Coronavirus latest: Malaysian prime minister becomes latest world leader in quarantine

Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London

The number of positive coronavirus cases within the UK surged again on Sunday, with the government admitting that “technical” issues had caused delays in the publication of test results.

A record 22,961 new coronavirus cases were confirmed on Sunday, an increase of more than 10,000 compared with 12,872 on Saturday.

The government said a technical issue had been identified overnight on Friday “in the automated process that transfers positive cases data” to Public Health England.

As a result, the number of coronavirus cases announced on Saturday and Sunday included 15,841 additional cases from between September 25 and Friday. Last night, the government said that the issue, though resolved, would affect case numbers in the next few days.

A message on the coronavirus data dashboard on Saturday warned that data published in the next few days would “include some additional cases” from between September 24 and October 1.

In an interview with BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, UK prime minister Boris Johnson argued that government testing data was still “reliable” and called the recent problems a “computing error”.

He said: “All the people who had a positive test have now been notified and I think the data that we have is realistic, and again it’s very useful in helping us to identify you know where the incidence is and what we need to do to tackle it.”

Boris Johnson, left, is interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday

Mr Johnson defended his testing system, arguing that while it was not “perfect” and he remained “frustrated” with it, testing had “made a huge difference” to the government’s ability to track the virus’ growth.

“I think by international comparators it is really very, very good indeed and yes it could be a lot better, but we’re going to get a lot better. And by the way they’re going to get up to 500,000 tests a day by the end of this month,” he added.

The latest figures follow growing criticism from Labour who have accused the government of “serial incompetence” and have called for greater “clarity”.

Speaking to Andrew Marr ahead of Mr Johnson’s interview, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth argued that the testing system was “simply not working” and said the lockdown rules appeared to “chop and change all over the place”.

He said: “We support local restrictions, but what people want is clarity… So we need clarity on why an area goes into restrictions, clarity on how an area gets out of restrictions.”

Mr Ashworth said local authorities should have control over the testing system and the tracing system. “The Serco call centre is simply not working. In Bradford, in Oldham it’s around 50 per cent of contacts are getting traced. No wonder they’re failing to get on top of the infection.”

What happens if Donald Trump falls badly ill during the 2020 election?

Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis has pushed the US into uncharted territory. A country hit by economic devastation, racial unrest and a pandemic is now asking what happens if Covid-19 fells — or incapacitates — the president just weeks before election day.

No major party’s presidential candidate has ever pulled out of the race before election day because of illness, although one vice-presidential candidate passed away shortly before the 1912 poll — and was not replaced on the ballot. Here we look at the big questions.

What happens if a presidential candidate is ill and has to withdraw before polling day?

The candidate’s political party has to make a choice. It is not a constitutional matter but a question for Republicans and Democrats, and both parties have a clear set of rules setting out how to handle such a situation. In the case of Mr Trump, the 168 members of the Republican National Committee — which comprises senior party officials from each state — would vote to choose a new presidential candidate. Mike Pence, vice-president, would be the obvious replacement, but the RNC would be under no obligation to choose him.

Then what?

The anointment of a new candidate would bring a host of logistical and legal complications. State deadlines for candidates to register on the ballot have passed, and millions of ballots have already been printed, mailed out, or indeed been returned by voters.

Mr Trump would probably remain on the ballot, but the arcane US Electoral College system might mean that any replacement selected by the Republican party could yet stand in his place.

Each state chooses a slate of electors, who are then expected to vote in the Electoral College for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state.

Many states have laws requiring electors to obey or promise to obey the outcome of the popular vote, but it is possible they would still vote for the replacement candidate in places where the Republicans won.

“It is hard to imagine they would be sanctioned for violating these laws; in any event, the sanctions are so mild no elector would be deterred by them in this situation,” wrote Richard Pildes, an election law expert at NYU School of Law, in the Washington Post.

The Supreme Court this year ruled that electors could be punished for failing to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state, but explicitly left often the possibility that electors could vote differently if the candidate was deceased.

“We note that because the situation is not before us, nothing in this opinion should be taken to permit the states to bind electors to a deceased candidate,” the court said.

Can a presidential election be delayed?

Delaying the election would be one way to ensure the process can be restarted with the different candidates, but no presidential poll in US history has ever been pushed back.

In July, Mr Trump raised the possibility. In the context of his unsubstantiated warnings about fraud, he wrote on Twitter: “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

However, the power to delay rests in the hands of Congress, not the White House.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate could vote to alter the date of the presidential election by changing the relevant statutes, according to the National Constitution Center.

But they could not delay the vote indefinitely. The constitution does not specify what day the election has to be held but it does include a hard deadline: January 20. That is the day when the president’s term in office has to end.

What happens if a president dies in office?

The presidential line of succession is much clearer than the question of replacing a presidential candidate mid-campaign. First in line to replace Mr Trump is Mike Pence, his vice-president. After him comes Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives and one of Mr Trump’s chief opponents. Next in line after her is Republican senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the president pro tempore of the Senate.

What happens if the president is incapacitated?

If the president’s ability to perform the duties of office was impaired because, for example, he was to be put on a ventilator, the constitution allows him to notify Congress that the vice-president will become acting president.

According to John Hudak of the Brookings Institution, the relevant constitutional provision — section 3 of the 25th amendment — was invoked once by Ronald Reagan and twice by George W Bush for medical procedures “in which anaesthesia or heavy sedation was used”.

Coronavirus latest: UK shop owners ‘have lost’ more than £2bn of rent this year

Guy Chazan in Berlin

Germany is to impose strict restrictions on social gatherings, as Angela Merkel warned that Germany could be facing more than 19,000 new infections a day by Christmas unless more efforts were made to curtail the spread of coronavirus.

Authorities also imposed a minimum fine of €50 for anyone giving false contact details in bars and restaurants, amid rising concern about lying on contact forms.

Germany has been spared the sharp increases in Covid cases seen in countries like France and Spain, but it has still seen new infections rise considerably, to 2,089 on Tuesday, up from about 300 a day in July.

A statement issued after Tuesday’s video conference between Ms Merkel and the prime ministers of the 16 states blamed the increase on people returning from holidays abroad.

“We must be particularly careful now, in view of falling temperatures, the increased time that people will be spending in enclosed spaces during autumn and winter, and the looming flu season,” the statement said.

After the video conference, Ms Merkel said that from now on a maximum of 50 people would be allowed to attend private parties in public or rented premises. She also “strongly recommended” that no more than 25 people attend parties in private premises.

The rules will only apply in areas that have seen an incidence of 35 or more coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days. For areas which have seen 50 or more cases per 100,000 people, the ceiling will be lowered to 25 people in public areas and 10 people in private premises.

Ms Merkel noted that the number of new infections in Germany had doubled three times since the start of July, from about 300 to 2,400 in late September. She said that if that pattern continued in the coming months, then the new cases would rise to 4,800 in October, 9,600 in November and 19,200 by late December.

“That underscores the urgent need for us to act — and in particular in those places where we have an exponential increase,” Ms Merkel said.

She said that Germany still had a better record than other countries, with the rate of infection doubling only three times in three months, compared with the UK, where cases were recently doubling every eight days.

But she said that could change as the weather worsened and people were forced to spend more time indoors. “If we want to meet our aspiration to trace all chains of infection in order to interrupt them, then that is easier to do with 300 cases than with 2,400,” she said.

China’s biggest chipmaker hit by US sanctions

The US government has sanctioned China’s biggest chipmaker, dealing further damage to the country’s semiconductor industry after cutting Huawei off from its chip suppliers.

On Friday, the US Department of Commerce told companies that exports to Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) posed an “unacceptable risk” of being diverted to “military end use”, according to a copy of the letter seen by the Financial Times.

The move threatens to cut off China’s biggest chipmaker from crucial US software and chipmaking equipment. Companies now require licences to export such products to SMIC.

“It all depends on how the US implements this. In the worst-case scenario, SMIC is completely cut off, which would severely set back China’s ability to produce chips. This would be a tipping point for US-China relations,” said Paul Triolo, head of tech policy analysis at consultancy Eurasia Group.

The fresh sanctions on SMIC come after the Trump administration imposed penalties on a broad range of China’s tech companies, and threatened to shut down social media apps TikTok and WeChat in the US.

SMIC, a “national champion” that is crucial to the government’s hopes of achieving chip self-sufficiency, became the country’s biggest initial public offering for a decade when it raised $7.6bn in Shanghai earlier this year.

SMIC has already been hit by the tightening of US sanctions on Huawei. This meant that SMIC could no longer serve its largest customer, which generates a fifth of its revenues. The chipmaker had warned of the risk of a worsening of US sanctions in its IPO prospectus.

The sanctions will also affect Qualcomm, the US chip designer which uses SMIC to fabricate some of its chips. Analysts believe that Qualcomm is SMIC’s second-largest customer after Huawei.

On Saturday, SMIC said that it was continuing to engage with the US Department of Commerce. The company reiterated that it “has no relationship with the Chinese military, and does not manufacture for any military end users or end uses.”

SMIC added it had not received any formal notification of the sanctions.

Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has previously declared its opposition to US sanctions on Chinese companies. Last weekend, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced broad powers to curb the operations of foreign companies deemed “unreliable”, such as companies that “boycott or cut off supplies” to Chinese companies.

Lawyers are concerned that Beijing’s “unreliable entities list” could be used to punish foreign companies that enforce US sanctions against Chinese companies, putting such companies in a bind between US and Chinese law.

According to US government sources, the proposal to blacklist SMIC had been made by the Pentagon because it was worried the company was enabling the technological advancement of China’s military.

US pressure has prevented SMIC buying the equipment needed to make cutting-edge chips, such as the kind that Huawei needs, but can no longer buy, for its smartphones.

Since last year, Dutch company ASML, the only maker of the advanced machines needed to make high-end logic chips, has been unable to obtain a licence to export to SMIC.

New rules aimed at preventing exports of US technologies that might support the development of military systems in countries Washington sees as hostile were announced by the Department of Commerce in April. They drastically broadened military end user restrictions in existing export control regulations, and specifically sought to counter China’s efforts to support weapons development with civilian companies through its “military-civilian fusion” strategy.

The new regulations drastically expanded the scope of products subject to military end user licensing, and broadened the definition of military use to include things that might not be components of the final product, such as items used to support development or production.

The US Department of Commerce said: “In general, the Bureau of Industry and Security in the Department of Commerce is constantly monitoring and assessing any potential threats to US national security and foreign policy interests. While we cannot comment on any specific matter, BIS, with its inter-agency partners, will take appropriate action as warranted.”

US health officials downplay hopes of pre-election vaccine

Two top US public health officials have played down the chances of having a coronavirus vaccine before the election, despite Donald Trump’s insistence that one will be available “within weeks”.

During a hearing before the Senate health committee, Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, both insisted drug companies still face hurdles to authorising a vaccine.

Dr Fauci said he expected a vaccine to be authorised by November at the earliest, while Dr Hahn stressed that the FDA would soon issue a number of additional guidelines, which experts say will make it all but impossible to achieve authorisation any sooner.

The comments run counter to assurances from the US president that a Covid-19 vaccine is imminent, and threaten to exacerbate tensions between Mr Trump and his administration’s most senior medical officials.

Dr Fauci told the committee: “We feel cautiously optimistic that we will be able to have a safe and effective vaccine, although there is never a guarantee of that.

“Early studies in animals and in human phase 1 and phase 2 [trials] indicate that individuals induce a response that is comparable to, if not better than, natural infection. And so as these trials go on we predict that sometime by the end of this year — let’s say November or December — we will know whether or not these are safe and effective.”

Four companies currently have a coronavirus vaccine in phase 3 clinical trials, which involve testing tens of thousands of people around the world.

Dr Hahn told the Financial Times last month he was willing to grant an emergency authorisation to a vaccine before the end of those trials, if there was enough data to be sure that the benefits of doing so outweighed the risks.

Since then, however, his agency has been working on additional guidelines for drugmakers which would make it very difficult to secure an authorisation before November.

Three people with knowledge of those guidelines told the Financial Times this week that the guidelines would include waiting until about half of trial participants had been monitored for at least two months after receiving their last injection before declaring a vaccine to be safe.

Experts say such a standard would make it highly unlikely that any company would be ready to apply for authorisation before the US presidential election on November 3.

Dr Hahn told the committee on Wednesday: “[The FDA] will work to provide additional information, so that it is clear what we expect to see should a sponsor choose to submit an emergency use application [EUA].

“FDA also expects that an EUA request would include a plan for active follow-up to monitor safety among individuals who receive the vaccine. In the end, FDA will not authorise or approve a vaccine that we would not feel comfortable giving to our families.”

US banks trim expectations in era of low interest rates

US banks are preparing investors for a prolonged period in which low interest rates are a drag on their profits.

Speaking at an industry conference last week, most of the nation’s biggest banks — including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Bank of America — trimmed their forecasts for net lending revenues for 2020, attributing the cuts to sustained low rates as well as waves of homeowners refinancing their mortgages at lower rates.

JPMorgan, for example, cut its net interest income forecast by $1bn, to $55bn — as compared to $57bn in 2019.

The US Federal Reserve projected last week that rates would remain at their current rock-bottom level until at least 2023, and that it would not tighten policy without first seeing a sustained period of inflation. This is bad news for banks’ profit margins, as low interest rates depress loan yields and the cost of deposit funding cannot fall much further. 

Worries about the impact of low rates drowned out more encouraging news delivered in the banks’ updates. Most said that reserves for credit losses, after big increases in the first two quarters of the year, were unlikely to rise in the third, given solid credit performance. Almost every bank reported that the number of borrowers taking advantage of payment holidays continued to fall.

“We set our second-quarter reserves with a set of scenarios [and it] turned out that the actual data has been better . . . charge-offs keep coming down, frankly, because of credit quality,” said Bank of America chief executive Brian Moynihan. Wells Fargo chief financial officer John Shrewsberry noted that in commercial lending “we’ve actually seen some better realised outcomes than we imagined”. Many other executives echoed that theme.

Banks’ provisions for bad loans have risen by $111bn this year, to $223bn, close to the peak levels of the financial crisis, according to the Fed.

“The group is going down two different tracks — credit and rates,” summed up Scott Siefers, bank analyst at Sandler O’Neill. While the rate environment is a drag, “the credit updates have been about as good as can be hoped. The big reserves are done, at least for now. The [loan payment] deferral updates were constructive too.” Mr Siefers said the emerging consensus on Wall Street was that this would be a “confined” credit cycle, with certain industries hit hard, but most performing reasonably well.

Another piece of good news: banks’ capital markets operations have continued to benefit from higher activity. Both JPMorgan, Citi and BofA for example, project double-digit year-over-year increases in trading revenues for the third quarter.

Yet markets continue to focus resolutely on the bad news. Banks’ stocks have underperformed the wider market by 30 per cent since the Covid-19 crisis began and trade at whopping valuation discounts. The S&P 500 now has a price/earnings multiple of 24; many banks trade at 10 to 12 times earnings.

The low expectations continue into next year: analysts’ estimates for the large banks’ earnings per share in 2021 have not recovered at all from the lows they hit a few months ago, and are a third or more below where they were in February. 

The pervasive pessimism has left bank investors scratching their heads. Eric Hagemann, of Pzena Investment Management — which manages $35bn and has substantial positions in banks including JPMorgan, Citi and Wells Fargo — said that banks’ widening discount made little sense, given that low interest rates should support all stock valuations, by lowering the discount rate for future profits.

“Banks are underperforming because of low rates, but low rates should increase the multiple of all equities. Earnings-per-share estimates coming down makes sense — but multiple contraction, too? It seems like double punishment.” He also noted the potential for some banks’ heavy provisions for bad loans being released as the crisis abates. “If there are reserve releases, the earnings numbers these guys are going to put are going to be huge,” he said.

Coronavirus latest: NYC delays start date for in-classroom learning again

Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe and Chris Tighe

Residents in the north-east of England will be subject to tough new coronavirus restrictions from Friday, as the government struggles to control the surge in cases.

Under new restrictions announced by health secretary Matt Hancock, residents within Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham, will be unable to socialise with individuals outside of their household or support bubble.

In addition, hospitality outlets in the north-east will be forced to operate under a curfew of 10pm to 5am and will be restricted to table service only.

Announcing the new measures in the House of Commons on Thursday, the health secretary said that he sympathised with residents and did not take the decision “lightly”, adding: “I know that these decisions have a real impact on families, on businesses and local communities.”

Mr Hancock said local authorities had written to him requesting tighter restrictions, following a rise in coronavirus cases in the region. In Sunderland, for example, the Covid-19 infection rate had reached 103 positive cases per 100,000, he added.

According to the latest data from NHS Test and Trace, between September 3 and 9, 18,371 people tested positive for coronavirus in England, a 75 per cent increase from last week and the highest weekly total since May.

The region is the latest in a series of areas that have been subject to localised lockdowns in recent weeks.

Last week, 1.6m residents in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull were told that they would be banned from socialising with other households indoors or in private gardens unless they were within a bubble with them.

The prime minister has repeatedly said that measures including the ‘rule of six’ and localised lockdowns are designed to avoid the country having to return to a national lockdown.

He told MPs at a liaison committee meeting on Wednesday that a second lockdown would be “disastrous”, stating: “I don’t want a second national lockdown – I think it would be completely wrong for this country and we are going to do everything in our power to prevent it.”

Santander and UBS chairs should testify in €112m Orcel suit, court rules

Santander chair Ana Botín and UBS chairman Axel Weber will be called to testify over the Spanish lender’s U-turn in hiring Andrea Orcel as chief executive, a Madrid court decided on Monday.

Mr Orcel, UBS’s former head of investment banking, is suing Santander for €112m, alleging that the bank’s reversal of its September 2018 decision to appoint him constitutes breach of contract.

Santander says that, although a letter offering the chief executive post to Mr Orcel was signed by both sides, it was not a contract under Spanish law.

At Monday’s preliminary hearing, which lasted about an hour and a half, the court fixed March 10 as the start of the civil case, and the two sides confirmed that they were unable to reach a settlement. 

Neither Mr Orcel nor Ms Botín were present at the hearing, which had previously been scheduled for April but was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

But Mr Orcel’s side have called Ms Botín as a witness in March, as well as Mr Weber. 

UBS’s role may be significant, because its decision not to pay Mr Orcel deferred pay worth millions of euros made his hiring much more expensive for Santander.

The Spanish bank had proposed giving Mr Orcel up to a maximum of €35m in shares if he forfeited his deferred pay from UBS by joining a rival.

Ms Botín subsequently told Mr Orcel in a December 2018 exchange on Signal, the encrypted messaging app, that “on the subject of compensation Axel [Weber] is not moving at all. Basically 0 [zero].” Days later Santander decided not to proceed with Mr Orcel’s appointment.

The prolonged legal battle over Santander’s volte face and whether Mr Orcel is due compensation have also put the spotlight on corporate governance at the bank. 

The lender argues that his proposed hire was a mistake that it remedied in time amid concerns about the final cost of his appointment. 

Mr Orcel, who had already quit his UBS post by the time of the volte face and who had asked Ms Botín to “empower” him as CEO, has said he was surprised and massively disappointed by the bank’s U-turn.

The fact that the court case is set to begin in March may pave the way for a ruling next year — although it could subsequently be appealed.

Mr Orcel also has recourse to appeal in a separate criminal case he is pursuing against Santander over alleged manipulation of evidence. Santander denies the claims, which have also been rejected by a criminal court. 

In a statement on Monday, Santander said it remained “confident that the decision not to proceed with Mr Orcel’s appointment was both correct and handled appropriately”, adding that it “looks forward to resolving the matter in court”.

Mr Orcel’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
UBS, which has been reluctant to take sides in the dispute, declined to comment.

Coronavirus latest: Birmingham restrictions tightened amid rise in cases

Working from home sent shares of the connected fitness group Peloton to a record high in after-hours trading. Peloton said revenues in the three months ending June 30, its fourth fiscal quarter, grew 172 per cent from a year ago to $607.1m.

A sell-off in US stocks resumed on Thursday, as Congress failed to make progress on a new stimulus package and signs emerged that improvements in the US labour market have stalled. The S&P 500 index closed lower by 1.8 per cent, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite dropped 2 per cent.

Republicans in the Senate failed in their efforts to advance new economic stimulus measures worth about $500bn, after Democrats voted to block the legislation because the package was too small to tackle the scale of the downturn still facing the US.

Northern Ireland’s devolved government has tightened coronavirus rules. Household gatherings will be curtailed throughout Belfast, the region’s capital, as well as the county Antrim town of Ballymena and some neighbouring areas. First minister Arlene Foster said the move reflects the need to “push down” on a rising curve of infections.

The number of people hospitalised in Florida with coronavirus fell below 3,000 for the first time in at least two months. Hospitalisations fell by 153, the biggest one-day drop since late August, to 2,922 as of Thursday morning, compared with 3,436 a week ago.

The UAE said it would rigorously implement fines as weak adherence to physical distancing prompts a surge in coronavirus cases. The Gulf federation recorded 930 new cases on Thursday, the highest daily tally in four months, saying 88 per cent of recent cases had been caused by gatherings.

Recovery in the US oil industry looked to have stalled on Thursday after data showed crude stocks building for the first time in almost two months. US commercial crude inventories surprised the market to grow by 2m barrels – or 0.4 per cent – in the week to September 4.

Seven people have died and hundreds injured in riots in the Colombian capital Bogotá sparked by an incident in which police used stun guns to arrest a man who was allegedly flouting coronavirus restrictions and who later died in hospital.

Singapore Airlines Group, which consists of majority state-owned Singapore Airlines, regional SilkAir and low-cost carrier Scoot, will reduce its workforce by 4,300 people, or a quarter of its staff relative to the average number across the previous financial year.

The Scottish government has tightened limits on indoor gatherings, put on hold planned reopening of theatres and live music venues, and called on people to continue working from home amid a climb in new cases.