Coronavirus latest: Portugal tightens Covid restrictions as case counts rise

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt

Germany’s five leading economic research institutes cut their bi-annual forecasts for this year and next year, warning that production capacity would remain about 1 per cent below pre-coronavirus forecasts in the medium term.

In updated forecasts, the researchers said they expected the German economy to contract 5.4 per cent this year, deeper than the decline of 4.2 per cent they predicted in April.

They also cut their forecast for growth next year from 5.8 per cent to 4.7 per cent, while issuing a new prediction for growth of 2.7 per cent in 2022.

“Although a substantial part of the drop in output experienced in spring has already been recovered, the remaining catch-up process is the more difficult part of the return to normality,” said Stefan Kooths, head of forecasting at the Kiel Institute.

He said the economic recovery was being held back by the pandemic’s impact on sectors such as restaurants, tourism, trade shows, and airlines, adding these areas would only “catch up with the rest of the economy only once measures to control the pandemic have largely been dropped, which we do not expect before next summer”.

Warning that 820,000 jobs had been lost in Germany by the middle of the year because of the fallout from the pandemic, the institutes forecast that unemployment would rise from 2.27m people last year to 2.72m by next year.

Olaf Scholz, Germany’s finance minister, responded to the new forecasts by saying: “Now we mustn’t get careless, otherwise the rapid upswing will be lost very quickly.”

The forecasts were produced by the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, the Ifo Institute in Munich, the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the Halle Institute for Economic Research, and RWI in Essen.

The daily count of coronavirus cases in Germany reached 6,541 on Tuesday, close to the peak in the spring, but fell back to 4,464 the next day, according to Johns Hopkins University. Regional governments are putting some restrictions on social gatherings and travel, although much less severe than the spring lockdowns.

Corporate cyber risks heightened by Covid, warns ex-NSA head

The former head of the US National Security Agency has warned that the coronavirus pandemic has significantly increased cyber risk, with companies likely to face a growing number of attacks.

Michael Rogers said “the attack surface has just exploded” because so many people are working from home rather than in offices, which have better cyber protection.

Mr Rogers was head of the NSA, the US government agency in charge of cyber security, between 2014 and 2018. He is now on the board of directors at CyberCube, which advises insurance companies about cyber risk.

“Remote access is being executed on a level that is nowhere near the historic norms of the past, and that’s pretty much across all business sectors,” he said, adding that the use of the same infrastructure for work and personal purposes was increasing the risk.

He also warned that people searching for coronavirus-related information could inadvertently let hackers into their data and systems.

“There’s a much greater propensity among user populations now to access links or respond to emails that they believe are making them smarter about Covid,” he said.

Roughly two-thirds of successful attacks, he said, originated with “spear phishing” emails in which users click on links or images in an email.

Mr Rogers said ransomware attacks were the “poster child” of the growth in incidents. These involve a hacker accessing and encrypting company data, and only releasing the decryption key if money is paid.

According to insurer Beazley, ransomware attacks jumped 25 per cent in the first quarter of this year compared with the fourth quarter of 2019.

“Attackers are finding they have . . . a higher probability of success,” said Mr Rogers, as there was an increased willingness among companies to pay ransoms. “Financial times are so tough that you cannot afford to shut down.”

“The fundamental things that are powering it are unlikely to change,” he said. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

At the start of this month the US Treasury warned that helping companies to make ransom payments could violate US sanctions laws.

In a public advisory note it said: “Ransomware payments may also embolden cyber actors to engage in future attacks. In addition, paying a ransom to cyber actors does not guarantee that the victim will regain access to its stolen data.”

Speaking ahead of an appearance at the Financial Times insurance innovation summit this week, Mr Rogers said some parts of the economy were better prepared for cyber attacks than others.

The financial services industry, he said, had spent “funds in significant levels” on cyber defences.

Healthcare, on the other hand, was much more vulnerable. “It’s got the highest concentration of personally identifiable information . . . there’s a lot of data flowing through hospitals and health systems.”

Six charged in militia plot to kidnap Michigan governor

Federal prosecutors in Michigan have charged six men with conspiring to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, as part of a militia-led plot before the November general election.

The FBI arrested five of the men on Wednesday, according to court records. As part of the plot, the group allegedly held training sessions with weapons, attempted to build explosive devices, and surveilled Ms Whitmer’s properties.

One of the members of the alleged plot had called Ms Whitmer a “tyrant” and said “we gotta do something”, according to an FBI affidavit filed in court earlier this week and unsealed on Thursday.

“Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor,” the affidavit said.

Ms Whitmer has been the target of intense criticism over the lockdown measures she has ordered in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including from Donald Trump. In April, the US president tweeted: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN”.

The FBI affidavit said investigators had become aware in “early 2020” that “a group of individuals were discussing the violent overthrow of certain government and law-enforcement components”.

The plot evolved to include a Michigan-based militia group that in March had been trying to “target and kill” local police officers, according to the affidavit.

Over the coming months, the defendants met repeatedly to discuss their plans, which included “assaulting the Michigan State Capitol”, using Molotov cocktails against the police, and “shooting up the Governor’s vacation home”, the affidavit alleged.

The men charged were Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta. Court records indicated all the men except Mr Croft had been arrested.

The affidavit said the FBI had several informants and undercover agents who were able to record the defendants plotting.

In a June phone call, Mr Fox had said he wanted “200 men” to storm the Michigan capitol building, according to the affidavit. The plan was to try Ms Whitmer for treason, it claimed. “He said they would execute the plan before the November 2020 elections,” the affidavit said.

In another conversation in August, Mr Harris had allegedly said: “Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her.”

Law enforcement officials are set to hold a press conference about the case later on Thursday afternoon.

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.