Italy's PM Conte wins first confidence vote

Miles Johnson in Rome

Italy's prime minister Giuseppe Conte has won a confidence vote in parliament ahead of what is expected to be a far tighter second vote in the senate, leaving the country grappling with a political crisis in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The votes on Mr Conte's future come as Italy has suffered the second-highest number of deaths of any country in Europe from the pandemic, as well as a painful recession.

Mr Conte, who has been forced to prove his coalition government still commands a majority after the resignation of a small partner party last week, won the vote in the Italian lower house by 321 votes to 259.

The number was far lower than the 343 votes his current coalition won when it was passed by lawmakers in September 2019, but allows him to progress to Tuesday’s vote in the senate.

If he loses tomorrow he must hand in his resignation to Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella.

Last week Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister, withdrew his Italia Viva party’s support for Mr Conte’s government over its handling of the pandemic, setting up this week's votes of confidence.

Spain infection rate highest since early days of pandemic

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

Spain has reported some of the highest coronavirus infection rates since the beginning of the pandemic, as the country continues to resist calls for a new lockdown.

In figures released on Monday, the country reported an infection rate more than three times higher than a month before, at 689 cases per 100,000 over the previous 14 days. As of Friday, the equivalent figure was 575 cases; on December 18, it was 214. The worst affected parts of the country include Extremadura, Castile-La Mancha, Castile-León, La Rioja, Valencia and Madrid.

While the Spanish government imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world between March and May, it has since been reluctant to order people to remain at home, instead opting to allow regional administrations to apply curfews, limitations on gatherings and certain restriction on movements.

Fernando Simón, the doctor helping lead the Spanish government’s efforts against the virus, linked the rise in incidence to a loosening of restrictions in December, but expressed hope that tightened measures this month would halt the rise in infections.

Asked if Spain was at the peak of the third coronavirus wave, he said: “If we have not arrived at the peak, we are close to it.” Spanish officials argue that people’s behaviour — rather than a new more infectious strain of the virus — is behind the recent rise. But co-ordinating authorities’ responses is complicated by the country's devolved health administration, in which the 17 regional governments take the lead.

Cuomo seeks to buy Covid-19 vaccines directly from Pfizer

Mamta Badkar in New York

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday asked Pfizer if the state could purchase Covid-19 vaccines directly from the pharmaceutical giant.

"Because you are not bound by commitments that Moderna made as part of Operation Warp Speed, I am requesting that the State of New York be permitted to directly purchase doses from you," Mr Cuomo said in a letter to Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla. He said the distribution would follow rigorous state guidance and enable "us to fill the dosage gap created this week by the outgoing federal administration".

New York-based Pfizer did not take funding from Operation Warp Speed, the government programme to accelerate the development of a vaccine. Thus far, Pfizer has only sold directly to the federal government, but "my job is to pursue every avenue", Mr Cuomo said during his daily press conference on Monday. It was not immediately clear how many doses Mr Cuomo was requesting or how much the state would pay.

New York state is set to receive just 250,000 doses this week, down from 300,000 the previous week, even as expanded eligibility requirements have qualified more than 7m New Yorkers for the jab.

"We are in a foot race between the vaccination rate and the Covid infection rate," Mr Cuomo said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned last week that New York City would run out of vaccines this week "unless we receive a major new resupply".

While Mr Cuomo has faulted the federal government for the slow vaccine roll-out, he has previously come under criticism for threatening fines both for hospitals that give the vaccine to people who have not been deemed eligible — as well as for those that move too slowly.

The push to vaccinate more Americans comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecasts that a new coronavirus variant first discovered in the UK, which has already been detected in the US, could become the dominant strain by March.

New York state reported 8,868 Covid-19 hospitalisations as of Sunday, up from 8,771 the previous day. Of the 186,205 tests reported yesterday 12,185 were positive — 6.5 per cent of the total. That compared with Saturday, when 13,842 of 246,507 tests came in positive. There were 153 fatalities, down from 172 the previous day.

UK vaccinates more than 4m people

Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe

More than 4m people across the UK have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, health secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday.

Mr Hancock said the vaccine rollout across the country was the “biggest medical deployment in British history”, adding that more than half of over 80s as well as half of all elderly care home residents in the UK had now been vaccinated.

Speaking at the Downing Street briefing, the health secretary said that in some parts of the country, such as in Slough, healthcare teams have vaccinated all of their care home residents.

He also reiterated the government’s intention to invite those over the age of 70 and the extremely clinically vulnerable to take up the vaccine in areas where the “vast majority” of individuals within the top two priority groups have been vaccinated.

Speaking directly to individuals who are over 80 but have not yet been vaccinated, he added: “We will reach you, the NHS will contact you and you will have your invitation to be vaccinated within the next four weeks.”

Mr Hancock said that the pressures on the NHS remained intense, adding that every 30 seconds a patient is admitted to hospital with the virus. 37,475 people across the UK have now been hospitalised with coronavirus, the highest at any point throughout the pandemic.

This sentiment was echoed by Steve Powis, the national medical director of NHS England, who said:

It will be some time before the effect of the vaccination programme is seen through into reducing pressure on hospitals, so we all have a role to play in reducing the risk of transmission and taking the pressure off our hospitals.

Sharp rise in Irish jobless as latest lockdown bites

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Ireland has reported a sharp rise in the number of jobless workers claiming special coronavirus benefits, after it shut most of the construction sector this month in its latest national lockdown.

Micheál Martin's government said almost 460,000 workers would receive the payments this week, up by 61,700 in seven days after restrictions were tightened in the new year to tackle record infections.

More than 32,000 of the new recipients worked in construction before the government closed all but essential projects on January 9.

Schools, the hospitality sector and non-essential retailers are all shut in the toughest restrictions since the original lockdown that started in March 2020.

The government expects pressure on hospitals to peak this week after a surge in infections that has been attributed to increased social contacts over Christmas, when a ban on house visits was temporarily lifted.

Greece reopens most shops for winter sales

Kerin Hope in Athens

Greece partially lifted an 11-week-lockdown on Monday, allowing most shops, hairdressing salons and nail bars to reopen provided that customers wear masks and observe strict social distancing rules.

But restaurants, bars and cafés remain closed and an overnight curfew between 9pm and 5am will not be lifted. A ban on non-essential travel between different regions is still in effect, the government said.

The new measures will give retailers a chance to recoup losses from the Christmas holiday period, when shops briefly operated a “click and carry” system for customers to collect purchases made online.

Winter sales began on Monday with long queues forming outside suburban malls and stores in the city centre. Customers had a two-hour window to make purchases after sending a text message to a special six-digit number.

The reopening follows a steady decline in coronavirus cases reported since early January that has alleviated fears of a post-holiday spike in cases. The daily number of new Covid-19 infections fell from more than 1,000 early in January to below 600 last week.

Greece has recorded 5,469 deaths from Covid-19 out of 148,607 reported cases of the virus.

Norway to be one of first European nations to ease second-wave rules

Richard Milne in Oslo

Norway became one of the first European countries to loosen coronavirus-induced restrictions from the second wave of Covid-19 as the Nordic country reaps the rewards of having one of the continent's lowest infection rates.

The recommendation against people having visitors to their own home will be dropped, prime minister Erna Solberg told parliament on Monday. Most other national restrictions will remain in place for another two weeks.

Schools for pupils over 12 years old are being moved from the strictest red level, which in practice means most are closed, to yellow, which allows most classes to take place as usual.

Children's indoor leisure activities and outdoor sports training can take place as normal.

"The goal, among other things, is to make life for children and young people a little more predictable," said Ms Solberg. "We have chosen to prioritise children and young people."

Norway, with a population of 5.3m, has had 517 deaths from coronavirus during the pandemic compared with 10,185 in neighbouring Sweden, which has about double the number of inhabitants.

Vaccine access puts world on ‘brink of catastrophic moral failure’

Harry Dempsey

The head of the World Health Organization warned that “the world is on the brink of catastrophic moral failure” as poor countries fall behind richer ones in accessing vaccines to protect their populations.

“The price of this failing will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” said director-general Tedros Adhanom. “It’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before healthworkers and older people in poorer countries.”

The WHO, which has struggled to prove itself in the face of Covid-19, set up Covax, a mechanism to ensure equitable access to vaccines. However, Mr Adhanom laid the charge that the behaviour of pharmaceutical companies and rich governments had undermined its efforts.

"Even as they speak the language of equitable access, some countries and companies continue to prioritise bilateral deals, going round Covax, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue. This is wrong.”

Mr Adhanom said on Monday that vaccine manufacturers have prioritised regulatory approval from authorities in rich countries as opposed to submitting full dossiers to the WHO-backed initiative that aims to distribute 2bn Covid-19 vaccinations by the end of this year.

BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have had their vaccines approved in some western nations, while Russia and China have given the green light to domestically developed jabs.

The WHO head called for pharmaceutical companies to share their full clinical trial data with Covax for regulatory review. He also urged countries to share with the WHO data on pricing, volumes and delivery dates in their bilateral contracts with vaccine makers.

Covid top cause of death in England for a second month

Sarah Provan

Covid-19 was the leading cause of death in December for a second month in a row in England, with the monthly figure rising by a quarter more than the five-year average as the spread of coronavirus took its toll on the country.

Wales was also hit hard by the pandemic. Its most deprived areas recorded 560 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, nearly twice the rate registered in the least deprived areas.

The virus accounted for 20.8 per cent of all deaths in England and 27.4 per cent in Wales, the Office for National Statistics said on Monday.

England registered 52,676 deaths in December, which was 10,594 more than the average between 2015 and 2019. In Wales, the figure was 37.5 per cent above the five-year average.

Yorkshire and the Humber was the worst affected region in England while the South West had the lowest rate.

In England, Covid-19 accounted for more than double the second-leading cause of death, which was dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In Wales the figure was triple.

Ukraine cuts natural gas tariffs to help pandemic-hit consumers

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

Ukraine has temporarily lowered household natural gas tariffs by a third in an attempt to ease economic pain for its citizens during the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials justified the move to counter the effects of climbing global prices for the fuel and curb what they said was inflated pricing by domestic suppliers owned by oligarchs.

“Given the imperfect competition, market monopolisation, such a decision is necessary to balance and direct the market on the path of development instead of conservation of monopolies,” Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Monday as his cabinet adopted the measure.

“This will allow everyone to save in the winter months and plan their personal budget, and simultaneously get the best price for gas,” he said.

Mr Shmyhal stressed that the move was temporary and would not reverse gas market reforms ushered in last year under an IMF programme that brought prices to market levels.

The controversial move is expected to open yet another sticking point with the fund. Disbursements from a $5bn IMF lifeline were frozen last autumn amid concerns over independence of the central bank and functionality of anti-corruption institutions.

England's lockdown to gradually ease, says vaccines minister

Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe

England's easing of strict lockdown measures will be gradual and is likely to involve a return to the tier-based system of coronavirus restrictions as the UK sets in train its ambitious vaccinations campaign, the minister in charge said on Monday.

The removal of tough nationwide restrictions will come with conditions to reapply tougher measures if required since uncertainty remains over the impact of vaccines on transmission of the virus, Nadhim Zahawi said.

“But if we have protected the top nine cohorts," the vaccines minister told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, "and two or three weeks later we see that protection in place, then we can begin to gradually lift the non-pharmaceutical interventions… and get the economy back on its feet."

England has split its priority order list of those eligible for vaccines into nine cohorts, which the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation says accounts for 99 per cent of mortality from Covid-19.

Mr Zahawi's comments came a day after foreign secretary Dominic Raab said Covid-19 restrictions will not start to be relaxed until March, and only if Britain’s vaccination programme stays on track.

The NHS began on Monday to offer the Covid-19 vaccine to over-70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable. But Mr Zahawi gave reassurance that areas in which the over 80s are yet to receive their vaccine will be “the absolute priority”.

Responding to concerns that areas such as London have not been able to vaccinate as many people compared with regions such as the North East of England, the vaccines minister said that in the early phase of the rollout the capital had “fewer” primary care networks “stood up”.

However, “more primary care networks actually [begin] to vaccine in London” from this week, he said.

More vaccine supplies are expected to be delivered this week, Mr Zahawi said, adding that supply of the vaccine remained the “limiting factor”.

European stocks weak despite tailwind from China output data

Leke Oso Alabi

European equity markets struggled for direction on Monday as strong economic data from China vied with concerns over a double-dip recession in the UK and the eurozone.

Chinese markets had been lifted by news that the country’s economy, the world’s second-biggest, grew 6.5 per cent in the fourth quarter — a faster rate than before the coronavirus pandemic, and above expectations. Economic output expanded by 2.3 per cent over the course of 2020, easily outstripping other big economies.

The mainland CSI 300 stock index rose 1.1 per cent, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index pushed 1 per cent higher.

European stocks were muted by comparison. The continent-wide Stoxx 600 index slipped 0.1 per cent in early trading, while Germany’s Xetra Dax was flat. London’s FTSE 100 benchmark edged 0.1 per cent lower.

The pace of expansion in China’s output should feed through to a variety of industries, analysts said. “In regards to Europe, it’s particularly positive,” said Hani Redha, portfolio manager at PineBridge Investments, highlighting China’s reliance on sectors such as manufacturing and infrastructure, where faster growth bodes well for European stocks.

But the spread of new variants of Covid-19 — and the economic cost of extended winter lockdowns to control the virus — continue to whittle away positive sentiment generated by the rollout of vaccines.

“The virus is continuing to spread, there’s just a little bit of a pause in the markets, as they take on how virulent this new strain is, and how long this is likely to go on for,” said Dean Cheeseman, portfolio manager at Janus Henderson.

Read more here.

UK government to pilot 24-hour vaccinations in London

Sarah Provan

The UK government believes it is possible to vaccinate everyone by September as it pushes through its plan to pilot a 24-hour network of vaccination centres by the end of this month, said the vaccinations minister Nadhim Zahawi.

England is vaccinating on average 140 people a minute, the under-secretary of state for Covid-19 vaccine deployment said.

“We will see that improve,” Mr Zahawi told Sky News on Monday. England is inoculating people in primary care networks, hospitals, large vaccination centres and pharmacies, with a round-the-clock pilot in London hospitals taking off. Thousands have volunteered to join the NHS workers in the campaign.

The UK aims to vaccinate all people in care homes by the end of January with over-80s receiving letters to invite them to inoculation by the middle of next month. The vaccinations minister said the UK in some areas is sending letters out to the over 70s. It is “achievable” to vaccinate everyone by September, he added.

"My strong instinct" is that those who through their work are more likely to come in to contact with the virus, such as teachers and shop workers, will make up the next cohort of priorities for the vaccine, said Mr Zahawi. "We want to make sure schools open fully."

Darlington in north-east England has become the first place to inoculate all in their care homes, he said.

“We’re confident we have millions of doses coming through in the next few months,” he added, with more AstraZeneca and Pfizer doses coming through and Moderna vaccines in the spring. “We have about 367m doses that the UK government has bought for the four nations of the United Kingdom.

“I am standing on the shoulder of heroes,” said Mr Zahawi, as he praised the “NHS family” of nurses, doctors, dentists, and thousands of vaccinator volunteers.

Funding Circle predicts income ‘well ahead’ of expectations

Oliver Ralph

Funding Circle, the UK-based small business lending platform, has said its income and profits will be well ahead of previous expectations as the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a sharp growth in online loans.

The company, which originates loans on behalf of retail investors and other financial institutions, said that total income for the second half of 2020 would reach £121m, up 26 per cent on 2019. Adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation would be at least £15m. The company made a £27.5m loss at that level the previous year.

Founder and chief executive Samir Desai said that reaching profitability at that level was “a significant milestone for the business”.

Trading in Funding Circle’s core UK market has been helped by its participation in the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). The company said it has been responsible for a quarter of the scheme’s loans since it started taking part.

Chinese and Russian vaccines in high demand

Christian Shepherd in Beijing and Max Seddon in Moscow

As the international scramble for Covid-19 vaccines intensifies, Chinese and Russian manufacturers have found a growing list of foreign buyers despite lingering concerns over incomplete trial data and the rigour of domestic approval processes.

Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology has agreed to sell its Sputnik V vaccine to countries including Algeria, Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, while the two leading Chinese manufacturers have signed deals with more than a dozen countries, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, the Philippines, Indonesia and Hungary.

For Moscow and Beijing, both keen to see their pharmaceutical sectors compete internationally, the sales represent a significant political and commercial coup. China in particular has made bold promises that its vaccines will deliver a diplomatic win by playing a leading role in the global immunisation drive.

Read more here

Moon urges prospering companies to share profits

Edward White and Song Jung-a in Seoul

Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, urged companies prospering from the coronavirus pandemic to share their profits with struggling people and businesses, as fears rise over worsening inequality stemming from the global health crisis.

The call from the leftwing leader in Asia’s fourth-biggest economy highlights pressure building on many world leaders amid surging stock and property prices coupled with rising unemployment and slow wage growth.

“Whether it is called profit sharing, or whatever ... I think it is the right way to go,” Mr Moon said.

The president, speaking in response to questions at a rare press conference in Seoul, noted that his administration has deployed four additional budgets since the pandemic began.

The record stimulus spending has included cash handouts, disaster relief funds, support for jobs, and business bailouts, but such government policies are “not going to be enough” to deal with the worsening disparities, he said.

Mr Moon, entering the final year of his five-year term, has made addressing the difference between rich and poor a key platform of his time in office.

Malaysia toll tops 600 as PM calls for ideas

George Russell in Hong Kong

Malaysia’s Covid-19 death toll reached 601 at the weekend with seven fatalities recorded on Sunday as the country’s prime minister called for suggestions on how to contain the pandemic.

Noor Hisham Abdullah, the south-east Asian nation’s director-general of health, said three Covid-19 patients died in Selangor state, two in Johor and one each in Kedah and Negeri Sembilan.

The youngest victim was a 32-year-old woman in Selangor with no apparent underlying medical conditions, Dr Hisham told the official Bernama news agency.

The oldest was a 93-year-old man in Kedah suffering from diabetes, hypertension and chronic kidney and heart problems, he added.

Separately, prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin said he would welcome advice and ideas from health experts to reduce the number of infections in the country, Bernama reported.

“I agree to form a Health and Scientific Covid-19 Advisory Group which will advise the government,” he said in a statement on Sunday.

Los Angeles County passes 1m Covid-19 cases

Nurse Taylor Reed receives a Covid-19 vaccination at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in the Willowbrook neighbourhood of Los Angeles

George Russell in Hong Kong

Los Angeles County has become the first US municipality to surpass 1m coronavirus cases, authorities said on Sunday.

Hilda Solis, chair of the Board of Supervisors, also confirmed the county’s first case of the Covid-19 variant B.1.1.7 originally identified in the UK.

“To date, we’ve had over 1m confirmed cases in Los Angeles County,” Ms Solis said in a statement. “This number is almost too astronomical to comprehend.”

She urged residents to avoid gatherings, wear face coverings and continue physical distancing. “The reality is that the risk of contracting Covid-19 has increased with the presence of B.1.1.7 here in our community,” Ms Solis said.

“This more contagious variant makes it easier for Covid to spread – any activity outside of one’s household carries more risk of exposure now than ever before,” she added.

The county, which includes the eponymous city, has a population of 10m, one quarter of California’s total.

Oman to close borders for a week

George Russell in Hong Kong

Oman shut its borders from Monday for a week in response to a surge in coronavirus cases.

Health authorities in the Middle East sultanate said they were trying to keep out new strains of the virus that had caused spikes elsewhere in the world.

The country’s land frontiers would be closed from 6pm Monday and subject to extension, the government said. Oman shares borders with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

The Ministry of Health on Sunday began administering the second of two jabs of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to front-line healthcare workers and vulnerable members of the public.

Ahmed Mohammed al Saeedi, health minister, said no side-effects have been reported.

Oman, a nation of 5m people, has recorded 131,790 coronavirus cases, including 1,512 fatalities.

Rock-bottom rates drive Asian bonds

Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong and Leo Lewis in Tokyo

Companies and governments in Asia have tapped dollar bond markets at a blistering pace in the opening weeks of 2021, taking advantage of ultra-low rates to raise funds for acquisitions and cover the costs of the coronavirus crisis.

Issuance of dollar bonds in the region climbed to more than $45bn in the first two weeks of the year, according to Dealogic. That is almost three-quarters of the total amount raised across the whole of January 2020.

“What’s driving the volume is that rates are creating a very opportunistic market for issuers locking in very good long-term funding,” said Ed Tsui, head of Asia-Pacific debt syndicate at Deutsche Bank, referring to rock-bottom US interest rates.

Read more here

Hong Kong hoping for second-half recovery

George Russell in Hong Kong

Hong Kong can expect an economic recovery in the second half of 2021, its top official said on Monday.

Addressing the annual Asian Financial Forum, held virtually for the first time, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said the beginning of vaccinations offered hope for struggling economies.

“Indeed, if the vaccines are as successful as we expect, there will be real momentum for recovery in the second half of this year,” she said, adding that Hong Kong's gross domestic product was expected to show a 6.1 per cent decline for 2020.

Ms Lam said Hong Kong would continue to see “enormous opportunities” when the pandemic is over, “thanks to our strong fundamentals and unique advantages as the international financial centre of China and one of the world's major financial cities”.

She said China was the only major economy to show real growth in 2020 and “Hong Kong can offer a range of services”.

Chinese stocks gain on GDP growth data

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose but the rest of Asia remained in negative territory

Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong

Chinese stocks edged up but many Asia-Pacific equities markets struggled to move higher on news that China’s economy had outperformed expectations in the fourth quarter, expanding at 6.5 per cent.

China’s CSI 300 index of Shanghai- and Shenzhen- listed stocks rose 0.8 per cent following the data release, which showed the world’s second-largest economy grew 2.3 per cent during all of 2020, in sharp contrast to most other major economies.

“Looking forward, domestic economic activities are likely to improve in 2021, and further supports from the global recovery are expected”, said Chaoping Zhu, global market strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management.

He added that while Monday’s official data suggested a continued recovery in corporate earnings, “subdued stimulus may put a cap on further valuation upside in equity markets, which have already run up in 2020.”

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng also rose 0.6 per cent, but the rest of Asia remained in negative territory as growth concerns spurred by resurgent outbreaks of the coronavirus weighed on sentiment.

Japan’s Topix shed 0.8 per cent, while South Korea’s Kospi fell 0.9 per cent and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.6 per cent.

Russia to roll out third vaccine in March

A woman buys a face mask and gloves from a vending machine in the Moscow subway

George Russell in Hong Kong

Russia’s third indigenous Covid-19 vaccine is expected to be rolled out in March, state media reported on Sunday.

The vaccine is being developed by the Chumakov Federal Scientific Centre for Research and Development of Immune and Biological Products in Moscow.

Konstantin Chernov, the centre’s deputy director-general, told the Rossiya-1 television channel that the new vaccine would offer broader protection against the coronavirus than the Sputnik V or EpiVacCorona vaccines.

“We expect that the protection will be more complex,” Dr Chernov said, adding that the Chumakov centre is completing phase 2 clinical trials for its inactivated vaccine.

The Russian public health watchdog said last week that the vaccine is expected to receive an authorisation for use later this week.

Indonesia prioritises ‘influencers’ in vaccine drive

Stefania Palma in Singapore

Indonesia is using an unusual metric to help determine who is at the front of the queue in its coronavirus vaccine programme: likes and followers on Instagram and YouTube.

The country is prioritising healthcare and public service workers as it embarks on the biggest mass inoculation drive of CoronaVac, the jab developed by Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac, outside mainland China.

But it is also prioritising social media influencers in the hope that, as they broadcast their vaccinations to their millions of social media followers, it will help persuade a sceptical public.

Read more here

Korea daily case tally drops to 2-month low

Song Jung-a in Seoul

South Korea’s daily coronavirus infections fell to a two-month low on Monday but health authorities cautioned against complacency as it eased restrictions on some businesses and religious facilities.

The country added 389 cases, raising the total caseload to 72,729, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. Fifteen more deaths were reported, increasing the death toll to 1,264.

The fall in new cases came after the government on Saturday eased some mitigation measures on gyms, cafes, karaoke facilities and private cram schools, while smaller-scale religious gatherings were allowed from Monday.

But the ban on private gatherings of more than four people will continue and night-time curfews on retail businesses will be maintained as the country plans to step up vigilance until the lunar new year holiday that falls on February 12.

“We begin this week with a pledge to achieve a clear trend of stability,” said prime minister Chung Sye-kyun on Monday.

Mr Chung expects the country's first homegrown Covid-19 treatment made by Celltrion to be used from early February.

Celltrion said last week that its antibody treatment, CT-P59, decreased the rate of Covid-19 patients developing severe cases requiring hospital care by 54 per cent.

China GDP grows at faster rate than before pandemic

Retail sales, a measure of consumer appetite, have lagged behind industrial growth

Thomas Hale in Hong Kong and Sun Yu in Beijing

The Chinese economy grew at a faster rate than before the coronavirus pandemic in the fourth quarter of 2020, official data showed, as industrial production continued to drive the country’s recovery.

Gross domestic product growth beat expectations to reach 6.5 per cent in the final quarter of last year, according to figures released on Monday, with the economy expanding 2.3 per cent over the year, a sharp contrast to the expected performance of other big economies.

The recovery was powered by higher industrial production, which benefited from state support and added 7.1 per cent in the fourth quarter, compared with 5.8 per cent in the previous quarter. Retail sales, a measure of consumer appetite, have lagged behind the industrial sector and added 4.6 per cent in the fourth quarter.

Read more here

Head of Mexico’s vaccine programme resigns

Jude Webber in Mexico City

The head of Mexico’s Covid-19 vaccination strategy has resigned less than a week after the country began rolling out the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to health workers nationwide.

Ricardo Cortés Alcalá, director general of health promotion, confirmed that Miriam Veras Godoy had quit and said her resignation was due “solely to personal reasons”.

Unconfirmed news reports said she had stepped down because of a disagreement with the direction of national strategy.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said earlier that he agreed with a UN proposal for countries including Mexico that have already acquired vaccine doses to receive a lower amount in order to maximise other countries´access.

“We agreed with this, for them to reduce ours and then restore the ones we should have received. In any case, this doesn’t change our plan because we’re looking for other vaccines, not just Pfizer,” he said.

Mexico has so far administered 4,468,708 doses of vaccines.

As well as the BioNTech/Pfizer jab, Mexico has pre-ordered vaccines developed by University of Oxford/AstraZeneca and CanSino, a Chinese company.

Mexico expects to receive the Oxford vaccine in March. The CanSino jab, like the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, has not yet been approved.

Singapore non-oil exports rise 6.8% in December

George Russell in Hong Kong

Singapore’s non-oil exports rose 6.8 per cent in December, posting their first gain in three months and beating expectations, data showed on Monday.

The city state’s figures were boosted by shipments of specialised industrial machinery and semiconductors, according to Enterprise Singapore, a government agency.

Economists in a Bloomberg survey had forecast a 1.1 per cent year-on-year decline.

Microchip exports grew 16 per cent year-on-year from a lower cyclical base. Such exports had contracted 25 per cent in December 2019 amid a global electronics downcycle.

Exports of personal computer components, diodes and transistors expanded by 15.7 per cent, 33.8 per cent and 16.5 per cent respectively.

“The positive semiconductor cycle ... seems to be in full swing if these numbers are anything to go by,” said Robert Carnell, head of Asia-Pacific research at ING.

The bleak spot was pharmaceuticals, exports of which fell 47.5 per cent year on year. “Maybe production is mainly being diverted for local consumption,” Mr Carnell speculated.

Exports to China, the EU, Indonesia and Japan declined, while markets in the US, South Korea and Taiwan grew.

China reports 109 new cases despite strict measures

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

China reported 109 new Covid-19 local cases across Beijing and three provinces as stubborn outbreaks in the north-east of the country widened.

Beijing reported two new cases, while Hebei, the province surrounding the capital reported 54 new cases. Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces recorded 30 and seven Covid-19 cases respectively.

Authorities have enforced strict lockdown measures on a series of regions, placed tens of thousands in isolation and begun building massive centralised quarantine facilities in efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

The number of Covid-19 patients in the country rose to 1,301 with the latest tally.

A further 104 asymptomatic cases were reported on Monday. China does not include people who test positive for the virus but do not show symptoms in its official count.

India’s coaching hub to welcome students back

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

India’s exam coaching hub is gearing up to welcome students back this week, after more than 10 months of shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kota, a small town in the desert state of Rajasthan, is nationally renowned for its intensive cramming centres designed to help students crack the highly competitive entrance exams into prestigious engineering colleges, Indian Institutes of Technology and top medical schools.

Students preparing for the gruelling exams are the backbone of Kota’s local economy, which includes massive coaching centres, about 3,000 dormitories, 2,000 paying guest accommodations, food services and other amenities catering to a transient student population.

The detailed reopening protocols for the local coaching industry will require all students to wear masks for all in person lessons, while dorms will have to leave a floor of their buildings empty to serve as isolation facilities in case any students are exposed to the virus

Allen Career Institute, one of the town's largest coaching businesses with an estimated 150,000 students spread over 22 locations, has even built its own 31-bed hospital to treat ailing students.

Coaching centres are also relying on apps to track students and ultraviolet light disinfectants to try to prevent the spread of the virus.

The reopening of the Kota coaching centres is part of a wider reopening of schools, colleges and educational institutes in Rajasthan, as India cautiously begins to reopen some in-person instruction after months of disruption of education.

US records 186,000 new cases as per-head rates dip

George Russell in Hong Kong

US states reported more than 180,000 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, down from the previous day but ahead of a public holiday and presidential inauguration that could see pandemic data delayed.

The 43 states for which the Covid Tracking Project collated data tallied more than 186,000 new infections and 2,044 deaths. Washington state reported system issues and did not provide data.

There are 124,387 people currently hospitalised with Covid-19, CTP calculated.

“We have seen nationwide decreases in the seven-day averages of all four metrics,” the authors said, referring to new cases, fatalities, hospital admissions and tests.

“Many states are reporting a decrease in the number of new cases per million people,” CTP found, although California, Virginia and South Carolina reported more than 1,000 new cases per million today.

There were 42,229 newly recorded confirmed cases and 432 fatalities in California, while Texas registered 15,667 new cases and 207 deaths. New York state recorded 13,842 new cases and 172 deaths.

India struggles to reach vaccination targets

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

India vaccinated another 17,072 people against Covid-19 on Sunday, the second day of its nationwide inoculation campaign, amid questions about its ability to reach its target of vaccinating 300m people by the end of August.

India, which vaccinated more than 191,000 people on the first day of its campaign on Saturday, aims to inoculate frontline health workers, and those over the age of 50, in the first phase of an ambitious national vaccination campaign.

Analysts say such a target would require the dispensation of about 3.5m doses of the vaccine every day in the coming months.

But Indian states — which are dispensing the vaccines through their notoriously rickety public health systems — may not be able to fulfil that goal, as they struggle to avoid disruption to other critical public health services, including routine childhood immunisations.

Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, for example, plans to give Covid-19 vaccinations only on two days a week, as does the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh.

A staff member administers a Covishield jab at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi on Saturday

Many states will only dispense Covid-19 vaccinations on three or four days a week, suggesting a slower rollout.

As of now, India is not permitting any private organisations to make vaccines available through the market, even to those with ability to pay who fit the priority groups.

The vaccination campaign has also been overshadowed by doubts about one of the two vaccines being used in the government programme, Covaxin, which is being dispensed in what authorities are calling a “clinical trial mode”.

Doctors at several government hospitals have balked at taking the indigenously developed vaccine, which has yet to complete efficacy studies, and demanding they instead be given the locally made version of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine, which is being produced by Serum Institute of India.

‘No special treatment’ for Australian Open players

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria, has said tennis players arriving for the Australian Open will not receive special treatment after dozens were sent to strict quarantine following positive tests on their flights.

Mr Andrews dismissed a reported list of demands from world number one Novak Djokovic, which were said to include private housing instead of hotel quarantine. “People are free to provide lists of demands, but the answer is no,” he said.

Players and their teams were required to provide a negative test result before taking chartered flights to Australia.

However, passengers on three of the flights tested positive for the virus on arrival, meaning more than 70 players have been confined to their hotel rooms where they are not permitted to train.

Rules outlined before the players’ arrivals allowed them and their teams to carry out up to five hours of training each day at designated centres. “I know there’s been a bit of chatter from a number of players about the rules,” Mr Andrews said.

“The rules apply to them as they apply to everyone else,” he added. “And they were all briefed before they came. There’s no special treatment here, because a virus doesn’t treat you specially and neither do we.”

Australian Open entrant Bernard Tomic exercises in his Melbourne hotel room

Australia has limited the number of arrivals to the country and enforced quarantine on those landing from overseas in efforts to prevent a resurgence in infections.

Mr Andrews said there is a buffer between the two-week quarantine and the start of the Australian Open on February 8, allowing room time to clear those on the flights.

Doubles tennis player Artem Sitak told Australia’s ABC News that players were given details of the quarantine requirements before their arrival. He said it would be challenging for singles players to go straight into five-set games after their training was disrupted.

Mr Djokovic’s charity tennis tournament in June received criticism from the tennis community after a series of players, including Mr Djokovic, tested positive for the virus.

Victoria reported four new coronavirus infections in the state on Monday, all found in people linked to the tennis tournament.

Pandemic priority as Biden to unwind Trump agenda

Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington and Claire Bushey in Chicago

Joe Biden will move to swiftly reverse some of Donald Trump’s most controversial policies with a slew of executive actions in the 10 days following his inauguration on Wednesday.

As Washington prepares for the most unorthodox inauguration in modern US history — with Mr Trump facing a Senate impeachment trial and the pandemic forcing a scaled-back event — Mr Biden is planning immediate actions to tackle the pandemic and other crises after he is sworn in.

Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff, said Mr Biden would focus his inaugural address on a message of unity and the need to quickly implement policies to address the significant crises that the country faces.

Read more here

Ghana president warns of soaring cases

George Russell in Hong Kong

The coronavirus pandemic is threatening to overwhelm Ghana’s healthcare system with soaring new case levels and previously unreported variants, the West African country’s president warned on Sunday.

In an address to the nation, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said the state of the Covid-19 pandemic had worsened dramatically over the past two weeks.

He said that while he had then indicated Ghana was “witnessing a gradual decline in the number of active cases”, since that time “we have seen an upsurge”.

He said the number of active cases had more than doubled from 900 to 1,924. “Our Covid-19 treatment centres have gone from having zero patients to now being full because of the upsurge in infections,” Mr Akufo-Addo said.

He said the number of severe cases had risen from 18 to 120, while critical patients soared from zero to 33.

Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, Ghana’s president, speaks after his January 7 inauguration in Accra

There had been 14 more fatalities, bringing the total to 352, he said, quoting Ghana Health Service data.

“Recent genomic sequencing undertaken by our scientists have established that some arriving passengers tested positive for new variants of Covid-19,” the president said.

He said he did not want to impose a lockdown but police and security agencies would enforce mask-wearing in all public places and on public transport.

All night clubs, pubs, cinemas and beaches would be closed.

“We do not want to go back to the days of partial lockdowns, which had a negative impact on our economy and on our way of life,” Mr Akufo-Addo said.

“But should the number of active cases continue to increase at the current rate, I will have no option but to re-impose these restrictions.”

Asia-Pacific stocks fall ahead of China GDP

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

Asia-Pacific stocks fell on Monday ahead of Chinese economic growth figures for the fourth quarter.

The Topix in Japan shed 0.5 per cent, the Kospi in South Korea fell 1 per cent and the S&P/ASX 200 in Australia dipped 0.6 per cent.

Official figures for China’s fourth-quarter gross domestic product are expected to show a rebound in the world’s second-largest economy following its strict handling of the pandemic.

Larry Hu, chief China economist at Macquarie, estimated that the economy grew 6.1 per cent in the final three months of the year. That would mean the economy expanded by 2.3 per cent for the full year.

On Friday in the US, the S&P 500 ended the day down 0.7 per cent, while the technology heavy Nasdaq Composite shed 0.9 per cent.

US markets are closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Singapore tightens borders over new variants

George Russell in Hong Kong

Singapore said it would tighten its border restrictions in response to new virus variants and the worsening global pandemic.

All travellers, including Singapore citizens and permanent residents, would from January 25 have to take a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction test when they arrive in the city state.

Newly arrived migrant workers would be required to take a PCR test and a serology test from Monday, with employers stumping up the cost.

Singapore reported at least seven locally transmitted cases of coronavirus infections at the weekend.

One was a migrant worker dormitory while the other cases were Singaporeans, comprising two civilian police employees and their spouses, a Singapore Scout Association administrative worker and a bank employee with OCBC.

“The recent locally transmitted cases are a stark reminder that we cannot afford to let our guard down,” the health ministry said in a statement. “We must continue to keep up our discipline in adhering to the safe management and safe distancing measures.”

Russian official defends locally made vaccines

George Russell in Hong Kong

Russia will kick off a mass vaccination programme on Monday, state media reported at the weekend, as a senior official denounced international criticism of the country’s vaccines.

The country has approved two domestically developed vaccines and third is in trials.

“I would like to draw your attention to the fact that we often see elements of distrust in the public space in our products that we use, that we offer to the world,” deputy prime minister Tatyana Golikova said at a meeting with epidemiologists and virologists.

“But I would like to emphasise once again that our country has historically successful experience in the development and use of vaccines,” she added in a transcript on the Russian government website, citing the eradication of poliomyelitis and the near-extinction of diphtheria, measles and rubella.

“Russia has taken an active part in the study of genetic diversity and the evolution of the pandemic potential of the coronavirus,” Ms Golikova said.

UK and US visitors ‘compliant’ with new NZ rules

George Russell in Hong Kong

The first travellers from the UK and US under new pre-departure testing requirements arrived in New Zealand over the weekend, with authorities reporting “very high levels of compliance”, the health ministry said on Sunday.

Since last Friday, British and US visitors must produce a negative test result for Covid-19 or a signed medical exemption upon landing.

This measure is in addition to passengers from both countries requiring a Covid-19 test within 24 hours of arriving into managed isolation.

Pre-departure testing will soon be expanded to include all countries, excluding Australia, Antarctica and some Pacific island nations.

“These additional requirements have been put in place to further strengthen our border, to protect New Zealand from Covid-19 and new emerging variants,” a ministry statement said.

Brazil approves AstraZeneca and Chinese vaccines

Vanusa Costa Santos of the indigenous Kaimbe people is inoculated with Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac vaccine at the Clinicas hospital in São Paulo

Bryan Harris and Michael Pooler in São Paulo

Brazil’s health regulator has given the green light to the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Chinese-made Sinovac coronavirus vaccines, paving the way for Latin America’s largest nation to begin an immunisation programme that has been marred by delays and political bickering.

Following a marathon five-hour presentation broadcast live on Sunday, the board of Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária — known as Anvisa — voted unanimously to grant emergency use approval to both vaccines in a country which has the second-highest Covid-19 death toll, at almost 210,000.

“There is only one enemy. Our best chance in this war has to be by changes to social behaviour. Without this, even with a vaccine, victory will not be achieved,” Antônio Barra Torres, head of the agency, said during the event.

Read more here

Hong Kong visitor arrivals fall more than 90%

George Russell in Hong Kong

Hong Kong recorded arrivals in 2020 of 3.57m, a decline of 93.6 per cent over the previous year, official data show.

Visitors in January 2020 accounted for the majority of the annual total, the Hong Kong Tourist Board said.

From February, when the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Hong Kong limited entry to overseas visitors and introduced quarantine measures from mid-March onwards.

“The tourism industry has been through an extremely tough year,” said HKTB chairman YK Pang.

HKTB has tried to encourage domestic tourism through discounts and free gifts for those spending HK$800 (US$103) or more in retail or dining outlets, even though health authorities asked residents not to dine out during the pandemic.

Phil Spector dies of Covid-19 complications — report

George Russell in Hong Kong

Record producer Phil Spector, who was convicted of a 2003 murder, has died in prison, California authorities announced on Sunday.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said he had died of natural causes at the age of 80 but his daughter, Nicole Audrey Spector, told The New York Times that the cause was complications of Covid-19.

He had been ill since December and was intubated in January, she said.

His official cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, a corrections department statement said.

Spector had been incarcerated since 2009 after being sentenced to 19 years to life for the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson.

Spector was previously an influential record producer, musician and songwriter. His hits included “Unchained Melody” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” for the Righteous Brothers.

Overseas students in UK rely on food banks

Robert Wright in London

The evaporation of part-time jobs and other support for hundreds of thousands of international students in the UK has left many so desperate they rely on food handouts, organisations working with them have warned.

The challenges are particularly prevalent in parts of east London where the Newham Community Project, a mosque-based charity, provides food to more than 1,300 students every week.

Students from relatively poor backgrounds in countries such as India and China who rely on part-time jobs to cover basic expenses, are among the worst affected.

Read more here

Pakistan approves AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine

Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad

Pakistan’s pharmaceutical regulator approved the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford for emergency use, the health ministry said at the weekend.

It is the first Covid-19 shot to be permitted by the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan.

Pakistan has ordered about 1.2m doses of the China-made CoronaVac jab, which is yet to be approved.

The government has also said it would buy “tens of millions” of doses of another Chinese vaccine made by CanSino Biologics, which is still undergoing clinical trials in Pakistan.

Canada fears doubling of new case rate

George Russell in Hong Kong

Canada’s daily cases could more than double by the end of this month on current trends, according to the country’s top doctor.

Provincial and territorial data indicate that an average of 4,705 people with Covid-19 were being treated in Canadian hospitals each day during the week ending January 14.

But chief medical officer Theresa Tam said longer range forecasting, using a model from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, forecasts that Canada could have 10,000 cases daily by January 31.

“Increasing hospitalisations and deaths [would be] expected to continue to follow the rising case numbers,” she said.

Since the start of the pandemic, Canada has recorded 695,707 cases of Covid-19, including 17,729 deaths.

US reports 215,000 new cases as admissions level off

George Russell in Hong Kong

US states reported 215,000 new coronavirus cases on Saturday and at least 3,695 deaths, according to a leading data index.

While case counts continue to decline in the Midwest, reported deaths are still more than triple what they were in October, the Covid Tracking Project reported.

Fatalities are 50 per cent higher than the worst of the northern spring in the region, it added.

CTP said new-case and hospital admission numbers are at “very high absolute levels”, but both measures have “levelled off” in all regions.

On Saturday, California announced 40,622 new cases and a further 669 deaths.

Texas recorded 20,530 and 381 deaths, while New York State detected 19,469 new cases and 206 deaths.

With more than 2m tests taken on Saturday, the seven-day testing average for tests is at a record high, CTP said.

The CTP said data would be disrupted in the coming week due to the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday and the presidential inauguration on Wednesday.

A woman wears a mask at a political demonstration in Denver

“Some states have already announced future delays in reporting,” CTP said at the weekend.

Last week, the CTP demanded that the US government release more data to provide a clearer picture of the pandemic.

“Demographic data from many states are astonishingly incomplete,” Erin Kissane, CTP cofounder, and Alice Goldfarb, who leads the CTP Racial Data Tracker, wrote in The Atlantic.

“Even widely collected information, such as the age of patients at the time of diagnosis or death, is so inconsistently presented that it has been impossible to assemble into a clear national picture,” they added.

The project has also called for more detailed vaccination data.

“The [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is publishing data on vaccine distribution and first doses administered — which is a good starting point — but it has not yet released any demographic data,” Ms Kissane and Ms Goldfarb wrote.

UK under-reacting to surge, say half of adults

George Russell in Hong Kong

More than half of UK adults think the government is under-reacting to the coronavirus surge, a new poll has found.

An Opinium Research survey found that 51 per cent of respondents said authorities weren't moving strongly enough to contain the pandemic, a 7 percentage point increase from last week.

Furthermore, 75 per cent don’t think the Conservative government reacted quickly enough, the highest number on record. Of those who voted Conservative at the last election, 60 per cent do not think they have reacted fast enough.

The poll found that 72 per cent think the current situation is worse than last spring.

A slim majority — 51 per cent — now think takeaway coffee shops should close, and 61 per cent think the same about nurseries.

“In public opinion, the worsening Covid-19 case load is outweighing the initially successful rollout of the vaccine,” said Adam Drummond, Opinium’s head of political polling.

“Even though the public approve of the government’s handling of the vaccine [rollout] by 47 per cent to 23 per cent, the government’s overall approval numbers are among the worst recorded in the pandemic,” he added.

Christmas blamed as Ireland battles new wave

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

As coronavirus cases have surged across much of Europe, Ireland has felt the full force of the new wave.

Rampant infections since Christmas forced Micheál Martin’s government into a series of drastic lockdown measures that have closed schools, construction, hospitality and retail, leaving tens of thousands jobless again.

But those restrictions introduced around the festive period came too late to avert the surge that has put massive strain on hospitals, with intensive care wards filling up and 10 per cent of frontline health staff off work because of infection or close contact.

Read more here

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India has kicked off one of the world’s most ambitious inoculation drives in the midst of growing vaccine scepticism over the contentious approval of an indigenously developed jab. The first phase of the vaccination rollout targets 30m healthcare and frontline workers, with the goal of inoculating 300m people by July.

London’s “black cab” drivers urged the UK government to use it to help roll out the coronavirus vaccination programme while supporting a sector devastated by the pandemic. Members of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association have offered to drive elderly and vulnerable patients to and from medical centres.

Hong Kong is likely to delay the distribution of mainland Chinese producer Sinovac’s Covid-19 vaccine because of a lack of trial data, raising transparency concerns over a shot Beijing wants to sell internationally. Any doubts over CoronaVac risks heightening political tension in Hong Kong over the government’s free vaccine plan.

The new coronavirus variant first discovered in the UK could become the predominant strain in the US by March, according to a new model from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, 76 cases of B.1.1.7 cases were identified in 10 US states, but scientists warn the actual number is likely to be higher.

A closed branch of Primark in Oxford Street, London

Revenue at UK discount fashion chain Primark fell 30 per cent over the past quarter, as online rival Boohoo’s sales soared, in a sign of the sharply diverging fortunes among UK retailers. Primark, which does not sell online, said Covid-19 pandemic restrictions across Europe had shut three-quarters of its stores.

EU governments struggling with the slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines hit out at plans by Pfizer to delay supplies to Europe from next week. Germany expressed regret and six Nordic and Baltic states noted their “severe concern about the sustainability and credibility of the vaccination process” following the decision.

Blackstone is in talks to buy Bourne Leisure, which runs the Butlin’s holiday parks, in a deal that could value the business at about £3bn. The deal would see the US private equity giant, which owns Legoland operator Merlin Entertainments, make its latest bet on a UK company in an industry hit hard by Covid-19.

UK defence contractor Babcock International signalled that it could be forced to cut the value of contracts and future income, sending its stock price down. Its shares plunged 16.4 per cent to 220.30p on Friday after indications of “negative impacts on the balance sheet and/or income statement for current and/or future years”.