaign unveiled on Saturday to fight the virus.

Citizens should only leave home for one of three urgent reasons, the government has declared: to work, in circumstances where a job is impossible to do from home or postpone, to buy urgent supplies, or to help the more needy.

Pope cancels public Easter service

Miles Johnson in Rome reports:

Pope Francis will not hold a public Easter service this year due to Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, cancelling a public gathering in Rome that typically draws crowds of tens of thousands of the Catholic faithful.

The move to not hold a public events to mark the most important day in the Catholic calendar comes as the Vatican has said that all Papal events during the outbreak will be streamed online.

Last week a move to close all of the churches in Rome was reversed after Pope Francis warned that “drastic measures aren’t always good”.

Boris Johnson set to ramp up UK response to coronavirus

George Parker and Laura Hughes in London report:

Boris Johnson on Sunday dramatically accelerated and stepped up Britain’s response to coronavirus, after 48 hours in which it became obvious that his measured approach to the crisis was losing public, political and scientific support.

Mr Johnson’s allies insist that new measures such as banning mass gatherings, isolating the elderly or quarantining whole families were being brought forward because the epidemic was developing more quickly than expected. 

But the prime minister was also facing an increasingly stark political calculation: if Britain’s death rate started to grow faster than other EU countries like France, Ireland or Belgium – now on lockdown – he would likely get the blame. 

The first signs of unease in Number 10 came on Friday night when journalists were briefed that mass gatherings would be banned, just 24 hours after Mr Johnson and his advisers insisted such a move would be of little merit. 

Indeed Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, had announced on Thursday that the first set of measures to be implemented in Britain’s “delay” strategy were “actually rather large”.

He said that advising people with a cough or fever to self-isolate for seven days was “a big change”. But that advice, along with a suggestion that school trips should be stopped and the elderly should avoid cruise ships, fell massively short of what other countries were doing.

While much of western Europe prepared to shut down to try to contain the virus, Sir Patrick and colleagues allowed the impression to take hold that Britain was resigned to about 40m or more people catching the disease — and that it would actually be a good thing.

Read more on this story here

UK supermarkets urge shoppers to exercise restraint

Jonathan Eley in London reports:

The UK’s supermarkets have published a joint letter in major newspapers calling for the public to exercise restraint after a day in which stores were again stripped of toilet rolls, sanitisers and many dried goods.

“We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop,” the open letter stated. “We understand your concerns but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together”.

“We are working closely with government and our suppliers to keep food moving quickly through the system and making more deliveries to our stores to ensure our shelves are stocked,” it added. “Those of us with online delivery and click-and-collect services are running them at full capacity to help you get the products you need when you need them”.

The retailers’ letter was coordinated by the British Retail Consortium and signed by all the UK’s major supermarkets, including those such as Tesco which are not BRC members.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said:

Retailers are working incredibly hard to keep shops well stocked and deliveries running as smoothly as possible. Food retailers have come together to ask their customers to support each other to make sure everyone can get access to the products they need.

Baltic politicans hit out at EU’s handling of the coronavirus crisis

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent, reports;

Baltic politicians have hit out at the EU’s handling of the coronavirus crisis a day after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all closed off their borders to foreigners.

Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s deputy prime minister, said on Twitter on Sunday: “Sad to admit, but Covid-19 crisis shows that EU is not fit and designed to react fast in times of crisis, either health, security or war.”

Marko Mihkelson, vice-chair of the foreign affairs committee of Estonia’s parliament, said: “EU member states are acting in their national lockdowns without any visible coordination between each other. This is serious stress test for the future of EU.”

Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic all broke with EU pleas for a united response and closed their borders to foreigners on Friday. That sparked first Lithuania, then Latvia, and finally Estonia to follow suit on Saturday.

The EU has also faced sharp criticism in Italy over a perceived lack of solidarity with the hardest-hit European nation while China sent medical supplies.

Mr Pabriks added: “I hope that EU will be there when we would have to deal with post-crisis challenges, including financial assistance.”

UK set to ask over-70s to self isolate for up to four months

Laura Hughes in London reports

The UK government will ask anyone aged over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months amid pressure on the prime minister to act faster to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the elderly would be asked to take measures to protect themselves from the virus in “the coming weeks”.

Speaking on Ridge On Sunday on Sky News, he warned coronavirus would “disrupt the lives of almost everybody” in the UK.

The number of people who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the UK has exceeded 1,000, with the number of deaths hitting 21. All of the deaths have been among those with underlying health conditions, or aged over 60.

Mr Hancock said:

The measures that we’re taking, the measures that we’re looking at taking are very, very significant and they will disrupt the ordinary lives of almost everybody in the country in order to tackle this virus.

Pushed on whether these measures were contained in the government’s action plan, he replied “That is in the action plan, yes, and we will be setting it out with more detail when it is the right time to do so because we absolutely appreciate that it is a very big ask of the elderly and the vulnerable, and it’s for their own self-protection.”

Netanyahu corruption trial postponed

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

Israeli caretaker prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial for corruption, set to begin Tuesday, will now be delayed to at least late-May, after the courts were limited to emergency hearings to slow the rate of coronavirus infections.

The three-judge panel overseeing the premier’s long-awaited trial said they took the decision in light of the “declaration of emergency shifts at the court” just hours after Mr Netanyahu decided to shutter most non-essential businesses in a prime-time address to the nation.

Israel has about 200 cases of infection from the virus and no deaths so far, and has restricted all travellers to 14 days’ self-isolation, placed 55,000 people – including major public figures – into self-imposed quarantines and deployed the military to maintain supply chains.

The crisis has also allowed Mr Netanyahu, who has in the past year faced three challenges to his leadership, to demand that the opposition join him in an emergency unity government for at least six months to break the political paralysis caused by deadlocked polls.

His offer for a unity government with the Blue and White party, led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz, could conceivably give him another two years at the helm, making him the longest serving Israeli premier by far. Coalition talks officially begin today.

His indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust had hamstrung his attempts to create a governing coalition, and the historic trial – the first of a sitting Israeli prime minister – was expected to further complicate the task. Mr Netanyahu denies the charges and describes them as a conspiracy to topple his right-wing government.

Super Rugby becomes latest tournament to be suspended

Fergus Ryan in Hong Kong reports:

Super 15, the premier provincial rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, has been suspended.

Sanzaar, the organisers of the competition that involves teams from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, said it had “no option but to suspend the 2020 Super Rugby tournament at the conclusion of this weekend’s matches for the foreseeable future”.

The competition’s governing body made the decision after the New Zealand government said that all returning travellers, including rugby players, would have to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Across the Tasman Sea, the New Zealand cricket tour of Australia has been cancelled, while South Africa’s tour of Indian has also been called off. On Friday, England’s tour of Sri Lanka was postponed and the start of Indian premier League, the world’s richest cricket competition, was delayed until April 15.

Air Baltic suspends all flights

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent, reports:

Air Baltic has become the first airline to suspend all its flights due to the coronavirus pandemic as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all prepare to close their borders.

The Latvian-based airline said it was suspending all flights from March 17 until April 14 and its operations in all three Baltic countries would be affected.

Airline executives believe their industry is facing its biggest crisis in its 100-year history as a growing number of European countries close their borders and the US bars flights from Europe. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all said on Saturday they would close their borders to foreigners in the coming days.

Air Baltic is one of the most indebted airlines in the world relative to its profitability and thus seen as particularly vulnerable. Its ratio of net debt to ebitda — a much-used measure of how easy it is for a company to service its debt — is 11.1, according to Bernstein Research, one of the highest among global carriers.

Lithuania’s said on Sunday that it was entering a period of quarantine with the majority of shops closed apart from food shops and chemists and nearly all Lithuanians banned from leaving the country as well as foreigners entering.

Returning pilgrim becomes sixth Turkish case

Laura Pitel in Ankara reports

Turkey has announced its sixth case of coronavirus in a Turkish pilgrim returning from Saudi Arabia.

The case prompted a stern warning from Turkey’s health minister, Fahrettin Koca, as some Turkish pilgrims shared photographs of themselves holding traditional post-pilgrimage visits with friends and family.

Mr Koca implored returnees — who are expected to number 21,000 this weekend — to spend 14 days at home. He added: “We are worried about new cases. Please do not accept visitors.”

Turkey’s previous five cases of coronavirus were all connected to one traveller, a Turkish citizen who had recently returned from Europe.

Thailand sees largest daily jump in coronavirus cases

John Reed in Bangkok reports

Thailand on Sunday reported 32 new COVID-19 cases, the largest daily jump since the coronavirus outbreak began. There are now 114 confirmed cases of the disease in the country, which was one of the first outside China to be hit by the disease.

The Thai government has stepped up restrictions on entry of visitors from countries with the highest reported caseloads of the disease in recent days.

Visitors from China, Hong Kong and Macau, Italy, Iran, and South Korea now have to apply for Thai visas in their home countries, and present airlines with a health certificate asserting they have no risk of COVID-19 infection before being allowed to board Thailand-bound flights.

South Korean data shows virus containment trend continuing

Edward White in Seoul reports

New confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea fell to their lowest level in three weeks on Sunday, in the latest sign that a programme of mass testing and widespread social distancing is helping to contain what was one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the pandemic outside China.

Health officials in Seoul reported 76 new cases nationwide, down from a peak of 909 cases reported on February 29.

The latest figures from the Korea Centers for Disease Control marked the lowest number of new cases since 74 were reported on February 21 and the third straight day that the number of daily cured patients outpaced new infections.

The total case number in the country of 51m is now 8,162 while 75 people have died from the virus – a mortality rate of below 1 per cent – but officials remain concerned over the potential for new clusters to emerge.

South Korea has administered around 270,000 tests for the virus with as many as 10,000 carried out each day.

Saudi Arabia launches $13.3bn stimulus plan

Simeon Kerr in Dubai reports

Saudi Arabia unveiled a 50bn riyal ($13.3bn) stimulus plan for small and medium sized businesses as the oil-rich Gulf states act to support economies hit hard by coronavirus.

The kingdom’s central bank late on Saturday said it would roll out a package to defer bank payments and provide concessional financing.

The move followed the United Arab Emirates’ decision earlier on Saturday to launch a 100bn dirham ($27.2bn) economic support package to assist corporate and retail banking clients affected by the impact of coronavirus.

The package combines Dh50bn in zero cost loans to banks operating in the UAE and the freeing up of Dh50bn from their capital buffers.

The central bank said it aimed to provide temporary relief on principal and interest payments on outstanding loans to private sector companies and retail customers for up to six months. The bank also eased restrictions on real estate lending.

The virus has been spreading across the Gulf states, driven by residents returning from neighbouring Iran, a regional epicentre of the pandemic.
In the UAE, the government has moved to close down cultural centres and cinemas.

Other countries, such as Kuwait, have taken even more comprehensive measures, calling on residents to stay at home, and clearing public spaces where people continue to gather.

Australia imposes self-isolation on travellers arriving in country

Jamie Smyth in Sydney reports

All travellers arriving in Australia will be forced to go into self isolation for 14 days from midnight on Sunday under a tough new policy aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, the government has said.

Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister, said on Sunday international cruise ships will be banned from docking for the next 30 days, gatherings of more than 500 people will be banned and people should refrain from shaking hands, as part of new advice on social distancing measures.

Self isolation for all travellers, including Australians returning to the nation from overseas, would be policed by legal enforcement, he said.

“If your mate has been to Bali and they come back and they turn up at work and they are sitting next to you, they will be committing an offence,” said Mr Morrison.

The tough self isolation measures for international travellers are similar to restrictions that are due to enter into force in New Zealand from midnight on Sunday.

They follow an increase in the number of coronavirus infections in Australia to more than 250 people, which include cases of community transmission that have not been traced back to travellers.

Mr Morrison said Australian schools would remain open for the time being, amid concerns sending children home could cause problems for healthcare workers who are parents. He said the government is working on new visitor guidelines to protect aged care centres from infection.

Australia’s cabinet has also agreed to hold more meetings by video conference rather than in person- a move that follows confirmation that Peter Dutton, Australia’s home affairs’ ministers, tested positive for the virus.

Welcome to the FT’s special weekend live coverage

The FT has launched special weekend live coverage of the coronavirus outbreak given how quickly this story is developing. We’ll be tapping our global network of reporters and editors to bring you the latest news.

Here are a couple of key stories:

– Spain has followed Italy’s lead in imposing a shutdown on its entire population to fight the coronavirus, while France is closing all non-essential shops and restaurants

– Donald Trump is extending a ban on travel between the US and European countries to include the UK and Ireland

– All travellers arriving in Australia will be forced to go into self isolation for 14 days from midnight on Sunday under a tough new policy aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus

– Air Baltic became the first airline to suspend all its flights due to the coronavirus pandemic as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all prepare to close their borders.

– Billionaire investor Ray Dalio said his Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, was caught flat-footed during this month’s coronavirus-led market turmoil, as its marquee strategy dropped about 20 per cent for the year following sharp reversals in stocks, bonds, commodities and credit.

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