Commerzbank suspends dividend following ECB pressure

Olaf Storbeck in Frankfurt

Commerzbank has suspended its dividend for 2019 after the European Central Bank urged European lenders to stop payouts to shareholders in an attempt to boost their ability to digest credit losses and keep lending during the coronavirus pandemic.

Germany’s second largest listed lender had planned to pay €0.15 cents per share or €188m to shareholders after generating €644m in profit last year.

“Given the uncertainties surrounding the [coronavirus] pandemic, it makes sense to follow the ECB’s recommendation and suspend dividend payments for the time being,” Martin Zielke, the bank’s chief executive, said in a statement on Monday.

Mr Zielke said the bank would decide any potential payouts for the current fiscal year once the coronavirus turmoil was over.

He added that Commerzbank’s capital buffers were “strong” and that the bank’s liquidity position was “comfortable”.

Deutsche Bank, which is in the middle of a historic restructuring that triggered a €5.7bn loss in 2019, last year said that it won’t make any payouts to shareholders before 2021.

Mexican president says he will not impose ‘state of siege’

Jude Webber in Mexico City

Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ruled out following in the footsteps of some other countries and using security forces to ensure that people stay in their homes, as the health ministry has exhorted, to try to curb the spread of coronavirus.

“No state of siege. No authoritarianism,” he told his morning news conference.

Mexico’s General Health Council, presided over by the president, will meet later to discuss additional measures. Mr López Obrador, who has been sharply criticised for failing to respect health ministry advice on social distancing and for continuing his weekend travels around Mexico, said the scientists “will recommend to us what we have to do”.

Hugo López-Gatell, health undersecretary, has stressed that Mexico faces a now-or-never moment to flatten the Covid-19 curve, but has lamented that only around 30 per cent of people are staying at home.

Mexico had 993 confirmed cases and 20 deaths as of Sunday night.

Poland’s government says restrictions on public life will be even stricter

James Shotter in Warsaw reports:

Poland’s government is planning further restrictions to public life, as officials warn that the number of coronavirus infections is expected to rise rapidly in the coming weeks.

Michal Dworczyk, the top aide to prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, said that the new measures would be unveiled on Tuesday, without giving further details of what they would be.

Poland has already introduced a number of far-reaching restrictions in an effort to stop the spread of the virus, including closing its borders, shutting schools and non-essential shops and banning gatherings of more than two people.

At the same time, health minister Lukasz Szumowski warned that the country, which has so far recorded 1,984 cases and 26 deaths from the novel virus, was not even at the “end of the beginning of its outbreak”.

He said:

We are expecting bigger increases in the coming days. I am convinced that in the coming days we will reach a figure of several thousand,” he told a press conference.

To a large extent, it depends on us whether there will be hundreds of thousands of infected patients or fewer.

Russia ramps up testing as Moscow enters lockdown

Max Seddon in Moscow

Russian president Vladimir Putin has ordered officials to ramp up coronavirus testing and take sweeping measures to prevent its spread, as Moscow introduces lockdown measures.

Mr Putin said on Monday in a meeting with regional plenipotentiaries that Russia would conduct a full inventory of medical supplies and set up new diagnosis centres to raise testing numbers “as quickly as possible”.

“We are doing everything now so that this threat does not affect a large number of people, but every region should be prepared,” Mr Putin said, according to Interfax. “We must take all essential measures in this situation, even if they seem somewhat excessive for Russia to people who aren’t familiar with the issue. As they say, God helps those who help themselves.”

Russia has sharply increased its coronavirus protection measures over the past week after Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin warned Mr Putin that there were likely to be many more cases of Covid-19 than reported through testing. But the approach has remained piecemeal, with Mr Putin largely delegating the announcement of strict new measures to local governors.

Mr Sobyanin required all Muscovites not to leave their houses except to go to the supermarket or chemist, as well as walking dogs no more than 100 feet from their homes. The rest of Russia has shut down nightclubs, shopping centres and cinemas but largely shied away from adopting Moscow’s stricter measures.

Mr Putin said that the decision was “justified and essential” for Moscow but claimed many governors were ignoring less onerous restrictions in other regions. “This isn’t just a lack of discipline and common sense, it’s criminal negligence,” Mr Putin said.

UAE schools to operate remotely until end of academic year

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

The United Arab Emirates is extending distance learning until the end of the academic year in June as the government steps up measures to contain the outbreak of coronavirus.

All schools and state universities will follow a new study plan from Wednesday, the education ministry said in a tweet. Schools have been teaching remotely since last week.

The move to keep educational premises closed until the end of the year comes as the Gulf state reported another 41 cases on Monday, bringing the total to 611, as well as another two deaths, bringing the number of Covid-19 fatalities to five.

The UAE has extended until this weekend a night-time curfew for all residents apart from key workers and those who apply for a permit to leave their homes. Residents have also been asked to stay at home as much as possible in the day time.

Johnson & Johnson and US government invest $1bn in vaccine

Hannah Kuchler reports:

Johnson & Johnson and the US government are teaming up to invest $1bn in the research and development of a newly selected vaccine for the coronavirus, which could start being tested on humans by September.

Shares in the world’s largest healthcare company rose 5.8 per cent to $130.17 on Monday morning in New York, a larger gain than the wider market, after it announced the significant expansion of its partnership with the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, known as BARDA.

J&J has been hunting for a vaccine candidate for Covid-19 since January. If the early trials go well, the company said the vaccine could be available by early 2021 to be used under an “emergency use authorisation”, a fast-track waiver from the US regulator.

J&J is rapidly scaling up its manufacturing capabilities as it prepares to produce a billion doses, and said it was committed to bringing it to market on a “not-for-profit” basis during the pandemic.

Junior barristers call for support for the newly qualified

Jane Croft reports:

More than 100 junior barristers have written to the Bar Council, which represents the profession, to raise concerns that newly qualified entrants will not be covered by the UK government’s scheme to help the self-employed during the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK government scheme will cover 80 per cent of self-employed people’s average monthly profits over the past three years, up to a cap of £2,500 per month. It is open to those with a trading profit of less than £50,000 in 2018-19 or an average trading profit of less than £50,000 from 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.

The scheme is likely to help ease the financial pressure on many self-employed barristers who will see a drop in income because court hearings have either been postponed or cancelled.

However a cohort of junior barristers who began their training in September 2018 fear they will not be covered. This is because they only started earning money in the second half of their training (or pupillage) which began in early April 2019 and so their latest returns for the tax year ended April 5 2019 are likely to show zero or very little income.

Matthew Turner, one of barristers affected, said that young barristers ought to be able to submit their upcoming tax returns from the tax year about to end in April 2020.

“We are all in a precarious position,” he said. “We have a lot of student debt and a lot of income comes from court hearings which are now not taking place. We are the most precarious and vulnerable members of the entire profession.”

Greece unveils wage subsidies as part of €6.8bn economic package

Kerin Hope in Athens

Greece has announced wage subsidies and tax breaks for more than 250,000 shuttered companies as part of a €6.8bn economic package intended to offset the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Christos Staikouras, finance minister, expects Greece to see negative growth this year of 3 per cent. “Our first priority is the protection of lives and of the public health service. Next comes the economy,” Mr Staikouras said.

More than 1.7m private sector workers in small and medium-sized businesses will receive an €800 wage subsidy next month. The handouts would cover 75 per cent of Greek companies and 81 per cent of employees, Mr Staikouras said.

More than 150,000 self-employed professionals, including lawyers, accountants, engineers, and doctors, are eligible for a €600m grant to join a training course in teleworking funded by an EU structural fund programme.

Mr Staikouras said more than €3.7bn of tax payments and social security contributions, due in March and April, would be suspended.

About €5bn of the package would be covered out of the 2020 budget and the remaining €1.8bn by unspent EU funds.

The new package amounts to 3.5 per cent of Greece’s gross domestic product. It would wipe out the projected 3.5 per cent of GDP primary budget surplus — before repayments of its sovereign debt — that the country is committed to achieving under the current agreement with its EU and IMF creditors.

By Sunday evening Greece had reported 1,156 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 38 deaths, mainly of people more than 65 years old.

BrightHouse collapses in the wake of coronavirus retail closures

Nicholas Megaw, retail banking correspondent, writes:

BrightHouse, the UK rent-to-own retailer, has collapsed into administration, putting 2,400 jobs at risk after the enforced closure of its stores last week exacerbated long-running problems at the chain.

The company provided household goods through hire-purchase agreements and high-cost cash loans, but had been hurt by a regulatory crackdown on high-cost lending and a surge in complaints about unaffordable lending.

The government has announced a string of measures to protect healthy companies from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but BrightHouse had been struggling since before the virus outbreak.

Its auditors at Deloitte warned in its last annual report that there was “material uncertainty” around its ability to continue operating.

On Monday, administrators at Grant Thornton took control of both Caversham Finance Limited — BrightHouse’s corporate name — and Caversham Trading Limited, which provides services for BrightHouse’s rent-to-own customers.

Grant Thornton said the business would immediately cease new lending activity, but would continue to provide servicing and insurance claims until further notice. It said customers with outstanding debts should continue to make payments in the usual way.

Dutch museum reports stolen Van Gogh painting

Mehreen Khan in Brussels

An Amsterdam art museum, which has been closed due to the coronavirus, has reported the theft of a prized work by artist Vincent van Gogh in an overnight burglary.

The Singer Laren museum in Amsterdam on Monday said that the work — “Spring Garden” — was taken in a raid in the early hours of the morning. Dutch police are investigating the theft.

Colombia’s National Liberation Army declares temporary ceasefire

Gideon Long, Andean correspondent, writes:

Colombia’s biggest leftwing guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has declared a month-long unilateral ceasefire to allow the country to deal with the pandemic.

In a statement, it described the move as “a humanitarian gesture” to help people suffering from “the devastation of the coronavirus”.

It urges the government to reopen negotiations towards a permanent peace deal and to release political prisoners from the country’s jails.

The ELN was founded in the 1960s, at the same time as the better-known guerrilla group, the Farc. While the Farc reached a peace deal with the state in 2016, the ELN remains active. The government says it will not talk to the group until it frees hostages and relinquishes violence.

Colombia has recorded 702 cases of Covid-19 and 10 deaths.

Messi and Barcelona FC to see wages slashed by up to 70 per cent

Lionel Messi and other members of Barcelona’s first football team have agreed to give up 70 per cent of their salaries, as a growing number of businesses slash the wages of their highest earners to free up cash flow.

The FC Barcelona Board of Directors and all of the members of Barcelona’s sports and basketball teams have also agreed to reduce their salaries “during the period of the state of alarm due to Covid-19”, said a statement from the sports group.

The news comes after 12 of the world’s highest earning clubs in Europe began negotiating reductions to wage bills last week, as they reckoned with a severe cash crunch due to matches being cancelled.

Wages at the top five European leagues of England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France come in at €9bn, accounting for 62 per cent of all club revenues, according to consultancy Deloitte.

German inflation rate drops on oil tumble and coronavirus hit

Martin Arnold reports:

German inflation sank in March as oil prices fell sharply and economic activity slowed in response to the disruption caused by coronavirus to Europe’s largest economy.

Harmonised consumer price inflation in Germany fell to 1.3 per cent in March, down from 1.7 per cent the previous month, according to official national statistics.
Energy prices fell 0.9 per cent, reflecting the dramatic drop in oil prices after Saudi Arabia started a price war with Russia.

However, food prices rose 3.7 per cent as Germans reacted to the spread of coronavirus by hoarding products like pasta and flour, a process which the Germans call Hamsterkäufe, which means shopping like hamsters.

The drop in German inflation, which follows several months of rising prices, means it has fallen further below the European Central Bank’s core objective for inflation to be below but close to 2 per cent.

UK union demands stricter rules for workers in food processing

Judith Evans in London

The trade union Unite has called for mandatory two-metre “social distancing” in food processing after some UK companies experienced mass absenteeism over health concerns.

Official guidance for food processing businesses says they should observe social distancing guidelines “as far as is reasonably possible”.

But Unite, which has thousands of members in the sector, has called on George Eustice, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, to make this a requirement.

“We have strenuously put it to them that if they do not implement it on production lines then the virus could spread rapidly throughout the factories,” said Bev Clarkson, Unite’s national officer for the food industry.

Workers at a chicken processing plant in Portadown in Northern Ireland staged a walkout last week over the issue, while rival companies said they had seen absenteeism go up.

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Wall Street opens 1% higher

Wall Street rose on Monday, after its biggest week in more than a decade, as investors weighed a massive US stimulus package and an extension of social distancing guidelines aimed at curtailing the coronavirus pandemic.

The S&P 500 opened 1.2 per cent higher after its biggest weekly gain since March 2009. The Nasdaq Composite rose 1.3 per cent.

Donald Trump on Sunday extended social distancing guidelines in the US until the end of April, raising concerns about the demand for oil, which briefly sent crude prices below $20 a barrel. Brent crude was down nearly 9 per cent at pixel time to $22.95 a barrel.

That followed the US approval of a $2tn stimulus package to cushion the blow to the economy. Investors are weighing up global efforts to offset the economic toll of the outbreak that has now infected more than 730,000 people worldwide and resulted in more than 35,000 deaths.

Elsewhere in markets, the yield on the US 10-year Treasury was down 10.3 basis points to 0.6415 per cent.

European stocks make tentative recovery

European stock markets recovered some ground after taking a tumble in early morning trading on Monday, while oil prices dropped to their lowest point in 18 years.

The benchmark Europe Stoxx 600 index edged was flat, after dropping as much as 2 per cent after the opening bell. London’s FTSE 100 was down 0.4 per cent, after dropping almost 3 per cent, while France’s Cac 40 was down by 0.7 per cent.

Airbus, listed on the Paris stock exchange, suffered a share price drop of roughly 8 per cent as the company battles to shore up its finances against a backdrop of critically weak global aircraft demand.

Wall Street’s S&P 500 futures, having dipped into negative earlier in the day, were up close to 1.3 per cent, pointing to a gain in US stocks when they start trading later in the day.

Analysts at UBS suggested that the rapid pace of declines in global markets could now start to cool, noting in a report that “the early stages of selling fatigue” may be setting in. “However, because infection rates are likely to keep rising for some time . . . it may be early to say a firm bottom has already been made,” the bank added.

UK restaurant group Carluccio’s falls into administration

Alice Hancock in London reports:

Carluccio’s, the Italian-themed restaurant chain, has gone into administration after a week of frantic attempts to find ways to survive the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced all UK restaurants to close.

Mark Jones, Carluccio’s chief executive, said that the UK chain had been declared insolvent shortly after noon on Monday, three days after it had appointed the advisers FRP to consider restructuring options.

Carluccio’s is the first major casualty of the casual dining sector following the government’s compulsory closure of all restaurants, pubs and bars this month.

Last week, the Restaurant Group said it was putting its Chiquito and Food & Fuel brands into administration, but that these only accounted for 10 per cent of the company’s sites. It also owns the Wagamama, Frankie & Benny’s and Garfunkel’s chains.

Byron, the burger chain, has also appointed advisers and is in discussions with the government on a possible support package.

Prince of Wales completes self-isolation

The British heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has ended self-isolation following his diagnosis with Covid-19, according to a statement. The prince, 71, had come out of isolation “having consulted with his doctor,” a statement from Clarence House, his official residence, said.

The prince became the first senior British figure to announce having received a positive test for coronavirus last Wednesday.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, and health secretary, Matt Hancock have both since said they have contracted the virus. Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s senior adviser, is self-solating after developing symptoms.

Prince Charles had self-isolated for seven days, according to an official, and is currently in good health.

Clarence House has confirmed today that, having consulted with his doctor, The Prince of Wales is now out of self-isolation.

The prince was tested by the National Health Service in Aberdeenshire, where he has been staying at Birkhall, his residence on the queen’s Balmoral estate.

BBVA executives forego bonuses in ‘gesture of responsibility’

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

BBVA says its top executives will forego bonuses this year, making it the latest Spain-based bank to make a gesture of solidarity in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

Carlos Torres, executive chairman, said the bank’s management had decided “to give up all variable compensation” this year as a “gesture of responsibility”.

He added of the coronavirus outbreak, which has hit Spain particularly hard: “We have to manage the impact that all this is going to have on the bank, we have to ensure sufficient liquidity, we have to control costs, we have to conserve capital, prioritising solvency…so that we can support the economy [and] do everything we can to protect everyone’s job at BBVA.”

Mr Torres said that more than half BBVA’s global workforce – more than 70,000 people – is working from home.

Last week CaixaBank said it was more than halving the dividend for its 2019 and reducing the pay out for 2020, adding that it wished “to be a key contributor to the speedy recovery of the Spanish and Portuguese economies, facilitating the provision of credit where it may be needed”.

Gonzalo Gortázar, its chief executive, said he would forego any bonus.

Meanwhile Santander chairman Ana Botín is taking a 50 per cent pay cut this year to back a €25m medical equipment fund to help counter the pandemic.

Ukraine president defied by own party ahead of key anti-crisis votes

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv reports:

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, which holds an outright majority in parliament, failed on Monday to approve the appointment of new finance and health ministers proposed by the leader as part of the latest government shakeup.

The failed votes deepened concern that Mr Zelensky would struggle to muster parliamentary support for swift adoption of two laws that are required by the IMF to unlock an $8bn loan to cushion the country during the Covid-19 pandemic. These include sanctioning the sale of farm land and adopting a banking law.

MPs said parliament would be able to vote on these IMF-required laws later on Monday, including one which goes against the interests of Igor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who backed Mr Zelensky’s presidential campaign last year.

In dramatic televised votes which showed MPs wearing medical masks, protective eyewear and gloves, opposition MPs joined Mr Zelensky’s party in supporting his request to oust finance minister Ihor Umansky and head of Ukraine’s health ministry Ilya Yemets. But minutes later, parliament failed to muster 226 majority votes to appoint Mr Zelensky’s new candidates for finance and health minister, Serhiy Marchenko and Maksym Stepanov, respectively.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to self-isolate

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will self-isolate for at least a week after an aide tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mr Netanyahu, 70 and in generally good health, is not showing any symptoms, and will likely be tested tomorrow, an Israeli official said.

A previous test in mid-March came back negative, and Mr Netanyahu has been working mostly via video conferencing because of the large number of Israeli lawmakers and military officials who are currently self-isolating.

Mr Netanyahu had not recently been in close proximity with the aide, according to local media, who identified her as Rivka Paluch, an advisor on the ultra-orthodox religious minority.

Israel has approximately 4,400 confirmed cases, and has instituted a partial lockdown to try and break the cycle of infection.

Mr Netanyahu is scheduled this week to make a decision on whether to enforce a stricter lockdown, as a health ministry official told state radio that thousands of Israeli deaths before the end of the summer remain the government’s worst case scenario.

UK may keep schools open for Easter to ease pressure on frontline staff

Andrew Jack, global education editor:

The government is poised to call on schools to remain open during the Easter holidays wherever possible to provide teaching and childcare for essential workers, officials have said.

The Department for Education is finalising guidelines for continued operations as concerns grow over how healthcare employees and others in strategic occupations will be able to work during the break (6-17 April) if they are required to look after their children from home.

Civil servants have been discussing plans with unions and representatives of teachers and schools, as they consider how to provide staffing cover and ways to consolidate provision for children in multiple schools into a smaller number of hubs.

Teachers organisations have been keen to stress the need for flexibility, allowing staff to take holidays and some schools to close, while balancing consolidation into hubs against the increased health risks from reduced social distancing.

Northern Ireland temporarily releases prisoners to ease strain on jails

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Northern Ireland’s devolved government will temporarily release prisoners to lessen the strain on its prisons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Naomi Long, justice minister, said “fewer than 200 individuals” due for release in the next three months will be freed early. Such action is taken only when there is “no alternative”, she said, adding that prisoners convicted of murder, terrorism and sexual crimes will not be released.

“In anticipation of the time when we have a confirmed [Covid-19] case among our prisoner population and our staffing levels, which are already under strain, come under further pressure, I now consider it necessary to release some prisoners early,” she said.


Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for summer 2021

The Tokyo Olympics have been rescheduled for the summer of 2021, the International Olympic Committee has announced.

The games will be held from July 23 to August 8 2021 — exactly one year after they had been originally scheduled to take place.

The decision comes after Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe last week proposed a one-year delay to the games after the coronavirus pandemic made holding them this summer unfeasible.

The IOC said the new dates would keep any disruption to the international sports calendar to a minimum.

IOC President Thomas Bach said:

With this announcement, I am confident that, working together with the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Japanese Government and all our stakeholders, we can master this unprecedented challenge. Humankind currently finds itself in a dark tunnel. These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel

Ryanair keeps planes flying on bare-bones schedule

Ryanair will keep a small fraction of its aircraft operational for another week for “emergency reasons” as the spread of coronavirus forces many carriers to halt flights altogether.

Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier said that while 90 per cent of its fleet remains grounded it would extend the operation of a limited schedule between the UK and Ireland until April 9.

Ryanair said the intention of the move was to “maintain vital links” between the two countries “to facilitate our passengers and their families to deal with emergencies that may require urgent travel over the coming days and weeks”.

Government-imposed lockdowns and sweeping restrictions on travel have sent demand for flights plummeting. Low-cost rival easyJet this morning grounded its entire fleet.

British Airways extends credit line by a year

Peggy Hollinger in London reports:

British Airways, the UK airline owned by International Airlines Group, has extended its revolving credit line by one year to help it navigate the current upheaval in the global aviation industry, with more than a third of the world’s aircraft fleet grounded due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

IAG, which also owns Aer Lingus and Iberia airlines, said the extension gave the whole group undrawn general and committed aircraft financing facilities equivalent to €2.1bn, compared with €1.9bn at the end of 2019. IAG said it had not drawn down on any of its facilities.

IAG continues to have strong liquidity with cash, cash equivalents and interest-bearing deposits of €7.2bn as at 27 March … Total cash and undrawn facilities are currently €9.3bn.

Earlier this month British Airways’ chief executive Alex Cruz warned that the carrier was facing a fight for its very survival as a result of the crisis, despite the support of its parent and a strong balance sheet. Airlines are haemorrhaging cash as countries impose tough restrictions on travel in a bid to contain the virus.

Willie Walsh, who postponed his retirement as chief executive to help manage the group during the crisis, has said IAG would not seek bespoke state aid in the UK, although it intended to use the measures introduced recently to subsidise wages as employees are furloughed.

Saudi Arabia raises crude exports as global demand collapses

Anjli Raval in London

Saudi Arabia plans to increase its crude exports to 10.6m b/d from May, an energy ministry official said on Monday, as the kingdom engages in a price war despite a collapse in crude demand amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The kingdom will burn less oil for power generation, substituting it with natural gas from the Al-Fadhili plant. Together with a drop in local fuel consumption because of shutdowns related to the coronavirus outbreak, this will leave more crude for export.

Saudi Arabia has launched a price war and plans to unleash more barrels on to the market just as demand for crude has collapsed internationally.

Industry analysts and people familiar with the Saudi energy ministry say the shock-and-awe strategy is aimed at putting as much pressure on oil prices as possible.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, fell more than 8 per cent to $22.85 a barrel on Monday — after hitting the lowest level since 2002. US marker West Texas Intermediate dropped by 5 per cent to $20.42 a barrel. US crude oil prices fell below $20 a barrel shortly after trading reopened on Sunday, close to their lowest level in 18 years.

Irish job losses climb on the back of fresh lockdown measures

Arthur Beesley in Dublin:

Ireland has reported a surge in coronavirus job losses, with 283,000 people seeking special welfare payments even before a tightening of restrictions at the weekend closed yet more businesses.

More than 16,000 companies have also applied for a wage subsidy scheme through which the government pays 70 per cent of wages in businesses hit by the pandemic.

Regina Doherty, social protection minister, said the government expected more applications to follow the measures introduced on Friday night, which led to the closure of building sites and some services that had remained open.

“We do genuinely expect to have a significant draw again this week based on the companies that have closed down,” she told national broadcaster RTÉ.

Rating agencies warn of impending sovereign defaults

Steve Johnson reports:

Rating agencies are warning that a swathe of low-income countries could face difficulties rolling over their external debt, raising fears of a sharp rise in sovereign defaults.

In recent weeks foreign investors have sucked capital from emerging markets at a faster pace than during any previous crisis. Many EM currencies have also fallen sharply, raising the cost of servicing dollar-denominated debt, while government finances are, in many cases, being shredded by tumbling oil and tourism revenues and the economic cost of implementing lockdowns and other social distancing measures to combat Covid-19.

Moody’s said on Monday that lower-rated emerging market governments with large international bond maturities in the coming quarters “face significant rollover risk”. Sri Lanka, Honduras, Turkey and Tunisia are “particularly susceptible”, Moody’s said.

Bahrain, Oman and Angola are also seen as “particularly vulnerable” as they have a large stock of foreign currency debt owed to private creditors.

Separately S&P warned that an “extended” shock to investor sentiment “could result in heightened refinancing risk, especially for low-rated issuers”.

“We believe stress could become more significant in the coming weeks given that most EMs are only beginning to show an escalation of Covid-19 cases,” S&P said.

The IMF and World Bank have already called for debt relief on bilateral government-to-government loans for countries that qualify for the World Bank’s concessional lending programme, but this would not apply to debt owed to private creditors, which has ballooned in recent years.

Irish fishermen flounder as market hits the rocks

Arthur Beesley in Kilmore Quay reports:

The pandemic has dealt a blow to Ireland’s seafood industry, as a widespread lockdown has closed restaurants in China, Italy, France and England that would usually buy premium fish from its waters.

Prices of lobster and crab have dropped since governments have shut down to stem the spread of coronavirus. Live lobster fetched €28 a kilo in China before the onset of the pandemic, which diverted sales of frozen lobster to South Korea at €14 a kilo before the market there dried up. 

“We had a market one day, the next day you’re told it’s gone,” said Irish fisherman Stephen Scallan, as he loaded tackle on to his fishing boat in Kilmore Quay, in the south-east of Ireland. 

Read more here

Hong Kong university offers free tests for children

The Chinese University of Hong Kong has offered to conduct free stool screening tests for children arriving in the city by air amid fears of a fresh coronavirus outbreak.

The test used by the Department of Health, which relies on saliva, has a potentially high rate of false negative results and is difficult to use on small children because of the way samples are collected.

CU Medicine will work with Hong Kong’s government to distribute stool test kits to infants arriving at Hong Kong International Airport. The tests began to be used on March 29. The results will then be shared with the government which will follow up with cases that test positive.

“The deep throat saliva test could carry a rather high false negative rate of over 40 per cent if it is not collected properly,” said Professor Paul Chan Kay Sheung, chairman of the Department of Microbiology, CU Medicine.

Infants and children who have been infected with Covid-19 can become silent carriers and spread the disease in the community.

“Stool specimens are more convenient to collect,” he added, “and can give more accurate results.”

EU waives ‘use it or lose it’ slots to help ailing airlines

Javier Espinoza in Brussels reports:

The EU has amended existing regulation to waive a requirement for airlines to use at least 80 per cent of their take-off and landing slots until October 24 this year so that carriers can keep them the following year, the Council of the European Union said in a statement on Monday.

The waiver will apply from March 1 and it will also apply retroactively from January 23 – when the first airport was closed in China – to February 29 for flights between the EU and China or Hong Kong, the statement added.

“It seems clear now that this crisis will not be over very soon,” said Oleg Butkovic, Croatian minister for the sea, transport and infrastructure. “Waiving the ‘use it or lose it’ rule until October will help mitigate the heavy economic impact on airlines and give them certainty over the whole summer season.”

The EU will look to extend the measures quickly “if the current serious situation persists”, the statement added. The European Commission will provide an update by September 15.

Mercedes, F1 and London hospital develop NHS device

Mercedes, Formula One and London university engineers have developed a breathing aid to help coronavirus patients in intensive care as British industry steps up its efforts to provide life-saving technology to bolster frontline services.

University College London and University College London Hospital engineers adapted the continuous positive airway pressure device from similar tools used in hospitals in Italy and China to help patients with serious lung infections. Regulators have recommended the device.

UCLH will take delivery of 100 for clinical trials this week before they are introduced throughout UK hospitals.

Reports from Italy indicate that about 50 per cent of patients using these aids have not needed medical ventilation afterwards.

UCLH critical care consultant Professor Mervyn Singer said:

These devices will help to save lives by ensuring that ventilators, a limited resource, are used only for the most severely ill. While they will be tested at UCLH first, we hope they will make a real difference to hospitals across the UK by reducing demand on intensive care staff and beds, as well as helping patients recover without the need for more invasive ventilation.

The news comes as the British government comes under scrutiny for not acting fast enough to increase the supply of ventilatory equipment. A number of big-name manufacturers have stepped up plans to plug the shortfall in efforts reminiscent of a wartime economic push.

Austria to make masks compulsory

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Austria is to distribute millions of masks to citizens this week, as the government unveiled plans to make the wearing of them compulsory outside the home.

Masks will be distributed for free at the entrances to all supermarkets in Austria by Wednesday, chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday, as part of measures to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Shoppers will only be permitted inside supermarkets and other shops that remain open if they are wearing the masks. In the “medium term”, the government envisages masks will be required in situations outside the home that bring people into contact with one another, Mr Kurz said.

It’s clear that the wearing of masks will be a big change, but it is necessary to reduce the spread further.

We have to recognise from the numbers that is is necessary to do everything we can.

The free masks will not meet the same medical standards as those used by doctors and nurses. The government hopes that measures making citizens cover their noses and mouths in public, even with relatively simple barriers, will have an impact on transmission of the virus.

Austria on Monday confirmed a total of 8,813 Covid-19 cases, with 108 deaths.

Germany’s council of advisers assess depth of hit to economy

Guy Chazan in Berlin

The council of German economic advisers, a panel that advises Angela Merkel’s government, has said the impact from the coronavirus pandemic means that a deep recession in the first half of this year is now inevitable.

The depth of the downturn depends on how long the country is shut down and how quick it will recover after the restrictions on public life are lifted, the advisers said on Monday. Under its baseline scenario, the council expects a 2.8 per cent decline in German gross domestic product this year and a 3.7 per cent expansion next year.

But if the shutdown remains in force for longer and more factories suspend production, the experts foresee a V-shaped “risk scenario” in which GDP will decline by 5.4 per cent this year and expand by 4.9 per cent next year.

They also sketch out a risk scenario of a “long U” downturn, in which restrictions last over the summer and recovery begins in 2021. Under this scenario, the economy would contract by 4.5 per cent this year and grow by 1.0 per cent next.

Lars Feld, head of the panel, said the German government should be clear with the population about its exit strategy plans.

A clearly communicated normalisation strategy can stabilise companies’ and households’ expectations and reduce the uncertainty.

Live Q&A: UK government business support for the self-employed

Entrepreneurs, small business owners and the self-employed are being tested to their limits as disruption from the coronavirus spreads through the UK economy. 

Claer Barrett, the FT’s personal finance editor, has been writing and broadcasting throughout the crisis on the challenges small businesses are facing, how they are adapting and what they think about various support measures launched by the government. 

This is your chance to ask Claer your questions about business support programmes, tell us about your own experiences and help to shape the FT’s coverage of this crucial issue. 

Claer will host her Q&A beginning at 11am Bst. It is available above or on the FT’s YouTube channel. Send your queries to money@ft.com.

Spain reports 800 virus-related daily deaths as spread of infection eases

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

For the third day in a row, more than 800 people have died in Spain after contracting coronavirus, but the spread of the virus is slowing.

Figures released by the government on Monday showed that 7,340 people have died after becoming infected with the virus, 812 of them in the past 24 hours. This follows record daily death tolls of more than 800 over the weekend.

Last week, the death toll in Spain surpassed that in China, where the outbreak originated. Spain has also overtaken China in terms of numbers of cases; it is third after the US and Italy.

However, Spain’s total of 85,195 people with documented cases of coronavirus represents an 8 per cent daily rise – which in proportional terms is below the daily increases of 25 per cent or more earlier in the crisis.

The country has tightened its lockdown measures, banning “non-essential” work for two further weeks as of Monday, as it seeks to reduce the transmission of the disease and relieve pressure on intensive care units.

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Dominic Cummings isolates after showing coronavirus symptoms

Sebastian Payne in London

Another senior UK government figure has gone into self-isolation after showing signs of coronavirus. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, developed symptoms over the weekend and will remain at home for the next seven days.

No 10 insiders confirmed Mr Cummings was self-isolating, but remains “in contact” with Downing Street over its response to the crisis.

Mr Cummings has been the most influential member of Mr Johnson’s inner circle since the latter became prime minister last summer. The aide is credited with shaping No 10’s strategy and messaging on delivering Brexit, “levelling up” the British economy and tackling coronavirus.

He joins Mr Johnson, health secretary Matt Hancock and chief medical officer Chris Whitty in showing symptoms of the virus. Several other junior government officials are in self-isolation as a precaution.

Riot breaks out as prisoners attempt to escape from Iranian jail

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran reports:

Iranian prisoners in the historic city of Shiraz staged a riot as they attempted to escape following suspicions of a coronavirus outbreak in their jail.

“Vakilabad prison in Shiraz witnessed a riot on Sunday at 10pm which was brought under control,” said head of justice department in Fars province, Kazem Mousavi, on Monday. “Prisoners resorted to riots in two wards wherein those charged with serious [social] crimes are locked up and have not been entitled to leave.”

Other local authorities said 14 inmates suffered minor injuries in their clash with security forces in Vakilabad jail but that none had escaped.

Iran’s judiciary has granted bail to about 100,000 prisoners until mid-April in a bid to stem the spread of the virus in the crowded jails. The move has angered other prisoners who have not been subject to the temporary release. Unofficial reports put the population of prisoners between 180,000 to 250,000 people.

With 117 new deaths, Iran’s coronavirus fatalities increased to 2,757 on Monday out of 41,495 confirmed cases.

Belgium says lockdown beginning to deliver results

Jim Brunsden in Brussels reports:

The Belgian government said that there were tentative signs that the intensity of the coronavirus epidemic had started to diminish, signalling that the lockdown was delivering results.

The number of new admissions to intensive care recorded on Sunday — 60 — was the lowest since March 23, and less than half the number recorded on March 25.

A spokesman for the government’s crisis centre said Belgium was not yet at the peak of the epidemic — because the number of people in hospital will continue to rise — but that the latest numbers were a positive sign.

The force of the epidemic has started to diminish. And that is thanks to the efforts we have all made after the past two weeks; it’s very important to signal that … It’s important to maintain this efforts. It’s not because the curve adjusts today that it cannot take off again if we relax our efforts.

Belgium moved swiftly to impose tough lockdown conditions to fight the epidemic. Bars and restaurants were shut on March 14, while a fuller lockdown has been in place since Wednesday March 18.

The spokesman said that 53 per cent of intensive care beds are occupied.

Fears of second wave of cases ebb in Taiwan

Kathrin Hille, greater China correspondent:

Taiwan reported eight new confirmed cases on Monday, taking its total to 306 and marking the slowest increase in 11 days, as concerns over a second wave of infections recede.

The country announced one more death late Sunday and two more on Monday, more than doubling its death toll to five.

As with most of the new infections in the past two weeks, seven of the eight new cases are Taiwanese who recently returned from overseas, mainly from the US or UK.

After infection numbers began growing rapidly in Europe and the US earlier this month, the Taiwanese health authorities barred foreigners who are not residents from entry and imposed stricter screening for Taiwanese arriving from travel, work or study overseas.

The majority of the about 250 cases confirmed over the last two weeks were discovered through testing at the airport or during quarantine after arrival. The health authorities therefore assume that community transmission has mostly been avoided.

UK sentiment shows drop even before stricter measures enforced

Valentina Romei in London

Economic sentiment in the UK dropped sharply in the first half of March as the coronavirus crisis hit the economy and threatened jobs even before measures of social distancing were introduced.

The monthly figures from the European Commission showed a deterioration in sentiment across businesses in the services and manufacturing sectors as well as among consumers, dragging the overall UK sentiment to 92 in March from 95.5 in February. The average since 2000 is 100. The drop reverses some of the gains seen after the general election in December.

The figures are among the first available to indicate the depth of the impact to the economy as output data is published with weeks of time lag. However, they largely predate the more stringent measures of social distancing as data was mostly collected during the first two weeks of March.

Manufacturers are the most pessimistic with an index dropping to minus 21 in March from minus 13.2 in February. Sentiment dropped 5 percentage points to minus 9.3 in the services sector.

The coronavirus crisis is hitting jobs, according to the survey as employment expectations in the manufacturing sector dropped to the lowest level since the financial crisis in 2009.

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Eurozone business confidence suffers worst fall

Mehreen Khan in Brussels reports:

A measure of business sentiment in the eurozone has suffered its worst monthly drop since records began, underscoring the precipitous fall in confidence across Europe’s industry.

The European Commission’s monthly survey of business confidence in the eurozone fell sharply by 8.9 points in March – the worst single monthly fall since it started in 1985. The drops were led by Italy, Germany and France. The gauge dropped to its lowest level since 2013.

The true extent of the fall in confidence is likely to be worse as the survey was done before most of Europe’s population entered lockdown, said the commission.

Czech billionaire tests positive as cases rise in eastern Europe

James Shotter in Warsaw

Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky, whose assets stretch from power stations to a stake in the company that owns French newspaper Le Monde, said he had tested positive for coronavirus and is now in recovery.

In an interview with the Blesk newspaper, which is part of his media empire, Mr Kretinsky said that he had been working in isolation. Twenty-seven people who had come into contact with him were also tested for the virus but their results were negative.

Mr Kretinsky, who has emerged in recent years as one of Europe’s most active deal-makers, said that his symptoms had been relatively mild. “I didn’t cough or have a temperature, I didn’t have any other symptoms. I just didn’t feel well for a few days,” he said.

A spokesman confirmed that Mr Kretinsky had had the virus, but said that he was feeling better and had since tested negative.

The Czech Republic has so far recorded 2,837 cases of the coronavirus, and 17 deaths.

Russia reports 20 per cent rise in cases despite strict quarantine rules

Henry Foy in Moscow reports:

Russia reported a 20 per cent rise in coronavirus cases on Monday, taking its total to 1,836 infections and nine deaths, as Moscow and the surrounding region imposed a near-full quarantine on their 20m population.

After weeks of claiming that the outbreak was under control, Moscow has ramped up its restrictions in recent days in a bid to curb a sharp rise in cases, which have more than quadrupled over the past week.

The 302 new cases announced on Monday is the highest daily increase.
Russia’s central government has encouraged other regions in the country to adopt Moscow’s approach, which bans people from leaving their homes except for essential trips to the nearest food shop or pharmacy, and for walking pets 100m from one’s front door.

The mystery of the true coronavirus death rate

Camilla Hodgson in London reports:

The figure at the root of so much global angst about coronavirus is currently 4.7 per cent. That is the proportion of people, as of Sunday afternoon, who have died after being diagnosed with the virus — 32,137 out of the 685,623 who have tested positive for Covid-19 around the world.

It compares with a death rate of around 0.1 per cent for seasonal flu and 0.2 per cent for pneumonia in high-income countries. However, 4.7 per cent is not only changeable but frustratingly unreliable, both for governments seeking to calibrate their policy response and for citizens trying to gauge how much they should worry.

The proportion of people who have died from the disease varies strikingly from country to country. Researchers warn that there are so many uncertainties — not least over the true number of infections — that it remains almost impossible to draw firm conclusions about the death rate.

Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies programme, has outlined four factors that might contribute to the differing mortality rates: who becomes infected, what stage the epidemic has reached in a country, how much testing a country is doing, and how well different healthcare systems are coping.

Read Camilla’s full piece here

UBS chief donates around $1m for virus aid

Stephen Morris, European banking correspondent:

UBS chief executive Sergio Ermotti has personally donated SFr1m ($1.1m) to help the coronavirus pandemic relief efforts.

The money will be distributed through his family foundation “via non-profit organisations to people in need of emergency funds”, according to a statement on Monday. It follows a SFr30m donation from UBS itself for patients and families suffering from the crisis.

Mr Ermotti also told Swiss tabloid Blick that UBS has approved 10,000 small-business loan applications as part of a government scheme, resulting in about SFr1tn of financing. Any proceeds from the emergency loans will be donated to charity.

Mr Ermotti – who is stepping down in November and will be succeeded by current ING CEO, Ralph Hamers – is working from home in Montagnola, a small Swiss village overlooking Lake Lugano near the Swiss-Italian border.

Last week Ana Botín, chairman of Banco Santander, donated 50 per cent of her 2020 salary and bonus to a fund the bank is creating to help those affected by the virus.

Japan’s SoftBank share fall offers measure of virus turmoil

Leo Lewis and Kana Inagaki in Tokyo

Shares in SoftBank Group fell in Tokyo as the Japanese technology group reprised its role as a weathervane of investor fears over coronavirus-triggered financial turmoil.

The shares, which dropped more than 9 per cent in the first few minutes of trading, closed 4.99 per cent lower. The main trigger, said traders, was weekend news that the satellite internet start-up OneWeb had filed for bankruptcy and sacked most of its staff at the end of last week.

The company, which runs the $100bn Vision Fund and whose reputation was dented by last year’s WeWork debacle, last week had its credit downgraded two notches by the ratings agency Moody’s.

Before the downgrade, shares had surged 55 per cent after it unveiled a $41bn asset sale programme to pay down its debt and expand its share buyback plan to $25bn.

OneWeb had been in fundraising talks with SoftBank, it’s largest backer, and traders said that the collapse of those discussions had re-ignited speculation over how the group’s finances, the most leveraged among large Japanese companies, were braced for the turmoil in markets.

Traders believe the afternoon recovery in SoftBank shares was principally driven by heavy buying from the Bank of Japan.

Global cases fall more than a tenth in one day

Steve Bernard in London

The number of new daily confirmed cases dropped by more than 10 per cent on Sunday, the first significant drop in several weeks.

Even the US, which has recorded increasing daily reported numbers, reported a decline, with 18,882 on Sunday from 19,452 a day earlier.

However, this is just one day’s figures. Until a consistent decline shows a trend, caution is advised about drawing any conclusions that the virus has peaked.

StanChart launches $1bn fund for companies tackling pandemic

Stephen Morris in London reports:

Standard Chartered has started a $1bn fund to finance companies that provide goods and services that help abate the coronavirus pandemic, including those switching their infrastructure to make products in high demand such as masks.

As well as the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare providers, the fund will be available to “non-medical companies that have volunteered to add this capability to their manufacturing output… including ventilators, face masks, protective equipment [and] sanitisers”, the bank said on Monday.

Asia-focused StanChart will offer preferential rates on at least $1bn in the form of loans, import-export finance or working capital facilities to cover the costs of changes to factories and product distribution, according to the statement.

“Clearly there’s a cost for companies to switch into these hugely in-demand items, so it’s an area where we can help them get up and running more quickly,” said Simon Cooper, head of StanChart’s corporate and investment bank.

Spain’s coronavirus medical strategist suspected of having Covid-19

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

Fernando Simón, the doctor helping lead Spain’s battle against coronavirus, has a suspected case of Covid-19, the government said on Monday.

Dr Simón has been the public face of the drive against coronavirus, giving daily televised briefings and helping shape strategy.

The Spanish government said his possible case was detected on Sunday night and he is awaiting confirmatory test results.

Germany reports nearly 5,000 new cases

Tobias Buck in Berlin reports:

Germany reported 4,751 new Coronavirus cases on Monday, taking the total to 57,298 since the crisis started, even as the total number of cases and deaths fell globally for the first time in two weeks.

The official numbers were once again incomplete, however, reflecting the fact that several German federal states failed to pass on up-to-date infection numbers over the weekend. That same caveat applies to the data on Covid-19 deaths released by the Robert Koch Institute on Monday. It showed 69 new fatalities, taking the total to 455.

The time lag means Germany’s official count is likely to rise notably in the days ahead, as data from the weekend is gradually included.

According to Johns Hopkins University in the US, Germany currently has
62,435 Coronavirus cases and 541 dead.

European stocks slip as oil price slump rattles investors

European stock markets slipped on Monday while oil prices dropped to their lowest point in 18 years.

The benchmark Europe Stoxx 600 index dipped by 2.4 per cent after the opening bell while the German Dax fell 1.7 per cent. London’s FTSE 100 dropped 2.8 per cent, and the French CAC 40 fell 3.2 per cent. 

Paris-listed Airbus suffered a share price drop of almost 10 per cent as the company reeled from critically weak demand.

The declines in Europe came after stocks across Asia fell as oil prices dropped on mounting fears that coronavirus would cause a collapse in global demand.

Wall Street’s S&P 500 futures, having gained earlier in the day, were recently down around 1 per cent, pointing to a drop in US stocks when they start trading later in the day.

Daily diagnosed cases fall for first time in weeks

Steve Bernard in London

Daily confirmed cases have fallen for the first time in several weeks.

The number of those diagnosed with Covid-19 on Sunday dropped 10 per cent to 59,232 compared with Saturday, bringing the total to 723,362.

The number of deaths attributed to coronavirus fell from 3,518 to 3,105 on Sunday, with a total 33,967 losing their lives to the pandemic .

The US has added more cases than any other country with 18,882 people confirmed on Sunday. However, some of the worst affected countries including the US, Italy, Spain, France and Iran recorded a fall in the number of deaths compared with Saturday.

New recoveries rose by 9,359, bringing the total number of people free from the virus to 151,312.

UK sandwich and ready meal maker Greencore scraps dividend

Judith Evans reports:

Greencore, the UK’s largest sandwich maker, has scrapped its interim dividend, cut management pay and will furlough employees in its “food to go” operation after consumers on lockdown stopped buying takeaway lunches.

The company, which also makes other convenience foods such as ready meals, said: “There has been a marked reduction in demand for the group’s food to go categories in grocery retail, which has been partly offset by the sustained volume growth in the group’s other convenience categories.”

Some employees in its food to go division will be furloughed using a government scheme which pays out 80 per cent of wage costs. Greencore’s board and executive directors will take a 30 per cent cut to their base salary and fees for three months, while other members of its leadership team will take a 20 per cent cut for the same period.

The company has also suspended its financial guidance, deferred a “substantial portion of previously planned capital expenditure” and arranged a new $75m debt facility in addition to its existing £265m of cash and undrawn bank debt. Its shares dropped 7.3 per cent to £1.58 in early trading.

De Beers cancels third ‘sight’ event in Botswana

Henry Sanderson in London

De Beers has cancelled its diamond sales event in Botswana this week due to coronavirus-imposed travel restrictions that has grounded clients and prevented them from shipping goods.

The diamond supply chain has been hard hit by coronavirus due to its international reach. The world’s largest diamond polishing and cutting centre in Surat in India has been in lockdown, while Antwerp’s diamond-buying facilities have closed.

De Beers, a unit of Anglo-American, sells most of its diamonds at 10 “sights” a year in Botswana’s capital of Gaborone to a pre-approved group of buyers known as Sightholders. The third sight was set to start on March 30.

The group, which has an online auction platform, said it would allow Sightholders to defer their allocations of diamonds to later in the year.

UK health minister says return to normal will ‘take some time’

George Parker reports:

Helen Whately, health minister, said we “know this will take some time before life returns to normal” but declined to speculate on whether the social distancing measures in place across Britain would be in place for at least three months.

“There will be a review in two or three weeks time to see the effects this is having,” she told the BBC’s Today programme. “It’s all about flattening the peak of the virus.” Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said on Sunday some restrictions could be in place for six months.

Ms Whately said the NHS now had “the capacity” to carry out 10,000 daily tests for Covid-19 but that 7,000 tests a day were conducted over the weekend. The aim was to reach 25,000 a day in “the next three weeks”.

She declined to say when she expected millions of tests for antibodies – to establish if a person had been infected – to arrive.

Ms Whately said both Matt Hancock, health secretary, and Boris Johnson, prime minister, were continuing to work from home in spite of having contracted the virus.

Meanwhile Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, whose work has informed the government’s response to Covid-19, said there were some encouraging signs that draconian social distancing measures in Britain were starting to slow the spread of the disease.

“In the UK we can see some early signs of slowing in some indicators,” the epidemiologist said. Prof Ferguson said that the number of deaths was a lagging indicator, but there were signs that the rate of increase in hospital admissions was starting to slow.

ABN Amro predicts first-quarter loss on rising default rates

Nicholas Megaw in London

Dutch lender ABN Amro has become one of the first major banks to confirm that it expects to report a loss for the first quarter as loan default rates soar.

The state-owned bank last week reported a $200m (€181m) hit thanks to problems at a single client in its clearing division. On Monday, however, it added that a broader increase in loan losses would push it to a loss for the first three months of the year, compared with a net profit of €478m in the first quarter of 2019.

It said the long-term impact of the pandemic on the Dutch economy and the quality of its loan performance remained “uncertain”, but predicted default rates would be “materially higher’ than previously expected.

ABN’s loanbook has been under particular pressure due to its significant exposure to companies in the oil and gas industry, which has been doubly hit by a coronavirus-induced drop in global consumption and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The bank confirmed it would respond to recent recommendations from the European Central Bank to freeze dividend payments until at least October 1 in an effort to conserve capital.

ABN stressed that it has “a strong capital position and a significant buffer above its minimum capital requirements”.

Oil price slide hits European stocks

European stocks slid along with their counterparts across Asia, as oil prices hit their lowest level in nearly two decades.

Europe’s benchmark Stoxx 600 index opened 0.8 per cent lower while London’s FTSE 100 slid 1.3 per cent. In Germany the Dax was down 0.4 per cent.

Oil prices have plummeted by about two-thirds this year, with a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia compounding the impact of the pandemic. Brent crude, the international marker, fell 6.6 per cent to $23.30 a barrel.

Smiths Group to make 10,000 ventilators for UK government

by Michael Pooler

The engineering conglomerate Smiths Group is to make 10,000 medical ventilators for the UK government, as British industry steps up efforts to plug a shortage of the devices in the fight against the coronavirus.

The FTSE 100 group said it would rapidly boost production of the machines from hundreds to thousands a month, expanding its supply chain capacity with help from a number of big-name manufacturers.

It follows work by an industrial consortium including Rolls-Royce, Airbus, McLaren, Thales, BAE Systems and Ford that formed in response to prime minister Boris Johnson’s calls for British engineering companies to meet rising demand for the life-saving equipment.

Named Ventilator Challenge UK, the consortium is pursuing the increased output of two ventilators already manufactured domestically – the Smiths machine and another model made in Oxfordshire by Penlon. It has received formal orders in excess of 10,000 units.

The Smiths contract consists of 5,000 firm orders and the same number of ventilators on reservation.

Last week Dyson revealed it had separately received a government order to make 10,000 ventilators that it designed from scratch in 10 days.

UK government grants new railway contracts to Govia and First

by Jim Pickard

The UK government has ended the limbo hanging over Southeastern and Great Western railway lines by giving operators Govia and First new contracts to ensure that a skeleton train service continues on both lines for the next few years.

Ministers had been mulling decisions on both franchises with the current franchise contracts expiring on April 1. Chris Heaton-Harris, a junior rail minister, recently signalled that one of the options for Southeastern would be nationalisation by transferring control to the state’s “Operator of Last Resort”.

Another alternative would have been to run conventional franchising competitions for both lines – but time was running out to do so.

Instead the government announced at dawn on Monday that the two operators would be given “direct awards”. Firstgroup has received a three-year agreement for Great Western Railway, extendable to four years. Govia’s direct award for Southeastern will last for two years.

The entire rail industry has been upended by the coronavirus crisis, with the government stepping in last week to cover the shortfall in revenue for all operators for the duration of the pandemic to prevent their collapse.

Corporate roundup: Novacyt, Smith and Nephew, Kier

Smith and Nephew, the medical technology group, withdrew the full-year financial guidance it issued on February 20. It assumed then the impact from Covid-19 outbreak would be “normalised” early in the second quarter. The group expects underlying first-quarter revenue growth to be down about 8 per cent compared with the same period a year ago. It forecasts second-quarter revenue and its first-half trading margin to be “substantially down”.

Kier said its management and staff will be taking a cut in their salaries for three months. The group that maintains UK highways and provides facilities management services to the National Health Service said trading from January 1 to now has been in line and has about 80 per cent of its sites operating. Many of its services have government support while employees in the main are deemed key workers. Its about 6,500 employees, including the executive committee, and the board will take a pay cut of between 7.5 per cent and 25 per cent for a three-month period beginning on April 1.

Novacyt, the Anglo-French coronavirus testing group, said it has sold and received orders for more than £17.8m of its research-use only Covid-19 tests. Primerdesign, the group’s molecular diagnostics division, on Friday received its largest single order of £1.4m from a new customer in India.

EasyJet grounds entire fleet as pandemic impact bites

EasyJet has grounded its entire fleet of aircraft as the impact of the pandemic tightens its grip on the airline industry.

The European low-cost airline, hit by nationwide lockdowns in many European countries, has been hit by government-imposed travel restrictions. The group operated its final rescue flights on Sunday as part of its efforts to repatriate passengers, returning home more than 45,000 people in about 650 flights.

“We will continue to work with government bodies to operate additional rescue flights as requested,” the group said in a statement on Monday. “The grounding of aircraft removes significant cost.”

It will pay its crew 80 per cent of their average pay from April 1 through the government job retention scheme. EasyJet has no date for restarting its commercial flights.

European stock futures tick up even as oil drops

European markets were poised for a modestly upbeat start to the week, with futures pointing higher despite a renewed fall in oil prices.

Futures tracking London’s FTSE 100 rose 0.8 per cent, with German Dax futures climbing 1.4 per cent and French CAC 40 futures up 1.7 per cent. Stoxx 600 futures advanced 1 per cent.

The rise in equities futures comes despite a fresh fall in the price of oil. West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, slid below $20 a barrel overnight, and was recently down 3.9 per cent at $20.67. Brent, the international marker, was off 5.9 per cent at $23.46.

News you might have missed

The Australian government has tightened its scrutiny of foreign takeovers over concerns overseas companies could buy up strategic assets on the cheap during the coronavirus crisis.

China’s central bank cut its short-term lending benchmark on Monday and injected Rmb50bn ($7.1bn) into the financial system as the country grappled with the prospect of sharply slower growth due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The South Korean government plans to grant “emergency disaster relief money” to a majority of Korean households to cushion the blow from Covid-19 to Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Health authorities in China reported 31 new confirmed coronavirus cases to the end of Sunday, 30 of which were imported cases.

United Arab Emirates introduces drive-through testing for virus

Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai

The United Arab Emirates is launching drive-through coronavirus testing centres over the next 10 days.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, on Monday instructed the oil-rich emirate’s health service to set up the centres across the federation of seven emirates to provide fast-paced tests for nationals and residents.

The first drive-through centre was launched in the capital on Saturday, offering a five minute, in-car test for Covid-19. Other centres are set to open in Dubai, Sharjah, which will also serve Ajman and Umm al-Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, as well as Al Ain and Al Dhafra in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE on Sunday reported 102 new cases, bringing the total to 570, with three deaths. The country has extended a week-long lockdown, asking residents to stay at home as much as possible during the day and imposing a night-time curfew on everyone except key workers.

Australia announces ‘jobkeeper’ payment for workers

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

Australia has unveiled a A$130bn ($80bn) plan to subsidise the wages of workers who risk losing their jobs as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

The government said on Monday it would pay businesses A$1,500 per worker every fortnight to incentivise companies not to make staff redundant and keep them on their payroll. The payment, which is equivalent to about 70 per cent of the average wage, must be advanced to workers under the terms of the scheme.

The government’s “jobkeeper payment” will last for up to six months and will be backdated to cover employees let go since March 1. Small and medium sized companies become eligible for the payments when their revenues fall by 30 per cent or more. Companies with revenues of more than A$1bn become eligible for the payments when their revenues fall by 50 per cent or more.

Companies have stood down up to 100,000 employees over the past two weeks due to strict social distancing rules and restrictions put in place due to the coronavirus.

The jobkeeper scheme aims to persuade companies to keep staff on their books until the crisis passes, rather than make them redundant.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said the scheme was more generous than a similar scheme in operation in New Zealand and broader than an equivalent scheme in the UK.

“We want to keep the economy running through this crisis, it may run in idle for some time, but it must run,” said Mr Morrison.

Shadow banking contracts in China as leverage rises elsewhere

Hudson Lockett reports from Hong Kong

A fall in trust lending led a contraction of Rmb300bn ($42.3bn) for shadow banking credit in China during the first two months of the year, according to a Moody’s analysis that points to a further rise in leverage elsewhere as the world’s second-largest economy grapples with the economic impact of coronavirus.

Trust lending, a core segment of China’s shadow banking industry, fell 5 per cent year on year as core shadow credit shrank to about Rmb21.9tn, according to the quarterly shadow banking monitor from Moody’s Investors Service.

Moody’s estimates that for all of 2020 broad shadow banking assets – covering other key segments including wealth management products – fell Rmb2.3tn to Rmb59tn, while overall credit growth held at 9 per cent.

Analysts expected this pace of overall credit growth to “continue into the new year as the central bank’s easing measures amid the outbreak will likely increase leverage further while economic growth will be markedly lower in coming quarters”.

But a slew of missed payments on shadow banking products in recent weeks has raised fears of a cascade of defaults in the $8.4tn industry. And hundreds of investors are now calling for the government to nationalise one of the country’s shadow banks after it allegedly failed to repay the principal on a trust product on time.

Read the full story here.

South Korea plans cash handouts for households

Song Jung-a reports from Seoul

The South Korean government will draw up another extra budget plan to grant “emergency disaster relief money” to a majority of Korean households to cushion the blow from Covid-19 to Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

President Moon Jae-in said on Monday the government will quickly push for the second supplementary budget bill so that it can be approved by parliament soon after the April 15 legislative elections. Under the scheme, Won1m ($820) will be provided to a four-person household at the bottom 70 per cent of income bracket.

“No one can predict how deep a scar Covid-19 will leave on the global economy and how long the scar will last,” Mr Moon told an emergency economic meeting. “Things are difficult right now but the future is also uncertain. We need to take a long-term approach to revive the economy.”

Mr Moon said it was “not an easy decision” but the people deserve “compensation” for their difficulties as their daily life is upended by the intensifying social distancing campaign and other prevention measures.

He added that the government needed to reserve firepower to prepare for further economic shocks and to address the weakening job market and liquidity shortages at companies.

Mr Moon has unveiled record stimulus packages worth more than $80bn to shore up the faltering economy and parliament has already approved a Won11.7tn supplementary budget plan over the coronavirus.

China’s central bank cuts short-term lending rate to boost liquidity

Hudson Lockett reports from Hong Kong

China’s central bank cut its short-term lending benchmark on Monday and injected Rmb50bn ($7.1bn) into the financial system as the country grappled with the prospect of sharply slower growth due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The People’s Bank of China cut the seven-day reverse repo rate used to manage short-term liquidity by 0.2 percentage points, taking it to 2.2 per cent. Lowering the rate, which sets the cost of seven-day lending from the central bank, is a far less substantial easing measure than a cut to the central bank’s main policy lever — the medium-term lending facility rate.

But the move, which came alongside an injection of about $7bn through seven-day reverse repos, will pull down the cost of short-term loans and boosts interbank liquidity, providing some relief from tight funding conditions.

The PBoC last cut the short-term rate in February by 0.1 percentage points as the country’s financial system returned from an extended lunar new year holiday.

South Korea lowers P2P lending cap on fears of rising delinquencies

Song Jung-a reports from Seoul

South Korea’s financial regulators have lowered the peer-to-peer lending cap from Won50m ($41m) to Won30m ($24.5m) due to concerns about a rise in delinquent and toxic loans amid the fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic.

The revised rules also allow individuals to lend up to Won10m ($8.2m) for property-related investment products, lowered from the original Won30m proposed in the P2P regulation bill approved last November, the Financial Services Commission said on Monday. The rules apply from August 27.

The revision is also aimed at protecting consumers by preventing deceptive P2P lending as the coronavirus continues to impact Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Under P2P lending loans are often offered to individuals and businesses through social media and the internet, covering a wide range of investment products for startups and small merchants.

Outstanding P2P loans in South Korea have increased to Won2.4tn ($2bn) as of the end of February from about Won750bn ($614m) at the end of 2017, while their delinquency ratio rose from 5.5 per cent to 14.9 per cent, according to the FSC.

Mexico steps up appeals for citizens to stay at home

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

Mexico reported 993 confirmed coronavirus cases nationally and 20 deaths as the health ministry stepped up its appeals for people to stay at home and traffic data suggested compliance to date was slow.

Mexico’s health undersecretary said on Saturday that compliance with the stay at home appeal, which the government is not enforcing, was around 30 per cent and said Mexico was facing a now or never moment to slow the spread of the virus and spare the impact on the health service.

Mexico City’s traffic congestion was down 36 per cent, compared with early March, according to data from navigator Waze, shared on social media by sustainable mobility activist Xavier Treviño Theesz. According to journey planning app Moovit, public transport use was down 50 per cent compared with mid-January.

China reports 30 new imported coronavirus cases

Health authorities in China reported 31 new confirmed coronavirus cases to the end of Sunday, 30 of which were imported cases, with the remaining infection reported in Gansu province. The number of new imported cases was down from 44 a day earlier.

Overall, mainland China has reported 81,470 coronavirus infections. However, experts have highlighted the existence of unreported cases, particularly for patients that show no symptoms.

There were four new deaths to the end of Sunday, taking the total number of fatalities to 3,304.

Australia tightens scrutiny of foreign takeovers

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

The Australian government has tightened its scrutiny of foreign takeovers over concerns overseas companies could buy up strategic assets on the cheap during the coronavirus crisis.

It follows warnings from two government MPs that distressed companies in the aviation and freight sectors could become vulnerable to takeovers by state-owned enterprises from authoritarian regimes, including China.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s Treasurer, said on Monday all foreign investment and takeover proposals would now be scrutinised by the government’s foreign investment review board to protect the national interest. However, he denied the measures were aimed specifically at China, noting Beijing was only the fifth-largest overseas investor in Australia last year while the US was the largest.

“These are extraordinary times and we have seen the value of Australian companies, indeed companies right around world, be severely diminished because of the coronavirus and we don’t want predatory behaviour that is not in the national interest occurring,” Mr Frydenberg told Australian radio.

The temporary changes to regulations will apply to existing and new investment proposals. Previously, most foreign takeovers and investments proposed by private companies were not considered by the Australian government unless they were worth more than A$1.1bn.

Richard McGregor, analyst at Lowy Institute, said the new measures were no doubt made with Beijing’s state-owned enterprises in mind, especially as conspiracy theories are swirling about how China is using the crisis as an opportunity to assert its influence.

“But vultures come in many forms, and I think this will end up applying to lots more companies than just those from China,” he said.

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Mexico López Obrador says self-isolation would play into hands of opposition Despite desperate pleas by the health ministry for people to stay at home, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador again appeared to minimise and politicise the looming Covid-19 crisis.

Ft Lauderdale mayor demands strict docking protocols for Zaandam cruise liner A stricken cruise liner with four dead, two confirmed coronavirus patients and 138 passengers and crew with flu-like symptoms aboard was on course to transit the Panama Canal on Sunday evening en route to Florida.

Nigeria orders two-week lockdown of Lagos and Abuja Nigeria’s president has ordered a two-week lockdown of the commercial capital Lagos and the federal capital Abuja as Africa’s most populous country nears 100 coronavirus cases. He also said all commercial and private aircraft would be grounded.

Moscow to impose full quarantine upon residents from Monday Moscow’s mayor has ordered a full quarantine of citizens from Monday, banning all residents from leaving their homes except for absolute necessities.

New York fatalities climb towards 1,000 New York recorded an additional 237 coronavirus deaths over the last 24 hours, bringing the state’s total to 965.

UK could take six months or longer to get ‘back to normal’ It could be up to six months – and perhaps longer – before British people can return to their “normal” lives, according to the deputy chief medical officer. Speaking at the government’s daily press briefing Jenny Harries said lockdown measures would have to be gradually lessened and that dropping restrictions suddenly would be “quite dangerous”.

Oil prices slump, Asia stocks fall as coronavirus measures extended

US oil prices fell below $20 a barrel, Asia equities slipped and US stock futures moved lower as governments said social distancing measures to stem the spread of coronavirus would have to be extended.

West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, fell more than 7 per cent to a low of $19.92 a barrel, the lowest level in 18 years, as the hit to global economies from coronavirus dents demand. International benchmark Brent crude was down 5.7 per cent at $23.50 a barrel.

Japan’s Topix fell 2.7 per cent and the Kospi in South Korea was down 3.2 per cent in early trading. The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia was an outlier, up 0.8 per cent. S&P 500 futures slipped 1.2 per cent.

US President Donald Trump announced on Sunday night that the guidelines to avoid social contact would remain in place until April 30, following a warning from one of his most senior medical advisers that the death toll from coronavirus could reach 200,000.

The S&P 500 had ended down 3.4 per cent on Friday as investors piled into haven assets such as US Treasuries ahead of the weekend. The index had gained 10.3 per cent for the week amid relief over a $2tn emergency stimulus package.

Signs of slowdown in countries’ death rates and growth of cases

Steve Bernard in London

Every day the Covid-19 virus is infecting an increasing number of people. However, the rate of growth in countries is starting to slow.

Among countries with more than 5,000 cases, this is most visible in Spain, which two weeks ago had a growth rate above 40 per cent per day on average and has seen this number fall to about 15 per cent.

The US continues to see increases above 25 per cent per day, but have fallen from recent highs of nearly 40 per cent. Iran, one of first countries to see a major outbreak outside of China, has started to see an increase again in recent days, edging back up to nearly 10 per cent.

The same also looks to be true with deaths.

Among countries with more than 100 deaths, this slowing down is most visible in Spain, which two weeks ago had a growth rate above 50 per cent per day on average, and has seen this number fall to about 20 per cent.

Global coronavirus cases exceed 700,000

Steve Bernard in London

The total number of cases worldwide has surpassed 700,000 on Sunday as an additional 44,279 people were confirmed to have contracted coronavirus.

The US has so far added 9,516 cases in the past day to about 133,000, with 21 states still to report their numbers.

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