Qantas to stand down two-thirds of employees and suspend international flights

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

Qantas Airways is temporarily standing down two-thirds of its 30,000 employees and suspending all international flights from late March “to guarantee the future of the airline”.

Australia’s largest carrier said on Thursday 150 aircraft would be temporarily grounded and domestic capacity would be slashed to 60 per cent. Payment of shareholder dividends worth A$201m will be deferred until September 2020, it said.

“We’re in a strong financial position right now, but our wages bill is more than A$4bn a year. With the huge drop in revenue we’re facing, we have to make difficult decisions to guarantee the future of the airline,” said Alan Joyce, Qantas chief executive.

“No airline in the world is immune to this, with the world’s carriers making deep cuts to flying schedules and jobs. Our strong balance sheet means we’ve entered this crisis in better shape than most.”

The employee stand-down period will stretch until at least the end of May, during which time staff will be able to draw down on annual and long service leave entitlements. Additional support mechanisms will be introduced, including leave at half pay and early access to long service leave.

Employees with low leave balances at the start of the stand-down period will be able to access up to four weeks leave in advance of earning it. But the airline said inevitable periods of leave without pay for some employees are inevitable.

Trump enlists Wall Street economist to join White House team

James Politi in Washington

US president Donald Trump has enlisted Joe Lavorgna, a senior Wall Street economist, to join his economic team as the White House grapples with the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Lavorgna was tapped by Mr Trump to be chief economist at the National Economic Council under Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser. Mr Lavorgna was chief economist at Deutsche Bank for many years before joining Natixis.

“In his new role, Mr. Lavorgna will have many roles, including studying the effects Covid-19 will have on the economy, analyzing high frequency economic data to gauge United States cyclical dynamics, and keeping National Economic Council Director Kudlow abreast of key economic and financial developments,” the White House said in a statement.

Mr Lavorgna highlights the need in the White House to bolster its economic team given expectations that the coronavirus outbreak is rapidly plunging the US into a recession, requiring more than $1tn in fiscal stimulus.

IAG chief to take pay cut as virus hits airlines

Tanya Powley in London

Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways’ owner IAG, is to take a 20 per cent pay cut, becoming the latest airline executive to reduce their salary as carriers battle a shutdown of international travel amid the widening coronavirus outbreak.

IAG confirmed the reduction in Mr Walsh’s salary would last for the remainder of his contract at IAG. The chief executives of IAG’s airlines – including BA and Spain’s Iberia – will also take pay cuts, but a spokeswoman for the group declined to provide any details.

It comes just days after the airline group announced that Mr Walsh will postpone his retirement – he was due to step down as chief executive at the end of March – to steer the group through the current crisis. His contract currently runs to the end of June.

Mr Walsh joins peers Alan Joyce, chief executive of Qantas, and Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic in taking pay cuts in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, which has brought passenger air transport to a virtual halt.

The UK government on Wednesday evening signalled its support for the airline industry, pledging to unveil a range of measures to support the sector in the coming days. It held calls with a group of airline chief executives on Wednesday morning, as well as a separate call with UK airports.

Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said: “Coronavirus is having a crippling impact on the aviation industry and we cannot allow it to force world-leading, well-run, profitable firms out of business.”

Trump invokes wartime act to combat virus

Kiran Stacey in Washington

Donald Trump has invoked a wartime act enabling his administration to force companies to prioritise making supplies to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

The US president on Wednesday transferred powers to Alex Azar, the US health secretary, enabling Mr Azar to take over the distribution of certain pieces of medical equipment, as hospitals battle with shortages of medical goods such as masks.

The order enables Mr Azar to control “the distribution of such materials (including applicable services) in the civilian market, for responding to the spread of Covid-19 within the United States.” The power was granted under the Defence Production Act, which was passed during the Korean War.

The powers will enable the US government to force companies to fulfil government contracts for medical supplies before anything else and also determine exactly where those supplies go.

It does not allow officials to take over production facilities, though the president could invoke such a power in extreme circumstances if he felt he needed to.

Brazil cuts interest rates to record low

Andres Schipani in São Paulo

The Brazilian central bank on Wednesday slashed its benchmark interest rate by 50 basis points in the wake of coronavirus, following in the footsteps of most of its peers.

The monetary policy committee, known as Copom, unanimously brought down the Selic rate to a record low of 3.75 per cent after 18 successive cuts since October 2016, when the rate was at 14.25 per cent.

The latest cut took place amid gloomy prospects about the impact of the coronavirus on Latin America’s largest economy, which expanded just 1.1 per cent last year, crushing hopes of an economic revival under President Jair Bolsonaro.

On Wednesday, Goldman Sachs forecast the Brazilian economy will shrink 0.9 per cent this year, compared with its previous estimate for 1.5 per cent growth two weeks ago.

Finance minister Paulo Guedes, wearing a mask, said during a press conference on Wednesday that the economy will speed up in the second half of the year.

Mr Bolsonaro is seeking authorisation from lawmakers to declare a “state of emergency” to loosen fiscal targets and release funds to combat the coronavirus. In a message delivered to Congress on Wednesday, the rightwing president who initially downplayed the outbreak as “hysteria”, said: “There is no way to avoid a recessionary shock in the short term, which should affect most countries in the world, including Brazil.”

Dublin reports 74 new infections

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Dublin has reported 74 new coronavirus infections, bringing the total in the Irish republic to 366. In Northern Ireland there were six new cases, taking the number there to 68 and the total on the island of Ireland to 434.

On Wednesday night health officials in Dublin said one in five cases are healthcare workers — and 37 per cent of them were infections associated with travel. The disease has spread widely throughout the republic, with only three of 26 counties free of Covid-19.

ECB arranges emergency call of rate-setting committee

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt

The European Central Bank arranged an emergency call of its rate-setting committee on Wednesday evening to discuss potential changes to its monetary policy in response to fears about the economic and financial market turmoil caused by coronavirus.

Economists have been calling for the ECB to increase its bond-buying programme in particular after the borrowing costs of southern European countries, such as Italy and Greece, rose sharply to levels not seen for more than a year.

Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, added his voice to these calls on Wednesday, saying: “All of the instruments available to the European Central Bank should be used quickly and massively.” He added: “I’m watching the interest rates everyday, we want the European Union to show its determination and its solidarity.”

Last week the ECB gave itself more capacity to buy bonds issued by Italy and other eurozone countries by increasing its existing €20bn-per-month programme of asset purchases by an extra €120bn over the course of this year. It also beefed up the cheap loans it offers to banks and granted lenders various forms of capital relief.

However, since then the spread of coronavirus has been declared a pandemic and both the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have announced further measures to shield their economies from the impact and to inject liquidity into financial markets.

ECB president Christine Lagarde told EU leaders this week that if the lockdown of many households and businesses continued for as long as a month it would knock 2 percentage points off the central bank’s forecast for eurozone growth of 0.8 per cent this year.

If the freeze on many business and consumer activities lasted three months, the ECB estimates it would knock more than 5 percentage points off growth this year.

This has increased the pressure on the ECB to do more, prompting its governing council members to hold a call to discuss potential additions to their monetary policy measures.

Another option for the ECB is to announce the lifting of its self-imposed limits to not buy more than a third of the eligible sovereign bonds of any single country and to purchase sovereign bonds in proportion to the weight of each country’s investment in its capital.

Cases in Greece top 400

Kerin Hope in Athens

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Greece has risen to 418 after 31 new infections were recorded on Wednesday, health ministry spokesman Sotiris Tsiodras said.

Thirteen people with an average age of 70 are being treated in intensive care units at different hospitals, Mr Tsiodras said.

He said the comparatively small number of new cases diagnosed over the past four days was the result of selective testing of vulnerable groups with existing health conditions.

The actual number of cases in Greece today is between 2,000 and 3,000, according to epidemiological modelling and other tools being used by experts at Athens Kapodistrian University, he said.

New York Stock Exchange to close trading floor

Richard Henderson in New York

The New York Stock Exchange will close its iconic trading floor on Monday in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, following similar moves by exchange groups in recent weeks.

NYSE, the largest US stock exchange group, will close two equity trading floors in New York and one options trading floor in San Francisco. In its main New York site, human traders “will connect to the exchange electronically to provide liquidity in their stocks, however, floor broker order types will be unavailable,” Intercontinental Exchange, the parent firm to NYSE, said in a statement on Wednesday.

There is no set time when the closure will end. The company will “monitor events to determine the appropriate time to re-open the NYSE trading floors”.

NYSE has put in place heightened sanitary measures at its 20th century building in downtown Manhattan to maintain its trading floor over the last week as New York City has gone into a quasi lock-down.

The move comes after CME Group last week closed its options trading floor and on Tuesday criticised US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over the prospect of reducing trading hours to address market volatility. CME Group and Nasdaq issued statements calling for markets to maintain regular trading hours while NYSE said it had no plans to reduce trading hours.

Bill allows Mexico’s government to tap primary surplus for virus relief

Jude Webber in Mexico City

Mexico’s government will be able to tap its primary surplus for emergency coronavirus relief under a bill passed by Congress in a step which analysts said weakens the strict fiscal discipline President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vowed to maintain and was anyway unlikely to be enough to weather the pandemic and oil price slump double-whammy.

The bill, tabled by Mario Delgado of the ruling Morena party, and approved on Wednesday afternoon – the day the peso currency breached a new historic low of 24 to the dollar level – means that the government “can dispose of resources … of up to 100 per cent of the positive primary balance”.

As of January, the finance ministry reported a 100bn peso ($4.2bn) primary surplus but the government has budgeted 182bn pesos for the whole year. The government, which has vowed not to raise taxes or debt, has targeted a 0.7 per cent primary surplus this year.

“I think this is just the beginning,” said Mariana Campos, a budget specialist at think-tank México Evalúa, noting that it was not clear how the government would reach its goal of 182bn pesos.

She said the 100bn pesos risked being only a drop in the ocean and was concerned about the signals spending the primary surplus would send. “How will the credit ratings agencies react?” she said.

Even before the coronavirus crisis and oil price plunge, the market was widely anticipating a second catastrophic downgrade to junk at state oil company Pemex – and a sovereign downgrade as well, although Mexico is not immediately at risk of losing its investment grade status.

Credit Suisse on Tuesday slashed its 2020 GDP forecast to a contraction of 4 per cent. The finance ministry has yet to revise its 2 per cent growth expectation and says it will do so in April, when it presents the financing criteria for the budget.

Mr Delgado tweeted that the money would go to an emergency fund “to mitigate the negative health and economic effects” of the coronavirus emergency. Mexico has 93 recorded cases and no deaths but the health ministry warned that in a worst-case scenario, it could be looking at 10,528 people needing intensive care.

Former Man U footballer Gary Neville turns hotels into free housing for health workers

Andy Bounds in Huddersfield

Former Manchester United footballer Gary Neville is turning his hotels over to health workers free of charge to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Neville’s two Manchester hotels will close to the public at the weekend but all staff will be retained on full pay.

“It is at this moment in time that the whole of our industry needs to show solidarity, not just for our staff in these uncertain times, but for the people who need the accommodation most in the coming months,” Mr Neville said in a statement on Twitter.

He co-owns the Stock Exchange and Hotel Football with former teammate Ryan Giggs. They have 176 beds which will be available to health workers from Friday.

“Our staff will operate the hotel as normal when health workers are allowed to stay there without any cost whatsoever when they need isolation away from family members who might be affected,” Mr Neville said.

Chelsea FC also announced the hotel at its stadium would accommodate health workers.

US Senate approves bill for paid sick leave and free coronavirus tests

Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

The US Senate has passed a measure to help Americans deal with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, approving a House-backed bill that will now head to Donald Trump to be signed into law.

The measure would provide billions of dollars to help people on unpaid sick leave and ensure that coronavirus tests are free. The House passed the bill on Friday. Democrats had slammed Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, for allowing senators to leave Washington at the weekend, delaying passage of the bill.

The US Chamber of Commerce applauded the passage of the bill, which came as the Trump administration urges Congress to pass a separate, much bigger stimulus package of roughly $1.3tn to deal with the outbreak’s economic fallout, as small and large companies reel from the crisis, as the number of cases of infected people soars.

S&P 500 slides more than 5%

US stocks dropped as the number of coronavirus cases in the US rose and investors awaited an agreement between the Trump administration and Congress on economic stimulus.

The S&P 500 closed down 5.2 per cent, climbing off its session lows while the Senate voted to move forward a bill that would provide free testing and paid leave for certain workers. The index had been down as much as 9.8 per cent in afternoon trading after triggering a 15-minute trading halt – the fourth halt in the last two weeks.

The Trump administration is working on a larger package of economic stimulus measures totalling more than $1tn, including direct payments to Americans.

The Nasdaq Composite fell 4.7 per cent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fared worse, sliding 6.3 per cent, with component Chevron losing 22 per cent amid a sharp decline in oil prices.

Brent crude tumbled 13 per cent to $24.88 per barrel. West Texas Intermediate was down 24 per cent at $20.37 per barrel in its third-worst daily loss on record, falling to its lowest level since 2002.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury jumped 19 basis points to 1.188 per cent.

Millennials more susceptible to coronavirus than previously thought – US officials

Kiran Stacey in Washington

Evidence is emerging that millennials are more susceptible to the coronavirus than previously thought, with some officials warning that younger people may erroneously believe they cannot catch the disease.

Deborah Birx, one of the leading scientists on the White House coronavirus task force, said US authorities were concerned about reports from France and Italy about young people becoming “seriously ill” with coronavirus.

Dr Birx said:

We think part of this may be that people heard the early data coming out of China, and coming out of South Korea, about the elderly or those with pre-existing medical conditions were at particular risk.

It may have been that the millennial generation our largest generation … there may be a disproportional number of infections among that group.”

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday about cases in the US appeared to reinforce Dr Birx’s comments, showing that more people aged 20-44 have caught the disease than other age groups – though that cohort is also larger than other groupings.

The data showed that 705 people aged 20-44 have been confirmed with the illness, compared with 429 people aged 45-54 and the same number aged 55-64.

Younger people are not suffering such severe symptoms, however, with lower rates of both hospitalisation and death. The death rate for 20-44-year-olds in the US has been 0.1 per cent, while for those aged over 85, it has been between 10.4 per cent.

US visa limits in Mexico spark fears among American farmers

Jude Webber in Mexico City

The US has halted processing new, non-essential visas in Mexico from today – including the temporary H-2A agricultural work visas issued largely to Mexicans – sparking fears among American farmers that there will be a vast shortage of labour that could endanger food supply chains.

“US farms and ranches could face a serious labour shortage at a critical time for planting and harvesting crops essential to the domestic food supply,” the American Farm Bureau warned in a statement.

“US agriculture depends on more than a quarter-million H-2A workers every year, and Farm Bureau is calling on the Administration to find a safe measure to ensure these skilled workers can come to our farms and ranches,” it added. The bureau has written to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the issue.

JPMorgan slashes US and global economic outlook

JPMorgan has taken an axe to its US and global GDP forecasts for the first half of the year as the bank expects the coronavirus outbreak to extract a heavy toll on the American economy.

The bank expects GDP to decline at a 4 per cent annualised rate in the first quarter, before tumbling 14 per cent in the second quarter.

Businesses have warned of hits to supply chain and demand from the outbreak and many companies have shut down stores to slow the spread over the virus. The airline industry has been engulfed in a crisis as countries impose travel bans and businesses cut back on corporate travel.

The bank forecasts a partial recovery in the third quarter with GDP expected to grow at an annualised pace of 8 per cent, followed by 4 per cent growth in the final three months of the year. Their outlook assumes the Federal Reserve will “remain creative in trying to do more” and $1tn in fiscal support from the federal government.

They expect this hit to growth will leave the unemployment rate at 5.25 per cent, compared with about 3.5 per cent at present. “The fact that the unemployment rate ends the year substantially higher than the current level should make clear why it would not be accurate to describe this as a V-shaped recovery, even with a strong Q3: that strength is not nearly enough to undo the expected damage to the labor market,” Mr Feroli, said.

Simon Property Group to close US malls for 10 days

Alistair Gray in New York

Some of America’s biggest and best known shopping centres are closing in a new blow to the retail sector.

Simon Property Group, among the country’s biggest mall landlords, said on Wednesday that it would close all its retail properties at 7pm local time this evening for 10 days.

David Simon, the company’s chairman and chief executive, said in a statement: “The health and safety of our shoppers, retailers and employees is of paramount importance and we are taking this step to help reduce the spread of Covid-19 in our communities.”

Shares in the real estate investment trust were down 21 per cent by mid-afternoon in New York.

Dozens of retail companies, including Nordstrom, Macy’s and Nike, have already announced widespread store closures in recent days.

UK mortgage lenders extend 3-month payment holiday to landlords

Matthew Vincent in London

UK mortgage lenders have agreed to offer a 3-month payment holiday to “buy-to-let” landlords whose tenants are in financial difficulty because of coronavirus disruption.

Ahead of a government announcement on new protections for struggling tenants, lobby group UK Finance and the Building Societies Association said their members would voluntarily relieve pressure on landlords who rely on rent payments to cover their home loans.

In addition to the mortgage payment holiday for owner-occupiers announced by UK chancellor Rishi Sunak, lenders will now extend the same support to “buy-to-let landlords who have tenants experiencing issues with their finances as a result of COVID-19”, for a period of up to three months.

Lenders have also signed up to a three-month moratorium on residential and buy-to-let repossession action, in cases where borrowers are already behind with payments.

Stephen Jones, UK Finance chief executive, said: “The industry wants to reassure customers that they will not have their homes repossessed at this difficult time and therefore, these measures will start from tomorrow (19 March 2020).”

Under the terms of the arrangement, a payment holiday will be made available to all buy-to-let landlords whose tenants have lost income because of the impact of Covid-19 — and all landlords will be expected to pass on this relief to their tenants to ensure that they are supported. Borrowers will still owe the money where a payment holiday has been granted and interest will still accrue, but lenders will ensure the payment holiday does not negatively impact customers’ credit records.

Greece announces €1.8bn stimulus package

Kerin Hope in Athens

Greece announced a €1.8bn support package on Wednesday for businesses affected by the coronavirus outbreak, including wage support for workers at companies that have temporarily shut down and funding for businesses hit by a sharp decline in turnover.

Wednesday’s economic package is the first of several that will be released in response to economic developments in the coming weeks.

“We’re only at the beginning of a battle whose length and intensity is unknown,” said finance minister Christos Staikouras, announcing the measures.

The package provides up loan guarantees to small and medium businesses for working capital; liquidity to banks for making new loans and subsidies for loan installments due in the next three moths, which companies would repay at a later date.

Workers facing temporary lay-offs are set to receive a €800 one-off payment next month in April, while the state will cover their health and pension contributions for the next four months.

Self-employed professionals will be allowed to delay making tax payments for four months and will also receive a one-off €800 pay-out.

Banks will give companies hit by the coronavirus epidemic a five-month holiday from making loan repayments, provided they are up-to-date with their current obligations.

Mr Staikouras said value-added tax would be cut to 6 per cent from 24 per cent on products needed to tackle the epidemic – face masks, gloves, soap, antiseptic liquids and alcohol for medicinal purposes.

Lloyd’s of London closing its underwriting room

Oliver Ralph in London

Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, is to close its underwriting room from Thursday evening onwards as the impact of the coronavirus hits one of the City’s last face-to-face trading venues.

Insurers and brokers have met in Lloyd’s underwriting room for over 300 years, but it was closed down last Friday – for the first time in living memory – as a test, and from Thursday it will close until further notice.

Normally 5,000 people go through the doors of the famous Richard Rogers-designed building, but by Wednesday that had shrunk to under 200 as the companies that operate there mostly stayed away.

The market will continue to trade electronically.

“We have taken this decision with a heavy heart and a commitment to review the situation on a weekly basis,” John Neal, chief executive, said.

Portugal declares state of emergency

Peter Wise in Lisbon

The Portuguese parliament on Wednesday approved the declaration of a state of emergency, giving the government sweeping powers to combat the coronavirus pandemic, including the suspension of constitutional rights.

Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favour of a presidential decree empowering the government to restrict freedom of movement, oblige businesses to open or close, cancel public events and impose local cordons sanitaires, among other measures.

The move follows similar decisions in other several countries including Italy, Spain, France and Hungary. It is the first time in 46 years of democracy that Portugal has declared a national state of emergency.

“Democracy will not be suspended,” said António Costa, the prime minister, following a cabinet meeting that supported the decree proposed by Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Portugal’s president. “Free citizens are also citizens who act responsibly towards themselves and others.”

The president was scheduled to make a televised address to the nation later on Wednesday. The government will then define the details of the measures to be implemented.

The Communist party and three deputies from small parties abstained, but there were no votes against the measure. The state of emergency will initially last for 15 days, but it can be renewed.

Earlier on Wednesday, Portugal reported 642 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 virus, an increase of 43 per cent in 24 hours. Health authorities have attributed two deaths to the disease.

English Football League extends £50m relief package to small clubs

Murad Ahmed, Sports Editor

The English Football League, the body that runs the professional divisions below the Premier League, has announced a £50m relief package to small clubs that are facing a cash crunch due to the suspension of matches due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The EFL said it would be offering cash payments and an interest-free loan facility to the 72 clubs in the lower reaches of English football, many of which are lossmaking and reliant on ticketing income to pay staff, players and suppliers. Fixtures across Europe have been suspended in response to the pandemic.

The EFL added that its ambition is to resume and complete the football season in the summer after the peak of the outbreak has passed in the UK, a move that would protect lucrative broadcasting and sponsorship contracts.

On Tuesday, European football’s governing body Uefa postponed by a year the Euro 2020 Championships that had been due to be played this June. The Premier League, the top tier of English football, holds a crisis meeting on Thursday to plot its response to the crisis.

Russian rouble hits record low against the dollar

Henry Foy in Moscow

Russia’s rouble has tumbled to its lowest ever level against the dollar, amid a plunge in oil prices and fears over the economic impact from coronavirus.

The rouble hit 82.3 against the greenback at 18:15 GMT, surpassing its previous low reached in January 2016.

Russia’s currency has fallen by roughly a third so far in 2020, exacerbated by the crash in oil prices partly caused by Moscow’s decision to reject a deal with Saudi Arabia to deepen cuts to crude production.

New York hospitality group behind Shake Shack to lay off 2,000 staff

Joshua Chaffin in New York

The Union Square Hospitality Group, one of New York’s best-known restaurant groups, is laying off 2,000 workers – some 80 per cent of staff – due to the pandemic.

Danny Meyer, founder of the group, which includes the Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack, called the crisis “without a doubt, the most challenging period any of us has ever encountered as leaders.”

Mr Meyer pleaded for government help and said he would donate his salary to a relief fund to help the laid-off workers.

Mount Sinai scientists develop test to detect coronavirus immunity

Hannah Kuchler in New York

Scientists at Mount Sinai have developed a test to detect if people are immune to the coronavirus, according to a paper not yet published in an academic journal.

The blood test measures antibodies to Covid-19, rather than the current tests which search for the genetic sequence of the virus in samples taken from the nose and throat.

These kinds of serological tests are usually less accurate than the molecular diagnostics, with this test able to detect antibodies three days after a person has symptoms.

But they serve a different purpose: helping public health experts assess how many people have been exposed but are asymptomatic, and providing a valuable guide to which health professionals may be safe to work with coronavirus patients.

Irish retail banks give borrowers 3-month respite

Arhur Beesley in Dublin

Ireland’s retail banks have promised a three-month loan repayment break for corporate and personal loan borrowers hit by the coronavirus as the country grapples with a sudden jump in joblessness as the pandemic escalates.

The move came as bank chiefs met for talks on the fallout from the covid-19 outbreak with Paschal Donohoe, the finance minister. “It is the case that we are now in the middle of a very significant economic shock,” Mr Donohoe told reporters.

“I can at this point confirm that we are now into a period of very significant job losses, they are very significant.”

The minister declined to specify the number of jobs potentially at risk, although some estimates suggest that as many as 340,000 workers could be laid off as the crisis strikes the retail, restaurant, bar and childcare sectors.

State-backed lenders including Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland have agreed to a package of support for business and personal clients. The measures include credit, cash flow and supply chain supports for small business, in addition to loan-breaks and support for landlords whose tenants are hit by Covid-19.

“If any landlord avails of the flexibility that is being afforded here today they should not use that flexibility to evict any tenants,” Mr Donohoe said.

The developments came as the Central Bank of Ireland released retail lenders from their obligation to hold a 1 per cent countercyclical capital buffer from April, to help them fight the crisis. The move to a zero per cent buffer will free up more than €1bn of bank capital, potentially supporting some €13bn of restructured lending, Mr Donohoe said.

Coronavirus is Germany’s biggest challenge since second world war – Merkel

Guy Chazan in Berlin

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has made an unusual address to the nation, calling the coronavirus epidemic the biggest challenge Germany has faced since the second world war and saying Germans had to stick to the new rules of social-distancing if there was to be any prospect of slowing the spread of the virus.

Speaking from her office in the chancellery, Ms Merkel urged her fellow citizens not to hoard supplies, insisting there were no food shortages, and “if shelves are empty one day they will be filled the next”.

“I would like to tell everyone who is going to supermarkets to shop – stockpiling makes sense, it always has done. But do so in moderation. Hoarding, as if something is going to run out is pointless, and in the end shows a complete lack of solidarity,” she said in her TV address.

The intervention came at a time when store-shelves in many German cities have been emptied of essential items, especially toilet paper, and long queues have been forming at supermarket check-outs.

The fact that this is the first time outside of her traditional New Year’s speech that she has addressed the nation on TV reflects the enormity of the challenge Germany is facing, as the corona pandemic spreads.

She was speaking in the same week that her government announced drastic measures to clamp down on public life, ordering the closure of shops, churches, pubs and sports facilities, and imposing controls on the country’s borders with its northern, western and southern neighbours. Schools and day-care centres have also been closed down, as have playgrounds. The chancellor, who acknowledged how hard the restrictions were, urged her fellow citizens to abide by the new rules in order to slow the virus’s spread.

Ms Merkel, who grew up as a pastor’s daughter in communist east Germany, struck a personal note in the 13 minute address. “For someone like me, for whom freedom of movement was a hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified if they are absolutely necessary. In a democracy, they should never be enacted in a frivolous way, and should only ever be temporary. But at the moment they are indispensable to save lives.”

UAE tells travellers to self-quarantine on risk legal action

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Anyone arriving in the United Arab Emirates who does not quarantine themselves for 14 days could face legal action, the attorney general said on Wednesday.

Emiratis and expatriates caught leaving their home and risking contact with others would be prosecuted, Hamad al-Shamsi said.

The UAE from Thursday will close entry to tourists arriving in the federation, the travel and tourism hub of the Gulf region, from Thursday. Diplomats are exempt.

Emiratis were also told not to leave the country, which has reported 113 coronavirus cases.

Labour group estimates 25m global jobs could be lost without policy action

Delphine Strauss in London

Almost 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide unless governments take swift, coordinated action to lessen the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the International Labour Organization warned on Wednesday.

The ILO said its preliminary modelling suggested that if the shutdowns imposed to contain the outbreak cut 4 percentage points from global growth in 2020 – meaning an outright contraction in global GDP – then worldwide unemployment would rise by around 13m, with around half of the job losses in high income countries.

In a more benign scenario, where growth slowed but remained positive, unemployment could rise by around 5.3m. But with more serious disruption, cutting 8 percentage points from global growth, job losses could rise to 25m.

This would make the impact of coronavirus worse than that of the 2008 financial crisis, which increased global unemployment by 22m, the ILO said.

Guy Ryder, the ILO’s director general, said that despite the substantial support governments had already announced since these figures were compiled, the worsening situation meant he now expected job losses at the upper end of this range, with a particular impact on young people, women and those in non-standard forms of employment.

EU insurance regulator reveals measures to ease industry strain

Oliver Ralph in London

The EU’s insurance regulator has announced a raft of measures to reduce the burden on the industry caused by financial market turmoil.

Insurers have been hurt by the falling markets as the value of the assets they hold to pay claims has been slashed. Eiopa, the EU regulator, has said that insurers facing severe balance sheet pressure could be given more time to sort themselves out by local supervisory authorities.

Eiopa also called on insurers to protect their own balance sheets so they can pay claims, telling them to be careful with dividends and variable remuneration.

“Recent stress tests have shown that the sector is well capitalised and able to withhold severe but plausible shocks to the system,” it said in a statement.

Italy’s confirmed case tally tops 35,000, death toll nears 3,000

Miles Johnson in Rome

The coronavirus outbreak in Italy has claimed 475 lives in the last 24 hours as the number of cases in Europe’s worst-hit country rose to 35,713, an increase of 13 per cent from Tuesday.

Official numbers from the Italian government showed that deaths since the crisis began increased to a total of 2,978, while the total number of active cases, which strips out the dead and the recovered, rose by 2,648 to 28,710 since yesterday. So far 4,025 have recovered, an increase of 1,084 from Tuesday.

The number of patients recovering in intensive case continued to rise, hitting 2,257, or a daily increase of 197, at a time when the Italian national health service, especially in the northern region of Lombardy, is under immense strain.

European countries should test all suspected cases, says WHO

Camilla Hodgson in London

European countries should be able to test every person suspected of being infected with coronavirus and must intensify their efforts to do so, the World Organisation said on Wednesday.

Dr Michael Ryan, the WHO’s executive director, said there was not currently a shortage of testing kits but that the choice by some countries to not systematically test all suspected cases of the disease was “one of the reasons that we’re behind on this epidemic.”

Although countries in Europe have been scaled up their capacity to test for the virus in the last few weeks, some, including the UK, have come under fire for not testing enough people or for choosing only to test the most serious cases.

Testing capacity “comes down to what the strategy of an individual country is,” and whether they are choosing to test every suspected case, Dr Ryan said. “I believe every country in Europe does have the capacity to do that.”

More difficult is the process of identifying and warning all the people that an infected person has come into contact with, he added.

Dr Ryan’s comments came hours after the UK announced its intention to increase the number of people it aims to test to 25,000 per day within the month, up from around 7,500 at the moment. Public Health England said it would be deploying high throughput machines, which can process many more samples in one go than conventional machines, as part of the ramp up.

For countries to increase the number of tests they are running they must not only obtain enough testing kits but also scale up the capacity of the labs where samples are processed and ensure that the labs have enough staff members.

Egypt makes arrests after protest over virus concerns in jails

By Heba Saleh

Egypt has arrested four women, including close family members of a detained democracy activist, because they protested in downtown Cairo calling for the release of prisoners in the country’s overcrowded jails to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

The women include Ahdaf Soueif, a prominent Egyptian British novelist who is the aunt of Alaa Abdel Fattah, the detained activist. The others are Laila Soueif his mother, Mona Seif his sister and Rabab al-Mahdy, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

The four had stood with placards in front of the prime minister’s office in Cairo to demand the release of prisoners, many of whom have been in pre-trial detention for long periods of time.

Activists and opposition figures have been calling on the state for days to free non-violent prisoners and those jailed for their political views.

There is no reliable count of the number of people in prison but former detainees and family speak of overcrowding in cells and unhygienic conditions. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested in the wake of the popularly-backed coup of 2013 led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current president who ousted his elected Islamist predecessor. The arrests have focused mainly on Islamists but they have also extended to secular critics of the Sisi regime.

Ms Seif was broadcasting live from her mobile when a plainclothes policeman carrying a walkie talkie came up to the women and took the placards they were carrying. A family member said lawyers have been able to see the women who are waiting to appear before a prosecutor. Unauthorized demonstrations are banned in Egypt.

Some 200 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in the country and six people have died. The authorities have suspended air travel for two weeks starting tomorrow.

Ocado blocks website access to cope with order backlog

Jonathan Eley in London

Ocado, the online supermarket popular with middle-class shoppers, has closed access to its website as it struggles to cope with a backlog of orders.

“We have made a decision to temporarily close access to so you will not be able to edit an existing order or book a new delivery for the next few days,” said Melanie Smith, chief executive of Ocado Retail, in a message to customers.

Ocado Retail is a joint venture between Ocado and Marks & Spencer.

“This temporary closure will allow us to complete essential work that will help to make sure distribution of products and delivery slots is as fair and as accessible as possible for all our loyal customers,” she added.

The company has been struggling with substantial additional demand for some time, and last week stopped accepting new customer registrations in order to prioritise existing customers.

In recent days, its website has displayed a “virtual queue” similar to those deployed by concert ticketing agencies, with waits of two hours or more just to gain access to the website. Delivery slots have been booked up for weeks in advance.

Ocado picks orders from three large distribution centres in Kent, Hertfordshire and Warwickshire. But its capacity was constrained when a fourth centre in Hampshire was destroyed by fire last year.

Other retailers with online delivery capability have also been severely tested, with their capacity limited by the number of temperature-controlled vans they operate and in many cases by the availability of staff to pick customers’ orders.

Delta Air Lines to cut capacity by 70% after forecasting $2bn revenue shortfall

Delta Air Lines said it will slash capacity by 70 per cent after revealing that revenue this month is forecast to be down almost $2bn from a year earlier and projected to fall even further in April.

That is an increase from the 40 per cent cuts it predicted on Friday, when the company revealed in an internal memo it had, like rival carriers, been in discussions with the Trump administration about financial support.

The airline’s international operations would take the biggest cut, with an 80 per cent reduction in flights over the next two to three months, the carrier said in an SEC filing on Wednesday.

Delta, the US’s second-biggest airline by revenue, said it would defer nearly all of its capital spending, including on new aircraft deliveries “until we have better clarity on the duration and severity of the situation.”

The company said it was seeking to secure more than $4bn in cash savings during the June quarter. Part of that would come through capacity-related savings from suspending flights, but Delta added: all its officers would take a 50 per cent pay cut through June 30; that it would close the majority of its airport lounges, and; that it was reducing any “maintenance spend that is not necessary to support the safety of our operation.”


UK to close schools ‘until further notice’ after Friday

Laura Hughes writes:

Schools across the UK will close from Friday as part of accelerated efforts to curtail the spread of coronavirus, the education secretary has announced.

Gavin Williamson said exceptions would be made for children of “key workers” in the NHS and police, as well as delivery drivers and those who are particularly vulnerable.

“Exams will not take place as planned in May and June”, added Boris Johnson, prime minister.

The decisions come just 24 hours after schools were ordered to stay open despite the government stepping up advice to curb social contact.

Mr Williamson told MPs:

I want to provide parents, students and staff with the certainty they need.

After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon they will remain closed until further notice.

This will be for all children except to those of key workers and where children who are most vulnerable.

Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler to idle US plants

Peter Campbell in London and Claire Bushey in Chicago

General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler have agreed to idle their US facilities in the wake of coronavirus, in an unprecedented country-wide shutdown, according to two sources familiar with the talks.

The deal reached on Wednesday ends a five-day standoff with the UAW union, which first proposed a fortnight’s shutdown on Sunday in a newly-formed taskforce between the three carmakers and union officials to tackle the outbreak.

The UAW argued for closures, saying it needed to protect members, who have to come into work despite back office staff being able to work from home.

Several plants, including Fiat Chrysler’s Sterling Heights plant, have been closed following confirmed cases of the virus among staff.

The union and Big Three automakers reached an agreement on Tuesday night for “rotating, partial shut downs” of factories, cutting shifts at plants that operate round-the-clock to allow for deeper cleaning of equipment and facilities.

Many workers panned the measure on social media, saying it was “not good enough”.

At a meeting of the taskforce on Wednesday, the carmakers agreed to close their sites, two people familiar with the discussions told the FT.

Hours before the four parties met on Wednesday, Honda announced plans to shutter all of its North American facilities, in the first nation-wide closure stemming from the outbreak.

US military deploying hospital ships to aid domestic response to virus

Katrina Manson in Washington

US defence secretary Mark Esper said on Wednesday that America’s two hospital ships, Comfort and Mercy, which provide acute medical services to support overseas emergencies, are preparing to deploy to help the US response to coronavirus.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo said earlier on Wednesday that the USNS Comfort, which is docked on the east coast at Norfolk, Virginia, would soon move to support New York City, which he said could run out of hospital beds.

Governor Cuomo said the floating hospital could help free up 1,000 beds for coronavirus patients, as New York begins to fill its 53,000 hospital beds and 3,000 intensive care unit beds.

But the Navy told the FT no “firm timeline” was yet established.

“Both ships are currently working to complete scheduled maintenance cycles and identify necessary medical staffing to deploy as soon as possible,” a Navy spokesman told the FT.

Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defence for public affairs, told reporters later on Wednesday that it would take “weeks not days” to ready the USNS Comfort, which was still undergoing maintenance in Virginia but which he said would deploy to support the coronavirus response in the New York area.

He said USNS Mercy, docked on the west coast at San Diego, could be “ready to go much sooner” within days, but had not yet been given a destination.

The Navy said the ships would not treat coronavirus patients, but would be “made available to assist with treatment of other patients in coastal locations where local health professionals are necessarily focused on a large number of Covid cases”.

UK pound plunges almost 5% in chaotic trading

Sterling dropped close to 5 per cent in violent trading on Wednesday afternoon.

The currency hit a low of $1.1463, having closed the previous day at $1.2050.

US stocks trigger 15-minute halt amid sell-off

US stocks extended their sell-off in afternoon trading, triggering a 15-minute halt for the fourth time since last week.

The S&P 500 fell to session lows, down 7 per cent, hitting a Level 1 circuit breaker to temporarily stop trading.

The Nasdaq Composite dropped 6.3 per cent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 7.8 per cent.

Excavator maker JCB to halt production at UK facilities next week

Michael Pooler in London

JCB is stopping production at all of its British factories until at least the end of next week because of an “unprecedented” drop in global demand for construction equipment caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The digger maker will halt manufacturing at nine plants in Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Wrexham from today, with no decision yet made about what happens from the week commencing Monday 30th March.

Chief executive Graeme Macdonald said: “These measures are unprecedented in the history of JCB but are absolutely necessary to protect the business.”

Shop floor employees affected by the move will be paid in full during the period, while office staff will continue to work a 39-hour week, many of them from home in line with the government’s social distancing policy.

JCB joins a number of UK carmakers that have temporarily closed factories because of the viral outbreak.

The Staffordshire-headquartered group added that its plant in Pudong, near Shanghai, was now fully operational again after ceasing production last month because of the impact of coronavirus.

Cost of insuring some of the US’s riskiest bonds against default soars

Joe Rennison in London

The cost of protecting against the default of some of America’s riskier bonds soared above 700 basis points for the first time in nearly a decade, as corporate debt resumed its sell-off on Wednesday, following a brief respite on Tuesday.

The CDX index of credit defaults swaps on high-yield bond issuers rose to 712 basis points on Wednesday, according to data from IHS Markit, it’s highest level since August 2011. An equivalent index for investment-grade bonds rose to 137 basis points, encroaching on the 139 basis point-high hit earlier this month.

Investors have begun reassessing the ability of companies to repay debts in light of the coronavirus outbreak, sending corporate borrowing costs higher and bond prices lower.

BlackRock iShares high yield bond exchange trade fund, known by its ticket HYG, dropped 3.5 per cent, falling to its lowest level since 2009. Higher-quality, investment grade bonds also struggled on Wednesday, with iShares LQD ETF down 2.7 per cent to its lowest level in a year.

EU ‘grateful’ for Chinese offer of protective equipment

Jim Brunsden in Brussels

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that the EU was “grateful” that China had offered to send the bloc vital protective equipment, saying it would help bridge the gap before ramped-up European production comes on stream.

Ms von der Leyen said that Chinese premier Li Keqiang had offered to immediately ship equipment including 200,000 N95 respirator masks, 2m surgical masks and 50,000 testing kits.

“We both agreed that the fight against coronavirus is a global one. and that we need to support each other in times of need,” she said.

“China has not forgotten that, in January, when China was the centre of the virus outbreak, the European Union helped. We donated rapidly more than 50 tonnes of protective equipment,” she said in a video message on Twitter. “Today we are the centre of the coronavirus pandemic and we need protection ourselves.”

“We are ramping up our production, we are converting new production lines, but this needs several weeks and in the meantime we are grateful for support from China,” she said. “This support is highly valued and we are grateful for it.”

Nigeria reduces price of petroleum on oil crash

Neil Munshi in Lagos

Nigeria will lower the politically-sensitive price of petrol to N125 ($0.34), from N145 ($0.40), as Africa’s biggest crude producer takes its most significant step in response to the oil price slump.

While Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer, it has almost no refining capacity and ends up importing nearly all of its petrol — a system that negates most of the benefits of high oil prices for producing nations. The slump in oil prices has brought the cost of petroleum below the subsidised price.

The “president has approved that Nigerians should benefit directly from the reduction in the price of [petrol], which is a direct effect of the crash in global crude oil prices,” minister of state for oil Timipre Sylva said in a statement.

Mr Sylva said the government had introduced a “modulation mechanism” that would see the price of petrol track crude prices. “If crude prices go down, we will see a reduction in petrol prices, if prices go up we will see an increase,” he said.

Economists have for years pushed the government to float the price of petrol and give up a subsidy that cost Nigeria nearly $1bn, or roughly 0.2 per cent of GDP, in the first half of 2019, according to World Bank estimates. However, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has been reluctant to lift the subsidy. Efforts by previous administrations have resulted in street protests.

The news came as the Central Bank of Nigeria announced a N1tn intervention fund to support the manufacturing sector and N100bn to support health authorities amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Light maker Osram scraps profit guidance, considers factory closures

Joe Miller in Frankfurt

Osram, the lights and lasers auto-supplier, has scrapped its guidance for the 2020 fiscal year, citing “unprecedented operational and financial challenges”.

The Munich-based company’s announcement marks the first concrete sign of Coronavirus-induced financial stress among Germany’s car parts-makers.

In a statement, the business, which is in the midst of being acquired by Austrian tech firm AMS, said “the economic impact of the pandemic… can neither be adequately determined nor reliably quantified at this time.”

It said it was considering the “temporary closure of some of its own production facilities”.

Osram’s shares are trading at around €28, more than 30 per cent lower than the €41 paid by AMS in December.

Turkey announces $15bn support package

Laura Pitel in Ankara

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a $15bn coronavirus support package for businesses and vulnerable people as he urged everyone in the nation of 83m people to stay at home.

Mr Erdogan used an address after a special four-hour crisis meeting to warn the country that “nobody has the right to jeopardise the health of the public because of their own selfishness or carelessness, adding: “The health and peace of society depends on responsibilities and sacrifices we all make.”

The Turkish president said that no one should leave their home unless necessary, and urged those who have to go out to work to return immediately. He said that the period of confinement could last as little as three weeks if everyone kept to the rules.

Mr Erdogan acknowledged the painful impact of the fight against the virus on the country’s $750bn economy as he announced a support package that he said would serve as an “economic shield.”

Measures include VAT discounts for sectors including retail, automotive entertainment and hospitality, a reduction on VAT for domestic aviation to 1 per cent, and loan payment holidays for companies whose cash flow has been disrupted by the crisis.

A 2019 Treasury-backed credit guarantee fund to encourage lending to small businesses was doubled in size to 50bn lira ($7.7bn).

Mr Erdogan also announced steps to support disadvantaged people and the elderly, including raising the minimum pension payment by around 250 lira ($38) per month and allocating 2bn lira ($0.3bn) to provide extra welfare payments to vulnerable families.

Tesla factory in California faces shutdown after sheriff’s order

Richard Waters in San Francisco

Elon Musk’s efforts to keep Tesla’s US production lines humming through the coronavirus crisis appear to have hit a wall, after a local sheriff ordered the company late on Tuesday to close its plant in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Mr Musk had kept the plant running despite an order by seven local counties at the start of the week for all residents to “shelter in place” and requiring all non-essential businesses to close. The Tesla and SpaceX chief has also publicly questioned the drastic actions prompted by the health crisis, tweeting on March 6 that the “coronavirus panic is dumb”. On Monday, as San Francisco and its neighbouring counties announced the most drastic restrictions on movement yet seen in the US, he continued to argue that “danger of panic far exceeds danger of corona imo”.

The order from Alameda county, where Tesla’s Fremont plant is based, comes at an important time for the company. Earlier this week it had begun deliveries of the Model Y, its first new vehicle in nearly three years. The news pushed Tesla’s shares down another 11 per cent on Wednesday, leaving them 60 per cent below the high point hit a month ago after a spectacular run. It is unclear whether Mr Musk will attempt to fight the order, and the company did not respond to requests for comment.

UK’s biggest pension fund hit by plunging markets

Josephine Cumbo in London

The Universities Superannuation Scheme, the UK’s largest private-sector plan, has reported itself to the regulator after plunging markets led to a breach of a key funding measure.

The USS, which has 400,000 members and is the main fund for the UK university sector, made the report this week after a “self sufficiency” funding metric was breached for five consecutive business days.

“This measure is important as uncertainty for the Scheme’s future funding means an increased dependency on the potential support of the sector to underpin the assumptions made in funding the Scheme,” said the USS in a statement.

The scheme must inform the Pensions Regulator of a covenant breach, under a framework put in place in 2018, which also requires its trustees to consider “appropriate” actions in response

“Funding levels for the USS DB scheme remain volatile,” said Bill Galvin, group chief executive of the USS, in an email to more than 300 higher education sector employers backing the scheme.

“Long term effects will take time to understand; this uncertainty means an increased dependency on the potential support of our employers to underpin the assumptions previously made in funding promised benefits.

“We recognise that there will be significant and understandable concerns among our sponsoring employers and membership in general, particularly as we approach 31 March 2020.”

“Our current view is that the impact of Covid-19 will be very significant over the near-term.”

The Trustees of the pension scheme will meet on March 26 to consider their response.

The scheme said it did not expect the Covid-19 outbreak to impact on the payment of pensions. However, it said it will mean service levels for “normal activity may need to be adjusted”.

The Pensions Regulator is expected to issue fresh guidance for pension schemes facing requests from employers to delay or defer their contributions, as the fallout from the coronavirus grows.

Nato ambassadors hold regular meeting in Brussels

Michael Peel, Brussels

Nato ambassadors held their regular meeting in Brussels on Wednesday despite a partial lockdown imposed by the Belgian government on residents over the coronavirus crisis.

Jens Stoltenberg, the 29-member alliance’s secretary-general, posted a photo of himself doing a jocular elbow bump with US General Tod Wolters, Nato supreme allied commander.

While Nato operates under special international diplomatic rules, the business-as-usual approach surprised some on a day when the Belgian government banned public gatherings and called for people to minimise contacts outside their immediate families.

“6ft apart measurements look different at NATO…,” observed one sub-tweet to Mr Stoltenberg’s photo, referring to the widely-recommended benchmark for social distancing of 1.5m or more.

A Nato official said the alliance was working in close coordination with the Belgian authorities and implementing best practice as recommended by the World Health Organization.

New York orders businesses to dramatically limit number of employees turning up for work

New York was set to issue a “mandatory statewide requirement” that no business could have more than half of its employees turn up for work, with the state continuing to step-up measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The order exempts essential services including transportation, food stores and healthcare, Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Mr Cuomo said the restrictions would “track the trajectory of the disease”

“If we slow the spread and can handle that in the healthcare system, we’ll relax [the restrictions] as soon as possible,” Mr Cuomo said. “If you take dramatic actions sooner, you reduce the spread and recover faster.”

This follows the move by New York to: limit gatherings to 50 people; shift restaurants and bars to be take-out or delivery only; and close gyms, movie theatres and casinos. Those measures, which came into effect at 8pm on Monday night, were simultaneously replicated by Connecticut and New Jersey, with Pennsylvania announcing on Wednesday morning it, too, would follow suit.

Mr Cuomo also highlighted the challenge New York faced in having facilities to handle patients. Based on the current rate of spread, the governor said that over the next 45 days about 110,000 beds could be needed, compared with capacity of 53,000 at present. He estimated 37,000 ventilators, to assist breathing, would be needed, versus 3,000 the state has now. “That’s our main issue.”

Options to increase the number of beds included converting facilities. Mr Cuomo said discussions with President Donald Trump have led to the federal government agreeing to send the USNS Comfort, a 1,000-room “hospital ship” to New York City harbour and conversations about where mobile hospitals could be set up.

Coffee chains shift to take-out and drive-thru

Alice Hancock in London

Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Pret are among a number of coffee shop businesses that have abandoned sit-in operations and are moving to takeaway-only models to stop customers spending too long in enclosed public spaces, in line with government advice in both the US and Europe.

In an email to Starbucks’ employees, Alex Rayner, the company’s UK general manager wrote: “We’ve taken the proactive decision to progress to the next stage of protocols in the UK. This includes closing select stores including ones in areas where people typically gather in large groups – such as cinemas and recreation parks – and temporarily moving to a ‘to go’ only model across the rest of our UK estate.”

Mr Rayner said the policy would take effect from Wednesday.

Dunkin’ Donuts announced a similar procedure in the US, where it will limit customers to drive-thru and takeaway, and will remove all chairs and tables from restaurants. Pret said that its “key priority is to try to reduce points of contact in shops and to minimise the time it takes for people to get the food they need”.

Companies that survive off customers visiting bricks-and-mortar premises are having to think hard about alternative revenue streams as governments put cities and towns into lockdown and advise the public to stay at home.

Restaurant operators have stepped up their delivery operations to stay in business. Some independent businesses in Paris have resorted to handing food out of front doors and windows.

Pret, Starbucks and the Italian chain Carluccio’s all plan to offer 50 per cent discounts to NHS staff in the UK.

Scania to suspend European production amid part shortages

Richard Milne in Oslo

Swedish truckmaker Scania will stop all its production in Europe next week due to part shortages and supply chain problems because of coronavirus.

One of the world’s most profitable truckmakers, Scania is owned by Volkswagen and maintaining production in Latin America, where it makes about a fifth of its volumes.

Scania said it currently expected the closure of its factories in Sweden, the Netherlands and France to last just two weeks due to “major disruptions that have occurred in the supplier and logistics chain”. It had 25,000 workers in production at the end of last year.

Scania’s move follows Volvo Group, the world’s second-largest truckmaker, closing its Gothenburg factory in western Sweden after similar closures by the Swedish group in France and Belgium.

Mexico to auction another $2bn in currency hedges

Jude Webber in Mexico City

Mexico’s finance ministry and central bank said it was auctioning another $2bn in currency hedges under a programme the government expanded last week in a bid to boost liquidity and contain the fallout from the coronavirus crisis as the peso currency crashed further, breaching a new historic low of 24 to the dollar earlier on Wednesday.

The programme expanded the hedge to $30bn from $20bn and the ministry and central bank – which together make up the exchange commission – said in a statement that so far, $7.5bn had been auctioned.

“The exchange commission ratifies its commitment to continue evaluating operating conditions in the foreign exchange market and to take additional action if necessary,” it said.

After the US Federal Reserve and regional banks slashed interest rates, all eyes are on whether Banxico will hold an extraordinary meeting – its next rate-setting meeting is on March 26 – and whether it will follow suit. Mexico’s benchmark interest rate is at 7 per cent.

The finance ministry and central bank also said they would conduct liability management operations on Thursday.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador appeared unruffled by the market turmoil, even though the exchange rate is one of his most closely-watched variables, and devoted his morning news conference to an update on one of his government’s signature projects – a new Mexico City airport, replacing the project he scrapped shortly before taking office.

“We think that the world economy will stabilise because the US government is intervening – there’s a direct, deep intervention … and they’re going to do everything to stabilise things … it’s in no one’s interest for there to be a world recession and economic crisis,” he told his morning news conference.

Mexico, whose economy is now forecast by private economists to contract by as much as 4 per cent this year, is also battling a plunge in oil prices, but the president said he would maintain and even boost some of his social policies “without increasing taxes, without the country getting into debt and without increasing fuel prices”. He said jobs were safe.

In another blow to the economy, carmaker Honda’s temporary closure of North American plants includes two plants in Mexico.

Honda to close UK and US plants

Peter Campbell in London reports:

Honda will close its UK plant and all car factories in the US, in the first North America-wide shutdown following the coronavirus outbreak.

The group cited falling demand for a decision to shutter four US sites for at least six days. Widespread shutdowns are expected across the US, which has so far seen limited industrial impact from coronavirus.

Fiat Chrysler on Wednesday closed its Sterling Heights plant after an employee, who had been off work, tested positive for coronavirus.

Further closures are expected, as the UAW union has called for Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler to idle plants. A deal between the four parties on proposed closures or production rollbacks could come as early as Wednesday.

Almost every European car plant has now closed, after BMW and Toyota on Wednesday joined the ranks of carmakers shutting sites.

Jaguar Land Rover is the last major producer to have kept its UK sites open, but is expected to announce as early as Thursday it will close factories at the end of the week. Honda on Wednesday also announced the temporary shutdown of its Swindon site, which is scheduled to close permanently next year.

Brent crude falls to near $26 per barrel

Oil prices tumbled to a near 17-year low, falling close to 10 per cent on the likelihood of significantly lower demand and Saudi Arabia’s decision to increase supply.

Brent crude fell 9.2 per cent to just above $26 a barrel, levels not seen since late 2003. Brent was trading at near $70 as recently as January. WTI, the US benchmark, fell more than 15 per cent to below $23 a barrel.

The slump weighed heavily on the currencies of oil-dependent economies. Russia’s rouble fell 6 per cent to near Rbs80, while Norway’s krone was 5 per cent lower at NKr 10.99.

Sterling falls below $1.18

The pound has fallen to levels it has not consistently traded at since the 1980’s, sliding more than 2 per cent to $1.1760.

The sharp move lower caps a recent slide that has seen the currency lose more than 10 per cent of its value this month.

At the heart of the move lies a sharp rise in the dollar, as the coronavirus outbreak has sent investors scrambling into safer assets.

“The UK’s response to the incoming coronavirus shock has been about as aggressive as possible in terms of monetary and fiscal policy, but this has done nothing to help sterling,” said Ranko Berich, head of market analysis at Monex Europe.

Norway’s government proposes emergency law to bypass parliament

Richard Milne in Oslo

Norway’s government has put forward a new emergency law that would allow it to bypass parliament to take urgent measures over the coronavirus outbreak.

Erna Solberg, Norway’s centre-right prime minister, told a press conference on Wednesday afternoon that the proposal would allow the government to set aside existing laws except over human rights. Parliament would be able to block any measures if a third of MPs were in disagreement.

“This is an extraordinary situation where we need to be able to act quickly…We have an everyday life that is unrecognisable. Many are concerned about the economy, and we will do what we can to help,” Ms Solberg added.

Norway’s unemployment rate more than doubled in the week to Tuesday as it also faces up to the recent plunge in oil prices while several ministers have coronavirus or are in quarantine.

Norwegian media reported that there appeared to be a majority in parliament in favour of the law, which would only apply to coronavirus measures, which would be valid for six months. The emergency law would cease to apply from the end of this year.

UK housing charity warns 50,000 tenants at risk of eviction

George Hammond in London

Shelter, the housing charity, has warned that 50,000 UK tenants risk eviction in the next six months unless the government takes action.

The government “must now act decisively to help renters survive the current storm. It must legislate immediately to halt all eviction proceedings during this period of social disruption,” said Polly Neate, Shelter’s chief executive.

Almost three-quarters of renters have no savings, according to Shelter, and without assistance will be unable to pay rent should they lose earnings as a result of the coronavirus.

Robert Jenrick, the UK’s housing secretary, is due to announce measures to protect renters from the fallout of the virus this week.

Singapore ramps up restrictions as cases jump

Stefania Palma in Singapore:

Singapore has tightened border controls after reporting the highest jump in confirmed cases yet.

Starting from March 20 at 11:59pm, all visitors, residents as well as Singaporeans entering the city-state will be issued a 14-day “stay home notice”, under which a person is not allowed to leave one’s residence. Authorities have also asked Singaporeans to defer all travel abroad.

“We have to be mentally prepared for the number of imported cases to continue rising in the coming days,” said Lawrence Wong, minister for national development and co-chair of the coronavirus task force, citing Singaporeans overseas likely to return home.

The city-state has reported 47 new cases, 33 of which are imported. They include Singaporean as well as foreign citizens who visited countries such as the UK, Indonesia, Switzerland, Austria, the US and Turkey. The total number of cases in Singapore now sits at 313.

About 70 per cent of Singapore’s new patients in the past three days were imported.

Canada announces $57bn stimulus package

Canada has announced an C$82bn (US$57bn) dollar stimulus package and concessions to support the domestic economy as it grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday the government would provide up to C$27bn in direct assistance to help Canadian citizens and businesses, and would make C$55bn of liquidity available to businesses and households, through tax deferrals.

Mr Trudeau, who is in self-quarantine after his wife Sophie tested positive for the virus, also confirmed that the country’s land border with the US would be closed to non-essential travel, as President Donald Trump had said in a tweet earlier in the morning.

As part of Canada’s stimulus package, businesses would be given a temporary wage subsidy for up to three months to allow them to keep workers on the payroll, while taxpayers would have until August 2020 to pay their taxes. Exporters would also be offered support through the state-owned trade credit agency.

‘Labour market crisis’ could see up to 25m jobs lost, says ILO

Federica Cocco in London reports:

The International Labour Organization has said that almost 25m jobs could be lost worldwide as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is no longer only a global health crisis, it is also a major labour market and economic crisis,” said Guy Ryder, director-general of the ILO.

The ILO, a UN agency that specialises in work, estimated that this year global unemployment could rise by between 5.3m and 24.7m, a steep increase that could only be mitigated by an internationally co-ordinated policy response such as the one seen during the financial crisis of 2008-09.

Falls in employment will result in income losses for workers, which the study estimates as totalling between $860bn and $3.4tn by the end of 2020. According to the authors of the report, “this will translate into falls in consumption of goods and services”.

The organisation has called for “urgent, large-scale and coordinated measures” such as the extension of social protection, financial and tax relief for small businesses and measures to retain employment for precarious workers.

UK prisoner diagnosed with virus

Robert Wright, Social Policy Correspondent, reports:

An inmate at an English prison has been diagnosed with coronavirus, marking the first case of the disease in a population that is expected to prove particularly vulnerable to the virus.

The Ministry of Justice said a prisoner at HM Prison Manchester – often referred to as Strangeways Prison – had tested positive for Covid-19 and was currently in hospital.

The ministry added that staff were “working closely” with Public Health England to take action, including measures to minimise the risk of further infection.

While there have been no further positive tests, an official indicated that 13 prisoners and four staff members had been isolated as a precaution after the inmate tested positive.

Prison reform groups have repeatedly expressed concern that Covid-19 could spread rapidly in prisons in England and Wales, given their high levels of overcrowding and the challenges of separating prisoners from each other. The government has insisted that appropriate sanitation measures are in place.

On Monday, the ministry announced that a member of staff at HMP High Down had tested positive for the virus.

IMF rejects Venezuela loan request

Gideon Long in Bogotá

The IMF has rejected Venezuela’s request for $5bn to tackle the outbreak of Covid-19 on the grounds that there is no clarity as to who is the country’s legitimate leader: de facto president Nicolás Maduro or the US-backed head of the opposition Juan Guaidó.

“Unfortunately, the Fund is not in a position to consider this request,” the IMF said in a statement. “As we have mentioned before, IMF engagement with member countries is predicated on official government recognition by the international community, as reflected in the IMF’s membership. There is no clarity on recognition at this time.”

Mr Maduro made the request in a letter made public on Tuesday. It was Venezuela’s first request to the IMF since 2001. On countless occasions, the governments of Mr Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez have railed against the fund, accusing it of implementing damaging policies in Latin America.

EmoticonSturgeon: London faces ‘more stringent’ lockdown

Jim Pickard, chief political correspondent, writes:

The government is poised to impose “more stringent measures” on London – where there are more coronavirus cases than in other parts of the UK – according to Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Asked how far the UK was from a “complete lockdown”, Ms Sturgeon said the capital city could see tougher measures first because it is further ahead on the “curve” of the outbreak.

One official suggested that the changes could occur before the end of the week, although not before Friday. Boris Johnson has advised people to stay away from social venues such as pubs, restaurants and theatres but the advice is for now still voluntary.

A Downing Street spokesman refused to comment at the daily Number 10 briefing for political journalists. But he said: “London seems to be moving ahead of other parts of the UK and he [Boris Johnson] advised people in London to pay particular attention to the measures we have been putting in place.”

Portuguese cases jump by almost half

Peter Wise in Lisbon reports:.

Portugal on Wednesday reported 642 confirmed cases of coronavirus, an increase of 194 cases, or 43 per cent, in 24 hours.

Marta Temido, health minister, said the number of cases was expected to continue increasing “until at least the end of April”. A total of 24 active chains of transmission have been identified.

The Covid-19 virus has claimed the lives of two people in Portugal, both men aged over 70. The second victim was António Vieira Monteiro, the chairman and former chief executive of Banco Santander Portugal, who died on Wednesday.

Copper drops below $5,000 a tonne for first time since 2016

Neil Hume, Natural Resources Editor, reports:

If copper — the world’s most important industrial metal — is a gauge of the global economy, then it is flashing red.

Copper for delivery in three months on the London Metal Exchange plunged by more than 5.4 per cent on Wednesday, falling below $5,000 a tonne for the first time since 2016. The metal, used in almost all construction projects and white goods, touched $4,863 a tonne, extending losses since the middle of January to 25 per cent.

At the start of the year, analysts expected the copper market to be broadly balanced. They now expect demand to lag behind supply as measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic hammer industrial activity.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs said: “With Covid-19 now spreading rapidly [outside of] China and recessionary risks rising, we view the demand shock large enough to result in a sizable surplus for copper.”

We now expect a global surplus of 260,000 tonnes for 2020 vs the 140,000 deficit we expected before. This means the copper market will likely miss the window to get tight before the next supply wave of 2021-2023.

The crash in oil prices and the weakness of producer currencies such as the Chilean peso against the US dollar has heaped further pressure on the metal by driving down the marginal cost of production.

Meanwhile, speculators in China, the world’s biggest consumer of raw materials, are growing increasingly negative on copper. Bearish wagers on the metal have increased sharply in the last two weeks with open interest — the total number of outstanding futures contracts on the Shanghai Futures Exchange — above 400,000 contracts.

The copper market plunge is notable because mining in Peru — responsible for 12 per cent of global copper supply — has ground almost to a halt after the government declared a state of emergency. Chile, the world’s number one supplier, could follow suit after declaring a state of catastrophe on Wednesday.

Cannes Lions advertising festival delayed until October

Patricia Nilsson in London

The advertising festival Cannes Lions will be postponed from June to October, following advice from French authorities.

The organisers behind Cannes Lions, which attracts roughly 12,000 people annually to the French riviera, on Wednesday said it would push the event back by four months after “much deliberation with our partners and customers”.

“Although we have sound mitigation plans, we shall continue to monitor this situation carefully,” Cannes Lions said in a statement. It said already purchased passes, sponsorship arrangements and bookings would roll over and remain valid.

The festival was first held in 1954 and since 2004 has been owned by information and events company Ascential, which has seen the value of its shares nearly halve in the past two months as the outbreak squeezes events companies.

Ryanair faces grounding of entire fleet from Tuesday

Ryanair may have to ground its entire fleet from March 24, as widespread travel bans force the airline to effectively wind up its schedule.

Europe’s biggest low-cost airline said it would cut its flight schedule by 80 per cent from midnight tonight until midnight on Tuesday.

After that it said it expected “most if not all” flights will be grounded, with the exception of a handful of flights “to maintain essential connectivity” mainly between the UK and Ireland.

Ryanair warned on Monday that the grounding of its fleet was a possibility as government curbs on flying sent demand for its services plummeting. It said that even in countries where there were no bans, social distancing restrictions would make flying “impractical, if not, impossible”.

The carrier pointed passengers to its Travel Advisory page for more information.

Criminal courts in England and Wales to continue hearings

Jane Croft in London

The Lord Chancellor said on Wednesday that criminal courts across England and Wales have a “critical role to play” and will continue sitting although certain hearings will have to be prioritised.

In a statement Robert Buckland said: “With staff absences and courts already impacted, we have to prioritise which types of hearing take precedence. We also need to avoid the disruption that can result from juries being unable to see out the trials they are required to participate in.”

He said that jurors were expected to continue attending trials unless they were unwell or self-isolating as a household. In all other types of court hearings, he said steps are being taken to enable as many hearings as possible to be conducted with parties attending by telephone, video-link or online.

His statement followed the move on Tuesday night by the Lord Chief Justice who said he would temporarily suspend new jury trials of more than three days due to coronavirus.

Robert Buckland said he will make arrangements to extend custody time limits for defendants held on remand in case.

“These changes will be temporary and we estimate that three quarters of Crown Court trials will be able to continue despite this restriction. Those cases that have a trial date delayed will be heard at the earliest available opportunity,” he said.

He said he was committed to working with the senior judiciary “to address any backlog that develops this year so delays overall do not increase.”

“We will keep the situation under review and continue to listen to feedback from lawyers, court staff and users about how Covid-19 is affecting them and their availability,” he said.

“Our Crown and Magistrates courts provide a vital public service and until instructed otherwise, we expect all lawyers, magistrates, jurors, witnesses, defendants and court staff to continue to attend court as required, so the interests of justice can be served,” he said.

US and Canada to close border, Trump says

Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington and Peter Wells in New York

Donald Trump said the US and Canada have agreed, “by mutual consent” to temporarily close their land border to non-essential traffic in the latest dramatic step to curb the spread of coronavirus as the US economy reels from the crisis.

In a tweet, the US president said:

We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic. Trade will not be affected. Details to follow!

The move follows the recent decision to ban travel from most countries in Europe to the US for 30 days, as the US tries to escalate its response to the crisis after what has been widely panned as a slow start earlier in the year.

The number of coronavirus cases in the US has soared to more than 6,500 as tests become more readily available, and health authorities have warned that the country has two weeks to implement severe social distancing and other measures to ensure that the situation does not escalate to the kind of crisis that countries like Italy are facing.

That has led to cities and towns in North America announcing restrictions on gatherings, the closure of schools, restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theatres.

Scottish schools likely to close by end of this week

Nathalie Thomas reports:

Schools and nurseries in Scotland are likely to close by the end of this week, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said.

Parents should not assume that once closed, schools will re-open after the Easter break and closures could even continue until the summer holidays, Ms Sturgeon warned.

“We will of course only keep them closed for as long as we absolutely have to but at this stage I cannot promise that they will re-open before the summer holidays,” Ms Sturgeon told reporters in Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoon.

“This has been one of the hardest decisions that we have faced so far as we tackle this virus. We know this will massively disrupt life, society and the economy.”

Ms Sturgeon said the decision had been driven by both the science but also by the fact schools are struggling to operate on reduced staff as more families follow guidance on self-isolation.

She said the government would publish more details of how the closures would work in practice and what support would be offered to the families of key frontline workers.


Wall Street tumbles at the open

Wall Street tumbled more than 5 per cent at the open and government bonds sold off as markets remain volatile amid uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic.

The S&P 500 fell 5.4 per cent, while the Nasdaq Composite declined nearly 6 per cent in the opening minutes of trade.

US stock-index futures had triggered circuit breakers aimed to limit volatility outside of Wall Street trading hours. US equities had rebounded in a volatile trading session on Tuesday, as the Federal Reserve unveiled the latest in a series of support measures and the White House opened talks with Congress on a $1tn fiscal stimulus package.

Meanwhile, the yield on the US 10-year Treasury was up 0.5 basis points to 1.083 per cent. Yields move inversely to price. Bond yields in the US and Europe have climbed as fund managers are under pressure to return cash to investors and were forced to dump their most liquid holdings.

Oil price sinks nearly 6% to hit 17-year low

Oil prices hit a 17-year low, tumbling almost 6 per cent on Wednesday as governments and investors continue to brace for the prospect of reduced demand due to the coronavirus pandemic and in the wake of Saudia Arabia’s decision to increase supply.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark was down 5.9 per cent at a session low of $27.04 a barrel, its lowest level since November 2003. This took it past a previous low in January 2016 that had not been tested until this week.

That marks a 59 per cent drop in Brent’s price since the start of the year, when it was trading at $66.

A dramatic move by Saudi Arabia earlier this month saw crude prices stage their biggest one-day drop since the first Gulf War. Prices plunged about 30 per cent on March 9 after the kingdom revealed plans to raise supply next month, thereby discounting its crude in an effort to win customers.

Tens of thousands stranded outside EU

Javier Espinoza in Brussels and Richard Milne in Oslo report:

There are roughly 80,000 EU citizens stranded outside the bloc’s borders, an EU spokesman said, adding that this is just a rough estimate and that the actual figure could be in the “hundreds of thousands”.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” the spokesman said.

EU officials are considering relaxing travel bans to allow citizens to go back to their home countries.

It comes as Norway gave an exception from competition rules so that SAS, Norwegian airlines and others can work together on their flight timetables.
“Normally, SAS and Norwegian can’t cooperate on who flies where, but in this very special situation there is a need to disregard this to ensure goods and people go where they should,” said Norway’s business minister Iselin Nybo.

ConocoPhillips cuts share buyback and capex as oil prices crumble

ConocoPhillips cut its capital expenditures for the year and trimmed its share repurchases by two-thirds as the US oil major warned of a “significant challenge” to the energy industry as crude prices tumble.

The Houston-based company on Wednesday said it would reduce its capital expenditures for the year by $700m — about 10 per cent lower than the previously announced guidance. These reductions are expected to lower full-year production guidance by about 20,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.

ConocoPhillips will also trim its share buyback programme to a quarterly run rate of $250m starting in the second quarter, down from $750m previously. Combined, the capex cuts and buybacks represent an approximately $2.2bn reduction in cash uses this year.

“Today’s circumstances require action and we believe we’re taking the right steps at the right time,” Ryan Lance, chief executive, said. “Current conditions represent a significant challenge for our industry overall, but we remain focused on creating long-term value, especially through cycles.”

US crude prices have tumbled to 17-year lows as the coronavirus outbreak has sapped demand and Saudi Arabia launched a price war with Russia and other oil nations.


BoE says it is prepared to pump unlimited money into economy

Chris Giles, economics editor, writes:

The new Bank of England governor, Andrew Bailey, said on Wednesday the UK central bank was willing to pump unlimited quantities of money into the economy via its new commercial paper facility.

Speaking to journalists on a conference call from Threadneedle Street, Mr Bailey, who took over from Mark Carney at midnight on Monday, said the ambition was to limit economic damage to “disruptive” not “destructive”, but the situation was serious.

He said it was not yet time to shut financial markets because they had not lost their integrity and their ability to price. “I don’t think we’re there at all,” Mr Bailey said.

Sterling’s rapid decent to below $1.19 was not something he could explain easily, but he said the Monetary Policy Committee would take it into account at next week’s meeting.  

The BoE governor was keen to clarify the details of the commercial paper facility, announced by Rishi Sunak, chancellor, on Tuesday. He said that over the weekend it had become clear that large companies, as well as small ones, were running short of cash and needed facilities to borrow quickly and cheaply.

The BoE would use the commercial paper facility to print money and use it to lend directly to large companies that issued new commercial paper. It would be up and running by the start of next week, he said.

JetBlue cuts capacity by 40%, secures $1bn credit line

JetBlue, one of the US’s 10 biggest airlines, said it would cut capacity by at least 40 per cent in coming months and had secured a $1bn credit line among steps it was taking to ride out the impact of the coronavirus.

The carrier called on the Trump administration for help, echoing calls by airlines in the US and globally for their governments to provide financial support.

JetBlue said in a statement on Wednesday its sales so far this month had “fallen sharply” and over the past several days has taken in an average of less than $4m a day, while also issuing $20m of credits a day to customers for cancelled bookings. That compares with a “typical” day last March when they took in about $22m from bookings and fees.

The company said the dramatic loss in revenue meant it would have to start dipping into its cash reserves, which stood at about $1.2bn but could easily eroded by an expenses bill that runs into the millions each day.

JetBlue said it had secured an extra credit line, allowing it to borrow $1bn, but described it as a “band-aid solution that holds us over.”

To help preserve cash, JetBlue said it would reduce spending wherever it could, and chief executive Robin Hayes and chief operating officer would take a 50 per cent pay cut. As well as cutting flight capacity, JetBlue said it was looking for ways to slow deliveries of aircraft and would also reduce operational spending.

“We are going to need significant government help” to be able to play a role in “getting life back to normal and supporting economic recovery” when the pandemic passes, Robin Hayes, chief executive, and Joanna Geraghty, chief operating officer, said in a joint statement.

JetBlue shares were down 8.2 per cent in pre-market trade on Wednesday, while S&P 500 futures were down 3.7 per cent.

Italy could extend lockdown

Miles Johnson in Rome reports:

The Italian government has not ruled out extending its nationwide lockdown measures to beyond their original end date of the April 3, depending on how its efforts to contain the worst coronavirus outbreak in Europe progress.

“We will evaluate the situation in the coming days on the basis of the numbers,” said transport minister Paola De Micheli in an interview with Italian television.

On March 9, Italy became the first European country to enact a nationwide lockdown, imposing stringent social distancing measures and closing all non-essential shops as well as schools and universities.

If Italy decides to extend the original time frame for its lockdown, which is expected by economists to drive the country into its worst recession since the financial crisis, it will set an important precedent for how long other European countries who have followed its social distancing measures will need to keep them in place.

In recent days the pace of increase in new cases in Italy has slowed, however the absolute number of coronavirus infections is still showing no clear signs of peaking. The virus has killed 2,503 in Italy.

Pound tumbles below $1.19

The pound has deepened its declines through the day, tumbling to levels not seen since the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote.

Sterling fell 1.8 per cent to $1.840 on Wednesday, and has now fallen more than 10 per cent in value in as many days. The currency has not consistently traded under $1.20 since the 1980s.

The declines have come against the backdrop of a strengthening dollar, as companies and banks hoard the US currency to pay their debts and keep business flowing.

“A combination of the safe haven dollar bid, the coronavirus stock sell-off and liquidation of long positions following the UK election are all weighing on the pound,” said Neil Jones, head of foreign exchange sales for financial institutions at Mizuho Bank.

“Meanwhile, in the background latest Brexit developments look to be pushing the chance of a negotiated deal further into the future, raising uncertainty,” he added.

UK to make call on school closures ‘imminently’

Laura Hughes in London reports:

Boris Johnson said the government would be taking further decisions “imminently” on the possible closure of schools across the UK.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the prime minister said:

The House should expect further decisions to be taken imminently on schools and how to make sure that we square the circle both of making sure that we stop the spread of the disease but also of making sure that we relieve as much as we can pressure on our National Health Service.

It comes amid speculation that schools could stay partially open for children whose parents are working in the NHS and other public services.

Boris Johnson set to unveil new measures to support workers

Jim Pickard in London reports:

Boris Johnson has promised new measures to help workers hit by the pandemic — with an announcement expected within the next 48 hours.

The prime minister, speaking in a depleted House of Commons for the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions — MPs were urged to stay away — said the government was working closely with unions on how to help the self-employed and those laid off.

Mr Johnson also revealed that the government was close to developing a test to discover whether people have already had the coronavirus.

But opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said time was running out for the government to announce how it would support hard-hit workers and renters affected by the crisis.

More property funds set to be suspended amid valuation’uncertainty’

Matthew Vincent in London reports:

Britain’s fund management trade body has warned that more property funds will have to be suspended as coronavirus disruption triggers UK rules on valuation “uncertainty”.

Under incoming Financial Conduct Authority regulations governing illiquid assets, such as commercial property, any fund with more than 20 per cent of its holdings subject to “material valuation uncertainty” will be required to suspend investments and withdrawals.

However, the Investment Association has said that while these new rules do not come into force until September 2020, the existing regulations would still require fund managers to consider suspending funds in current market conditions.

It said:

The UK commercial property market is facing unprecedented circumstances as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak and so valuation firms can no longer make reliable judgements on value. This is known as ‘material value uncertainty’. Valuers are still able to produce valuations and make professional judgements but with less certainty than under normal market conditions.

With so many property funds investing in hotels, shops, warehouses and restaurants directly affected by the coronavirus uncertainty, the Association of Real Estate Funds has concluded that many will therefore need to suspend.

Paul Richards, managing director of AREF said on Wednesday that further would be necessary “to ensure that investors, mostly long-term pension savers, are protected … Strict FCA regulations apply, in order to ensure that all investors are treated fairly.”

Standard Life joins asset managers in gating property funds

Siobhan Riding in London reports:

Standard Life Aberdeen has joined three other asset managers in suspending UK property funds in the wake of the coronavirus-driven market turbulence.

Investors will be blocked from withdrawing their money from the £1.7bn Standard Life Investments UK Real Estate Fund and £1.1bn Aberdeen UK Property Fund.

Like the other managers that have suspended property funds in recent days, SLA said it was taking the step because of “material uncertainty” over the valuation of its underlying assets.

“Markets around the world have experienced huge disruption as Covid-19 spreads and trading in the UK property market is being severely impacted,” it said.

As a result the funds’ independent valuers have informed us it is not currently possible to provide accurate and reliable valuations for certain assets. We are therefore unable to produce a price for the funds which we can say with any confidence reflects the true value of the assets.

SLA is the fourth asset manager to suspend its open-ended property funds in three days, and more are expected to follow. Around £5.8bn in investors’ money is now trapped in the funds, which include strategies run by Aviva Investors, Kames Capital and Janus Henderson.

The last time property funds were forced to gate en masse was following the UK’s referendum on EU membership in June 2016. This sparked questions about whether an open-ended fund structure, which allows investors to withdraw their money daily, is compatible with assets such as property that can take months to sell.

Italy earmarks €500m for Alitalia rescue

Miles Johnson in Rome reports:

Italy has set aside €500m of rescue funds to inject into Alitalia to stop the country’s national carrier from failing during the coronavirus outbreak that has grounded airlines across Europe.

According to the details of the government’s €25bn “save Italy” economic package published by the government overnight, Alitalia can now be taken over by a new company controlled by Italy’s ministry of economy, or via another state-controlled vehicle if needed.

Alitalia, which is heavily lossmaking and has not turned a profit since the start of the millennium, has already received €900m in loans from the Italian state since 2017, with Rome arguing it would eventually repay these by selling the airline back to the private sector. Up until now no buyer has been found.

Multiple attempts to sell the airline have failed, and the European Union Competition Commission opened an investigation into whether the loans constituted illegal state aid to the company. Yesterday the Competition Commission said it was “ready to work with Italy” on its aid for Alitalia, and that it was ”well aware of the difficult situation that the aviation sector is facing due to the Covid-19 outbreak”.

Poland announces $52bn stimulus package

James Shotter in Warsaw reports:

Poland’s government has unveiled an emergency 212bn zloty ($52bn) stimulus package to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on the central European country’s economy.

Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the package, worth around 9 per cent of GDP, would help people and businesses cope with the fallout from the crisis, which has seen large sectors of the Polish economy grind to a halt.

The measures include allowing people to delay social security contributions, an income support scheme for companies that can prove that the crisis has hit their turnover, 7.5bn zloty of additional funding for the health service, and a 30bn zloty infrastructure investment fund.

The package comes a day after Poland’s central bank cut its benchmark interest rate by half a point to a new record low of 1 per cent, and announced a series of measures to boost liquidity for banks, which have themselves pledged to allow people and businesses to suspend loan repayments for three months.

He said:

I’m convinced that this is a very good combination of different actions, different funds…in order that we can come through these coming months, especially these critical few months… three, four, maybe five, as unscathed as possible, and then later work on rebuilding confidence.

However, Mr Morawiecki also took a swipe at the EU for not doing more to help out during the crisis, noting that the bloc had not promised Poland any new funds.

Those that were proposed a few days ago are not new money. They are funds that were allocated in the previous 2014-2020 budget period … The elasticity that the EU is proposing is of course a good step, but at the moment new funds have not been proposed. It’s clear that in this case the EU isn’t acting as fast as nation states.


Global Covid-19 case count soars to more than 200,000

Steve Bernard, a data visualisation journalist, reports:

The global total of confirmed cases of the Covid-19 disease has surged through 200,000 with Spain adding 2,538 cases alone, an increase of 18 per cent since Tuesday.

The total deaths now stand at 8,229, with many countries yet to report their figures for Wednesday.

Kremlin says it would like to see higher oil prices

David Sheppard in London and Henry Foy in Moscow report:

Russia has said it would like to see higher oil prices in the first acknowledgement that the crash in crude to near $25 a barrel is proving painful for its economy.

Oil prices have roughly halved this month since Saudi Arabia launched an oil price war following Russia’s refusal to join the kingdom in making deeper production cuts to respond to the demand-sapping effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course this is a low price, I would like it to be higher,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.

In response to a question regarding the potential of Russia re-engaging with Opec and Saudi Arabia, Mr Peskov said:

We monitor the situation on the international oil markets very carefully, we analyze this situation and try to make short-term forecasts and medium-term forecasts. A position will be formulated, depending on these.

Russia has previously said it can withstand lower oil prices for years due to having built up its financial reserves. The country requires a lower price — around $45 a barrel — to balance its budget than Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom is raising supply to the market by almost a quarter next month, to near 12.3m barrels a day, discounting its crude to try win customers.

Saudi Arabia and Russia have cancelled technical meetings of the Opec+ alliance, which was previously restricting output in a bid to prop up prices.

But some analysts believe Saudi Arabia wants to push Russia back to the table by crashing the price as quickly as possible. The coronavirus pandemic has slashed demand as travel slows and airlines are grounded.

US benchmark crude hit a 17-year low just above $25 a barrel on Wednesday, with Brent falling towards $27 a barrel.

Denmark launches $6bn relief package

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent, reports:

Denmark launched a DKr40bn ($6bn) package to help small businesses and the self-employed as it seeks to shield the most vulnerable companies and workers from the effects of the coronavirus.

Nicolai Wammen, the centre-left finance minister, proposed that the Danish state would cover costs such as rent or electricity bills, aimed mostly at small and mid-sized companies.

It is also offering compensation to self-employed workers for lost revenues as they are not covered by a separate agreement for the state to pay a large part of the salaries of laid-off workers.

“These are actions you have never seen before. It is quite extraordinary, but we are in an extraordinary situation,” said Mr Wammen.

Welsh nationalist party seeks ban on people visiting remote second homes

Jim Pickard in London

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, has urged the government to ban people from visiting remote second homes – because of the stress it could impose on local NHS services.

Liz Saville Roberts, leader of the party in Westminster, said local GPs were concerned that healthcare services in rural Wales would not be sufficiently resourced to deal with extra demand.

Ms Saville Roberts urged the Welsh and UK governments to designate such travel plans as ‘non-essential’, and those considering self-isolating should do so at their main residence where they are likely to be closer to family support networks and where local health and social care plans have been made appropriate to the population.

UK bank lobby group warns customers to be aware of scams

Matthew Vincent in London

City lobbying group UK Finance is urging bank customers to be aware of criminals exploiting the coronavirus outbreak to commit fraud.

In its latest set of data, it said authorised push payment fraud – better known as bank transfer scams – cost Britons £456m in 2019. This was “driven in part by criminals abusing online platforms to scam their victims”.

However, victims received £41 million in compensation in cases assessed under the industry’s voluntary reimbursement code introduced in May 2019. And the banking and finance industry succeeded in stopping more than £1.8bn-worth of fraud attempts in the year.

UK Finance is now advising customers to follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign, to avoid scams seeking to exploit concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. This urges customers to pause before agreeing to make any transfer, and “reject, refuse, or ignore any requests” that appear suspicious.

MPs told to stay away from House of Commons

Sebastian Payne in London reports:

Conservative and Labour MPs have been asked to stay away from the House of Commons chamber this morning.

In a text to Tories, deputy chief whip Stuart Andrew requested:

In order to ensure that we follow the advice being given to the public, it has been decided that only people on the Order Paper should be in the Chamber for both Northern Ireland and Prime Minister’s Questions. We respectfully ask you adhere to this message.

Labour MPs received a similar message from their whips:

If you are not on the order paper or seeking to get called could you please not come into the chamber. If you are in the chamber could you please space yourselves out.

PMQs, which begins at midday, will therefore be much emptier than usual.

Chairman of Santander Portugal dies from Covid-19

Peter Wise in Lisbon reports

António Vieira Monteiro, the chairman and former chief executive of Santander Portugal, one of the country’s leading banks, died on Wednesday after contracting the Covid-19 virus, two people familiar with the situation said. He was 73.

He was chief executive of the bank, the Portuguese arm of Spain’s Santander group, from 2012 to 2018 and then became chairman of the board.

Mr Vieira Monteiro went into quarantine after returning from a trip to Italy, the people, who asked not to be identified, said. He was later treated in hospital.

He is the second victim of the Covid-19 virus in Portugal.

Oman to offer additional liquidity for its banks in effort to spur lending

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Oman will offer 8bn rials ($20.8bn) in additional liquidity for banks as the sultanate seeks to dampen the economic impact of the coronavirus.

The central bank adjusted capital buffer requirements and credit ratios, calling on lenders to facilitate lending to sectors that have been impacted by the economic fallout, including healthcare, tourism and travel.

The financial sector was told to respond to requests to postpone repayment instalments for six months from affected companies, especially to small- and medium-sized enterprises.

The economic package came as the country went into a virtual lockdown, only allowing Omanis to enter the sultanate and banning public gatherings.

Oman, with modest oil reserves and significant debts, is one of the most exposed economies among the Arab Gulf states to global turmoil.

Iranian fatalities pass 1,000

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports

Iran’s death toll from Covid-19 today increased to 1,135 from 988 yesterday, while 17,361 individuals have now tested positive.

“I desperately urge people to stay at home,” said deputy health minister Dr Alireza Raisi, as he provided the updated casualty figures on Wednesday. “Bazaars are still busy and people continue travelling.”

Dr Raisi warned that if Iranians continued to ignore official advice during the two weeks of Persian New Year holidays due to begin on Friday, the virus would spread further . “These two weeks may turn into two months,” he said.

Belgium reports sharpest rise in cases to date

Jim Brunsden in Brussels reports:

The Belgian health ministry announced on Wednesday that the total number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the country had risen by 243, the largest one-day increase since the crisis began.

The increase takes the total number of cases in Belgium to 1,486 and marks a 19 per cent jump.

Four more people have also died from the virus. A total of 14 people have now died in the country from the outbreak.

The Belgian government yesterday announced strict confinement rules as it seeks to slow the spread of Covid-19. The moves, which share similarities to measures in place in France, include shutting all shops except supermarkets, restaurants, pharmacies and newsagents. People have been told not to leave their homes unless on essential business, and all types of gatherings have been banned.

Companies must ensure maximum teleworking and mandatory social distancing, or close their offices. The measures will stay in place until at least April 5.

Glastonbury Festival postponed

Glastonbury Festival, which was due to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, has been postponed to summer 2021, its organisers have announced.

The five-day festival was set to attract up to 200,000 revellers to Worthy Farm in Somerset in June.

Organisers Michael and Emily Eavis said in a statement posted to Twitter:

Clearly this was not a course of action we hoped to take for our 50th anniversary events, but following the new government measures announced this week – and in times of such unprecedented uncertainty – this is now our only viable option.

The organisers said that while the situation in June may be much improved, it was no longer viable to set the festival up over the next three months, a job involving thousands of crew.

Indonesia’s mortality rate surpasses Italy’s

Stefania Palma in Singapore reports:

Indonesia has reported a sharp jump in people dying from Covid-19, pushing its mortality rate above that of Italy.

Deaths in the south-east Asian nation, home to the world’s fourth-largest population, have almost quadrupled from five to 19, while confirmed cases have jumped to 227 after a record daily increase of 55.

Its mortality rate has climbed to 8.4 per cent, compared with 7.9 per cent in Italy, which has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths outside China.

Meanwhile, 117 more Malaysians have become infected, taking the total to 790.

Yellen and Bernanke: The Fed must reduce long-term damage

Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke, former US Federal Reserve chairs, write:

The Fed and other policymakers … must ensure that the economic damage from the pandemic is not long-lasting.

Ideally, when the effects of the virus pass, people will go back to work, to school, to the shops, and the economy will return to normal. In that scenario, the recession may be deep, but at least it will have been short.

But that isn’t the only possible scenario: if critical economic relationships are disrupted by months of low activity, the economy may take a very long time to recover. Otherwise healthy businesses might have to shut down due to several months of low revenues. Once they have declared bankruptcy, re-establishing credit and returning to normal operations may not be easy.

If a financially strapped firm lays off — or declines to hire — workers, it will lose the experienced employees needed to resume normal business. Or a family temporarily without income might default on its mortgage, losing its home.

To avoid permanent damage from the virus-induced downturn, it is important to ensure that credit is available for otherwise sound borrowers who face a temporary period of low income or revenues.

One of the Fed’s principal goals is to ensure that credit is available. It has strongly encouraged banks to work with borrowers suffering from temporary income losses, and it has lowered the interest rate it charges to banks who borrow from the Fed’s discount window.

The Fed’s purchases of mortgage securities should lower mortgage rates and make it easier to obtain or refinance a mortgage.

Read Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke’s full FT op-ed here

Forecasters slash projections for UK economy

Chris Giles, Economics Editor, reports:

Economic forecasters are scrambling to slash projections for the UK economy in the wake of the virus outbreak. The first signs of it came in the monthly UK Treasury round-up of independent forecasts.

The average forecast for 2020 growth in the UK has dropped to 0.8 per cent. New forecasts set in the past month were lower at just 0.6 per cent growth this year. The newest from groups such as Capital Economic suggest a recession. By this time next month, everything is likely to be in the red.

Finland’s GDP forecast to shrink 4% – central bank

Richard Milne in Oslo

Finland’s economy is likely to contract by 4 per cent this year due to the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Nordic country’s central bank.

The Bank of Finland said on Wednesday it had two economic scenarios currently for this year – a fall of 1.5 per cent in GDP or a drop of 4 per cent. It added that the ongoing spread of Covid-19 meant the gloomier scenario was “increasingly likely” under which household consumption would decline significantly and domestic supply chains would be disrupted by measures to contain the pandemic.

The bank said in its interim forecast for 2020: “The Finnish economy began the year in a weak starting position even without the impact of the coronavirus … This year, Finland’s economy will sink into recession on account of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Eurogroup head says EU rules will not impede support measures

Peter Wise in Lisbon reports:

Mário Centeno, head of the eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, guaranteed on Wednesday that EU rules on fiscal deficits and state aid would not obstruct government measures to support national economies during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will ensure that the EU’s fiscal and state aid rules do not hamper support for our economies,” Mr Centeno, Portugal’s finance minister, said in Lisbon as he announced a €9.2bn government package to support the Portuguese economy. “There is flexibility [within the EU rules] and it will be used in full.”

Mr Centeno said he was borrowing the words of Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, to emphasise that “we will do everything necessary to confront our difficulties”.

For Portugal, he announced a €3bn line of credit to support companies, particularly in the tourism and restaurant industries, which account for about 15 per cent of the country’s national output and have been hit hard by the pandemic.

The emergency package included a further €5.2bn in tax deferments and €1bn in deferments for social security contributions.

Later on Wednesday Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Portugal’s president, is scheduled to announce his decision on whether to declare a state of emergency, which would grant the Lisbon government sweeping powers to fight the pandemic.

‘Worst is yet to come,’ says Spain’s prime minister

Daniel Dombey in Madrid reports:

Spain could forfeit as many as three months of economic activity because of the coronavirus, the prime minister said, as he called for an emergency budget to bolster the welfare state and “reconstruct” the country once the immediate health crisis has abated.

“It is obvious that annual GDP will go down, as the European Commission has indicated: 2020 will not have 12 months, but 10 or even nine,” Pedro Sánchez told a near empty chamber of deputies, from which most MPs stayed away for health reasons, with staff disinfecting the podium after each speaker’s turn.

In the economic field, the milestones will be to halt the fall in production and the destruction of employment.. and recover production and employment.

Spain is reeling from one of the world’s fastest spreads of the Covid-19 virus.

But Mr Sánchez warned: “The worst is still to come, when the health system feels the impact of the people who have been exposed, when the days of isolation increase and the economic repercussions arrive.”

His comments indicated the possible duration of the paralysis of Spain’s economy following the nationwide shutdown he decreed on Saturday. Parliament must approve the extraordinary powers under which Mr Sánchez took that step, and opposition leaders have said they would be willing to extend the initial period of 15 days.

Iraq begins curfew

Chloe Cornish in Beirut reports:

Iraq has begun a week-long country-wide curfew as authorities try to contain the spread of the virus.

The country’s health ministry said that 154 people have contracted the illness in Iraq, while 11 sufferers have died so far.

Flights were suspended on Tuesday until March 24th and major religious gatherings have been prohibited. Despite the official lockdown, people in Baghdad reported they were still allowed to walk around freely.

Nigeria imposes travel ban on worst-hit countries

Neil Munshi in Lagos reports:

The Nigerian government has imposed a travel ban on all countries with more than 1,000 cases of coronavirus, as Africa’s most populous nation took its first major step toward containing the pandemic. The move came as the number of cases rose from three to eight on Wednesday morning.

Nigeria’s response has lagged behind other African countries, which have imposed much more stringent travel restrictions and social distancing measures with similarly few cases.

The government also announced that it would suspend all visas on arrival and that anyone arriving from those 13 countries — including China, the US, UK and Italy — would be subject to supervised self-isolation and testing for 14 days.

Africa’s biggest economy is one of the most religious countries in the world, famed for its massive megachurches, but it has yet to ban gatherings of more than 50 people. Schools remain open.

Health experts have warned that Africa, with its fragile health infrastructure, is the part of the world least prepared for a potential pandemic. So far the continent has reported around 500 confirmed cases, mostly connected to travelers from Europe.

Scientific adviser says Westminster has ‘a lot’ of Covid-19

Clive Cookson in London has more from Neil Ferguson:

Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College scientist who was the head of the modelling team that led the UK government to adopt stronger social distancing measures to fight coronavirus, developed symptoms of Covid-19 overnight.

After his 7am tweet about developing a high fever in the middle of the night Professor Ferguson felt slightly better this morning — “still grotty” but well enough for a phone interview on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

“Central London is really the kind of hotspot in the UK at the moment… in Westminster, there is a lot,” he said. “It is becoming quite a widespread community infection especially in hotspots like London.”

On Monday afternoon, Prof Ferguson attended a Downing Street press conference where the government announced stronger action to keep people apart, based substantially on his team’s warning that otherwise the National Health Service would be overwhelmed and hundreds of thousands would die in the UK.

“I’ve been in so many meetings the last few weeks and a number of my colleagues at universities who’ve been advising government in those meetings have also developed symptoms,” he added.

Prof Ferguson’s illness may add to the pressure on senior politicians, MPs and their advisers to take more stringent social distancing measures themselves.

EmoticonUS cancels Hong Kong visa appointments

The US Consulate in Hong Kong and Macau has cancelled all routine visa appointments until further notice.

“We will resume routine visa services as soon as possible,” the consulate said in a statement.

Emergency appointments for issues such as medical reasons, funerals and urgent business travel were available via an online form.

Brazilian Congress to ‘urgently’ consider call for state of emergency

Andres Schipani in São Paulo reports:

Brazil’s Congress will “urgently” handle a request from the government of President Jair Bolsonaro seeking authorisation from lawmakers to declare a state of emergency in the face of the coronavirus.

Brazil has 291 confirmed cases of the disease and reported its first fatality on Tuesday.

The president, who said he has tested negative for Covid-19, wants to declare a state of emergency to allow the government of Latin America’s largest economy to loosen fiscal targets and release funds to combat the coronavirus. A statement from the president’s office said:

In view of the permanent monitoring of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to increase public spending to protect the health and jobs of Brazilians and the prospect of falling revenues, the Federal Government will request the National Congress to recognise the state of emergency.

The state of emergency would grant the federal government freedom from tight spending caps, allowing it to direct more money to fight the outbreak.

Rodrigo Maia, the powerful speaker of the lower house, told O Globo newspaper that once the decree is passed along, Congress will “urgently process and approve it so that the government has fiscal space to be able to make the necessary investments to face this crisis”.

The government has already allocated R$147m ($29m) to fight the economic hardships stemming from the coronavirus at a fragile time for the Brazilian economy. The president has also shut its northern border with crisis-stricken Venezuela.

Aviva Investors suspends UK property fund

Siobhan Riding and George Hammond in London report:

Aviva Investors has become the latest asset manager to halt trading in its UK property fund in the wake of the coronavirus-driven market turbulence.

The fund house said it was taking the step to suspend its £461m UK Property fund temporarily after the market sell-off led to “material uncertainty” over the valuation of its underlying assets.

The Aviva Investors fund is the third open-ended property fund to suspend in three days, and more are expected to follow. More than £3bn of investors’ money is trapped in the funds, which includes strategies run by Kames Capital and Janus Henderson.

UK property funds were in “completely uncharted waters”, said John Forbes, an independent property consultant. “What is the value of a pub, a hotel, or retail premises if you can’t use it? What’s the valuation of an office if no one can get into it?”

The last time property funds were forced to gate en masse was following the UK’s referendum on EU membership in June 2016. This sparked questions about whether an open-ended fund structure, which allows investors to withdraw their money daily, is compatible with assets such as property that can take months to sell.

UK calls in military scientists to help fight against virus

Helen Warrell in London reports:

Scientists at the UK defence laboratory Porton Down have been seconded to help public health efforts in mapping and testing for coronavirus as the outbreak spreads.

The Ministry of Defence lab, which was instrumental in identifying the Novichok nerve agent used against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury two years ago, has deployed a small team to work on managing the virus.

“The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is providing hazard assessment, microbiological testing and operational analysis support to government”, the MoD said in a statement.

Porton Down is a secretive laboratory that specialises in researching chemical weapons and dangerous pathogens, such as ebola, plague and anthrax. It has been working on a vaccine against the coronavirus. Matt Hancock, health secretary, visited the lab last month to announce a £20m boost for military scientists who he said were “leading the way” in the search for source of immunity against the disease.

News of Porton Down’s role in the operational side of managing the virus, first reported by the BBC, was welcomed by armed forces minister James Heappey.

Sterling slides below $1.20

Eva Szalay reports:

The pound slumped below $1.20 to hit multi-decade lows as a global rush to safety continued. The currency is down nearly 10 per cent since the start of the year with most of the losses coming since March 9 when the impact of the coronavirus hit Europe.

The currency is also significantly weaker against the euro, with the pound losing more than 6 per cent since the start of the month and over 8 per cent since January.

On Wednesday morning in Europe sterling traded at $1.1988, the lowest level since 1986. The euro climbed to its strongest since August last year to trade at 91.69p.

Iran’s president mocks Western nations for ‘fighting over tissues’

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports:

Iran is doing better than Western states in keeping its people supplied with food and basic goods, president Hassan Rouhani has said.

The country, which has reported almost 1,000 deaths from coronavirus and is scrambling to secure enough medical equipment amid US sanctions, has “something to be proud of” because supplies of basic commodities remain plentiful, the president said in a live, televised address.

He said:

I insist on this as something to be proud of. Compare this government’s supply of people’s needs in Tehran to that in London, in Berlin and Paris…where their supermarkets’ shelves were emptied. People were fighting over tissues.

This coronavirus was God’s test, so you can compare Iran with other countries.

On Wednesday, supermarkets in Tehran remain well-stocked with food, allowing residents to stock up ahead of the Persian New Year. Still, this contrasts with the nation’s struggles with testing for and treating the coronavirus.

US crude hits lowest level in 17 years, nearing $25 a barrel

The US crude oil benchmark fell to its lowest level since 2003 on Wednesday, dropping towards $25 a barrel as the coronavirus crisis crushes demand while the Saudi-Russia price war boosts supply.

West Texas Intermediate hit a low of $25.88 a barrel, down almost 5 per cent on the day and taking losses since early January to around 60 per cent.

Brent crude, the international marker, dropped 3 per cent to $27.90 a barrel.

Crude prices have collapsed as the coronavirus pandemic threatens the biggest demand drop in the oil market’s history, with countries in Europe and North America locking down or putting restrictions on travel in place to try and curb its spread.

With Saudi Arabia and Russia boosting supply at the same time, as the two oil powerhouses prioritise market share over price, some of the world’s top traders are now warning that storage for crude surplus could be maxed out within months.

For more on this story, click here

Bonds sell off as investors dump liquid assets

Tommy Stubbington in London reports:

Government bond prices around the world tumbled on Wednesday as investors scrambled to dump liquid assets.

The 10-year US Treasury yield surged by 0.2 percentage points to 1.19 per cent, its highest in nearly a month. Germany’s 10-year yield climbed sharply to minus 0.24 per cent, the highest in two months, while UK 10-year yields leapt to 0.74 per cent as funds sold bonds usually considered safe havens even while equity markets dived. Bond yields rise as prices fall.

Traders said the prospect of a big increase in bond issuance in the US and Europe to fund efforts to tackle the coronavirus crisis was further weighing on bond markets, but the absence of any flight to safety suggested a need to raise cash was the driving force.

“This is fire-selling of liquid assets by those who need to meet redemptions,” said Mike Riddell, a portfolio manager at Allianz Global Investors. “A lot of people need cash and they’re liquidating the only thing that they can.”

Moves were even bigger in riskier eurozone government bonds. Italy’s 10-year yield spiked by 0.6 percentage point to 2.7 per cent, up from just 1 per cent at the start of March.

Global equities were also under pressure as investors raced into cash. The UK’s FTSE 100, Germany’ Dax and and France’s CAC 40 all dropped more than 4 per cent.

US S&P 500 futures fell 3.7 per cent, the maximum allowed fall. State Street’s $240bn SPY ETF, which tracks the S&P 500 and is not subject to the same trading limits as futures, fell almost 6 per cent in pre-market dealings, suggesting Wall Street stocks may fall more than futures suggest. The market had rebounded 6 per cent on Tuesday after the worst fall since 1987 the previous day.

SocGen boss promises ‘credit for everyone’

David Keohane in Paris reports:

The chief of French bank Société Générale and the head of its banking federation has promised that “there will be credit for everyone” as France gears up to keep its businesses afloat in the face of the coronavirus.

“There will be credit for everyone, we are here, we have made commitments to be able to process requests in less than five days,” said Frédéric Oudéa on French radio station Europe 1 on Wednesday morning.

While declaring “war” on the virus and putting the country into virtual lockdown earlier this week, president Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed unlimited state financial support for businesses and employees affected by the coronavirus outbreak, including up to €300bn of state guarantees for bank loans to companies

Mr Oudéa, who was speaking as head of the French banking federation, said that “we are waiting in the next two, three days for all the details of the government’s plan, we will be there to help all businesses.”

It’s the heart of the strategy which is the right one, save the business and thereby save the workers.

Volkswagen and Jaguar Land Rover extend central Europe shutdowns

James Shotter in Warsaw reports

Volkswagen and Jaguar Land Rover have announced further plant closures in central Europe as a result of the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

VW said late on Tuesday that it was stopping production at its plants in Poznan and Wrzesnia in Poland, and Hanover in Germany, for 10 days from Thursday, while JLR said that it would stop work at its new factory in Nitra in Slovakia from Friday.

“The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on our entire business: on supply chains, on production, on sales, and on our distribution and service partners,” said Thomas Sedran, head of VW’s Nutzfahrzeuge brand.

For this reason … we have decided to scale down production at all three locations. This decision is the only correct course of action, in order to avoid exposing our workers to any unnecessary health risks.

VW said that its move would affect 24,000 workers in Poland and Germany.

Toyota closes European factories

Peter Campbell, Global Motor Industry Correspondent, reports:

Toyota has closed its remaining European sites, including two plants in the UK, for the foreseeable future, citing supply chain shortages and market uncertainty.

The sites include two in Poland, one in Turkey and a joint plant with PSA in the Czech Republic. Earlier in the week the company shuttered its plants in France and Portugal.

Its closure, which follows BMW’s similar actions on Wednesday, mean only a handful of car factories are open anywhere in Europe.

Of the mainstream facilities:

• Volvo’s operations in Sweden and Kia’s plant in Slovakia are still operational
• Hyundai’s plant in the Czech Republic – which is closely linked to the Kia facility – is also running.
• Jaguar Land Rover’s UK facilities remain open, though the company announced it will close its Slovakian plant from Friday.
• Honda’s UK plant and its motorbike facility in Italy are also operational.
• Aston Martin’s UK plants remain open, the company confirmed on Wednesday.

Why have US stock futures triggered trading curbs?

US stock-index futures have fallen sharply, triggering circuit breakers that are designed to limit volatility outside of Wall Street trading hours.

As we have written about frequently recently, in the US stock-index futures market, these trading curbs are set at a 5 per cent level, meaning S&P 500 futures should not fall by more than that magnitude when equities are not trading.

A peculiar situation has taken hold this week, however, that has added an extra level of complexity to how these measures operate. The price change you will see quoted in the FT and on financial terminals is the per cent change from the previous day’s settlement level on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The settlement takes place at 4.15pm New York time. That is 15 minutes after the closing bell for the Wall Street equities market.

On Tuesday, that settlement level for the March contract (the one that we are referencing in our coverage) was 2495.50. S&P 500 futures are currently trading at 2,403.5, a fall of 3.7 per cent from the settlement level.

That has triggered the circuit breaker. “But you just said it requires a 5 per cent fall!” you might say (I also asked that very same question).

It turns out the circuit breaker is not built on the settlement level, but instead a “fixing” in the 30 seconds to 4pm in New York. The CME Group sets its trading curbs in this way to “co-ordinate with circuit breakers provisions” for the main US cash equities market.

The co-ordination comes into play when the US stock market opens because US stocks have several of their own circuit breakers that affect the entire cash equities market. The 5 per cent circuit breaker in futures turns off when Wall Street opens, and then matches these levels — 7 per cent, 13 per cent, and 20 per cent.

Here are a few useful links:

-US equities futures settlement levels
-US equities futures price limits
-US equities futures fixing level

Ex-ECB council member calls for ‘full financial firepower’

Arthur Beesley in Dublin reports:

The European Central Bank and EU member states should move immediately to deploy their “full financial power” to stem the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, a former member of the ECB governing council has said.

Patrick Honohan, who was governor of Ireland’s central bank at the height of the eurozone emergency a decade ago, said the ECB’s current leadership and governments should avoid repeating their slow response to the sovereign debt crisis that was criticised for worsening it.

“In facing the sharp economic crisis that is spinning out of the pandemic, European fiscal and monetary policymakers must not forget lessons learned in the 10 years since the euro area crisis got under way. There can be no excuse for repeating the errors that were made then,” Mr Honohan wrote in the Irish Times.

It is a moment for rapid, strong and all-embracing official policy to ensure that the economic side-effects of the pandemic are contained and equitably shared. Europe has the capacity to do this; but in order to be successful, the timidity and suspicion that characterised too much of policy during the euro area crisis must be avoided this time.

Noting a jump in Italian borrowing costs because of market fears that Rome alone will have to sustain coronavirus pressure on its public finances, he called for “urgent action” by European leaders to quash such suspicions.

“The ECB has a clear, immediate role. It could unleash its outright monetary programme (‘whatever it takes’) of asset purchases if Italy were to apply for an International Monetary Fund-style programme,” said Mr Honohan, who was professor of international financial economics at Trinity College Dublin before he became governor in 2009.

European car sales slide as virus impact knocks demand

Valentina Romei in London writes:

Car sales dropped in Europe as the coronavirus impact hit shoppers and added to the disruption due to changes in vehicle taxations in various member states.

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association reported a 7.4 per cent drop in EU passenger registrations in February compared with the same month last year.

Among the largest markets, Germany reported the largest fall with a 10.8 per cent drop, followed by Italy and Spain.

Car sales were badly hit in China where the virus spread first. The Asian country reported a 20 per cent drop in car sales January and an 82 per cent dive in February.

German regulators ease capital rules for banks

Olaf Storbeck in Frankfurt reports:

Germany’s top financial watchdog is scrapping a planned tightening of capital rules for banks in an attempt to give the financial sector more leeway to cope with the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis.

Bonn-based banking regulator Bafin has abandoned last year’s decision to lift the so-called countercyclical capital buffer from zero to 0.25 per cent of risk-weighted assets by July.

“This is a preventive measure intended to strengthen the German banking sector’s ability to lend,” the German Financial Stability Committee, a joint body comprising the Finance Ministry, Bafin and Bundesbank, said in a statement on Wednesday morning.

People familiar with the numbers estimate that the decision will free up around €5.5bn in common equity tier one across the banking sector. The banks can use this additional legroom either to absorb losses or to increase lending to the corporate sector and households.

The regulators had previously decided to increase the counter cyclical buffer in a move to counter growing risks to financial stability from increased bank lending. But the Association of German Banks has been campaigning in favour of looser capital rules since early March, warning that the liquidity needs of German banks will rise “massively” due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus outbreak.

BMW becomes latest carmaker to close European plants

Joe Miller in Frankfurt reports:

BMW will follow Volkswagen and Daimler in shutting down its European plants, as concerns over the safety of staff and the security of the auto supply chain mount.

The Munich-based carmaker said it would also close factories in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK for at least a month, as well as its production line in Rosslyn, South Africa.

The company also revised its guidance for 2020, saying it expected deliveries to be “significantly below the previous year’s level”.

Nicolas Peter, BMW’s chief financial officer, said:

The current uncertainty surrounding future worldwide developments impacted by the coronavirus makes it difficult to provide an accurate forecast for 2020.

“According to the latest developments, our guidance for the full year assumes that the sales situation will deteriorate in all major markets,” he added.

Net profits at BMW fell by almost 30 per cent in 2019, despite record revenues and strong sales of luxury SUVs in the last three months of the year, as the German premium brand poured billions of euros into the development of electric vehicles.

Global cases climb towards 200,000

Steve Bernard, senior data visualisation journalist, reports:

The global death toll from Covid-19 approached 8,000 while cases neared 200,000 after the largest one-day increase reported. with an additional 15,615 cases.

Europe remained the largest contributor with 11,139 cases recorded. Italy, Spain, Germany and France reported increases of more than 1,000 cases, with Italy worst affected on 3,526.

There were an additional 821 deaths worldwide, the highest since the outbreak began, of which 628 were in Europe. In Italy and Spain 345 and 191 died.

Saudi Arabia halts most private sector work

Simeon Kerr in Dubai reports:

Saudi Arabia has suspended work in most of the private sector for 15 days, the state news agency reported.

As Gulf states increase measures to restrict the spread of coronavirus, the Saudi ministry of human resources said on Wednesday that remote working should be implemented in sectors apart from sensitive infrastructure, such as utilities and communications.

The ministry ordered the suspension of main offices in the private sector for 15 days while reducing staffing to no more than 40 per cent at secondary offices to maintain supply chains.

Businesses were also asked to limit contact between employees and monitor them for symptoms of the virus. Workers over the age of 55, pregnant women and others vulnerable to the disease are to be given an additional 14 days’ compulsory leave.

The kingdom, which has reported 171 cases, exempted businesses that provide crucial supplies, such as food and health products, to government agencies.

UK pledges more economic support for individuals

Sebastian Payne reports:

Alok Sharma, UK business secretary, said that the government’s proposals to help businesses had been “well received” but more measures to help individuals and renters would be announced “very soon”.

He told the BBC:

I completely understand that people want us to go further — particularly on this issue about support for employees, for employment … we will come forward in the coming days with further measures.

We will do whatever it takes to protect people’s health, to protect their livelihoods, to protect businesses, and the measures we announced yesterday are a big step. But of course, that is not the end and we will keep the situation under review.”

Mr Sharma said that the government was also examining ways of helping businesses receive more funds. Confirming that further action is planned to help renters struggling with payments, the business secretary said “we are looking very actively” at measures that would be announced “very shortly”.

When asked about the levels of testing for coronavirus, Mr Sharma said the government was ramping up the level of testing but had to remain focused on those who need it the most.

ECB insists it is ready to act as council member stokes debate

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt reports:

The European Central Bank has rebuffed a claim by the head of the Austrian central bank that its monetary policy has reached its limits, in a rare move to officially deny a statement by one of its own governing council members.

The public statement by the ECB, insisting that it “stands ready to adjust all of its measures”, was in response to remarks by Robert Holzmann, the head of Austria’s central bank who frequently criticises ECB monetary policy for being too loose.

The rebuffal underlines the debate that is rumbling on within the ECB’s rate-setting committee over how it should respond to the crisis caused by coronavirus.

Mr Holzmann in Austria’s Der Standard newspaper on Wednesday stated that ECB president Christine Lagarde had said that “monetary policy has reached its limits”.

The ECB said its governing council was in unanimous agreement that in addition to the easing measures it announced on Thursday it would be monitoring the consequences of the pandemic and adjusting its measures as appropriate.

Miner Ferrexpo defers dividend decision

Neil Hume in London reports:

Ferrexpo, a major supplier of iron ore to the steel industry in Europe and Asia, has reported higher annual profits but said it will not declare a dividend until the impact of the coronavirus pandemic becomes clearer.

The London-listed company on Wednesday said it would defer a decision on shareholder payouts to an “appropriate time when the market situation and the effect of the Covid-19 virus has become clearer”.

Analysts had forecast the company, which has a strong balance sheet, to declare a final dividend of about 13 cents per share, taking payments for 2019 to 26 cents a share.

Ferrexpo said earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, the measure tracked by analysts, rose 17 per cent to $586m in 2019 boosted by higher prices for its products. The result was roughly in line with market forecasts.

From its mines in Ukraine, Ferrexpo produces pellets, small balls of high-grade iron ore that are fed directly in the blast furnaces. Its biggest customers are in Europe and Asia.

The price of the steel-making ingredient rose last year helped by a string of supply disruptions and strong demand from China. But there are fears it could decline this year because of the stockpiles of steel that are building up in China.

Russia to fall into budget deficit

Henry Foy in Moscow reports:

Russia’s budget will swing into a deficit this year due to the crash in oil prices and the impact of coronavirus, the country’s finance minister said.

Russia this month pulled out of an oil production agreement with Saudi Arabia, sparking a price war exacerbated by plunging demand for crude caused by the pandemic that sent oil prices crashing below $30 a barrel.

“A decrease in energy prices has always been one of the main risk factors for our economy. Now a much more serious problem has been added: coronavirus infection,” Anton Siluanov said. “Unfortunately, the situation is not developing in the best way.”

Russia’s 2020 budget envisaged a Rbs930bn ($12bn) surplus, but it will now be forced to tap its national wealth fund to offset an estimated Rbs3tn ($38.5bn) reduction in oil revenues this year, according to Mr Siluanov.

“Of course we will switch to a deficit budget this year,” he said. Cash will be provided to businesses and regional authorities to weather the impact of the pandemic.


European stocks drop 3% as renewed tumult sweeps markets

Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong, Philip Georgiadis in London and Leo Lewis in Tokyo report:

European and Asian stocks dropped on Wednesday, as government measures to shield economies from the impact of the coronavirus failed to reassure investors.

London’s FTSE 100 fell 3.4 per cent at the open as concern over the global economy snuffed out a brief market rally. The losses were spread across Europe — in Frankfurt the Dax slid 3.5 per cent and in Paris the Cac 40 lost 2.4 per cent.

Futures trading suggested that selling would resume on Wall Street on Wednesday with contracts for the S&P 500 dropping 3.7 per cent, the maximum allowed. The index had rebounded 6 per cent overnight in a volatile US trading session as the Trump administration and US central bank unveiled large support packages.

“The trajectories of Covid-19 are likely being contained in Europe but not in a complacent US and the economic damage is severe,” said Sebastien Galy, senior macro strategist at Nordea Asset Management.

Governments this week announced large-scale support measures in an attempt to cushion the blow from the coronavirus, which has caused an economic standstill in parts of Europe, Asia and the US.

Second wave of coronavirus cases hits Asia

Edward White in Wellington, Kathrin Hille in Taipei, Stefania Palma in Singapore and Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong report:

The number of coronavirus cases has spiked across Asia, fuelling concerns that hopes the region had contained the outbreak could be premature as a second wave of infections takes hold.

Officials in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and parts of China and south-east Asia are now rushing through new measures in response to an uptick in new infections over recent days after weeks of declines.

Experts say the sudden increase in cases has revealed the limits of both China’s sweeping lockdown of citizens and of the massive public testing and social distancing campaigns rolled out across Asia in recent weeks.

But it also highlights growing anxieties about new cases coming from abroad, as the number of so-called imported infections has risen sharply as people arrive in the region in a bid to flee the escalating coronavirus outbreak in Europe.

“What many people hadn’t recognised is that it is only a temporary success, it is not a permanent success,” said Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.

Read more on this story here

Wagamama owner and Marston’s seek leniency on rents and loans

Alice Hancock in London reports:

The Restaurant Group, owner of the Wagamama chain, and Marston’s, the pub operator, warned on Wednesday that they would be seeking covenant waivers from their lending banks and negotiating for rent reductions with landlords in order to stave off the effects of the coronavirus shutdown.

Both companies said that the outbreak of the virus and the subsequent dramatic slide in footfall across UK high streets and leisure parks had had a “significant’ impact on business.

TRG, which operates 650 restaurants and pubs in the UK, said that it expected an overall decline in sales of 45 per cent in the first half of the year, improving to a 5 per cent decline in the second half. It said that it forecasts a 92 per cent decline in sales in its concessions business, most of which are situated in travel hubs, in the second quarter.

Marston’s said that it was unable to quantify the impact of the government’s advice against consumers going out at this stage but that it was taking “an extremely prudent approach and being cautious in our management of the business during this period of unprecedented uncertainty”.

Marston’s has been working on a plan to lower debt by £200m by 2023. It said that it had made good progress towards this and it would be cutting its capital expenditure, overheads and stocking costs for the foreseeable future. It has an estate of 1,400 pubs.

TRG said it had modelled a scenario whereby it could retain £75m of cash liquidity in the business throughout the remainder of the year.

The announcements came the day after the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised a £330bn package to support businesses including loans and business rates waivers.

Shares in TRG are down about 85 per cent this year, while Marston’s are down 83 per cent.

Turkey confirms first coronavirus death

Laura Pitel in Ankara reports:

Turkey announced its first coronavirus fatality overnight as the number of confirmed cases more than doubled to 98.

Fahrettin Koca, health minster, said an 89-year-old man had died after catching the disease from a person who had contacts with China.

Turkey reported its first confirmed case of coronavirus early last week. The number of instances has risen rapidly since then, with 51 new cases on Tuesday night.

Mr Koca said that most of those infected were recovering well, and urged the population to abide by strict measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, is due to address the nation on Wednesday after several days away from the public eye.

Zara owner to write off nearly €300m of inventory

Daniel Dombey in Madrid reports:

Inditex, the world’s biggest fashion retailer, is writing off €287m of its inventory because of the impact of the coronavirus, which has caused the group temporarily to close half its stores.

As of Tuesday, the company had closed 3,785 stores in 39 countries because of the virus. However, in China, all but 11 stores have reopened.

It said online sales, which last year represented 14 per cent of its total, were continuing and its supply chain was functioning normally.

In a trading update, Inditex added that store and online sales decreased between February 1 and March 16 by 4.9 per cent in local currencies compared with the same period last year, and that the decline accelerated this month: store and online sales decreased by 24.1 per cent between March 1 and March 16.

The inventory provision, which the company included in its 2019 results, announced on Wednesday, brought full-year profits down to €3.64bn from the level of €3.86bn they otherwise would have been. This meant profits grew 6 per cent year-on-year rather than the 12 per cent they would have expanded if the inventory charge had not been necessary.

Inditex said that “in view of the current uncertain situation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, [the company] considers that it is not the right moment to take a decision on the dividend” for last year, adding that the decision would be made by July.

Net sales for 2019 increased by 8 per cent to €28.29bn, with like-for-like sales up 6.5 per cent. Spain accounted for 15.7 per cent of total sales, and the rest of Europe, which the World Health Organization has dubbed the centre of the coronavirus crisis, a further 46 per cent.

The company held net cash of €8.06bn, up 20 per cent year-on-year.

“The solidity of the Group’s 2019 earnings and strong balance sheet puts us in a strong position for tackling the challenges emerging in 2020,” the company said, although it added: “It is too soon to quantify the future impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on our business operations.”

Top British virus expert self-isolates

A leading British coronavirus expert has self-isolated after developing coronavirus symptoms.

Epidemiology professor Neil Ferguson, head of the modelling programme at Imperial College’s MRC centre for global infectious disease analysis, said he had developed a dry cough yesterday and a high fever in the early hours of this morning and was now in self-isolation.

Prof Ferguson’s team warned this week that the government’s previous “herd immunity” strategy for dealing with the outbreak could have led to around 250,000 deaths. Its new plan of reduced social interaction is likely to reduce this number to “a few thousands or tens of thousands”, according to the Imperial College research.

Superdry withdraws annual guidance

Superdry has said it can no longer give formal trading guidance for the year as the spread of coronavirus forces it to close its stores and footfall dries up.

The clothing retailer’s most recent guidance had already suggested profits could be entirely wiped out this year. But the Covid-19 outbreak has forced it to reassess its prospects once again.

Superdry said 78 of its stores across Europe — the majority of its outlets on the continent — had been obliged to close due to government restrictions. Europe accounts for 40 per cent of sales.

While stores remain open in the UK, which accounts for half of all sales, footfall has tumbled by a quarter as people opt to stay at home. It has fallen by a similar amount in the US, which makes up the remaining 10 per cent of sales.

Julian Dunkerton, Superdry chief executive, said:

Along with everyone else, Superdry is experiencing major disruption to our business operations and recovery as we seek to protect our staff and customers from Covid-19. We are taking mitigating action wherever we can but the situation is very fluid and uncertain, and we are working to put in place additional financing to secure our recovery.

European and US markets set for new losses

European and US stocks were set to tumble on Wednesday, as aggressive economic interventions from Western government failed to reassure investors concerned over the impact of the coronavirus.

Futures trade pointed to losses of 4 per cent for London’s FTSE 100 and Frankfurt’s Dax when trading opens in less than an hour.

On Wall Street S&P 500 futures fell 3.7 per cent, following a sharp rally in the previous session as investors welcomed a sudden White House shift to more aggressive interventions against the outbreak, including a proposal to send a cheque to every American.

UK supermarkets seek to control panic buying

Jonathan Eley in London reports:

UK supermarkets are widening the range of items subject to per-customer limits and shrinking their opening hours to try and contain panic buying.

J Sainsbury, the UK’s second-largest chain, said that from Thursday it would close cafes and meat, fish and pizza counters to free up warehouse and transport capacity and focus staff efforts on grocery.

“We have enough food coming into the system, but are limiting sales so that it stays on shelves for longer and can be bought by a larger number of customers,” said chief executive Mike Coupe in a message to customers.

“We still have enough food for everyone – if we all just buy what we need for us and our families,” he added.

Rival Tesco has scaled back the opening hours of many of its largest stores, with formerly 24-hour hypermarkets closing at 10pm to allow for replenishment.

Wm Morrison, the smallest of the “big four”, said that it would extend in-store picking of groceries ordered online to another 100 stores, allowing it to expand its home delivery capacity.

It will set up a telephone ordering line for those who are less comfortable with using the internet, and introduce “essential boxes” that will be assembled at its distribution centres and delivered by courier.

According to one senior executive, last week was busier than Christmas as stores were repeatedly cleaned out of toilet paper, painkillers, dried goods such as rice and pasta, eggs and long-life milk.

France, Italy and Belgium expand short-selling ban

Philip Stafford in London reports:

France, Italy and Belgium have extended and widened their bans on short selling stocks, in an attempt to maintain stability on their markets rattled by the coronavirus crisis.

Overnight markets watchdogs in the three countries said they would widen one-day bans that had lasted throughout Tuesday but had covered only selected stocks.

The Autorité des Marchés Financiers (AMF), the French regulator, said its ban would cover all French stocks and last for 30 days, ending on April 16.

Italy’s Consob said its ban would cover all Italian stocks for the first time and last for three months. “These measures were made necessary by the strong turbulences triggered in the last days by the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.

Belgium’s FMSA said its ban would cover all Belgian stocks and last until April 17. “The emergency situation linked to the pandemic may cause a general state of alert which seriously threatens market confidence,” it said.

The practice of short selling is where investors borrow shares and then sell them, hoping to buy them back later at a lower price before returning them and pocketing the difference. The practice has been blamed for exacerbating volatility during times of stress.

India’s restaurant association calls for government support

Benjamin Parkin reports from Mumbai

India’s restaurant association has asked its members to close until the end of the month but called on the government to help curtail the “astronomical losses” that will ensue.

The number of cases in India has risen to 130, prompting the government and private sector to ramp up efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. That has prompted local authorities in some cities to already effectively require eateries and pubs to close.

The National Restaurant Association of India, which says it represents 500,000 restaurants, has asked its members to shut until March 31 or until no new cases are recorded for “a few days.”

“We find ourselves today in an unprecedented situation where we are compelled to make some difficult decisions which have massive financial implications on our businesses,” the NRAI said. “This decision to shut down is extremely hard on us.”

The industry body called on the government to help its members with measures like tax benefits, a moratorium on loan repayments and waiving interest.

Other measures to stem the virus’ spread in India include a travel ban on European and British visitors and a decision to suspend the beginning of upcoming cricket contest the Indian Premier League from later this month to mid-April.

Oman restricts entry to citizens and closes public spaces

Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai

Oman will enter almost full lockdown from noon local time on Wednesday as the sultanate imposes the most restrictive measures across the Gulf states to limit the spread of coronavirus.

A government committee announced it would restrict entry to the country only to Omanis and prevent nationals from leaving. It will also prohibit assembling in public areas, suspend gatherings and close all tourist sites, including beaches, parks and popular outdoor picnic areas. Mosques and other places of worship will close.

Shops and markets will also close, apart from those providing food, consumer items, clinics and pharmacies. Sports facilities and salons will be shut down. Restaurants and cafes will only be allowed to offer delivery services.

Oman has registered 33 coronavirus cases, 12 of whom have recovered.

The spread of the virus has been accelerating across the Gulf states, which have registered more than 1,100 cases with one death reported in Bahrain.

Dog which tested positive for coronavirus dies in Hong Kong

Primrose Riordan reports from Hong Kong

A dog which previously tested positive for Covid-19 died earlier this week, Hong Kong authorities said on Thursday.

The dog, which passed away on Monday, was being kept in isolation after its owner contracted the virus.

Swabs of the animal had tested “weak positive” for the virus, in the first suspected incident of a pet contracting the disease from a human.

But the dog’s owner said she does not want the local agriculture department managing the case to undertake a postmortem to confirm its cause of death.

Japan stocks climb on hopes of support measures

By Hudson Lockett and Leo Lewis

Stocks across Asia followed Wall Street higher on Wednesday as governments stepped up support measures to shield their economies from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. However, investors warned that the rebound was likely to be temporary as futures trading pointed to another gloomy session in New York.

Japan’s benchmark Topix index climbed 3 per cent after data showed the central bank bought a record ¥120bn ($1.1bn) of Japanese equities on Tuesday. Japanese markets were also boosted by reports that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe planned to form a panel to discuss further support measures to cushion the blow of the virus outbreak.

China’s CSI 300 index rose 1.6 per cent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng edged up.

But bucking the trend, Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 slid 6.7 per cent as Scott Morrison, the country’s prime minister, declared a “human biosecurity emergency”, advised citizens to abandon overseas travel and warned that the crisis could disrupt daily life in the country for up to six months.

S&P 500 futures were down 3.7 per cent.

Taiwan closes its borders after wave of new infections

Kathrin Hille in Taipei

Taiwan is closing its borders to practically all foreigners, as the country battles to stem a wave of new infections imported mainly from Europe.

All foreign citizens except those with diplomatic, business or other documents giving them the right of residence in Taiwan would be barred from entering as of early Thursday, foreign minister Joseph Wu said. The restriction applies to travellers on any flights taking off as of midnight Taiwan time.

Health authorities said those people who are still entering Taiwan, including its own citizens and foreigners regardless where they are arriving from, will be put under 14 days of home quarantine and government-supervised health monitoring.

In addition, the Epidemic Command Centre demanded all Taiwanese who returned from overseas trips from March 5 to report with local government to be put under the same regime. This marks an escalation of efforts started earlier this week to chase and test Taiwanese citizens with recent travel abroad who had seen a doctor for flu-like symptoms since their return.

The stricter measures come as Taiwan’s infection numbers, one of the lowest worldwide with 77 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, has started creeping up: over the last two weeks, the country registered 31 imported infections, more than half in the last couple of days.

Taiwan already has more than 10,000 people under government-supervised health monitoring at home, according to the Epidemic Management Centre. The new steps would put up to another 16,000 people under that regime, the Interior Ministry said.

Separately, Taiwan and the US said they would step up co-operation on fighting the virus. The US would supply Taiwan with hazmat suits, while Taiwan would provide face masks to the US, Mr Wu said. The two countries are also to partner in research, development and production of rapid tests, vaccines and medicines, Mr Wu said in a joint statement with Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s quasi-embassy in Taipei.

Samsung expects computer chip demand to grow in 2020

By Edward White

Samsung Electronics has struck an optimistic tone in its outlook for the memory chip market this year, bucking widespread expectations of a downturn because of the economic carnage caused by coronavirus.

The South Korean technology giant, which is the world’s biggest memory chip producer, said global computer chip demand will increase in 2020 despite “external uncertainties”.

“We expect global chip demand to grow on the back of the growth of artificial intelligence and automotive semiconductor industries, increased investment from data centre firms and expansion of 5G networks,” Kim Ki-nam, vice chair, said at a shareholder meeting in Suwon, near Seoul, on Wednesday.

Market watchers have almost universally downgraded their outlooks for economic growth in 2020 as the fallout from the pandemic continues to rattle investors, disrupt supply chains and weigh heavily on consumer demand.

Kenny Liew, an analyst at Fitch Solutions, said that while production and exports of semiconductors had showed signs of recovery before the Covid-19 outbreak, earlier momentum is now likely to be “derailed”.

“The contagion’s key risk is that it could impact both supply and demand for both consumer and enterprise tech goods, given that virus fears will result in lockdowns and more restrictions on the movement of goods.

“Tightening financial conditions and weaker global growth will also lead many companies to hold off on their enterprise IT investment plans pending more certainty on the business impact of the contagion to their operations,” he added.

Philippine Stock Exchange to resume trading

John Reed reports from Bangkok

The Philippine Stock Exchange is to resume trading, clearing, and settlement on Thursday, two days after beginning an indefinite closure because of a lockdown on Luzon island caused by the coronavirus.

Chief executive Ramon Monzon announced that the PSE would be reopening with shortened hours on March 19. However, its trading floor in greater Manila’s Bonifacio Global City district will remain closed by order of the Philippines’ Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“Trading activities by all trading participants will have to be conducted remotely through offsite locations,” Mr Monzon said in a statement posted to the PSE website, dated March 17.

This came as bond and foreign exchange markets reopened on Wednesday, a day after the PSE became the first major market in the world to close in response to the pandemic. President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday declared a “state of calamity in the Philippines”, which has confirmed 187 cases of COVID-19 leading to 14 deaths.

US auto plants to remain open after companies and unions reach deal

Claire Bushey reports from Chicago

US auto plants will remain open with some restrictions after union officials and carmakers reached a deal on Tuesday to strengthen coronavirus protections for workers.

Workers at the North American plants of Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler America will continue to churn out cars and trucks except for a “rotating partial shutdown of facilities”, the union said.

The companies agreed to clean plants and equipment between shifts, as well as extended periods between shifts and “extensive plans to avoid member contact”.

The UAW initially sought a two-week closure for US factories. Ford said that starting on Thursday it plans to close all its plants in Europe, as the continent becomes the centre of the outbreak. The company has already told its white-collar workforce to work from home.

The agreement was reached the same day Ford temporarily shut its assembly plant in Chicago because of a parts shortage from a supplier, marking the first time the company had to halt production in North America due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chicago assembly plant employs approximately 5,800 workers making the Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator. Workers have said on social media that they worry about their health coming to work. As one commented on Facebook: “Hard to do social distancing with this job.”

South Korean cases creep higher as new clusters emerge

By Edward White

The number of new coronavirus cases in South Korea crept higher again as the discovery of new clusters continue to dent optimism over the country’s success in containing the outbreak.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control reported 93 additional confirmed cases on Wednesday, up from 84 reported a day earlier and 74 on Monday. The new cases took the total infection caseload to 8,413.

While the number of new infections in South Korea has broadly declined for more than two weeks, and new cases continue to be outpaced by the number of patients who are cured each day, reports of new clusters at communal areas including churches and rest homes have worried officials over recent days.

On Wednesday, state media reported that as many as 60 patients at a nursing home in Daegu have become infected. The city, South Korea’s fourth-largest, has been at the centre of the country’s outbreak since late February but had seen a decrease in new cases over the past two weeks.

Goldman Sachs tells staff in Europe and Americas to work from home

Laura Noonan reports from New York

Goldman Sachs has asked its staff in Europe and the Americas to work from home starting on Wednesday “until further notice” if their roles allow it, as the bank escalated its response to the coronavirus.

Goldman chief executive David Solomon and his two most senior lieutenants announced the decision in a memo to staff on Tuesday and said it had been taken “given new restrictions implemented by governments in the Americas and EMEA”.

“We encourage most of our people to work from home,” the trio said. “In all regions, for colleagues who need to be in the office due to the nature of their roles, we will adhere to a comprehensive set of precautionary and social distancing measures to help protect your health and wellbeing.”

The news follows JPMorgan Chase’s decision earlier in the week to implement work from home practices across its global workforce where their roles allow it.

Goldman has had four employees test positive for coronavirus in London, Salt Lake City and Sydney. The bank, which employs around 36,000, also reported a “suspected” case involving a third party healthcare worker at its New York headquarters.

Vietnam halts visa issuance to foreigners

John Reed reports from Bangkok

Vietnam has halted the issuance of visas to foreigners for 30 days because of the coronavirus pandemic. The south-east Asian country also imposed a mandatory quarantine requirement in “concentrated facilities” for travellers arriving from the US, Europe, and countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“Those who are not subject to concentrated quarantine must be self-quarantined & put under medical monitoring at their house, enterprises, accommodations or in groups,” government spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said in a tweet outlining the measures on Tuesday evening.

Citizens of countries that do not require Vietnamese visas, and people deemed “experts, business managers or highly skilled workers” will only be allowed to enter the country if they submit paperwork showing they are free of Covid-19, according to a government communique.

The blanket measures, which took effect at midnight, come after a recent spate of coronavirus infections in Vietnam were traced back to people arriving from overseas.

Separately, Vietnam, which holds the rotating chairmanship of Asean, said it was consulting fellow members in the regional grouping about postponing a planned summit in early April because of what Ms Hang said on Twitter were “complicated developments of #COVID19 in the region & the world”.

Chinese factories face components shortage, says business association

Kathrin Hille reports from Taipei

Even as factories in China are gradually returning to work, a significant portion of them expect to face component and material shortages caused by disruptions due to the coronavirus epidemic for months to come, according to a major western business association.

The American Chamber of Commerce in South China said that all 237 foreign and Chinese companies it surveyed between March 9 and March 14 were suffering disruptions to their business, and one-third of them were facing such shortages.

The figures suggest that although China said it had turned the corner on the epidemic, its economy will keep feeling the pain.

On Monday, the National Bureau of Statistics said industrial output fell by 13.5 per cent in the first two months of this year and fixed asset investment plummeted by 24.5 per cent, the worst such official data China has ever reported.

According to the AmCham survey, 15 per cent of those affected have already run out of certain supplies. It indicated that 80 per cent expect the shortages to last three months, and another 11 per cent foresee longer than that.

“[The] world’s supply chain shows signs of being overstretched,” said Amcham South China President Harley Seyedin, urging the US and China to repair their badly strained trade relationship.

“As it is stated in our White Paper research, it will take $2tn-$3tn to replace the current supply chain,” Mr Heyedin said in a message sent with the survey results.

“It will require a co-ordinated international series of actions to minimise the impact of disruption in the supply chain. Today’s events prove we need each other as no one country can do it alone.”

Transport and logistics disruptions were the biggest factors blamed by the surveyed companies for the shortages of components, supplies or material, followed by labour shortages.

Forty-eight per cent of respondents, three-quarters of which are in manufacturing, said their ability to manufacture was affected moderately or severely by the disruptions.

Credit Suisse cuts Mexico GDP forecast over coronavirus

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

Credit Suisse has slashed its GDP forecast for Mexico, telling clients to expect a 4 per cent contraction compared with its previous forecast of 0.7 per cent growth.

In a note to clients, the bank said Mexico and Chile would be worst hit in Latin America from the global coronavirus crisis because they were the most open economies and heavily reliant on the US and China, respectively.

Credit Suisse said it had decided to lower its 2020 real GDP growth forecast for Mexico on expectations of falling industrial and services output.

The bank said it had also factored in production declines by state oil company Pemex, starting in the second quarter, following the crash in oil prices.

It added that it expected the central bank to cut its overnight rate “soon”.

“Finally, on the fiscal front, we think that the government will end up lowering modestly the primary surplus target (0.7 per cent of GDP for 2020) in order to accommodate additional spending, particularly to address social needs arising from the Covid-19 shock,” the bank said.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has summoned his cabinet to a meeting. The Treasury’s official 2020 forecast for growth remains at 2 per cent.

Overall, Credit Suisse forecast a contraction of 1.5 per cent for Latin America in 2020, the largest contraction since 2009 when the region contracted 2 per cent.

It is now forecasting no growth for Brazil, a 2.6 per cent contraction for Argentina, 1.3 per cent growth for Colombia, a 1.5 per cent contraction for Chile, a 2.3 per cent contraction for Ecuador, growth of 1 per cent for Peru and a 12.5 per cent contraction for Venezuela.

Australia announces $429m package for domestic airline industry

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

The Australian government unveiled a A$715m ($429m) rescue package for the domestic airline industry on Wednesday in a bid to help carriers cope with a slump in demand due to the coronavirus crisis.

The package involves the refunding and ongoing waiving of government charges on the industry, including aviation fuel excise, air services charges on domestic airline operations and domestic and regional aviation security charges.

The total cost of the measures is estimated to be A$715 million, with an upfront estimated benefit of A$159 million to airlines for reimbursement of applicable charges paid by domestic airlines since February 1.

Qantas Airways, Virgin Australia and several regional carriers are expected to benefit from the relief package, which analysts expect is only the first tranche of state support measures for the industry.

“Our airlines run on tight budgets at the best of times and these past few weeks have been particularly tough,” said Michael McCormack, Australian deputy prime minister.

“Providing this assistance not only helps our airlines but also the entire aviation industry, regional Australians in particular and other industries such as tourism and trade, which depend on aviation.”

On Wednesday, Virgin Australia said it was grounding its international fleet and reducing domestic capacity by 50 per cent until June 14. Qantas has already slashed international capacity by 90 per cent and the government has advised all Australians not to travel overseas.

Qantas and Virgin have said they have enough cash reserves to survive the crisis, although Virgin has more than A$5bn net debt on its balance sheet and had its credit rating slashed to BBB- from BBB+ by S&P on Monday.

Google criticised for running coronavirus-related advertising

Richard Waters reports from San Francisco

Google came under fire from two Democratic senators in the US on Tuesday for continuing to run adverts for face masks and hand sanitiser, contrary to its own policies and a promise to crack down on coronavirus-related advertising.

In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, Mark Warner and Richard Blumenthal accused the company of carrying adverts that “exploit fear for profit”, while also adding to shortages of “essential health care products at a time of critical need.”

The search company has a rule against adverts that exploit “sensitive events”, such as “a natural disaster, conflict, death, or other tragic event.” It also said a week ago that it would explicitly block adverts for face masks in the US, where there have been shortages. The US Surgeon General has called on the public to stop buying masks to ensure more are available for medical workers.

The senators said that their staff had been “consistently served dozens of ads” while browsing web pages containing information about Covid-19. Targeting information published by Google showed that the ads had been deliberately directed at people looking for information about the virus, they added.

Google did not explain the lapses, but said: “Since January, we have blocked millions of ads that attempted to capitalise on coronavirus and have implemented a temporary ban on all medical face mask ads. We continue to take action to protect users and prevent these ads from serving.”

Ford closes Chicago plant over parts shortage

Claire Bushey reports from Chicago

Ford temporarily shut its assembly plant in Chicago because of a parts shortage from a supplier, marking the first time the company has had to halt production in North America due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ford said that starting on Thursday it plans to close all its plants in Europe, as the continent becomes the centre of the outbreak. The company has already told its white-collar workforce to work from home.

The Chicago assembly plant employs approximately 5,800 workers making the Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator. Workers have said on social media that they worry about their health coming to work. As one commented on Facebook: “Hard to do social distancing with this job.”

UAW President Rory Gamble and other union leaders are to meet top executives at Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler America to discuss how to keep production workers safe as the virus continues to spread. The union has called for plants to shut down for two weeks, a call it says the automakers have resisted. A taskforce was formed on Sunday to address workers’ concerns.

“If the UAW leadership on the task force … are not satisfied that our members will be protected, we will take this conversation to the next level,” Mr Gamble said.

Asia-Pacific stocks mixed after rebound on Wall Street

Asia-Pacific stocks were mixed on Wednesday after global stocks rebounded in the previous session following a series of government support packages to shield economies from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 slid 3.3 per cent, while the Topix in Japan was up 1.9 per cent and the Kospi in South Korea gained 0.7 per cent.

Overnight on Wall Street, the S&P 500 recovered from Monday’s sell-off to end up 6 per cent following a volatile session. European stocks also rebounded with the UK’s FTSE 100 closing 3 per cent higher. The European composite Stoxx 600 gained 2 per cent, having lost more than a third of its value in less than a month.

S&P 500 futures pointed to a 2.5 per cent fall when markets reopen on Wednesday.

The US Federal Reserve said it would enter the market for short-term company debt, known as commercial paper, to provide an extra $500bn to shore up the overnight lending market. The Trump administration said it was considering a support package worth as much as $1.2tn.

Britain unveiled a £330bn package of emergency loan guarantees to business and £20bn of fiscal support and France announced a €45bn rescue package.

Australia advises against overseas travel

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Australia has declared a human biosecurity emergency, advised all Australians from travelling overseas and announced a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people to try and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, has said schools will stay open for the foreseeable future on the basis of health advice, despite concerns expressed by some doctors, parents and educators that they could become conduits to spread the virus.

“Right now, schools should remain open. That is the clear and crystal health advice,” Mr Morrison told reporters on Wednesday. “Any measure you put in place, you must be prepared to put in place for at least six months. It could be longer.”

Mr Morrison said Australia was following the model in place in Singapore, which has kept schools open but managed to keep the spread of the virus under control.

He warned the virus is a once-in-100-year type event and life is going to change for a period of at least six months but said Australians would be able to rise to the challenge.

Canberra has advised all Australians not to travel overseas and introduced tough 14-day self-isolation restrictions on all inbound passengers.

“The travel advice to every Australian is ‘do not travel abroad’. Do not go overseas. That is very clear that instruction,” said Mr Morrison. “This is an indefinite ban.”

Mr Morrison strongly criticised people engaging in panic buying in supermarkets. “Stop doing it. It’s ridiculous! It’s un-Australian, and it must stop,” he said.

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