Via Financial Times

China reports 39 imported coronavirus cases

Chinese health authorities reported no new coronavirus cases in the mainland for the fourth consecutive day. There were 39 imported cases in Beijing, Shanghai and seven other cities or provinces to the end of Sunday. The country has now recorded 81,903 coronavirus cases.

Classified China government data reported over the weekend recorded a further 43,000 cases where people were found to be infected with the virus but did not show any symptoms. These people were not included in the official tally.

There were 9 new deaths linked to the virus, taking the total to 3,270.

Mexico warns of rising coronavirus cases

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

Mexico reported a leap in confirmed coronavirus cases, to 316, with 793 suspected cases as authorities warned against a tide of “fake news” and urged people to stick to official advice about the pandemic.

Ricardo Cortés Alcalá, director general of health promotion at the health ministry, told a news conference that “the trend is definitely going to rise, there’s no other way” but said the government hoped that social distancing measures due to take effect on Monday would flatten the curve.

The social distancing campaign, during which schools will be closed, stops short of ordering people to stay at home, as is the case in neighbouring countries. “We are not in a state of siege … We think people are responsible enough to mitigate this,” he added.

Mexico City’s mayor Claudia Sheinbaum earlier announced that all museums, gyms, cinemas, theatres, zoos, sporting events, would be closed and churches would be shut or would be barred from holding large-scale events. “We are appealing for all public and private events not to be more than 50 people,” she said.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who spent the weekend holding events and supervising infrastructure projects in the southern state of Oaxaca, has been criticised for appearing too relaxed. He argues he must remain calm and says Mexico is prepared but is still in the first stage of the epidemic.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe says Olympics might be postponed

Kana Inagaki reports from Tokyo

Prime minister Shinzo Abe has publicly acknowledged for the first time that a delay to this summer’s Olympics was likely following mounting global pressure due to the spreading coronavirus outbreak.

“The IOC’s decision is in line with my policy to carry out [the event] in a ‘complete form’, and if that is difficult, we may need to make a decision to postpone, putting priority on the athletes’” Mr Abe said at a parliamentary session on Monday.

The comments came a day after the International Olympic Committee gave its first indication of a postponement to the world’s biggest sporting event, giving itself four weeks to reach a formal decision.

The IOC said that it would need the “full commitment and co-operation” of Japanese authorities, sports bodies, broadcasters and sponsors, and that “cancellation was not on the agenda”.

In line with IOC’s comment, Mr Abe and Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, emphasised that “cancellation was not an option.”

Australian stocks fall sharply as shutdown takes hold

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Australia’s share market dived 8 per cent in early trading on Monday, as state governments began shutting down large parts of the national economy and US lawmakers failed to agree coronavirus stimulus measures.

Banks, commodities, retailers and leisure stocks all fell sharply as the New South Wales and Victorian governments ordered pubs, clubs, casinos, gyms and other leisure facilities to close from noon on Monday.

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The partial shutdown of non-essential services came as the number of coronavirus cases in Australia hit 1,316, continuing to double every three to four days.

The stock market rout occurred as large queues began forming outside welfare offices, as laid off workers sought to make claims for emergency payments made available by Australia’s government.

Lawmakers today began a one day parliamentary sitting in Canberra to legislate a A$189bn stimulus package aimed at helping businesses and workers survive months of disruption caused by the spread of the virus.

Chris Weston, head of research at Pepperstone group, a financial broker, said the Australian market was being driven down by a combination of the partial shutdown at home and a failure by the US Congress to pass emergency stimulus measures.

“It was already troubled, but market confidence has been dealt a further blow by the sheer inability for Congress to learn from TARP and get things passed with the urgency this absolutely needs,” he said.

Miner Vale sources 5m coronavirus tests for Brazil

Andres Schipani reports from São Paulo

Vale, the Brazilian miner grappling with the fallout from a deadly dam burst, said on Sunday it is bringing 5m coronavirus tests from China as the number of cases grow rapidly in Latin America’s largest country.

The 15-minute rapid test kits bought by the world’s largest iron producer will arrive between next week and mid-April. The kits would amount to half the 10m tests the Brazilian government has said it would distribute as health officials expect the virus to continue spreading fast.

Health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta warned that Brazil’s health system faces a “collapse” at the end of April.

“We are using our logistics network in Asia to bring supplies to Brazil”, Eduardo Bartolomeo, Vale’s chief executive said in a note. “Vale and China have a long-term partnership, developed over more than 40 years.”

The announcement came in a critical week for Brazil as the number of cases of Covid-19 surpassed 1,500, the highest in Latin America, while Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s third son and a powerful congressman, offended the Chinese government sparking a diplomatic spat by blaming the coronavirus on the country.

Santos delays $4.7bn Australian gas project

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Santos, an oil and gas producer, has delayed development of an $4.7bn gas project off the north coast of Australia and will slash capital expenditure by $550m this year in response to the collapse of oil prices.

The company said on Monday it would defer a final investment decision on its Barossa gas field in waters off the coast of Northern Territory until market conditions improve. The move is part of a strategy to reduce the company’s cash flow breakeven rate from $28 to $25 a barrel of oil and strengthen its balance sheet.

“The current environment is a time for discipline,” said Kevin Gallagher, Santos chief executive. “Given the uncertain economic environment of Covid-19 combined with the lower oil price, we expect to defer final investment decision on Barossa until business conditions improve.”

Santos said it would cut capital expenditure costs in 2020 by $550m, a drop of 38 per cent on previous forecasts. It would also reduce production costs by $50m in 2020 and target a free cash flow breakeven oil price of $25 a barrel.

Santos is the second Australian oil and gas producer to announce big cuts to spending. Last week Oil Search cut capital expenditure by 40 per cent to $440-530m in 2020. Woodside is still hoping to make a final investment decision on its $11bn Scarborough liquefied natural gas project later this year, although analysts warn the collapse in oil prices has put this timeline in jeopardy.

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Asia-Pacific stocks slip and US futures tumble

Asia-Pacific equities fell and US stock futures tumbled as governments placed further controls on the movement of people in a bid to stall the spread of coronavirus.

Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 shed 5.9 per cent after the government called for the closure of pubs and cinemas and the prime minister warned of possible further measures to stop people gathering. South Korea’s Kospi slid 6 per cent while in Japan, the Topix swung between small gains and losses.

The number of coronavirus cases in the US surged to almost 30,000, with New York emerging as an international hotspot for the virus. State governor Andrew Cuomo told residents to prepare for disruption of between 4 and 9 months.

Futures for the S&P 500 hit limit down, falling 5 per cent before easing slightly to be 3.8 lower. Oil prices also slid with Brent crude, the international benchmark, dropping 6.9 per cent to $25.11 a barrel.

UK to launch £20m programme to track Covid-19 genetic changes

Clive Cookson in London

The UK is launching a £20m research programme to track genetic changes in the Covid-19 virus. The project will read the whole genome of the virus — its full genetic code — from patient samples to track mutations as the epidemic proceeds. The Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium will carry out genome sequencing at a dozen labs around the country, with the Wellcome Sanger Centre near Cambridge leading the initiative.

“Rapid genome sequencing of Covid-19 will give us unparalleled insights into the spread, distribution and scale of the epidemic in the UK,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the medical research charity that is playing a key role in the initiative.

“The power of 21st century science to combat this pandemic is something that those going before us could not have dreamt of, and it is incumbent on us to do everything we can to first understand, and then limit, the impact of Covid-19,” he added.

Genome sequencing is one of three methods for tracking Covid-19, alongside testing patients for the presence of the virus and for antibodies that indicate past infection.

Results from the UK will be fed into an international collaboration called Nextstrain that analyses the global pandemic. The Nextstrain database already contains about 900 Covid-19 genomes from around the world, 10 per cent of them from the UK.

This surveillance is showing the inevitable emergence of what some are calling different viral “strains”. But Covid-19 is genetically more stable than flu, with no significant changes detected so far that might make it significantly more virulent or transmissible.

Saudi Arabia imposes curfew to halt spread of coronavirus

Ahmed Al Omran in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia announced that it would start imposing a curfew between 7pm and 6am for a period of 21 days starting Monday to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

King Salman, who last week said the kingdom was going through a “difficult phase” in combating the virus, ordered the interior ministry to enforce the curfew. Essential services such as healthcare and branches of the military are exempted.

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“Protecting public health has become one of the most important duties for the citizens and residents of this country,” a statement carried by the state news agency read. “They must fulfil their duty by staying in their homes, and not to expose themselves and their country to the risk of this pandemic.”

Saudi Arabia reported 119 new cases of Covid-19 on Sunday, bringing the total number of cases in the kingdom to 511, but it has not reported any deaths from the virus so far.

Trump activates National Guard in hardest-hit states

James Politi in Washington

Donald Trump said he had “activated” the National Guard, the reserve forces of the American military, to help the hardest-hit states, including California, New York and Washington, grapple with the coronavirus outbreak.

At a press briefing on Sunday evening, Mr Trump said the reservists would “carry out approved missions to stop the virus” while the governors of the three states would “remain in command”.

The decision comes as the US president has faced growing pressure to more forcefully assist the areas of the country that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, which has left more than 340 people dead in the US and more than 30,000 people ill. The Trump administration has also ramped up its supply of medical equipment and would help set up “federal medical stations” to help healthcare systems in the hardest-hit parts of the country which are already facing shortages and trouble coping with the inflow of patients.

Mr Trump expressed hope that Republicans and Democrats could still agree on a stimulus plan despite some disagreements over the terms of the $2tn package on Capitol Hill, saying he did not think they had “any choice” but to strike a deal. “Our goal is to get relief to Americans as quickly as possible,” he said.

Mr Trump said the administration and lawmakers were considering whether to allow members of Congress to vote remotely, given that three had tested positive for coronavirus and others are in self-isolation due to possible exposure to the disease.

New Zealand’s central bank launches NZ$30bn in quantitative easing

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

New Zealand’s central bank has announced a NZ$30bn (US$16.8bn) quantitative easing programme to tackle a rise in interest rates on government bonds and higher funding costs for the nation’s banks.

Adrian Orr, Reserve Bank of New Zealand governor, said on Monday the negative implications of the coronavirus outbreak had continued to intensify and further monetary stimulus is needed to keep interest rates on government bonds low. The quantitative easing programme will purchase up to NZ$30bn in government bonds, across a range of maturities in the secondary market over the next 12 months, he said.

“The programme aims to provide further support to the economy, build confidence, and keep interest rates on government bonds low,” said Mr Orr.

Mr Orr warned financial conditions had tightened unnecessarily over the past week, reducing the impact of the low official cash rate of 0.25 per cent on achieving the bank’s mandate. Heightened risk aversion has caused a rise in interest rates on long-term New Zealand government bonds and the cost of bank funding.

The launch of quantitative easing in New Zealand follows its government’s launch of a NZ$12bn stimulus package — equivalent to 4 per cent of its economy — last week. Australia’s central bank launched a quantitative easing programme last week, which is also aimed at boosting the economy.