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Updated at 3/3/2021, 10:28:34 AM BST

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One year to the day since the first diagnosed case of coronavirus in the US, Joe Biden has taken office in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of about 400,000 Americans. His inauguration speech reflected on a “deadly virus” that had also cost millions of jobs and closed businesses and called for a unified response to address what he said “may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus”.

Boris Johnson on Wednesday declared Britain was ready to quickly deploy tweaked vaccines to combat new variants of coronavirus, as the number of daily Covid-19 deaths in the UK hit a record of 1,820. The prime minister said he was concerned about the risk posed by dangerous variants of the virus as he justified new border restrictions.

British care home providers said on Wednesday they were confident they would avoid a repeat of the crisis last year when almost 30,000 residents died, as data showed infections and deaths in the sector were rising to levels not seen since May. Deaths in care homes for the elderly accounted for around half of all Covid-19 related deaths in the UK between March and September.

Boris Johnson is set for a “battle royal” with Conservative MPs over his expected cautious approach to easing England’s lockdown after the 15m people considered most vulnerable to coronavirus have been vaccinated.

Saga, the travel group targeting the over-50s, has become the first holiday business to insist that all of its customers must be vaccinated against coronavirus before they embark on its cruises. Saga said it had told holidaymakers they must be fully inoculated at least 14 days before travelling and take a pre-departure Covid-19 test.

A decision by Pfizer and BioNTech to reduce the number of vaccine vials they send to European countries has forced health officials to slow vaccination plans, with at least one EU member state threatening legal action. The move by the manufacturers followed a ruling this month from the European Medicines Agency that six doses can be extracted from each BioNTech/Pfizer vial rather than five, after health professionals found there was often extra vaccine left over.

Amazon tells Biden it is willing to assist in vaccination effort

Dave Lee

Amazon’s share price closed up almost 5 per cent on Wednesday after it shared a letter it had sent to President Joe Biden, offering to assist in the vaccination effort, and saying it was ready to begin inoculating its own employees immediately if provided with doses.

Dave Clark, the ecommerce group's head of consumer, said the company had in place an agreement with a “licensed third-party occupational healthcare provider to administer vaccines on-site at our Amazon facilities”. An Amazon spokeswoman would not disclose the name of that provider, but added it was talking to a number of potential partners on the effort.

The company already provides its 800,000 US-based employees with a range of healthcare services, including on-site clinics managed by California-based Crossover Health.

In the letter, Mr Clark wrote that Amazon was willing to share its “operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise” to help the new administration reach its goal of vaccinating 100m Americans within Mr Biden’s first 100 days in office.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Amazon has invested more than $4bn in social distancing and other protocols in its facilities. In October, it said 19,816 frontline employees — including Whole Foods workers — had caught Covid-19.

Biden signs executive order establishing mask mandate on federal properties

James Politi

Joe Biden, the US president, has signed an executive order establishing a mask mandate on federal properties for the next 100 days in order to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

He also signed an order bringing the US back into the Paris climate accord, marking a big break with the Trump administration on handling the climate crisis.

On November 4, after the US officially left the Paris agreement, Mr Biden had tweeted "And in exactly 77 days the Biden Administration will rejoin it". The move by Mr Biden came on his first afternoon as president, and was paired with the signature of an executive order.

Mr Biden has vowed to dramatically reverse Mr Trump's disregard for tackling climate change on a global level and environmental deregulation on the domestic front.

Mr Biden's executive actions on masks and climate were the first of 17 he pledged to sign on his first day in office with more to come on immigration, healthcare and economic policy.

Mr Biden is also halting the US's withdrawal from the World Health Organization pursued by Mr Trump.

Asia-Pacific equities gain after Wall Street hits record highs

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

Asia-Pacific stocks rose on Thursday after Wall Street notched record highs as President Joe Biden was sworn into office and investors focused on his administration’s stimulus package.

In Japan, the Topix added 0.4 per cent, the Kospi in South Korea was up 0.8 per cent and the S&P/ASX 200 in Australia gained 0.7 per cent.

Those moves came after the S&P 500 ended the day up 1.4 per cent at a closing record on optimism for Mr Biden’s plans to support the US economy. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite added 2 per cent to close at a new high.

S&P 500 futures edged up 0.1 per cent.

England’s lockdown fails to suppress rise in Covid transmissions

Clive Cookson

The lockdown in England has failed so far to suppress coronavirus transmission, according to the latest survey, which also indicated a “worrying” possible uptick in infections.

The closely watched React-1 study led by Imperial College London concluded that prevalence of the virus, known as Sars-Cov-2, was “very high with no evidence of decline”. The finding was based on the analysis of 142,900 nose and throat swabs from a representative sample of the English population between January 6 and 15.

The researchers estimated that the reproduction number R, which measures the average number of people one individual infects, was between 0.94 and 1.15, with a central estimate of 1.04 — which would mean the rate of infection is rising slowly.

Paul Elliott, one of the co-leaders of the study, said his team would continue to monitor closely data that pointed to “worrying suggestions of a recent uptick in infections”.

Read more here

Coronavirus sees Chinese VCs retreat to safer deals

Ryan McMorrow in Beijing

The coronavirus pandemic has seen Chinese venture capital investors retreating to the safety of big names in favoured sectors, thinning the ranks of tech start-ups in China, in a trend that is likely to continue this year.

The number of early-stage financing deals fell 45 per cent in 2020, halving the new tech start-up count from the previous year to 3,131, according to data from ITjuzi, a Chinese business information provider.

China’s tech sector has been chilled by a “capital winter” that began in late 2018 as a venture capital boom deflated. Last year, the number of investment deals fell for the fifth consecutive year, though start-ups’ cash haul ticked upwards, rising 12 per cent to Rmb815bn ($126bn).

“It’s partly because potential founders are staying put in what are secure jobs, instead of taking the leap of faith,” said Zhao Chen, managing partner at start-up accelerator Plug and Play China.

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WHO report: global pandemic response ‘not fit for purpose’

Gary Jones in Hong Kong

International systems designed to respond quickly and effectively to pandemics are “not fit for purpose”, experts appointed by the World Health Organization said in an interim report released this week.

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, established to review lessons learned from Covid-19, found critical elements of emergency procedures to be “slow, cumbersome and indecisive”.

“Detection and alert may have been speedy by the standards of earlier novel pathogens, but viruses move in minutes and hours, rather than in days and weeks,” said panel co-chair Helen Clark, also a former prime minister of New Zealand.

The WHO first announced that the coronavirus was a “public health emergency of international concern” on 30 January 30, 2020, but the panel found that the immediate action taken by many countries was "minimal".

“What is clear to the Panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” the report said.

“It is also clear to the Panel that there was evidence of cases in a number of countries by the end of January 2020. Public health containment measures should have been implemented immediately in any country with a likely case. They were not.”

Japanese exports rise for first time in two years

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

Japanese exports rose for the first time in over two years in December, provisional figures showed, in a positive sign for economic growth in 2021.

Exports rose 2 per cent year on year in December, according to official figures, marking the first growth since November 2018. That expansion was a touch below the 2.4 per cent growth forecast by economists in a Reuters poll.

Shipments to China, Japan’s biggest trade partner, climbed 10.2 per cent last month, while exports to the US improved slightly, up 0.7 per cent year-on-year. Renewed lockdowns in Western Europe meant exports to the region fell by 4.5 per cent.

Imports remained weak, falling 11.6 per cent year on year.

Tom Learmouth, Japan economist with Capital Economics, said that while exports did not reach pre-virus levels, he expects outbound shipments to “remain fairly strong” at the start of 2021.

He predicts imports will be flat quarter-on-quarter in the first three months of 2021.

“That suggests net trade continued to boost growth in Q1 — we think by 0.3 percentage points,” he said. “Combined with a further recovery in private investment, that should ensure GDP growth stays positive this quarter even as the third virus wave causes consumer spending to fall.”

US reports record daily increase in deaths as Biden takes reins

Peter Wells in New York

One year to the day since the first diagnosed case of coronavirus in the US, the country reported a record daily increase in its Covid-19 death toll as the Biden administration took over the country's response to the pandemic.

Authorities attributed a further 4,409 fatalities to coronavirus, more than double the 2,141 reported on Tuesday, according to Covid Tracking Project data. That surpassed the previous daily record of 4,087 on January 13.

The latest figure was underpinned by California and Texas, the two most-populous states. The former reported 694 fatalities, one shy of its single-day record, while the latter set a new peak with 450 reported deaths in a day.

Since the start of the pandemic, 396,837 people in the US have died of the virus, according to Covid Tracking Project, while Johns Hopkins University, which uses an alternate methodology, puts the death toll at more than 400,000.

Over the past week, the US has averaged 3,043 fatalities a day, less than the record rate of 3,335 a day recorded about a week ago. On Tuesday, the number dipped below 3,000 for the first time in 11 days.

Hospitalisations continue on an encouraging downward trend. The number of people currently in US hospitals with coronavirus dropped by more than 1,100 over the past 24 hours to 122,700, a 23-day low.

An additional 185,822 infections were reported, up from 144,047 on Tuesday, but the fourth day in a row with daily cases below 200,000. Over the past week, the US has averaged 192,825 cases, the lowest rate in 19 days and down from a record of 244,707 on January 11.

China reports 126 Covid cases, introduces travel curbs

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

China reported 126 locally transmitted cases of Covid-19 to the end of Wednesday, despite strict control measures, as officials said anyone returning home for the lunar new year would have to undergo testing before they travel.

Authorities have locked down tens of millions of people in cities and neighbourhoods and tightened quarantine measures on returning travellers in efforts to contain the largest outbreaks since early last year.

Students and workers who would normally travel home for the lunar new year in mid-February have been asked not to travel.

New restrictions announced on Wednesday require anyone who is travelling to their hometowns to first test negative for the virus and then self-isolate for 14 days on arrival.

The bulk of the cases were reported in the north of the country. Heilongjiang, a province that borders Russia, reported 68 new cases while Jilin recorded 33 new cases, and Hebei, which surrounds the capital, notched 20 new Covid-19 cases. Beijing and Shanxi province recorded two new Covid-19 cases each, with Shandong reporting one.

Health officials said on Wednesday that the country had recorded 757 new cases in the preceding week, most of which had been discovered in rural areas.

The National Health Commission also reported that 97 new asymptomatic carriers of the virus had been discovered in China. Official figures track only those who develop symptoms.

Jilin health authorities have linked more than 100 cases to a single visitor from outside the province who held events in enclosed spaces.

New Zealand’s delayed vaccine rollout threatens early Covid success

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

New Zealand’s “go hard, go early” strategy to combat Covid-19 attracted global praise and eliminated local transmission of the virus. But the country’s slow rollout of vaccines is putting people at unnecessary risk and threatens to delay its economic recovery, critics warned.

Wellington plans to start vaccinating frontline workers in April and the general public from July under a cautious strategy that avoids the emergency authorisation of vaccines pursued by crisis-stricken nations such as the US and UK.

Some health experts, however, are urging the government to speed up its immunisation plans in consideration of the risks posed by new, rapidly spreading strains of the virus, which have been identified among overseas arrivals.

“New Zealand is on the horns of a dilemma. It has a leaky border quarantine system, increasing numbers of people with fast-spreading virus strains and a flawed vaccine strategy,” said Des Gorman, professor of medicine at University of Auckland.

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World Bank says labour rethink crucial to Thailand’s recovery

Gary Jones in Hong Kong

Boosting labour productivity and participation will help Thailand to manage the challenge of its ageing population, according to a World Bank report released Wednesday.

Severely impacted by the pandemic, Thailand’s economy is estimated to have shrunk by 6.5 per cent in 2020, but is projected to grow by 4 per cent in 2021, says Restoring Incomes; Recovering Jobs, the latest edition of the World Bank’s Thailand Economic Monitor.

While noting that the pandemic has had a significant impact on unemployment among the young, the report says Covid-19 has also highlighted a key economic vulnerability for the country: the declining number of working-aged people.

“Improvements in employment, productivity and labour incomes, especially among the poor, will be necessary for a sustainable recovery,” said Birgit Hansl, World Bank country manager for Thailand.

The report recommends that in the short term, the Thailand government put in place training programmes to improve skills and provide financial support while workers get back to work.

In the longer term, the government should increase employment in the care sector, make childcare more accessible and decrease its cost to support female employment.

The report also recommends increasing the retirement age and introducing flexible working arrangements to extend the working lives of older people.

Global stocks march higher after Biden inauguration

Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong

Shares across Asia-Pacific rose following the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th US president, as the prospect of nearly $2tn in stimulus spending helped push stocks on Wall Street to an all-time high.

Japan’s Topix index rose 0.6 per cent in morning trading on Thursday, while Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.7 per cent and South Korea’s Kospi climbed 0.4 per cent. Mainland China’s CSI 300 of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed stocks added 1.8 per cent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng slipped 0.1 per cent.

Overnight, Wall Street’s S&P 500 index closed up 1.4 per cent while the technology-focused Nasdaq rose 2 per cent, with both benchmarks hitting record highs. Investors hope the Biden administration’s spending plans could boost a global economy pummelled by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The first day of President Biden's presidency has received a broad thumbs-up from markets,” said Robert Carnell, regional head of Asia-Pacific research at ING.
S&P 500 futures rose 0.3 per cent during Asian trading.

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Bank of Japan raises growth forecast for next year

Robin Harding in Tokyo

The Bank of Japan has upped its growth forecast for the fiscal year to March 2022 and kept policy on hold pending a review of its monetary stance that is due to report at its next meeting.

Japan’s central bank said that downward pressure from the Covid-19 epidemic was “likely to remain strong for the time being”, but it raised its growth forecast for the next fiscal year from 3.6 to 3.9 per cent, reflecting a delayed start to the recovery.

The BoJ continued to forecast a rapid turnaround in prices, from a fall of 0.5 per cent this year, to a rise of 0.5 per cent in the year to March 2022 and 0.7 per cent in the year to March 2023. But the central bank noted that “inflation expectations have fallen somewhat”.

Overnight interest rates stayed on hold at -0.1 per cent with ten-year bond yields capped at around 0 per cent. The BoJ is engaged in a ‘comprehensive review’ of monetary policy, expected to report in March, but it has already said there will be no change to its policy of controlling the yield curve.

Covid vaccination sites out of reach for hundreds of thousands in England

John Burn-Murdoch and Sarah Neville in London

Hundreds of thousands of people in England without access to a car will struggle to reach their nearest Covid-19 vaccination centre, according to an analysis by the Financial Times that will deepen concerns of a postcode lottery in the UK’s ambitious immunisation programme.

Even as the UK is lauded for running the most effective drive in Europe — more than 4m have already received their first dose — the findings suggest the vaccine rollout risks exacerbating income, ethnic and geographic divides, condemning some to impracticably long journeys to receive the protection of a jab.

The uneven distribution of vaccine centres, particularly in rural areas, points to how the government’s ability to meet its target of vaccinating about 15m of the most vulnerable people in the UK by the middle of February may rely to a significant extent on volunteers ferrying those without vehicles to the locations providing the jabs.

Meanwhile, doctors and campaigners say the decision to focus on age as a criterion for receiving the vaccine has disadvantaged those living in low-income areas where poor health can set in 20 years earlier than in richer populations.

Read more here

Coronavirus tracker

The human cost of coronavirus has continued to mount, with more than 94m cases confirmed globally and more than 2m people known to have died.

More than 50m people have now received Covid-19 vaccines, but death tolls continue to rise.

Discover more with the the FT’s visual and data journalism team’s analysis of the scale of outbreaks and vaccine rollouts around the world here.

Shanghai reports 3 local Covid-19 cases

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

Shanghai, China’s financial centre, has reported three locally transmitted cases of Covid-19 as the north of the country battles to contain a series of outbreaks.

Two men who live in the same neighbourhood but work in separate hospitals in the city tested positive following mass testing. The third case is friends with one of the two.

The positive tests come as authorities have placed tens of millions under lockdown in the north of the country in efforts to contain the largest outbreaks recorded since early last year.

China reported 126 locally transmitted cases of Covid-19 on Thursday.

Gulf party capital Dubai bans entertainment as cases soar

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Dubai has banned entertainment events as the party capital of the Gulf faces a surge in coronavirus cases.

Tourism inspections have noted more than 200 violations of Covid-19 safety precautions over the past few weeks, leading to about 20 establishments being closed down, the emirate’s media office said on Thursday.

“The department directs all concerned in hotel establishments and restaurants to temporarily hold entertainment activities as of Thursday,” the tourism authority said in a circular on Wednesday.

The ban on events, including DJ sets and live music, comes as the emirate also ordered the cancellation of elective surgery from Thursday until February 19, subject to extension.

Dubai Health Authority told medical facilities that surgical procedures requiring deep sedation or general anaesthesia should only go ahead in emergency situations. A similar precaution was put in place during the first wave in March and April.

Dubai, one of the most open cities in the world, welcomed a massive influx of visitors over the new year holiday period, boosting an economy that had been hammered by the pandemic.

New case numbers have since trebled, reaching a record 3,506 on Wednesday. The number of active cases is 27,546, compared with about 3,000 at the beginning of November.

Strong tourist demand since November, fuelled by Europeans fleeing lockdowns, helped raise hotel occupancy to 71 per cent in December, the highest level since February.

Ladbrokes owner Entain posts double-digit online revenue growth

Alice Hancock

Ladbrokes owner Entain, which recently rejected an $8bn takeover approach, has reported its 20th quarter of double-digit online revenue growth despite the widespread disruption to sports during the pandemic.

The increase countered a sharp drop in retail betting while its shops across Europe remained largely closed under lockdown regulations.

Net revenue online increased 27 per cent in the year to the end of December compared with 2019, while retail sales fell by more than a third in the UK and Europe, the company said in a trading update on Thursday.

It added that its US betting joint venture had increased online revenues by 130 per cent over the year as it entered new states where gambling had been recently regulated.

The group increased its revenue forecast for the business to a range of $175m-$180m from $150m-$160m in 2020.

Daily Mail owner reports advertising dive as lockdowns hit Metro paper

Alex Barker in London

DMGT, the owner of the Daily Mail, has suffered another severe fall in advertising since November after the most recent lockdowns battered its freesheet newspapers and events business.

Underlying group revenue fell 15 per cent in the first quarter, as the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic showed little sign of relenting on the company’s events business and newspaper titles.

Print advertising at the group fell 38 per cent in its first quarter, principally because of a big fall in readership for the Metro newspaper, a free sheet hit particularly hard by movement restrictions.

Overall advertising fell 16 per cent on a like-for-like basis, with digital revenues rising 8 per cent because of a stronger performance from MailOnline.

UK confirms 2-week notice period before schools reopen

Harry Dempsey

Gavin Williamson, the UK education secretary, said schools would be notified two weeks before they are allowed to reopen to give teachers and parents enough time to prepare.

“We want to give all schools a clear two weeks notice period,” he said during a Sky News interview. “Schools were the last to close. Schools will very much be the first to open.”

Boris Johnson announced in early January - on the day that many students had returned to education from the winter break - that schools would close in England immediately until at least mid-February. That would require the government to make an announcement on reopening schools in the next 11 days if it plans to meet the earliest possible reopening date.

A study by Imperial College suggested that the virus spread is still growing across the UK despite lockdown restrictions. The country on Wednesday recorded more than 1,800 daily coronavirus deaths, the highest since the pandemic began.

However, Mr Williamson said “the evidence we’ve been seeing is that it [the lockdown] has been having an impact in terms of relieving some of that pressure on the NHS.”

The government and Mr Williamson in particular have come under pressure from a series of U-turns throughout the pandemic with the latest being a pause to plans to carry out daily testing of students and staff in English secondary schools and colleges.

IG expands in US with $1bn tastytrade acquisition

Daniel Thomas in London

IG Group is to buy US-based online brokerage tastytrade for $1bn in its largest ever acquisition as the British spread-betting company seeks to gain a stronger foothold in the booming retail investor market.

IG Group is acquiring one of the fastest growing retail investor businesses in the US futures and options market, while tastytrade will be able to use IG’s global infrastructure to expand its services internationally.

US options trading volumes have grown significantly, with record levels in 2020, according to Jefferies, which advised on the deal. That included the highest volume month ever in December. This was in part because of the growing numbers of retail investors keen to bet on the volatility in the market.

The coronavirus pandemic has created fertile conditions for spread betting among day trading punters often trapped at home with time on their hands and a wildly swinging market to play with.

June Felix, chief executive of IG, which is the largest listed spread-betting group in the UK, said that the deal would allow the company to diversify into the high growth market of US exchange traded options and futures, which has an estimated 1.5m retail traders. IG has a small retail investor business in the US.

“This acquisition will materially expand and scale our business in the US and see us further diversify into the exciting high growth market of US retail options and futures, a market which is adjacent to IG’s core retail trading skill set,” the group said on Thursday.

The acquisition comes after a period of record trading for IG in the six months ended November 30.

Norwegian receives government backing for rescue plan

Richard Milne

Norway's government is backing a new rescue plan for troubled low-cost airline Norwegian Air Shuttle to escape bankruptcy in a change from the stance in October that pushed the carrier to the brink of collapse. 

The centre-right coalition in Oslo said on Thursday morning that it was "positive" to Norwegian's plan to refocus on the Nordic region by ending low-cost long-haul flights, reduce debt significantly, and raise fresh capital. 

The government will provide a hybrid loan to Norwegian at market conditions provided the airline raises at least NKr4.5bn ($530m) from institutional and strategic investors and completes its restructuring that should see its debt cut by more than half.

"The plan seems more robust than the one we said 'no' to in October. That is why we are now positive towards contributing," said Iselin Nybo, minister of trade and industry. 

Global stocks march higher as President Biden gets to work

Naomi Rovnick in London and Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong

Global shares hit fresh records on Thursday following Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th US president, with investors fixed on his promise of $1.9tn in stimulus spending and the jettisoning of isolationist policies pursued by his predecessor.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 index rose 0.5 per cent in early trading, Germany’s Xetra Dax added 0.3 per cent and London’s FTSE 100 crept 0.1 per cent higher. MSCI’s broad index of developed and developing market stocks rose 0.3 per cent to set a record high.

After taking office on Wednesday, Mr Biden immediately overturned some of Donald Trump’s actions, signing orders to rejoin the Paris climate accord, halt the withdrawal of the US from the World Health Organization and scrap a ban on entry to the country by citizens from certain Muslim-majority countries.

“Markets are celebrating the idea of out with the old,” said John Roe, head of multi-asset funds at Legal & General Investment Management. “The concept of a United States that isolates itself and does not care about issues that matter globally is being reversed very rapidly and that is good for international co-operation, international law and international trade.”

Futures markets signalled Wall Street’s S&P 500 equity index would gain a further 0.2 per cent at the start of trading in New York while the top 100 stocks on the technology-focused Nasdaq Composite would advance 0.5 per cent. Both indices set record highs on Wednesday.

The rise in the S&P 500 on Wednesday was the biggest on any presidential inauguration day since Ronald Reagan was sworn into office for the second time in 1985.

Emergency services protect Oxford/AstraZeneca factory from flooding

Andy Bounds in Huddersfield

Emergency services worked through the night to save stocks of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine from flood water in Wrexham, north Wales.

The factory and warehouse where Wockhardt, an Indian company, produces the vaccine was threatened by floods after heavy rain during Storm Christoph.

Wockhardt said it had "experienced mild flooding" late on Wednesday afternoon, resulting in excess water surrounding part of the buildings across its site.

"All necessary precautions were taken meaning no disruption to manufacturing or inlet of water into buildings. The site is now secure and free from any further flood damage and operating as normal," it added.

Mark Pritchard, Wrexham council leader, told LBC radio: "The company had serious concerns their warehouse could be flooded so they asked us for support and we gave them that.

"We had to work with the storage facility as there was a risk of flooding there overnight and that was a success.”

The storm has led to emergency services asking residents of about 2,000 homes in Greater Manchester to evacuate, and residents of one Welsh village following a severe flooding warning.

Fire breaks out at Indian vaccine maker's building site

Stephanie Findlay in Pune

A fire broke out at the Serum Institute of India's plant that is under construction in Manjri, Pune, on Thursday, spewing plumes of smoke into the sky.

Company sources said no coronavirus vaccines were damaged at the building site, which is located around 2km away from where the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is being manufactured. It is unclear if there are any injuries.

A cloud of dark smoke billowed over the construction site. At least four fire trucks were called to the scene on Thursday afternoon, with ambulances and police cars dispatched to the site.

The Serum Institute of India is the world's largest vaccine manufacturer. It is manufacturing the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and developing several other candidates to supply to India and the rest of the world.

UK consumer spending falls sharply in first weeks of 2021

Valentina Romei

UK consumer spending fell by one third in the first half of January compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to new bank transactions data that points to a larger economic contraction than in November.

Spending fell 35 per cent in the week to January 14 versus the levels in February, before coronavirus restrictions began, data published by the Office for National Statistics showed on Thursday.

The drop follows a similar contraction in the previous week, reflecting the national lockdown that started on January 5, and it reverses the double-digit increase over the Christmas period, when spending is traditionally higher.

Spending data tracks the value of Clearing House Automated Payment System (Chaps) payments received by large UK companies from their credit and debit card processors, and it provides an indicator of UK companies' transactions made by customers, both via physical and online platforms.

The figures were published for the first time by the ONS on Thursday after being monitored by the Bank of England to track the health of the consumer sector throughout the pandemic.

January’s spending figures point to a sharper contraction than in November when it averaged a 14 per cent fall and the economy shrank 2.6 per cent compared with the previous month. However, January’s spending fall was milder than at the end of March, when the value of bank transactions halved.

A fall in online job adverts adds pieces of evidence to the deterioration of the economy. In the week to January 15, the volume of job adverts slumped to 64 per cent of last year’s levels, with most categories reporting a contraction.

US to join WHO-backed scheme to make vaccines widely available

Donato Paolo Mancini in Rome

Joe Biden’s administration will join global efforts to make Covid-19 vaccines and drugs available around the world, reversing the position of his predecessor Donald Trump and ushering in a new era in health diplomacy.

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Thursday that the US would sign up to the World Health Organization’s Covax programme to “advance multilateral efforts” to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Dr Fauci was “honoured” to say that the US would remain a member of the international health body, as he spoke to the WHO’s executive board a day after Mr Biden’s inauguration as president.

Mr Trump had pledged the US would quit the Geneva-based organisation which he accused of pandering to China and not acting quickly enough to warn the world of the perils of the pandemic.

Thursday’s announcement underlines the dramatic shift under Mr Biden as he seeks to project a return to normality at home and abroad on his first day, which also included a move to bring the US back into the Paris climate accord.

Norway hints at interest rate rise towards end of 2021

Sarah Provan

Norges Bank hinted that it could raise interest rates as early as the end of the year, as the central bank pointed to success in the vaccination rollout and rising oil prices adding to optimism.

The premium in the Norwegian money market — which provides short-term funds — has risen and is higher than the first-quarter estimate, the central bank said on Thursday.

“Estimated Norwegian forward rates are little changed and indicate expectations of a policy rate hike towards the end of 2021,” the central bank said in its statement as it left key borrowing costs at zero per cent as expected.

Oil prices and the krone have risen recently with the Norwegian currency “stronger than projected”. Brent crude, the European benchmark, has climbed 7.4 per cent this year while the krone has advanced about 2.2 per cent against the euro.

“The statement from Norges Bank was surprisingly hawkish if you read between the lines,” said analysts at Nordea Bank. “We expect Norges Bank to turn more hawkish in March and move forward the first hike to December 2021.”

The central bank lowered rates to zero in May, bringing its cuts to 1.5 percentage points over two months but always balked at the idea of going negative even as it faced the twin shocks of an oil price collapse and coronavirus pandemic.

The central bank reiterated its message from its previous statement that “the policy rate will most likely remain at today’s level for some time ahead”.

Although recent high infection rates have led to a number of European countries tightening their coronavirus regulations, the monetary policy and financial stability committee added some upside risk for the Norwegian economy when it said: “Vaccination is well under way and it appears that the vaccination rollout will be somewhat faster than assumed earlier.”

Norway has recorded just over 500 coronavirus-related deaths and about 60,000 infections compared with more than 10,000 fatalities in neighbouring Sweden.

Volkswagen fined more than €100m for missing EU emission targets

Joe Miller in Frankfurt and Peter Campbell in London

Volkswagen, the world’s largest carmaker, will pay more than €100m in fines after narrowly missing strict EU emissions targets in 2020, despite launching its flagship electric vehicle during the year.

The group, which includes the Audi, Porsche and Seat brands, said its fleet-wide emissions in Europe stood at 99.8 grammes of CO2 per kilometre driven, roughly half a gramme short of the goal set for the company by Brussels.

Domestic rivals Daimler and BMW have both confirmed that they were compliant with the new rules, thanks to a late surge in demand for plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Volkswagen, which started the year in pole position to comply with the EU targets thanks to the planned roll-out of the ID.3, its first mass-market electric vehicle, ended up buying credits from Chinese carmakers that had comfortably met their CO2 requirements, including MG, Aiways and the Geely-owned electric black taxi maker LEVC.

Volkswagen’s chief executive, Herbert Diess, said the group had been “thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic” in 2020, and that the launches of new electric models in the coming months would help VW achieve its targets this year.

Britain's parents, poor and youth bear brunt of Covid impact

Valentina Romei

British parents, youth and lower earners were worst affected from the economic impact of the pandemic as they were more likely to be furloughed or suffer a larger hit to their income.

In the week to December 20, more than one in 10 people with a household income of less than £10,000 reported that they had been furloughed, the Office for National Statistics said on Thursday. This is more than six times higher than the proportion for those with a household income of more than £40,000.

People aged under 30 years were 35 per cent more likely to be furloughed than the general population, the ONS said.

Poorer people were much more likely to be paid in part, about 61 per cent, than in full. By contrast, over half of the highest-earning people were paid in full.

The ONS is seeing "a widening financial gap between households, where some people are relying on savings or borrowing to make ends meet," the agency's Gueorguie Vassilev said. "Those hardest hit are people on low pay, young people and parents of dependent children.”

By December, nearly 9m people had to borrow more money because of the coronavirus pandemic

Parents felt the heat when they had to balance between work and caring responsibilities as schools closed.

Employed parents have been almost twice as likely to report a reduction in income during the coronavirus crisis than the general employed population, ONS data showed. Parents were less able to afford either a holiday or an unexpected but necessary expense than non-parents.

Hungary becomes first EU nation to approve Russia's Sputnik vaccine

Valerie Hopkins in Budapest, Henry Foy in Moscow and Michael Peel in Brussels

Hungary has become the first EU country to grant approval to the Russian state-developed Covid-19 vaccine, the first time a member state has broken ranks to trigger provisions to give unilateral emergency approval to a jab. 

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff confirmed that the government had approved both the Russian vaccine, known as Sputnik V, and the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, while criticising slow procurement through the EU programme. 

“If vaccine shipments arrive at this rate from Brussels, we can only get vaccines from other, alternative sources,” the aide, Gergely Gulyas, told a news conference on Thursday.

The approval comes amid widespread condemnation of Moscow from the EU for the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on his return to the country this week, following recuperation from a nerve agent attack blamed on the Kremlin.

Mr Gulyas also reiterated Hungary’s intention to procure up to one million doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine.

UK supply chain worries at record high

Valentina Romei

More UK manufacturers are worried about supply chain disruption than at any point since 1975, according to a new business survey, as Brexit border delays and the Covid-19 pandemic take their toll.

The index from the Confederation of British Industry, which measures how many manufacturers see a lack of materials and components as a factor limiting production in the next quarter, rose to 47 in January, compared with a long-time average of 9.

This is the highest reading since records began and was linked to “widespread Covid-related supply disruption, such as delays in shipments from abroad, a shortage of containers across the world, and knock-on impacts from disruptions to production over 2020,” according to the CBI.

“Border challenges and customs-related delays arising from Brexit also appear to be playing a role,” added the report.

Rain Newton-Smith, CBI chief economist, said: “With growing costs and materials shortages mounting further pressure on firms at a time when they’re experiencing much less demand, the government must avoid tapering off existing business support with a cliff edge in March.”

The manufacturing sector has been performing better than services, which are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus restrictions. However, in January a larger share of manufacturers reported falling domestic orders and domestic deliveries as the new lockdown choked demand, pointing to a new economic downturn.

Sterling hits 3-year high as vaccine success buoys investors

Leke Oso Alabi and Naomi Rovnick

The pound hit its highest level against the dollar in almost three years as success in the national rollout of Covid-19 vaccines along with avoiding a hard Brexit raised investor confidence.

Sterling, which fell about 3 per cent in March, rose 0.6 percent against the dollar and touched just over $1.37 in mid-morning trading on Thursday, its highest level since April 2018. The currency had fallen to as low as $1.14 on March 19.

Many have considered the UK's vaccination drive as the most effective in Europe, as more than 4m citizens have received their first shot. The UK's latest figures however showed that 1,820 people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test.

Using that measure the official numbers show that the country's total number is approaching 100,000 since the coronavirus pandemic was first detected almost a year ago.

The UK economy is geared towards positive news on the vaccine “as there is a very large service sector”, said Charlotte Harrington, multi-asset fund manager at Fidelity.

The UK is doing a "pretty good job" of administering the Covid-19 vaccine, Ms Harrington said.

"That in combination with the removal of Brexit uncertainty is what is supporting the currency," she added.

Turkey's central bank keeps interest rates on hold

Laura Pitel in Ankara

Turkey’s central bank has paused a cycle of interest rate rises but committed to keeping rates high for an “extended period” as it seeks to regain investor trust.

The bank lifted its benchmark interest rate by a total of 6.75 percentage points in November and December as Naci Agbal, its new governor, strived to show the markets that he was willing to act to tame double-digit inflation and stabilise the volatile Turkish lira.

A credit boom stoked by Turkish authorities last year was aimed at countering the fallout from the coronavirus crisis but pushed the currency to a succession of record lows and triggered warnings from economists that the country was heading towards a financial crisis.

The central bank’s monetary policy committee announced on Thursday that it would hold its benchmark one-week repo rate at 17 per cent and keep it there “until strong indicators point to a permanent fall in inflation and price stability.”

The decision was in line with the consensus expectation in a survey of economists by Bloomberg, although some foreign banks including Morgan Stanley and Société Générale had expected a small increase.

The bank said that it would raise rates further if needed. But it remains unclear whether president Recep Tayiyp Erdogan, a notorious opponent of high interest, would respond.

Speaking last week, Mr Erdogan lamented the fact that Turkey had won plaudits for raising rates in recent months.

“We’re being praised for bankrupting many of our companies,” he said, adding that the country would “get nowhere” with high interest.

Beckhams pay themselves dividend even as losses deepen

Daniel Thomas in London

David and Victoria Beckham paid themselves a dividend of almost £15m from their sports and media business, even as the fashion empire headed by the multimillionaire entertainer and clothes maker suffered growing losses and a breach of financial covenants after being hit by the pandemic.

Pre-tax profits at David Beckham Ventures Limited, the global brand management company wholly owned by the two celebrities, shrank to £11.3m in 2019, from £14.8m the year before. This reflected increased staff costs to help expand the business and adverse currency effects, as well as charitable donations.

The company's two shareholders nonetheless received a dividend of £14.5m, from £11.1m in 2018. A further £7m has been paid in dividends to the celebrity pair in 2020, it said.

Meanwhile, pre-tax losses at Victoria Beckham’s separate eponymous luxury fashion business widened to £16.5m, from £12.4m last year. Launched in 2008, Victoria Beckham Holdings Limited is owned by the Beckhams, XIX Entertainment, and NEO investment Partners, a private equity firm.

The group said last year it breached the financial covenants of a loan with HSBC, which led to a shareholder cash injection of £9.2m to settle the debt. This was on top of £15.8m from shareholders to finance working capital and reduce an HSBC loan facility in 2019.

The company said that it had “conducted an extensive cost-cutting programme to enable the company to navigate through this pandemic”.

Victoria Beckham was forced to reverse a decision to furlough 30 staff at her fashion label last year after public criticism.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the closure of the company's Dover Street store during lockdown restrictions.

ECB holds rates and stimulus steady as it assesses recession risk

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt

The European Central Bank left its policy unchanged on Thursday as it assesses whether last month’s stimulus boost will be enough to support a recovery in the eurozone economy, which is suffering from the latest coronavirus-related lockdowns.

The resurgence of the virus and restrictions to control it are widely expected by economists to plunge the 19-country bloc into a double-dip recession this winter; the slow pace of vaccinations also threatens to postpone the expected economic recovery.

The ECB’s decision came six weeks after the central bank expanded its emergency bond-buying programme to €1.85tn and added €300bn to the ultra-cheap loans it provides to banks while extending them both well into next year.

The ECB said it had “decided to reconfirm its very accommodative monetary policy stance”.

Baker Hughes warns of sluggish first half for oil industry

Justin Jacobs

US oilfield services group Baker Hughes reported a rise in profits but an adjusted earnings per share loss and said it expected the global oil industry to remain sluggish in the first half of this year.

Oil prices recently topped $50 a barrel for the first time since before the pandemic and Baker Hughes said it was starting to see signs of recovery in the economy and in oil demand, but that a return to full health was some way off.

"We believe this macro environment likely translates into a tepid investment environment for oil and gas during the first half of 2021," said Lorenzo Simonelli, Baker Hughes chief executive.

"However, we expect spending and activity levels to gain momentum through the year as the macro environment improves, likely setting up the industry for stronger growth in 2022," he said.

Fourth-quarter operating income was $182m, up from a loss of $49m in the third quarter. The company reported net income of $653m, compared with a loss of $170m in the third quarter and a profit of $48m the same period a year ago. Adjusting for one-time items, the company reported a loss of 7 cents a share, missing analysts' expectations for earnings of 17 cents a share, according to Refinitiv.

Revenue was $5.5bn in the quarter, up 9 per cent from the third quarter but still down 13 per cent from the same period last year. Free cash flow was $250m in the fourth quarter, up from $52m in the third quarter. However, that was 76 per cent lower than the fourth quarter last year.

Oil markets are watching closely the results from the three major oilfield services to gauge the pace and shape of the sector's recovery after last year's unprecedented meltdown. Baker Hughes' rival Halliburton earlier this week reported a 60 per cent rise in fourth quarter net income compared with the third quarter, signalling an uptick in North America - Schlumberger reports tomorrow.

Glastonbury Festival called off for second summer

Harry Dempsey

Glastonbury Festival, the UK’s largest music festival, has been cancelled for the second year in a row, as the coronavirus pandemic casts a shadow over the events industry into a large part of 2021.

The festival in late June, which hosts more than 200,000 guests to see acts that have included Beyoncé, Stormzy and David Bowie, will not take place for another year, the organisers Michael and Emily Eavis said on Thursday.

“In spite of our efforts to move heaven and earth, it has become clear that we simply will not be able to make the festival happen this year,” they said in a statement.

Specialist companies such as Informa have said that organisers have pulled back from holding events in the first half of 2020 but physical gatherings are likely to make a comeback in the second half of the year as many nations vaccinate their citizens.

The festival is called off every five years in what is known as a fallow year to prevent excessive damage to the site and give the locals some respite, with the last taking place in 2018.

Tickets reserved for 2020's edition will be valid to roll over to next year, which the organisers are confident will go ahead.

Fire at plant of world’s biggest vaccine producer claims 5 lives

Stephanie Findlay

A fire that broke out on Thursday at the Serum Institute of India’s plant has claimed five lives, said a company source who requested anonymity.

The cause of the fire at the plant that is under construction in Manjri, Pune, is yet unknown.

“We have just received some distressing updates; upon further investigation we have learnt that there has unfortunately been some loss of life at the incident,” Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the company, said on Twitter. “We are deeply saddened and offer our deepest condolences to the family members of the departed.

"I would like to reassure all governments and the public that there would be no loss of production due to multiple production buildings that I had kept in reserve to deal with such contingencies,” Mr Poonawalla said in a separate tweet.

Company sources said no coronavirus vaccines were damaged at the building site, which is located about 2km from the place that is manufacturing the Oxford/AstraZeneca shots.

The Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and is also developing other vaccine candidates.

New US jobless claims decline slightly to 900,000

Matthew Rocco

New claims for US unemployment benefits pulled back from a four-month high last week, as the labour market continued to feel the effects of the pandemic and coronavirus shutdowns.

States reported 900,000 requests for jobless aid during the week that ended on January 16, the Department of Labor said on Thursday, compared with economists’ forecast for 910,000 claims. There were 926,000 initial claims in the previous week, which marked the highest weekly level since August but likely included a boost from applications delayed by the holiday season. The previous week’s figure was also revised lower from 965,000.

The number of Americans actively collecting state jobless benefits unexpectedly fell to 5.1m as of January 9, compared with 5.2m one week earlier.

The insured unemployment rate, considered an alternative measure of joblessness, remained flat at 3.6 per cent.

The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programme, which provides benefits to the self-employed and others who would not qualify for regular benefits, took in 423,734 claims on an unadjusted basis, from 284,886 a week earlier.

The US labour market has stumbled following a resurgence of coronavirus that began in the autumn and has affected nearly every state in the country, prompting renewed restrictions on business and social activity.

Officials at the Federal Reserve warned that fresh stimulus would be needed to support jobs growth while the rollout of coronavirus vaccines ramps up. Donald Trump signed a $900bn package late last year after it was approved by Congress.

Joe Biden, who entered the White House on Wednesday, has proposed $1.9tn in stimulus and other measures related to fighting Covid-19, but the plan will probably face resistance from lawmakers wary of passing another massive bill.

World Bank helps Lebanon buy vaccines

Chloe Cornish in Beirut

Lebanon has become the first country to receive World Bank financing to buy vaccines, the multilateral lender said, as the outbreak threatens to overwhelm its healthcare system.

The World Bank said $34m had been shifted to vaccine purchase from a $120m loan intended to help strengthen healthcare services for “poor Lebanese and displaced Syrians in Lebanon”.

The financing will “provide vaccines for over 2m individuals” from high-risk groups, including health workers and elderly people, the bank said on Thursday. Shots are “expected to arrive in Lebanon by early February”, it added.

Rising coronavirus infections have left hospital intensive care units full. Wednesday set another all-time high as 64 people died from Covid-19 during a grim week of record-beating daily tolls.

The positivity rate from tests for the past 14 days is more than 20 per cent in Lebanon, four times higher than the 5 per cent test positivity rate that the WHO advises is safe enough to relax restrictions.

A ministerial committee set up to deal with the coronavirus on Thursday extended a 24-hour curfew until February 8. Even supermarkets have been closed in this latest lockdown, which began two weeks ago.

A painful economic crisis that is well into its second year has battered the healthcare system. The state defaulted on its foreign debt in March while hard currency reserves at the central bank are being eroded, hampering the cash-strapped state’s ability to buy vaccines.

The crisis-hit country has been without a fully empowered government for five months, after the cabinet resigned in the wake of a Beirut port explosion that killed about 200 people and injured thousands.

China to donate 500,000 doses of Sinopharm jab to Pakistan

Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad

China will give half a million doses of Sinopharm's Covid-19 vaccine to Pakistan free of charge by the end of January, Pakistan’s foreign minister announced on Thursday.

“They have said 'send your aircraft and airlift this vaccine immediately'. So this is a happy bit of news for us, and we will hopefully be successful in protecting ourselves using this vaccine” said Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the foreign minister.

Mr Qureshi said China has also agreed to provide another 1.1m doses to Pakistan by the end of February.

Separately, Pakistan’s health minister Faisal Sultan said on Wednesday that the country was nearing completion of the phase three trial of another Chinese vaccine from Cansino Biologics. Initial results of those trials involving 17,500 participants would be available by early February, he added, and Pakistan could eventually aim to procure up to 20m doses of that jab.

The announcements were a powerful reminder of the latest dimension to China’s close ties with Pakistan, with fast expanding co-operation in fighting Covid-19. China is already Pakistan’s largest supplier of military hardware and has broadened ties with Islamabad in recent years with a promise to invest up to US$60bn in Pakistan’s infrastructure.

Eurozone consumer confidence falls amid fresh lockdowns

Valentina Romei

Consumer confidence in the eurozone dipped in January as new restrictions shut businesses and forced more people indoors, fuelling fears of a new economic downturn.

In January, the flash consumer confidence for the eurozone dropped to minus 15.5, which is 1.7 points lower than in the previous month, according to a monthly survey published by the European Commission.

The drop means a further divergence from the long time average of minus 11, and partially reverses the gains made in December when good news about vaccines boosted morale.

In January, tightened restrictions in most eurozone countries and a slow rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines dampened hopes for a near-term recovery and led economists to expect a new contraction in the first quarter.

Depressed consumer confidence could lead to more people saving money rather than spending, delaying an economic rebound.

The index is based on the proportion of people reporting improved personal and general financial and economic conditions minus those reporting a deterioration. The data was collected between January 1 and 20.

KLM to cut another 1,000 jobs as travel recovery hopes fade

Harry Dempsey

Dutch airline KLM will cut up to 1,000 more jobs this year, taking total reductions over the pandemic close to 6,000, as the airline has become more pessimistic over the timing of a recovery in air travel.

The move to reduce jobs for a fifth of its airline's workforce came as the group said “the reality is that the recovery is taking considerably longer than expected”, especially for long-haul flights, due to travel restrictions to stop the spread of coronavirus. KLM employed about 33,000 people at the end of 2019.

The Dutch government plans to impose double-testing requirements on inbound travellers and ban flights from the UK, South Africa, Brazil and the rest of South America because of its "grave concerns" over the new virus variants that have been detected in those countries and regions. The measures will be imposed from Saturday.

All those travelling to the Netherlands by air or sea from high-risk areas will need to show they are negative in a rapid Covid-19 test no more than four hours before boarding, the Dutch government said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

That extra test will be as well as the coronavirus test 72 hours before arrival in the Netherlands, the statement said. Travellers must also quarantine for 10 days on arrival, a period they can halve if they test negative after five days.

KLM’s chief executive Pieter Elbers sought to put distance between the fresh job cuts and the Dutch government’s tough rules.

“This reduction is independent of the new measures taken by the cabinet in the past 48 hours,” he said.

Portugal's schools and universities to close for at least 15 days

Peter Wise in Lisbon

All crèches, schools and universities in Portugal are to close for at least 15 days from Friday as the country battles a surge in Covid-19 cases partly attributed to the fast-spreading virus variant first detected in the UK.

Reversing a previous decision to keep schools and colleges open during a national lockdown that came into force a week ago, Prime Minister António Costa said they would instead remain open during the holidays later this year to compensate for the time lost.

“It is very frustrating that after all the efforts people have made and just as a new term was getting under way that [schooling] has to be interrupted due to an alteration in the virus,” Mr Costa said.

Portugal on Wednesday recorded the highest seven-day average of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the world and the second highest seven-day average of Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants after the UK, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Health officials on Thursday reported 221 Covid-19 deaths in the previous 24 hours, the highest daily total of fatalities since the pandemic began. A total of 13, 544 new coronavirus cases were detected in the same period.

Marta Temido, health minister, warned on Wednesday that the new variant of the virus could account for about 60 per cent of new cases in Portugal by the end of January.

Schools and universities closed during Portugal’s first national lockdown in March and April. But Mr Costa had ruled out closing them during the current lockdown, saying that interrupting a generation’s education for a second year could not be justified.

England's case rates drop as hospitalisations stabilise

Sarah Neville in London

England's Covid-19 case rates have declined and there is “some indication” that
hospital and intensive care unit admissions began to stabilise in the second week of January, according to new data that painted a more hopeful picture of the path of the pandemic on Thursday.

Case rates per 100,000 have fallen across all regions and age groups, according to the latest national surveillance data from Public Health England.

London continues to be worst affected, with a rate of 629.7 per 100,000 between January 11 and 17, but the capital has also seen the biggest fall in case rates: down from 935.1 per 100,000 the week before.

The highest rates in any age group were found in 20 to 29 year olds with 647.3 cases per 100,000 population but this cohort also saw the biggest fall, down from 923.2 in the previous week.

Tests carried out on hospital staff and patients showed a slight increase in positivity rates but they fell among the wider population, compared to the previous week.

The hospital admission rate for Covid also fell very slightly, from 35.50 per 100,000 in the first week of January to 35.17 in the week beginning January 11. Admission rates were highest in the West Midlands with a rate of 46.31. The highest admission rates continue to be in those aged 85 and above.

Ruth Milton, director for the Covid-19 response at Public Health England, said despite the fall in case rates, “it is important to remember that infections remain extremely high across the country”.

Dr Milton added: “Admissions to hospital and critical care remain worrying and are still rising in some parts of the country. This will inevitably lead to more deaths.” Even those who had been vaccinated, or believed they had already had the disease “may still be able to carry the virus and pass it on to others. It is crucial all of us act as though we’re infected to slow the spread of disease,” she added.

UK advisers warn against quick rollback of Covid lockdown

Anna Gross

Government scientific advisers warned against a rapid relaxation of lockdown measures in the coming months, arguing that it could lead to thousands of deaths and increased pressure on the UK's stretched health service.

The modellers who sit on the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) found that lifting lockdown measures entirely from April could lead to a "huge wave of infections" and between 3,000 and 6,000 deaths, depending on the level of protection the vaccine confers.

"The key here is a slow relaxation," said Matt Keeling, professor of populations and disease at the University of Warwick, and a member of SPI-M. He added that he did not believe the government should consider reopening bars and restaurants until at least May.

The modellers made the point that, under the assumption that the vaccine is only 90 per cent effective and only 85 per cent of people opt to take the vaccine, a substantial portion of the 15m most vulnerable people in the UK will remain unprotected by the jab. This would leave at least 1m people vulnerable to being infected by Covid-19, thousands of whom would be likely to die.

The modellers found that a partial relaxation of control measures, mimicking restrictions in place over August and September 2020, could lead to much fewer deaths, so long as the vaccine provides adequate protection to the population. However, they cautioned that a partial lifting of lockdown measures between March and July could put severe pressure on the health system if the vaccine campaign was reaching fewer people than is currently hoped.

UK and France discuss Eurostar aid

Philip Georgiadis

The UK and French governments are in talks over offering financial assistance to Eurostar, which has warned its survival is at risk following a pandemic-driven collapse in passenger numbers.

The two governments are in talks over "aid mechanisms proportionate to the level of everyone's involvement in Eurostar", French transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on Thursday.

Ministers in the UK are engaging with the train operator over accessing financial support and are discussing the situation with Paris, but there is not an agreement in place yet, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The French government has a majority 55 per cent stake in Eurostar, and Belgium 5 per cent after the UK government sold its stake in the company which runs train services through the Channel Tunnel in 2015.

“Without additional funding from government, there is a real risk to the survival of Eurostar, the green gateway to Europe, as the current situation is very serious,” Eurostar said on Sunday.

Gloucestershire leading race in England to vaccinate elderly

John Burn-Murdoch

Gloucestershire is leading the race in England to vaccinate its most vulnerable residents, according to new data released today by NHS England. Eighty-four per cent of people aged 80 and above in the county have received at least their first dose, ahead of 77 per cent in Northamptonshire and 76 per cent in Herefordshire and Worcester.

Between 49 and 57 per cent of over-80s in London have had the jab, and the slowest rollout has been in Suffolk and north-east Essex on just 36 per cent.

Gloucestershire’s total of 65,026 doses administered equates to 12 per cent of all adults in the county, roughly half as high again as the national average of 8 per cent.

Northern Ireland extends lockdown until March 5

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Northern Ireland’s executive has extended its coronavirus lockdown by four weeks until March 5 as the region struggles with “peak” pressure on its hospitals.

The decision on Thursday comes amid moves to deploy 110 medically-trained British military personnel in hospitals to support frontline healthcare staff.

The deployment is sensitive because Sinn Féin Irish nationalists oppose army interventions — a legacy of the 30-year conflict that ended after the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement — but the party has chosen not to challenge the request for aid.

Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin, the deputy first minister, said the party “would never rule out anything that would take the pressure off the health service” when asked at a press conference about the army deployment. “For my part, for Sinn Féin’s part, our priority has always been to save lives, take the pressure off the health service.”

Arlene Foster of the pro-British Democratic Unionists, the first minister, said progress in curbing the virus retransmission rate would be put at risk if the devolved government did not “press forward” with restrictions that have closed large parts of the economy.

“We have made progress but our war and battle against Covid is not yet won and our hospital case numbers remain at extremely high levels,” she said.

Mrs Foster said the region has “halved the rate of cases in a fortnight” but said pressure on intensive care and general hospital beds will decrease only gradually.

“This week the NHS is facing the peak of Covid demand and the system is truly struggling to cope and that’s been recognised by the request for military assistance.”

California reports fewest new cases since December, but death toll tops 35,000

Peter Wells in New York

California on Thursday reported fewer than 20,000 new coronavirus cases for the
first time in eight weeks, but any optimism was kept in check as the state's death toll topped 35,000 following one of the biggest daily increases on record.

Warnings that some hard-hit areas, specifically Los Angeles county, are facing vaccine supply issues are also complicating the state's outlook.

Counties reported a further 19,673 infections over the past 24 hours, the California's health department revealed, down from 22,403 on Wednesday. This was the smallest number of new cases reported in a single day since December 3.

Over the past week, the Golden State has averaged 31,725 new cases a day, down from a peak pace of 43,948 a day about one month ago. While that decline is encouraging, other metrics and warnings from public health officials point to a slightly more complicated situation.

Authorities attributed a further 571 fatalities to coronavirus, down from 694 on Wednesday that was only one death shy of the state's record daily increase. The latest figure ranks among the 10 biggest daily increases in deaths California has reported since the start of the pandemic and took the overall death toll to 35,004, which is the highest in the country.

Hospitalisations fell to a 25-day low of 20,408, but the number of available intensive care unit beds dropped to a record low 1,030.

Public health officials for Los Angeles county warned on Wednesday evening that "vaccine supply is still extremely limited" and called for residents to be patient as they worked with federal and state officials to boost supply and vaccination capacity over coming weeks.

"Often we do not know from one week to the next how many doses will be allocated to LA county," Barbara Ferrer, director of Los Angeles Public Health, said during a briefing. 

Given the recent federal decision to expand vaccine eligibility to people over the age of 65, a further 1.4m residents have been added to Los Angeles' vaccine task, on top of some 800,000 healthcare workers. To vaccinate all people in those eligible groups will require 4m doses. As of Wednesday, the county said it has received only 853,650 shots.

Los Angeles county, with about 10m residents, is the most populous in the US. It has confirmed almost 1.04m coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, more than any other part of the country.

Although some coronavirus metrics have been trending lower in recent weeks, Dr Ferrer urged caution. "The end is not yet in sight. With high numbers of daily cases, hundreds more people will require hospitalisations," she said.

Biden seeks to boost syringe production, tighten foreign travel rules

Kiran Stacey

Coronavirus will have killed half a million people in the US by the end of next month, Joe Biden has predicted, as he revealed his administration's plan for dealing with the pandemic.

The US president on Thursday warned the disease was likely to continue spreading quickly over the coming months even as the country ramps up its vaccine efforts.

Mr Biden told reporters at the White House: "The death toll will likely top 500,000 next month, the cases will continue to mount. We didn't get into this mess overnight. It's going to take months first to turn things around."

The US has attributed 396,837 deaths to Covid-19 since the pandemic began, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

Mr Biden was giving further details of how his administration intends to tackle the spread of the virus and speed up vaccinations. The president said his administration would force anyone flying into the US to get a negative coronavirus test beforehand, wear a mask during the flight, and quarantine afterwards.

He also said he would invoke Korean war-era powers to force companies to make certain items which are in short supply, including vaccine syringes, N95 masks and materials for testing kits.

Florida takes aim at ‘vaccine tourism’

Matthew Rocco

Florida has taken aim at “vaccine tourism” after Governor Ron DeSantis said the state would only offer doses of the coronavirus shot to residents.

Dr Scott Rivkees, Florida’s surgeon general, signed a public health advisory on Thursday laying out rules requiring that vaccine providers confirm that patients live in the state, either full- or part-time. The move comes in response to reports of people travelling to states like Florida to get the vaccine amid a slow rollout in parts of the US and other countries.

The order notes that doses “remain scarce” in the US and “availability in Florida is extremely limited”.

Officials in some counties had already warned this week that vaccinations would be limited to Floridians and seasonal residents going forward.

In Seminole County, north of Orlando, anyone who wants the vaccine will need to show proof that they own or rent property in Florida, such as a driver’s licence, utility bill or rent payment, emergency management director Alan Harris told the Orlando Sentinel.

Local reports also indicated that Volusia, Brevard and Manatee counties would implement similar requirements.

Visitors account for a small portion of the doses administered in Florida so far. Almost 1.2m people have received at least one dose, and 40,965 of them – or 3.5 per cent – are from out of state, according to a daily report from the state’s health department.

Still, officials have raised concerns about people making quick trips to Florida to get vaccinated.

“To just kind of come in from another country or whatever, we don’t support that, and we’re not going to allow that,” Mr DeSantis said on Tuesday. “We’re not doing ‘vaccine tourism.’”

The crackdown will not apply to winter residents who live in the Sunshine State for at least part of the year.

“We want to put seniors first, but we obviously want to put people that live here first in line,” the governor said. “And that can include people that live here half the year. But it’s not for people that are just visiting.”

Florida, a popular destination for “snowbirds” from the US and Canada, opened its vaccine programme to people over the age of 65 in late December, bucking federal guidance that at the time gave equal consideration to people over 75 and workers defined as essential, such as grocery store employees. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pivoted last week and urged all states to begin vaccinating seniors.

This post was updated to include new vaccine data and the public health advisory from Florida’s surgeon general.

IBM expects return to revenue growth this year on emergence of 'green shoots'

Richard Waters in San Francisco

IBM revealed its revenue decline accelerated in the final quarter of last year to 6.5 per cent, a bigger drop than Wall Street had projected, as its normal end-of-year IT spending bounce by customers proved weaker than expected.

However, the US technology company still said it expected to return to growth this year, reinstating revenue guidance that it scrapped after the pandemic hit early last year. It also issued projections of free cash flow for this year and 2022 that pointed to steady improvements, despite uncertain tech markets that have hit normal customer buying patterns.

The latest figures highlighted IBM’s long struggle to return to sustainable growth after several years of contraction, interrupted by only a brief expansion three years ago. Adjusting for divestitures and currency movements, revenue in the final three months of 2022 declined 8 per cent, an acceleration from the 3 per cent fall it registered in the preceding three months.

Jim Kavanaugh, chief financial officer, said weaker than expected software sales had caused the sales disappointment, with total revenue coming in some $200m below expectations, at $20.4bn.

He blamed business uncertainty caused by the pandemic, which prompted software customers to sign shorter contracts than the multiyear licences they typically buy.

However, Mr Kavanaugh added that IBM was seeing enough “green shoots” in its business to return to giving limited financial guidance for the year. These included an acceleration in revenue growth at recent acquisition Red Hat, new customer wins for its “hybrid cloud” services, and improved order backlog in its business services division.

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