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Hong Kong reports first local COVID-19 cases in two weeks

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong has confirmed its first locally transmitted coronavirus cases in more than two weeks, fuelling concerns over its spread as restrictions on movement are relaxed.

The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) said on Sunday it was investigating two confirmed cases of coronavirus, taking the number of cases so far to 1,085. Four people have died of the disease in Hong Kong.

The global financial hub last reported a locally transmitted case on May 14, when a 62-year-old man with no travel history was confirmed with coronavirus.

The two new cases involved a 34-year-old woman and a 56-year-old man. Neither had a travel history during the incubation or infectious period, CHP said. Contact tracing was under way, it added.

The woman is a night-shift worker at a Kerry Logistics warehouse in Kwai Chung district where she labels food items imported from the United Kingdom, broadcaster RTHK reported.

Two co-workers, who fell ill about a month ago, tested positive for COVID-19 and authorities are investigating if the warehouse where one of the patients works represents a new cluster of infections, RTHK reported, citing CHP.

About 25 staff in the warehouse and three medical staff who dealt with one of the patients are being quarantined for 14 days, RTHK reported.

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No COVID-19 deaths reported in Sweden in 24 hours, but weekend figures typically delayed

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden has not reported any coronavirus deaths in the last 24 hours, for the first time since March 13, the health authority said on Sunday, but there is typically a delay in reporting figures at weekends.

Sweden’s open approach to the virus, mostly based on voluntary social distancing and basic hygiene, has been criticized by some as a dangerous experiment, but also once touted as a future model by the World Health Organization.

Last week, Sweden had the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe per capita over a seven-day-period, data showed.

There have been previous weekends where the death toll has increased by as little as two, only for a steeper rise to return in the following days when the reporting catches up, the health authority spokesman said.

The pandemic has killed 4,395 people in Sweden.

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England risks COVID-19 resurgence by ending lockdown too soon, scientific advisers say

LONDON (Reuters) – England risks losing control of the coronavirus pandemic again because it is starting to lift its lockdown without a fully operational track and trace programme in place, senior scientific advisers warned on Saturday.

One of the slowest countries to lock down, Britain is now one of the worst-hit. To allow some parts of the economy to reopen while curbing the virus spread, a test and trace system was introduced on Thursday that will ask the contacts of people who have been infected to isolate for 14 days.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said the cautious steps, which allow for up to six people to meet outside their homes in England and the resumption of some school classes, would ease the burden of lockdown while keeping the virus’ reproduction rate down.

“We have at all times been informed by the data and evidence,” it said.

But the scientific advisers said the system was untested, would not be fully operational until the end of June and risked being overwhelmed by the infection rate – currently around 8,000 new cases a day. A mobile tracing app is not yet ready.

John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a member of Britain’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said the government was taking a risk.

“Track and trace was only launched the day before yesterday, so we can’t be sure that that is working effectively yet and yet we’re going ahead and making these changes anyway,” he told Sky News. “I think that that is rather dangerous.”

Three other SAGE members echoed this concern: Peter Horby, also the chairman of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, and Calum Semple of the University of Liverpool.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan also said he was also deeply concerned and urged people to act with caution.

Britain has recorded more than 270,000 cases of coronavirus and says more than 38,000 have died after testing positive for the illness. The Office of National Statistics and other sources of data put the figure of fatalities from suspected and confirmed cases at 48,000.

Johnson’s government, which has been heavily criticised for its handling of the crisis, is now caught between the need to prevent a second wave and the need to reopen the economy and keep companies alive.

It says that while it may have made some mistakes it is grappling with the biggest public health crisis since the 1918 influenza outbreak and that it has prevented the health service from being overwhelmed.

Horby of the University of Oxford said there was still too much uncertainty about what would happen to the virus’ reproduction rate if schools reopen and other activities resume.

Related Coverage

  • Third British scientist warns over rush to lift lockdown

“Returning to a situation where we’ve lost control again is far worse than a week or two of social measures,” he told BBC Radio. SAGE includes more than 50 scientists, medics and academics who advise the government.

Government officials have repeatedly said they are following “the science” as they respond to the pandemic, but Edmunds said the decision to ease the lockdown from Monday was political.

“My frustration has been recently at least that they’re pretending that they’re not making a decision, that in fact it’s us who are making the decision, and that’s not really the case,” he said. “They have to make the decision and clearly they have.”

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Business

Small-business loan terms eased under U.S. House-passed bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved legislation increasing the amount of time, to 24 weeks from the current eight weeks, for small businesses to use Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans spurred by the coronavirus outbreak.

The legislation, passed by a vote of 417-1, now goes to the Senate. The program, created in March, helps support small businesses during the pandemic and encourages them to retain employees.

Last week, senators worked on a bipartisan bill extending the time frame to 16 weeks, instead of the 24 weeks embraced by the House.

If the Republican-controlled Senate passes a bill that varies from the Democratic-led House’s, the two chambers would have to reconcile differences before sending it to Republican President Donald Trump for signing into law.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled House failed to pass legislation opposed by most Republicans requiring public reports on PPP loan recipients.

The House-passed bill comes as states have begun loosening efforts to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has raced across the United States and the world.

More than 100,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Over 1.7 million U.S. cases have been reported.

Under the PPP program, loans for restaurants, hotels and other businesses would convert into federal grants if recipients adhere to a set of conditions, including spending the loan amount within the required time.

Many businesses have been unable to meet the eight-week requirement.

A total of $659 billion has been provided by Congress for the loan program, which is part of broader coronavirus emergency aid totaling around $3 trillion so far.

The House bill that passed on Thursday includes other changes giving businesses more flexibility in using the aid.

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Business

Citigroup looks to reopen NY headquarters to some staff in July: Bloomberg News

(Reuters) – Citigroup Inc looks to reopen its New York headquarters to a small number of employees as soon as July, with workers returning to London offices even earlier, Chief Executive Officer Michael Corbat told Bloomberg News in an interview.

Corbat said on Thursday the return will be “granular, site-by-site and within those sites, job-by-job”, adding that July is a tentative target for returning about 5% of about 12,000 employees at Citigroup’s main building in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood.

Staff returning to work will begin next month at the Canary Wharf complex in London, he added.

Corbat told Bloomberg that he does not envision a “virtual bank”, but he was considering less business travel.

Goldman Sachs President John Waldron said earlier this week the bank plans to reopen its New York and London offices to a small, “core group” of global markets and strategy employees in the coming weeks.

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Business

Home trading triggers bank 'black hole' surveillance alerts

LONDON (Reuters) – Potential breaches of market rules have spiked since traders began working from home in March, drawing scrutiny from regulators and piling pressure on banks to plug “black holes” in surveillance systems, industry officials say.

With banks unable to check in person on the behaviour of traders working remotely, they have to rely on machines that flag any apparent bad behaviour or suspicious transactions made under the unusual coronavirus crisis working conditions.

“In your kitchen or spare bedroom there is no colleague to monitor what you are up to and what we are seeing across a number of clients is a spike in escalations,” said Erkin Adylov, CEO of Behavox, whose software is used by banks, hedge funds and asset managers in New York, London and Asia to monitor staff.

Behavox has seen an 18% rise in conduct being “escalated” or singled out for scrutiny among clients since March, ranging from swearing to more serious incidents like disclosing client names.

They have also included prohibited activities such as taking conversations private, using personal email and giving financial advice to family and friends, Adylov said.

“These kinds of breaches typically don’t happen, but right now there is a noticeable increase,” he said.

When the coronavirus crisis hit, regulators in Europe and the United States initially gave some leeway to home traders, such as easing a rule that all conversations be recorded.

But working from home must not mean a relaxation in surveillance and firms could hold retrospective reviews to focus on high risk areas, Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority said this week, adding it was aware of a surveillance alert surge.

Greenwich Associates said there has been a jump in “false positives” or potentially suspicious trades that must be reviewed, driven by record trading volumes during March.

The consultancy said one global banking client saw more than 35,000 false positives during just one trading day in March, up from 5,000 in a normal session, leading to delays in reviews by compliance teams.

“They normally review an alert on the same day, but in some cases it was two to three weeks later,” Danielle Tierney, senior analyst at Greenwich said.

Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission said on Thursday that remote working policies due to the pandemic have caused an increase in operational risk and that a “regulatory conversation” was needed with financial firms.

Greenwich’s Tierney said firms that struggled to stay on top of surveillance will be under pressure from regulators to upgrade systems and will not be simply “forgiven” again for lapses next time round.

ALERT SPIKE

Tim Estes, Founder and CEO of Digital Reasoning, whose programmes monitor staff at global banks, said banks were still digging through backlogs from an “incredible spike” in alerts, hiring teams in cheaper locations to do initial reviews.

“They know that within the enormous backlogs there are likely incidents of insider trading or market abuse,” he said.

Rachel Sexton, head of consultants EY’s financial services forensic and integrity practice in London, said some processes have been harder to implement in lockdown, such as the control of inside information

Britain’s FCA this week told bankers to have adequate systems at home to stop inside information leaks.

“What we will see in the next couple of months is regulators pro-actively issuing more work-from-home guidance,” said Robert Santella chief executive of IPC Systems, a supplier of kit for traders working from home in the U.S. and Europe.

(The story is officially corrected after Digital Reasoning fixed title)

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Chechen leader Kadyrov ‘healthy’ after Covid scare

The powerful leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has told an interviewer “I’m absolutely healthy”, without denying reports that he was rushed to Moscow last week with suspected coronavirus.

An Instagram video on Wednesday showed a cheerful Mr Kadyrov being interviewed in a park by local state-run Grozny TV.

Earlier he was seen on TV chairing a government meeting on the coronavirus emergency measures in Chechnya.

A catheter was spotted on his right hand, but mostly the hand was hidden.

The Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta says footage where the catheter was clearly visible was later taken down from the Grozny TV Instagram page, which is run by his aide, Akhmed Dudayev.

At that government meeting on Tuesday some of Mr Kadyrov’s aides wore masks and none was sitting close to him. He kept his right hand hidden under the desk most of the time. They described the coronavirus situation in Chechnya as “stable”.

Last week, Russian news agencies reported that Mr Kadyrov – a key ally of President Vladimir Putin – had been flown to a Moscow hospital from the North Caucasus republic, as he was suspected to have Covid-19.

His reappearance on Chechen media came after a six-day absence. There was no official confirmation of his reported hospitalisation.

In the interview with Akhmed Dudayev, Mr Kadyrov said: “Don’t I have the right to fall ill? Don’t I have the right to have a catheter to boost my immunity?”

The much-feared Chechen leader, who has cracked down hard on all dissent, has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in Chechnya and it was highly unusual for him to miss the weekend’s Eid celebrations marking the end of Ramadan.

“Even if I fell sick, in the world millions of people are infected with coronavirus, tens of thousands have died, and am I not human?” he said. He stretched out his hands for the camera – and this time no catheter was visible.

Mr Kadyrov’s own Instagram account, which had more than a million followers, was taken down by Facebook recently to comply with US government sanctions targeting dozens of officials close to President Putin.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin went into hospital last month after testing positive for coronavirus.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also caught Covid-19 and was reported to be sick with double pneumonia, but on Monday he said he had been discharged from hospital.

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U.S., European trade groups press China to allow foreign staff back into the country

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – U.S. and European trade groups are lobbying China to allow foreign workers back into the country after it shut its borders from late March to non-Chinese nationals to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Having managed to all but halt domestic transmission of the virus, China now sees its biggest threat from cases imported from abroad.

Currently, it has only relaxed rules to allow some business travel from South Korea and Germany. It has also consulted with Japan about easing border controls.

A charter flight from Frankfurt, the first organised by the German Chamber of Commerce in China, is scheduled to land in Tianjin on Saturday carrying around 200 German company employees who obtained visas via a “fast-track” programme.

A second charter flight to Shanghai on June 3 is also planned and there are likely to be more given that 2,000-2,500 employees are waiting to enter China, said Jens Hildebrandt, the chamber’s North China executive director.

But staff of many nationalities employed by firms in China are still waiting for permission to return.

The China-Britain Business Council said China’s foreign affairs ministry is communicating with the British embassy to implement a “fast-track” entry arrangement for UK nationals on essential and urgent visits.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce has provided Beijing with a list of foreigners seeking return to China, according to Jacob Gunter, the chamber’s senior policy and communications manager for China.

“Although the process has been challenging … the European Chamber believes things are heading in the right direction,” he said.

Alan Beebe, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said his organisation knew of many senior executives who were stranded around the world.

“There has only been a small number of executives allowed back into China so far, all of which have been granted entry on an individual basis,” he said.

China’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

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WHO official: European deaths spike since March linked to COVID-19

ZURICH (Reuters) – About 159,000 more people in 24 European countries have died since early March than would have ordinarily been expected, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Thursday, with a “significant proportion” of the spike linked to COVID-19.

So far, more than 2 million people in Europe have been sickened by the new coronavirus, up 15% over the past two weeks, with Russia, Turkey, Belarus and Britain leading the way in new infections, WHO European officials said on a call. More than 175,000 people have died.

While the figure for excess deaths takes into account all mortality causes, Katie Smallwood, a WHO emergency official, said its timing — recorded as thousands of people were dying in intensive care units in places like northern Italy, France, Spain and Britain — points to COVID-19’s deadly impact.

“What we have seen very clearly is that the peak in excess mortality corresponds in those countries to the peak of the transmission of COVID-19,” Smallwood told reporters. “This gives us a very good indication that a very significant proportion of this excess deaths is linked and due to COVID-19.”

Smallwood said countries like Germany, Switzerland and others that may ease restrictions including on bars, discos and other social hubs must have robust disease detection, testing and tracing systems in place first, to help keep at bay a potential “second wave” where the epidemic might re-emerge.

“Opening businesses, or clubs (and) bars, where people do come together will absolutely have to depend on a very strong ability of the health system to know how the virus is transmitting, where it is transmitting…and ensure that targeted interventions to prevent and break any transmission of the virus can be put in place,” Smallwood said.

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Michelin-starred takeout: French chef Guy Savoy turns to lockdown deliveries

PARIS (Reuters) – It’s not your typical takeout menu, even in Paris: raw trout in a sour cream followed by quail confit with a cauliflower and almond sauce. Then again, in normal times three-star Michelin chef Guy Savoy doesn’t do delivery.

One of the world’s most celebrated chefs, Savoy opened one of his four Paris restaurants, Le Chiberta near the Arc de Triomphe, for takeaway after France partially relaxed some coronavirus lockdown restrictions earlier this month.

“We wanted to do this to show people that we’re still here, still here to help them keep up their spirits,” said Gilles Chesneau, executive chef at Savoy’s restaurants.

On the abbreviated three-course menu are simplified takes on some of Savoy’s signature dishes. While the set menu’s fixed price of 55 euros may for some be eye-wateringly expensive compared to regular takeout fare, it is for others an affordable way to discover the culinary touch of a masterchef.

Le Chiberta is delivering about 35 meals a day, Chesneau said, and will continue doing so even after the 70-cover restaurant reopens to compensate for the reduced seating.

“It’s tough for restaurants right now,” said legal secretary Pauline Bakomera as she bought one of Savoy’s meals for a client.

France tiptoed out of lockdown on May 11, allowing schools to slowly reopen and shops and manufacturing plants to resume operations. But it kept restaurants, cafes and bars closed.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will announce measures to further unwind the lockdown on Thursday. Restaurants across the country on Wednesday dressed empty tables in an appeal to government to revive the struggling industry.

“We’ve got to get things up and running,” said Chesneau. “Otherwise it’s not the virus that will kill us but the economy.”

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