Coronavirus latest: Global cases top 1m with more than 50,000 deaths

Disney to furlough theme park workers

Anna Nicolaou in New York

Disney will furlough its theme park employees whose jobs “aren’t necessary at this time”, the latest blow to workers amid the coronavirus disruption.

The pandemic has forced Disney to shut its popular parks, although the world’s largest media company had vowed to keep paying park employees through April 18.

“With no clear indication of when we can restart our businesses, we’re forced to make the difficult decision to take the next step and furlough employees whose jobs aren’t necessary at this time,” Disney said in a statement.

These employees will be on temporary unpaid leave, but still receive healthcare benefits. In a letter to cast members on Thursday, Disney executives said this was “one of the most difficult choices the company has ever faced”.

Disney employs more than 200,000 workers across the globe. It was unclear how many employees will be affected by the move.

Trump tests negative for Covid-19 again

Lauren Fedor in Washington

Donald Trump has tested negative for Covid-19 for the second time, telling reporters at the White House that he received his results in “14 or 15 minutes”.

Mr Trump, who tested negative for the novel coronavirus for the first time last month, told reporters on Thursday evening he had been tested earlier in the day.

“It took me literally a minute to take it,” the president said. “I went to work, I didn’t wait for it. But they said it took 14 minutes or something to come up with a conclusion.

“I think I took it really out of curiosity to see how quickly it worked, how fast it worked,” he added, saying the second test was a “lot easier” and “much more pleasant” than his first one.

A memo circulated by the White House said Mr Trump had been tested with a “new, rapid point-of-care testing capability”.

Cruise ship docks in Florida after passengers fell ill

A cruise ship carrying passengers infected with coronavirus arrived on the coast of Florida on Thursday, after Donald Trump said the US would grant the ships permission to dock.

The Zaandam cruise liner, operated by Carnival’s Holland America and which left Buenos Aires on March 7, ended its journey after more than 200 passengers and crew fell ill and four passengers died. Two of the deaths were attributed to Covid-19, and nine people have tested positive for the virus. The ship had planned to dock in Chile, but the government barred passengers from disembarking.

The ship docked at Port Everglades around 5pm ET on Thursday, according to local media reports. The Rotterdam, a sister ship which had been sent to deliver medical supplies to the Zaandam, also docked. Holland America said passengers will be screened and cleared for entry by US Customs and Border Protection upon arrival.

“These travelers could have been any one of us or our families, unexpectedly caught in the middle of this unprecedented closure of global borders that happened in a matter of days and without warning,” said Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America. “We are so happy to be able to get our guests home and assist those few who need additional medical services.”

The ships were carrying nearly 1,200 travellers.

“They’re dying, so we have to do something, and the governor knows that, too,” Donald Trump said on Wednesday. “We have to help the people. They are in big trouble.”

Novartis to launch trial of blood cancer drug to treat coronavirus

Donato Paolo Mancini in London

Swiss pharmaceuticals heavyweight Novartis disclosed plans to launch a phase-three trial of Jakavi, a blood cancer drug, to study it against coronavirus.

The Basel-based drugmaker said it would study the drug in so-called cytokine storms, or immune system overdrives seen in some patients affected by severe cases of Covid-19. The disease can elicit an immune response so powerful that the body ends up attacking itself, clinical evidence shows, contributing to severe respiratory distress.

Novartis has also set up a compassionate use programme, it said, working to minimise disruption to current Jakavi patients.

Crosstown rival Roche said last month it would initiate a phase three trial of a different class of drug, targeting the same type of Covid-19 complication.

Navy captain relieved from duty after letter appealing for help leaked

Katrina Manson in Washington

The Navy has dismissed the captain of an American aircraft carrier after he appealed for help to combat an accelerating coronavirus outbreak aboard his nuclear-armed ship.

Acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly said he had made the decision to relieve Captain Brett Crozier from duty after determining he sent out a letter warning of the risks to his crew from coronavirus “pretty broadly”.

“He did not take care to ensure that it couldn’t be leaked and that’s part of his responsibility,” said Mr Modly, who said Captain Crozier had “created a firestorm” but stopped short of accusing him of leaking the letter, which appeared in his hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, on Tuesday.

He said Captain Crozier’s appeal had instigated panic aboard the ship and worried parents of sailors after the captain warned the disease was spiralling out of control.

“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors,” he wrote in the four-page letter to senior military officials. “The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating.”

Captain Crozier was concerned Navy officials removed only a small contingent of those who tested positive for coronavirus aboard the 4,000-strong vessel. Mr Modly said 114 had so far tested positive for the disease and that many were now being offloaded into 3,000 hotel rooms to be placed under quarantine in Guam.

The Pentagon said last month three people had tested positive aboard the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier while it was at sea in the Pacific, more than a fortnight after docking in Vietnam, but had subsequently refused to give further statistics as numbers grew.

JPMorgan and Mnuchin spar over emergency small business loans scheme

Laura Noonan in New York and Lauren Fedor in Washington

America’s biggest bank and its Treasury Secretary are on a collision course over the US government’s $350bn emergency small business lending programme, with JPMorgan Chase saying it would “most likely” be unable to launch the loans on Friday.

The warning came as Steven Mnuchin told reporters he was “very confident” Friday’s deadline would be met.

A memo sent to Chase Business customers on Thursday afternoon said that Chase was still “awaiting guidance from the Small Business Administration and Treasury” on how the loans would be doled out.

“As a result, Chase will most likely not be able to start accepting applications on Friday, April 3rd, as we had hoped,” the bank added.

Minutes earlier, Mr Mnuchin told reporters in DC that: “This will be up and running tomorrow. I encourage all small businesses that have 500 or fewer people, please contact your lenders. Any FDIC institution will be able to do this, any credit union, existing SBA lenders and FinTech lenders.”

The contrasting positions came after the Financial Times reported banks’ doubts about whether the time frame for launching the loan was realistic since banks have have yet to receive proper application forms and other basic information needed to begin processing requests.

Mr Mnuchin also said individual Americans who have direct deposit with the IRS should receive government payments within two weeks.

Read more on the story here.

New Yorkers urged to wear masks in bid to limit coronavirus spread

New Yorkers have been urged by Mayor Bill de Blasio to wear face masks or similar coverings when they venture outside into what has become a global coronavirus hotspot.

“We’re advising New Yorkers to wear a face covering when you go outside and will be near other people,” Mr de Blasio said at a press conference on Thursday.
“Let’s be clear: this is a face covering. It could be a scarf, it could be a bandanna, something you create yourself: It does not need to be a professional surgical mask.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo said earlier today that the number of coronavirus deaths in New York state climbed to 2,373 from 1,941 a day earlier, and the number of confirmed cases had risen to 92,381 from 83,712. More than 1m cases of coronavirus have been recorded globally, with nearly a quarter of them occurring in the US.

The Trump administration is expected to issue guidance urging Americans to wear face coverings such as masks, media reported on Thursday, and would probably apply to coronavirus hotspots and areas of high community transmission.

Factory shutdown puts smaller dent in Tesla’s sales than feared

Richard Waters in San Francisco

The forced closure of Tesla’s US assembly plant last month didn’t make as big a dent in new vehicle deliveries in the first quarter as Wall Street had feared. The news sent the electric car maker’s highly volatile shares up nearly 18 per cent in after-market trading on Thursday, though they are still 45 per cent below the peak hit earlier this year.

Tesla said it managed to get 88,400 cars to customers in the first three months of the year — around 9,000 fewer than investors had been expecting before the crisis hit, but still a better performance than more gloomy recent predictions suggested.

Elon Musk had tried to keep the plant in the San Francisco Bay Area open as the company hit its busiest delivery period of the quarter, despite a local order for all non-essential businesses to close. The Tesla chief finally buckled and the plant ended normal operations eight days before the end of the March — though it continued to get some new cars to customers using a “contactless delivery” process developed in China after the health crisis hit normal operations there.

Peru to allow men and women out on alternate days

Gideon Long in Bogotá

Peruvian men and women will only be allowed out on alternate days in a bid to combat the coronavirus, the country’s president Martín Vizcarra said on Thursday.

Men will be allowed to leave their homes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to shop for essential items while women can go out on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Sundays, everyone has to stay at home.

“Visual controls will be much easier to implement if we divide the population into men and women,” Mr Vizcarra said in an online news conference.

Panama, in Central America, brought in a similar rule earlier this week.

Peru has implemented some of the toughest measures in Latin America to combat the virus and most Peruvians appear to back them. Mr Vizcarra said people working in essential services like health, security and food production would be exempt from the new rule.

Both Peru and Panama have recorded over 1,300 cases each of the virus and, between them, 79 deaths.

S&P 500 rises more than 2% on oil price rally

US stocks snapped a two-day losing streak, recovering from mid-afternoon losses, as oil prices recorded their largest single-day rise on record.

The S&P 500 closed 2.3 per cent higher in a rally fuelled by the energy sector, which jumped more than 9 per cent. The Nasdaq Composite was up 1.7 per cent, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average advanced 2.2 per cent.

Shares in energy companies rallied in tandem with oil prices. Brent crude settled 21 per cent higher at $29.94 per barrel after Donald Trump raised the market’s hopes for an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Russia on supply curbs.

The haven assets of US government debt and gold moved higher on the day. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell 1.5 basis points to 0.62 per cent as prices rose. Gold climbed 1.4 per cent. The dollar index also strengthened, gaining 0.6 per cent.

Demands for UK government transparency on testing plans grow

Clive Cookson in London

Matt Hancock, UK health secretary, has published a “five pillar” plan to increase Covid-19 testing to 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. But the independent UK charity Sense about Science wants the government to be more open about what it is doing. It has sent the Prime Minister a letter, signed by about 100 scientists and health professionals, urging him to “to start publishing the government’s evolving plans for coronavirus testing.”

“People are frustrated and confused about the scientific and logistical challenges of testing and what the government is doing about it,” the letter says. “The internet and media are awash with rumours and the public are valiantly trying to work their way through fragments of information. People in senior positions in healthcare, in government departments, in research and in the related industries are struggling to see whether their input is needed and how to give it.”

The government should put its evolving plans for testing on an open website where public and experts can see and assess them, said Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science.

“People want some kind of accountability, even more so as significant changes are being made with implications for livelihoods, behaviour, freedom and safety — and if it’s not provided it will be sought out, in ways that may be arbitrary, recriminatory, far more disruptive to public health messages and far harder to deal with.”

World Bank approves first emergency funds to help developing countries fight pandemic

Jonathan Wheatley in London

The World Bank has approved its first emergency measures to help developing countries fight coronavirus, with $1.9bn to support projects in 25 countries and projects in another 40 countries close to approval.

David Malpass, the Bank’s president, said the board on Thursday approved projects in 25 countries to address the immediate healthcare consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the 76 poor countries that qualify for assistance under the Bank’s International Development Association, another 40 had also applied for assistance.

In addition, existing World Bank projects were being redeployed to deal with the crisis in 35 to 40 other countries, including the Dominican Republic and Kenya.

The World Bank has made $14bn available for short-term emergency assistance, out of a total of $160bn to be deployed over the next 15 months to tackle the crisis.

Together with the IMF, it has called on all official bilateral lenders to suspend debt repayments from poor countries, which, if agreed, would release another $14bn this year to be spend on the immediate healthcare response, Mr Malpass said.

He said he hoped for approval soon from lenders in the G20 group of the world’s biggest developed and developing countries, but conceded that the process was moving more slowly than hoped.

FDA relaxes controversial restrictions on gay men who donate blood

US regulators have relaxed controversial, long-standing restrictions preventing gay men from donating blood, in an effort to address the “urgent and immediate” need for blood amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday that for male blood donors who would have been deferred for having sex with another man, the recommended waiting period would be cut to three months from 12.

The same reduction in wait time would also be applied to female donors who would have been deferred for having sex with a man who had sex with another man.

The change, as well as revisions to a number of other guidelines regarding blood donor eligibility, will take effect immediately and remain in place after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

Other revisions will see deferral periods for people who have tattoos or piercings, or have travelled to malaria-endemic areas, being cut to three months from 12.

The FDA said the pandemic has caused “unprecedented challenges” to the US blood supply, with donor centres experiencing a “dramatic reduction” in donations due to the implementation of social distancing and blood drives being cancelled.

The FDA adopted its initial policy banning a man who had sex with another man from donating blood in 1983, during the Aids crisis. Its most recent change in 2015 required abstinence for a year before donating blood.

Global coronavirus cases top 1m

Steve Bernard in London

The total number of confirmed cases with coronavirus surpassed 1m, as 66,874 cases were diagnosed so far on Thursday.

The virus which started in China and quickly spread around the globe has claimed more than 50,000 lives. Some countries are seeing signs of the cases slowing down, however, the United States is seeing daily increases in excess of 20,000.

US stocks trim gains as investors gauge pandemic’s economic toll

Wall Street eased back from session highs as investors continued to gauge the economic impact of coronavirus, after more than 6m Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week.

The S&P 500 was up 0.5 per cent in afternoon trading in New York. It climbed as much as 2.5 per cent earlier in the day. The Nasdaq Composite rose 0.1 per cent, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average advanced 0.4 per cent.

Shares in oil producers supported gains, with crude prices jumping more than 20 per cent on hopes for a supply-cut deal between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Brent crude, the international benchmark, rallied 21 per cent in its best one-day gain on record, settling at $29.94 per barrel. The energy sector was leading the S&P 500 with a 6.8 per cent rise.

The 10-year Treasury yield fell 2.7 basis points to 0.608 per cent as prices climbed. The dollar index was up 0.8 per cent.

France confirms at least 884 extra deaths in nursing homes

Victor Mallet in Paris

France has confirmed the deaths of at least 884 individuals in old people’s homes across the country likely to have been victims of the coronavirus, in addition to the 4,503 Covid-19 deaths officially reported in hospitals.

Jérôme Salomon, director-general of health, said the new numbers of fatalities outside hospitals were incomplete. The Grand Est health authority in eastern France, one of the regions worst hit by the pandemic, had earlier said two-thirds of its 620 old people’s homes had been hit by the virus, with 570 deaths reported.

The number of coronavirus sufferers in French hospitals, and of those in intensive care, continued to increase on Thursday, albeit at a slower rate, after more than two weeks of confinement for the population.

France reported 471 new deaths in 24 hours, slightly less than the previous day. A total of 59,104 cases have been confirmed by testing. The number of those hospitalised rose to 26,246, of whom 6,396 are in intensive care.

Mr Salomon said consolidated data showed the general mortality rate across France was 14 per cent higher than normal the week before last, and 19 per cent above normal last week, with the worst hit departments being Seine-Saint-Denis north of Paris and Haut-Rhin in the east.

London’s Heathrow shifts to single runway operation

Tanya Powley in London

Heathrow Airport is to move to a single runway operation from April 6 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK’s biggest airport said it will alternate which of its two runways it will use on a weekly basis.

The temporary scale back comes as airlines around the world have grounded the majority of their fleets, resulting in a virtual shutdown in international travel.

The move has meant airports are reducing their operations by closing runways and terminals, while some regional airports have closed completely.

A spokesperson for Heathrow said:

Although we are seeing significantly fewer flights at the moment, Heathrow will remain open so that we can continue to play a crucial role in helping to secure vital medical goods and food for the nation during this unprecedented epidemic.

Insurers urged by EU regulator to halt dividends and buybacks

Oliver Ralph in London

The EU’s insurance regulator has urged insurance companies to halt dividends, buybacks and bonuses in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The move will heap more pressure on insurers, which have so far largely decided to keep paying dividends.

On Wednesday shareholders in Zurich approved the company’s annual payout, while on Tuesday Munich Re said it would halt buybacks but continue with the planned dividend.

In a statement on Thursday evening Eiopa, the EU’s insurance and pensions regulator, said insurance companies had to “take all necessary steps to continue to ensure a robust level of own funds to be able to protect policyholders and absorb potential losses.”

It added: “Against this background of uncertainty, EIOPA urges that at the current juncture (re)insurers temporarily suspend all discretionary dividend distributions and share buy backs aimed at remunerating shareholders.”

Eiopa’s statement goes much further than other insurance regulators have done. Earlier this week the Bank of England took a tough line with the UK’s banks on dividends and bonuses, but a much softer stance on the insurers. It said only that insurance company boards should: “satisfy themselves that each distribution is prudent and consistent with their risk appetite.”

Bank of America forecasts 8% contraction for Mexico’s economy

Jude Webber in Mexico City

How low can you go? Bank of America has slashed its GDP forecast for Mexico once again and is now forecasting a contraction of 8 per cent — the most pessimistic in the market — down from its last estimate, just two weeks ago, of minus 4.5 per cent, as a severe US contraction slams trade and remittances, the oil price shock bites and lockdown in Mexico takes hold.

The latter will now result in a 34 per cent contraction in the second quarter compared with the first three months, but a 23 per cent rebound in the fourth quarter, the bank predicted. However, a worsening fiscal outlook could trigger more ratings downgrades this year.

A larger deficit and depreciation of the peso “will likely put debt to GDP above 55 per cent by end 2020. We expect rating agencies to keep downgrading Mexico (and state oil company Pemex), with Moody’s potentially downgrading two notches this year,” it added. Debt last year was 45.5 per cent of GDP.

BofA forecasts two 50 basis point rate cuts – the first potentially before Banxico’s next scheduled May 14 meeting — and the peso ending 2020 at 25 to the dollar.

The government had a rosier view and issued a GDP forecast between 0.1 per cent growth and a 3.9 per cent contraction.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who routinely brushes off Mexico’s poor economic indicators saying “I have other data” told his daily news conference that “we are living in times of vultures” and “I don’t agree [with the finance ministry prediction].”

He is planning to reveal his economic response to the coronavirus crisis on Sunday, but the finance ministry’s estimates included just $2.5bn in emergency loans. That adds up to less than 0.2 per cent of GDP.

About the only good thing amid the gloom is that there could be a significant bounce in 2021. BofA is predicting 4.5 per cent GDP growth helped by a recovering US economy and a weaker peso boosting competitiveness.

University of Pittsburgh researchers develop potential vaccine

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have developed a potential coronavirus vaccine and are seeking approval from US regulators to begin a clinical trial.

When tested on mice, the vaccine produced antibodies against Covid-19 two weeks after immunisation, according to a research paper published on Thursday by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Now scientists will apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval to start testing the vaccine in humans.

“This particular situation is different from anything we’ve ever seen, so we don’t know how long the clinical development process will take. Recently announced revisions to the normal processes suggest we may be able to advance this faster,” said senior co-author Dr Louis Falo, professor and chair of dermatology at Pitt’s School of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Large pharmaceutical companies are also racing to develop a vaccine against coronavirus. Johnson & Johnson announced this week that it had identified a vaccine candidate and expected to start testing in humans by September, aiming to make the vaccine available under an emergency use authorisation early next year. Meanwhile, Boston-based Moderna began testing a potential vaccine last month.

UK sets out plan to reach 100,000 tests per day after criticism of delays

Robert Shrimsley in London

Matt Hancock, health secretary, committed to a new target of 100,000 tests a day, for either current infection or for the antibodies which show immunity, but said he had to level with the public about the challenges the government faced.

The new commitment came amid rising criticism of the government’s failure to increase testing. Mr Hancock, who returned from isolation today after himself being diagnosed with the virus, said that unlike other nations the UK did not start “with a huge diagnostic industry”.

“Germany could call on 100 test labs ready and waiting. We have had to build from a lower base”, he said. “There will be bumps in the road and criticisms made and some of them will be justified.”

Mr Hancock said the demand for swabs and reagents also hobbled the UK response. He felt the swabs issue was tackled but that reagents remained a problem. He also added that several tests being evaluated had failed. “One I was being urged to buy missed three out of four cases of coronavirus.”

He said he would prioritise tests for patients who need them and then for NHS staff, over 5,000 of whom have now been tested.

Setting out his plan, Mr Hancock said that Professor John Newton, director of public health improvement for Public Health England, would co-ordinate the effort to boost testing.

The first steps would be swab testing in PHE labs and NHS hospitals. Mr Hancock said the UK had reached a target of 10,000 tests per day and was committed to 25,000 tests by the end of April.

He also announced a new partnership to deliver swab testing with commercial partners like pharmacy chain Boots, universities and research institutes. He said the number of tests from these bodies would rise from this weekend.

The third part of the government plan involves the antibody blood test to detect those who have had the virus and are now immune. “We are working with nine companies. But the tests have to work”, said Mr Hancock.

Finally the government is working on population sampling to assess accurately the percentage of the public that has the virus. Mr Hancock said there was enough capacity to carry out these samples which would inform the strategy for exiting from lockdown.

Mr Hancock also announced he was writing off £13.4bn of historic debt owed by NHS hospitals.

The government was looking at immunity certificates to allow those who have had the disease to get back to normal life, Mr Hancock said.

“We are looking at it and how people who have had the disease, have got the antibodies can show that and so get back as much as possible to normal life. That is something we will be doing and are looking at but it is too early in the science to be able to put clarity around that.”

Global death toll passes 50,000

The number of deaths caused by coronavirus worldwide now exceeds 50,000, while the number of cases is closing in on 1m, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University.

The latest count puts global fatalities at 50,230. Italy has been the worst-hit country with 13,915 deaths reported, followed by Spain with 10,003 and France with 4,032.

The number of infections across the globe is now at 956,246, according to the latest figures. The US has been the worst-affected in terms of case numbers, with 217,263 people confirmed as being infected.

Goldman Sachs sees surge of deposits into online bank Marcus

Laura Noonan in New York

The coronavirus crisis is driving a surge in deposits into Goldman Sachs’ online bank, but spending on its Apple Card has “plummeted” in key categories, chief executive David Solomon said on Thursday.

“We’ve seen during the course of the last few weeks, people coming to Marcus at an increased pace,” Mr Solomon told CNBC, attributing the trend to the fact that “people have cash” after yanking money from the stock markets, as well as Marcus’s “compelling offering”.

In the credit card segment, where Mr Solomon said Goldman’s Apple partnership remains a “very small” player, consumer behaviour is “changing very quickly”.

“As you would expect, spending particularly around travel and leisure and restaurants and being out in entertainment has plummeted, but we’ve seen some pick-up in spending on staples, food services, those kinds of things,” he said.

Goldman is offering Apple Card customers a one month postponement of their payments, with no interest charge. “Tens of thousands” of customers took up that offer less than 24 hours after it was announced on March 15, the bank said.

Italy reports 760 more deaths as case growth holds steady

Miles Johnson in Rome

A further 760 people have died in Italy from coronavirus on Thursday, taking the country’s total death toll to 13,915, as the growth rate of total cases stayed steady.

Official numbers showed that total cases rose 4.2 per cent over the past 24 hours to 115,242, while total active cases, which strips out the recovered and the dead, rose 3 per cent to 83,049.

Italy’s daily growth rate in total cases has been close to 4 per cent per day each day this week.

While Italy has been under strict social distancing measures since March 10, its government this week confirmed that the measures would continue until at least after Easter as the new cases continue to rise, even if the growth rate has sharply declined since the early stages of the outbreak.

The total number of Covid-19 patients in Italy who have recovered increased by 1,431 to 18,278, while the number in intensive care rose by 18 to 4,053.

Democratic party’s presidential convention pushed back to August

Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

The Democratic party in the US has pushed back its presidential convention from July to August, in the latest example of large events around the world being postponed or cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Joe Solmonese, the head of the Democratic National Convention Committee, said the party had taken the decision to postpone the four-day event, which will be held in Milwaukee, on August 17.

“We believe the smartest approach is to take additional time to monitor how this situation unfolds so we can best position our party for a safe and successful convention,” Mr Solmonese said in a statement. “During this critical time, when the scope and scale of the pandemic and its impact remain unknown, we will continue to monitor the situation and follow the advice of health care professionals and emergency responders.”

The decision came one day after Joe Biden, the former vice-president who has an almost insurmountable lead over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary race, said the party would need to push back the start from July.

The convention is the biggest event on the US political calendar before the presidential election on November 3 because it is when the Democratic party will formally vote on their nominee to face Donald Trump.

The Democratic and Republican conventions draw tens of thousands of local, state and national political figures, who meet in crowded gatherings that would make it practically impossible to maintain adequate social distancing.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen owner withdraws financial support

Alice Hancock in London

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, the UK-based burger chain, will not receive any more financial support from its owner, Famous Brands, because of “uncertainty regarding the resumption of trading”.

In a statement, Johannesburg-based Famous Brands, which also owns the Wimpy fast food chain, said that in light of the enforced closures because of coronavirus, it had decided not to provide GBK with “any further financial assistance” and that the board of the burger chain was reviewing its options.

A source close to the negotiations said that GBK would be going into administration imminently.

Famous Brands said that the decision to remove funding would result in an impairment on its investment in GBK, which it bought for £120m in 2016. It said it would announce the value of the impairment in due course.

The casual dining sector has been particularly affected by government mandated closures as authorities seek to slow the spread of coronavirus. On Monday, the Italian chain Carluccio’s went into administration, followed by the Mexican restaurant company Benito’s Hat on Wednesday. Byron, a rival burger chain, appointed KPMG to advise on options last week.

Portugal extends state of emergency as deaths pass 200

Peter Wise in Lisbon

Parliament on Thursday approved a 15-day extension of Portugal’s state of emergency as the number of deaths linked to the coronavirus outbreak rose to more than 200. Lawmakers approved the renewal with only one vote against.

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Speaking earlier, António Costa, the prime minister, warned that the coming month would be decisive for controlling the pandemic, saying some containment measures could be made tougher.

Health authorities on Thursday — a month after Portugal recorded its first confirmed case of coronavirus — reported an accumulated total of 9,034 cases, an increase of 783 cases, or 9.5 per cent, in 24 hours. The number of deaths connected with the virus rose by 22 in 24 hours to 209.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Portugal’s president, decreed the state of emergency on March 18, banning non-essential travel and forcing the closure of most businesses and shops, among other measures.

Mr Costa said the restrictions on movement may have to remain in place for up to three months and appealed to Portuguese emigrants not to return to visit their families at Easter, as many thousands traditionally do.

New York cases surpass 90,000

New York governor Andrew Cuomo said the number of coronavirus deaths in the state surpassed 2,000 and added that every county has now reported a case.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases climbed to 92,381, up from 83,712 a day earlier, while the death toll climbed to 2,373, up from 1,941 a day earlier.

“The virus has marched across our state,” Mr Cuomo said. “We have counties with more cows than people. That didn’t stop it … It will march across our nation next.”

The number of people hospitalised rose 9.5 per cent from a day earlier to 13,383.

Mr Cuomo also said at the current rate, New York only has six days worth of ventilators left.

BA reaches deal with union to furlough majority of staff

Tanya Powley in London

British Airways has agreed a deal with its union that will see it furlough the large majority of its 40,000 employees to help cut costs as the airline battles the worst crisis in its history.

The airline is offering affected cabin crew, engineering and head office staff a modified version of the government’s job retention scheme, where employees are temporarily laid off on 80 per cent of pay. In contrast to the government’s scheme, there will not be a cap on earnings.

BA has also agreed there will be no unpaid temporary lay-offs or redundancies during this period. Employees will also be able to divert their pension contributions into their pay for a short period of time.

Oliver Richardson, national officer for aviation at Unite, said:

Given the incredibly difficult circumstances that the entire aviation sector is facing, this is as good a deal as possible for our members.

The deal protects the jobs of BA staff and, as far as possible, also protects their pay.

The deal will now be circulated to union members for their final approval.

Wall Street gains and oil jumps

US stocks reversed early losses on Thursday and were up more than 1 per cent in late morning trade as oil prices soared on rising hopes of an output deal.

The S&P 500 climbed 1.4 per cent led by a 9 per cent rally in energy stocks, while the Nasdaq Composite gained 1.1 per cent. Meanwhile Treasuries advanced, with the yield on the US 10-year down 0.03 percentage points to 0.6079 per cent.

The gains on Wall Street came amid hopes of a output agreement between major oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, sending oil prices sharply higher.

Investors largely shrugged off labour market data that showed a record number of Americans filed for first time unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, other economic indicators this morning showed the trade deficit narrowed while factory orders were unchanged in February.

European bourses were also higher with the Stoxx 600 and FTSE 100 both up about 0.3 per cent.

Scotland death toll rises to 126

Mure Dickie in Edinburgh

Scotland’s official coronavirus death toll jumped to 126 from 76 on Thursday after the government revealed 40 deaths that had previously not been included in the figures because of delays “in family liaison”.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said that if the previously unreported deaths — which had all been confirmed at a single laboratory as involving patients with coronavirus — were not included, the death toll would have risen by 10 to 86. Ms Sturgeon said the 40 deaths would have to be distributed over a number of days and previously released data would be adjusted to reflect this.

The first minister also announced changes to the way coronavirus deaths are counted in Scotland, which she said would make the data more robust and comprehensive. While previously the toll has been based on notifications from regional health boards of laboratory-confirmed cases, it will from now on be based on National Records of Scotland death registrations for the previous day.

The National Records office will also report cases where coronavirus infection is mentioned on the death certificate, Ms Stureon said. “This will include not just confirmed cases, but also presumed cases and will cover all settings including hospital and community deaths,” she said.

Canada’s coronavirus cases pass 10,000

The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Canada has passed 10,000 after the country’s public health agency announced 519 new cases in the past day.

Reported cases in the country have jumped sharply this week, up from 7,424 on Monday. A total of 127 people have died from the disease in Canada, with 18 deaths reported today.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “too many” Canadians are still breaking lockdown restrictions, and urged citizens to stay home except for essential outings to prevent the healthcare system being overwhelmed. He said the country’s response to the disease was “the most significant civic mobilisation since World World Two”.

Speaking outside his home in Ottawa, Mr Trudeau also said Canada had received a delivery of 1m masks, one day after he admitted he could not guarantee that hospitals would have all the supplies they need.

Daimler signs €12bn loan facility agreement

Joe Miller in Frankfurt

Daimler has secured an additional €12bn credit line with four leading banks, the carmaker said, to help see it through the coronavirus crisis.

The Mercedes-Benz maker, which has closed most of its factories in Europe and the Americas and has furloughed the majority of its 170,000 staff in Germany, already has an €11bn facility.

The new loan facility agreement, with BNP, Banco Santander, Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan, was reached on April 1.

In a statement, the group said it had a total of €24bn in cash, cash equivalents and drawable credit lines at the end of last year.

This week, Daimler also issued a €1.5bn bond.

Senior management at fashion group Arcadia to take up to 50% pay cut

Jonathan Eley in London

Arcadia, the fashion group that owns brands such as Topshop and Burton, has said its board and senior leadership team will take immediate pay cuts of between 25 per cent and 50 per cent.

The group closed its stores just before the government ordered all non-essential retailers to shut down. It said that all store staff were furloughed under the UK government’s scheme, which pays 80 per cent of salary up to a maximum of £2,500 a month, from March 21. Most staff at the group’s West End headquarters will follow from April 5.

“It remains unclear how long these closures will be in place and clearly with such uncertainty across the country we are taking decisive steps to mitigate the impact on the group,” it said in a statement. “We are grateful for the government support offered by the job retention scheme,” it added.

The group’s chief executive, Ian Grabiner, will take no salary or benefits until further notice. Philip Green, whose family controls the group and who has controversially taken billions of pounds of dividends out of Arcadia since acquiring it in 2002, does not take a salary from the group or any of its subsidiaries.

Opinion: America shuts the barn door too late on the epidemic

Ed Luce in Washington

Everyone knows the drill about the barn door closing after the horse has bolted. From Italy to Britain and the US, governments have prevaricated lethally in sight of the oncoming coronavirus.

The puzzle is why the next in line do not learn from their predecessors’ mistakes. On Wednesday Florida, Mississippi and Georgia became the latest US states to declare stay-at-home orders that should have been imposed weeks ago.

The tragedy will probably roll from America’s coasts into its heartlands. Twelve states, including Oklahoma, Alabama and South Carolina, have yet to issue shelter-in-place orders. The longer they wait, the worse the toll.

The mystery is why.

Read the full story here

Exclusive: UK poised to unveil loans package for midsized companies

Daniel Thomas and Jim Pickard in London

The UK government is poised to set up a new emergency loans package for the “squeezed middle” of midsized companies excluded from the Treasury’s Covid-19 rescue schemes.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week set up government loan guarantees aimed at two groups of companies: large “investment-grade” corporations and small companies.

The first scheme, called the Covid Corporate Financing Facility, allows loans to large companies for up to 12 months by the Bank of England buying their commercial paper.

The second programme, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), is currently limited to companies with turnover under £45m — and allows them to access government-backed loans of up to £5m.

A third scheme — which could be announced on Thursday afternoon — will allow companies with much higher sales to access state support.

Read more here

Oil spikes as Trump says he expects Saudi-Russia supply deal

Oil prices jumped by almost half to over $36 a barrel after US President Donald Trump said he anticipated Saudi Arabia and Russia would agree to cut global supply by around 10m barrels a day.

The coronavirus coupled with a price war between the two oil producing countries has sent Brent crude — the international marker — to its lowest level since 2002, hovering just above $20 a barrel in recent days.

However, optimism over a deal between Riyadh and Moscow has, this week, driven a tentative recovery, with Brent up 12 per cent earlier today.

Following the president’s tweet, prices rose as much as 47 per cent to $36.29, before settling just over $30 a barrel, a 22 per cent gain for the session.

UK’s biggest pharmacy retailer reports ‘significant’ sales reduction amid national lockdown

Jonathan Eley in London

Boots, the UK’s biggest pharmacy chain, said the coronavirus outbreak gave an initial boost to sales but that growth went into reverse after the government imposed a lockdown.

In a presentation to investors in parent company Walgreens Boots Alliance, the company said that there had been a “significant reduction” in spend on beauty amid a steep fall in traffic to high streets and shopping centres.

It has responded by deferring the roll-out of more beauty halls and new product launches and cutting other non-essential spend.

Results for the six months to the end of February, before the full impact of coronavirus was felt, showed Boots’ pharmacy revenue rising 1.3 per cent but retail revenue dropping 3.8 per cent. Underlying operating profit was 29 per cent lower.

US seizes trove of hoarded medical equipment

A US government task force investigating hoarding and price gouging during the Covid-19 outbreak will hand over half a million items of personal protective equipment to frontline workers in New York and New Jersey.

The US Department of Health and Human Services said that the FBI found the cache of medical supplies, which were confiscated under the Defense Production Act, an emergency measure invoked by President Donald Trump last week. The government will pay the owner of the equipment “pre-Covid-19 fair market value” and distribute the masks, surgical gowns, and disinfectant to health authorities in the states of New York and New Jersey — which have been hardest-hit by the outbreak.

US attorney general William Barr warned price gougers of further enforcement action:

If you are amassing critical medical equipment for the purpose of selling it at exorbitant prices, you can expect a knock at your door.

Ireland’s unemployment spikes as public finances are knocked by coronavirus disruption

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Ireland has reported a sharp rise in unemployment and hit to its public finances due to coronavirus disruption, as Paschal Donohoe, finance minister, said 34,000 companies had signed up for a government wage subsidy scheme in less than one week.

Data released on Thursday showed the number of people claiming some form of welfare support rose by a record 330,550 to 513,350 in March as Dublin closed down large parts of the economy to tackle the pandemic.

The figures show that about 283,000 are receiving a special Covid-19 unemployment payment introduced three weeks ago, while 25,000 workers are already on the wage subsidy scheme, rushed into law last Friday.

Ireland entered the coronavirus crisis in full employment, with a 4.8 per cent jobless rate, but the sudden loss of jobs has put the country on course to exceed the 16 per cent level seen in the wake of the 2008 crash.

The minister, who has encouraged business to avail of the subsidy in a bid to maintain employment through the coronavirus crisis, said “the breadth of companies in that scheme is a sign of why that scheme is needed.”

The government had estimated the initial cost of Covid-19 unemployment payments and wage subsidy at €6.7bn over 12 weeks.

Mr Donohoe has now updated the likely cost to in the vicinity of €8bn or higher. “The tax revenue foregone as a result of economic activity going down is likely to be ahead of that figure.”

Separate data showed government tax revenues in March were almost €1bn lower than in 2019, a decline of more than 20 per cent that was mainly attributed to the government deferral of VAT sales taxes that fell due in the month.

Putin tells Russians to stay home from work until April 30

Henry Foy in Moscow

Russian president Vladimir Putin has extended a national holiday period until April 30 in an attempt to keep Russians at home and stem the spread of coronavirus in the country.

Mr Putin announced the 25-day extension to the measure in a national televised address, meaning all except critical workers are to remain at home. He had previously given Russians nine days off work.

Russia has recorded 3,548 cases of coronavirus and 30 deaths. While the figures are far lower per capita than other major European countries, the number of infections has grown sharply over the past 10 days, and is doubling roughly every three days.

Mr Putin said on Thursday that the threat from Covid-19 was still present in Russia and that the peak of infections in the country had not been reached.

He added that all regional governors must present “prophylactic measures to ensure the safety of people and stability of the economy”. Moscow last week imposed an almost total quarantine on its citizens, a measure that the government has urged other territories to copy.

Pentagon searches for 100,000 body bags

Katrina Manson in Washington

The Pentagon is trying to source 100,000 body bags as the US braces for coronavirus deaths on a scale that President Donald Trump has warned could outstrip that of the two world wars.

Fema, the lead US agency dealing with the coronavirus response, has turned to the Department of Defence for help dealing with the expected death toll.

The Pentagon said that its combat support arm was “currently responding to Fema’s prudent planning efforts for 100,000 pouches to address mortuary contingencies on behalf of state health agencies”.

The White House warned this week the coronavirus death toll could reach 240,000 people in America.

Goldman Sachs launches spending plan to help small businesses and communities

Laura Noonan in New York

Goldman Sachs just unveiled plans to spend $300m helping “small businesses and communities” navigate the coronavirus crisis, taking the Wall Street bank deeper into Main Street.

The money includes $250m of emergency “low-interest loans” to help small businesses across the world to “fund their operations, weather the current crisis and meet their commitments to their landlords, suppliers, and employees”.

Another $25m will go on a relief fund to support the “hardest hit communities”, with the final $25m going on grants to Community Development Financial Institution and other “mission driven lenders”.

Goldman is better known as a Wall Street bank, but chief executive David Solomon said the firm had also worked “hand-in-hand” with entrepreneurs for more than a decade, including through its 10,000 Women and 10,000 Small Businesses programmes.

It is also doing more Main Street business through its online bank Marcus, which offers small business loans.

“Covid-19 has created an extraordinary global health and economic crisis and the urgency and scope of our actions must reflect this reality,” Mr Solomon said. “We are deploying our capital and expertise to help small businesses navigate the incredible burdens they face, while ensuring that health providers and relief organisations have the funds they need to fulfill their missions.”

National Express to suspend its UK coach fleet

Chris Tighe in Newcastle

National Express, the UK’s biggest long-haul coach transport operator, is suspending its entire national network of scheduled services from midnight on Sunday.

The group’s coaches provide a rapid intercity network throughout Britain, linking 650 locations, including cities, towns and airports. It had until now kept a limited coach network running to help individuals with essential travel needs but said it was no longer viable to continue doing so.

Chris Hardy, managing director of National Express UK Coach, said passenger numbers had continued to fall as the public followed government advice to avoid non-essential travel.

All journeys before Monday April 6 will be completed. He said National Express would ensure customers were not stranded. People with booked tickets for future dates can amend them free of charge for travel within the next 12 months or get a refund.

Although its coaches are temporarily off the road, National Express’s accessible transport minibuses in the West Midlands have been redeployed as a free shuttle bus service for NHS hospital staff and key workers supporting social care services across the region, alleviating pressure on hospital car parks.

The minibuses are normally used for special education students and the elderly. Each will carry a maximum of two passengers to ensure social distancing.

Wall Street opens lower

Data showing a fresh surge in US unemployment dented stock markets on Thursday, eating into a more upbeat trading session that had been buoyed by a jump in oil prices.

The S&P 500 opened 0.3 per cent lower on Wall Street, after figures showed that 6.6m Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week — well beyond previous records.

Futures contracts had earlier indicated strong gains for US stocks, but the data suggest that the hit to the US and global economy from coronavirus will be even more severe than previously imagined.

Tumble in Ford vehicle sales not as bad as anticipated

Claire Bushey in Chicago

Ford’s first-quarter vehicle sales in the US fell 12.5 per cent — less than analysts expected — as the pandemic keeps customers away from showrooms.

The automaker sold 516,330 cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles between January and March. The most severe sales drop-off was cars, at 36 per cent, a continuation of the trend among US customers to favour trucks and SUVs.

Analysts expected the Detroit company to report a 16.1 per cent decline. The company has faced other hurdles, as credit-rating agencies downgraded its $36bn in debt to junk.

General Motors and Fiat Chrysler reported US sales declines yesterday as well. GM’s sales fell 7 per cent while Fiat Chrysler tumbled 10.4 per cent.

Despite automakers’ touted programmes to help customers buy online, the sales figures reflect the fact that three-quarters of the US populations is under stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the disease.

British Airways parent IAG cancels dividend

Tanya Powley in London

British Airways’ owner IAG has become the latest company to cancel its proposed final dividend as it looks to bolster its liquidity in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The airline group on Thursday said it would withdraw its proposal to pay a final dividend of 0.17 euros per share — due for shareholder approval in June — and instead allocate all the profit for fiscal year 2019 to its voluntary reserve. It will also delay the date of its annual shareholders’ meeting from June until the end of September.

The announcement came as BA was finalising talks with the union Unite over plans to furlough about 32,000 employees in a bid to slash costs as it battles with the industry’s worst crisis in decades.

This would affect cabin crew, ground staff, engineers and head office employees. BA already agreed a deal with its 4,000 pilots last month, which will see them required to take two weeks of unpaid leave in each of April and May, with a deduction from basic pay spread over three months.

Last month easyJet, the low-cost airline, came under criticism for going ahead with a £174m dividend payout to shareholders while appealing for financial support from the government.

UK tally of coronavirus deaths rises by 569 in a day

Bethan Staton in London

The number of people in the UK to have died after testing positive for coronavirus has risen by 569 to 2,921, the department for health has announced.

The daily increase – which includes all hospital deaths in the 24 hours to 5pm on Wednesday – is slightly higher than the previous day’s rise of 563.

The daily government figures also show that 33,718 people in total have been confirmed to have coronavirus.

The 24-hour rise in cases as of Thursday morning was 4,244, and figures showed the number of people tested increased by 10,215 to more than 163,000.

Muslim pilgrimage sites in Saudi Arabia placed under curfew

Ahmed Al Omran in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia has announced a curfew in the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina as the kingdom enforces stricter measures to contain Covid-19.

The interior ministry said essential workers were exempt from the restrictions, and residents would be allowed to buy food and access medical services within their neighbourhood. Cars in those cities are not allowed to carry more than two people at any time.

The country has already halted international and domestic flights and ordered most public places to close. Earlier this week, the government asked Muslims to delay making travel plans for the annual hajj pilgrimage until there is more clarity about the pandemic.

The health ministry also announced five deaths and 165 new confirmed cases of Covid-19. This brings the total number of cases in the kingdom to 1,885, while the death toll stands at 21.

UK government admits ‘more needs to be done’ on testing

Laura Hughes in London

Downing Street has accepted “more needs to be done” in relation to coronavirus testing, as the UK government scrambles to increase capacity.

“We acknowledge that more needs to be done in relation to testing, we need to be testing more people and we need to be making progress very quickly”, the prime minister’s spokesman said.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, will this afternoon set out steps the government will take to ensure there is a significant increase in testing.

The announcement comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson clarified on Wednesday evening that both mass antigen and antibody testing would form part of the government’s strategy to “unlock the coronavirus puzzle”.

Downing Street said 2,800 frontline NHS staff have now been tested for coronavirus at drive-in testing facilities and an unspecified “significant number” had been tested in laboratories — adding that 10,412 coronavirus tests were carried out on Tuesday and that scientists were working on developing an antibody test.

“We are working as quickly as we can on that and as soon as a test is approved then we will announce it publicly,” the spokesman said.

Downing Street also suggested immunity certificates could be introduced to help identify those who have had the virus:

This is something which has been discussed in other countries…We have always said that we are watching closely what other countries are doing and we will always look to learn from ideas which could be helpful.

Hong Kong orders fortnight-long closure of bars and pubs

Nicole Liu in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is to shut bars and pubs from Friday for 14 days as authorities step up measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.

The Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said 69 confirmed Covid-19 cases were related to bars, leading to other secondary, tertiary and quaternary infections, including a 40-day-old infant.

People who violate the order, which comes into effect at 6pm local time on Friday, are subject to a maximum fine of HK$50,000 ($6,400) and imprisonment for six months.

The Hong Kong government had ordered gyms, game centres, karaoke, night clubs and other entertaining spots to close. Catering businesses are also required to limit the number of in-store customers with no more than four people to a table.

Hong Kong recorded 802 confirmed cases up to Thursday and four deaths related to the disease.

France says pandemic should push EU to cut dependence on Asia

Victor Mallet in Paris

Europe should use the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to rethink its industrial supply chains, cut dependence on Asia and promote “European industrial sovereignty”, according to French finance minister Bruno Le Maire.

“For some time we have been asking for a new European industrial policy, an update of the EU’s competition policy and to work on limiting the industrial dependence of some strategic sectors, for instance electric batteries and artificial intelligence,” he told an online news conference on Thursday. “Protection is not the same as protectionism.”

Mr Le Maire said: “With this crisis, the European Union has a historical opportunity to become an economic and political superpower between the US and China.”

President Emmanuel Macron and Mr Le Maire have long pushed for EU investment in key high-tech sectors, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how much Europe depends on China for supplies of medical equipment such as masks and the active ingredients in many drugs.

In an interview with the FT, Mr Le Maire said he wanted globalisation to “drastically change” and was pressing for a “new economic world order”.

France is also proposing a new, joint EU fund to finance economic recovery after the crisis — in addition to other rescue packages announced or under way from various eurozone and EU institutions — but the prospect of mutual debt obligations has met resistance from northern EU members such as the Netherlands and Germany.

Moody’s warns of ‘intense’ liquidity pressure in US mortgage sector

Laura Noonan in New York

Rating agency Moody’s cut its outlook for non-bank mortgage lenders in the US, warning of the “intense” liquidity pressures that coronavirus has heaped on a sector that writes more than half of America’s home loans.

Describing the “turmoil” in the mortgage industry following the coronavirus crisis, Moody’s said its outlook for non-bank lenders had moved to “negative” from “stable”.

“Our baseline scenario is that over the next several quarters non-bank mortgage firms will face ongoing liquidity stress, weaker profitability, as well as declines in capitalization and asset quality,” analysts wrote.

They added that non-bank lenders were “highly dependent” on short-term funding markets that will likely become more challenging.

The sector is also facing a cash crunch since it is required to make payments to bondholders even if mortgage holders don’t have to service their home loans, because of forbearance measures promoted by the government.


US jobless claims soar to 6.6m as lockdowns hit jobs market

Mamta Badkar in New York and Brendan Greeley in Washington

The number of Americans filing for first time unemployment benefits hit a record high for the second consecutive week as layoffs stemming from the coronavirus shutdown accelerated and spread into new industries.

Initial jobless claims jumped to 6.6m in the week ending March 28, the labour department said on Thursday. That eclipsed economists’ forecasts for a rise to 3.7m.

The report also revised the previous week’s data, expanding claims to 3.31m from 3.28m as states overwhelmed by the volume worked through a backlog of applications.

As states and cities shut down non-essential businesses, retailers and restaurants facing a collapse in revenue have laid off employees across the country. California and Pennsylvania were particularly hard-hit, according to state level estimates that have not been seasonally adjusted. The states alongside New York, and most recently Florida, have asked residents to stay at home to try to curb the spread of coronavirus.

States reported that shutdowns continued to affect the service sector, but that the pain had spread to healthcare and social assistance, manufacturing, wholesale trade and construction industries as well.

Greece quarantines migrant camp after coronavirus detected

Kerin Hope in Athens

Greece has put an asylum-seekers’ camp into quarantine after 20 residents tested positive for coronavirus, marking the first confirmed cases at one of the country’s 30 official facilities for migrants.

Sixty-three tests were carried out at Ritsona camp in central Greece on Wednesday, after a resident who gave birth at an Athens clinic was found to be infected, an official from the public health organisation EODY said.

About 2,600 refugees and migrants are living in container homes at the facility while they wait for asylum applications to be processed.

International medical and human rights organisations have called for overcrowded reception centres on the Greek islands to be evacuated to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among residents and aid workers.

“Our plan is to gradually alleviate the pressure on Lesvos and other islands,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister, said in a television interview on Wednesday with CNN. He gave no details.

More than 40,000 migrants are crammed into facilities designed for 15,000 on five islands close to Turkey.

Ukraine plans to ‘restart the economy’ in May

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

Ukraine’s prime minister said the country plans to “restart the economy” in May after imposing stricter quarantine measures this month to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“Our strategy lies in the fact that Ukraine can’t afford a long quarantine of two, three, four months,” said Denys Shmyhal during a video conference with the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine.

Families and businesses, he added, do not have a sufficient “stock of reserves” to sustain a longer lockdown economically. Upon easing restrictions on businesses in May, Mr Shmyhal said the elderly and children still have to stay home.

Ukraine’s economy could shrink 4 per cent after growing in past years at 2.4-3.4 per cent, he said, adding that state finances will be stabilised by an $8bn loan from the IMF and billions of dollars of additional funding from foreign backers.

Mr Shmyhal said the IMF and World Bank had given “positive” signals after the country’s parliament voted on two reforms required to unlock the international funds.

Germany faces first recession since 2009

Guy Chazan in Berlin

Germany will this year experience its first recession since 2009 as it battles to stem the damage of the coronavirus pandemic, said the minister for the economy.

Germany’s economy shrank 5 per cent during the 2008-9 financial crisis and the government assumes “that this figure cannot only be reached this time but exceeded”, Peter Altmaier said.

“After 10 years of growth we will have a recession,” he told reporters.

EU considers delaying €1.1bn in air traffic control fees to help airlines

Tanya Powley in London

Europe’s air traffic controllers have proposed that airlines can temporarily defer upcoming payments by seven months as the industry battles a deepening cash crisis from a virtual shutdown of international travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposal comes after carriers collectively pushed back on paying February’s charges, worth about €500m, that are due next month to Eurocontrol. The organisation co-ordinates national air traffic management agencies and is responsible for collecting route charges from carriers to fund air navigation facilities and services in the EU.

Eurocontrol’s 41 member countries are due to vote on the proposal by April 6. If agreed, this will mean airlines can defer their February fees until November. Payments for March, April and May, which will vary because of the lower level of air traffic, will be deferred into 2021. The total deferral is estimated to be about €1.1bn.

Thomas Reynaert, managing director of the European carriers association Airlines for Europe, said:

Airlines are fighting for their survival. While a temporary deferral of [air traffic control] charges is helpful in the short term, it is clear that more measures – including a full-year waiver or further deferment of charges – may also be needed to secure the survival of the sector and aid in its recovery.

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ECB pushes deadline for monetary policy review to next year

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt

The European Central Bank has extended the timeframe for its strategic review of monetary policy by six months to the middle of next year after it was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The central bank, which has launched a radical easing of monetary policy in response to the economic and financial turmoil caused by the pandemic in recent weeks, had initially hoped to conclude its strategic review by the end of this year.

As well as pushing back a series of “ECB listens” events to debate monetary policy with representatives of civil societies, it also said its annual forum on central banking in Sintra, Portugal, would be delayed from June until November.

The ECB’s strategic review aims to reconsider the inflation target that defines its core price-stability mandate, along with the effectiveness and potential side-effects of the tools used to achieve it.

In addition, it aims to examine how it can tackle climate change, the way it communicates and its broader impact on employment, inequality and financial stability.

The central bank said it had extended the deadline for public submissions to its ECB Listens online portal to the end of August.

France’s temporary jobless total rises to 4m

Victor Mallet in Paris

A fifth of all French private sector employees in 400,000 companies are seeking temporary unemployment benefit, with 4m people set to take up a multibillion-euro government scheme to save jobs and struggling businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

“That is a massive uptake,” said Muriel Pénicaud, French labour minister, as she announced the latest figures on Thursday.

France’s “partial unemployment” measures, similar to Germany’s “Kurzarbeit” scheme, mean the state pays the wages of temporarily laid off workers, who retain their jobs and are spared from redundancy.

The French measures were originally expected to cost €8.5bn over two months, part of a €45bn national economic rescue package, but ministers said the cost is now certain to be higher.

Oil and gas suppliers in ‘stranded middle’ face collapse, warns OGUK

Nathalie Thomas in Edinburgh

The North Sea oil and gas industry has warned there is a “stranded middle” of companies in its supply chain that will face financial difficulties from the coronavirus pandemic and oil price collapse but cannot access government support schemes.

OGUK, a trade body for the UK North Sea, said on Thursday that many companies such as equipment suppliers and oilfield services groups would be disqualified from two of the main government support schemes on the basis of their turnover or credit rating.

The group has raised a red flag that some companies in its supply chain, which were still recovering from the last oil price crisis in 2014, could go under as a result of the collapse in demand for hydrocarbons because of the pandemic, which has coincided with a price war.

Matt Abraham, supply chain director at OGUK, said many companies would be disqualified from the government’s business interruption loan scheme as their turnovers exceed its £45m a year threshold and would also not qualify for another package, the Covid Corporate Finance Facility, because they are not deemed investment grade.

The industry is talking to the government about further support for this “stranded middle”, Mr Abraham said.

Coronavirus: ask the FT about how to access UK government help

Dan Thomas, the FT’s chief business correspondent, has been writing about how UK companies can access the government’s Covid-19 bailout funds. Dan has also been covering how banks are helping struggling businesses and how non-bank lenders are responding to the crisis.

Dan wants to hear your stories and answer your questions. You can join a live discussion throughout today by following this link and leaving a comment.

Emirates to restart passenger flights

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Dubai’s Emirates Airline has received approval to resume some passenger flights from Monday, the carrier’s chairman said.

The first flights will be outbound services to carry visitors and residents back to their home countries. Over time, the airline aims to resume operations gradually in line with the lifting of travel and operational restrictions, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said in a tweet. Global booking sites show that Emirates intends to resume some scheduled passenger services from May 1.

The UAE suspended passenger flights on March 25 as the country tightened measures against the spread of coronavirus, leaving many tourists and residents trapped. The government has pledged a rescue package to assist the long-haul carrier through this period.

Iran extends medical treatment to refugees and foreign nationals

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran

Iran will provide medical treatment for refugees and foreign nationals at a nominal rate if they test positive for coronavirus, which has beleaguered the nation.

“The national headquarters to fight against coronavirus approved that nationals from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries will be treated like Iranians, [almost] for free,” said Dr Mohammad Asaei-Ardakani, an advisor to the health minister, in a video conference call on Thursday.

The Islamic republic has said that all Iranians are entitled to free tests, and must pay only 10 per cent for treatment and medicine if hospitalised, even if they are not covered by medical insurance. The same rules now apply to foreign nationals in Iran.

The Afghanistan embassy in Tehran, in a statement on Thursday, thanked Iranian officials for admitting Afghan nationals to Iran’s state-run hospitals for treatment of Covid-19.

About 2.5 to 3m Afghan nationals, many of whom are refugees, are believed to live in Iran, often without official residence permits.

Dr Asaei added that the health ministry had set up medical checkpoints on Iran’s borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, such as Mirjaveh and Al-Ghadir, to monitor the health of foreign nationals who leave and enter the country.

Coming up today: A live Q&A on how to access UK government help

In response to the economic threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government last week unveiled a £330bn package of bailout loans alongside an extraordinary offer of wage subsidies. But the speed of the response has left banks, regulators and Treasury officials scrambling to find ways to get the money to the companies that need it most.

Dan Thomas, the FT’s chief business correspondent, will be answering your questions about the bailout package in a live Q&A throughout the day. Click here to join the conversation.

Testing ‘not a cure’, says UK health minister

Laura Hughes in London

Nadine Dorries, a UK health minister, has claimed coronavirus testing is “not a cure” and “won’t cut the number of deaths”.

Her comments came after Boris Johnson insisted on Wednesday that both mass antigen and antibody testing would form part of the government’s strategy to “unlock the coronavirus puzzle”.

Antigen tests determine whether someone is infected, while antibody tests check whether a person has had the disease.

But in a series of Tweets posted on Thursday morning, Ms Dorries said: “Testing is not a cure, it won’t cut the number of deaths, it won’t make people feel better or stop them catching coronavirus.

In a video shared on Wednesday evening on Twitter, the prime minister, who is self-isolating in Downing Street after testing positive for the virus, said:

I want to say a special word about testing because it is so important and, as I have said for weeks and weeks, this is the way through.

He added: “This is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end.”

Germany expects to issue €100bn in emergency business loans

Olaf Storbeck in Frankfurt

German companies are likely to claim between €50bn-€100bn in state-backed emergency liquidity loans within the next few weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic has brought large parts of the country’s economy to standstill, KfW chief executive Günther Bräunig said on Thursday morning.

“Practically every German company is affected and needs liquidity,” said the boss of the state-owned lender, which is administering the unlimited subsidised lending scheme the German government launched last month.

The government is guaranteeing up to 90 per cent of the credit risk of loans of up to €1bn per company.

Over the first 10 days of the scheme, KfW has already received applications from 2,500 companies requesting close to €11bn in loans. “We are expecting that applications will surge next week,” said Mr Bräunig.

He acknowledged that some companies and banks were complaining that access to the emergency loans was too complicated and that the terms and conditions were too harsh.

“There are still detailed discussions over further improvements,” said Mr Bräunig.

BMA publishes guidelines for doctors on ‘agonising’ ethical decisions

Bethan Staton in London

The UK doctor’s union issued ethics guidance advising that doctors should withdraw treatment like ventilators from seriously ill patients in order to give them to those more likely to survive.

The British Medical Association said on Wednesday that overstretched resources would present doctors with “agonising choices” over which patients get lifesaving treatment.

It issued an ethics document stating that hospitals should adopt a new “threshold” for intensive care admissions, with elderly people who have severe existing conditions potentially not qualifying for intensive care treatment.

Decisions about how to allocate care would normally be based on individual medical need, but should now be based on “how to maximise overall benefit” – a “more strictly utilitarian approach”, the document says.

“It is preferable to save the lives of three patients with high need and a high likelihood of benefiting than one patient with high need and a low – but nonetheless real – chance of benefiting,” Julian Sheather, a rights and ethics adviser for the BMA, said. “This is the heart of the moral challenge.”

More than half think UK government was too slow to impose lockdown

Most British people feel the government did not act quick enough in shutting down the country, an Ipsos Mori survey shows, marking the latest instance of criticism of UK policy in tackling the coronavirus.

Boris Johnson made the call 10 days ago to impose sweeping restrictions on public life in the UK, limiting Britons from leaving their homes except for essential shopping and one period of exercise a day.

The decision followed similar moves by governments across Europe and came in the wake of mounting pressure to take tougher action to stem the spread of the virus in the country.

But for most of those surveyed (56 per cent) it came too late. About a third (35 per cent) of people felt it was taken at the right time, while barely anyone (4 per cent) said it was taken too early.

Labour voters were more critical of the timing of Mr Johnson’s decision than their Conservative counterparts.

Norway’s $900bn oil fund reports worst ever quarterly drop

Richard Milne in Oslo

Norway’s $930bn oil fund reported its worst ever quarterly performance as the coronavirus crisis hit the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund harder than the global financial crisis.

The fund said its return in the first quarter was minus 14.6 per cent, lower than the previous record of minus 10.3 per cent recorded in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Its performance was dragged down by a minus 21.1 per cent return from equities with bonds recording a 1.3 per cent positive return, according to preliminary figures released on Thursday. Yngve Slyngstad, the fund’s chief executive, called the market situation “very challenging”.

The record fall in value comes as economists expect Norway’s government to use more money from the fund to plug a growing gap in its budget. Unemployment in the rich Nordic country has more than quadrupled in the past three weeks.

Yngve Slyngstad, the fund’s outgoing chief executive, said last week that it would soon start buying equities and selling bonds in an attempt to rebalance its portfolio and provide the government with money for its budget.

The oil fund has said its general worst-case scenario is for a 40 per cent drop in its value over one year in Norwegian krone as both equities and bonds decline. So far, the fund has fallen about 11 per cent from its February peak in krone terms as the Norwegian currency has fallen to record lows against the US dollar and euro in recent weeks.

EU cautions Hungary’s leader to uphold rule of law

Mehreen Khan in Brussels

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has explicitly warned Hungary that Brussels is concerned by an emergency law that allows premier Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely due to coronavirus.

The commission has come under fire this week for failing to mention Hungary by name as it has told member states to uphold the rule of law during the pandemic emergency.

Yesterday a group of 13 member states including France, Spain, The Netherlands, Italy and Belgium, issued a statement urging all countries to avoid violating democratic principles — but it also stopped short of mentioning Hungary.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Ms von der Leyen said she was concerned Hungary’s measures “go too far”.

“Emergency measures have to be limited and strictly proportional. They should not last indefinitely. They should be subject to regular scrutiny,” she said.

Earlier this week, Hungary’s parliament passed a bill to allow Mr Orban to rule by decree indefinitely. The government had argued the measure is required to fight the pandemic.

Iberdrola steps up €4bn of orders to help suppliers

Nathalie Thomas in Edinburgh

Spain’s Iberdrola has accelerated €3.8bn worth of orders with its suppliers in the renewable energy and electricity supply chains to offer them “greater security and visibility” as Europe grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

The utility has placed orders with “thousands” of suppliers in recent days so they could have access to liquidity and maintain adequate employment, the chairman and chief executive of the Spanish utility said on Thursday.

Ignacio Galán said the company intends to press ahead with a record €10bn of investment that had been planned this year for projects such as solar and wind farms, as well as grid infrastructure, “once these exceptional circumstances come to an end”.

The company has renewable energy projects planned in countries such as France, Germany and Portugal as well as energy grid infrastructure schemes in Brazil and the US.

Speeding up this investment “is the best – I would venture to say the only – way to get through this situation of crisis and uncertainty”, added Mr Galán, who was hosting Iberdrola’s annual meeting online.

Hong Kong attacks broadcaster over WHO handling of Taiwan question

Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government has criticised a public broadcaster after one of its journalists asked a World Health Organization senior adviser about Taiwan’s membership to the UN agency.

WHO has been accused of being too quick to praise Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and not separating out Taiwan as an individual member because China demands that countries and international bodies do not treat the island as an independent state. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory.

Bruce Aylward, leader of the WHO-China joint mission on Covid-19, appeared to hang up on a reporter from Radio Television Hong Kong during a video call, after they asked whether the WHO would reconsider Taiwan’s membership.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear your question…It’s ok. Let’s move to another one then,” he replied before the call ended abruptly.

Yvonne Tong, the broadcaster’s producer, called him back and asked for his comments on Taiwan’s virus containing efforts. “We’ve already talked about China,” he responded.

A spokesman for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said its secretary “holds the view that the presentation in that episode of the aforesaid programme has breached the ‘one-China principle’”.

“As the editor-in-chief of RTHK, the director of broadcasting should be responsible for this,” it said in a statement on Thursday

A pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said he was “shocked” by the statement and that it was a “naked interference in the editorial and editorial autonomy of Hong Kong and the freedom of the press”.

Prepare for Covid-19 impact to last as long as a year, Iran’s Rouhani says

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

Iranians should be prepared for the effects of the coronavirus pandemic to last up to one year, President Hassan Rouhani said, assuring citizens that plans were under way to avoid any shocks to the supply of medicine and basic commodities.

“In foreign currency allocation, the first priority is the health sector and medical and pharmaceutical needs,” Mr Rouhani said on Thursday, “and the second is the procurement of essential goods.

“We do not seem to have any problems in terms of foreign currencies to the end of this [Iranian] year [March 20 2021] and our plans are to procure goods on time while strategic reserves will remain stable,” he said to the committee set up to battle the fallout from Covid-19.

Struggling with the US’s toughest ever sanctions, the Islamic republic is concerned about its shrinking revenues and inability to support businesses hit by the impact of the illness, which could lead to layoffs in an economy suffering from two-digit unemployment rate.

The latest death toll on Thursday stood at 3,160, up from 3,036 on Wednesday, out of 50,468 confirmed cases.


Bank of America forecasts deepest US recession on record

Philip Georgiadis and Anna Gross:

Bank of America has sharply downgraded its expectations for global growth this year, as it warned that the US faces its deepest recession on record.

The Wall Street bank now expects world growth to contract by 2.7 per cent this year, having earlier forecast a more moderate decline of 0.3 per cent.

In the US, it sees three consecutive quarters of GDP contraction, with the economy shrinking 7 per cent on an annualised basis in the first three months of the year, 30 per cent in the second quarter and 1 per cent in the third.

The bank said its forecast for output to decline 10.4 per cent during the downturn would be the deepest recession on record, nearly five times more severe than the post-war average.

“The lack of an effective policy response to control the spread of the virus in developed markets and some emerging markets has led us to take down 2020 global growth,” Ethan Harris, Bank of America’s global economist, said.

“Deep recessions” are also looming in emerging markets across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said Bank of America, due to a combination of lower external demand and the impending spread of the virus in those regions.

Russia to hold Victory Day parade despite pandemic

Henry Foy in Moscow

Russia has vowed to push ahead with its annual May 9 military parade in Moscow despite the coronavirus outbreak, its defence ministry has said.

The parade of soldiers, tanks and ballistic missiles through Moscow’s Red Square and the centre of the capital dates back to the second world war, and this year’s event will celebrate 75 years since the conflict ended.

Chinese president Xi Jinping and France’s Emmanuel Macron had previously said they would attend the parade, which is one of Russia’s most prominent and high-profile events.

“Everything is being done consistent with the plan,” Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in an interview with newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, adding there were no plans to change the date, despite the global pandemic that has quarantined entire cities and shut down almost all cross-border travel.

People are eager to take part in this historic event and are working themselves into a sweat

Mr Konashenkov added that “unprecedented preventive measures” have been taken to protect against infection and parade participants were having their temperatures checked three times a day.

Senegal requests $221m in IMF funding

Neil Munshi in Lagos

Senegal has completed discussions to secure $221m in funding from the IMF to help cushion the economic blow from the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement the fund said the pandemic had caused remittances from Senegalese living abroad to drop and crippled the country’s tourism industry. The west African country has reported 175 confirmed cases so far.

The funds “will allow the authorities to meet the urgent budgetary and balance of payment needs,” the fund said.

The funding will need to be approved by the IMF’s executive board, which is set to consider it by mid-April.

Spanish death toll exceeds 10,000

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

More than 10,000 people have now died in Spain after contracting coronavirus, a record 950 of them in the last 24 hours, although the spread of the virus has decelerated since its peak.

Government figures released on Thursday showed a cumulative total of 10,003 coronavirus deaths, compared with 9,053 a day before.

There are now 110,238 confirmed cases of coronavirus — an 8 per cent increase on the previous day’s figure.

The relatively low rise in the number of cases — at earlier stages there were daily increases of 25 per cent or more — comes two and a half weeks into a nationwide lockdown that was intensified this week. But Spanish authorities acknowledge that the real figure is significantly higher, since the tests are mainly of people who have been hospitalised rather than the nation as a whole.

So far, 6,092 people have been treated for the effects of the virus in intensive care, while 26,743 have recovered.

Coronavirus to cause hundreds of billions of euros in losses, says ifo

Coronavirus will lead to production losses worth hundreds of billions of euros across Europe due to paralysis in the economy caused by lockdown measures.

Two months of partial closure in the UK – in which products and services deemed essential are still provided – will generate €193bn-328bn in losses, said the Munich-based ifo Institute, representing an 8 to 13 per cent fall in annual production. If the shutdown extends into a third month, the costs could rise to between €271bn-480bn.

“We urgently need companies to take precautions that would allow them to resume production while still containing the spread of the epidemic,” said ifo president Clemens Fuest. “If the shutdown lasts for more than a month, the production losses quickly reach dimensions that are well beyond the growth slump of previous recessions or natural disasters, at least in the history of the European Union.”

The ifo made forecasts for the UK, Italy, Spain, France, Austria and Switzerland.

In Italy, which has been particularly hard hit, ifo estimates that the costs of a two‑month partial shutdown will amount to €143bn-234bn; in Spain, a lockdown period of the same length would incur €101bn-171bn in losses.

Senior UK health official voices frustration over lack of testing

Laura Hughes and Bethan Staton in London

A top British health official has said “everybody involved is frustrated” over a lack of coronavirus testing as the UK government scrambles to increase capacity.

Ministers are facing mounting criticism over the speed at which testing has been rolled out and a lack of clarity over what role it will play in the government’s exit strategy from the lockdown.

The government admitted on Wednesday that just 2,000 out of 500,000 frontline National Health Service staff have had tests for coronavirus. Thousands are self-isolating out of fear they have been infected.

“Everybody involved is frustrated that we haven’t got to the position yet that we need to get to,” Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director of Public Health England, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday. “We’ve not got as far as we’ve wanted to.

Sir Paul said his institute was working with other laboratory organisations such as Cancer Research UK to prepare similar testing capacity.

Read the full story here

Opinion: It is time to make amends to the low-paid essential worker

Sarah O’Connor in London

Economies around the world are going into hibernation. Governments that have imposed lockdowns to slow the spread of coronavirus are focused on how to help the millions who have been put out of work. But not everyone is hunkered down at home. Essential workers must go out to keep the lights on and their fellow citizens fed. This has exposed an uncomfortable truth: the people we need the most are often the ones we value the least.

The situation is particularly stark in the UK. Doctors and nurses have rightly received an outpouring of national gratitude, but they are not the only ones on the front line. The list of “key workers” also includes those who work in nurseries, care homes, food factories, warehouses and delivery drivers. These are some of the worst paid and most insecure jobs in the British economy.

Read more here

StanChart launches $50m fund coronavirus relief fund

Stephen Morris in London

Standard Chartered has started a $50m fund to provide assistance to people affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The money will be split evenly between an immediate donation to emergency relief efforts in the bank’s most important markets across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, with the remainder distributed “over the medium term to recover from the economic impact of the virus”, the London-based lender said in a statement.

“The group’s board and management team members will be making personal contributions to the fund,” it added, without providing specifics on the amount of executive pay being donated.

StanChart has previously pledged to provide as much as $1bn of loans, import-export financing and working capital at preferential rates for companies helping stem the spread of the virus and treat victims.

British Airways set to suspend 32,000 staff temporarily

Tanya Powley in London

British Airways is expected to announce plans to suspend about 32,000 employees as the airline seeks to cut costs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The airline is in talks with union Unite about temporarily suspending staff, with an announcement expected later today. BA said talks were continuing with Unite.

The move could affect about 32,000 staff, a person familiar with the matter has said. This would range from cabin crew, ground staff, engineers to head office. Staff affected by the job suspensions are expected to receive some of their wages through the government’s job retention scheme.

BA agreed a deal with its 4,000 pilots last month, which will see them required to take two weeks of unpaid leave in each month April and May, with a deduction from basic pay spread over three months.

The expected move comes as airlines are looking at ways to cut costs as they battle the industry’s worst crisis in years.

Investors lose out on £13bn in dividend payments, says Peel Hunt

Investors have to look elsewhere to find income over the coming months as more UK companies scrap or delay dividend payments.

About 120 companies from the FTSE 350 and AIM 100 indices have cancelled or suspended their dividends, equating to a total loss to investors of £13.6bn, said trading house Peel Hunt.

More businesses in the building industry have cancelled dividends than any other sector. The 29 companies that have done so account for 78 per cent of the industry, while the next highest numbers are among industrial and travel and leisure companies.

Only about 40 companies from the same pool have committed to paying their dividends, which total £8.5bn, while roughly 100 companies have announced dividends but are yet to confirm if they are going ahead with payments that come to £13.6bn.

Global Covid-19 case count approaches 1m

Steve Bernard, FT data visualisation journalist

The worldwide coronavirus case count has risen towards 1m as the outbreak intensifies in Europe and the US, while Asia contends with a second wave.

Confirmed infections rose by 76,836 on Wednesday, bringing the current tally to 938,063. At the current rate of increase, the number of infections will reach the 1m mark by the end of Thursday.

The death toll also increased by 4,883 on Wednesday, another daily high, with the number of fatalities hitting 47,269.

America’s situation continues to worsen as the daily figure increased by 26,473 on Wednesday. New York State was once again hardest hit adding 7,918 cases to stand at 83,901 and 2,219 fatalities. Spain was the only country to record more cases than New York with 8,195 pushing its total over 100,000 to 104,118.

The UK also had its darkest day registering 4,324 new confirmed cases, a 44 per cent increase on Tuesday’s daily numbers. The country’s death toll increased by 563, a 31 per cent increase on Tuesday’s figure to stand at 2,352.

The global number of recovered cases rose by 15,872 yesterday, leaving a total of 193,989 free from the virus.

UK science institute develops rapid testing for frontline workers

Camilla Hodgson in London

London’s Francis Crick Institute has developed a rapid diagnostic coronavirus test and says it hopes to test 500 frontline workers a day from next week.

The research centre, which is a partnership between Cancer Research UK and several of the capital’s universities, said it aimed to increase testing to 2,000 people per day, and would be giving National Health Service staff priority.

“Institutes like ours are coming together with a Dunkirk spirit – small boats that collectively can have a huge impact on the national endeavour,” said Paul Nurse, director of the Crick Institute.

The test, which uses polymerase chain reaction testing and has been verified against the national standard, was developed in partnership with University College London Hospitals, NHS Foundation Trust and its diagnostic partner Health Services Laboratories.

Starting with UCLH, the Crick will offer its testing to other hospitals. In addition to performing tests at the Crick, more than 100 of the Institute’s scientists have volunteered to do shifts in Public Health England’s testing labs.

Ask the FT about how to access UK government help

Join a live discussion on Thursday with the FT’s chief business correspondent Daniel Thomas.

In response to the economic threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government last week unveiled a £330bn package of bailout loans alongside an extraordinary offer of wage subsidies. But the speed of the response has left banks, regulators and Treasury officials scrambling to find ways to get the money to the companies that need it most.

Have you seen a significant decrease in revenue? Have you had to close operations temporarily or permanently? Will you furlough employees? And if so, how much of your workforce? 

LandSec property group launches £80m fund for struggling UK tenants

George Hammond in London

LandSec, the UK’s largest listed property group by assets, has launched an £80m relief fund for its tenants struggling as a result of coronavirus.

The funds will be targeted at retailers, bars and restaurants on the company’s estate, which includes a number of properties in the City of London.

With the government mandating the closure of non-essential shops, many retailers and food and beverage businesses have struggled to pay their rent. On March 25, the rent day for the quarter, LandSec received just 37 per cent of the rent it was due from retailers.

The £80m fund is aimed at “customers who need our help most to survive,” said the company. £15m will be allocated to food and beverage businesses and the remainder will be distributed on a case by case basis.

Landsec also announced it was suspending its dividend on Thursday. “It just isn’t clear how long these circumstances will persist,” said interim chief executive Martin Greenslade.

Germany reports 140 more deaths as rate of new cases slows

Tobias Buck in Berlin

The rate of new cases slowed for a fifth day in Germany, as containment measures slowed the growth rate of the virus in more countries.

The biggest economic power in Europe reported 6,156 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, taking total infections to 73,522 since the start of the crisis. The number of Covid-19 deaths rose by 140 to 872, an increase of 19 per cent.

It was the fifth day in a row that new cases rose by less than 10 per cent from one day to the next – a notable slowdown in the growth rate compared with the previous week.

Germany’s case fatality rate rose to 1.2 per cent, higher than in recent weeks but still significantly below the death rate in countries such as Italy and Spain. In Italy, for example, more than one in 10 patients with Covid-19 have died so far.

Spain posts biggest increase in jobless figures

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

Spain has recorded the biggest jump in unemployment in its history, with more than 800,000 people losing their jobs as the coronavirus crisis hits the economy.

Figures for March released on Thursday morning showed the number of people making social security contributions had fallen by 833,979 – the biggest monthly slide on record.

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Those officially registering as unemployed rose by 302,265, again by far the biggest such shift in Spain’s history. The disparity between the two figures is due to the fact that some who lose their jobs may not be eligible for unemployment benefit or may not yet have signed on.

Spain had a 14 per cent unemployment rate before the crisis struck and the importance of tourism and manufacturing in its mix has left it particularly vulnerable to the economic impact of efforts to fight coronavirus, notably a two-and-a-half week old lockdown and more recent measures to ban “non-essential” work temporarily.

The government is trying to limit job losses by making it easier for employers to lay off staff temporarily, rather than permanently.

Spain has the third-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, after the US and Italy, and the second-highest death count.

Russia’s Covid-19 case count rises by 28% to 3,547

Henry Foy in Moscow

Russia reported a record 771 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, a 28 per cent jump that takes its total to 3,547.

The country has fewer cases than other major European states but its numbers have risen sharply over the past week.

After a fall in new cases on Wednesday, the recent surge sees Russia return to a trend of doubling infections every three days.

Pets at Home upgrades forecast as cat and dog owners stockpile

Patricia Nilsson in London

Pets at Home has upgraded its profit expectations for the full year, amid “exceptional levels” of demand as the pandemic outbreak has spurred people to stockpile pet food and grooming products.

The Manchester-based group, which was designated an “essential retailer” by the government, on Thursday said pre-tax profit for the year ending March 26 would be “slightly” ahead of £97.1m, the end range of previous guidance.

“In difficult times consumers turn to trusted brands and advice,” said Peter Pritchard, chief executive. “Never has our role as a pet care provider been more important, and never have we been more determined to serve the nation’s pet owners”.

Pets at Home said it would not be “appropriate” to give guidance for the year ahead. Its share price was down about 2 per cent in morning trading.

“The fact that they have benefited from stockpiling is not unexpected,” said Adam Tomlinson at Liberum.

He said management had shown confidence in the business by not suspending dividend payments, but added that the pets supply group was not immune from the economic impact of the pandemic.

Social distancing measures at shops would hit the business, Mr Tomlinson said, and some shops in close proximity to one another could have to close.

Quick corporate round-up from Cat Rutter Pooley’s opening quote

Hays, the global recruitment group, is doing an equity placing to raise £200m, equivalent to 12.4 per cent of its current share capital.

The global recruitment group joins a host of others as a trickle of company cash calls turns into a steady stream. Carnival, the Florida-headquartered but FTSE-listed cruise ship operator, is the biggest while more UK groups follow suit. Last week travel concession operator SSP tapped investors for £216m in new equity capital, yesterday Autotrader announced it was raising cash.

A relaxation of rules, which were announced on Wednesday, allows companies to dilute existing investors by issuing new shares up to 19.9 per cent of their capital on a non-preemptive basis to get cash in the door more quickly.

Normally only 10 per cent is allowed without a shareholder vote. That change recognises the desperate situation many businesses find themselves in. About half of UK companies plan to furlough staff because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to surveys, a higher proportion than the Treasury had expected.

In non-corona news on job moves: William Hill has found a new chief financial officer, after the previous candidate changed his mind about joining the bookmaker last week. It has recruited Matt Ashley from National Express. The company has itself a new chief operating officer. Stephen Parry will join from rival Flutter later in the year.

Feel free to sign up to Cat’s opening quote here.

India’s economic activity falls to four-month low amid lockdown

Benjamin Parkin in New Delhi

India’s manufacturing activity fell to a four-month low in March in an early indication of the disruption the country’s lockdown is having on the economy

The IHS Markit Indian manufacturing purchasing managers’ index fell to 51.8 in March, down from 54.5 a month earlier, with readings for output and new component orders declining.

While India was initially shielded from the immediate shock of Covid-19 as it spread across Asia, infections in the country accelerated in March and prompted the government to order a series of tough measures. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 announced a three-week lockdown that would see all but essential economic activity grind to a halt and citizens stay at home.

The move is expected to have a dramatic impact across India’s already slowing economy, including its manufacturers. But the current survey, which was taken between March 11 and 25, does not account for the extent of that dislocation.

“The reading has yet to capture the impact of the nationwide lockdown which began at the end of the month,” said Capital Economics in a note. “April’s reading, and possibly beyond, will be far worse.”

Capital Economics expects India’s GDP to reach a four-decade low of 1 per cent this year.

UK energy supplier Centrica to slash spending

Nathalie Thomas in Edinburgh

Centrica has become the latest UK company to cancel its dividend, withdraw its financial guidance and outline plans to reduce spending in response to the pandemic.

Britain’s biggest energy supplier said it had already witnessed a “significant” reduction in energy demand from businesses that were forced to close after the UK government imposed a lockdown last week, as it also suspended asset sales.

Centrica had been seeking to sell off its share of its upstream oil and gas production joint business – Spirit Energy – and its 20 per cent stake in the UK’s operational nuclear power plants.

The actions also include a further £400m reduction in spending this year. Electricity demand in Britain has declined by around 10 per cent since the restrictions came into force last Tuesday.

Brent crude rises sharply on hopes producers reach deal

Anjli Raval reports from London

Brent crude surged more than 12 per cent on hopes that major oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, would reach a supply deal to alleviate the commodity’s price collapse triggered by the coronavirus outbreak.

US president Donald Trump said he had spoken in recent days with the leaders of Russia and Saudi Arabia and believed a deal to end a price war – that has taken Brent to its lowest level since 2002 – would be made in “a few days”.

Saudi Arabia had pushed for a deal to deepen and prolong production curbs ahead of a March meeting of oil ministers, but it was met with reluctance by Russia. This prompted Saudi Arabia to pursue a pump at will strategy, cutting prices for its crude and raising production to record levels.

“I think that they will work it out over the next few days… Both know what they have to do,” Trump told a White House press conference, without giving any further details.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, rose to $27.95 a barrel.

Saudi Arabia and Russia have both backed co-operation, yet there have been few signs of a strategy shift so far. The kingdom raised production to above 12m barrels a day, its maximum level, on Wednesday.

People close to the kingdom say the world’s biggest oil exporter still wants a deal, but any production curbs would need to be shared between all producers, including Russia.

UK papers attack government’s response to crisis

This morning’s newspapers make difficult reading for Boris Johnson’s government, which has come under criticism for its handling of the crisis.

Thursday’s front pages focus on two issues: the slow rollout of coronavirus testing, and the difficulties some health staff are having in accessing protective equipment.

Significantly, even typically supportive newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph are portraying this as government incompetence.

Here is a flavour:


FCA proposes credit card payments deferrals

The UK’s Financial Regulator has proposed a temporary payment freeze on loans and credit card bills for customers whose finances have been hit by the coronavirus crisis.

The Financial Conduct Authority said repayment should be frozen for three months, and that consumers should also be offered a £500 overdraft facility at zero interest, again for three months.

The measures will be put out for a brief consultation, and if confirmed would come into force by April 9.

Britain’s banks had asked regulators to relax the rules on credit card repayments as part of a series of measures to help customers cope during the coronavirus crisis.

Christopher Woolard, interim chief executive of the FCA, said:

If confirmed, this package of measures we are proposing today will help provide affected consumers with the temporary financial support they need to help them weather the storm during this challenging time.

News you might have missed

Mexico slashed its 2020 gross domestic product forecast and acknowledged it would have to spend its primary surplus because of the coronavirus crisis, as it predicted the economy could now contract by as much as 3.9 per cent.

Human rights groups and critics of Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday castigated the Philippine President for saying coronavirus quarantine violators should be shot if found causing “trouble” during community lockdowns.

Carnival Corporation has raised $500m in new equity, finalising the terms of a wider rescue deal that aims to stave off the risk of collapse for one of the world’s largest travel and leisure companies.

New Zealand’s central bank ordered the nation’s banks — most of which are owned by Australian lenders — to stop paying dividends and redeeming capital notes on Thursday

Australia refuses to allow international cruise ships to dock

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

Australian authorities are refusing to allow more than a dozen international cruise ships to dock due to fears of coronavirus infection, preventing the repatriation of 11,000 crew members in a dispute that trade unions warn risks creating a ‘humanitarian disaster’.

Peter Dutton, Australia’s home affairs minister, alleged on Thursday that some companies had been “lying” about the situation of the health of passengers and crew on board the ships that are lining up off the east and west coasts of Australia.

His comments followed new data showing almost a tenth of Australia’s total number of coronavirus cases can be linked to passengers and crew disembarking from cruise ships.

Tracking by New South Wales health officials show at least 464 cases in the state are linked to four cruise ships owned by multinational giants Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean.

One ship, the Ruby Princess, which is owned by Carnival, has been linked to 340 cases in New South Wales – an infection rate that has sparked a bruising political row between state and federal authorities over which arm of government was responsible for not adequately screening passengers.

“It’s clear that some of the companies have been lying about the situation of the health of passengers and crew on board,” said Mr Dutton, who revealed authorities were planning to send doctors onto the ships to undertake preliminary testing to determine the level of risk on each ship of coronavirus infections.

Coronavirus-hit cruise appeals for permission to dock in Florida

Jude Webber in Mexico City

A coronavirus-hit cruise liner on which four people have died and up to 10 passengers need immediate critical care will arrive in US waters early on Thursday, as its operator appealed for “compassion” to dock in Florida after a fraught Latin American journey in which it was repeatedly turned away from ports.

After transferring healthy passengers from the stricken Zaandam to a sister ship, the Rotterdam, at the weekend, the vessels were allowed through the Panama Canal as a humanitarian gesture after what Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford called a display of “not my problem syndrome”.

“Holland America Line is awaiting confirmation to disembark guests from Zaandam and Rotterdam in Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” it said in a statement, adding it was working with authorities to get the nearly 1,200 guests who are fit to travel onto flights home.

The mayor of Fort Lauderdale, Dean Trantalis, has opposed allowing the ship to dock, saying local hospitals are already under enough strain, but Holland America said it had lined up a facility for the “estimated less than 10 people” who needed emergency care.

The company wants to keep 45 passengers who are still exhibiting “mild illness” isolated on board; they would not disembark until they are recovered.

Nearly 100 passengers and 136 crew on the ships have presented influenza-like symptoms since March 22. There are now 808 passengers and 583 crew on the Rotterdam and 442 guests and 603 crew on Zaandam.

“Holland America Line calls for compassion and reason in the review and approval of our disembarkation plan by Florida officials,” the company said. Four elderly patients have already died on board the Zaandam.

Duterte says police can ‘shoot’ if lives at risk during lockdowns

John Reed in Bangkok

Human rights groups and critics of Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday castigated the Philippine President for saying coronavirus quarantine violators should be shot if found causing “trouble” during community lockdowns.

Mr Duterte, who has faced international condemnation for the shootings by police and armed vigilantes of drug suspects and others during his anti-narcotics crackdown, made the comments in a late-night speech on Wednesday.

“I will not hesitate,” the Philippine president said in remarks quoted by the website Rappler. “My orders are to the police and military, also the barangay [district government], that if there is trouble or the situation arises that people fight and your lives are on the line, shoot them dead. Do you understand?”

Senators from Mr Duterte’s small opposition condemned the remarks, as did Butch Olano, director of Amnesty International’s Philippine section, who described the shoot to kill remarks as “deeply alarming”.

Luzon island and greater Manila, where more than 12m people live, are under one of Asia’s strictest lockdowns. Earlier on Wednesday 21 residents of Quezon City, near Manila, were arrested after holding a protest to ask for government help.

Campaigners have accused Philippine authorities of mistreating some of those accused of breaking the government’s Covid-19 regulations, using punishments that according to Human Rights Watch included putting detainees in dog cages. The Philippine Congress last week passed a law giving Mr Duterte 30 new powers to fight the Covid-19 outbreak.

Social media companies open new front in fight with EU

Social media companies have launched a concerted effort to block misinformation during the coronavirus crisis, opening a new front in their battle to stop a clampdown on their activity by EU regulators.

The global health crisis has the potential to change the dynamic of the long-running contest between European regulators and the US tech sector. This comes less than two months after Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg went to Brussels, only to see the EU reject his vision of how online content should be regulated.

It is still unclear whether their actions will translate into more favourable policy.
And while the removal of misinformation from global leaders has garnered attention, experts say the platforms continue to host harmful information in private forums, as well as in adverts, for example for unsubstantiated cures.

Read more here

Coronavirus pandemic reveals gaps in China’s surveillance state

To the outside world, China can often seem like a surveillance monolith, with the government accused of having access to all data held by companies in the country. But the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated a messier reality.

Although Beijing has tools that many other governments would not be able to usually deploy to track potentially infected people, such as location data from individual phones and facial recognition technology, the country’s ability to access personal data is at times limited.

Read the full FT story here

Mexico cuts GDP forecast for 2020 over coronavirus impact

Jude Webber in Mexico City

Mexico slashed its 2020 gross domestic product forecast and acknowledged it would have to spend its primary surplus because of the coronavirus crisis, as it predicted the economy could now contract by as much as 3.9 per cent.

The finance ministry, bowed to the inevitable and forecast a primary deficit of 0.4 per cent of GDP, compared with a target of a surplus of 0.7 per cent in a statement late on Wednesday. It also expected the public sector borrowing requirement to be 4.4 per cent of GDP, compared with 2.6 per cent previously.

Pemex, the loss-making national oil company that is struggling to fend off a second ratings downgrade to junk, could require more state aid but will seek new financing sources, the statement said, apparently opening the door to private sector participation in the state icon — something ruled out by president Andrés Manuel López Obrador until now.

“The government of Mexico … is evaluating additional support measures to those already implemented for this year. Nevertheless, Pemex will seek to make economies as well as alternative sources of income to face the effect on its finances of the reduction in the price of oil,” the statement said.

The GDP goal for 2020 is a range of minus 3.9 per cent to 0.1 per cent, compared with a previous target of 2 per cent growth this year that most economists thought was well out of reach even before the Covid-19 emergency. Market estimates are for a contraction of as much as 7 per cent.

The ministry, whose 2020 budget was widely considered overly optimistic, nonetheless believes the economy will bounce back in 2021 with growth of 1.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent.

The new assumption is for an average exchange rate of 22 pesos to the dollar and a price of $24 for the Mexican oil export mix, half the level on which the 2020 budget was drawn up, and oil production of 1.85m barrels of oil per day. Given that at current oil prices much of Pemex’s production is unprofitable, that goal also appeared ambitious.

Hong Kong’s economy provides early glimpse of global virus impact

Before the coronavirus claimed its first victims in Europe or the US, it was taking its toll on Hong Kong’s economy.

The finance- and tourism-dependent city, already weakened by US-China trade tension and anti-government protests last year, is an early indicator of the impact of the virus on hospitality and retail around the world.

Visitor numbers to the territory collapsed by 96 per cent in February, while the latest data shows unemployment figures creeping higher.

Attractions such as Disneyland have been shut for more than two months, and local hotels have slashed their prices as a “race to the bottom” beckons.

Read more here.

Carnival finalises terms of debt and equity rescue deal

Eric Platt in New York and Thomas Hale in Hong Kong

Carnival Corporation has raised $500m in new equity, finalising the terms of a wider rescue deal that aims to stave off the risk of collapse for one of the world’s largest travel and leisure companies.

The equity injection, which is lower than both the initial $1.25bn the company planned to raise and a subsequent target of $750m reported this week, is part of a wider deal worth more than $6bn.

Panama-based Carnival is one of the most prominent corporate examples of the devastating financial impact of the coronavirus, which killed passengers aboard several of its cruise ships and hit future bookings.

The finalisation of the fundraising comes after Carnival increased the size of the debt part of its rescue deal from $3bn to $4bn.

The bonds, which are secured against the company’s cruise ships and other assets which it says are worth $28bn, were priced at a yield of almost 12 per cent – a rate usually associated with the riskier portion of the corporate debt market.

Carnival is also raising $1.75bn in convertible debt that matures in 2023.

Read more about the deal here.

Coronavirus wreaks havoc among Asia-Pacific pension funds

Fears of retirees making panicked runs on investments, a new generation of workers facing higher premiums and a $1.4tn state fund defying tradition to move away from domestic bonds are all part of the turmoil that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought on Asia-Pacific’s pensions industry.

Investment funds and policymakers across the region, the first to be hit by the viral outbreak, have been forced to reassess their until now ironclad promises of money in retirement for ageing populations.

Read the full FT story by Jamie Smyth in Sydney, Edward White in Wellington and Leo Lewis in Tokyo here

US braces for severe spike in unemployment

A wave of coronavirus lay-offs is looming in the US as companies that had hoped for a short interruption to their operations prepare for a longer, more severe downturn.

Large companies have put hundreds of thousands of staff on unpaid leave this week, bowing to the reality of a prolonged shutdown and setting the scene for another historic high in jobless claims when official weekly figures come out on Thursday.

Read the full FT story by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson and Alistair Gray here

Mexico warns coronavirus emergency could last until September

Jude Webber in Mexico City

Mexico has launched a mobile app to help manage the country’s coronavirus emergency that Hugo López-Gatell, health undersecretary, said could last until September.

The number of confirmed cases in Mexico hit 1,378 on Wednesday, a 13 per cent rise on Tuesday as deaths rose to 37 from 29 a day earlier.

As cities hunkered down, the governor of the northern state of Nuevo León, Jaime Rodríguez, caused a furore by announcing a nationwide ban on alcohol sales from Friday, saying it was a non-essential industry.

Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum dismissed rumours of a so-called “dry law” as fake news.

Mr Rodríguez’s comments apparently sparked panic buying with images of long queues of cars outside beer stores lining up in the northern city of Monterrey.

Israel’s health minister tests positive for coronavirus

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv

Israel’s health minister, Yaakov Litzman, and his wife Chava tested positive for Covid-19, the state broadcaster said, hours after prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the wearing of masks in public compulsory.

Mr Litzman is an ultra-orthodox rabbi, and has been under intense criticism for the surge of cases in the ultra-orthodox community, which until recently resisted the government’s instructions on closing synagogues and ending large prayer groups. He will enter quarantine at his home, his office said.

It is not clear when Mr Litzman was last in contact with Mr Netanyahu, who has been self-isolating since another ultra-orthodox aide also tested positive for the virus. Mr Netanyahu tested negative, but has remained in isolation out of caution.

Residents of the primarily ultra-orthodox town of Bnei Barak will face strict restrictions on their travel, the prime minister said, and sick inhabitants will be taken away for quarantine in converted hotels to try and stem the rate of new infections in the community.

Outside international travel and transmission within family members, at least a third of new infections in Israel have been traced back to synagogues — and the local press estimate that the ultra-orthodox, 10 per cent of the population, make up a majority of those requiring urgent hospitalisation.

“The ultra-orthodox public has well internalised the danger of the spread of the coronavirus,” Mr Netanyahu said while announcing the closure. “It is listening to the instructions and is behaving responsibly, with full backing from the rabbis.”

At least 26 people have died of coronavirus-related complications and 6,000 are confirmed ill in Israel.

New Zealand orders banks to halt dividend payments

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

New Zealand’s central bank ordered the nation’s banks — most of which are owned by Australian lenders — to stop paying dividends and redeeming capital notes on Thursday in a move to bolster their balance sheets during the coronavirus crisis.

The restrictions enter into force on Thursday and follow similar moves by European monetary authorities, which asked banks last week to refrain from paying dividends or share buy backs to enable banks to better support the economy during what is expected to be a deep recession.

Geoff Bascand, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s deputy governor and general manager for financial stability, said the measures would act as a buffer during a period of economic uncertainty and would prevent banks from paying dividends on ordinary shares or redeeming non-CET1 capital instruments.

“This initiative further supports the stability of the financial system by maintaining higher levels of capital during the period of falling economic activity resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Mr Bascand.

The block on bank dividends comes as the RBNZ steps up its support for the economy by unveiling a long-term lending facility that provides cheap funding to local banks to advance to small and medium businesses.

Analysts said the move by the RBNZ would put pressure on Australian banks’ dividends policies, as their New Zealand subsidiaries account for about a tenth of the dividends they pay out to shareholders.

“This will be an added pressure for the banks on higher dividend payout ratios to bring them back down under 70 per cent sooner,” said Nathan Zaia, analyst at Morningstar.

News you might have missed

Greece has banned swimming and watersports around its coastline for as long as the country remains in lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Sailing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding as well as snorkelling and spearfishing are included in the ban, a shipping ministry official said.

Panama, not content with a strict quarantine, has implemented a new social distancing strategy: men and women are now only allowed out on separate days. Women can go out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and men are permitted to leave their homes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Sunday is “everyone at home” day, according to the health ministry. Panama has one of the highest number of coronavirus cases in Latin America.

Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan has launched a new youth movement known as ‘Corona relief Tigers’ to deliver relief supplies to the poorest segments of society, as the country counts its losses from a de facto lockdown.

American Airlines has drawn down revolving loans totalling $2.7bn, borrowing the funds from credit agreements it set up with banks in 2013, 2014 and 2016. The 2013 and 2016 revolvers were tapped in full, while an additional $110m remains on the 2014 agreement.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Brazil more than tripled in the past week to 6,836 on Wednesday afternoon, with 240 fatalities, as president Jair Bolsonaro tried to soothe political tensions over his response to the outbreak.

Three of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, Merck, Pfizer and Eli Lilly, have announced plans that will allow global employees with medical and laboratory expertise to volunteer their services to local healthcare systems and those most affected by coronavirus.

The UN climate talks set to take place in Glasgow in November will be postponed to 2021 due to coronavirus, delaying a round of new global climate commitments. The talks, which would have been one of the biggest diplomatic summits ever hosted by the UK, will still take place in Glasgow at a date to be determined in 2021.

Mexico could this year suffer a 17 per cent fall in remittances – which last year hit a record of $36bn – because of the coronavirus crisis, dealing a severe blow to millions of Mexicans and to the states of Michoacán, Oaxaca and Zacatecas, for whom remittances make up more than 10 per cent of GDP, according to a study by BBVA.

Amundi, Europe’s largest asset manager has proposed suspending its dividend payment, becoming the first big global investment company to take such a move.

Two-thirds of elderly care homes in eastern France have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and 570 residents have died from the disease in the Grand Est region alone, according to regional health authorities cited by French media. Those 570 people are not recorded in France’s official coronavirus death toll, which has reached 4,032 but so far counts only those who have died in hospital.

Coming up today: A live Q&A on the UK’s rescue package

In response to the economic threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government last week unveiled a £330bn package of bailout loans alongside an extraordinary offer of wage subsidies. But the speed of the response has left banks, regulators and Treasury officials scrambling to find ways to get the money to the companies that need it most.

Dan Thomas, the FT’s chief business correspondent, will be answering your questions about the rescue package in a live Q&A tomorrow. Click here to join the conversation.

American Hospital Association urges insurers to speed up payments

Hannah Kuchler in New York

The American Hospital Association is calling on health insurers to help keep hospitals open during the crisis, by speeding up payments and cutting administration.

US hospitals are suffering from reduced revenue after cancelling elective procedures to treat — or prepare to treat — patients suffering from Covid-19.

The AHA said they need help from private insurance, even after government measures to ease the burden, such as accelerating payments for the public-funded Medicare health insurance for seniors.

In a letter to the leaders of seven insurers including Anthem, United, and Aetna, Richard Pollack, chief executive of the AHA, asked that private insurers make payments more quickly and waive rules that require physicians to ask for authorisation before some treatments.

“You could make a significant difference in whether a hospital or health system keeps their doors open during this critical time,” he said.

Asia-Pacific stocks mixed after Wall Street drop

Asia-Pacific stocks diverged on Thursday, following a sharp drop on Wall Street after countries extended lockdowns to control the spread of the virus and predictions for the pandemic’s likely death toll rattled investors.

The Topix index in Japan was down 0.5 per cent and the S&P/ASX 200 in Australia shed 2.1 per cent. South Korea’s Kospi gained 1 per cent.

Overnight on Wall Street, US benchmark S&P 500 closed 4.4 per cent lower with banks and airlines among those hardest hit by renewed concerns over the pandemic. Surveys of manufacturers in the eurozone and Asia also highlighted the economic pain caused by the outbreak.

S&P 500 futures pointed to a 0.9 per cent gain when markets reopen in the US.

Trump looking at domestic flight ban to curb Covid-19 spread

Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

Donald Trump said he was looking “very strongly” at banning domestic air travel, in a dramatic step to curb the spread of coronavirus that would have a severe impact on the reeling aviation industry.

Mr Trump said he may announce some recommendations soon, but added that he was conscious it would be a significant step because of the potential damage to the US airline industry.

“You really are clamping down on an industry that is desperately needed,” Mr Trump said. “That is a calculation that we’re looking at right now.”

Later in the White House briefing, Mr Trump suggested that any ban on domestic travel could be more limited, saying: “We are thinking about hotspots.”

Mr Trump spoke as the number of US coronavirus cases topped 206,000 and the death toll rose to 4,633, an almost 50 per cent rise from Tuesday. New York remains the worst hotspot with almost 2,000 deaths, while 355 people have died in New Jersey. Louisiana, a state with a much smaller population, has recorded 273 deaths.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mike Pence, the US vice-president and head of the White House coronavirus task force, said the virus could return in the fall or winter, but stressed that the US would be better prepared at that point.

“We will be in a much, much better place … if the coronavirus stays with us,” Mr Pence told CNN.

With the White House forecasting that as many as 240,000 people could die, Mr Pence was asked why the federal government was not following the example of many states and ordering a national “stay-at-home” policy. But he sidestepped the question, saying he had been “very inspired” at how people were heeding the social distancing guidelines that were recommended for 15 days and then extended by a month until the end of April.

Earlier on Wednesday, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, issued a stay-at-home order for the 21m residents of the state, which as a retirement destination has a much larger proportion of vulnerable elderly people.



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