Great Britain

Coronavirus latest: Hong Kong orders first lockdown to fight Kowloon outbreak

Peter Wells in New York

Hong Kong has announced its first lockdown of the pandemic, requiring thousands of residents to stay in their homes and undergo compulsory testing in an effort to control a recent outbreak.

The government has been concerned about a surge in cases in densely-populated city blocks around Jordan, an area located on the Kowloon Peninsula and to the east of the well-known Nathan Road, and had previously taken steps to ramp up compulsory testing in the area.

In a statement released on Saturday morning local time, the government said that "outbreaks in the district remained severe", prompting the decision to issue a "restriction-testing declaration" that will require residents in the affected area to undergo compulsory testing before midnight on January 23.

The government said it aims to test and confirm the results within 48 hours, which should mean an end to the lockdown at about 6am on Monday, pending an official announcement. Local media had earlier reported the lockdown was imminent.

In a separate announcement on Saturday, the government said it would keep in place restrictions preventing travellers who have stayed in "extremely high-risk" countries from boarding flights bound for Hong Kong. A 21-day compulsory quarantine would also remain in place for any travellers eligible to enter the territory.

Hong Kong on Friday confirmed 61 new coronavirus cases, taking its total since the start of the pandemic to 9,929. About half of those new cases came from the affected area in Jordan.

Colby Smith in New York and Leke Oso Alabi in London

US equities slipped on Friday as euphoria over President Joe Biden’s spending plans gave way to concerns that the final package may be pared down in order to pass through Congress.

On Wall Street, the blue-chip S&P 500 slipped 0.3 per cent, the first time this week the benchmark index has closed lower. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite, meanwhile, traded flat.

Scepticism has grown in recent days about the Democratic party’s ability to get sufficient support to pass the entire $1.9tn package put forward by the Biden administration, given the pushback from Republican lawmakers about the plan. Economists at Oxford Economics expect Congress to eventually pass a $1.2tn programme some time in the first quarter.

The decline in New York followed selling in Europe, where the continent-wide Stoxx 600 closed down 0.6 per cent and the UK’s FTSE 100 benchmark fell 0.3 per cent. Germany’s Xetra Dax lost 0.2 per cent and France’s CAC 40 moved 0.6 per cent lower.

Encouraging IHS Markit purchasing managers’ indices in the US — which have been eagerly anticipated by investors keen to gauge the effect of the latest social curbs — helped to limit losses on Wall Street. The composite survey of business activity, which includes the US manufacturing and services sectors, gave a reading of 58 for January, an increase on the previous month’s figure of 55.3. A reading above 50 indicates activity is growing.

But the same PMI reading for the eurozone was 47.5, narrowly below forecasts and down from 49.1 in December.

Read more on this story here.

Peter Wells in New York

California on Friday reported more than 700 coronavirus deaths, a single-day record, overshadowing the number of hospitalisations falling below 20,000 for the first time in almost one month.

Authorities attributed 764 fatalities to coronavirus, up from 571 on Thursday. That surpassed the previous one-day record reported on January 9 of 695 deaths. Only New York, during the worst of its crisis last spring, has ever reported more deaths in a day.

California's death toll stands at 35,768, higher than any other state in the US.

More encouraging were figures showing the number of people as of Thursday in hospitals across the state with coronavirus fell to 19,855. That was the first time below 20,000 since December 25, according to health department data. The number of available intensive care unit beds in the state rose to 1,095, from a record low 1,030 a day earlier.

An additional 23,024 coronavirus cases were reported over the 24-hour period, up from a seven-week low of 19,673 on Thursday.

About 4m coronavirus vaccine doses have been shipped to California, with almost 1.8m of them having been administered, according to health department data.

California had administered 4,135 doses per 100,000 people, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data last updated on January 21 and showing that 1.6m shots had been administered. Only Nevada, Alabama, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Idaho have administered fewer vaccines per 100,000 people than California, according to the CDC.

Clive Cookson and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London

Early evidence suggests the new variant of coronavirus that emerged in the UK is not only more infectious but may also be 30 per cent more deadly, government scientists have discovered.

Boris Johnson, prime minister, gave the bad news about higher mortality at his 10 Downing Street press conference on Friday evening.

Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser, said lethality evidence analysed by the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) remained at a preliminary stage and was not confirmed.

The data suggested that, taking men in their 60s as an example, the average risk was that about 10 in every 1,000 who were infected with the old virus would be expected to die. With the new B.1.1.7 variant, 13 or 14 would die.

The increased risk applied to infections. However, there is no evidence that, once someone is in hospital with coronavirus, the new variant increases the risk of dying.

Sir Patrick added: “I want to stress that there's a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and we need more work to get a precise handle on it, but it obviously is a concern that this has an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility.”

The prime minister also said the NHS remained under extreme pressure, with a further 40,261 positive cases recorded since Thursday.

About 38,562 people are in UK hospitals with Covid-19, 78 per cent higher than during the first peak of the virus in April, Mr Johnson added.

This sentiment was echoed by Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, who said that one in 55 people were now infected within the virus in England, and that the most recent seven-day rolling average for coronavirus deaths stood at 1,241.

Prof Whitty said that while the number of hospitalisations remained high there was an “overall flattening out” and some signs of “reduction” in the number of people being admitted into hospital.

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

An extension of Ireland’s coronavirus lockdown throughout February is likely after prime minister Micheál Martin said the latest wave of the pandemic was too severe to lift restrictions that had been due to expire at the end of January.

Although large parts of the country's economy and schools have been shut since Christmas, hospitals are under mounting pressure after a new year surge in infections.

The government is evaluating mandatory quarantine for people arriving in the country without a negative Covid-19 test, Mr Martin added. The suspension of visa-free travel for some countries is also being considered.

“Certainly there is no talk at the moment in terms of any relaxation or reversing of restrictions at the end of this month,” the taoiseach told reporters in Dublin on Friday.

“And I think we are looking at a continuation of restrictions into February and I think you could take it that we will take stock every four weeks of the situation.”

Mr Martin said it was easier to call for quarantine than deliver it comprehensively, emphasising that there were no plans to seal the border with Northern Ireland or seal the entire island of Ireland.

Noting that the Irish republic and Northern Ireland apply different rules to travel from Great Britain, he said a “two-island” solution could be pursued. He added, however, that there were “lots of issues around implementation and delivery”.

Asked whether there was a specific proposal for a “two-island” approach, he replied: “At the moment it’s very exploratory, it’s embryonic.”

Oliver Ralph

UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the new strain of coronavirus that was first detected in south-east England could be more deadly than other variants.

“In addition to spreading more quickly, it now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant of the virus ... may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” he said in a televised briefing on Friday afternoon.

The new variant of the virus was the reason why the NHS was under such pressure, he added.

However, there was better news on vaccines. “All current evidence continues to show that both the vaccines we’re currently using remain effective both against the old variant and this new variant.”

About 5.4m people have received a first vaccine dose in the UK, with 400,000 jabs being delivered in the past 24 hours.

The rate of coronavirus transmission is now estimated to be between 0.8 and 1, down from 1.1 to 1.2 previously.

With England in its third national lockdown, Mr Johnson said he could not "consider unlocking" until the government was confident that vaccines were working and the rate of infection was not "still so high" as to lead to another big rebound.

"It is not just a question of rolling out the vaccine" he said.

Peter Wise in Lisbon

Portugal has reported a record daily level of Covid-19 deaths for the fifth consecutive day as the country grapples with a surge in infections in which the fast-spreading variant of coronavirus first detected in the UK is estimated to account for about 20 per cent of new cases.

Health officials recorded 234 Covid-19 deaths in the previous 24 hours, the sixth time in the past seven days that the number of daily deaths has reached a record high. The number of new cases recorded over the same period was 13,987, an increase of 2.4 per cent on the previous day.

Portugal has registered 609,136 coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic, equivalent to almost 6 per cent of its 10.2m population, and 9,920 Covid-19 deaths.

Over the seven days to Thursday, Portugal recorded an average of 107 new cases a day per 100,000 inhabitants, more than any other country in the world, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The average daily number of Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants over the same period was 1.81, exceeded only by the UK with 1.84.

Epidemiologists attribute the surge in coronavirus cases in Portugal partly to the rapid spread of the new variant of the virus first detected in Kent. They estimate this strain currently accounts for about 20 per cent of new cases in Portugal and could account for about 60 per cent by the first week in February.

Portugal has banned all flights to and from the UK from Saturday in an effort to contain the spread of the new variant. Only emergency repatriation flights will be allowed until further notice.

Mamta Badkar in New York

Walmart said it expects to be able to deliver up to 13m Covid-19 doses a month when supplies allow and unveiled plans to expand inoculation efforts in the coming days.

The world's largest retailer, which was already administering jabs to those eligible in New Mexico and Arkansas, said it was readying this week and next to offer shots in seven more states — New Jersey, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Texas, as well as in Puerto Rico and Chicago.

The Arkansas-based company said at full capacity it expects to be able to deliver between 10m and 13m doses a month.

The retailer is also training thousands of pharmacy employees and building a new digital tool to book appointments.

The efforts come as Joe Biden, US president, said the country's death toll could exceed 500,000 next month and warned that "the brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated".

Mr Biden has pledged 100m inoculations to be administered during his first 100 days in office, but that would not represent a significant increase to the current pace of vaccinations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said an average of 912,497 doses were administered per day over the past week. The US has administered 17.5m doses in total thus far.

Matthew Rocco

Sales of previously owned homes in the US climbed to a 14-year high in 2020, as low borrowing costs and the shift to working and learning from home boosted demand during the pandemic.

The National Association of Realtors today said existing home sales hit a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.76m in December, up 0.7 per cent against November and 22 per cent versus the same month in 2019.

For the full year, existing home sales jumped 5.6 per cent year on year to 5.64m. That was the highest level since 2006, when sales totalled 6.48m.

“What's even better is that this momentum is likely to carry into the new year, with more buyers expected to enter the market,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist.

The housing market has helped bolster the US economy as it rebounds from the damage inflicted by the pandemic and coronavirus-related curbs on business and social activity. With Americans spending more time at home, people have flocked to the housing market in search of more space, particularly in the suburbs. Record-low mortgage rates have also enticed buyers.

However, economists have warned that a shortage of available homes and rising prices could limit the market’s growth.

John Pataky, executive vice president at TIAA Bank, said “the housing sector continues to anchor the economy” this year.

“Early signals show that rates may begin to inch back up, but as long as Covid strains the economy, it’s unlikely they will rise substantially. With months ahead before a vaccine is equally distributed, it’s safe to say we have a long way to go,” Mr Pataky added.

Existing home sales in the north-east and south were up 4.5 per cent and 1.1 per cent in December, respectively, compared with the previous month. Sales were unchanged in the Midwest and down 1.4 per cent in the west.

The median home price in December was $309,800, a 12.9 per cent increase year on year.

Naomi Rovnick

US stock markets fell, retreating from record highs set earlier in the week, as euphoria over new president Joe Biden’s stimulus spending plans gave way to concerns about coronavirus restrictions in Asia and faltering economic activity in Europe.

The blue-chip S&P 500 opened 0.5 per cent lower and the technology-focused Nasdaq Composite dropped 0.4 per cent in early dealings.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, dropped more than 2 per cent to $54.85 a barrel.

Earlier in the session, IHS Markit’s purchasing managers' index for the eurozone showed a slump in business activity deepened in January, underlining how tighter restrictions to contain rising coronavirus infections may cause a double-dip recession in the bloc.

The equivalent PMI for the UK’s dominant services sector also fell into deep contraction territory in January, the first reading of the data showed.

Singapore tightened rules on household gatherings ahead of the Chinese new year, while local media reports claimed Hong Kong would implement it’s first coronavirus lockdown. Futures contracts on Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index fell 0.4 per cent.

As investors retreated from stock markets the dollar, as measured against a basket of currencies, rose 0.2 per cent. The yield on US Treasury bonds, which has been pushed higher in recent weeks by expectations Mr Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus will increase inflation, fell by 0.01 percentage point to just over 1.09 per cent. Bond yields move inversely to prices.

Emerging market assets, which tend to do well when investors feel optimistic about global growth, also underperformed. The South African rand lost 0.8 per cent to just over 15 per dollar and the Brazilian real dropped 1.3 per cent to 5.4 per dollar. Brazil’s Bovespa equity index fell 1.2 per cent.

Oliver Ralph

The UK’s financial regulator has given insurance companies a week to write to their customers to tell them if their claims will be affected by last week’s Supreme Court judgment.

The Supreme Court last Friday ruled that, in many cases, UK companies could claim on their business interruption insurance policies for losses due to Covid-related shutdowns. The ruling was a defeat for the insurance industry, which was hoping that an earlier High Court judgment on the situation would be overturned.

In a letter to insurance company chief executives, the Financial Conduct Authority’s executive director Sheldon Mills said: “In some cases the judgment will mean that previously rejected claims (and complaints) are now valid or that the value of customers’ valid claims will have changed.”

He added: “We expect you to be clear on these points and on your next steps as you write to all your policyholders with affected claims or complaints over the coming week.”

Clive Cookson

Britain’s current wave of Covid-19 infections is beginning to recede, government scientists confirmed as they published the latest R number estimates for the UK and England on Friday afternoon.

Both figures are between 0.8 and 1.0, they said, and “the number of new infections is likely to be shrinking by between 1 per cent and 4 per cent every day.”

Last week the government estimated that R — the average number of infections caused by someone with Covid-19 — for the UK was between 1.2 and 1.3. The estimates come from SPI-M, a committee of Covid-19 modelling experts who report to the government’s Sage advisory group.

“All regions of England have seen decreases in the R number and growth rate estimates compared to last week, and R is below or around 1 in every region,” they said.

“There is variation across the country with R is estimated to be below 1 in areas that have been under tighter restrictions for longest, including Tier 4 over the festive period (ie East of England, London, and the South East). We are confident the epidemic is shrinking in these areas.”

The falling official estimate of R tallies with evidence published earlier on Friday by the Office for National Statistics and the Zoe Covid Study, showing declines in infections and cases.

Clive Cookson

Coronavirus infections are beginning to decline in England, according to the latest Office for National Statistics survey.

The ONS estimates that during the week ending January 16, there were 1.02m people who had Covid-19, equivalent to around 1 in 55 or 1.8 per cent of the population. The previous survey released a fortnight ago had shown that 1 in 50 were infected during the week to January 2.

“In England we have seen a slight decrease in the percentage of people testing positive,” said Sarah Crofts, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey. “The picture across the UK is mixed. In Scotland and Wales rates of infection have levelled off but Northern Ireland has seen an increase in the percentage of people testing positive.”

London had the highest infection rate: 2.89 per cent or around 1 in 35 people. But that is significantly lower than two weeks ago when the comparable figure was 3.56 per cent.

Surprisingly, the ONS found that the proportion of infections likely to have been caused by the new and more contagious B.1.1.7 variant was beginning to decline, although it is still responsible for 70 per cent of Covid-19 cases in London.

The survey report does not discuss possible reasons for this and notes that the evidence attributing infections to particular variants should be treated with caution.

Justin Jacobs

Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield service provider, posted a forecast-beating rise in profits in the fourth quarter on the back of “strong activity” in North America, as it eyes a multi-year recovery coming out of the pandemic.

Net income was $374m in the final three months of 2020, up from a loss of $84m in the previous quarter and up 12 per cent from the previous year. Adjusted earnings per share were $0.27, beating consensus forecast of $0.17 collated by S&P Capital IQ.

“Oil prices have risen, buoyed by recent supply-led OPEC+ policy, the ongoing Covid-19 vaccine rollout, and multinational economic stimulus actions — driving optimism for an oil demand recovery throughout 2021,” said Schlumberger chief executive Olivier Le Peuch.

Mr Le Peuch said that activity levels in North America, where US shale producers were hit especially hard during the pandemic-induced downturn, had picked up and that would continue through the first half of the year “albeit moderated by capital discipline and industry consolidation.”

The international recovery has been slower to come, said Mr Le Peuch, but the company expects spending outside North America to pick up pace after the first quarter of 2021.

Schlumberger’s fourth-quarter revenue was $5.5bn, up 5 per cent from the previous quarter and beating consensus expectations of $5.24bn, but still down 33 per cent from the same time last year reflecting the depth of the industry’s downturn.

Mr Le Peuch says that he expects oil demand will recover to 2019 levels “no later than 2023”, echoing views from rival Baker Hughes that although activity is picking up a return to pre-pandemic market health is still at least a year away.

Stefania Palma in Singapore

Singapore is tightening Covid-19 restrictions ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday to minimise coronavirus infections after recently identifying four new clusters.

The number of daily new local cases remains in the single digits, but it has risen from weeks of near zero or no daily infections following a loosening of limitations.

Authorities have called on the public to not raise their voices while dining out during Chinese New Year next month. Face masks must be worn and silence maintained during the traditional group tossing of the 'yusheng' salad, which typically involves participants saying auspicious phrases out loud. The government has also encouraged the public to limit house visits to family members during the holiday.

"Our vulnerability has increased and the situation can escalate very rapidly especially with the likelihood of more interactions and activities taking place over the Chinese New Year period," said Lawrence Wong, education minister and co-chair of the Covid-19 taskforce.

Authorities on Wednesday next week will impose a limit of eight distinct visitors per household per day. Individuals should also visit a maximum of two households per day, they added.

The city state in late December increased the limit on the number of people allowed to meet or be invited to a household from five to eight.

Naomi Rovnick

Sterling retreated from a near three-year high after figures signaled the UK economy is doing worse than analysts had feared.

The pound dropped 0.5 per cent to $1.363 in early Friday trading. Optimism that the UK’s coronavirus vaccine programme could hasten the reopening of the services-driven economy had helped the UK currency to rally on Thursday and cross $1.37, the highest level against the dollar since April 2018.

IHS Markit’s purchasing managers index for UK’s dominant services sector fell into deep contraction territory in January, the first reading of the data showed on Friday.

The gauge, which collates survey responses to questions on activity indicators such as hiring and new orders, dropped to a reading of 38.8, compared with economists’ forecasts for a reading of 45 and well below the watermark of 50 that separates expansion from contraction.

Anatole Kaletsky, of research house Gavekal, warned investors to expect further weakness and volatility in the pound, which had been given a “meaningless Pavlovian” boost by the UK striking a last-minute post-Brexit trade deal with the EU at the end of last year.

“A disorderly fall in sterling, caused by a triple whammy of Brexit, Covid and premature fiscal tightening, remains more likely,” Mr Kaletsky wrote in a research note, referring to chancellor Rishi Sunak’s upcoming Budget in March.

The chancellor has told Conservative MPs that the UK does not have a “magic money tree” and that he aims to tackle the UK’s virus induced deficit, potentially with tax increases.

Valentina Romei

UK economic activity in January slipped to the lowest level since last May as the new lockdown dealt a fresh blow to the economy while ports disruptions caused goods shortages for manufacturers.

The flash UK IHS Markit/Cips purchasing managers’ index for services fell to 38.8 in January compared with 49.4 in December, in what is the first comprehensive business survey after Brexit.

The flash estimate, based on data collected between January 12 and 20, was well below the 45 forecast by economists polled by Reuters and it marked the lowest reading in eight months. It is also the third consecutive reading below 50, which indicates a majority of businesses reporting a contraction.

The downturn in services, which account for about 80 per cent of the economy, drove the composite index, an average of services and manufacturing, down to 40.6 in January from 50.4 in the previous month and well below analysts’ expectations.

“A steep slump in business activity in January puts the lockdown UK economy on course to contract sharply in the first quarter of 2021," Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit. "A double-dip recession is on the cards."

The low reading is consistent with forecasts by many economists for a contraction in the first quarter. Yet it also confirms some resilience of the economy compared with the spring lockdown when the composite PMI dropped to 13.8.

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt

The slump in eurozone business activity deepened, underlining how tighter restrictions to contain rising coronavirus infections are expected to cause a double-dip recession in the bloc, according to a widely tracked survey of companies.

The near-term eurozone outlook is darkening with recent data pointing to a economic contraction over the winter after several countries tightened lockdowns in response to a resurgence of the pandemic in recent weeks, including Germany and the Netherlands.

The IHS Markit flash eurozone composite purchasing manager index, an average of services and manufacturing, fell to 47.5, slightly below consensus economists’ expectations and down from 49.1 in the previous month.

The flash estimate is the third consecutive time that the eurozone reading has dropped below the 50 mark that indicates a majority of businesses are reporting a contraction from the previous month.

“A double-dip recession for the eurozone economy is looking increasingly inevitable as tighter Covid-19 restrictions took a further toll on businesses in January,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit.

IHS said “The rate of factory output growth weakened to the slowest since the recovery began and the service sector saw output fall at the second-fastest rate since May.”

Sentiment about future prospects “cooled slightly in the service sector”, but optimism among manufacturers increased to a three-year high, it said. While average selling prices fell, a sharp increase in container shipping costs between Asia and Europe caused the highest rise in manufacturing input costs in almost three years.

The PMI index for eurozone services fell to 45 in January, down from 46.4 in the previous month. This was slightly better than forecast by economists polled by Reuters.

In contrast, activity continued to expand among the eurozone’s manufacturers and the corresponding PMI index for the sector fell less than expected to 54.7, down from 55.2 in the previous month.

Naomi Rovnick

European equities slipped on Wednesday after surveys indicated that business activity in the eurozone had faltered during coronavirus lockdowns.

The regional benchmark Stoxx 600 index, Germany’s Xetra Dax and France’s CAC 40 dropped 0.8 per cent during the first hour of trading. The UK’s FTSE 100 fell 0.5 per cent.

IHS Markit’s output index for Germany dropped to a seven-month low in its first reading for January. The gauge, where a reading of 50 separates economic expansion from contraction, fell to 50.8 from 52 in December.

In France, the same composite output index moved deeper into contraction territory, falling to 47 from 49.5 in December because of stronger Covid-19 curfews.
Investors sold out of the leisure and transport sectors in response to the surveys.

Shares in German travel group Tui fell to the bottom of the Stoxx index, losing almost 10 per cent. British Airways owner IAG, shipping group AP Moeller Maersk and French hotelier Accor all dropped more than 3 per cent.

Energy companies were the worst overall performers, responding to the drop in economic activity signalled by the output surveys as well as a fall in oil prices.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, dropped 1.3 per cent to $55.39 a barrel.

Clive Cookson

Covid-19 cases in the UK have halved in two weeks, according to the Zoe Covid Study, raising scientists' hopes that pressure could ease on the NHS soon.

Reports from people with the Zoe symptom-tracking app suggest that there are 34,133 daily new symptomatic cases of Covid-19 in the UK on average, compared with 53,528 a week ago and 69,958 a fortnight ago.

The study shows the R value — the average number of infections caused by someone with Covid-19 — to be 0.8 for the UK as a whole and for England, Wales and Scotland individually. New daily cases are falling in every region.

Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London, lead scientist on the study app, said: “If the trend continues we expect hospital admissions to fall next week and deaths to start plateauing and falling in the near future. Signs are hopeful we’re on our way out of this situation but risk of infection still remains high and we still have a way to go.”

The survey figures are based on around 1m weekly reports from the app and the proportion of newly symptomatic users who have positive swab tests.

Zoe’s downward trend contrasts with the findings on Wednesday of the React-1 study led by Imperial College London, which concluded that prevalence of infection was “very high with no evidence of decline.”

More data are expected on Friday from the Office for National Statistics infection survey.

Harry Dempsey

The UK environment minister said that a return to normal life can start “over the summer”, as the government sends out increasingly bearish signals on the timing and pace to ease lockdown restrictions.

“If we can get those more vulnerable cohorts vaccinated, that’s when we turn the corner because the risk to our NHS, the risk to life, declines substantially,” George Eustice said on BBC Breakfast. “And then we can start to get back to life as normal over the summer.”

The government has long pushed the line that the country would return to normal by spring or Easter but with daily deaths hitting records this week and hospitals overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients, the possibility of easing restrictions substantially by then appears to be narrowing.

Ministers have drawn up plans to give people greater financial support if they are forced to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19 amid concerns of low compliance levels.

“We’ve always kept this under review,” Mr Eustice said, without commenting on the likelihood of £500 payouts for all those asked to self-isolate.

The government reviews lockdown restrictions every two weeks, with the next iteration taking place on February 2. Ministers have been clear that any easing would be “gradual” and involve a return to the tier-based system of coronavirus restriction.

The regional tiered system, which was introduced late last year in England and depended on rates of infection, concerns surfaced about compliance with some members of the public “reluctant” to isolate when they came into contact with someone who tested positive.

“At the moment we are in a full lockdown so everybody should be staying at home," Mr Eustice said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "Generally they are and we are starting to see the prevalence of the virus start to go down as you would expect."

With reporting from Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt

German business activity slowed in January after chancellor Angela Merkel’s government introduced a tighter lockdown to contain surging coronavirus infections, according to a widely tracked survey of companies.

The restrictions imposed this month, which include closing schools and non-essential shops, weighed on Germany’s economy, particularly its consumer-facing services business. That reported the fourth consecutive monthly contraction in activity at the start of this year.

The IHS Markit flash German services purchasing manager index fell to 46.8, down from 47 in the previous month. The reading was above the 45.3 level predicted on average by economists polled by Reuters. But it remained below the 50 mark that indicates a majority of businesses are reporting growth in activity from the previous month.

The deteriorating outlook for German services companies was matched by a similar downturn among their rivals in France, where the services PMI dipped to 46.5 in January, from 49.1 in the previous month.

Some economists believe Germany risks suffering a double-dip recession this winter. However, its economy only stagnated in the final quarter of last year, according to a preliminary estimate by the Federal Statistical Office, which said last week that for the full year 2020 gross domestic product shrank 5 per cent.

The continued contraction in German services activity was partly offset by resilience in German manufacturing, which has been less impacted by the second wave of coronavirus restrictions and benefited from rising exports, particularly to China.

The PMI index for German manufacturing fell to 57 in January, from 58.3 in the previous month. The composite PMI, which combines services and manufacturing, dropped to a seven-month low of 50.8 in January, from 52 in the previous month.

The flash PMIs, published about 10 days before the final figures, are the first most comprehensive indicator of the economic impact of the new restrictions on the economy.

George Parker, Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe and Sarah Neville

Ministers in the UK are drawing up plans to give people greater financial support if they are forced to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19, amid fears that some are ignoring the rules because they cannot afford to miss work.

But allies of Rishi Sunak, chancellor, rejected as “bonkers” one idea that people should be paid a one-off flat rate of £500 to self-isolate, a scheme that would be vastly more expensive than the current one.

According to leaked documents obtained by the Guardian, the scheme would cost £453m a week, 12 times more than the more limited compensation currently offered in England.

“It’s the first we’ve heard of it and frankly it’s bonkers,” said one aide to the chancellor. However ministers recognise there is a problem that needs to be resolved to keep the pandemic under control.

The proposed change is thought necessary because a government survey found that only 17 per cent of people with symptoms were coming forward to get a test, owing to fears that a positive result could stop people from working.

Martin Arnold

French services businesses reported their fifth consecutive monthly decline in activity, as restrictions to contain coronavirus infections weighed on the eurozone’s second-largest economy.

Activity in French manufacturing grew more than expected, however, underlining how the second wave of the pandemic has hit the services sector hardest.

The IHS Markit French flash services purchasing managers index fell to 46.5 in January, down from 49.1 in the previous month. Economists polled by Reuters had expected a fall to 48.5. A reading below the 50 mark indicates a majority of businesses reporting a contraction in activity from the previous month.

“The French private sector started the new year as it ended the last, with Covid-19 restrictions driving a further decline in business activity,” said Eliot Kerr, economist at IHS Markit. “However, there [was] one big positive to be gleaned from the latest PMI data, and that was the return of employment growth.”

While output and new orders continued to fall overall, French companies increased their employee numbers for the first time in almost a year - with job growth in the services sector offsetting a decline in manufacturing.

With container shipping costs between Europe and Asia quadrupling in the past eight weeks, IHS said several companies “mentioned severe delays at some suppliers which contributed to higher raw material prices, notably those of metals”.

The PMI index for French manufacturing remained in growth territory at 51.5, up slightly from 51.1 in December and above economists’ expectations. The composite PMI score for France was 47, down from 49.5 the previous month.

Jean Castex, French prime minister, told parliamentarians last week that it was impossible to rule out a third lockdown for the country, with many regions having already extended a night-time curfew to between 6pm and 6am.

The flash PMIs, published about 10 days before the final figures and based on about 85 per cent of typical responses, are the first most comprehensive indicator of the economic impact of the new restrictions on the economy.

Oliver Ralph

IT groups Computacenter and Kainos have been boosted by demand from the public sector, prompting both to increase their forecasts for the financial year.

The companies, in separate updates on Friday, each said business had been strong.

“Throughout the group we saw strong growth in technology sourcing product sales into the public sector and services based customers as opposed to customers in the manufacturing and industrial sectors where spend slowed materially,” said Computacenter.

The company now expects adjusted pre-tax profits for the year to be over £195m, which is ahead of the £146m reported for 2019 and December’s guidance that 2020’s profits were “unlikely to be less than £190m”.

Smaller rival Kainos meanwhile said that results would be ahead of market expectations.

“Within our digital services division, we continue to work on several substantial, long-term engagements as part of the UK government's digital transformation programme, including supporting the NHS as it responds to Covid-19,” the company said in a statement.

Shares in Computacenter rose 4 per cent in early trading on Friday. Kainos was up 14 per cent.

Harry Dempsey

John Lewis has repaid earlier than scheduled £300m that it borrowed from the Bank of England’s coronavirus pandemic loan scheme, after trading in the run-up to Christmas was more resilient than the retailer had feared.

The department store deemed it had enough liquidity to return the funds, which had been due for repayment on March 15, even as its stores had closed for several months last year and as it suspended its click-and-collect services last week.

The British retailer raised its guidance for profits to be better than a small loss or profit for the full year, which it reports in March, thanks to sales holding up during its peak trading period ahead of Christmas.

The central bank set up its Covid corporate financing facility at the behest of the government at the start of the health crisis in March, under which it buys commercial paper issued by companies that have an investment grade credit rating. More than 200 large businesses have tapped the scheme to date.

Valentina Romei

UK retail sales rose less than expected last month, pointing to little support for the economy from consumer spending while public finances deteriorated ahead of a national lockdown in January.

The volume of sales volume climbed 0.3 per cent in December compared with the previous month, the Office for National Statistics said on Friday, which is lower than a 1.2 per cent increase in a Reuters poll of economists. It follows a 3.8 per cent contraction in November when sales were limited by that monthlong lockdown.

“December’s retail sales increased slightly, driven by an improved month for clothing sales, as the easing of some lockdown measures for parts of the month meant more stores were able to open,” said Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician for economic statistics.

In 2020 retail sales had their largest annual fall in history.

Compared with the same month last year, retail sales were up 2.9 per cent, boosted by consumers switching from consuming services, such as restaurants and bars, to buying goods, such as food and drinks.

Dave Lee in San Francisco

Hundreds of the essential products that have come to define pandemic living have sustained significant price increases on Amazon this year, with some jumping to many multiples of their original price, research suggests.

Analysis published by the US Public Interest Research Group, a non-partisan consumer advocacy organisation, looked at 750 “essential” items sold on Amazon’s marketplace, comparing their pre-pandemic prices to what customers paid for them at the end of 2020.

The items monitored ranged from essential products such as face masks and toilet paper to those that have become suddenly popular in lockdowns such as computer monitors.

PIRG found that of the 750 items, the prices of 409 had increased by more than 20 per cent, while 136 had more than doubled. Patio heaters, suddenly a must-have during winter lockdowns, had the most significant percentage increase, with one model up from $150 to $699 — a 366 per cent jump.

Read more here

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

The release of No Time to Die, the latest James Bond film, has been delayed until October as the pandemic means many cinemas remain closed.

The Bond website and Twitter account said the film will be released on October 8, without giving further details.

No Time to Die was originally to be released last April before the date was pushed back first to November and then to April 2021 as measures designed to slow the spread of the virus mean many of the world’s cinemas are shut.

Some studios have opted to release their films straight to streaming services, such as Disney’s Mulan.

Primrose Riordan and Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong

A group of more than 200 pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong is set to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in mainland China, ahead of the rest of the city’s population, in order to attend the Chinese Communist party’s premier political event this year.

The businesspeople, lawmakers and other professionals represent Hong Kong on some of mainland China’s most important legislative bodies. These include the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, and the National People’s Congress, China’s annual rubber-stamp parliamentary session, which will be held in March.

Most members of the group were set to travel from Hong Kong to Shenzhen on Friday to receive the shot, according to two people with direct knowledge of the plan. The vaccinations would be implemented to prevent an outbreak at the NPC, one person familiar with the matter said.

Members of the group were so keen to be vaccinated, they sought to bring their families. “Some of the guys asked to bring their wife, but were told no,” one person said.

Read more here

Jude Webber in Mexico City

Mexico set a grim milestone on Thursday with a double record — the highest daily tally of both infections and fatalities recorded since the Covid-19 pandemic began, equivalent to more than one death a minute.

The health ministry confirmed 22,239 cases compared with the previous day, bringing the total tally to 1,711,283 infections, and a daily increase of 1,803 confirmed deaths. That put the overall death toll at 146,174.

Low testing and high excess mortality data, however, means the numbers are widely considered to be underestimates.

Based on the reckoning that there are 1,440 minutes in a day, Thursday’s tally puts the death toll at more than one a minute. However, Laurianne Despeghel, an economic consultant who has been studying excess deaths data, tweeted: “If you consider the factor of 2.48 excess deaths per every official Covid death, on a day like today, more than 3 people a minute are dying because of the health crisis in the country.”

Mexico has begun inoculating health care workers with the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine but will now not receive any more of those jabs until February 15 while the US pharma company retools its plant in Belgium to be able to boost production.

In the meantime, Mexico hopes swift regulatory approval will allow it to deploy the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and China’s CanSino jab.

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

Health authorities in China reported 94 new locally transmitted cases of Covid-19 on Friday as officials battle a series of outbreaks in the north of the country.

The new cases take the total since the start of the year to more than 1,400. Authorities have placed tens of millions under lockdown and conducted multiple rounds of mass testing in virus hotspots in efforts to control the worst outbreaks since last spring.

Heilongjiang, a province bordering Russia, reported 47 new cases, neighbouring Jilin recorded 19, while Hebei added 18 new cases. Beijing, Shanghai and Shanxi province added three, six and one respectively.

Local governments are warning against travelling for the lunar new year, when workers return to their hometowns from the country’s big cities.

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

India’s Covid-19 vaccination drive is picking up steam, with more than 1m healthcare workers now treated with the vaccine, after initial IT hiccups that had acted as a brake on rollout.

More than 223,000 received jabs on Thursday, the highest single day total since the drive began on Saturday. The more than 1m healthcare workers so far inoculated received a first dose of the vaccine.

The uptick in daily inoculations followed fixes to the government’s vaccination IT platform, the Covid Vaccination Intelligence Network, or Co-Win, to give it the flexibility to adjust for no-shows and walk-in recipients.

Initially, the platform selected beneficiaries but had no provision to allow others to be vaccinated if those designated for jabs on a given day failed to turn up. The app now allows for healthcare workers to walk in and be treated if slots are available.

Indian public health officials have also been working to overcome reluctance by healthcare workers to receive inoculations amid concern about their efficacy and long-term impact.

India’s vaccination drive is using two different vaccines — a local-produced version of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and an indigenously developed vaccine, Covaxin, produced by Bharat Biotech and approved for use in a "clinical trial mode".

Many healthcare workers have balked at being inoculated with Covaxin given the lack of efficacy data, which has hit the vaccine uptake.

India had aimed to vaccinate around 300,000 a day in the first week of its inoculation drive, but so far has only reached about 57 per cent of the target. New Delhi hopes to immunise 300m Indians — including healthcare workers and the elderly — by the end of August.

Gary Jones in Hong Kong

Border workers in New Zealand’s quarantine facilities will be offered voluntary daily coronavirus saliva tests in addition to regular weekly testing, the Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, said on Friday.

The option will be rolled out at the Jet Park Quarantine facility in Auckland starting Monday, and then to dual-use managed isolation and quarantine facilities in Wellington and Christchurch.

“This new precautionary measure is in response to higher rates of infection overseas and the more transmissible variants of Covid-19,” Mr Hipkins said.

Saliva tests, he added, have a lower sensitivity than the nasopharyngeal test, so will not replace diagnostic testing methods already in place but will be an “additional screening tool for our highest risk border workers”.

“They are among the most tested people in the country,” Mr Hipkins said.

Gideon Long in Bogotá

Colombia recorded its 50,000th death from coronavirus on Thursday, becoming the twelfth country in the world to pass the sombre milestone and the third in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico.

The health ministry said it had registered 395 deaths in the previous 24-hour period taking the total to 50,187 since the pandemic began. That means that in a country of just over 50m inhabitants nearly one in every 1,000 have died of the virus.

In total, nearly 2m Colombians have tested positive for Covid-19 since the first case was detected last March.

Having weathered the first wave of the pandemic relatively well compared to neighbouring Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, Colombia is suffering particularly badly during the second wave, with the average daily number of new cases outstripping those of its peers on a per capita basis.

The government has ordered a return to strict lockdowns in parts of Bogotá and other cities, with many intensive care units reporting over 90 per cent occupancy.

Gary Jones in Hong Kong

Africa is in danger of being left behind in the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines as bilateral deals elsewhere in the world drive up prices, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

Guinea is the sole low-income country in Africa to receive doses, the WHO said, with only 25 people being inoculated so far. The Seychelles is the only African country to have started a national vaccination campaign.

“We first, not me first, is the only way to end the pandemic,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional director for Africa. “Vaccine hoarding will only prolong the ordeal and delay Africa's recovery. It is deeply unjust that the most vulnerable Africans are forced to wait for vaccines while lower-risk groups in rich countries are made safe.

“Health workers and vulnerable people in Africa need urgent access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines.”

Victor Mallet in Paris and Sam Fleming in Brussels

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has announced new coronavirus rules for travellers from the EU, with France requiring European visitors as well as those from outside the bloc to have a negative Covid-19 test performed less than three days before they enter the country.

The new restrictive measures, to come into effect from Sunday morning, were announced by the Elysée Palace late on Thursday and follow an EU summit by videoconference at which leaders discussed measures to control the pandemic with continuing vaccination programmes and controls on free movement.

Read more here

Peter Wells in New York

The number of people in US hospitals with coronavirus fell below 120,000 on Thursday for the first time in more than three weeks, although the country's death toll rose by almost 3,900.

Hospitalisations dropped to 119,927 from 122,700 on Wednesday, according to Covid Tracking Project data. That is the lowest level since December 27, and down from a peak of 132,474 on January 6.

The new infection rate is also displaying an encouraging trend, remaining below 200,000 daily cases for five days running after 184,864 were reported on Thursday. Over the past week, the US has averaged 187,514 new infections a day, the lowest rate of the year.

A further 3,889 fatalities were attributed to coronavirus, down from a single-day record 4,409 on Wednesday. That took the death toll to 400,726.

Johns Hopkins University, which uses an alternate methodology, earlier this week put its death toll at more than 400,000.

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

Asia-Pacific stocks took a breather on Friday after US stocks hit new highs on optimism over President Joe Biden’s recovery plan.

In Japan, the Topix shed 0.6 per cent, the Kospi in South Korea dipped 0.4 per cent and the S&P/ASX 200 in Sydney was down 0.1 per cent.

Those moves came after the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite rose 0.6 per cent to notch a record high on Wall Street on Thursday, while the S&P scraped a record.

S&P 500 futures were down 0.1 per cent.

Valentina Romei in London

UK consumer spending fell sharply in early January as coronavirus restrictions were tightened, registering a much bigger fall than during the second lockdown in November, according to a new data set that points to a shrinking of the economy at the start of the year.

Spending in the seven days to January 14, the first full week of the third lockdown in England, fell 35 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels, with a similar fall in the first week of 2021 reflecting fresh curbs over the Christmas period.

The sharp drop was revealed in Bank of England figures on credit and debit card spending released by the Office for National Statistics on Thursday, which use February 2020 data as its base.

Read more here

Peter Wells in New York

Texas on Thursday reported its second-biggest daily increase in coronavirus fatalities on record, pushing the state's death toll above 33,000.

Authorities attributed 441 deaths to coronavirus, down from Wednesday's single-day record of 450. That pushed the total number of fatalities in the state to 33,285, ranking third in the US behind California and New York.

Over the past week, Texas has averaged about 319 deaths a day, a record rate.

An additional 18,370 new infections were reported by the health department, which is slightly above the seven-day average. A further 594 historical cases stemming from older tests were added to the state total.

The number of people currently in Texas hospitals with coronavirus dropped by 306 over the past 24 hours to 13,564 and marked the seventh day running below the 14,000 level. The state reported a record 14,218 hospitalisations on January 12.

Richard Waters in San Francisco

IBM revealed that 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 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.

California on Thursday reported fewer than 20,000 new 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Dutch airline KLM will cut up to 1,000 more jobs this year, taking total reductions over the pandemic close to 6,000. The move came as the group said “the reality is that the recovery is taking considerably longer than expected”.

Eurozone consumer confidence dipped in January as new restrictions shut businesses and forced more people indoors. The flash consumer confidence for the eurozone dropped to minus 15.5, which is 1.7 points lower than in the previous month.

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

A fire that broke out on Thursday at the Serum Institute of India’s plant has claimed five lives. The cause of the fire at the plant that is under construction in Manjri, Pune, is as yet unknown.

The pound hit its highest level against the dollar in almost three years as success in the rollout of vaccines along with avoiding a hard Brexit raised investor confidence. Sterling rose 0.6 percent against the dollar and touched just over $1.37 in mid-morning trading on Thursday.

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 vaccine providers to 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. More than 1.1m people have received at least one dose, and 39,214 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 the public health advisory from Florida’s surgeon general.

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