Family business: Ben Keswick’s grand plans to modernise Jardine Matheson


By his mid-twenties, Ben Keswick was being groomed to run the business his family has led for five generations in Hong Kong and turned into a $50bn pan-Asian empire.

This week, aged 48 and less than two years into his role as taipan — or top boss — of Jardine Matheson, Keswick has pulled off one of the biggest corporate restructurings in the company’s history.

The deal, in which the Jardines group will buy out the shareholders of its second-largest business unit for $5.5bn, could add vast sums to the Keswicks’ multibillion-dollar fortune and that of two other families linked by marriage, the Weatheralls and the Jencks.

Yet it also presents risks for the 190-year-old business. Keswick will unwind a convoluted cross-holding structure devised by his uncle, Sir Henry Keswick, in the 1980s to defend it from the threat of a hostile takeover. The set-up allowed the descendants of the group’s founding family to control a huge conglomerate while holding only about 17 per cent of the stock.

Keswick is trying to “modernise the business at an urgent pace” said one confidante, an adviser to Jardines’ board.

However, “it creates a more conventional set of risks”, the person added, “the largest being what happens if they don’t deliver the numbers in two or three years”.

A canny deal for Jardines

Jardine Matheson’s dominance is felt throughout Hong Kong. Its sprawling assets in the city include some of Hong Kong’s most expensive commercial properties and its biggest brands, such as the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Elsewhere, its holdings range from Vietnam’s largest dairy producer to a small cement maker in Thailand.

Jardine Matheson’s extensive holdings in Hong Kong include some of the city’s prime commercial properties, such as the Mandarin Oriental hotel © Alamy

But its vast portfolio has attracted criticism. Jardines is “in around 28 totally uncorrelated sectors acquired by Henry [Keswick] over the 47 years he was at the top of the firm, and it’s really hard for anyone to articulate why”, said one adviser to the business. “Under Ben, you’ll start to see them manage their portfolio with a sharper focus on sectors and return on capital.”

The Keswicks have controlled the group for five generations since Thomas Keswick, from Dumfriesshire in Scotland, married the niece of Scottish trader William Jardine, who had started a merchant business in Hong Kong to trade tea and opium.

But keeping the family at the helm has required some politically unpopular moves. Jardines angered Beijing in the mid-1990s when Henry Keswick relocated its Hong Kong stock market listing to Singapore amid concerns about the territory after its handover to China in 1997.

Keswick inherited the chairmanship from his uncle, Henry, who retired aged 80. “Ben is a consensus leader where Henry was a conviction leader,” said one person close to the business.

Henry Keswick, former chairman of Jardine Matheson, and the fourth generation of Keswicks to control the conglomerate

Henry — who has been described by the FT as a “tall, round-faced Old Etonian with a courtly air and a mischievous sense of humour” — did not have any children, resulting in a succession battle that pitted Ben against his cousin, Adam, a board director of Jardines.

“I’m sure Adam was upset but I haven’t seen any problems between the two,” said an executive who advises the board. “They have a very good working relationship and together have masterminded the restructuring.”

The overhaul has so far been viewed positively by the market. Shares in the group rose 15 per cent after the announcement and have continued to climb.

“It was certainly a good deal for Jardine Matheson,” said Hugh Young, Asia head of Aberdeen Standard, whose stake in Jardine Strategic will be bought out at $33 a share. “It was arguably worth a lot more”.

How to future proof a conglomerate

Keswick is viewed by allies and people who know him as both “bright” and “paranoid”.

“He has a strong sense of duty to the company but also knows their history cannot define it,” said one ally.

In common with his uncle, said friends, Keswick has not made a taboo of the company’s role in the Sino-British opium wars. Both have approached building a relationship with China — which is crucial to Jardines’ future in Hong Kong — by being upfront about their family’s past.

“We have had long discussions about Jardines’ history in the opium trade,” said the chairman of a major financial services firm who has worked with the group for some years. “[Ben] doesn’t take himself too seriously in those discussions.”

Keswick, who lives in Hong Kong with his wife, Martha, and four children, is “intensely private”, according to one friend. He has never given a media interview.

Now, his biggest challenge is future-proofing Jardine after a significant hit to its property and hotel portfolio during the pandemic and following two years of political crisis in Hong Kong, where it makes more than a third of revenues.

He has made a number of decisive moves since taking over in 2019. Among them was appointing a “fresh blood” board that includes Stuart Gulliver, the former chief executive of HSBC, and Anne O’Riordan, ex-head of life sciences at Accenture, who has been tasked with overhauling the digital strategy of Jardines and its portfolio companies. Previously, its board was dominated by former executives of the company and family members.

Keswick has also created Jardine’s first investment committee, quashing a cultural hangover from his uncle’s tenure that meant the chairman had final control of all investment decisions. This week, he also announced a strategic investment partnership with Chinese private equity firm Hillhouse Capital.

In a 2016 article in Jardines’ company magazine, Thistle, he wrote about his ambitions for bringing the business into the 21st century. “Once we have taken that first step, there is no looking back . . . We just need to face the future and give it a go.”

Five years on, the future of one of Hong Kong’s oldest business empires is squarely in his hands.

News Corp agrees deal with Google on payments for its journalism


Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp reached a landmark global deal with Google that it said would bring “significant payments” for its journalism, ending a long-running dispute that had been a focal point in the media industry’s fight with big tech companies.

The breakthrough in the News Corp campaign came as Australia, the cradle of the Murdoch media empire, began debating laws on Wednesday that would force Google and Facebook to pay for news.

Google and Facebook have been rushing to complete deals with Australian publishers in an attempt to blunt the force of the bargaining code, which is inspiring other regulators in Europe, the UK and Canada.

However, the Google deal with News Corp announced on Wednesday goes beyond the Australian market, extending to Murdoch titles such as The Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the US and The Times and The Sun in the UK. No other news publisher has reached a single deal with Google across multiple countries.

Robert Thomson, News Corp’s chief executive, said the effort to make platforms pay for using news content had been a “passionate cause” for the company for “well over a decade”.

“I am gratified that the terms of trade are changing, not just for News Corp, but for every publisher,” he said. “For many years, we were accused of tilting at tech windmills, but what was a solitary campaign, a quixotic quest, has become a movement, and both journalism and society will be enhanced.”

Critics said the deal would mainly benefit News Corp rather than the rest of the news industry, since other publishers lacked the negotiating power that Murdoch enjoyed thanks to his extensive news operations in Australia.

“In every attempt to take power away from the platforms, it only gives them more,” said Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at City University of New York. “Google has the power to decide which news organisations should get money, and which shouldn’t. It is the big old legacy players who have political clout who can cash it in.”

The terms of the three-year deal cover licensing payments for content used on Google’s News Showcase feature, the development of a subscription platform, the sharing of ad revenue via Google’s ad technology services, and other audio and video projects.

Don Harrison, president of global partnerships at Google, said News Showcase now has deals with more than 500 publications around the world and the company hoped to “announce even more partnerships soon”.

The size of News Corp’s global deal was not disclosed. Thomson said earlier this month that an agreement with Google would “benefit our company’s financial fortunes” and have a “material impact”.

Google pledged last year to spend $1bn over three years on buying news content, and has reached agreements with publishers in about a dozen countries. But people involved in negotiations in Australia told the Financial Times the sums now under discussion were “multiple times” the size of agreements signed in other parts of the world.

The legislative passage of the bargaining code in Australia is being closely watched in Europe and the US for evidence that a tougher approach can reset the balance between publishers and tech platforms.

Among the code’s features is an arbitration system that would make binding decisions on the fees that Facebook and Google would have to pay news providers if commercial negotiations fail.

It remains unclear how Google’s rush of dealmaking in Australia will affect the bill and its implementation. As well as the deal with Murdoch’s News Corp, Australia’s biggest publisher, Google signed a letter of intent on Wednesday with Nine Entertainment, another large media group in the country.

Angela Mills Wade, executive director of the European Publishers Council, said the global News Corp deal “proves without doubt the value of news media content to Google”.

However, she warned regulators in Australia and Europe to “not be misled into thinking that single big deals between Google and a few influential media companies — just before comprehensive laws come into effect — are the answer to the fair remuneration due to all publishers under the law”.

“The government should continue with a full implementation of the code,” she said.

Senate acquittal exposes deep Republican rifts over Trump


Donald Trump’s acquittal in his second Senate impeachment trial has exposed deep divisions with the Republican party over whether to break decisively from the former president or further embrace his brand of politics.

Trump was exonerated on Saturday even after seven Republican senators voted to convict him of inciting an insurrection that led to last month’s deadly assault on the US Capitol. Under the US constitution, two-thirds of the Senate was needed to find him guilty in order for him to be convicted.

But the final 57-43 vote has revealed serious tensions within the Republican party over how to recover from their recent election losses.

After voting to acquit Trump, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, excoriated the former president, describing his actions in the run-up to the January 6 riot as “a disgraceful dereliction of duty”.

“There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” he said.

However, Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator and fierce Trump ally, called on the party to rally round the former president ahead of next year’s midterm elections, when the GOP will try to win back control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“Trump plus is the way back in 2022,” he told Fox News on Sunday.

Graham also suggested that Lara Trump, the ex-president’s daughter-in-law, should run for a senate seat in North Carolina, which is due to become vacant in 2022. “I think she represents the future of the Republican Party,” he said.

Some moderate Republicans have sought distance themselves from the former president. Larry Hogan, governor of Maryland and a potential 2024 presidential candidate, said the party needed to abandon Trump’s politics if it was going to remain competitive across the country.

“There was a hostile takeover of the Republican party”, he told NBC News. “I think we’ve got to move on from the cult of Donald Trump and return to the basic principles that the party has always stood for.”

Trump, who has kept a low profile since snubbing Joe Biden’s inauguration last month, seemed to make his own intentions clear in a statement on Saturday: “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun.”

“In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people,” he added.

The former president, 74, has not ruled out running for president again in 2024. But he is facing several criminal probes, including investigations in Georgia and New York, that could complicate his political ambitions.

There were signs yesterday of recriminations against the seven Republicans — Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey — who voted with Democrats to convict the president.

Cassidy defended his decision on Sunday after Trump-loyal Republican officials in Louisiana said he was “part of the problem” and should not expect a “warm welcome” when he returns to his home state.

“As these facts become more and more out there, if you will, and folks have a chance to look for themselves, more folks will move to where I was,” Cassidy told ABC News. “People . . . want to trust their leaders. They want people to be held accountable.”

Several Republican lawmakers have either publicly or privately condemned Trump’s behaviour on January 6. But few have been willing to make a clean break with the former president, given the grip he still holds over large swaths of the Republican base.

At the same time, McConnell and others are grappling with whether the party can win back moderate Republicans and independents who abandoned the GOP over Trump last November, and public opinion polls show are outraged by January 6.

Murkowski, who will be up for re-election in 2022, dismissed suggestions that she would lose her seat over the impeachment vote. “If I can’t say what I believe that our president should stand for, then why should I ask Alaskans to stand with me?”

 

Treasuries supported by Fed pledge of ‘patiently accommodative’ policy


Government bonds rallied on Thursday after the head of the US central bank stressed no rapid changes would be made to monetary policy for the world’s largest economy.

Speaking at the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday afternoon, Jay Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, underscored the importance of “patiently accommodative” monetary policy to boost the pandemic-ridden US labour market.

The yield on the two-year US Treasury bond briefly slipped below 0.1 per cent for the first time on Thursday, according to Bloomberg data, before steadying at about 0.11 per cent.

The benchmark 10-year Treasury yield was stable at 1.15 per cent, although European bonds were in demand. Germany’s 10-year bond yield dropped 0.02 percentage points to minus 0.46 per cent. The yield on the equivalent UK bond fell the same amount to 0.47 per cent.

Prospects for a strong economic rebound later in the year had stoked expectations of higher inflation, encouraging fears of the Fed dialling back its $120bn-plus of monthly asset purchases. This monetary stimulus has supported global financial markets throughout the pandemic by flooding the system with cash that institutional investors have then spent on corporate bonds and stocks.

But Powell moved to damp down inflation expectations on Wednesday by saying that any rise in prices would be transient and unlikely to affect monetary policy while the labour market remained “very far” from being strong.

“This is the Fed signalling they will keep things the same until unemployment gets back to pre-Covid levels,” said Remi Olu-Pitan, multi-asset fund manager at Schroders. “Despite fears of inflation, they are using the labour market to justify very loose policy.”

Market forecasts of US inflation remain elevated as President Joe Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus bill is debated in Congress.

The 10-year break-even rate, a measure of US inflation expectations derived from the prices of inflation-protected bonds, is running at about 2.2 per cent. The gold price, at $1,830 on Thursday, has also risen about 2 per cent in the past week as investors bought the metal as a hedge against inflationary pressures.

“Markets have been worried about inflation but what we now have from the Fed is that this is not their primary concern,” Olu-Pitan said.

On Wall Street, the S&P 500 index gained 0.2 per cent at lunchtime in New York while the tech-focused Nasdaq Composite rose 0.5 per cent. This followed data showing that new unemployment claims in the US fell slightly to 793,000 last week, from 812,000 the week before. Roughly 10m fewer Americans are employed compared to a year ago, however.

In Europe the Stoxx 600 benchmark closed up 0.5 per cent, while London’s FTSE 100 rose 0.1 per cent and Frankfurt’s Xetra Dax climbed 0.8 per cent.

The dollar, as measured against a basket of currencies, edged fractionally higher.

Brent crude, the international oil marker, fell 0.2 per cent to just above $61 a barrel after the latest industry data showed falling inventories as oil producers looked to clear the surplus built up during the pandemic.

Oil prices have been on a strong run through the turn of the year, while the prices of industrial metals have also firmed. London-traded platinum rallied to a six-year high of $1,268 an ounce on Thursday before paring back some of those gains in the afternoon.

Nadège Dufossé, head of cross-asset strategy at fund manager Candriam, said she was adding commodities to her portfolios in case the end of coronavirus lockdowns created a “demand shock” that drove inflation expectations higher and caused a sell-off of bonds and equities. “To protect your portfolio from this, you really want to be in assets that would definitely benefit from a surge in consumer demand,” she said.

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Coronavirus latest: Republican congressman dies after contracting Covid


George Russell in Hong Kong

US daily case rates of Covid-19 illnesses were lower among states that adopted mask mandates earlier, while hospitalisation growth rates declined during the first two weeks after implementing statewide mask mandates, researchers have found.

A study published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal on Sunday showed case-rate slopes of minus 1.08 per 100,000 per day among early-adopting states, and minus 0.37 per cent per 100,000 per day among late-adopters, compared with never-adopter states.

“Our findings support statewide mask requirements to mitigate Covid-19 transmission,” they said.

Peter Rebeiro, David Aronoff and Kevin Smith of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine found there were 15 early mask requirement adopters, 19 late adopters, and 17 never adopters among US states and the District of Columbia.

The median Covid-19 rates per 100,000 were 5.70, 5.59 and 5.99 cases a day, respectively. “These analyses advance the scientific evidence showing positive impacts of statewide mask requirements in the US,” they said.

A Kansas City Chiefs fan sits in a bar in Tampa, Florida, ahead of Sunday’s American football Super Bowl

In a separate US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, hospital admissions growth rates declined by 5.5 percentage points among persons aged 18-64 years After mask mandates had been implemented for more than three weeks.

Even a two-week mandate resulted in a 2.9 percentage point decline among adults aged 40-64 years.

The study, led by Heesoo Joo and Gabrielle Miller, concluded that statewide mask mandates might be associated with reductions in transmission of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, and might contribute to reductions in Covid-19 hospitalization growth rates.

The researchers analysed admissions from March 22 to October 17 2020 at 10 hospitals and hospital networks.

“Mask-wearing is a component of a multipronged strategy to decrease exposure to and transmission of Sars-CoV-2 and reduce strain on the health care system, with likely direct effects on Covid-19 morbidity and associated mortality,” they wrote.

Coronavirus latest: US military to help vaccinate Americans


A car stolen from a vaccination site in Florida had vials of the coronavirus shot inside, prompting a nationwide alert in search of the vehicle. Police in Plant City, Florida, said the suspect drove off in the 2018 Hyundai Accent on Wednesday.

Northern Ireland will give students a one-off cash payment of £500 in compensation for the disruption they have suffered during the pandemic, as coronavirus restrictions force most universities in the UK to continue running classes remotely.

New, more infectious Covid-19 variants — including those first identified in the UK and South Africa — have risen to 14 per cent of infections in France from 3.3 per cent on January 8, French prime minister Jean Castex announced on Thursday.

Pakistani cleric Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, who serves as an adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan, has taken the unusual step of issuing a fatwa, or religious decree, urging Pakistanis to ignore calls to refuse Covid-19 jabs. “I just want people to know there is nothing wrong with taking coronavirus vaccines,” he said.

Ralph Lauren reported a bigger-than-expected sales drop as the US retailer was hit by coronavirus-driven restrictions in Europe and Japan. Fiscal third-quarter revenues fell 18 per cent from a year ago to $1.43bn, just shy of Wall Street expectations for $1.46bn, according to a Refinitiv survey.

New US jobless claims dropped to their lowest level since November. First-time applications for unemployment benefits totalled a seasonally adjusted 779,000 last week, the Department of Labor said on Thursday, compared with economists’ forecast for 830,000.

Tapestry, the luxury conglomerate behind Coach and Kate Spade, has eked out an increase in quarterly profits thanks to limited discounts and strong demand for high-end handbags online and from China. The New York-based group generated net income of $311m in the three months to December 26, a year-on-year increase of 4 per cent.

Quest Diagnostics, the largest laboratory company in the US, plans to return more money to shareholders after reporting record profits thanks to surging demand for Covid-19 test processing. The New Jersey-based company raised its quarterly dividend 10.7 per cent and increased its share buyback authorisation by $1bn after higher demand for virus tests pushed up its fourth-quarter sales 56 per cent to $3bn.

The Bank of England announced on Thursday that it would put active preparations in place so that it could set negative interest rates within six months, but stressed that this was not a signal that its Monetary Policy Committee thought such a move was necessary.

Clorox raised its full-year profit and sales guidance as demand for its bleach and disinfectant wipes remained buoyant amid a pandemic-induced cleaning boom. The US company’s net sales rose 27 per cent to $1.87bn year on year in the three months to the end of December, its fiscal second quarter.

Anxiety levels in the UK population hit a record high during the first national lockdown last year, official figures showed on Thursday. Overall wellbeing fell sharply and, while it improved later in the summer as social activities resumed, even then it remained well below pre-pandemic levels on all measures.

UK consumer spending remained depressed as lockdown measures dragged on in January. Spending on credit and debit cards in the week to January 28 was 32 per cent below its average level last February, and had risen only slightly since the start of England’s third lockdown, according to Bank of England figures.

Biden to order review of critical US supply chains


President Joe Biden will issue an executive order requiring the government to review critical supply chains, in an effort to ensure that the US is not too reliant on other countries, including China, for technology and materials.

Three people familiar with the order, including one senior US official, said it would demand that the government make a broad examination of US supply chains. It would require agencies to examine procurement, in addition to critical technologies and materials in private-sector supply chains.

The move follows a pledge Mr Biden made during the presidential race to address both the vulnerabilities in US medical-related supply chains that were exposed by the pandemic as well as a wide range of technologies and materials used in manufacturing that are important for the US industrial base, including for military purposes.

 “What we’re planning is really just to implement the commitment he made on the campaign trail to take a comprehensive look at US supply chain vulnerabilities,” said the senior US official, who stressed that the order was not specifically aimed at China or any particular country.

The official said the administration would take the recommendations from various agencies “to develop proactive steps to close supply chain vulnerabilities not only for government procurement . . . but to really look across the board at supply chains, including very much the private sector”.

He added that the administration would work with US allies to try to reduce some of the current vulnerabilities in American supply chains.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to work with allies and partners on supply chain issues. But we are also obviously, thinking about ways in which we can strengthen our own domestic resilience and add capacity,” he added.

One former official familiar with the debate inside the administration said the order would give agencies one year to come up with classified and non-secret recommendations for steps to implement.

But the senior official said the government would not wait until the end of that period and would implement recommendations as they were made and after evaluation by the National Security Council and the White House National Economic Council.

While the executive order is not expected to single out China — or name the country — it comes as US government agencies are paying much more attention to national and economic security threats from China.

The former official said a draft of the order did not mention China specifically but talked about “competition among great powers”.

Some Biden officials have said that Donald Trump was correct to take a tougher line on China, but that his chaotic approach to policymaking and dismissive attitude towards US allies had been counterproductive.

The US official said the Biden administration wanted to take a less “ad hoc approach” but would look to some of the studies across the government that have already been done — including on rare earths, other critical minerals and semiconductors — as it crafted its own set of policies to address supply chain gaps and vulnerabilities.

EU pledges vaccine controls will not hit UK supplies


Ursula von der Leyen has promised Boris Johnson that future EU controls on vaccines will not disrupt contracted supplies of the Belgian-made BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to Britain.

The European Commission president made the commitment to the prime minister in a tense Friday night call, which followed the Commission’s controversial plan — hastily abandoned — to impose emergency border controls on vaccines entering Northern Ireland from the EU.

Ms von der Leyen tweeted that the talks with Mr Johnson had been “constructive”, adding: “We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”

Mr Johnson’s allies confirmed that this included the 40m doses that Pfizer is contracted to supply Britain from a plant in Belgium. The Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The dropping of the implied threat to Pfizer exports and the abandonment of the proposal to include Northern Ireland in new export controls has calmed tension between London and Brussels.

Mr Johnson has tried this week to avoid stoking tension and inflaming a vaccine war which he believes would harm both sides and hinder the global fight against Covid-19.

“The call was fine, hopefully that’s the end of it,” said one ally of the prime minister. “We don’t plan to dwell on it.”

But Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, on Saturday called on Mr Johnson to follow Brussels’ lead and override part of the Brexit agreement to ease the flow of goods between GB and NI.

Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol has a “safeguard” clause to override the agreement, which is intended to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland. It includes checks on GB/NI trade.

The European Commission said it would invoke Article 16 to justify its initial plan to impose vaccine export controls on Northern Ireland, even though the region remains part of the EU’s single market for goods.

It cited the risk of “serious societal difficulties” in the EU if the bloc was unable to deploy enough vaccines to its own citizens.

Julian Smith, former Northern Ireland secretary, said the EU had “pulled the emergency cord” without following the proper processes that had been agreed over years of negotiations.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the move came “without anywhere near the level of understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, of the sensitivities of the situation in Northern Ireland”.

“It was an almost Trumpian act — I’m very pleased that they’ve changed their minds,” he said.

The Commission has since republished its vaccine shipment control measures with the Article 16 proposals stripped out.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove said that he had spoken to Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president and co-chair of the EU-UK joint committee. 

“Our shared priority is making sure the protocol works for the people of Northern Ireland, protecting gains of the peace process and avoiding disruption to everyday lives. Jointly committed to redoubling our efforts to address outstanding issues,” they both tweeted from their individual twitter accounts.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Gove said it had been made clear that the vaccine supply would not be interrupted, “so we can proceed with our plans and make sure that our so far highly successful vaccination programme can continue.

“I think the European Union recognise that they made a mistake in triggering Article 16, which would have meant the reimposition of a border on the island of Ireland.”

The export restrictions had drawn criticism from business groups including the International Chamber of Commerce, which warned they could lead to retaliation from other countries and have a devastating impact on global vaccine supplies.

It has also emerged that Belgium, a key location for vaccine production in the EU, has notified the Commission of a draft health law that would give it new powers to curb medicines exports.

The proposed legislation would allow Belgian authorities to restrict or ban the shipment of critical medicinal products and active ingredients, in case of shortages or potential shortages.

A spokesperson for Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgium’s health minister, said the notification to the commission was not related to vaccine exports or uncertainties about jab supplies.

The draft law aimed to set up a “future legislative framework for managing pandemics more efficiently,” he added.

Democrats push for stimulus deal before Trump impeachment trial


Joe Biden, the US president, faces a narrow window to clinch bipartisan support for his $1.9tn stimulus plan, after congressional Democrats said they wanted a deal before the impeachment trial against Donald Trump begins the week of February 8.

On Sunday, Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council in the White House, was due to host a meeting with 16 senators, including eight Republicans, to jump-start talks on Mr Biden’s relief package, which is the new president’s top early legislative priority.

Although Mr Biden has promised to make bipartisan unity a defining trait of his presidency, a number of Republicans have dismissed elements of his relief plan, criticising it for excessive spending and for including provisions such as an increase in the federal minimum wage.

Given that scepticism, Democrats want to quickly gauge Republicans’ appetite for serious negotiations on the stimulus package — which includes direct payments to individuals, aid to states and extra jobless benefits — or move on to try to pass it only with lawmakers of their own party.

Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator and second-highest ranking Democrat in the upper chamber said in interview with NBC News on Sunday that the objective of the call with Mr Deese was to see “if there’s an area of agreement” on the rescue package.

“I am hopeful that we can show right off the bat that bipartisanship is alive in the Senate,” Mr Durbin said.

“The rescue package that President Biden has sent to us is one of the highest importance . . . So, I hope we can really roll up our sleeves and get that done in that period of time [before Mr Trump’s trial].”

Democrats need at least ten Republican senators to endorse the relief plan if they are to pass it using the current practice in the Senate, which requires a supermajority to advance legislation. But failing that, Democrats could pass a relief plan with a simple majority by using a parliamentary process called “budget reconciliation” which is reserved for bills involving taxes and spending. The Senate is evenly split with 50 senators backing each party, but Kamala Harris, the vice-president, can cast tiebreaking votes, handing control to Democrats.

Mike Rounds, a Republican senator from South Dakota, told NBC on Sunday that Democrats should drop their insistence on boosting the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour from $7.25 to help reach a deal.

“I really don’t think we’re that far off with regard to the direction for Covid relief, specifically in targeted areas,” he said. “The real challenge is whether or not Democrats are prepared to perhaps release some of the items that are not specifically targeted to Covid relief.”

The push for a quick stimulus agreement came on the eve of Monday’s expected move by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to transmit its article of impeachment against Mr Trump for inciting the January 6 assault on the US Capitol.

Ordinarily, this would trigger the start of the Senate trial against the former president the following day, but Republicans and Democrats reached a deal to delay the core of the proceedings until the week of February 8. For Republicans this is will allow Mr Trump more time to prepare his defence, and for Democrats it will help confirm more of Mr Biden’s cabinet appointees and pass the relief package.

Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, showed he was leaning towards convicting Mr Trump, saying “impeachable conduct” was plausible given Mr Trump’s actions and it was important to have “accountability, for truth and justice”.

But there is unlikely to be enough Republican support to secure that conviction in the upper chamber. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator, told Fox News Sunday that Mr Trump bore “responsibility for some of what happened” at the Capitol but he did not agree with impeachment.

“I think the trial is stupid. I think it’s counterproductive. We already have a flaming fire in this country and it’s like taking a bunch of gasoline and pouring it on top of the fire,” he said.