OPINION: How to build global resilience in the pandemic aftermath

In the rich north, this summer promises vaccines and forms of restoration. Northerners divide into those happy with their nation’s vaccine programme and those frustrated, those optimistic about a “roaring twenties” and those who fear the light at the end of the tunnel will be snuffed out by a mutant strain. But we share a feeling that the worst might nearly be over. Socially and locally, that may be true.

But the pandemic is far from over in many parts of the southern hemisphere, given India’s catastrophe, the death toll in Latin America and the virus’s resurgence in south-east Asia. Politically and globally, tough challenges lie ahead.

Most western governments played a blinder during the 2008 financial crisis: the lessons of the 1930s were learnt, banking systems were saved, a new depression was averted. There was even effective global collaboration. But in the medium term they failed to confront worsening inequality, depressed real incomes and a multi-faceted alienation that led to populism, nationalism, Brexit and the election of leaders such as Donald Trump. By 2020, relations between the world’s major powers were in their worst state since the cold war.

With Covid it promises to be “déjà vu all over again”, as the baseball coach Yogi Berra once said. Having muddled through the health crisis in ways so far largely forgiven by their publics, and having garnered praise for taxpayer-funded rescue efforts poorer countries couldn’t afford, there is every chance that rich-country governments will again follow tactical success with strategic failure. The trade-offs are just as tough as after 2008. When debating these trade-offs at the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy, six main themes have emerged.

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US issues ‘do not travel’ advisory for Japan ahead of Olympics

The US has issued a “do not travel” advisory for Japan urging Americans not to visit the country on account of its “very high level” of Covid-19.

The Level 4 travel advisory from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state department, issued on Monday afternoon, comes as Japan’s government considers whether to extend a state of emergency in Tokyo and several other prefectures beyond the May 31 expiry date.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s prime minister, said a decision on whether to extend the state of emergency for those areas could be made as early as this weekend, local media reported.

Tokyo, where the Summer Olympics will be held in July, and greater Osaka became subject to the states of emergency in late April. The declarations were extended earlier this month until the end of May and were also expanded to cover seven other prefectures. The government on Sunday added Okinawa, the southernmost island prefecture, to that list.

John Coates, International Olympic Committee vice-president, said last week the World Health Organization had advised that measures being put in place were satisfactory and the games could go on safely. “The answer is absolutely yes”, Coates said during a May 21 press conference when asked whether the Olympic Games would proceed even if Tokyo was still under a state of emergency related to coronavirus. 

The Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed last year because of the global pandemic. The opening ceremony is to take place on July 23.

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Florida joins list of states set to end federal $300 jobless benefit

Florida has become the latest in a growing list of Republican-led states to announce its intention to end participation in the federal programme that provides an extra $300 a week to Americans who became unemployed during the pandemic.

The state, which ranks third in the US by population, will withdraw from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation programme on June 26, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity said in a statement on Monday, ahead of the expiry date for the benefits scheme on September 6.

April employment data showed that total private-sector jobs in Florida increased by 18,800 during the month and there are more than 460,000 online postings across the state for those seeking employment, the FDEO said.

Dane Eagle, the department’s secretary, said employers in the state were “seeing employment growth as more Floridians, including some who completely left the workforce, are now eagerly re-entering the workforce” and that ending the FPUC benefits “will help meet the demands of small and large businesses who are ready to hire and expand their workforce.”

Many Republicans and business groups have criticised the generous $300 a week payments, part of the Biden administration’s stimulus package and paid on top of regular state unemployment benefits, for throttling hiring by reducing incentives to work.

Following the release of national employment data earlier this month, President Joe Biden said “nothing measurable” suggested this was happening and Janet Yellen, US Treasury secretary, said she did not think unemployment benefits were a “major factor” that had slowed the pace of job creation in April.

More than 20 Republican-led states have revealed plans to end their participation in the FPUC scheme, with most of them set to withdraw from the programme in June. These include: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

In Arizona and Oklahoma, which are also set to cut off federal pandemic-related jobless benefits, the governors announced plans to offer back-to-work cash bonuses to encourage unemployed people to return to the workforce.

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The boss is back but the workers are staying at home

Such is Chesley Maddox-Dorsey’s devotion to her job as chief executive of American Urban Radio Networks that she has been working each day from the company’s Manhattan office for the past nine months — long before she received her Covid-19 vaccination.

As the pandemic eases and New York City reopens, Maddox-Dorsey is contemplating how to bring back her staff, many of whom have grown accustomed to working from home over the past year.

“I think it’s going to be more nuanced and complicated than that,” she said, when asked if merely being vaccinated would be sufficient for employees to be persuaded to resume office life. Of her fellow chief executives, she observed: “I think it probably is a bit daunting to all of us to realise that everyone doesn’t have the same lust for coming to the office that we do.”

Across New York and other big cities, chief executives have returned to offices that are, often, their seat of power and most cherished environment. Yet statistics suggest their workers do not feel the same pull — whether it is because of health concerns, a lack of childcare or the misery of commuting.

As of May 5, the “back-to-work” barometer published by Kastle Systems, the maker of office security systems, showed just 16.3 per cent occupancy in New York offices, up 0.1 per cent from the previous week and just a few percentage points from November.

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US aviation regulator receives nearly 2,000 complaints about improper mask use this year

The US aviation regulator said it had received about 1,900 complaints of passengers refusing to wear masks since the start of the year.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Monday it had received 2,500 reports of unruly behaviour by passengers since the start of the year, including about 1,900 that stemmed from passengers refusing to comply with the federal face mask mandate.

The FAA has proposed penalties against three passengers over their refusal to wear masks, including a $15,000 penalty for a passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight in January who pushed a flight attendant that was monitoring mask use.

The FAA also proposed a $9,000 penalty against a Southwest Airlines passenger on a flight from Oakland, California, to Houston, Texas, in February who said he would not comply with mask use instructions.

Finally, it proposed a $10,500 penalty for a passenger on a JetBlue flight in March who repeatedly refused requests to properly wear his face mask and used profanities before being escorted off the plane by local law enforcement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said fully vaccinated people can stop wearing face coverings in most places. However, the US health agency, Transportation Security Administration and Department of Transportation require mask use on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transport as well as in airports and stations.

The FAA did not provide details of how many of these complaints were received since the CDC updated its mask guidance this month. Passengers have 30 days to respond to the aviation agency after receiving the enforcement letter.

In January, the FAA announced a zero tolerance policy for interfering with or assaulting a flight attendant, including fines of up to $35,000 and imprisonment. FAA administrator Steve Dickson said then that the agency had seen a “disturbing increase” in incidents where passengers disrupted flights and that these incidents stemmed from “passengers’ refusals to wear masks and from recent violence at the US Capitol”.

The policy will remain in effect at least as long as the TSA mask requirement is in effect, Dickson said.

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New Covid safety measures at Changi airport in Singapore following mini-outbreak

Changi Airport in Singapore said it would introduce new safety measures after several members of staff tested positive for the coronavirus variant first detected in India.

Lee Seow Hiang, the airport’s chief executive, said the B.1.617 variant had “penetrated our defences”, leading to the infection of airport workers, their families and members of the public.

Under the new rules, passengers from “very high-risk” countries would have to take both a PCR test and a rapid antigen test on arrival and would be separated from other passengers during immigration checks. They would then be taken by bus directly to a quarantine facility.

Terminals are to be split into three zones, based on the risk of infection.

Only workers who are fully vaccinated will be permitted in the highest risk zone, which includes the immigration hall and baggage claim areas. Enhanced personal protective equipment requirements will also be put in place for the 4,400 staff working in the zone.

The airport said it hoped to inoculate 90 per cent of staff who are not already fully vaccinated in the coming weeks. Daily tests, on top of weekly PCR and rapid antigen tests, were also being considered.

The measures would mean the airport could “decisively ringfence and segment the zone serving arriving passengers”, Lee said.

More than 19,000 airport staff were tested for Covid-19 between May 9 and May 20, according to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, with 43 positive results.

Passengers at Singapore’s Changi Airport
Terminals at Singapore’s Changi Airport are to be split into three zones, based on the risk of infection © Edgar Su/Reuters
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NYC students to return full-time to classrooms in September as mayor calls time on remote learning

Students in New York City public schools are to be back in classrooms this autumn as Mayor Bill de Blasio calls time on remote learning in the largest US school district.

In a televised interview with MSNBC on Monday, de Blasio said in-person teaching would return in September for 1m children in the system, with “no remote” learning.

“Covid is plummeting in this city,” the mayor said, noting that almost 8m vaccines had been administered. “It’s just amazing to see the forward motion right now, but you can’t have a full recovery without full strength schools.”

About six in 10 students remain at home despite being given the option to return to classrooms earlier this year. There have been a series of openings and closures since the start of the school year last autumn as the city faced a resurgence in coronavirus cases.

De Blasio on Monday said the city planned to invite parents to visit classrooms throughout the summer to overcome any hesitancy. Officials would seek to demonstrate measures to keep children safe.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month said most fully vaccinated people can forgo masks in most settings, it reiterated that schools should continue to require masks through the end of the current school year.

US regulators this month approved the use of BioNTech/Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine in children between the ages of 12 and 15, but students are not due to be fully vaccinated before the end of the school year.

At present the CDC said schools should have every child 3ft apart. De Blasio said “we can make that work if we have to, but I believe by August the CDC will relax those rules further to recognise the progress we’ve made”.

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UK tourism declines by more than 70 per cent

The number of visits to the UK by overseas residents fell dramatically last year, as coronavirus-induced restrictions dented the ability to travel.

Data published on Monday by the Office for National Statistics showed that the number of visits to the UK declined by 73 per cent to 11.1m last year. Spending by overseas residents was also down sharply, falling by 78 per cent to £6.2bn.

Line chart of overseas residents’ visits to the UK by purpose

The ONS said holidays were the most popular reason for visiting the UK in 2020, totalling 4.4m visits. This was a 74 per cent decrease compared with the previous year. 

Business trips and visits to friends and relatives decreased by 72 per cent to 2.5m and 3.4m respectively.

The UK tourism industry is hoping for a recovery this year, as vaccination campaigns progress and restrictions are gradually lifted.

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WHO chief says half of all jabs should go to low-income countries

The head of the World Health Organization has called on coronavirus vaccine developers to give the global scheme that helps lower-income countries obtain jabs the right of first refusal to all extra doses they manufacture.

Either that or manufacturers should send the Covax scheme 50 per cent of all vaccines produced this year, director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, pictured, said on Monday.

Failing to do so would imperil the WHO’s goal to inoculate 10 per cent of the population of every country by September and 30 per cent by the end of the year, he said.

“These are the minimum targets we should aim for,” Tedros told the opening of the World Health Assembly. “The pandemic has shown clearly that, in an emergency, low and lower-middle income countries cannot rely on the imports from vaccine-producing countries”.

Tedros added that there was no evidence any of the emerging coronavirus variants “significantly undermine” the efficacy of vaccines. He warned, however, that there was “no guarantee” this will remain the case.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday at the opening of the World Health Assembly in Geneva © Laurent Gillieron/Reuters
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UK students say pandemic has affected course quality and academic performance

More than half of UK students believe that the pandemic has had an impact on the quality of their course and their academic performance, according to a survey published by the Office for National Statistics.

Learning has moved online since last spring, when Covid-19 started spreading rapidly in the UK, disrupting what would have been the usual routine of face-to-face lectures and tutorials.

The survey, which was organised by the National Union of Students, found that 56 per cent of students said the pandemic had a “major or moderate impact on the quality of their course”, while a slightly smaller proportion said that it had a “major or significant” impact on their performance.

Although many students have remained at home over the past year, they are starting to return to universities. The survey found that 20 per cent are now living in university halls of residence, up from 16 per cent in March.

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EY staff to spend at least two days a week working from home

Accountant EY has told its UK staff they should expect to spend at least two days a week working from home after the pandemic, becoming the latest professional services firm to embrace hybrid working.

The Big Four company’s 17,000 UK employees were informed on a video call on Monday morning that they would split the rest of their time between the office and client sites.

Accountants and consultants already spent much of their time working remotely from client sites before the Covid-19 pandemic and have been quicker than other industries, such as investment banking, to make working from home part of their long-term business model.

“We have championed flexible working for many years prior to Covid-19 and we will continue to do so. This has been built on a culture of trust with our people,” said Hywel Ball, chair of EY UK.

EY said that once social-distancing restrictions were lifted it planned to “test, refine and evolve” its new hybrid working model by launching an experimental period in September. In the longer term, it intends to reconfigure its offices to create more spaces for meetings and teamwork.

Read more here.

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Macron calls for greater transparency at WHO

French President Emmanuel Macron has called for greater transparency at the World Health Organization, which he said would only retain the confidence of member states if it remained free from “suspicions of [political] pressure”.

“We have to have institutions that are up to the task, that meet our ambitions,” said Macron, who was speaking at the opening of the 74th World Health Assembly on Monday. The online event brings together government officials and medical experts for talks on Covid-19 and other health issues.

The French leader said the WHO had to be “the heart [and] the compass” of the global response to future outbreaks of disease, while being “solid when it comes to controversies” to ensure people trust its advice.

The WHO “must be completely transparent” and “there must not be any political pressure . . . or suspicions of pressure that has been exerted”, he added.

Changes to the organisation’s funding model were also needed, Macron said, so that it is “less dependent on several big donors”. His comments were echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said the WHO needed “lasting financial and personal support”.

The WHO has faced criticism from countries including the US for its response to the pandemic, which it declared as such in March last year — weeks after the virus is thought to have spread beyond China.

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NHS patients wait as long as 3 years for dentist appointments

As many as four in five people in the UK have struggled to access timely dental care during the pandemic while some have been asked to wait for as long as three years for an appointment.

About 60 per cent of respondents to a poll by a health watchdog of 1,375 people in England said they had not been to the dentist since March last year.

Some patients had their appointments cancelled, while others were removed from their dental practice list.

People on low incomes had particular difficulty accessing NHS services, according to the review by Healthwatch of people’s experiences of dental care during the coronavirus crisis.

The experience of patients in the private sector was markedly better. Those able to afford it could get an appointment within a week, Healthwatch said.

The review also found a 22 per cent increase in calls and complaints between January and March this year.

The review by Healthwatch found a wide disparity between the NHS and private sector in wait times for dental appointments
The review by Healthwatch found a wide disparity between the NHS and private sector in wait times for dental appointments © Leon Neal/Getty Images
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Iron ore prices drop after China warns of ‘excessive speculation’

The price of steelmaking ingredient iron ore fell sharply after China signalled it would focus on efforts to cool soaring prices, warning of “excessive speculation” as concerns grow over rising inflation.

The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s economic planning agency, said on Monday it would crack down on monopolies in commodities markets, the spread of false information and hoarding.

That message rippled through markets on Monday with the main futures contract for iron ore dropping 7 per cent on China’s Dalian exchange to Rmb1,049 ($163) a tonne. Iron ore has lost almost a quarter of its value since hitting a record high earlier this month. The aluminium futures contract for July delivery dropped 3 per cent on the Shanghai exchange.

The Chinese government’s statement reflects its mounting concerns over soaring commodity prices, which have been turbocharged by the country’s industrial recovery from the pandemic. The prospect of a global economic rebound has added further fuel to prices.

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Northern Ireland relaxes lockdown rules

Northern Ireland has become the latest part of the UK to relax coronavirus restrictions in a much-needed boost to the hospitality and leisure sectors.

Diane Dodds, economy minister, said the changes that took effect on Monday were a “huge step forward” for Northern Ireland after months of strict lockdown rules.

Pubs, restaurants and cafés are permitted to serve groups of up to six customers indoors. Cinemas, bingo halls and museums can reopen, as can gyms and swimming pools.

Hotels can welcome back visitors, while foreign travel is also allowed under the UK’s “traffic light” system with tiered rules for different destinations.

Up to six people from two households can gather indoors and overnight stays are allowed. Wedding receptions are also permitted.

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UK government launches pilot schemes to support self-isolation

The UK government is to launch a series of pilot schemes that aim to encourage people to take Covid tests and self-isolate if they test positive.

The schemes will offer assistance such as alternative accommodation for people in crowded households, social care support and language help for those whose first language is not English.

Nine local authorities have been chosen for the schemes including Lancashire, Somerset, Greater Manchester and Peterborough.

Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said: “We are doing everything we can to send this virus into retreat and stifle the spread of new variants.”

James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “These pilot schemes will provide further insight into what works best in supporting those who test positive and their contacts to do the right thing.”

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Cineworld reports strong opening weekend in the UK

Cineworld said it enjoyed a strong opening weekend in the UK following the easing of lockdown restrictions, with attendance figures expected to rise further as new films come out and more people receive a vaccine.

The popularity of Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway meant footfall across Cineworld’s UK venues “went beyond” expectations, while popcorn sales provided “strong concession income.”

Chief executive Mooky Greidinger said “improving consumer confidence”, the success of the vaccine rollout and the release next week of Cruella and A Quiet Place 2 meant Cineworld could look forward to a “good recovery in attendance” over the coming months.

Almost all of its more than 500 cinemas across the US are now open. Venues in Poland and Israel will resume operations later this month.

The company, which came close to financial collapse during the pandemic, announced it had received a $203m tax refund under the US Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Cineworld in March reported a pre-tax loss of $3bn for 2020 compared with a pre-tax profit of $212m a year earlier, warning that cinema attendance might not return to pre-Covid levels until 2024.

Cineworld came close to financial collapse during the pandemic
Cineworld came close to financial collapse during the pandemic © REUTERS
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Cummings’ testimony set to embarrass PM 

Boris Johnson will face some of his toughest questions yet as prime minister this week as his estranged chief adviser Dominic Cummings prepares to give unfiltered testimony on the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The man who was at Johnson’s right hand side for more than a year has drip fed allegations of incompetence and inept decision-making through tweets and blog posts. Now, he intends to back up his central allegation, that thousands of deaths could have been avoided, with public testimony.

Cummings, who left Downing Street in November 2020 after falling out with the prime minister, will appear in front of a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday to critique how Johnson, his ministers and officials responded to Covid-19.

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Singapore isolates housing blocks and malls

Residents of a Singapore housing block queue for mandatory testing on Saturday
Residents of a Singapore housing block queue for mandatory testing on Saturday © Wei Leng Tay/Bloomberg

Authorities in Singapore are battling even more clusters of infections, as two malls were shut down over the weekend and mandatory tests imposed on housing blocks.

There are now about 400 active cases in Singapore, of whom 78 have been previously vaccinated. “Many are frontline workers,” health minister Ong Ye Kung said on Sunday.

“We will be doing even more testing and surveillance moving forward,” he added.

On Sunday, Singapore reported 25 new cases, including three imported and one in a migrant worker dormitory. The number of new locally transmitted cases increased to 182 cases in the past week from 131 the week before, the health ministry said.

Authorities began testing residents of the 506 Hougang Avenue 8 and Block 559 Pasir Ris Street 51, two residential blocks in the eastern part of the island.

The health ministry is also investigating cases of Covid-19 infection among workers, visitors and shoppers in the JEM and Westgate malls in the island’s west. 

There are 10 recent cases linked to the malls, of whom four were detected from the testing operations, which are still in progress.

“To break any potential chain of transmission and enable deep cleaning of the premises, JEM and Westgate shopping malls will be closed to all members of the public starting from [Sunday] and re-open 14 days later, on June 6,” the health ministry said on Saturday.

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Lessons from 2021’s Business of Luxury summit 

The luxury sector has endured the Covid-19 crisis with little lasting damage expected and a recovery is now under way.

That was one of the recurring messages at the FT’s annual Business of Luxury summit, held online last week. While economist Nouriel Roubini warned of the knock-on effects of rising US inflation on the global economy, Sarah Willersdorf, global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group, predicted a full return to pre-pandemic sales levels for the luxury sector by 2022.

The recovery will not be equal. The Covid-19 crisis has had its silver linings for major luxury brands, which were able to snap up market share from smaller, independent players and those mid-turnround.

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India passes 300,000 deaths as positivity rate eases

India has become the third country in the world — after the US and Brazil — to report more than 300,000 official Covid-19 deaths, after more than 4,450 people died on Sunday.

Of the total confirmed fatalities from the pandemic, more than 130,000 came in the past 50 days, as a devastating second wave of cases ripped through the population and overwhelmed health care systems.

Many of those who perished in the past two months died from an inability to access timely medical care, as hospitals wrestled with a shortage of beds, oxygen and health care workers to care for the mostly ageing patients.

Experts say the true toll of the pandemic on the Indian population is undoubtedly many multiples higher, as a the lack of testing and medical infrastructure, especially in rural areas, meant many who perished did so without without tests or any official acknowledgement of their ailment

A Covid-19 patient performs a breathing exercise at a hospital in Noida, near Delhi
A Covid-19 patient performs a breathing exercise at a hospital in Noida, near Delhi © Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

Even in well-equipped cities, many Covid-19 patients died at home and have not been counted in the official toll.

After peaking at a more than 412,000 daily new infections — and a test positivity rate of more than 22 per cent — in early May, India has seen a steady drop in daily new infections in recent weeks, as vast swaths of the country are now under various forms of lockdown.

India reported more than 222,000 new infections on Sunday, bringing the total number of confirmed infections since the pandemic began to 26.7m, though experts say the true spread of the virus is many times higher.

The current test positivity rate is about 10 per cent.

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Why Malaysia’s ‘Asian Eurostar’ went off the rails

A bridge of just 1km separates Singapore and Malaysia, but the distance might as well be a light year, as both countries closed their borders in March 2020. But as of May 17, travel between the two countries has been allowed for family funerals and visits to the seriously ill, even though infections are again rising in Malaysia.

The situation highlights the interdependent relationship. Singapore, a highly developed city-state, and Malaysia, a country with abundant land and resources, form a loosely integrated economic zone. The two countries account for more than 10 per cent of each other’s trade and are each other’s second-largest trading partners after China.

A cross-border high-speed rail project, which had been under development since 2010, was expected to further accelerate that economic integration. But on January 1, the two governments announced the termination of the project. At the end of March, Malaysia paid about S$102.8m (US$77m) in compensation to Singapore.

Read more here 

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Fiji reports surge after ‘grog parties’

Fiji reported 18 new cases on Sunday — after several weeks of mostly single-digit increases — as authorities in the South Pacific nation warned against lax social distancing, especially when combined with alcohol.

Of the new cases, 10 are in Waila City, a planned community near Suva, the capital. The government said these cases involved people who visited popular shops, grocery stores and other commercial facilities.

“This will make contact tracing and data we can gain from the careFIJI app very important,” the Ministry of Health and Medical Services said in a statement. 

The ministry said recent cases acknowledged “that they did not observe proper physical distancing as they moved about the community, and attended social events such as grog parties”, referring to traditional get-togethers at which “grog” — kava, the national drink fermented from a root, Piper methysticum — is drunk.

As well as the Waila City surge, the government is focusing its attention on outbreaks in Tacirua and Manikuoso, two communities north-east of Suva.

There are 86 active Covid-19 cases in Fiji, an archipelago of 900,000 people, with 224 cases recorded in total since the start of the pandemic. Four people have died. 

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Taipei reverses island’s test order

Taiwan officials on Monday reversed a local government authority’s declaration that all arrivals would have to show negative Covid-19 tests, or be tested on arrival.

The county administration of Kinmen, an island in the Taiwan Strait opposite the city of Xiamen in China, issued the requirements on Sunday.

On Monday, the Central Epidemic Command Centre, which leads Taiwan’s fight against the disease, said only the Taipei government controlled entry and exit restrictions or mandated testing.

“It is an important policy of national consistency to control the movement of people across counties and cities in the country, or to require the general public to be screened,” the CECC said in a statement.

Kinmen, an island of 2,000 sq km with a population of about 120,000, is controlled by the opposition Kuomintang.

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Australia and NZ update thrombosis guidelines

Australia and New Zealand medical authorities on Sunday said they had modified their guidance, allowing some people with a history of blood clots to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation and the Thrombosis and Haemostasis Society of Australia and New Zealand issued a joint statement on vaccine induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia, also known as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome.

The two groups said VITT/TTS was a very rare and newly identified condition associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The risk of VITT/TTS is not likely to be increased in people with a history of blood clots in typical sites, those with an increased clotting tendency that is not immune mediated or patients with a family history of blood clots, they said.

Ben Shepherd of the Rural Fire Service receives the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in Sydney
Ben Shepherd of the Rural Fire Service receives the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in Sydney © Nick Moir/AP

Those with a history of ischaemic heart disease or stroke, current or past thrombocytopenia — a low platelet count — and those receiving anticoagulation therapy could also receive the AstraZeneca jab.

People with a history of two conditions — idiopathic splanchnic vein thrombosis or antiphospholipid syndrome with thrombosis — should take the Pfizer/BioNTech injection, the groups said.

THANZ has updated its guide for medical practitioners on VITT/TTS.

The New South Wales government said on Monday that more than 1,100 people booked the AstraZeneca jab at the mass vaccination centre that opened at Sydney’s Olympic Park.

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Retailer Made.com set for £1bn London float

Made.com is set to confirm its initial public offering in London after the Covid-19 pandemic helped accelerate growth at the online furniture retailer co-founded by entrepreneur Brent Hoberman.

The IPO would see some existing investors sell shares but also raise new money, and could value the business at anything up to £1bn, according to people briefed on the process. An announcement could come as soon as this week, just days after private equity company Electra said it would float casual dining chain TGI Fridays and shoe retailer Hotter.

A new corporate holding company for Made was established last month with Li Ning, the other co-founder, as its controlling shareholder and former Superdry and John Lewis executive Susanne Given as chair. Hoberman will not be a director of the quoted company.

Read more here

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Hong Kong-Guangdong travel unaffected by case

Hong Kong authorities at the weekend said they would not tighten the boundary with China’s neighbouring Guangdong province after a coronavirus case was identified.

A government spokesman said the confirmed case of Covid-19 was found in Guangzhou’s Liwan district.

Hong Kong authorities have upgraded the risk level in the district but travellers will still be able to cross into the semi-autonomous Chinese territory under its Return2hk scheme.

Hong Kong residents can avoid quarantine if they arrive at the boundary with their identity card, have a prior booking with immigration officers and present proof of a valid negative nucleic acid test from an approved testing centre within 24 hours of arrival.

Coronavirus infections continued to ease in Hong Kong, with just three cases reported over the weekend. 

A total of 25 cases have been reported in the two weeks to May 22, including four local cases of which one is from an unknown source.

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Shanghai Fosun offers Taiwan BioNTech jab

China’s Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical has said it is willing to provide BioNTech mRNA coronavirus vaccines to help Taiwan fight a new outbreak of the virus, despite the jabs not having received regulatory approval from Beijing. 

“Fosun is willing to provide vaccination services to Taiwan compatriots,” Wu Yifang, chairman of Fosun Pharma, told Xinhua. “Since last year, we have via various channels actively pushed towards providing vaccines to Taiwan.”

Wu added that Fosun held the “sole” rights to distribute the vaccine in Taiwan.

The offer, which was carried prominently in Chinese state media, underscores how the pandemic has become a point of tension in already fraught relations between Beijing and Taipei.

The mRNA vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech has been distributed by Pfizer in most countries, but for China distribution rights are held by Fosun. 

This has held up delivery in Taiwan, which is unwilling to import vaccines from the Shanghai-based company. Taiwanese officials have accused Beijing of blocking it from doing a deal directly with BioNTech.

The jab, which has received approval in Hong Kong and Macau, is still waiting for Beijing’s approval after regulators required additional local trial data.

Taiwan, the self-governed island of 24m people, which Beijing claims as its own, imposed fresh lockdowns last week after a new outbreak of local infections broke months of successful virus containment.

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Bangladesh extends India border closure

Bangladesh at the weekend extended the closure of its border with India for another week until May 31, amid surging infections in its neighbour, as its government appealed to the UK for more coronavirus vaccines.

The land frontier has been shut since April 26. Freight is exempted but with strengthened safety measures, according to a notification issued by the Bangladesh consulate in Agartala, in India’s north-eastern Tripura state.

“Bangladesh citizens now stranded in India who want to return to the country will have to submit a Covid-19 negative certificate ... to obtain a no-objection certificate from Bangladesh missions in New Delhi, Kolkata, and Agartala,” the notification read.

More than 3,000 Bangladeshis have returned from India through the Benapole border gate since April 26, of whom 17 tested positive for Covid-19.

The returnees will be allowed to go to their homes only after a negative test after 14 days of quarantine.

A man waits to be vaccinated with Oxford/AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 jab at Dhaka Medical College in Bangladesh
A man waits to be vaccinated with Oxford/AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 jab at Dhaka Medical College in Bangladesh © Reuters

There have been nearly 800,000 recorded infections among Bangladesh’s 165m people, although a lack of testing and poor healthcare infrastructure indicate the real total is much higher.

More than 12,000 people have died, according to an official count by the health ministry.

The Bangladeshi government has called on the British government for urgent assistance to provide vaccines in the wake of an Indian export ban.

AK Abdul Momen, foreign minister, said the vaccine situation in Bangladesh was a “crisis”, adding: “We are desperate.”

Dhaka has received only a third of the UK-developed Oxford/AstraZeneca doses it ordered from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker.

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EU targets aviation in revamp of fossil-fuel levy

EU finance ministers meeting in Lisbon at the weekend expressed broad support for proposals for a Europe-wide tax on kerosene jet fuel used in aircraft, officials told the Financial Times.

Brussels has struggled in previous years to extend its fuel taxation rules to areas such as aviation and maritime but the cause has been re-energised by the bloc’s commitment to reduce EU carbon emissions by 55 per cent over the next decade and net zero by 2050.

The aviation industry, which has been battered by the pandemic, has previously expressed concerns about the plans for an EU kerosene tax. 

Read more here

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Philippine mariners test positive in Indonesia 

Indonesian health officials are battling to control an outbreak in populous Central Java province sparked by merchant mariners from the Philippines who arrived last week on a cargo vessel.

Local authorities said 13 crewmen of the MV Hilma Bulker tested positive for the B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India.

Two seamen have recovered and returned home to the Philippines while the remaining 11 are in hospital in the port of Cilacap.

Healthcare personnel and employees of the Cilacap Regional Hospital who came into contact with the crew are in quarantine, Tatto Suwarto Pamuji, regent of Cilacap, told the state-run Antara news agency on Sunday.

The Hilma Bulker was carrying refined sugar from India.

Indonesia has recorded more than 1.75m Covid-19 infections, while its official death toll is nearly 50,000.

Fewer than 10m of Indonesia’s 270m people are fully vaccinated. The government has focused on jabbing healthcare workers, the elderly and public officials first.

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Taiwan reports hundreds of cases in surge

Taiwan continued to report triple-digit daily coronavirus caseloads over the weekend as authorities fought to contain the surge. 

The Central Epidemic Command Center announced 290 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Taiwan on Sunday after another 323 the previous day.

The CECC also over the weekend retroactively added 570 cases to the total number of cases calculated over the past week in a move condemned by opposition politicians.

Chen Shih-chung, health minister, said the extra cases had not been included in previous reports due to a delay.

But Johnny Chiang, head of the opposition Kuomintang, said news of the extra cases “freaks everyone out”, adding: “It turns out that the number of confirmed diagnoses we receive every day is inaccurate.”

Of the 287 new local cases, 138 are men and 149 are women. They range in age from under five to 89. 

The three imported cases are a fisherman from Indonesia, a migrant worker from the Philippines and a business visitor from Denmark.

Saturday’s two imported cases were a Taiwanese man who arrived from the Philippines — and who previously tested positive in January — and a British man who arrived in Taiwan from the UK for a work trip.

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Malaysia reports single-day new case record

Malaysia reported nearly 7,000 cases on Sunday in a single-day record for the south-east Asian country.

“The highest number of new cases was reported today — 6,976,” the health ministry wrote on Twitter.

There were 2,235 cases identified in Selangor, near Kuala Lumpur, and 447 in the capital district. 

Malaysia’s Covid-19 vaccination rate is seeing a big boost despite criticism over its pace.

Vaccination rates have surged in Malaysia, according to data from the country’s Special Committee on Covid-19 Vaccine Supply.

Malaysians register to receive a dose of the Sinovac vaccine in Port Klang
Malaysians register to receive a dose of the Sinovac vaccine in Port Klang © Samsul Said/Bloomberg

Figures showed that the daily number of jabs reached a record high of 83,648 on May 19, up from 15,651 doses on May 2 and 61,200 doses on May 10.

More than 2.2m of Malaysia’s 32m people have received a vaccine dose, of which about 850,000 are fully vaccinated.

The health ministry said on Sunday that Malaysia has bought a total of 66.7m doses of vaccine.

This week, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine would be administered to people 60 and over in the country’s populous Klang Valley, as well as in Penang and Johor states and the city of Kuching.

Khairy Jamaluddin, science, technology and innovation minister, said the vaccination rate has been constrained by supply. “As soon as we get vaccines, we want to immediately jab [them] into people’s arms.”

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BlackRock bets on UK retirement housing

BlackRock is making a big bet on the growth of retirement housing in the UK, the latest sign that institutional investors’ search for stable income is driving them into increasingly niche corners of the property market.

Through its real assets arm, the world’s largest asset manager is investing £100m for a 75 per cent stake in a joint venture with Audley Group, a retirement village developer.

“We decided to focus on more defensive, income-focused strategies during the pandemic,” said Thomas Mueller, portfolio manager at BlackRock. The company is looking at purpose-built student accommodation, the build-to-rent sector and senior living, as well as logistics.

Read more here

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Stay home on day off, Singapore tells helpers

Singapore’s labour ministry has asked migrant domestic workers — employees with home and child care duties often referred to as “helpers” — to stay at their employers’ homes on their weekly day off.

There are more than 200,000 MDWs in Singapore, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines. They are admitted on temporary renewable work visas and cannot become citizens.

“The Ministry of Manpower is strongly encouraging MDWs to stay at home during their rest days,” a government notice said. 

“If MDWs need to go out for essential errands, they should keep it short, avoid crowded places and keep to the maximum group size of two persons. They should not intermingle between groups, and should also not share food, drinks or utensils.”

The ministry said employers “should not assign work to her” on rest days.

Singapore mandated a rest period only in 2013. It is not required to be a full day or a continuous 24-hour period.

Law enforcement authorities in Singapore have stepped up spot checks at places popular with MDWs on their day off, usually Sundays, to disperse large gatherings.

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Victoria cracks down on 2,000 businesses

Authorities in the Australian state of Victoria, hoping for no repeat of last year’s devastating Covid-19 surges that killed hundreds of people, have fined more than 2,000 businesses for pandemic safety violations.

One third of the businesses targeted were in the hospitality sector, such as restaurants and catering operations.

Most violations concerned lack of signage, density quotients not being adhered to, customer tables too close together or QR code check-in systems not in place.

Four businesses — in suburban Melbourne and Geelong — received the maximum penalty of a A$9,913 (US$7,663) fine.

Businesses repeatedly breaking the rules can be issued with an additional fine of A$9,913 or a prohibition notice shutting them down. They can also face prosecution in court.

Australia’s second most populous state has not reported a locally acquired Covid-19 infection since May 10, although two “likely positive” cases were announced on Monday.

Victoria, with 6.7m people, accounted for 70 per cent of Australia’s cases and 90 per cent of the country’s deaths.

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Dogs show promise as Covid-19 detectors

Dogs can be trained to detect up to 94 per cent of Covid-19 infections — even in asymptomatic patients — according to UK research published at the weekend, suggesting they could be used at airports and other entry points to screen passengers.

The study tested the known ability of dogs to act as biosensors, capable of detecting odours associated with human health — such as the presence of Plasmodium that causes malaria — as well as drugs, explosives and food.

Overall, the dogs were successfully able to identify between 82 and 94 per cent of samples of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. 

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine wanted to know if dogs could detect a distinctive odour given off from chemical compounds associated with someone who is Covid-19 positive but doesn’t show symptoms.

They gathered samples of clothing and face masks from people. 

In one test, the socks of 200 Covid-19 cases were collected and arranged in lab tests for six dogs that had been trained to indicate either a presence or absence of the chemical compound. 

A dog trained to sniff Covid-19 screens a sweat sample at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok
A dog trained to sniff Covid-19 screens a sweat sample at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok © Reuters

The team from LSHTM, Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University said the trial showed that Covid-19 infection “has a distinct smell which dogs can detect with incredible accuracy”. 

“To our knowledge, this study is the first to assess whether trained dogs can distinguish between the odour of people infected with Sars-CoV-2 and those who are uninfected, in a randomised double-blind trial, where trainer and monitor were unaware of the study group for each sample, and with a sufficiently high number of dogs and individuals donating samples,” the researchers wrote. 

The dogs needed to be trained not to identify “false positives” in a bid to obtain treats even if there were no Covid-19 samples in a given test.

The results are not yet peer-reviewed.

On Friday, Thailand deployed dogs trained to detect coronavirus infections by sniffing samples of human sweat, as the country deals with a surge in infections, including many asymptomatic cases.

Three of six trained Labrador retrievers had shown a success rate of about 95 per cent, similar to the UK study results.

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India’s back-office business faces reckoning 

India’s catastrophic second Covid-19 wave has become the ultimate real-life stress test for the global services industry, as companies work to keep back-office operations running amid widespread infections and an overwhelmed healthcare system. 

India is the world’s leading back-office hub, with nearly 4.5m people doing everything from answering customer service calls to software development to mortgage processing, placing it far ahead of peers such as the Philippines, which has more than 1.2m workers.

Global banks and technology companies, from Goldman Sachs to Google, also run their own in-house operations there, with many more contracting work to outsourcers such as Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services.

Read more here

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Russia’s Covid-19 caseload passes 5m

Russia on Sunday confirmed nearly 9,000 new coronavirus infections, bringing the total number of cases identified in the country since the beginning of the pandemic to more than 5m.

Of the 8,951 new cases reported in the previous 24 hours, 3,693 were identified in the greater Moscow region and 842 in St. Petersburg. The Rostov, Nizhny Novgorod and Voronezh regions also reported more than 100 cases each.

There are 265,261 active cases in the country, the anti-coronavirus response centre told the Tass news agency.

Nearly 120,000 Russians have died, with 357 new fatalities announced on Sunday.

Separately, the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology Vector plans to ask the World Health Organization for approval of its EpiVacCorona vaccine.

The jab is the second to be created in Russia, after the Sputnik V vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology.

“The priority for us now is to satisfy demand domestically, to protect the Russian population,” said Rinat Maksyutov, Vector’s director general.

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Greece extends ban on most non-EU citizens

Greece’s Civil Aviation Authority at the weekend extended its ban of entry of most non-EU citizens to May 31, although permanent residents of the bloc and the Schengen passport area are exempted.

In addition, citizens of Australia, Bahrain, Belarus, Canada, China, Israel, South Korea, Kuwait, North Macedonia, New Zealand, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Serbia, Thailand, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, UK and US can also enter.

However, arrivals from those 20 countries need either a certificate in English issued by a competent authority in their country of departure that they have been fully vaccinated at least 14 days before arrival, or have a negative result in a polymerase chain reaction test for Covid-19 performed within 72 hours of arrival.

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Germany’s CureVac set to ramp up production

German pharmaceutical company CureVac is already working on expanding vaccine production — even before regulators have approved its jab, a German newspaper reported on Sunday.

The company, based in the Baden-Württemberg city of Tübingen, said it could immediately deliver several million vaccine doses. 

CureVac expects approval of the vaccine by the European Medicines Agency no later than June 30.

“The EMA already has a lot of study data from us,” CureVac spokeswoman Sarah Fakih told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper, adding that tests were “very positive”.

The EU has pre-ordered 225m doses from CureVac, most of which should be delivered in 2021.

Curevac intends to partner with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline for mass production. 

One advantage, the newspaper said, was that each CureVac dose requires just 12 micrograms of the messenger ribonucleic acid vaccine, compared with 30 micrograms of mRNA for the Pfizer/BioNTech jab and 100 micrograms for the Moderna shot.

Tübingen’s mayor has called for German regulators to approve the CureVac jab even before the EMA’s decision. 

“I’m annoyed that there are millions of doses of vaccine in Tübingen with the mRNA technology developed here, which BioNTech and Moderna also use,” Boris Palmer told the paper. “These vials could save lives.”

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Hedge funds bet on little-known oil company

A cluster of high-profile hedge funds are hoping to turn round the fortunes of a beaten-down North Sea oil and gas firm in which they have built sizeable positions as energy prices soar.

Taconic Capital, CQS and Kite Lake Capital are among funds that own positions in Norwegian Energy Company, the second-largest oil and gas producer in Denmark, shares of which have collapsed by more than 99 per cent since their pre-financial crisis high.

The price of Brent crude slumped from $66 at the end of 2019 but fell below $20 last April as the coronavirus pandemic forced economies into lockdown. However, prices have rebounded to hit $70 last week, their highest in two months.

Read more here

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Morocco calls for Western Sahara probe

Brahim Ghali, secretary general of the Polisario Front
Brahim Ghali, secretary general of the Polisario Front © Reuters

Morocco on Sunday called on Spain to explain its admission of a Western Sahara independence leader for treatment for Covid-19.

Fouad Yazourh, Morocco’s foreign ministry director-general, said Madrid’s decision to allow Brahim Ghali to enter the country demanded a “transparent investigation”.

Ghali, the Polisario Front leader, arrived in Spain from Algeria for medical treatment.

He leads a movement that has been resisting Morocco’s takeover of the Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1976.

Ghali is reportedly seriously ill with a coronavirus infection.

Spain has not recognised the incorporation of Western Sahara into Morocco. Outgoing US president Donald Trump acknowledged Moroccan sovereignty in December 2020.

Relations between Spain and Morocco have deteriorated in recent weeks. Moroccan border guards last week allowed thousands of migrants to flee to Ceuta, a Spanish outpost on the North African coast.

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Nearly half of US population has been jabbed

More than 285m coronavirus vaccines have been administered in the US, as the country inches towards a level of 50 per cent of people with at least one dose, Sunday data reveal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 163m people — 49.2 per cent of the population — had received at least one dose while 130m, or 39.2 per cent, were fully vaccinated.

The CDC tally includes two-dose vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, as well as Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine.

Almost three-quarters of Americans over the age of 65 have been fully vaccinated, CDC said.

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California town cleans up after ‘unruly’ party

Local authorities and residents in Huntington Beach spent Sunday cleaning up and repairing damage after a “party” promoted on the TikTok video app attracted thousands of people who looted stores and damaged vehicles.

At least 149 people were arrested and local television footage showed damaged police vehicles and broken store windows.

Crowds flocked to the Los Angeles suburb from Friday evening for the event — dubbed “Adrian’s kickback” — in a viral video, which millions viewed.

The police also had prior warning of the event through monitoring of social media.

Huntington Beach, a popular 8km oceanside stretch, has been the site of several large gatherings in the past year as pandemic-related restrictions, the 2020 presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement drew protests.

People gather at the Huntington Beach pier before police arrive
People gather at the Huntington Beach pier before police arrive © KTTV Fox 11 via AP

The surging crowd soon moved into the downtown area, where police estimate more than 2,500 people were gathered.

When fireworks were set off on the beach, police declared an unlawful assembly and moved to disperse the crowd.

“Unlawful assembly has been declared in #HuntingtonBeach due to unruly crowds,” the local police department wrote on Twitter. 

“An emergency curfew has been put into place effective 5/22 at 11:30pm through 5/23 at 5:30am for all individuals within the downtown area.”

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Canada warns of potential long weekend surge

Canada is bracing for a potential holiday weekend surge of infections as the country passed 20m vaccinations last week.

Monday is marked as Victoria Day, a federal holiday, as well as in six of Canada’s 10 provinces and all three territories.

“As resurgences have followed social gatherings during past holidays, maintaining precautions this long weekend remains critical for sustaining our progress,” Theresa Tam, Canada’ chief public health officer, said.

She said 20m vaccine injections had been administered while 4.5m more doses were delivered last week.

Since the start of the pandemic, Canada has reported more than 1.3m Covid-19 cases and 25,162 deaths.

Tam said the latest numbers were encouraging, with an average of 5,004 cases reported daily during the seven days to May 20), a decrease of 26 per cent compared with the previous week.

For the week ending 15, the positivity rate in tests declined to 5.6 per cent from 6 per cent the week before.

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Vaccines work well against variant, data show

Two doses of either the BioNTech/Pfizer or Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines offer good protection against symptomatic infection from the variant first identified in India, according to new UK data, indicating minimal reduction in efficacy compared with that against the variant first identified in Kent.

The BioNTech/Pfizer jab provided 88 per cent protection against the B. 1.617.2 variant first found in India, a barely perceptible drop from the 93 per cent provided against the B.1.1.7 strain first identified in Kent in south-east England, according to the Public Health England data.

Protection conferred by two doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was lower against both variants, at 66 per cent for B.1.1.7 and 60 per cent for B. 1.617.2.

Read more here

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News you might have missed …

US dating apps — including Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, Match, OkCupid, BLK, Chispa, Plenty of Fish and Badoo — are including features to encourage vaccinations and help people meet people who, according to White House pandemic response chief Andy Slavitt, “have that universally attractive quality: They’ve been vaccinated against Covid-19”.

Ahead of the tourism season, Spanish and Greek islands are taking differing paths. Spain waited longer to open up to British tourists although it is pre-empting formal EU guidance. Greece is opening up earlier, vaccinating people on tourist-reliant islands and accepting visitors vaccinated with shots unapproved by the EU.

The coronavirus pandemic could be ended by the middle of next year by vaccinating 60 per cent of the world’s population at a cost of $50bn, according to the IMF. The $50bn would be made up of $35bn in grants from donor countries and $15bn from national governments. Read more in the FT’s Coronavirus Business Update.

San Francisco will try to ease an arts and culture funding gap caused by the pandemic. Normally, cultural programmes are funded through a hotel tax that was expected to bring in $60m over two years, but Covid-19 has devastated tourism. The city’s proposed budget will address that gap with a $16.2m subsidy over two years.

Passengers wear masks in Heathrow Airport
Passengers wear masks in Heathrow Airport © Reuters

London’s Heathrow airport will open a dedicated terminal to process passengers arriving from high-risk “red list” countries, following criticism that queues in arrivals halls risked becoming “super-spreading” events. The UK’s busiest airport said it would start an arrivals space for red-list passengers in Terminal 3 from June 1.

The chief executive of AstraZeneca has insisted its Covid-19 vaccine has a future and hit out at the “armchair generals” behind “traumatic” attacks on the company. Pascal Soriot defended the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and offered new evidence that it could play an important role in the battle against the disease.

BHP is facing a revolt at its mining camps in Australia after a ban on late-night drinking sessions prompted a clash with workers’ unions and accusations that staff were “being treated like children”.The episode comes as iron ore prices touch records on rising demand, fuelled by the recovery of economies from Covid-19. 

The international scheme many countries are relying on to get Covid-19 vaccines is scrambling to secure more doses after the Serum Institute of India said it would be unable to provide any more until the end of the year. The Covax programme was depending on SII for a third of the 2.2bn doses it hoped to distribute this year.

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Switzerland ships Covid-19 aid to Nepal

Switzerland has provided more than 30 tonnes of pandemic relief supplies to Nepal, the central European country’s federal council said.

The shipment, which left Zurich for Kathmandu on Friday, consisted of 1.1m antigen tests, 40 respirators, 10 oxygen concentrators and tonnes of personal protective equipment.

The shipment was worth SFr7.5m ($8.3m).

Swiss authorities said the donations were made “in response to an exponential increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in Nepal and the Nepalese authorities’ appeal for international assistance”.

The aid package follows 13 tonnes of respirators, oxygen concentrators and other supplies shipped to India on May 6.

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NYC classrooms ‘too small’ for distancing

New York City’s mayor has acknowledged that classrooms might be too small to enforce social-distancing requirements recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC urges younger pupils to keep at least 3ft (91cm) and high school students 6ft apart. But principals and the main teachers’ union say that is unenforceable in most city schools. 

Meeting the guidelines would require more rooms and more teachers.

But mayor Bill de Blasio said that by the time schools open in September, “we could be at 3ft in all our schools, including middle schools and high schools” due to “the improved health care situation and the amazing number of vaccinations”. 

He told WNYC radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show that there would be “a much, much improved situation” by Labor Day. 

“I think we’ll have Covid-19 greatly reduced and have more freedom and flexibility from the CDC,” the mayor said. “I’m quite confident that we’ll be able to make this work.”

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