UK slams EU over ‘completely false’ claim of ban on vaccine exports

Tensions between the EU and UK over coronavirus vaccine supplies exploded in an angry public row when London denounced claims from Brussels that it had imposed an export ban. 

Boris Johnson’s government reacted furiously to a claim by Charles Michel, European Council president, that the UK had banned shipments of jabs and their components, with one official branding it “an outright lie”.

On Tuesday night Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, wrote to Michel saying that “any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false”. He added: “We are all facing this pandemic together.”

Raab has summoned a representative of the EU delegation in London to the Foreign Office on Wednesday to “discuss the issue further”. His officials say the “false claim” had been repeated at various levels within the EU, in spite of the UK correcting the record on each occasion.

Michel also accused the US of banning exports of vaccines and their raw materials. His comments are the latest deterioration in relations between the UK and EU, which are already at loggerheads over the implementation of the Brexit agreement for Britain’s withdrawal from the European bloc.

Read more here

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Restaurant reopenings boost recovery in US jobs market

In December, Justine Masters let go a third of the staff at her Jamaican and British fusion restaurant The Edge Harlem “in order to survive”.

But now she is one of an increasing number of restaurant owners expanding their workforces as warmer weather boosts demand for al fresco eating while the return of indoor dining brings the promise of more customers.

Restaurants and bars added 285,900 jobs in February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week Friday, a massive increase over the 17,000 added in January.

When combined with hotels and recreational facilities, restaurants accounted for the bulk of the 379,000 jobs added to the US economy last month, helping nudge the unemployment rate down to 6.2 per cent.

“We cautiously are preparing ourselves to be busy again,” said Masters, who is planning to reopen her dining room to supplement her outside tables and takeaway and delivery service. “Seeing as we are a small establishment, it doesn’t take that much to make us busy.”

Economists hope the hiring bump signals the end of a terrible year for a restaurant industry that was among the sectors hardest hit by the Covid crisis. It might also be a harbinger of an economic growth spurt in 2021, fuelled by the vaccination rollout, declining virus cases, and President Joe Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus package.

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West Bank hospitals running out of beds amid wave of coronavirus cases

Hospitals in the occupied West Bank are quickly running out of space, with ICU capacity already at 99 per cent as a wave of coronavirus cases threatened to engulf the Palestinian health system.

The sharp rise in cases contrasts with the exuberant re-opening of the Israeli economy, where 4m people – out of 6.7m adults – have been fully vaccinated, hospitals are quickly emptying and the number of people testing positive has dropped for two weeks in a row to about 3 per cent.

About 21,000 people are currently ill with Covid-19 in the West Bank, nearly the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic, and millions of residents were placed under a strict lockdown by the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule over the main urban areas.

At least 150 of those are in serious condition and about 50 on ventilators, according to the World Health Organization. The surge, tied to the B.1.1.7 variant, means that the Palestinian Authority is considering increasing its requests for transfers to Israeli hospitals, which the Israeli defense ministry would have to approve, according to a Palestinian official.

Israel has sent more than 2,000 doses of its excess Moderna vaccine as emergency humanitarian aid, and promised another 3,000. But it has rejected any suggestions that it is obliged under international law to provide vaccines for the Palestinians who live under its occupation, saying the 1993 Oslo Accords transferred that responsibility to the Palestinian Authority.

Instead, it approved plans to vaccinate some 130,000 Palestinian workers, mostly manual labourers on construction sites, who have permits to cross checkpoints to work sites or work in settlements in the West Bank.

The West Bank has received an additional 10,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccines that the PA paid for, and the Gaza Strip received about 20,000 doses from the UAE as aid, for a total population of about 5.2m people.

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Poland coronavirus hospitalisations ‘growing rapidly’

Authorities in Poland are bracing for a rise in coronavirus hospitalisations following an increase in new infections.

On Sunday, 13,574 new infections were reported, which was the biggest daily increase since the end of October. That has helped push the average over the past week to 12,500 new cases a day, according to official statistics.

Hospitalisations, which tend to lag behind infections, are also rising again. The number of hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients rose to 18,105 on Tuesday from 17,337 a day earlier.

“The number of infected people admitted to hospitals is growing rapidly,” said Waldemar Kraska, vice-minister of health, in an interview on Monday.

The Polish government has refrained from reintroducing coronavirus restrictions at the national level, but has instead tightened curbs in regions most affected by the virus. 

Despite the increase in infection numbers, the rate of deaths due to coronavirus is dropping. The seven-day average of fatalities was 210 on March 7, down from a daily average of 272 on February 7.

According to Ministry of Health statistics, more than 38 per cent of people aged 80 years and older, and about 6.5 per cent of the overall population, have been vaccinated so far.

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Cuomo expands vaccine eligibility to New Yorkers aged 60 and over

New York will on Wednesday expand vaccine eligibility to include those 60 years and older, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced, and will this month allow public-facing government workers to enrol for shots.

New Yorkers aged 60 and over will be allowed to book appointments for vaccine shots from 8am on Wednesday morning. Appointments are currently open to those aged 65 and over.

Cuomo also said that from March 17, vaccine eligibility would be further expanded to include public-facing employees, such as not-for-profit emergency workers (like the YWCA), essential public workers and public-facing building workers. “These are the people who are everyday heroes,” he said.

The announcement was made as the state rolled out a network of “mass” vaccination sites at athletics stadiums, convention centres and other large venues in an effort to increase distribution.

“We’re at the beginning of the end,” Cuomo said, even as he acknowledged that distribution of the vaccine was “still uneven”. The governor was flanked by preachers and other black leaders, who urged their communities to put aside their reluctance and take the vaccine. 

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Mexico boosts orders for Chinese coronavirus vaccines

Mexico will heavily rely on Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccines as the government doubled its order of the Sinovac therapy to 20m doses and lined up 12m doses of the Sinopharm vaccine if it is given the green light by regulatory authorities here.

Mexico had originally contracted 10m doses of Sinovac, to be delivered by May. The 20m doses will now be delivered by July, Marcelo Ebrard, foreign minister, said.

As for Sinopharm, which has been authorised in 15 countries including Argentina, UAE, Hungary and Peru, “if its emergency use is authorised in Mexico, we will buy 12m doses … between March and June,” he told a news conference.

Mexico is also bottling a third Chinese vaccine, developed by CanSino, at a laboratory in the central state of Querétaro, which should be ready to be distributed at the end of this month, Ebrard said.

Mexico’s ambitious vaccination programme is still proceeding slowly — just 2.8m doses have so far been applied. A new shipment of 600,600 doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer jab arrived on Tuesday morning and Ebrard said another 667,875 would arrive on March 16.

Another 3m doses of the CanSino therapy are expected to arrive on March 11 to be bottled in Mexico and 1m doses of the Sinovac vaccine are due on March 13, he added.

Mexico has confirmed 190,923 deaths and 2,130,477 Covid-19 cases, but low testing and high excess deaths indicate the true figures are far higher.

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Dick’s Sporting Goods braces for slower growth after fitness boom

Dick’s Sporting Goods signalled that booming demand for fitness equipment and outdoor sports gear will cool off in the year ahead after the retailer booked record sales in 2020.

The Pittsburgh-based company on Tuesday reported a 19.3 per cent year-on-year increase in same-store sales for the three months to the end of January, as Americans continued to work out more at home and took up fishing, golf and other outdoor activities during the pandemic. Net sales for the fourth quarter were $3.1bn, up nearly 20 per cent.

The results also reflected consumers’ growing preference for shopping online. E-commerce sales were up 57 per cent in the fourth quarter, accounting for nearly one-third of net sales versus 25 per cent a year earlier.

“The strength of our diverse category portfolio, technology capabilities and advanced omni-channel execution once again helped us capitalise on the favorable shifts in consumer demand across golf, outdoor activities, home fitness and active lifestyle,” Lauren Hobart, chief executive, said.

Hobart added that Dick’s carried a lot of momentum heading into 2021 and has been “pleased with our start to the year”.

However, Dick’s expects same-store sales to check in somewhere between plus or minus 2 per cent for the full year, which would mark a slowdown from the 9.9 per cent growth it registered in fiscal 2020.

Dick’s forecast 2021 net sales of about $9.54bn to $9.94bn, compared with revenues of $9.58bn in 2020 and $8.75bn in 2019. Analysts were estimating 2021 net sales to hit $9.59bn.

The company also issued full-year guidance for adjusted earnings per share of $4.40 to $5.20, with the midpoint falling short of analysts’ view of $5.15.

Shares dropped more than 5 per cent on Tuesday, although Dick’s stock remained 28 per cent higher since the start of the year.

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Tech stocks lead Wall Street higher on signs of ‘short squeeze’

US tech stocks bounced at the open to recover from sharp losses in the previous session as traders cooled on other sectors more dependent on economic growth and a loosening of coronavirus restrictions.

The technology-focused Nasdaq Composite leapt 3.6 per cent in morning New York trading, helped by a decline in US Treasury yields that flatter valuations of growth companies.

Tech stocks have led global equities higher since last March, thanks to high demand for screen-based work and entertainment products during the pandemic.

But the Nasdaq entered a technical correction on Monday. Investors had rotated out of tech, switching into sectors such as travel on hopes of a reopening and a shot in the arm for the global economy from US president Joe Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus.

The Nasdaq could be set for a temporary rally triggered by a “short squeeze”, analysts at Citi said in a research note published before US markets opened. Such a squeeze is caused when speculators who have borrowed shares to sell in anticipation they will fall, subsequently buy them back rapidly to cover losses.

Shares in home exercise group Peloton rose 13 per cent while electric vehicle maker Tesla, which is often one of the most shorted stocks on the Nasdaq, gained 12 per cent.

The broader S&P 500 share index rose almost 2 per cent, led by tech stocks. The financial and energy sub-sectors of the S&P were the weakest performers, each falling around 1 per cent.

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Global Covid vaccination drive gathers steam

The pace of coronavirus vaccinations has accelerated, as the worldwide total hits more than 310m doses, the Financial Times’ tracker shows.

The latest data shows that 4.1 doses have been given out per 100 people worldwide, led by the US, China, the EU and the UK in terms of raw numbers. An average of almost 7m Covid-19 vaccine doses were shot into arms each day in the week to Monday.

The inoculation rate has picked up with roughly 48m doses in the week to Monday topping 41m in the preceding week, as the World Health Organization-backed Covax scheme to distribute vaccines to poor nations began delivering to more countries. The figure is likely to be higher as not all countries will have reported their latest numbers.

Israel maintains its lead as the world’s quickest nation to vaccinate, approaching the 100 doses per 100 citizens mark. The Middle Eastern nation is followed by the UAE, which has given 64.6 doses per 100 residents, and the UK, whose 23.5m jabs are equal to 35.2 per 100 Britons.

The pace increased notably in the EU, the US and India. The 27-country bloc had a sluggish start but gave out about 7.4m last week, 1m more than the week before. The US administered more than 15m doses in the most recent week, while India gave more than 2m jabs in the most recent 24-hour period with data.

Explore the FT’s vaccine tracker here

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Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London set to re-open next month

London’s Globe theatre is preparing to welcome visitors back next month for its guided tours and Shakespeare workshops, in line with the second stage of the UK government’s road map out of lockdown.

The open-air theatre on the south bank of the Thames aims to re-open from April 13 and is planning its summer season of plays in time for the third step of loosening the restrictions, which will not be before May 17.

The Globe welcomed more than 3,600 visitors to its circular wooden building last summer for a guided tour that allowed them up onto the renowned Shakespeare stage for the first time.

“Closing the Globe last year was a truly awful experience,” said chief executive Neil Constable.

He added however that the pandemic prompted the theatre to expand its digital offering, reaching international audiences “like never before”.

“We are ready to recover,” he said, “and get back to providing world-class culture to the public. We are excited to have audiences back in our wooden ‘O’.”

The Globe theatre is decorated in pink tape in a campaign to save theatres after Covid crisis © REUTERS
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Americans eye return to the skies as pandemic drags on

Americans are becoming more interested in flying again, according to a trawl of ticket prices and online search data that suggest the aviation industry is on the verge of a rebound.

Jessica Rabe, analyst at research boutique Datatrek, uncovered evidence of higher fares on some routes and more Google queries for airline-related terms.

The findings come despite coronavirus restrictions and give some hope to the industry as it seeks a further $15bn in government funding.

A round-trip from New York to Orlando during Spring Break is now selling for an average of $97, Rabe found, up from $56 a month ago.

Prices are also rising for bookings later in the year, with tickets for the same journey over the Thanksgiving week in November selling for $245.

Google searches for the names of the largest US airlines, such as American Airlines and United, have risen between 27 per cent and 56 per cent since Christmas 2020, according to Rabe. Searches for car rentals have also risen to a 12-month high.

Airline shares have risen as investors have bet on reopenings. The sub-sector of the S&P Composite index rose 5.6 per cent on Monday, taking its year-to-date gain to more than 28 per cent.

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Vaccine tips and tricks: a start-up industry helps Americans find a shot

Six weeks ago Diana Rastegayeva started sending an email to friends and family containing tips to navigate the patchwork of state, local and private-sector providers offering coronavirus vaccine appointments.

Rastegayeva, who works for a pharmaceutical company, has now turned her mailshot into a website, becoming one of a growing number of experts helping eligible Americans navigate the country’s labyrinthine and highly localised vaccine distribution process. Her tips are as simple as knowing when pharmacies post new appointments to making sure someone has autofill set up to complete online registration forms more easily.

But while Rastegayeva has managed to secure 1,250 appointments for people in her home state of Massachusetts, she shares the concern of many experts that doses are not going to those who need it most, but rather those who know how to work the system.

“This system is not really good for anyone — the government should be doing this,” she told the Financial Times. “This is the embodiment of American individualism.”

Read more here

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‘Things can go bad very quickly’ if lockdown relaxed too soon, Whitty warns

England’s chief medical officer has said that “things can go bad very quickly” if Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed too quickly, telling MPs not to expect any acceleration in easing lockdown measures even if the vaccination roll-out seems to be going better than expected and cases are falling fast.

Infections were bound to increase again as the economy reopens, Chris Whitty told the House of Commons science and technology select committee, pointing to rising case numbers in continental Europe.

“What we are going to see, as things are opening up, is that at some point we will get a surge,” he said, adding that this could be delayed until later in the year if restrictions were loosened gradually.

“A lot of people may think it’s all over but I would encourage them to look at continental Europe right now,” he added. “It is easy to forget how quickly things can turn bad if you don’t keep an eye on them.”

His comments were echoed by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientist. Vallance insisted that a five-week interval between steps, as laid out in the government’s four-stage road map for lifting restrictions, was essential to assess the impact of each one.

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NHS England head expects extra funding to cover Covid costs

NHS England’s chief expects that the health service will receive funding for additional coronavirus-related costs beyond the financial year but held off demanding a “proper reward” for his staff.

“There are going to be continuing Covid-related needs and costs spilling into the new financial year,” Simon Stevens said at a health and social care select committee on Tuesday.

“The expectation is that the NHS will receive additional funding to cover those unavoidable Covid costs,” the chief executive of NHS England added. “We do expect that that will be resolved very shortly.”

The government last week proposed a 1 per cent pay rise for NHS staff, a decision that prompted widespread criticism and a backlash that included the threat of strikes by nurses.

UK nurses’ leaders denounced the planned rise as “pitiful” for workers who have been at the frontline fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

Stevens on Tuesday admitted the NHS had planned for a 2.1 per cent pay rise but added that the “right way” to resolve the issue is to ask independent pay review bodies to make a “fair” recommendation, as the government has done.

The government will receive those recommendations in the spring.

Stevens said he would like to see NHS staff receive a “proper reward” but, as far as a one-off bonus was concerned, he said that he could see “the attractions of that but that might not be the only answer”.

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South Africa’s economy outpaces growth expectations at end of 2020

South Africa’s economy grew more than expected in the final three months of last year, extending its rebound from a second-quarter slump as coronavirus restrictions were eased further.

GDP rose 1.5 per cent in the final three months of the year, or an annualised rate of 6.3 per cent, Statistics South Africa data showed. That was better than the 5 per cent that economists polled by Reuters had been expecting.

Manufacturing and trades such as catering and accommodation led the expansion, despite the resurgence in coronavirus in December due to a new, more transmissible virus variant.

Over the year, South Africa’s economy contracted by the most since the Great Depression in the 1930s, as a second-quarter shutdown triggered a collapse in business activity in the continent’s most industrialised nation.

Gross domestic product fell 7 per cent last year, after expanding 0.2 per cent in 2019. The official statistics agency said it was the largest decline since at least 1946. South Africa’s finance minister has said a 7 per cent fall would be the steepest in nine decades.

By comparison, its second biggest annual fall in the post-war period was a 2.1 per cent drop in 1992.

A lockdown to halt the spread of the virus hit its peak in the second quarter, when GDP fell by 16.6 per cent, or an annualised 51 per cent. The country’s GDP subsequently expanded by a revised 13.7 per cent, or 67.3 per cent on an annualised basis, in the three months to the end of September.

South Africa began its coronavirus vaccination campaign last month and has administered just over 100,000 doses in the early days of inoculations, according to the FT’s vaccine tracker.

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One year ago today

The Financial Times has been your guide to the pandemic since the first outbreak was detected over a year ago. Here are some of the developments we were reporting on a year ago today, which was a day of turmoil in global markets:

  • Global stocks and government bond yields tumbled after oil prices crashed by almost a third, as the prospect of a crude oil price war hit markets already reeling from coronavirus

  • Donald Trump played down the impact of the outbreak on the US economy, attributing the sell-off in stocks to “fake news” and the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia

  • The World Health Organization again stepped back from calling coronavirus a pandemic

  • The German government unveiled a package of measures to help companies hit by the developing health crisis and promised a €12.4bn investment spending spree over four years

  • The French finance minister urged Europe to come up with a “massive” economic stimulus plan

  • The number of cases in Spain more than doubled in 24 hours, rising to 999

  • Health authorities in France warned people against using cocaine to prevent infection

  • A fourth person in the UK died from coronavirus and Germany reported its first deaths

  • The number of cases in Italy rose to over 9,000, from 7,300 the day before, and the entire country was placed into quarantine

  • For all the latest on the pandemic, visit the FT’s coronavirus home page

Line chart of March 9 2020 was the start of a tough week for equities and oil showing A difficult week
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Bond markets stabilise on concerns sell-off was overdone

Government bond markets stabilised on Tuesday as analysts warned a recent rapid sell-off of sovereign debt driven by inflation concerns was overdone.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond fell by 0.06 percentage points to 1.54 per cent as the price of the securities rose. Treasury yields have climbed from about 0.9 per cent at the start of February as traders bet president Joe Biden’s $1.9tn coronavirus relief package would supercharge the economic recovery and challenge the US central bank’s loose monetary policy stance.

The Treasury sell-off “has overshot fundamentals somewhat”, Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs said in a research note. The investment bank forecasts the Federal Reserve will hold back from reducing the $120bn-plus of monthly asset purchases that it has made since the start of the pandemic until at least the end of this year.

In the UK, the yield on the 10-year UK gilt dropped by 0.05 basis points to just over 0.7 per cent as investors bought back in to the debt. While markets are anticipating the Bank of England will raise interest rates late next year, “we think this is much too early”, Hatzius said. “The UK recovery that is now getting underway comes from a very depressed starting point.”

Prices of eurozone government bonds also rose. Germany’s 10-year bund yield fell by 0.04 percentage points to minus 0.31 per cent. The yield on the equivalent Italian bond dropped 0.05 percentage points to 0.7 per cent.

Line chart of  showing US Treasury yields have climbed as inflation expectations have grown
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Biden stimulus will boost global recovery, says OECD

Joe Biden’s $1.9tn US stimulus programme will boost the economic recovery from the pandemic around the world, the OECD said on Tuesday, as it upgraded its outlook for global growth.

The Paris-based international organisation said it expected a stronger rebound from last year’s historic recession than it previously forecast in November, mainly because of the rapid rollout of vaccination programmes in many countries and the increase in US stimulus spending.

The scale of the Biden plan will add about 1 percentage point to global economic growth in 2021, Laurence Boone, the OECD’s chief economist, told the Financial Times.

As a result, the global economy will expand by 5.6 per cent this year, the OECD predicted, an upgrade of 1.4 percentage points from its November forecast.

Read more here

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JDE Peet’s shares hit as coffee group predicts ‘uncertain’ year

JDE Peet’s has forecast another “uncertain year” for 2021, adjusting its medium- to long-term targets as the coronavirus crisis has hit the coffee and tea group.

“The long-lasting impacts of the pandemic are unclear and will need to be assessed,” especially for drinks consumed outside the home, the Amsterdam-based group said on Tuesday.

JDE Peet’s, whose brands include Douwe Egberts, Kenco and Peet’s coffee, said it was “very confident” that it could post organic sales growth of between 3 and 5 per cent this year with “mid-single-digit” organic adjusted growth in operating profits.

It also proposed a total dividend of 70 euro cents a share, paid in two instalments.

Investors recoiled however. The company’s shares dropped more than 9 per cent in early Amsterdam trading, taking the price below its initial listing price less than a year ago.

The coffee group floated last May at €31.50 per share in Europe’s biggest initial public offering since 2018. Although they climbed after the IPO, they were trading at €30.33 on Tuesday.

Line chart of  showing JDE Peet's share price since its IPO in May

JDE Peet’s is controlled by the private investment group JAB Holdings, which manages the wealth of Germany’s billionaire Reimann family. It generated record in-home organic sales growth of 9.1 per cent for the financial year.

“JDE Peet’s delivered a strong performance in 2020, demonstrating once again the resilience of the category we participate in,” said chief executive Fabien Simon.

In a statement, the company said: “While uncertainty remains regarding the future implications Covid-19 may have on global markets, we believe that vaccination programmes around the world will lead to a gradual lifting of lockdown measures in the course of 2021.”

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Sputnik developers demand apology for EU ‘Russian roulette’ comments

The developers of Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine have accused the head of Europe’s drug regulator of improper political interference and demanded an apology for comments advising against emergency approval of the Kremlin-backed jab.

Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, chair of the management board of the European Medicines Agency, said on Sunday that granting emergency approval for Sputnik V was “somewhat comparable to Russian roulette.”

“I would strongly advise against a national emergency authorisation,” she told Austrian broadcaster ORF.

The EMA said last week it had begun a rolling approval process for Sputnik, a process that could see it approved for use in EU countries. The governments of Hungary and Slovakia have used emergency powers to allow use of the jab without EMA approval.

“We demand a public apology from EMA’s Christa Wirthumer-Hoche for her negative comments on EU states directly approving Sputnik V. Her comments raise serious questions about possible political interference in the ongoing EMA review,” said a statement published on the Twitter account of Sputnik V. The account is run by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a Kremlin sovereign wealth fund that funded the jab’s development and is managing its foreign sales.

“EMA did not allow such statements about any other vaccine. Such comments are inappropriate and undermine credibility of EMA and its review process. Vaccines and EMA should be above and beyond politics,” the statement said. “Europeans deserve an unbiased review.”

Sputnik V is approved in Russia and 45 foreign states. Its efficacy of 91.6 per cent makes it one of the most effective vaccines developed against coronavirus.

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Online grocery shopping hits new record in UK with 17% share

Ecommerce accounted for a record 17 per cent of the UK grocery market in February, according to market research group NielsenIQ, as shoppers continue to buy online despite over 20m people now having received a Covid-19 vaccine.

“Online grocery has now become a permanent fixture for many UK shoppers — it is now past the ‘tipping point’ and is at the ‘sticking point’,” said Mike Watkins, head of retailer and business insight at Nielsen.

“Consumers no longer feel like they have to shop online, but do so because they prefer to,” he added. “We anticipate that online demand will continue to grow ahead of the market.”

Supermarkets have poured money into ecommerce over the past year, hiring thousands of new staff to pick orders in store and drive delivery vans.

Consumers spent £1.5bn on online groceries in the four weeks ending February 27 and two-fifths of households shopped for food online, more than double the same period last year. Sales at physical stores declined 1 per cent.

But the fastest-growing retailer was nevertheless one with no online capability; sales at discounter Lidl rose an estimated 21 per cent, helped by promotions. Iceland sales rose 17.5 per cent while Wm Morrison was the fastest-growing of the traditional supermarkets with 11.7 per cent growth.

Supermarkets have hired thousands of staff to pick orders in store and drive delivery vans
Supermarkets have hired thousands of staff to pick orders in store and drive delivery vans © Bloomberg
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Continential expects ‘significant recovery’ in global car market this year

Continental expects a “significant recovery” in the global car market this year despite the pandemic and the chips shortage, as the German car parts maker scrapped its dividend following a year of deep losses.

The group, which makes components found in four out of five cars globally, posted a €718m pre-tax loss for 2020, on sales that fell 15 per cent to €37.7bn.

But the company said the final quarter of the year, where it made a profit after six months of deep losses, “has shown that we have passed the low point”, said chief financial officer Wolfgang Schäfer. “The economic environment is gaining momentum.”

He said this year will be “challenging” for carmakers because of the global semiconductor shortage but that a “substantial increase” in global car production is expected.

A shortage of chips has caused the world’s largest carmakers to halt or taper production, with the industry not expecting the situation to recover fully until the second half of the year.

“We nevertheless anticipate that the market will recover significantly compared to 2020,” Schäfer said. It forecasts a 9 per cent to 12 per cent rise on last year’s global production numbers, which fell 16 per cent.

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Prisoners will not receive priority for Covid jabs, UK justice secretary says

Prisoners are not a priority for Covid-19 vaccination despite the risk of coronavirus spreading quickly in close quarters, said Robert Buckland, the UK justice secretary.

“Prisoners will not get priority ahead of any other part of the community,” he said on Sky News. “My particular priority is to make sure the prison staff get inoculated as quickly as possible.”

Under the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, age has been the primary factor for determining the order to distribute jabs. Occupations besides health and care home workers have not been given weight with teachers being forced to wait until their age group is called up.

Official government statistics show that almost 120 people in the prison system have died after testing positive for Covid-19, 86 of whom were prisoners, out of more than 10,000 cases. The UK’s prison population has fallen through the pandemic to 78,100 at the end of January.

The prisons watchdog raised concerns last month that inmates in England’s jails have been confined to their cells for more than 90 per cent of the day to stop the virus spreading.

The justice secretary defended the extreme measures as mirroring the curtailments of freedom for the rest of society and said they were in the interest of the prisoners themselves to avoid contracting coronavirus.

“Like the rest of the community, prisoners have found that the restrictions have been greater on them than would be normally the case.”

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ITV to cut more costs after pandemic hit

ITV has launched a further round of cost savings after facing a “challenging” advertising market that has been weighed down by the pandemic, but is showing signs of rapid improvement.

The UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster finished the final quarter of 2020 with its total advertising up 3 per cent, the first growth it has reported since the start of the pandemic.

But the recovery was set back by further lockdown restrictions late last year, which sent the advertising market into reverse, with ITV expecting a 6 per cent decline in revenue in the first three months of 2021.

Carolyn McCall, chief executive, said that despite this uncertainty she was “encouraged by the roadmap out of lockdown” and noted “positive trends”, with March expected to be up around 8 per cent. Meanwhile advertising in April is expected to jump by 60 to 75 per cent, demonstrating the depth of the hit in early 2020.

Total revenues for 2020 fell 16 per cent to £2.8bn, with ITV’s production arm hit particularly hard, dropping 25 per cent because of restrictions on filming. Adjusted operating profit for 2020 fell 21 per cent to £573m, which beat analysts’ expectations.

ITV said it would aim to cut overheads by £100m a year by 2022, a significant increase on its previous guidance of £55-60m.

ITV expects a 6 per cent decline in revenue in the first three months of 2021 after lockdown restrictions put the advertising market into reverse
ITV expects a 6 per cent decline in revenue in the first three months of 2021 after lockdown restrictions put the advertising market into reverse © Bloomberg
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Domino’s to return £88m to investors as demand for pizza rises

Domino’s, the UK pizza company, has said it plans to return £88m to shareholders through a dividend and share buyback scheme as the increased demand for delivered food during lockdowns boosted it through the pandemic.

The pizza delivery group, which is a master franchise of the US Domino’s, announced on Tuesday that it would pay out a dividend of 9.1p per share to investors, amounting to £43m, and supplement this with £45m worth of share buybacks after it generated £110m of free cash during the year.

It is one of few FTSE-listed companies to announce a dividend this year after companies’ efforts to shore up their balance sheets during the pandemic ravaged returns to shareholders.

Domino’s said despite having to shut its stores for collection during the first lockdown, sales through its delivery arm had more than offset the loss and it ended the year with overall revenues up 10.3 per cent to £1.3bn. The drop in in-store collection orders, however, meant that total order count decreased 6 per cent with higher value delivery orders boosting the growth in sales.

The group said that it invested £9m in making stores Covid-secure and has been able to open for delivery during the second and third lockdowns. It also reduced net debt by around a quarter to £171m.

The disposal of its loss-making businesses in Norway and Sweden helped to improve its cash position, although efforts to sell its Swiss and Icelandic arms are under way.

The group said it had put in place a “medium term” plan to hit between £1.6bn and £1.9bn of overall sales and open 200 stores.

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Pandemic brings decade of change for offices within 12 months, says IWG

Coronavirus has brought about a “decade of evolution in just 12 months” for offices, according to the head of the world’s largest flexible workspace company.

IWG chief executive Mark Dixon said that the challenges unleashed by the pandemic on office landlords would continue for several months, as his company disclosed it had swung to a loss in 2020.

But once an economic recovery begins and staff are permitted to return to the office, Dixon anticipates a “massive surge in growth” for the flexible workspace market.

IWG ditched office leases over the last year as the extent of the pandemic became clear, and corporate tenants were forced to stay away.

The company posted an adjusted pre-tax loss from continuing operations of £230m, compared with a pre-tax profit of £55m in 2019. Revenues fell 6.4 per cent to £2.48bn.

IWG, which operates more than 3,300 offices around the world, said the pandemic had “created the most challenging year in our history but provides our greatest opportunity in 31 years.”

IWG chief executive Mark Dixon said that the challenges unleashed by the pandemic on office landlords would continue for several months
IWG chief executive Mark Dixon said the challenges unleashed by the pandemic on office landlords would continue for several months © REUTERS
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China M&A surges on Covid recovery as focus shifts inwards

Dealmaking within China is running at a record pace, with the value of domestic mergers and acquisitions this year totalling $77.5bn — the busiest-ever start to a year and almost three times the level in the same period of 2020, Refinitiv data show. 

The investment frenzy, which gathered momentum in the second half of last year as China’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic mounted, has come as Beijing has shifted its focus to domestic demand to power its economy amid tensions with the US. 

“It is an exceptionally hot period for M&A” in China, said David Brown, PwC head of deals for Asia Pacific. He cited a “perfect storm of factors”, including demand for equity capital by domestic businesses as the economy recovered as well as government policy aimed at reducing reliance on overseas technology and markets. 

“A lot of firepower is being directed towards consumer industries and other sectors that benefit from the inward-looking strategy,” Brown said.

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Indonesia approves Oxford/AstraZeneca jab for emergency use

Indonesia has approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for emergency use, Penny Lukito, who heads up the country’s food and drug agency, said on Tuesday.

More than 1m doses of the vaccine arrived on Monday via the World Health Organization-supported Covax initiative for equitable vaccine distribution globally. About 38m doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine have been received by Indonesia since January.

Some 1.38m people have tested positive for Covid-19 in the south-east Asian country since the start of the pandemic, with over 37,000 fatalities.

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How global high flyers get vaccinated in the UAE

A string of tycoons, politicians and royalty have descended in recent months on the United Arab Emirates, where friends in high places have helped them secure early access to coronavirus vaccines. 

British financier Ben Goldsmith and executives at SoftBank are among those to benefit from swift inoculation against Covid-19 as members of the ruling family and government officials have used its plentiful vaccine supplies to help some non-residents get the jabs. 

Goldsmith, an adviser to the UK government and the son of financier Jimmy Goldsmith, said he had travelled to the oil-rich Gulf state before tighter coronavirus measures were enforced in December and decided to stay rather than returning home to lockdown. 

Goldsmith and his wife received the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine on the invitation of a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. 

“It was never our intention to get vaccinated, but when the opportunity presented itself we gratefully took it,” he told the Financial Times. “The UAE is vaccinating anyone who asks for it — we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.” Only UAE residents are routinely eligible for the vaccine. 

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New Zealand promises extra support for Covid-impacted ship crews

The New Zealand government said on Tuesday that its Maritime Transport Act would be amended allowing levies to be imposed to provide ship crews with more support.

Transport minister Michael Wood said Covid-19 had impacted massively on the seafarers vital to maintaining global trade lines. “Border and health restrictions often mean crews are out at sea for months on end with limited ability to contact their families,” he said.

The additional support will be coordinated by New Zealand’s Seafarers Welfare Board, which ensures ocean-going visitors to the country’s 10 main ports have access to services necessary for their health and well-being, including toll-calls, email and internet access, money exchange, access to counselling and books.

“For example, they ensured wi-fi units were made available for ships calling at New Zealand ports, providing a connection to 794 ships. This gives seafarers the chance to connect with their families after months at sea,” Woods said.

The board currently relies on donations. “By giving them long-term funding certainty, we will meet our international commitments and ensure that services to support seafarers’ wellbeing continue to be provided,” Wood said.

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India breaks record with 1.7m vaccinated in a day

India vaccinated a record of nearly 1.7m people against Covid-19 on Monday, as a steady rise in new cases in recent weeks began to take its toll on normalisation of the country’s economy.

India has administered more than 22m jabs since the start of its inoculation drive in mid-January. The campaign has picked up speed considerably since March 1, when New Delhi permitted private hospitals to offer the jabs to targeted groups, including those aged over 60.

An electoral worker in Chennai celebrates receiving her jab © AFP via Getty Images

The push to accelerate roll-out comes after three weeks of rising daily new infections following months of steady declines. Nomura, the investment bank, said the rise in cases has led to a muting of public activity, which rose as cases fell.

The bank’s Nomura India Business Resumption Index, which analyses high frequency indicators such as power demand, traffic patterns and footfall in public places using data from global tech companies, fell to 95.2 for the week ending March 7, down from 98.5 the previous week.

The index suggests that business activity is now 4.8 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. 

The bank has warned that the index could soften further if cases continue to rise, especially in states now preparing for state assembly elections and where large political rallies have been conducted.

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Vaccine pioneer highlights gender disparity

Professor Sarah Gilbert, lead vaccine developer at the UK’s Oxford University, said on Monday that the pandemic has exposed a glaring gender gap in career progression for women working in healthcare. 

Speaking as a guest at a World Health Organization briefing on International Women’s Day, Gilbert said that two-thirds of the team that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine are female. “However, of the senior positions in the team, only one-third are women,” she said.

“There are concerns that the pandemic has had more of an effect on the careers and livelihood of women than men, and as we begin to make our plans for recovery, we must not neglect this.”

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added that while women make up about 70 per cent of health workers globally, they only account for a quarter of leadership roles.

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UN: one in three travel destinations remain closed to international tourists

Almost a third of 217 popular travel destinations around the world remain completely closed to international tourists, according to a report released by the UN World Tourism Organization on Monday, with concerns growing over new coronavirus variants.

More than half of the off-limits destinations have been inaccessible since April 27 last year, with Asia-Pacific and Europe the worst affected regions, according to the UNWTO’s Travel Restrictions Report.

Over a third of global tourism destinations are now partially open, with Albania, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, North Macedonia and Tanzania lifting all Covid-related travel restrictions.

Costa Rica has lifted all Covid-related travel restrictions © Getty Images

The report also shows a trend for destinations “adopting a more nuanced, evidence and risk-based approach” to travel restrictions.

An increasing number of countries are requiring tourists to present a negative polymerase chain reaction or Covid-19 antigen test on entry, as well as contact details for tracing.

Just over 30 per cent of destinations have made a negative test their main requirement for entry.

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UK retail sales return to growth despite lockdown

The run-up to the reopening of schools and increased spending on home improvement helped UK retail sales return to growth in February despite the national lockdown, according to the latest industry data.

Retail sales in the UK grew 1 per cent last month compared with the same period last year, a sharp reverse of a 1.3 per cent year-on-year contraction in January, according to an analysis by the British Retail Consortium trade body and consultancy KPMG.

Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, attributed the rebound to anticipation of the phased easing of the third national lockdown, which started on Monday with pupils returning to classrooms. She said this “prompted a burst in spending on non-food items, such as school uniforms”.

Line chart of Annual % change showing UK retail sales improve in February

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Chicago ballparks to welcome fans at 20% normal capacity

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday announced plans to reopen ballparks to fans on their opening days to the new season in April.

As part of the City’s Open Chicago initiative, Guaranteed Rate Field and Wrigley Field will welcome spectators at 20 per cent of their normal capacity. 

“As a diehard sports fan myself, I’m personally excited to have Chicago take its first, cautious steps toward safely reopening our beloved baseball stadiums to fans this season,” Lightfoot said.

Wrigley Field will begin accepting fans again at 20% capacity in April © AP

Guaranteed Rate Field, home to the Chicago White Sox, normally seats just over 40,000 people. The reopening capacity will be limited to 8,122 fans, with at least six feet required between parties. Its opening day is April 8. 

Wrigley Field, the oldest ballpark in the National League, home to the Chicago Cubs and with a normal capacity of 41,374, will accept 8,274 fans per game, also with social distancing. Its opening Day is April 1.

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Johnson warns return to classroom will spark rise in infections

Boris Johnson has welcomed the “emotional” return to school for pupils in England as he warned it would lead to a rise in coronavirus transmission and ruled out accelerating the planned lifting of the third national lockdown.

The prime minister told a Downing Street press conference it was “inevitable” that case numbers would increase as schools reopened in the first step on the government’s road map to easing restrictions in England.

Johnson said the risk of a rise in infections was worth it. “We all know that the education of our children is so important that the greater risk now is keeping them out of school for a day longer.”

But he said that scientists would study the data on the effect of the return to classrooms on virus transmission rates before deciding whether to move to a further limited lifting of the lockdown on March 29 at the earliest.

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Deliveroo expects customer spending to slow from lockdown peak

Deliveroo expects customer spending on its food delivery app to grow by 30-40 per cent in 2021, implying gross transaction values of at least $5.3bn — a slowdown from the 64 per cent jump seen last year when coronavirus lockdowns pulled in a wave of new customers.

London-based Deliveroo also expects that its gross profit margin will dip to 7.5-8 per cent, compared with 8.8 per cent in 2020, as order sizes fall back to normal levels and it invests more in marketing and expanding in grocery delivery.

The forecasts came as it unveiled plans for its London stock market debut, with filings revealing 54 per cent growth in net sales but losses of £224m in 2020.

The Amazon-backed company announced on Monday its intention to float on the London exchange’s main market, suggesting that its shares are likely to begin trading by early April. 

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Italy death toll surpasses 100,000

Italy has become the first European Union country to surpass 100,000 deaths officially attributed to Covid-19 after a further 318 people lost their lives on Monday.

The grim milestone comes in the week that marks the one year anniversary of Italy becoming the first European country to impose unprecedented restrictions on freedom of movement as the country’s north became overrun with cases.

Only the United States, Brazil, Mexico, India and the United Kingdom have also reported more than 100,000 deaths die from the virus.

However, in terms of deaths per 100,000 people, Italy has overtaken the United Kingdom to have the fifth highest in the world, behind Mexico, Peru, Hungary and South Africa, according to John Hopkins university.

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Temporary UK hospitals set up for Covid to close to patients in April

In a sign the pressure was easing on the NHS, the health service said that most of the pop-up Nightingale hospitals — established in the early weeks of the pandemic but little used — are to shut to patients from April.

The London and Sunderland Nightingales will continue to be used as Covid-19 vaccination centres, while the Exeter and Harrogate hospitals will be used to carry out diagnostic tests.

The NHS said since early in the crisis, “the Nightingale hospitals have been on hand as the ultimate insurance policy in case existing hospital capacity was overwhelmed.”

Thanks to more knowledge about coronavirus and how to treat it, “existing hospitals have adapted to significantly surge critical care capacity and even in the winter wave – which saw more than 100,000 patients with the virus admitted in a single month – there were beds available across the country”, the NHS said.

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News you might have missed …

The North American box office is expected to have had one of its best weekends since restrictions started in March last year as cinemas in New York City reopened on Friday at limited capacity. US and Canadian box office revenues are estimated to have reached $25.5m over the March 5-7 weekend.

People in the US who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 can now visit the homes of other vaccinated people or even unvaccinated people who are at low risk of serious disease. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Monday outlined for the first time how life can change now that about 9 per cent of Americans have been inoculated.

Boris Johnson has welcomed the reopening of schools in England, calling it the first step on a “cautious but irreversible” return to normality. Johnson praised parents and pupils for the work they had done during the lockdown, and said there would now be “a concerted national programme for educational recovery”.

High school students in New York City will return to classrooms this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday. Students in grades nine and above will be able to return to school buildings on March 22, essentially ending coronavirus restrictions imposed upon the largest school district in the US.

Moderna has teamed up with Baxter International to package nearly 100m doses of its coronavirus vaccine in the US this year. The Massachusetts-based company has agreed that Baxter BioPharma, which specialises in vaccine production, will provide “fill and finish” services for as many as 90m doses of its jab.

The European Medicines Agency is weighing up whether to take further action as one person died and another was severely ill in Austria after being given AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine. Both people had received shots from the same batch of vaccines.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and first lady Asmaa have tested positive for coronavirus. The couple is in a stable condition, the presidency said on Monday, and expected to continue working while in quarantine for two to three weeks.

Italy has approved the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for the over 65s, becoming the latest European country to give a green light for its use on older people after several countries had initially raised concerns about its effectiveness.

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