Mexico orders health inspections on Italian cruise ship

Jude Webber in Mexico City

An Italian cruise liner with some 6,000 tourists on board has arrived in the Mexican Caribbean island of Cozumel after being turned away from two other destinations over coronavirus fears.

Mexico has no confirmed cases of the Covid-19 virus – 18 suspected cases have all been ruled out – and health inspections are underway on the Mediterranean Shipping Company’s Meraviglia after it docked on Thursday morning in Cozumel’s Punta Langosta.

There were unconfirmed rumours that a crew member was infected with the virus. The liner had been refused permission to disembark by Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Speaking a day after the first Latin American case of coronavirus was confirmed in Brazil, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said it would be “inhumane” to force the ship to keep on trying to find a place to dock.

“We’ve given instructions to conduct inspections and for them to be allowed to arrive. We cannot discriminate,” the president told his morning news conference. “We can’t close our ports or our airports … We can’t act inhumanely.”

But some furious residents – some of them wearing masks – in Cozumel disagreed: television images showed them yelling that the ship should not disembark for fear of contagion. Pedro Joaquín Delbouis, mayor of Cozumel, told Milenio television: “There’s world hysteria about this.”

Mexican health authorities – already struggling with a crisis over shortages of medicines, especially for cancer patients, because of a shake-up of the health system and swingeing cuts – have warned that it is not a question of if Covid-19 arrives in Mexico, but when. Hospitals across the country were preparing beds and rehearsing protocols.

Pakistan suspends flights to Iran

Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad reports:

All flights from Pakistan to Iran have been suspended this evening, with authorities seeking to stem the coronavirus spread as the situation in its neighbouring state deteriorates.

Pakistan has also placed restrictions on religious visits to Saudi Arabia, which means that many muslims who planned to travel to the kingdom for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca have had to cancel their visits.

Schools in some parts of Pakistan will also be shut due to concerns over the virus.

Coronavirus to knock US earnings growth to zero, Goldman says

US companies will post no earnings growth this year as the coronavirus outbreak becomes widespread, Goldman Sachs warned, as fears over the economic fallout from the epidemic have intensified.

The bank revised lower its baseline earnings per share estimate to $165 this year, down from $174 previously — representing no growth. By comparison consensus is for companies on S&P 500 in aggregate to post earnings growth of about 7.7 per cent this year, according to data provider FactSet.

“Our reduced forecasts reflect the severe decline in Chinese economic activity in 1Q, lower end-demand for US exporters, supply chain disruption, a slowdown in US economic activity, and elevated uncertainty,” David Kostin, US equity strategist, said.

Read the full story here.

Switzerland cancels its largest sporting event

Sam Jones in Zürich

Switzerland has cancelled its largest annual mass sporting event — the Engadin Ski Marathon — because of the coronavirus epidemic.

The Ski Marathon, which normally attracts in excess of 14,000 participants, runs 42km along the length of the upper Engadin valley in the southern Swiss canton of Graubünden.

Two cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in the canton on Thursday morning.

Switzerland now has four confirmed cases in total, with authorities anticipating dozens more in the coming days.

Cantonal authorities in Graubünden have already moved to cancel smaller local sporting and cultural events.

Swiss tourism bodies are already fearful of the virus’s impact on the critical winter sports season. Director of Swiss Tourism Martin Nydegger told a conference on Thursday morning that they were already factoring in a 5 per cent decrease in visits to mountain attractions and facilities as a result of the virus.

The Engadin Skimarathon has only been cancelled once before in its 51-year history. In 1991 an outbreak of warm weather made the cross-country route impassable for skis.

Knight Frank and Savills pull out of key European property conference

Judith Evans in London reports:

The UK and European property industry’s main annual conference, Mipim, is due to be held in Cannes from March 10-13, complete with yachts and champagne-fuelled parties. It had been expected to attract 26,800 participants.

Organisers Reed Midem said on Thursday the event would go ahead with a “reinforced medical team” and increased hygiene measures, but on Thursday several key companies in the sector dropped out.

Two big property agencies, Knight Frank and Savills, said they would not send teams this year, while Grosvenor Britain & Ireland — the UK division of the Duke of Westminster’s £5bn property empire — will also skip the event.

Savills said it had made the decision “given the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, and the increasing number of cases in Europe, together with the fact that Mipim involves many thousands of people travelling from multiple countries across the world”.

James Sparrow, chief executive for the UK and Emea regions, said: “We… regret that we do not feel it would be appropriate or responsible for colleagues to attend Mipim this year.”

US stocks in worst week since financial crisis

Wall Street equities have tumbled this week by the most since the depths of the financial crisis in 2008, highlighting mounting investor angst over the coronavirus outbreak.

The S&P 500 has plummeted almost 9 per cent since the end of last week, the heaviest weekly drop since October 2008. This week’s fall would rank as the twenty-seventh largest on records that date back to 1928, according to Refinitiv data.

European equities have had a similarly torrid week, with the continent-wide Stoxx 600 barometer down 9 per cent. It has not fallen by so much in one week since the eurozone debt crisis ignited ructions in 2011.

Investors are growing increasingly concerned about how much the virus will depress global economic growth and hit companies’ bottom lines. Bank of America Merrill Lynch said on Thursday the world economy will grow only 2.8 per cent this year, the most tepid pace in the post-crisis era.

Goldman Sachs has said, meanwhile, that it expects US corporate earnings to stagnate this year, having previously projected growth in corporate America’s profits.

“Our reduced forecasts reflect the severe decline in Chinese economic activity in the first quarter, lower end-demand for US exporters, supply chain disruption, a slowdown in US economic activity, and elevated uncertainty,” the Wall Street bank said.

Iranian vice president infected by virus, local media report

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports:

Iran’s vice president for women’s affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar, and a second member of parliament, Mojtaba Zolnnour, have tested positive for coronavirus, according to local media.

Iran said more test kits will arrive from China on Friday which could lead to a rise in the number of people detected with coronavirus.

US stocks approach correction territory on mounting virus fears

Wall Street suffered heavy losses at the start of the US trading session, putting stocks on track to enter correction territory amid growing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

The S&P 500 tumbled 2.1 per cent to 3,049, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1.9 per cent. The Nasdaq Composite fared the worst, falling 2.8 per cent.

WHO warns outbreak may be worse than realised in Iran

The spread of coronavirus in Iran may be worse than official figures suggest, according to the World Health Organisation.

In comments reported by the Reuters news agency, Mike Ryan executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said that the country’s 10 per cent death rate is likely down to the country’s surveillance programme not yet picking up mild cases of the disease.

Mr Ryan also said the WHO is working closely with the International Olympic Committee and Japanese authorities to ensure the Tokyo Olympics is able to proceed. He said:

My understanding is no decision will be taken in the near term regarding the future of the Olympics.

His comments came as WHO director general said that while the virus had not yet reached pandemic status, it had “pandemic potential”.

Israel advises against all international travel

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

Israel’s health ministry has strongly discouraged it citizens from traveling abroad, introducing the most onerous pieces of travel guidance globally in a bid to avoid further coronavirus infections.

“If you don’t genuinely have to fly — don’t do so,” the ministry said in a travel warning.

The guidance, issued late Wednesday, also banned non-Israelis who have recently visited Italy from entering the country, adding the European country to wide list that includes China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

Non-Israelis who have been in any of those countries in the last fortnight are barred from entering the country, while Israelis who have recently visited the countries are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Israel has three confirmed cases of the virus, including two citizens who tested positive on a cruise ship, and one recent returnee from Italy. Several dozen others are in quarantine after coming into contact with a South Korean tour group that later tested positive for the virus.

The guidance also suggested avoiding travel to any international conferences, and made an oblique reference to the upcoming Hajj muslim pilgrimage, in July, asking residents to avoid “events of a religious character at which people from many different nations gather together”.

The travel guidance prompted one executive at Israel’s flag carrier El Al to to tell the public broadcaster, Kan, that the airline would collapse within weeks.

Clog brand Crocs expects revenue hit of up to $60m from virus

The shoemaker Crocs has warned revenues will be knocked this year by up to $60m — or around 5 per cent — as the virus causes store closures in China and shoppers across Asia opt to stay home.

The group behind the eponymous slip-on plastic clogs said it expects a blow of $40m to $60 to full-year revenues, which it anticipates will come in at around $1.2bn, still up on last year.

Most of the impact — $20m to $30m — is expected to be felt in the first quarter, the company said. Shares dropped 9 per cent in pre market trade.

“Despite this difficult situation, we continue to be very optimistic about our long-term growth prospects in China and our Asia region,” said Andrew Rees, Crocs’ president and chief executive.

Iran cancels Friday prayers in Tehran

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

Iran cancelled Friday prayers in Tehran and some other cities on fears of further spread of coronavirus.

The move comes even as senior clergy in Qom — the region from where the disease has spread — have so far refused closure of holy shrines in Qom and the northeastern city of Mashhad. The custodian of Qom said the holy shrine could save people.

Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, reported on Thursday that the number of deaths had increased to 22 and the number of confirmed cases had risen to 141.

EmoticonEuropean stocks enter correction territory

European stocks have fallen into correction territory, defined as a fall of 10 per cent from their recent peaks.

The Stoxx Europe 600 fell as much as 3.5 per cent in early afternoon trading, a fall of just over 10 per cent of the record high it reached just over a week ago.

Salvini meets Italy’s head of state

Miles Johnson in Rome reports:

Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migration opposition League party, has met with Italian president Sergio Mattarella as political leaders began openly speculating about the possibility of a temporary government of national solidarity to deal with the crisis.

Before the meeting took place in Rome, Mr Salvini said he was meeting the Italian head of state to discuss the economic and human impact of the outbreak in the northern regions where the League is in power.

Mr Salvini has regularly attacked Italy’s prime minster Giuseppe Conte since the outbreak began last Friday, and suggested before the meeting on Thursday he would be open to a unity government involving the League as long as it was not led by Mr Conte.

“We want to see Italy recover,” he said when asked by reporters about the League forming part of a possible a unity government. “With Conte Italy doesn’t recover”.

Mr Conte however dismissed the idea of a unity government involving the League by saying: “We already are a united government”.

L’Oréal to suspend travel for all employees through March

Mamta Badkar in New York and Leila Abboud in Paris

L’Oréal has suspended travel for all employees through the end of March, becoming the latest company to restrict business travel as a precautionary measure amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

The French skincare and cosmetics company, which employs 86,000 people, counts the Asia-Pacific region as its largest market by sales. The move follows Swiss food group Nestlé, which asked its staff to avoid travelling for business reasons until mid-March.

Goldman Sachs this week restricted business travel to and from South Korea, as well as the Lombardy and Veneto regions in Italy. The Wall Street bank also said non-essential business travel to other parts of Italy as well as Asia, barring Australia, New Zealand and India, should be postponed.

Delegates pull out of Mipim property conference

Daniel Thomas reports:

This time every year, close to 30,000 property brokers descend on Cannes in the south of France for their annual get-together to drink rose by the beach and haggle over real estate deals.

This year, however, two of the biggest agents – Knight Frank and Cushman & Wakefield – have said that they will not be attending owing to fears over health and safety of their staff. Other property consultancies are reviewing their position.

The property agents tend to be the central to much of the activity in Mipim, holding large parties for their clients and friends in beachside pavilions that often turn into late night sessions at one of Cannes’ many upmarket hotels. The event’s organisers said that the event would still be open for business, however.

EmoticonTreasury yields touch a new record low

The yield on 10-year US Treasury has fallen to a fresh record low, as an investor flight to safety gathers pace.

The benchmark note was recently trading four basis points lower at 1.2739 per cent as investors moved into the debt which is prized for its relative safety in times of market and economic stress.

This session’s sell-off in global stock markets has also accelerated. Futures were recently pointing to losses of 1.2 per cent for the S&P 500, while Europe’s Stoxx 600 fell nearly 3 per cent to take its losses for the past week to more than 9 per cent, just short of correction territory.

Greece cancels carnival celebrations as three cases confirmed

Kerin Hope in Athens reports:

Greece has called off scores of local carnival celebrations set for this weekend after two more coronavirus cases were confirmed on Thursday, bringing the country’s total to three.

All three patients had recently travelled to Italy, the health ministry said without giving further details.

Many Greek families were expected to travel to popular carnivals in towns around around the country during a holiday weekend before the start of Eastern Orthodox Lent.

Greece’s first coronavirus patient, a 38-year-old woman from the northern city of Thessaloniki who had attended Milan’s fashion week showed mild symptoms and was “doing well” in isolation at a city hospital, a ministry official said.

Her school-age child was also confirmed to have tested positive for the virus.The primary school they attended has been closed for 14 days.

The third case is a young woman in Athens, now in hospital, the official said without giving details.

Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a statement that other suspected cases were being tested “but most for the moment have proved to be negative”. He added:

I want to stress how important it is for everyone to take responsibility for their personal health and for their response when someone shows symptoms [of the virus] … We must follow to the letter the instructions the health ministry have laid down.

Several UK schools shut on virus fears

Bethan Staton in London reports:

A handful of schools in the UK have closed as a result of coronavirus fears, despite government advice they remain open, as families return from half-term holidays overseas.

Trinity Catholic College in Middlesbrough closed for remainder of the week after students who had just returned from a ski trip in northern Italy started showing flu-like symptoms.

Despite current Department for Education advice that the school should remain open, the headteacher decided “to completely minimise the possible spread of infection” and close the school for a deep clean, it said.

Other closures include 3 schools of the Khalsa Academies Trust in Wolverhampton, which were shut for a deep clean on Wednesday “because our schools have some students of Italian origin”.

Burbage primary school in Buxton also closed on Thursday as a result of a case of coronavirus it said had been reported by a parent at the school. Buxton Medical Practice nearby said on its website it also had a confirmed case of the virus.

If there is a confirmed case of coronavirus, the Department for Education advises schools to work with Public Health England in order to arrange isolation. Advice to schools suggests closures will be unnecessary in most cases, but will be “a local decision” based on a number of factors.

Italy virus cases rise to 528

Miles Johnson in Rome reports:

The latest infection count in Italy has risen to 528, with two more people suspected of having died from the virus, the Italian authorities have announced.

The two new deaths were being inspected by Italy’s health authorities before being confirmed as caused by coronavirus, Angelo Borrelli, head of the civil protection agency said.

He added that 37 people who had tested positive in Lombardy had recovered.

Suspected first US ‘community transmission’ not initially tested by CDC

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not initially administer a coronavirus test on a patient now thought to be the first case of ‘community transmission’ in the country when they were transferred to UC Davis Medical Center, according to hospital executives.

The patient, who yesterday tested positive for Covid-19, was transferred to UC Davis Medical Center from another northern California hospital, but because the individual did not meet CDC criteria for the disease, tests were not carried out at first.

The individual did not have relevant travel history or exposure to another known patient with coronavirus. The case is now thought to be the first instance of ‘community spread’ in the US – which means the source of infection is unknown.

In a letter to staff, UC Davis executives said the hospital had requested testing for the virus by the CDC upon the patient’s admission.

“Since the patient did not fit the existing CDC criteria for Covid-19, a test was not immediately administered,” David Lubarsky, chief executive of UC Davis Health and Brad Simmons, interim chief executive of UC Davis medical centre, wrote. They added that UC Davis does not control the testing process.

But Mr Lubarsky and Mr Simmons played down fears of a spread of the disease at the facility, emphasising the facility has “robust infection control protocols” in place.

This is not the first Covid-19 patient we have treated, and because of the precautions we have had in place since this patient’s arrival, we believe there has been minimal potential for exposure here at UC Davis Medical Center.

The CDC confirmed yesterday that the patient had tested positive for the disease.

Macron: France faces an ‘imminent epidemic’ of the coronavirus

Victor Mallet in Paris

France is facing a crisis in the form of an “imminent epidemic” of the coronavirus, President Emmanuel Macron said during a surprise visit to the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris on Thursday.

“We’ll have to confront it as best we can while life goes on,” he said before flying to the southern Italian city of Naples with 11 ministers for a Franco-Italian summit. “We know we are just at the beginning.” The two governments decided not to cancel the meeting in spite of a severe coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy.

France has so far recorded 18 cases and two deaths from the Covid-19 virus that originated in China. One of the dead was an 80-year-old Chinese tourist, while the other was a 60-year-old teacher from France.

Eric Caumes, who heads the hospital’s department of infectious and tropical diseases, told Mr Macron that France faced “a somewhat Italy-like situation” with the virus set to be transmitted domestically from person to person.

“The problem will be in the number of cases to manage,” he said. “ If we have 1,000 people, the system will have no problem dealing with it. But if it’s 100,000 or 10m people in a very short time, we’ll have major difficulties.”

Edouard Philippe, French prime minister, met opposition leaders and parliamentarians on Thursday to discuss the crisis, which has led to a collapse in the number of Chinese tourists visiting France and disrupted supply chains and sales for multinational industries.

On Twitter, Mr Philippe said the Institut Pasteur was working flat out to study the virus and develop a vaccine.

Sibeth Ndiaye, government spokesperson, said there were currently no plans to delay nationwide municipal elections scheduled for March 15 and 22.

Iraq and Kuwait shut schools in bid to stem outbreak

Chloe Cornish in Beirut and Simeon Kerr in Dubai report:

Iraq and Kuwait are closing educational establishments as authorities in the Middle East seek to stem the fast-spreading coronavirus.

Schools and universities across Iraq are being closed until March 7. In Kuwait, schools, colleges and training centres will close for two weeks from Sunday, the first day after the upcoming weekend, until March 12. Schools there have already been closed since Tuesday for the country’s national and liberation day celebrations.

Iraq has also prohibited large public gatherings and cafes and cinemas are among public venues ordered to close until the same date.

The preventative moves are likely to hurt Iraq’s already embattled private sector, while falling oil prices will put pressure on government revenues.

Kuwait, meanwhile, is working to evacuate nationals from countries that have faced outbreaks and place them into quarantine. Kuwait Airways is on Thursday operating a special flight from Milan to evacuate Kuwaitis from Italy.

The cabinet also commissioned a state-owned company to acquire enough face masks for Kuwaitis and residents to combat the spread of the virus and has also asked for the World Health Organisation to send a team to assess the country’s measures.

The measures come as Saudi Arabia announced a ban on Umrah pilgrims into the kingdom, as well as restricting entry on tourist visas from countries affected by the virus.

Emirates airline, Dubai’s government-owned carrier, has since announced that it will not accept Saudi-bound passengers with visas from more than 20 countries, including China, Iran, Italy, Pakistan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore.

Laptop shipments set to halve in February, analysts suggest

Kathrin Hille in Taipei reports:

Global laptop computer shipments could plummet by half in February because to the coronavirus epidemic’s disruption of technology manufacturing in China.

Taipei-based tech industry research firm Trendforce on Thursday cut its February shipment forecast for laptop, or notebook, computers to 5.7m units, a 47.6 per cent drop compared with the same month last year.

“Assuming that the spread of COVID-19 can be contained, [laptop] production volume is expected to gradually recover in March, but this may not be enough to offset significant losses in February,” Trendforce said.

It therefore expects that only 27.5m laptops will be shipped in the first quarter this year, 21 per cent down from its original forecast and 26 per cent less than in the same period last year.

The revision reflects the limits China-based electronics manufacturers face even as their factories are allowed to gradually come back online.

Trendforce said restrictions placed by Chinese provincial authorities on transport and travel were blocking the supply of a series of components such as printed circuit boards, hinges, and even raw materials.

“Given current circumstances, TrendForce forecasts a minimum recovery period of at least one month before overall [laptop] production capacity can return to normal levels, with a gradual ramp-up in utilization rate starting in April or May at the earliest,” the analysts said.

EmoticonBofA downgrades global growth forecast

Bank of America has lowered its forecast for global economic growth this year, warning the spread of the coronavirus will lead to the first year of sub-3 per cent growth since the financial crisis.

The bank has cut its world growth forecast to 2.8 per cent from 3.1 per cent for 2020, which would be the weakest year since 2009.

BofA expects China to grow at its weakest pace since 1990 at 5.6 per cent, with a less significant hit to the US. The forecast for euro area growth has also been sharply lowered, to 0.6 per cent from 1 per cent.

“Growth momentum was soft even before the Coronavirus shock,” Bank of America’s economists said. Their assumptions do not incorporate a global pandemic “that would basically shut down economic activity in many major cities”.

Last month we cut our 2020 China growth forecast from 5.8% to 5.6%, but left other major economies unchanged on the expectation of a brief and contained disruption. Our previous base case now looks increasingly like a best-case scenario. Our new forecasts account for a more “U-shaped” growth recovery, and a greater permanent loss in output.

Frankfurt airport operator Fraport implements hiring freeze

Joe Miller reports from Frankfurt:

Fraport, the owner and manager of Frankfurt Airport and one of the region’s largest employers, is freezing all hiring and is offering staff voluntary unpaid leave or reduced working hours, in order to tackle the costs of coronavirus on Germany’s largest international hub.

Passenger and cargo traffic has “slumped massively”, the company said, but added it was “not yet possible to estimate the impact on our business”.

Stefan Schulte, Fraport chief executive said:

The coronavirus epidemic comes at a time when Germany’s aviation industry, in particular, is already facing significant challenges … In April, an increase in the German aviation tax will unilaterally strain our industry even more.”

The announcement by Fraport, which directly employs more than 20,000 people, and supports a further 60,000 jobs on the site, comes after the German national carrier Lufthansa said it would drastically cut costs in the face of the Coronavirus outbreak. Lufthansa has also offered its staff unpaid leave.

Reckitt Benckiser restricts employee travel

Judith Evans reports:

Reckitt Benckiser said it has restricted travel to “business critical” trips only for its more than 40,000 staff globally since late January.

Most of the consumer goods group’s office workers in China are working from home, as are those elsewhere in virus “hotspots”, said chief executive Laxman Narasimhan. The group said it is working to “maximise” production of disinfectant products Dettol and Lysol. All factories remain open, Mr Natasimhan said.

Taiwan warns against travel to Italy

Taiwan on Thursday warned its citizens against traveling to Italy in the light of the rapid spread of novel coronavirus infections there, writes Kathrin Hille in Taipei.

Citizens should “avoid traveling there unless necessary,”the government’s Epidemic Management Centre said, citing the increase in confirmed infections and deaths in the European country.

Taiwan’s travel warning puts Italy on a par with China including Hong Kong and Macao, and South Korea, in the eyes of Taipei.

Taipei has only a travel alert, one level short of the warning slapped on Italy, for Singapore, Japan and Iran, which have also seen significant local outbreaks of novel coronavirus infections, are categorized.

The move comes after Taiwan failed to convince the Italian government that it should differentiate between its treatment of China and Taiwan with regard to the coronavirus epidemic.

China’s claim over Taiwan as part of its territory and pressure on third countries and international organisations to deny Taipei any treatment resembling sovereign recognition has created confusion over the epidemic situation in Taiwan.

Despite close commercial ties with China, Taiwan has so far managed to prevent a major local coronavirus outbreak – mainly due to early decisions to temporarily bar visitors from major entry areas and cut most flight links with China.

Taiwan has 32 confirmed cases and one death, and so far managed to avoid any uncontrolled community infections. But earlier this month, Italy included Taiwan in a travel ban imposed against China because of the epidemic.

The move came after the World Health Organisation (WHO), which denies Taiwan participation due to pressure from Beijing, published epidemic data reported by Taipei under China, and failed to publish additional information on Taiwan.

After attempts to negotiate with Rome to lift the ban, Taipei last week listed Italy as an African Swine Fever outbreak area, a decision which led to a ban on Italian pork imports.

Last year, Taiwan registered almost 45,000 trips to Italy, according to the Transport Ministry’s Tourism Bureau.

BoE’s Cunliffe warns monetary policy has its limits in response to virus

Valentina Romei reports:

Sir Jon Cunliffe, deputy governor of the Bank of England, told economists at Barclays International Monetary Policy Forum in London that if the coronavirus proves to be “a pure supply shock there is no much we [monetary policy] can do about it”.

Still, he added that it will be difficult to know for some time to what extent the virus results in a supply or demand side shock.

Two more cases detected in Spain

Spain has announced two more cases of coronavirus in Madrid, neither of whom are connected with Italy, as suggestions grow of the virus Covid-19 being transmitted locally, reports Daniel Dombey in Madrid.

The cases bring this week’s tally in the country to 14.

European stocks hit lows of the day

The market sell-off has gathered pace through the European morning.

– The Stoxx 600 index was recently 2.5 per cent lower
– Futures pointed to declines of around 1 per cent for the S&P 500
– The 10-year treasury fell back under 1.3 per cent, having hit a record low earlier
– Brent crude fell more than 2 per cent to its lowest level in more than a year

Pope cancels event in Rome due to ‘slight indisposition’

Miles Johnson reports from Rome:

Pope Francis cancelled attending an event in Rome on Thursday because he is suffering from “a slight indisposition,” the Vatican said on. It did not specify what this was. The cancellation followed local media reports that the Pontiff was suffering from a cold.

EU officials weigh risks of Italy-style virus clusters across the bloc

Officials in Brussels are considering the risk of Italian -style clusters of coronavirus infections happening in other countries within the union, Jim Brunsden in Brussels writes.

“We believe there is a moderate to high risk that could happen,” said one official, citing the latest risk assessment from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

But he added that the agency considers “the risk to the EU as a whole” to be “low to moderate” because of its capacity to contain the disease.

Another official said that EU governments were exploring the possibility of jointly procuring protective equipment such as masks for health professionals.

EU officials said that, so far, no member state of the union has indicated its intention to reintroduce controls at its national borders because of the coronavirus.

Under the rules of the EU’s border-free Schengen area, governments can reintroduce checks at borders with other EU countries “for reasons of public policy or internal security,” one official said. Such moves need, by law, to be notified to Brussels.

The official said that quarantine procedures would be more effective than turning infected people away at borders as they would simply continue to spread the disease.

“Viruses do not stop at borders,” the official said.

Switzerland confirms three new cases

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Switzerland has confirmed three more cases of the virus, bringing the country’s total to four. Authorities are still waiting on results for at least 66 other suspected cases, according to the latest public update.

A 28-year old computer scientist from Geneva tested positive for the virus after a two-day trip to Milan. Fifteen people he has been in close contact with since returning are now in quarantine, said local authorities.

Two more cases were also confirmed in the country’s largest canton, the mountainous south-eastern state of Graubünden, which borders northern Italy. Both cases are stable and in hospital isolation, cantonal authorities in the city of Chur said.

Switzerland’s first case was diagnosed on Tuesday, when a 70-year old man from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino tested positive following a trip to Milan.

The Swiss Federal Office for Public Health said on Tuesday it had boosted its testing capacity threefold, with an ability to now diagnose up to 1000 cases daily, in a sign of the seriousness with which authorities in the wealthy alpine state are taking the epidemic.

The blue chip SMI index of Swiss stocks traded down as much as 1.9 per cent on Thursday morning.

Companies including the largest telecoms provider Swisscom, and supermarket chain Coop, have sent out notices to all staff telling them not to shake hands and avoid physical contact with customers and one another. Swiss-based Nestle, the world’s largest food and beverage manufacturer, has banned all foreign travel for its 291,000-strong global workforce for the next two weeks.

Airline shares sink as travel fears escalate

Shares in some of Europe’s largest airlines have taken another drubbing, as fears grow that the coronavirus could have a significant impact on people’s travel plans.

UK-listed budget carrier easyJet was one of the worst performing stocks in Europe, falling 8.5 per cent to bring its losses since mid-February to nearly 30 per cent. British Airways owner IAG fell 6.7 per cent, while Lufthansa – which this week said more than a dozen of its planes are currently lying idle – was 5.7 per cent lower.

Japanese PM calls on all schools to close until end of March

Kana Inagaki reports from Tokyo:

Prime minister Shinzo Abe has urged all schools in Japan to close from Monday until the end of the spring break in a bid to stem the rapid spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We need to place top priority on the health and safety of our children, and take measures to stem the risk of many children and teachers becoming infected through gathering for long hours on a daily basis,” Mr Abe said late on Thursday, adding that the next one to two weeks would be “a critical phase.”

The comments came as the government has drawn fire for its handling of the virus outbreak. Already, schools in the northern island of Hokkaido had started closing from Thursday, and companies have been urged to allow staff to work remotely if possible.

The closure of the schools is expected to cause chaos as working parents scramble to find ways to take care of children in a country where there is a lack of domestic carers.

Iran deaths rise to 22, state media reports

Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Tehran:

Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, reported on Thursday that the number of deaths had increased to 22 from 19 on Wednesday.

It said the number of people infected went up to 141 from 139 one day ago.

Iran’s health ministry, however, has not yet commented.

El-Erian: Global economy reliant on government spending

Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at German insurer Allianz, has said that government spending is the only part of the global economy that has not been damaged from spillover effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

Consumption, investment and trade have all been hit, leaving pressure on governments to support their economies with spending. That could be a problem for states that are financially vulnerable, Mr El-Erian added.

Norway’s wealth fund shies away from ‘buying the dip’

The head of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund said on Thursday that the coronavirus was difficult for Norway’s $1.1tn oil fund to analyse and that it did not see falls in equity markets as a chance to buy shares, Richard Milne in Oslo writes.

Yngve Slyngstad, chief executive of Norges Bank Investment Management, which manages the fund, said:

We don’t see this as an opportunity to go against the markets. The situation may be serious, we don’t know.

His comments came as he presented final results showing the fund returned 20 per cent in 2019, its second best-ever annual performance.

Referring to the impact of the virus on global supply chains, he said:

The situation with regards the global value chain is for the moment not that easy to see through for investors.

Aston Martin supply chain bolstered by Brexit preparations

The hit to Aston Martin’s supply chain from the coronavirus shutdown has been cushioned by its preparations for Brexit, the carmaker’s chief executive told the Financial Times.

Andy Palmer said the precautionary amassing of parts in case the UK crashed out of the EU without a deal means Aston will be well stocked for at least another month, although it is reviewing the situation every day.

“Bizarrely the planning for Brexit has allowed us to keep stock around us,” Mr Palmer said. “It will be at least until the end of March before we see any kind of impact on the supply chain.”

On the demand side, the company said sales had fallen as a result of the outbreak — although these were expected to be lower anyway as it resets inventory levels.

China, which has imposed lockdown in cities and factories as it seeks to contain the spread of the virus Covid-19, made up 9 per cent of Aston’s sales to dealers last year.

“Sales aren’t zero [in China],” said Mr Palmer. “But it’s a very difference cadence to how it has been historically.”

Playtech signals coronavirus hit to sports betting

By Alice Hancock in London

Gambling technology provider Playtech has warned that the coronavirus is having a “material” impact on its revenues in Asia and Italy as sports fixtures were cancelled and families cut back on spending.

Playtech, which makes gambling software, said 2020 earnings will now come in below market expectations. The group’s two largest markets are Italy and China, and it said that in both countries the hit to consumer confidence had negatively impacted trading.

Playtech added that revenues in Asia were expected to be around €7 million in February. Mor Weizer, chief executive, said that with fewer people leaving their homes, families had cut back to all but essential spending:

When you have less access to banking solutions you start thinking about feeding your family and looking after your family rather than entertainment. It is the first thing that people cut when a crisis is ongoing.

He added that the cancellation of Serie A football matches in Italy had affected sales in its retail business there.

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson, chief executive of Flutter, said that the cancellation of events such as Cheltenham races next week or the Euros football tournament later in the year would have an impact on business but that “you have to prioritise public health”

“It may be that you end up seeing some of these sporting events go on behind closed doors,” he said.

He added that according to a market on the Betfair exchange, punters expected the chances of Cheltenham Festival going ahead as around 70 per cent.

East Midlands school closed after parent tests positive for virus in UK

Derek Brower reports:

A primary school in Buxton in the UK’s East Midlands has been closed for a “deep clean” after a parent tested positive for coronavirus.

In a message sent to parents last night and seen by the Financial Times, Burbage primary school said it would not open today “as a precautionary measure” while a thorough cleansing of the premises was carried out.

It said it would provide an update today.

Two more cases in England, says Department of Health

Two more people in England have tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total number of UK cases to 15, reports Sarah Neville in London.

The patients contracted the disease in Europe, underlining the growing threat from the region.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said:

The virus was passed on in Italy and Tenerife and the patients have been transferred to specialist NHS infection centres in Royal Liverpool Hospital and the Royal Free Hospital, London.

The deadly disease has claimed about 2,700 lives globally, mostly in China. Italy is the worst affected European country.

South Korea cases surge to near 1,800 as economic forecast lowered

By Edward White in Seoul

South Korea reported more than 500 new cases of coronavirus on Thursday.

The country, which is the worst affected outside of China, has now recorded 13 deaths and 1,766 confirmed cases, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control.

The country reported 171 new cases on Thursday afternoon, hours after recording an increase of 334 overnight.

Earlier, the Bank of Korea cut its forecast for gross domestic product growth for 2020 to 2.1 per cent from 2.3 per cent. However, the central bank held its benchmark interest rate at a record low of 1.25 per cent, bucking market expectations that a rate cut would be used to shore up growth in the export-driven economy.

Also on Thursday the US and South Korea postponed upcoming joint military drills as the allies try to protect troops from the outbreak.

The South Korean outbreak has centred on Daegu, the country’s fourth-biggest city, where most cases have been linked to a pseudo-Christian sect. Seoul has pledged to test the sect’s 215,000 members.

Meanwhile, North Korea has postponed the scheduled re-opening of schools and kindergartens, as Pyongyang extends its lockdown of the country in response to the coronavirus. While no coronavirus cases have been confirmed in North Korea, analysts have warned that the country is particularly vulnerable given the poor state of its public health system.

Osaka closes schools

By Robin Harding on Tokyo

Japan’s second city, Osaka, has said it will close all kindergartens, primary and middle schools for two weeks as part of an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The decision will affect almost 500 schools. The wider prefecture of Osaka has not yet announced any school closures.

It comes a day after the northern island of Hokkaido shut all of its primary and middle schools. Ichikawa city in Chiba prefecture is also shutting kindergarten, primary and middle schools for two weeks, putting pressure on the neighbouring city of Tokyo to follow suit.

Spreading school closures follow the emergence of 175 domestic cases of Covid-19 and a change of strategy by Japan’s government towards containing the disease and slowing the rate of infections, rather than keeping it out altogether.

Japan’s government has asked event organisers to cancel large-scale gatherings such as concerts and professional sports matches. It has also called on companies to adopt telework and staggered opening hours in order to reduce social contacts and fresh infections.

Highly anticipated Geneva watch fair pulled over virus fears

The annual Geneva watch fair, one of the biggest international sales events for the Swiss watchmaking industry, has been cancelled because of fears over the coronavirus that is spreading globally, reports Sam Jones in Zurich.

Exports from the Swiss watchmakers are worth more than SFr22bn annually. The industry is already bracing itself for one of its worst years as the impact of the deadly virus Covid-19 hits its most important markets in Asia.

The trade show, known as Watches and Wonders and organised by the Fondation de la Haute Horologie, was scheduled to take place from April 30 to May 5.

Traditionally, the event gives the first glimpse of the latest products from luxury brands such as IWC, Piaget and Cartier and attracts private and commercial buyers from across the globe.

“In view of the latest developments concerning the worldwide spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, it is the Fondation de la Haute Horologie’s duty, as organiser of Watches and Wonders Geneva, to anticipate the potential risks that travels and important international gatherings could entail,” the trade body said in an email, citing a need to “protect the health and wellbeing of all our guests, press, partners and teams”.

The cancellation follows a decision by Swatch to cancel its trade show in Zurich, which had been due to take place this weekend.

Many now expect the Baselworld trade fair – Swiss watchmaking’s flagship event, and one of the most important commercial fairs in the luxury industry worldwide – to be cancelled. Baselworld, due to open April 30, had been scheduled to run consecutively to the event in Geneva.

Fear becomes chief threat to global economies

Fear is the main economic threat, with the potential to cause considerable damage if it takes hold and hits consumer behaviour around the world, said Paul Donovan, chief economist at UBS Global Wealth Management.

The importance of the consumer globally is why fear of the virus has the potential to do so much economic damage. If fear is contained at current levels, the consumer will support growth. If fear takes hold in the real world, the economic damage will be significant.

Mr Donovan noted that President Trump gave a news conference on Wednesday evening in an effort to reassure the American public, but Google searches for the term “coronavirus” rose immediately afterwards.

Global sell-off intensifies

EmoticonEuropean stocks slide

Intense market stress stemming from the growing coronavirus crisis has spilled into the fourth consecutive day, with European stocks following Asia’s lead with heavy declines at the start of trading.

The Euro Stoxx 600 index of European shares fell by more than 2 per cent when trading got under way, with similar declines in the FTSE 100 and the German Dax. Since its January peak, the FTSE All World index has shed around $5tn in value.

US Treasury bond yields touched a record low of 1.2905 per cent in Asian trading after US health authorities confirmed the first likely case of community transmission of the deadly coronavirus on American soil, fuelling concern over the outbreak’s spread. Yields fall when prices rise, demonstrating strong demand for this haven asset.

Futures pointed to a decline of 0.8 per cent in the US benchmark S&P 500 index when it opens later in the day.

Iraq reports first coronavirus case in Baghdad

By Chloe Cornish in Beirut

Iraq’s health ministry has reported the first case of coronavirus in the capital Baghdad on Wednesday, a day after Iraqi authorities forbid public gatherings and extended a ban on entry to travellers from affected countries, adding Bahrain and neighbouring Kuwait.

The patient is now recovering in a Baghdad hospital, the health ministry said. Like the other five people diagnosed with the illness in Iraq, he had been in Iran.

Lombardy region president quarantines himself

By Miles Johnson in Rome

The president of Italy’s northern Lombardy region, the centre of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, has put himself into isolation after an aide tested positive for the virus.

Attilio Fontana said he would put himself into self-quarantine for a two-week period to avoid exposing anyone else to the virus in a Facebook video, in which he was wearing a sanitary mask.

“For two weeks I will try to live in a sort of self-isolation that above all preserves the people who work with me,” he said in the video.

The news came as the number of cases in Italy rose above 400, according to Angelo Borrelli, head of the country’s civil protection agency. The first case was also reported in the southern region of Puglia.

European stocks set to fall sharply

European markets are set for another bruising session, with futures trade pointing to declines of up to 2 per cent at the open for the region’s main indices.

US treasury yields fell to a new record low of 1.2922 per cent in Asian trading as investors reached for the relative safety of government bonds, before recovering slightly to trade back above 1.3 per cent.

The fresh wave of selling came after US authorities reported a possible case of community transmission of Covid-19 in California, and came despite president Trump’s efforts to reassure the American people and markets that the threat from the virus remained “very low”.

Oil prices extended their declines, with Brent crude hitting its lowest level in a year as it fell 1.2 per cent to $52.81. The international oil marker has fallen more than 25 per cent from its January peak.

World’s largest brewer warns of virus-related earnings decline

Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, has forecast a 10 per cent decline in first-quarter earnings due to the coronavirus.

The brewer of Budweiser and Corona beers said its full-year earnings should rise by between 2 per cent and 5 per cent.
The group said:

In 1Q20, we expect Ebitda to decline by around 10% given the impact of Covid-19 on our results as well as a challenging comparable, especially in Brazil.

The outlook for both FY20 and 1Q20 reflects our current assessment of the scale and magnitude of Covid-19, which is subject to change as we continue to monitor the development of the outbreak.

AB Inbev then went on to restate news released by the separately-listed Budweiser APAC business, in which it owns a majority stake, earlier today, saying:

The outbreak has led to a significant decline in demand in China in both on-premise and in-home channels. Additionally, demand during the Chinese New Year was lower than in previous years as it coincided with the beginning of this outbreak.

For the first two months of 2020, we estimate that the outbreak has resulted in lost revenue of approximately 285 million USD and lost Ebitda [earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation] of approximately 170 million USD in China.

Coronavirus: Europe morning round-up

Good morning to our European readers.

Overnight, Italy reported a surge in cases of coronavirus to 400. This represented a 25 per cent increase in the number of confirmed cases in just 24 hours.

This came after the World Health Organization said the virus was now spreading more quickly outside China than within the country where it originated.

The worst affected Italian areas are in the north of the country – Veneto near Venice and the Lombardy region around Milan.

The FT’s editorial board argues here that Brussels should relax its fiscal rules to help Italy deal with the potential economic impact of the outbreak.

In markets, stock futures slumped and treasury yields touched a new record low in Asian trading after US health authorities confirmed the first likely case of community transmission of the deadly coronavirus on American soil.

the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late on Wednesday confirmed a possible instance of community transmission of Covid-19 in California.

Donald Trump has tapped Mike Pence to co-ordinate Washington’s response to the coronavirus as the US president sought to defuse criticism of his handling of the health crisis and predicted equity markets would boom again. Read more here.

China reported 29 new deaths from the virus and 433 new cases to the end of Wednesday.

Budweiser APAC is expecting a hit to its revenues from China following the impact of coronavirus on beer consumption in the country, describing “almost no activity” for nightlife and restaurant businesses.

The US and South Korea have put joint military drills on hold in a bid to protect troops from the coronavirus outbreak in the Asian country. The number of cases in South Korea rose by more than 300 overnight to 1,595.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has announced it will suspend the entry of religious pilgrims as a precautionary measure in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Experts query China’s handling of virus

By Primrose Riordan in Hong Kong

China has won a lot of praise from the World Health Organization over their handling of the outbreak, but not all health experts agree.

Georgetown University global health law professor, Lawrence Gostin, has said experts in his field are “scratching their heads” at the praise WHO officials have directed towards China, and fear it sets a precedent for the future handling of such health crises.
Dr Bruce Aylward, who led a recent WHO visit to China, suggested other countries look to the China for advice. Professor Gostin said this went “too far”, adding:

WHO has praised the greatest mass cordon sanitaire in the history of humankind, you know, between 15-70 million people unable to have freedom of travel movement subjected to social control and, and intrusive surveillance, electronic surveillance.

These things are, you know, are significant human rights concerns, but they’re also significant doubts about whether they’re effective.

Professor Gostin said it was confusing to appear to endorse China’s methods while recommending against other countries implementing travel bans.

Separately, a member of a WHO advisory group on infectious outbreaks, Canadian virologist Gary Kobinger, said he was surprised the WHO was suggesting there were not a lot of undetected cases in China.

Dr Aylward has said this week the decline in cases China was reporting was “real” and there was no data to support a theory that there was “huge transmission beyond what we can see”.

Professor Kobinger said in his view without good serology testing to establish how many people had been exposed to the virus it was not possible to establish yet how many were actually infected.
He added that some clinicians were confused about how to handle serious cases.

I’m a bit surprised honestly that after 80,000 plus cases that we still don’t have clinical protocol agreed by most clinicians that have seen cases, of the procedure [of] what is to be done with different levels of severity.

Denmark and Estonia report first coronavirus cases

by Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent

Denmark and Estonia both reported their first coronavirus cases on Thursday as the deadly epidemic continued to spread through Europe.

In Denmark, a TV news editor returning from a ski holiday in Italy tested positive while in Estonia it was an Iranian national who had not arrived in the Baltic country by plane or sea but via a bus from the Latvian capital, Riga.

The two new cases came after Norway reported its first case on Wednesday and Sweden and Finland confirmed their second cases, both from people returning from Italy.

Coronavirus to hit Hong Kong property – Knight Frank

George Hammond reports from Hong Kong

The coronavirus is a threat to Hong Kong’s office market, with many companies freezing their expansion plans and landlords under pressure to slash rents, warns Knight Frank, the estate agency.

Following months of social unrest in the city, the spread of the virus battered demand for high-end offices, and forced rents down 20 per cent year on year in January.

Instead of pushing on with expansions or relocations, companies are saving cash for contingency plans should the situation deteriorate further, said Knight Frank.

Businesses in the city have spent the past nine months refining so-called business continuity plans in response to protests and now coronavirus. Typical contingencies include backup offices in other countries and well-rehearsed evacuation plans.

The impact of coronavirus on the retail market is set “to be more severe than the Sars impact”, according to the agency, and will take longer for the retail industry to pick up. Retail sales, already suffering after months of protest, have been battered in the past few weeks as arrivals to Hong Kong plummet and locals opt to stay home due to the coronavirus.

A number of international brands have retreated from Hong Kong, which has long been a key outpost for luxury retailers, said Knight Frank.

In the residential market, transactions hit a 13-month low in January as buyers opt to wait and see how the virus develops. Property developers are also delaying new project launches, according to Knight Frank.

Indian air force delivers emergency masks to Wuhan

Amy Kazmin reports from New Delhi

An Indian air force C-17 has delivered 15 tons of emergency face masks, gloves and other protective medical gear to China for doctors treating patients with coronavirus, amid tensions between Beijing and New Delhi over India’s general export restrictions of such material.

New Delhi said it had sent the planeload of protective medical gear as a gesture of “solidarity” with Beijing, adding that the materials would “help augment China’s efforts to control the outbreak” of the coronavirus.

On its return journey from Wuhan, the military plane ferried 76 Indian citizens – including three Indian embassy officials – back to India.

Another 36 foreign citizens, mostly from India’s neighbouring countries – including 23 from Bangladesh and 2 each from Myanmar and the Maldives – were also on board the Indian evacuation flight, which landed back in India on Thursday morning.

As Chinese health care workers struggle with shortages of protective gear for its overwhelmed health workers, Beijing has publicly expressed frustration with India for restricting exports of such items, calling on New Delhi to “review the epidemic situation in an objective, rational and calm manner”.

New Delhi imposed the export controls at the end of January, as the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak an international public concern. It has defended the controls as necessary to ensure the country has the adequate resources for itself in case of an outbreak in India.

India has so far had three confirmed cases of the virus in the country – all students returning from Wuhan, who have now recovered – while 16 Indian crew members infected on the stricken Diamond Princess are undergoing treatment in Japan.

EmoticonAustralia’s Morrison warns pandemic ‘very much upon us’

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Australia is activating an emergency response plan to deal with the coronavirus, saying the threat of a global pandemic is “now very much upon us”, the nation’s prime minister said on Thursday.

Scott Morrison said an existing travel ban on non-resident travellers from China would remain for at least another week. But he said additional travel bans on travellers from other jurisdictions were not being implemented.

”We believe the risk of a global pandemic is very much upon us and as a result as a government we need to take the steps necessary to prepare for such a pandemic,” said Mr Morrison.

The emergency response plan will focus on co-ordinating medical stockpiles and personnel to deal with an expected surge in hospital admissions in the event of a pandemic. The country’s Treasury is analysing what type of targeted fiscal response may be required to mitigate the impact on businesses and the economy.

Taiwan readies $2bn budget to soften blow from coronavirus

Kathrin Hille reports from Taipei

The Taiwanese government on Thursday presented a draft NT$60bn ($2bn) special budget to prop up financing for its fight against the coronavirus outbreak and mitigate the economic blow from the epidemic.

The massive support package, which is expected to be approved by parliament next week at the earliest, comes as Taipei prepares for the risk of large local outbreaks as seen in South Korea, Japan or Italy.

Su Tseng-chang, premier, announced that the government was raising the epidemic response to the highest level – a move that allows for more drastic measures such as limiting access to hospitals and lifts administrative responsibility for epidemic management to the top levels of government.

“Since the international epidemic is becoming more serious by the day, Taiwan must also strengthen its defence against the virus,” said president Tsai Ing-wen. “We have decided to get ready in advance.”

While the opposition had pushed for raising the response level for several days, the government had earlier been reluctant to do so, out of concern that this could trigger panic among the public.

So far, Taiwan has managed to avoid an uncontrolled spread of the virus. It has 32 confirmed cases and one death. 13 of the country’s confirmed cases are local infections and belong to three different family clusters. The authorities have been able to identify the source of infection, and are closely tracking all contact persons.

From the economic support package, NT$16.9bn is earmarked for vaccine and drug research, expanding isolation wards in hospitals, buying more protective gear and test kits, and quarantine-related compensation and subsidies.

The package includes another NT$16.8bn for subsidies to the hard-hit transport and tourism sectors. Moreover, the government intends to spend some of the funds to promote sales of Taiwanese agricultural and fisheries products and boost domestic consumption through various events and vouchers.

New Zealand warns of ‘serious’ economic impact from coronavirus

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

New Zealand’s finance minister warned on Thursday the spread of the coronavirus would have a “serious impact” on the nation’s economy in the short term and the government may have to intervene if it becomes a global pandemic.

Grant Robertson said the virus had caused an immediate impact on the tourism and education industries, which are both closely linked to China. But he said Wellington was now preparing in case the outbreak became a global pandemic, a scenario that could create a global downturn or even global recession.

“In such circumstances it may be necessary to consider immediate fiscal stimulus to support the economy as a whole and businesses and individuals through this period,” he said in a speech.

“We go into this situation with the economy in good shape. We are in a strong position to stand up to the economic and health impacts of coronavirus.”

Mr Robertson said the government was not predicting a pandemic but it was preparing for one.

Budweiser APAC warns of hit to China revenues

Budweiser APAC is expecting a hit to its revenues and profits in China this year, following the impact of the coronavirus on consumption of its beer in the country.

The company estimates a $285m decline in revenue in the first two months of the year in China, compared to the same period a year earlier. It expects its normalised earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation to be lower by $170m.

The company, which was spun off from its US parent last year, said on Thursday:

We have observed almost no activity in the nightlife channel and very limited activity in restaurants. To a lesser extent, we have also observed a meaningful decline in in-home channel … with the exception of e-commerce, which has accelerated its growth significantly.

Budweiser says that as of today it has re-opened half of its breweries in China, and has licenses to re-open all of them, with the exception of its brewery in Wuhan.

Asian stocks fall after US confirms coronavirus transmission

Hudson Lockett reports from Hong Kong

Asian stocks and Wall Street futures fell after US health authorities confirmed the first likely case of human-to-human transmission of the deadly coronavirus on American soil, prompting new fears over the epidemic’s spread.

In early trading in the region on Thursday, Japan’s benchmark Topix dropped 1.7 per cent, extending the index’s losing streak to four days.

US and European futures pointed to further losses when trading begins later in the day, with contracts for the S&P 500 and FTSE 100 down 0.8 per cent and 1.8 per cent, respectively.

Oil price falls deepened, with global benchmark Brent crude down 1.1 per cent at $52.82 a barrel, its lowest level in more than a year. US marker West Texas Intermediate fell 1.3 per cent to $48.09.

Find more coverage here.


Japan’s largest banking group confirms case at Konan City branch

Leo Lewis reports from Tokyo

Japan’s largest banking group, MUFG, confirmed that an employee at its branch in Konan City had contracted Covid-19 and that it was currently disinfecting the premises.

The employee, who has not recently travelled outside Japan, was treated by a doctor on February 25 and tested positive for Covid-19 the following day. The branch of MUFG in Aichi prefecture is one of the bank’s domestic network of 750 branches and is around 260km from Tokyo.

In a statement, MUFG said that it was currently determining the recent movements of the employee before the virus was detected, and their possible contact with customers. Other staff who may have been exposed are being asked to remain at home.

Japan’s retail banks have a large base of elderly customers and have been slow to match their peers around the world in certain technologies. That means that bank branches tend to receive large numbers of customers every day, many of them coming to conduct business that would be handled through internet banking in other countries.


Panasonic requires employees to work from home

Kana Inagaki reports from Tokyo

Panasonic has joined other Japanese corporations in requiring remote working at home for some 2,000 employees at its office in central Tokyo following the coronavirus outbreak in the country.

The move came after prime minister Shinzo Abe made an explicit plea for companies to let staff work remotely if possible. The business community is scrambling to meet the edict although many companies in Japan still do not actually have the systems in place to allow it.

The measure mostly affects staff in Panasonic’s connected solutions business and encourages them to stay away from crowded areas to prevent the spread of the outbreak.

Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency, announced two days ago that a male employee tested positive for coronavirus. Its 5,000 staff at its Shiodome head office, near where Panasonic’s Tokyo office is located, began remote working from Wednesday.

Cosmetics group Shiseido, which is also based in the same area, said it would take a similar measure for its 8,000 employees until March 6.

Trump seeks to defuse coronavirus threat

James Politi reports from Washington

Donald Trump has tapped Mike Pence, the US vice-president, to co-ordinate Washington’s response to the spread of the coronavirus, as the US president sought to defuse criticism of his handling of the health crisis and predicted equity markets would bounce back.

The president has been facing mounting pressure to more aggressively tackle the prospects of an outbreak in the US, with Democratic politicians accusing him of playing down the crisis despite rising fears of a broader economic and financial fallout from the virus.

“The risk to the American people remains very low. We are ready to adapt and we are ready to do whatever we have to as the disease spreads, if it spreads,” Mr Trump said during a rare press conference from the White House briefing room. “There’s no reason to panic . . . this will end”.

Read the full coverage here

China reports 29 coronavirus deaths

China reported 29 deaths from coronavirus to the end of Wednesday, down from 52 fatalities on the previous day. Wednesday’s figure takes the total number of deaths to 2715.

There were 433 new cases of the virus on Wednesday, in line with the previous day’s figures. Those new cases bring the overall figure within mainland China to 78,497.

The World Health Organisation noted on Wednesday that the number of new cases reported outside China had exceeded that within the country for the first time.

US and South Korea postpone military drills

Edward White reports from Seoul

The US and South Korea postponed upcoming joint military drills as allies try to protect troops from the outbreak of coronavirus in South Korea.

The decision was signalled earlier in the week by Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, and comes as Seoul struggles to stem the flow of a rising numbers of infections.

The US has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea to support the country against a potential attack from North Korea.

The call to suspend the military exercises until further notice comes a day after a US soldier tested positive for coronavirus in South Korea, in the first confirmed case for the US military.

South Korea has been hit with 13 deaths and 1,595 confirmed cases, reflecting an increase of more than 300 overnight, according to the latest figures from the Korea Centers for Disease Control. Tests have been carried out on more than 35,000 people and more than 21,000 are currently being tested.

The outbreak has centred on Daegu, the country’s fourth-biggest city, where most cases have been linked to a pseudo-Christian sect, but criticism is also being levelled at the government for not blocking travellers from China. The government has pledged to test the sect’s 215,000 members.

India evacuates 119 of its citizens from Diamond Princess cruise ship

Amy Kazmin reports from New Delhi

India has evacuated 119 of its citizens, and five others, who had been stuck onboard the stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan.

The special Air India flight that carried the Indians, mostly crew members working aboard the blighted ship, landed early Thursday morning.

Only those Indians that had tested negative for the coronavirus and had also passed another special medical check were permitted to be evacuated.

Another 16 Indians that had contracted the virus on the ship remain in Japan where they are undergoing treatment. Indian officials in Japan said all are recovering well so far.

In an early morning tweet, India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar confirmed the landing and expressed thanks to Japanese authorities.

The flight also carried five citizens from Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa and Peru who had been onboard the ship.

The special flight by state-owned Air India marks the third evacuation flight India has conducted since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Earlier, India evacuated two planeloads of students and professionals from Wuhan, who were kept in quarantine for two weeks at special Indian military facilities before they were permitted to return home.

Aside from the Diamond Princess crew members, India has so far confirmed just three cases of coronavirus, all of whom were students returned from Wuhan. All three have since recovered.

South Korea holds rates despite virus worries

Edward White reports from Seoul

South Korea held its benchmark interest rate on Thursday, bucking some market expectations that a rate cut would be used to shore up growth as the export-driven economy struggles with the fallout from the coronavirus.

The Bank of Korea on Thursday held its main policy rate at a record low of 1.25 per cent. Expectations for monetary policy easing have risen rapidly over the past week as the number of infections from the virus in South Korea has soared. By Wednesday 18 out of 28 economists polled by Bloomberg expected to see the rate cut to a record low.

The central bank slashed its forecast for gross domestic product growth for 2020 to 2.1 per cent from 2.3 per cent.

South Korea, one of the worst hit countries outside China, has recorded 12 deaths from the virus and more than 1,595 confirmed cases, according to the latest figures from the Korea Centers for Disease Control.

North Korea extends virus lockdown to schools

Edward White reports from Seoul

North Korea has postponed the opening of schools and kindergartens, as Pyongyang extends its lockdown of the country in response to the coronavirus that has spread through neighbouring China and South Korea.

The move was reported by Korean Central Broadcasting Station on Thursday morning, according to South Korea’s state news agency.

It comes after Pyongyang in January moved to sharply reduce trade and travel across its borders and strictly enforced quarantines for any recent arrivals, including foreign diplomats.

While no coronavirus cases have been confirmed in North Korea, analysts have warned that the country is particularly vulnerable given the poor state of its public health system.

International health experts have also voiced concern that sanctions – in place in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats – could slow the provision of medical supplies, including virus testing equipment.

However, organisations, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, have in recent days started to receive sanctions exemptions to provide such equipment.

Read more on North Korea’s reaction to coronavirus here.

Japanese woman treated for coronavirus tests positive again

Robin Harding reports from Tokyo

The challenges of treating Covid-19 have been shown again by the relapse of a woman in Osaka, Japan, who was thought to be cured of the disease.

Prefectural authorities announced last night that one of Japan’s first cases of coronavirus, a woman in her 40s who worked as a tour guide for tourists from Wuhan, had tested positive four weeks after she was discharged from hospital and three weeks after a previous negative test.

It is possible that the disease lingered in her body or that she was reinfected at a later date. Her case shows the potential for false negatives, a further challenge to preventing the spread of the disease.

The woman’s case was first announced on January 29 and she was discharged from hospital on February 1. On February 6, a test showed her to be free of the coronavirus. But from February 19 she began to complain of a sore throat and pain in her chest. A fresh test on February 26 returned positive for Covid-19.

Saudi Arabia suspends entry for pilgrims

Ahmed Al Omran reports from Riyadh

Saudi Arabia has announced it will suspend the entry of religious pilgrims as a precautionary measure in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The kingdom is also suspending tourist visa entry from countries where the coronavirus is spreading, the foreign ministry said in a statement.



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