Coronavirus latest: UK advises against non-essential travel to US


China to quarantine international travellers

Don Weinland reports:

International passengers landing in Beijing will be sent to quarantine centres for 14 days starting on Monday, in the strongest measures taken by China to prevent a resurgence in coronavirus cases from inbound travellers.

All asymptomatic travellers entering the capital from abroad would be sent to the centres at their own expense, a Beijing official said at a press conference. In some exceptional circumstances, incoming passengers would be allowed to quarantine at home.

Cases of coronavirus among incoming international travellers outnumbered domestic cases for the first time in China on Friday, as Europe and the US report soaring new case numbers and official figures plummet in China.

The Chinese government in recent days has sought to reframe the pandemic as a global crisis, not one focused on or originating in China. A senior Chinese diplomat even suggested last week that the virus may have been planted in the country by the US military.

Hong Kong extends quarantine on arrivals

Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong reports:

Hong Kong has announced a compulsory home quarantine to people arriving from Hong Kong who have been to the Ireland, the UK, the US and Egypt in the past 14 days. The quarantine will apply from Thursday.

Authorities said more than half of the 46 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the past 14 days were imported. Seven other cases involve patients visiting places outside Hong Kong during part of the incubation period, said the Centre for Health Protection.

The territory earlier introduced quarantine measures to people arriving from Korea, Iran, Hokkaido in Japan and the Schengen Area in Europe.

Myanmar and Vietnam to quarantine travellers from affected countries

John Reed in Bangkok reports:

Myanmar and Vietnam on Sunday became the latest countries to impose strict quarantine requirements on travellers from countries with high numbers of reported coronavirus cases.

Myanmar’s ministry of health and sport announced that visitors from South Korea, China, Italy, Iran, France, Spain, and Germany. would face either a mandatory 14-day quarantine or return home if they arrived in Myanmar unannounced.

Visitors with a history of travel to the US over the past 14 days will be subject to “surveillance”, according to the ministry.

Separately, Vietnam’s health ministry on Sunday said that all passengers arriving from or through China, South Korea, the UK, and Schengen countries would face compulsory quarantine and testing for coronavirus, Reuters reported.

Vietnam has reported 53 coronavirus cases to date. Myanmar has to date reported no cases of Covid-19, but doubts have been voiced about the veracity of this claim in a country that shares a long border with China.

In a report on a briefing by government spokesman Zaw Htay on Friday, the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported: “Myanmar does not share the customs of greeting with handshakes, hugs or kisses that [western] countries have.”

The paper went on to say:

It also does not have a high number of credit card users compared to other nations, as the person handling credit cards at the counter would be in close contact with hundreds of different people in a day.

Global recession already here, say top economists

Chris Giles in London, Brendan Greeley in Washington and Martin Arnold in Frankfurt report:

The world economy has fallen into recession, suffering from a “wicked cocktail” of coronavirus and the dramatic action to limit its spread, according to four former IMF chief economists.

As the virus has spread from China to the rest of the world, economists no longer feel they have to wait for data to confirm the world is in recession, even though official forecasts remain more optimistic.

The former top officials agreed that addressing the public health needs was the first priority, but said that with a sharp downturn likely, governments should be preparing to spend significant sums to protect businesses and households.

Serving policymakers and officials have so far sought to contain alarm over the economic consequences of the coronavirus. Mark Carney, Bank of England governor, has declined to predict a UK recession while Christine Lagarde, European Central Bank president, said only that it would be a “major shock”.

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Nike to close stores in US, Canada and Europe

Nike is to close stores in countries around the world for almost two weeks from Monday in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus. The closure will include shops in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

The US sportswear company said:

The well-being of our teammates and consumers is our top priority so we have decided to close our stores in multiple countries around the world including in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand to limit the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19). These closures will go into effect from Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 27.

Nike added that its stores in South Korea, Japan and most of China remained open.

Swiss cases surge past 2,000

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Swiss authorities have reported a surge in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus overnight, with more than 2,200 now infected in the wealthy alpine country.

The Federal Office of Public Health said on Sunday afternoon it had confirmed 841 additional cases — a leap of more than 60 per cent in 24 hours.

On Saturday, Switzerland had 1,359 cases. According to the FOPH, 14 have so far died of the disease.

So far Bern has taken a relatively gradualist approach to locking down public life.

The government moved on Friday to ban all gatherings of more than 50 people, effectively closing many restaurants, bars, and cafe, but leaving it up to businesses to decide exactly how to respond.

In Zürich, the country’s largest city and commercial centre, many restaurants, bars and cafes remained open on Saturday evening.

Schools across the country have also been shut down. The border with Italy, whose neighbouring Lombardy region remains the worst-hit area in Europe by the pandemic, is now completely closed to all but Swiss citizens returning home.

Switzerland’s highly-federalised political structure means that more restrictive measures have been left up to individual cantons to enforce.

The Italian-speaking southerly canton of Ticino, only a few dozen kilometres from Milan, has gone into a full-lockdown as of today, with restaurants, bars, shops and businesses ordered to close from midnight Saturday onwards.

Malaysia reports biggest daily jump in cases

Stefania Palma in Singapore reports:

Malaysia has reported 190 new confirmed cases, the largest daily jump yet, that brings the country’s total to 428.

Most new patients are linked to a cluster involving a mass religious gathering at Kuala Lumpur’s Sri Petaling mosque.

The health ministry on Friday said about 16,000 people attended the event, 14,500 of which were Malaysians and the remaining being foreign nationals. Noor Hisham Abdullah, health director general at the ministry, has described the screening of the participants as a “mammoth and daunting task”.

So far, 42 cases have fully recovered and have been discharged from Malaysian hospitals.

France to cut train travel and airport use

Victor Mallet in Paris reports

France will progressively cut back long-distance travel to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the government announced on Sunday, adding to earlier moves to close cafés, restaurants and non-food shops.

Elisabeth Borne, ecological transition minister responsible for transport, announced the latest measures at a news conference in Paris. Long-distance train movements will be gradually cut to half their normal level, and airport use reduced with the closure of certain terminals, although borders and airports remain open.

“The idea is to limit trips as far as possible,” she said. “Everyone will be able to return home there will be no sudden transport stoppage.”

Meanwhile, Bruno Le Maire, finance minister, urged the French not to go on a panic-buying spree, insisting there were no food shortages in the country and that 90-95 per cent of the usual product lines were available in supermarkets.

“There are no shortages and there will be no shortages if everyone behaves responsibly,” he said. “Continue to do your food shopping as before.”

Denmark to cover three-quarters of sacked employees’ salaries

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent, reports

Denmark’s government will cover three-quarters of employees’ salaries who would otherwise have been fired as part of a package to protect Danish businesses and citizens from the worst economic effects of the coronavirus.

Mette Frederiksen, the centre-left prime minister, said on Sunday that the government would cover up to DKr23,000 ($3,400) per employee per month with companies paying the other 25 per cent.

For hourly workers — those not on a fixed salary — the government will cover 90 per cent of their wages up to DKr26,000 a month.

“The echo of what we do now will be heard in the future,” said Ms Frederiksen. “It is now that we build a path so that companies and employees can best get through the crisis.”

The measures, agreed between the government, employers and trades union, will apply to all private Danish companies hard hit by coronavirus who are planning to fire at least 30 per cent of their workers or more than 50 employees. The temporary compensation scheme will be backdated to March 9 and apply until June 9. To receive the money, employees will have to give up five vacation days.

“It is an investment that will be very expensive. But the alternative would be that even more would be made unemployed at a time when the opposite is needed,” said finance minister Nicolai Wammen.

Afghanistan’s open borders raise fears of contagion

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

President Ashraf Ghani expressed deep concern about Afghanistan’s vulnerability to coronavirus, particularly from neighbour Iran, which is suffering from one of the biggest outbreaks of the disease.

Afghanistan has confirmed 16 coronavirus cases, all linked to Iran. But authorities have struggled to shut down the flow of traffic across the border.

Mr Ghani said in an emergency video conference of South Asian leaders to discuss the coronavirus crisis:

We are in unknown territory and our vulnerability comes from our openness. We have open borders and the flow cannot be stopped … Iran has become the central node for preventing the spread of the disease to the rest of South Asia.

Afghanistan has ordered its schools and communal prayers to stop in a bid to control the spread of the disease. But he said Kabul was now wrestling with questions of “how do we keep women, children and youth occupied”.

Maldives faces foreign exchange crisis as virus hits tourism

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

The Maldives has warned that it faces an imminent foreign exchange crisis – and a huge shortfall in government revenues – as tourist arrivals plummet due to the global coronavirus crisis.

Tourism accounts for a quarter of the gross domestic product of the Maldives, and China and Italy – the two countries worst hit by the virus – are the archipelago’s first and third largest source of foreign tourists.

In a video conference with other South Asian leaders, Ibrahim Solih, president of the Maldives, said that tourist arrivals in February had fallen 14.2 percent year-on-year, and that in the first weeks of March, the decline was 22 percent.

“If the current trend continues, we will have a 35 percent drop [in tourism revenues] this year,” Mr Solih said. “Maldives is now facing a serious shortfall in foreign current earnings. If the foreign currency shortfall continues, it will have a detrimental impact on the Maldives, which has an extremely high dependency on imports.”

Mr Solih said that the foreign exchange crisis was also “seriously hindering the government’s ability to respond appropriately to the crisis.”

The Maldives, with a population of around 436,000 people, currently has 13 confirmed coronavirus cases.

UK urges citizens to leave Argentina as it suspends European flights

Sarah Provan in London reports:

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has urged non-resident British nationals in Argentina to leave the country since the last direct flight to the UK is due to depart on Monday.

President Alberto Fernández on March 12 announced a 30-day suspension of all international flights from Europe, including the UK, US, China, Japan, South Korea and Iran, to Argentina.

The Argentine government has prohibited non-resident foreigners who have transited through those countries within the past 14 days to come into Argentina. For those already in Argentina who have travelled from those countries they too face a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period so as to limit the spread of the virus. Argentina has confirmed 31 cases.

This is what the FCO’s update from late Saturday says on its website:

The FCO strongly encourage non-resident British nationals in Argentina to consider leaving to avoid difficulties they will face if flights out of the country and the region are further restricted and they are unable to get home.

UK Foreign Office advises against travel to US

Laura Hughes in London reports:

The Foreign Office said it was advising against all but essential travel to America after US President Donald Trump extended a ban on travel between the US and European countries to include the UK and Ireland.

An FCO spokesperson said: “We are advising against all but essential travel to the USA following the US government announcement imposing restrictions on travel from the UK (and Ireland) effective from midnight on Monday 16 March EST / 0400 on Tuesday 17 March GMT.”   

Indian states order shutdowns as cases increase

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

India has said that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country has jumped to 107, up from around 84 on Saturday, with two fatalities.

The cases – still nearly all in people who had a history of travel to affected areas or their immediate close contacts – are scattered across the country, with the western state of Maharashtra and the southern state of Kerala recording the largest numbers.

Of the total cases, 17 are foreigners, including a group of 16 Italian tourists that had been on holiday in Rajasthan.

Many Indian states, including Gujarat, Delhi, Bihar and Telangana, have ordered shutdowns of schools, colleges, shopping malls, cinemas and other public places, to try to curb the spread.

Karnataka, where Bangalore – the Silicon Valley of India – is located, has ordered the most sweeping closures in India, with all pubs, restaurants and other commercial establishments also ordered to close.

India has closed its borders to the entry of most foreigners, save for diplomats, UN officials, and some residents, and is appealing to its citizens to avoid all international travel.

Trump tests negative

Donald Trump’s doctor on Saturday announced that the US president had tested negative for coronavirus. The graphic shows those people in Mr Trump’s circle who have come into contact with Covid-19.
To read more on this story click here.

Ryanair to slash flights to Spain as country goes into lockdown

Tanya Powley, transport correspondent, reports:

Ryanair will be “severely” reducing the number of flights it operates across its group to and from Spain, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands following the Spanish government’s decision to “lock down” the country to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The low-cost airline said its group of airlines, including Buzz and Lauda, will be cutting flights from midnight on Sunday until midnight on March 19. It comes just a day after Ryanair cancelled all flights to and from Poland after a similar move by the government there.

Airlines around the world are scrambling to shore up their businesses following a sharp rise in cancellations and travel bans. The chairman of Virgin Group is sending a letter to the UK government urging it to provide up to £7.5bn of emergency state support to rescue the UK aviation industry which has been decimated by the coronavirus impact.

Other short-haul airlines such as easyJet are also currently working through the process of cancelling flights to Spain and other countries which have implemented a country lock down.

Ryanair said it would contact all affected customers by email to advise them of their options.

Norway to expel foreigners without residence permits

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent reports:

Norway is preparing to expel foreigners without a residence permit due to the coronavirus crisis.

Norway’s centre-right government held an emergency cabinet meeting after which it said it had adopted measures to expel foreigners without residence permits without giving further details.

Foreign diplomats were left scrambling to understand the implications of the move, which came after Norway closed its borders to foreigners on Saturday.

“We are working to establish what this means in practice,” Richard Wood, the UK’s ambassador to Norway, wrote on Twitter.

Israel closes holy sites

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

The Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s old city have been shuttered indefinitely to slow the rate of infections in Israel, say Islamic religious authorities.

The mosque, the third holiest religious site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, attracts thousands of worshippers daily, but numbers had been dropping in recent weeks over fears of contagion. Prayers at the eighth century mosque will be held in an open courtyard between the neighbouring buildings, an official told Reuters.

Jerusalem is home to holy sites for Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and religious authorities have responded to the government’s calls for social distancing by asking worshippers and pilgrims to avoid large congregations.

Israel is putting all overseas visitors and returning Israelis into a 14-day isolation, effectively shutting off the country from much of the world, as airlines have cancelled flights en masse and the borders with Egypt and Jordan have been sealed.

Czech government prepares to put country into lockdown

James Shotter in Warsaw reports:

Czech prime minister Andre Babis said on Sunday that the government was likely to put the whole country in quarantine, in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

In an interview with a Czech TV station, Mr Babis said that he would be putting forward the measure at a cabinet meeting later today, and he expected the proposal to be accepted.

The Czech Republic has already taken a number of far-reaching steps in its efforts to combat the virus, including closing the country’s borders, forcing non-essential shops too close, and banning public gatherings of more than 30 people.

The health ministry said on Sunday morning that 214 cases of the novel virus had now been confirmed, up from 189 on Saturday evening.

Rouhani rules out restrictions on Iran businesses

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran reports:

President Hassan Rouhani has assured Iranians that the country has a sufficient supply of consumer goods and has ruled out any businesses being subjected to restrictions in a bid to help curtail the spread of coronavirus.

The president said:

The nation will be assured that their required commodities including those for hygienic and medical purposes or consumer or daily goods are being supplied every day. There is enough reserves, the required purchases have been done and ports are full of commodities.

A day after rumours spread that some cities such as the capital Tehran would be quarantined, Mr Rouhani stressed that economic activities must go on normally in the lead up to the Nowruz new year holidays, which start on March 21. “There will not be such a thing neither now nor during Nowruz holidays,” he said.

Tehran mayor Pirouz Hanachi said that the capital could not be quarantined because supply of basic needs and compensation for the economic losses would not be possible in the face of US sanctions.

Iran said 724 people have so far died from the illness, up from 611 a day before while 13,938 have tested positive since the coronavirus hit the country on February 19.

Australian stock exchange ASX tells employees to work remotely

Philip Stafford in London reports:

ASX, the Australian stock exchange, has told most of its employees to work remotely after one of them at its central Sydney site tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday.

Employees at its main Bridge Street office, its data centre which houses the servers for trading, back-up sites, interstate and overseas offices have been told to work from home until further notice, the exchange said in as statement on Sunday morning.

It has made exceptions only for a core group of employees who will remain on ASX sites to manage daily market operations such as technology and surveillance.

The employee has mild symptoms of Covid-19 and is not required to be hospitalised, the ASX said. It added that the employee had had close contact with a further 20 co-workers and it has since undertaken a deep clean of the Bridge Street office.

The statement said:

Our employees have the capacity to work remotely, which is a normal and regular part of ASX’s business continuity plan and testing activity. Many already work flexibly and/or remotely from our various sites.

Greece orders hotel shutdown

Kerin Hope in Athens reports:

Greece has ordered resort hotels to stay shut until April 30, delaying the start of the tourist season as it ramps up measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Hotels will lose a significant chunk of annual revenue, as most resorts on the mainland and islands are heavily booked over Easter.

Yiannis Retsos, president of SETE, the leading Greek association of hoteliers and tour operators, said:

This is a necessary and proper action. We need to remain ready for brave decisions when it comes to protecting public health … to see the bigger picture and methodically prepare for the day after.

City hotels will not be affected by the shut-down, the economy ministry said.

The government said all organised beaches would be closed after thousands of Athenians people crowded the coastline on a warm spring day, ignoring official advice on social distancing.

Goldman to allow Apple Card customers skip March payments

Laura Noonan, in Dublin reports:

Goldman Sachs’ Apple Card has promised to allow customers to skip their March payments if they are adversely affected by the coronavirus, in the latest example of banks acting to ease the financial stress of the pandemic.

An email sent to Apple Card customers on Saturday night said “the rapidly-evolving Covid-19 situation poses unique challenges for everyone and some customers may have difficulty making their monthly payments.”

It asked affected customers to enroll in a Customer Assistance Program to skip their March payment “without incurring interest charges”. Apple Card is only in the US market.

Goldman’s Marcus consumer lending platform is also offering affected customers a one-month interest free deferment, a person familiar with the situation told the FT.

Global case numbers push towards 160,000

As governments across the world implement increasingly severe measures to stem the spread of coronavirus, cases continue to rise.

Steve Bernard, senior data visualisation journalist, has mapped the latest figures.

French local elections go ahead despite lockdown

Victor Mallet in Paris reports:

French citizens emerged from a coronavirus lockdown only hours after it was imposed to cast their ballots in municipal elections, with President Emmanuel Macron deciding to go ahead with the voting “to ensure the continuity of our democratic life”.

On Saturday night, the government dramatically reinforced control measures, ordering the closure of all cafés, restaurants, non-essential shops and places of entertainment to try to slow the spread of Covid-19. Schools will open only for the children of health workers.

Edouard Philippe, prime minister, urged everyone to stay at home except for food shopping and exercise, and told employers to organise teleworking where possible, although public transport will continue to operate and the borders remain open.

According to the health ministry, 91 people in France have died from the virus.
People in central Paris trickled into voting stations in the morning, with analysts predicting that turnout — which had already fallen over the years to below 64 per cent in the last local elections in 2014 — was likely to be limited by fears of catching the disease.

Norway set to clamp down on use of mountain cabins

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent reports

Norway’s local authorities will soon be able to ban people from using their much-loved mountain cabins in a move that has brought home the scale of the coronavirus pandemic in the rich Scandinavian country.

Norwegians had decamped en masse to their remote cabins, popular for cross-country skiing, after the nation’s schools and kindergartens closed on Thursday and Friday, leading to several municipalities warning of their health systems and other public services being overwhelmed in case of local outbreaks.

Hemsedal, a small community of 2,500 people known for its ski trails, warned on Friday that it was expecting 25,000 people to come to cabins this weekend.

Prime minister Erna Solberg urged people to return home from the cabins on Saturday and warned that civil defence forces could be used if people refused to comply.

Norway’s government will now make new rules that allow local authorities to ban people from a different municipality from staying in their cabins, and will check on Sunday evening if people are complying, before then bringing in a potential ban.

Norway’s crisis response is under scrutiny after the entire leadership of its health authorities was put in quarantine after one of its top managers was exempted from self-isolating on returning from Spain, only to develop coronavirus.

Egypt sets aside $6.4bn to combat virus

Heba Saleh in Cairo reports:

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president has announced the allocation of $6.4bn to fund a “comprehensive plan” to combat the new coronavirus. Details have not been announced on how the money will be spent.

Schools and universities have been ordered closed for two weeks starting today in an effort to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus as cases mount in the country to 109.

Mostapha Madbouli, the prime minister, said on Saturday the suspension of classes was necessary because there were 22m students in schools and 3m in universities accounting for a quarter of all Egyptians. He said all schools and universities will be sanitized during the closure of studies and he urged parents to “do all that is necessary to protect their children from going out on the street.”

The education minister said on Saturday that seven students at different schools had tested positive for the virus.

Some 45 Coronavirus cases were found among workers and tourists on a Nile cruise boat last week. Other visitors from the US, France and Greece tested positive after their return to their countries. So far there have been only two deaths in Egypt.

Austria puts civil defence forces on standby amid lockdown

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced further stringent measures to lockdown public life and put civil defence forces on standby as the country prepares for an explosion of coronavirus cases.

Speaking to the Austrian parliament, Mr Kurz said all gatherings of more than five people were now prohibited. Public places such as playgrounds, sports venues and cinemas will close alongside restaurants, bars and cafes, starting on Monday.

The government has also instructed all non-essential shops to shut indefinitely, such as those selling clothes, cosmetics, books and furniture.

To support the measures, the chancellor ordered the drafting of the civil militia. Austrians who passed through obligatory national service within the past five years are now on standby to be called up. Leave for 25,000 police officers has also been cancelled.

Austria will also now suspend all flights to the UK, Ukraine and Russia.

“Austria, and everyone Austrian, now has to isolate themselves,” Mr Kurz said, reiterating the government’s public information campaign unveiled on Saturday to fight the virus.

Citizens should only leave home for one of three urgent reasons, the government has declared: to work, in circumstances where a job is impossible to do from home or postpone, to buy urgent supplies, or to help the more needy.

Pope cancels public Easter service

Miles Johnson in Rome reports:

Pope Francis will not hold a public Easter service this year due to Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, cancelling a public gathering in Rome that typically draws crowds of tens of thousands of the Catholic faithful.

The move to not hold a public events to mark the most important day in the Catholic calendar comes as the Vatican has said that all Papal events during the outbreak will be streamed online.

Last week a move to close all of the churches in Rome was reversed after Pope Francis warned that “drastic measures aren’t always good”.

Boris Johnson set to ramp up UK response to coronavirus

George Parker and Laura Hughes in London report:

Boris Johnson on Sunday dramatically accelerated and stepped up Britain’s response to coronavirus, after 48 hours in which it became obvious that his measured approach to the crisis was losing public, political and scientific support.

Mr Johnson’s allies insist that new measures such as banning mass gatherings, isolating the elderly or quarantining whole families were being brought forward because the epidemic was developing more quickly than expected. 

But the prime minister was also facing an increasingly stark political calculation: if Britain’s death rate started to grow faster than other EU countries like France, Ireland or Belgium – now on lockdown – he would likely get the blame. 

The first signs of unease in Number 10 came on Friday night when journalists were briefed that mass gatherings would be banned, just 24 hours after Mr Johnson and his advisers insisted such a move would be of little merit. 

Indeed Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, had announced on Thursday that the first set of measures to be implemented in Britain’s “delay” strategy were “actually rather large”.

He said that advising people with a cough or fever to self-isolate for seven days was “a big change”. But that advice, along with a suggestion that school trips should be stopped and the elderly should avoid cruise ships, fell massively short of what other countries were doing.

While much of western Europe prepared to shut down to try to contain the virus, Sir Patrick and colleagues allowed the impression to take hold that Britain was resigned to about 40m or more people catching the disease — and that it would actually be a good thing.

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UK supermarkets urge shoppers to exercise restraint

Jonathan Eley in London reports:

The UK’s supermarkets have published a joint letter in major newspapers calling for the public to exercise restraint after a day in which stores were again stripped of toilet rolls, sanitisers and many dried goods.

“We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop,” the open letter stated. “We understand your concerns but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together”.

“We are working closely with government and our suppliers to keep food moving quickly through the system and making more deliveries to our stores to ensure our shelves are stocked,” it added. “Those of us with online delivery and click-and-collect services are running them at full capacity to help you get the products you need when you need them”.

The retailers’ letter was coordinated by the British Retail Consortium and signed by all the UK’s major supermarkets, including those such as Tesco which are not BRC members.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said:

Retailers are working incredibly hard to keep shops well stocked and deliveries running as smoothly as possible. Food retailers have come together to ask their customers to support each other to make sure everyone can get access to the products they need.

Baltic politicans hit out at EU’s handling of the coronavirus crisis

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent, reports;

Baltic politicians have hit out at the EU’s handling of the coronavirus crisis a day after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all closed off their borders to foreigners.

Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s deputy prime minister, said on Twitter on Sunday: “Sad to admit, but Covid-19 crisis shows that EU is not fit and designed to react fast in times of crisis, either health, security or war.”

Marko Mihkelson, vice-chair of the foreign affairs committee of Estonia’s parliament, said: “EU member states are acting in their national lockdowns without any visible coordination between each other. This is serious stress test for the future of EU.”

Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic all broke with EU pleas for a united response and closed their borders to foreigners on Friday. That sparked first Lithuania, then Latvia, and finally Estonia to follow suit on Saturday.

The EU has also faced sharp criticism in Italy over a perceived lack of solidarity with the hardest-hit European nation while China sent medical supplies.

Mr Pabriks added: “I hope that EU will be there when we would have to deal with post-crisis challenges, including financial assistance.”

UK set to ask over-70s to self isolate for up to four months

Laura Hughes in London reports

The UK government will ask anyone aged over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months amid pressure on the prime minister to act faster to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the elderly would be asked to take measures to protect themselves from the virus in “the coming weeks”.

Speaking on Ridge On Sunday on Sky News, he warned coronavirus would “disrupt the lives of almost everybody” in the UK.

The number of people who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the UK has exceeded 1,000, with the number of deaths hitting 21. All of the deaths have been among those with underlying health conditions, or aged over 60.

Mr Hancock said:

The measures that we’re taking, the measures that we’re looking at taking are very, very significant and they will disrupt the ordinary lives of almost everybody in the country in order to tackle this virus.

Pushed on whether these measures were contained in the government’s action plan, he replied “That is in the action plan, yes, and we will be setting it out with more detail when it is the right time to do so because we absolutely appreciate that it is a very big ask of the elderly and the vulnerable, and it’s for their own self-protection.”

Netanyahu corruption trial postponed

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

Israeli caretaker prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial for corruption, set to begin Tuesday, will now be delayed to at least late-May, after the courts were limited to emergency hearings to slow the rate of coronavirus infections.

The three-judge panel overseeing the premier’s long-awaited trial said they took the decision in light of the “declaration of emergency shifts at the court” just hours after Mr Netanyahu decided to shutter most non-essential businesses in a prime-time address to the nation.

Israel has about 200 cases of infection from the virus and no deaths so far, and has restricted all travellers to 14 days’ self-isolation, placed 55,000 people – including major public figures – into self-imposed quarantines and deployed the military to maintain supply chains.

The crisis has also allowed Mr Netanyahu, who has in the past year faced three challenges to his leadership, to demand that the opposition join him in an emergency unity government for at least six months to break the political paralysis caused by deadlocked polls.

His offer for a unity government with the Blue and White party, led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz, could conceivably give him another two years at the helm, making him the longest serving Israeli premier by far. Coalition talks officially begin today.

His indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust had hamstrung his attempts to create a governing coalition, and the historic trial – the first of a sitting Israeli prime minister – was expected to further complicate the task. Mr Netanyahu denies the charges and describes them as a conspiracy to topple his right-wing government.

Super Rugby becomes latest tournament to be suspended

Fergus Ryan in Hong Kong reports:

Super 15, the premier provincial rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, has been suspended.

Sanzaar, the organisers of the competition that involves teams from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, said it had “no option but to suspend the 2020 Super Rugby tournament at the conclusion of this weekend’s matches for the foreseeable future”.

The competition’s governing body made the decision after the New Zealand government said that all returning travellers, including rugby players, would have to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Across the Tasman Sea, the New Zealand cricket tour of Australia has been cancelled, while South Africa’s tour of Indian has also been called off. On Friday, England’s tour of Sri Lanka was postponed and the start of Indian premier League, the world’s richest cricket competition, was delayed until April 15.

Air Baltic suspends all flights

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent, reports:

Air Baltic has become the first airline to suspend all its flights due to the coronavirus pandemic as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all prepare to close their borders.

The Latvian-based airline said it was suspending all flights from March 17 until April 14 and its operations in all three Baltic countries would be affected.

Airline executives believe their industry is facing its biggest crisis in its 100-year history as a growing number of European countries close their borders and the US bars flights from Europe. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all said on Saturday they would close their borders to foreigners in the coming days.

Air Baltic is one of the most indebted airlines in the world relative to its profitability and thus seen as particularly vulnerable. Its ratio of net debt to ebitda — a much-used measure of how easy it is for a company to service its debt — is 11.1, according to Bernstein Research, one of the highest among global carriers.

Lithuania’s said on Sunday that it was entering a period of quarantine with the majority of shops closed apart from food shops and chemists and nearly all Lithuanians banned from leaving the country as well as foreigners entering.

Returning pilgrim becomes sixth Turkish case

Laura Pitel in Ankara reports

Turkey has announced its sixth case of coronavirus in a Turkish pilgrim returning from Saudi Arabia.

The case prompted a stern warning from Turkey’s health minister, Fahrettin Koca, as some Turkish pilgrims shared photographs of themselves holding traditional post-pilgrimage visits with friends and family.

Mr Koca implored returnees — who are expected to number 21,000 this weekend — to spend 14 days at home. He added: “We are worried about new cases. Please do not accept visitors.”

Turkey’s previous five cases of coronavirus were all connected to one traveller, a Turkish citizen who had recently returned from Europe.

Thailand sees largest daily jump in coronavirus cases

John Reed in Bangkok reports

Thailand on Sunday reported 32 new COVID-19 cases, the largest daily jump since the coronavirus outbreak began. There are now 114 confirmed cases of the disease in the country, which was one of the first outside China to be hit by the disease.

The Thai government has stepped up restrictions on entry of visitors from countries with the highest reported caseloads of the disease in recent days.

Visitors from China, Hong Kong and Macau, Italy, Iran, and South Korea now have to apply for Thai visas in their home countries, and present airlines with a health certificate asserting they have no risk of COVID-19 infection before being allowed to board Thailand-bound flights.

South Korean data shows virus containment trend continuing

Edward White in Seoul reports

New confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea fell to their lowest level in three weeks on Sunday, in the latest sign that a programme of mass testing and widespread social distancing is helping to contain what was one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the pandemic outside China.

Health officials in Seoul reported 76 new cases nationwide, down from a peak of 909 cases reported on February 29.

The latest figures from the Korea Centers for Disease Control marked the lowest number of new cases since 74 were reported on February 21 and the third straight day that the number of daily cured patients outpaced new infections.

The total case number in the country of 51m is now 8,162 while 75 people have died from the virus – a mortality rate of below 1 per cent – but officials remain concerned over the potential for new clusters to emerge.

South Korea has administered around 270,000 tests for the virus with as many as 10,000 carried out each day.

Saudi Arabia launches $13.3bn stimulus plan

Simeon Kerr in Dubai reports

Saudi Arabia unveiled a 50bn riyal ($13.3bn) stimulus plan for small and medium sized businesses as the oil-rich Gulf states act to support economies hit hard by coronavirus.

The kingdom’s central bank late on Saturday said it would roll out a package to defer bank payments and provide concessional financing.

The move followed the United Arab Emirates’ decision earlier on Saturday to launch a 100bn dirham ($27.2bn) economic support package to assist corporate and retail banking clients affected by the impact of coronavirus.

The package combines Dh50bn in zero cost loans to banks operating in the UAE and the freeing up of Dh50bn from their capital buffers.

The central bank said it aimed to provide temporary relief on principal and interest payments on outstanding loans to private sector companies and retail customers for up to six months. The bank also eased restrictions on real estate lending.

The virus has been spreading across the Gulf states, driven by residents returning from neighbouring Iran, a regional epicentre of the pandemic.
In the UAE, the government has moved to close down cultural centres and cinemas.

Other countries, such as Kuwait, have taken even more comprehensive measures, calling on residents to stay at home, and clearing public spaces where people continue to gather.

Australia imposes self-isolation on travellers arriving in country

Jamie Smyth in Sydney reports

All travellers arriving in Australia will be forced to go into self isolation for 14 days from midnight on Sunday under a tough new policy aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, the government has said.

Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister, said on Sunday international cruise ships will be banned from docking for the next 30 days, gatherings of more than 500 people will be banned and people should refrain from shaking hands, as part of new advice on social distancing measures.

Self isolation for all travellers, including Australians returning to the nation from overseas, would be policed by legal enforcement, he said.

“If your mate has been to Bali and they come back and they turn up at work and they are sitting next to you, they will be committing an offence,” said Mr Morrison.

The tough self isolation measures for international travellers are similar to restrictions that are due to enter into force in New Zealand from midnight on Sunday.

They follow an increase in the number of coronavirus infections in Australia to more than 250 people, which include cases of community transmission that have not been traced back to travellers.

Mr Morrison said Australian schools would remain open for the time being, amid concerns sending children home could cause problems for healthcare workers who are parents. He said the government is working on new visitor guidelines to protect aged care centres from infection.

Australia’s cabinet has also agreed to hold more meetings by video conference rather than in person- a move that follows confirmation that Peter Dutton, Australia’s home affairs’ ministers, tested positive for the virus.

Welcome to the FT’s special weekend live coverage

The FT has launched special weekend live coverage of the coronavirus outbreak given how quickly this story is developing. We’ll be tapping our global network of reporters and editors to bring you the latest news.

Here are a couple of key stories:

– Spain has followed Italy’s lead in imposing a shutdown on its entire population to fight the coronavirus, while France is closing all non-essential shops and restaurants

– Donald Trump is extending a ban on travel between the US and European countries to include the UK and Ireland

– All travellers arriving in Australia will be forced to go into self isolation for 14 days from midnight on Sunday under a tough new policy aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus

– Air Baltic became the first airline to suspend all its flights due to the coronavirus pandemic as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all prepare to close their borders.

– Billionaire investor Ray Dalio said his Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, was caught flat-footed during this month’s coronavirus-led market turmoil, as its marquee strategy dropped about 20 per cent for the year following sharp reversals in stocks, bonds, commodities and credit.

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