U.S. could become next coronavirus epicenter, WHO says

GENEVA/TOKYO (Reuters) – The World Health Organization said on Tuesday that the United States could become the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, which finally forced reluctant organizers to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

Britain joined the ranks of countries in lockdown to try to hold back the virus, and data showed business activity collapsing from Australia and Japan and Western Europe at a record pace in March, with the United States showing expected to be just as dire.

“The coronavirus outbreak represents a major external shock to the macro outlook, akin to a large-scale natural disaster,” analysts at BlackRock Investment Institute said.

But amid the gathering gloom, the Chinese province of Hubei, where the virus was first identified in December, said it would lift travel restrictions on people leaving the region as the epidemic eases there.

Confirmed coronavirus cases around the world exceeded 377,000 across 194 countries and territories as of early Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, more than 16,500 of them fatal.

In Geneva, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters there had been a “very large acceleration” in infections in the United States.

Over the previous 24 hours, 85 percent of new cases were in Europe and the United States, and of those, 40 percent were in the United States.

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As of Monday, the virus had infected more than 42,000 people there, killing at least 559.

Asked whether the United States could become the new epicenter, Harris said: “We are now seeing a very large acceleration in cases in the U.S. So it does have that potential.”

Some U.S. state and local officials have decried a lack of coordinated federal action, saying that having localities act on their own has put them in competition for supplies.

President Donald Trump acknowledged the difficulty.

“The World market for face masks and ventilators is Crazy. We are helping the states to get equipment, but it is not easy,” he tweeted.

OLYMPIC ORGANIZERS GIVE IN

Olympic Games organizers and the Japanese government had clung to the hope that the world’s biggest sporting event could go ahead, but finally bowed to the inevitable to make Tokyo 2020 the latest and biggest victim of a ravaged sporting calendar.

After a call with International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the July 24-Aug. 9 event would be rescheduled for the summer of 2021 at the latest – as proof of victory over the coronavirus.

“President Bach said he is in agreement, 100%.”

It was the first time in the Olympics’ 124-year history that they had been postponed, though they were canceled outright three times during the two 20th-century world wars.

Of the top 10 countries by case numbers, Italy has reported the highest fatality rate, at around 10%, which at least partly reflects its older population. The fatality rate globally – the ratio of deaths to confirmed infections – is around 4.3%, though national figures can vary widely according to how much testing is done.

Britain, believed by experts to be about two weeks behind Italy in the outbreak cycle, on Tuesday began curbs on movement without precedent in peacetime after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the country to stay at home.

The streets of the capital were eerily quiet as all but essential shops closed and people only went to work if it was unavoidable.

Johnson had resisted pressure to impose a full lockdown even as other European countries had done so, but was forced to change tack as projections showed the health system could become overwhelmed.

Meanwhile China’s Hubei province, the original center of the outbreak, will lift curbs on people leaving the area, but other regions will tighten controls as new cases double due to imported infections.

The provincial capital Wuhan, which has been in total lockdown since Jan. 23, will lift its travel restrictions on April 8.

However, the risk from overseas infections appears to be on the rise, prompting tougher screening and quarantine measures in major cities such as the capital Beijing.

Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open in external browser – here

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Coronavirus: Government texts the nation with COVID-19 lockdown orders

The government has hammered home its coronavirus lockdown message by texting the nation. 

An SMS message has been sent out to every active UK phone number telling people to stay at home to “protect the NHS” and “save lives”.

Britons were warned new rules are “in force now” with a link to the latest COVID-19 advice, which says no-one should leave their house unless absolutely necessary or they will face a fine.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the historic lockdown in an address to the nation on Monday night.

He told members of the public they should only go outside for four reasons: work (if they can’t do so from home), shopping for food or medicines, exercise once a day, to help someone vulnerable, or for any medical need.

A former Met Police chief superintendent, Dal Babu, said the aim was likely to make people understand there is now a “much clearer message” from Downing Street.

He told Sky News’ Kay [email protected]: “Unfortunately the government has been a little bit behind the curve here, because it’s entirely predictable that emergency services – not just in the NHS, but in the police and fire brigade – will become unwell.

“So we need to ensure that we’ve got capacity and ensure people have that clear message about staying in.

“This is about saving lives, this is about people not being selfish, not playing Russian roulette with other people’s health.

“This is about them following the advice – the clear advice we got from the prime minister last night – and staying inside.”

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove did not help criticism that the government has been sending mixed messages when he admitted he gave the wrong advice about travel for children of separated parents.

He initially said kids should stay in the house they are currently in and not move between residences, but later apologised for not being “clear enough”.

“To confirm – while children should not normally be moving between households, we recognise that this may be necessary when children who are under 18 move between separated parents,” he tweeted. “This is permissible & has been made clear in the guidance.”

Labour leadership hopeful Rebecca Long-Bailey said the government had “created a little bit of confusion over the last 24 hours” with its latest coronavirus advice – particularly on which shops should stay open.

Hitting out at Sports Direct for trying to avoid closure, she told Sky News “it shouldn’t be up to bad bosses to decide if they bring their workforces in or not today, the government must make clear direction today for the sake of public safety”.

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Coronavirus: Elderly people found ‘dead and abandoned’ at care homes in Spain

Spanish troops brought in to help tackle the spread of the coronavirus outbreak have discovered elderly people “dead and abandoned” at their retirement homes, according to the country’s defence minister.

Some elderly residents were “completely left to fend for themselves, or even dead, in their beds”, Margarita Robles told Spanish TV channel Telecinco when discussing the COVID-19 crisis.

She did not say what had caused the deaths, how many people the soldiers found or where they were discovered, but she said authorities would use the full force of the law to punish those responsible.

The Defensor del Paciente, a privately-funded patients’ ombudsman group, said it has filed complaints of negligence with the public prosecutor and asked for in-depth investigations into the management of three homes nationwide.

The number of coronavirus-related deaths in Spain has risen by 514 to 2,696, with more than 6,000 new cases reported.

There have now been 39,673 confirmed coronavirus cases in the country, up from 33,089 on Monday.

There are about 5,500 care homes across Spain and all of them – of which two-thirds are privately run – are locked down, with their almost 400,000 elderly residents cut off from their families.

Many homes are being asked by the country’s overwhelmed hospitals to look after the seriously ill, but they lack ventilators and must compete with hospitals for scarce medical equipment and virus testing kits, according to industry representatives.

Nurses, doctors and other health workers have echoed the complaints of their fellow colleagues in other countries, saying they do not have enough equipment, like masks.

Spain’s national health service is “demonstrating a great capacity to respond in an exceptional situation”, said the country’s health minister Salvador Illa, who warned the next week would be difficult, and that the epidemic could reach its peak in Spain in the coming days.

In some homes, staff said they were rationing masks or making their own out of cloth, or wearing disposable gowns for many of their shifts.

Some workers have reportedly said they are too scared to go to work, while others had fallen sick, leaving homes short-staffed during a time of unprecedented need.

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House Speaker Pelosi sees 'real optimism' for coronavirus deal in next few hours: CNBC

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that later on Tuesday Congress could soon reach a deal to pass an economic relief package for the fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

“I think there is a real optimism that we could get something done in the next few hours,” she said in an interview with CNBC.

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Bank of England says coronavirus tougher than banks' stress test

LONDON (Reuters) – The shock from coronavirus to banks is set to be greater but less prolonged than lenders faced in last year’s stress test and the financial system remains resilient, the Bank of England said on Tuesday.

“Major UK banks are well able to withstand severe market and economic disruption,” the BoE’s Financial Policy Committee said in a statement from meetings it held on March 9 and March 19.

The FPC had already announced that banks can use the capital they hold in their counter cyclical capital buffers (CCYB) to support lending worth up to 190 billion pounds and it indicated on Tuesday that banks could go further if needed.

“The cut in the CCyB reinforced the FPC’s expectation that all elements of the substantial capital and liquidity buffers that have been built up by banks could be drawn on, as necessary to support the economy,” the FPC said.

“The FPC would monitor closely the response of banks to these measures as well as the credit conditions faced by UK businesses and households more generally,” it said.

The main capital buffer of top UK lenders is around 17.5% of capital to risk-weighted assets, more than three times higher than before the financial crisis a decade ago when taxpayers had to bail out lenders.

They also hold a trillion pounds of high-quality liquid assets, such as cash and bonds, to fund themselves for many months, the FPC said.

Households and companies in Britain also had considerable undrawn facilities at around 140 billion pounds and 260 billion pounds respectively, the FPC said.

The FPC has canceled this year’s stress test but said it would continue to monitor whether banks are holding enough capital.

“The FPC would need to form a view about the resilience of the banking system throughout 2020 to provide reassurance and inform further policy action,” the minutes said.

The FPC will use a mix of the banks’ own in-house stress testing and desk-based analysis at the BoE.

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Coronavirus: Italian priest dies after giving his respirator to younger patient he did not know

An Italian priest who contracted coronavirus has died after donating his respirator to a younger patient who was also battling the illness.

Friar Don Giuseppe Berardelli, 72, was the priest for the parish of Casnigo, a small village just 40 miles north east of Milan.

He died in hospital in Lovere, Bergamo, one of the worst-hit areas in Italy.

According to the hospital, he refused to use a respirator his parishioners had bought for him, and instead gave it to a younger patient he did not know.

In an obituary on Araberara, an Italian news website, one healthcare worker said: “He was a priest who listened to everyone, he knew how to listen, whoever turned to him knew that he could count on his help.”

Clara Poli, who had been mayor of Fiorano for some years, described the priest as a “great person”.

She told the news publication: “I remember him on his old Guzzi motorbike, he loved his motorbike, and when he was seen passing by he was always cheerful and full of enthusiasm, he gave peace and joy to our communities.

“He does not leave us alone, from up there he watches over us and continues to run through the clouds with his motorcycle, who knows how many projects he is doing up there, also for us.”

As Bergamo is one of the worst-hit areas in the world for COVID-19, a disease caused by coronavirus, no funeral was held for Friar Berardelli.

Instead people stood on their balconies at noon on 16 March and gave him a round of applause.

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Germany loses six million coronavirus face masks in Kenya

BERLIN (Reuters) – German customs officials are attempting to track down about 6 million face masks ordered to protect health workers from the coronavirus which went missing at an airport in Kenya.

“The authorities are trying to find out what happened,” said a defence ministry spokeswoman, confirming a report first published by Spiegel Online.

The FFP2 masks, which filter out more than 90% of particles, were ordered by German customs authorities. They and the armed forces procurement office have been helping the health ministry to get hold of urgently needed protective gear.

The shipment was due in Germany on March 20 but never arrived after disappearing at the end of last week at an airport in Kenya. It was unclear why the masks, produced by a German firm, had been in Kenya.

“What exactly happened, whether this a matter of theft or a provider who isn’t serious, is being cleared up by customs,” said a government source.

Kenya’s health ministry declined to comment and a Kenyan Airports Authority (KAA) spokeswoman said the company was still assessing the situation.

Spiegel Online reported that Germany has placed orders worth 241 million euros with suppliers for protective and sanitary equipment to fight the coronavirus.

The defence ministry spokeswoman said there was no financial impact from the loss of the masks as no money had been paid.

Germany is preparing its hospitals and health workers for a big increase in admissions of patients with the virus. It has 27,436 confirmed coronavirus cases and 114 people have died, the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases said.

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Egypt declares two-week curfew to counter coronavirus

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt has declared a curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. for two weeks starting on Wednesday to counter the spread of coronavirus and those who violate the measure will be penalised under the country’s emergency laws, the prime minister said.

A closure of schools and universities, which were shut on March 14 for two weeks, will be extended for a further two weeks, Prime Minster Mostafa Madbouly said.

Most public services and government offices will close their doors to the public during the curfew period and a measure to limit the number of government employees going to work will be prolonged until mid-April.

The government has also allocated one billion Egyptian pounds ($63.69 million) to the health ministry to help it provide supplies, a statement from the cabinet office said.

Egypt has confirmed 366 cases of coronavirus, including 19 deaths.

It has taken a series of measures to prevent the spread of the illness, including ordering all cafes, shopping malls, sports clubs and nightclubs to shut from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. since March 19.

It has also grounded commercial flights and shut mosques and churches.

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Volkswagen to halt production in Russia due to supply shortage from Europe

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) will suspend its car production in Russia over a supply shortage caused by the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, Volkswagen Group Rus said on Tuesday.

Production will be stopped from March 30 to April 10 at is car plant in Kaluga and assembly line in Nizhny Novgorod, the company said.

Volkswagen last week said its plants in Europe would temporarily shut down for two weeks due to the spread of the coronavirus that has infected more than 330,000 people worldwide, as car manufacturers globally shut factories to both protect workers and in response to falling demand.

“At the moment we can provide stable supplies of cars and spare pasts to our dealers and clients,” Volkswagen Group Rus said.

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