Via Financial Times

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

Laura Hughes in London reports

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

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

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

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

Mr Hancock said:

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

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

Netanyahu corruption trial postponed

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Super Rugby becomes latest tournament to be suspended

Fergus Ryan in Hong Kong reports:

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

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

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

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

Air Baltic suspends all flights

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent, reports:

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

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

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

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

Returning pilgrim becomes sixth Turkish case

Laura Pitel in Ankara reports

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

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

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

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

Thailand sees largest daily jump in coronavirus cases

John Reed in Bangkok reports

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

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

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

South Korean data shows virus containment trend continuing

Edward White in Seoul reports

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia launches $13.3bn stimulus plan

Simeon Kerr in Dubai reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Australia imposes self-isolation on travellers arriving in country

Jamie Smyth in Sydney reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the FT’s special weekend live coverage

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

Here are a couple of key stories:

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

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

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

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

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