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Number of coronavirus intensive care patients in Italy drops for first time

MILAN (Reuters) – Italy reported its lowest daily rise in COVID-19 deaths for nearly two weeks on Saturday and said the number of patients in intensive care had fallen for the first time.

Officials urged the country not to flout strict lockdown measures they said were starting to show results, although new cases rose by 4,805 on Saturday which was slightly higher than recent daily increases.

The Civil Protection department reported 681 deaths, bringing the total to 15,632 since the outbreak of the new coronavirus epidemic in northern Italy on Feb. 21. It was the lowest daily rise in deaths since March 23.

The total number of confirmed cases rose to 124,632 from 119,827 reported on Friday but for the first time, the number of patients in badly stretched intensive care units fell, with 3,994 patients being treated, down 74 from 4,068 on Friday.

“This is an important piece of news because it allows our hospitals to breathe,” Civil Protection head Angelo Borelli told a regular daily briefing where he has announced the grim daily tally of the world’s most deadly outbreak of the disease.

For days, Italian officials have said that broadly stable rises in the number of cases suggested that the outbreak had reached a plateau and that the numbers would begin to go down – if strict lockdown measures were respected.

But with Easter approaching and video footage circulating on social media of groups walking outside in cities including Naples, Rome and Milan, there were fears that the signs of progress were leading more people to flout the rules.

“Some images spread on social media, which show a relaxation in the behaviour of some people – fortunately only a few – , should not be taken as an example, they should be deplored,” said Domenico Arcuri, the government’s special commissioner for the coronavirus emergency.

“We can’t have the idea that we’ve already reached the moment to return to normal,” he said.

The government of Lombardy, the northern region at the epicentre of the crisis where more than 49,000 cases have been recorded, made a similar plea and issued a directive ordering people to cover their mouth and nose whenever they go outside.

Italy is still one of the countries worst affected by the new coronavirus, accounting for almost a quarter of worldwide deaths from COVID-19, the highly infectious disease associated with the virus.

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  • Ukrainian doctors fly to Italy to help combat coronavirus

But as more countries in Europe have reported severe outbreaks of their own, it has become less of an outlier.

As the case numbers have flattened in Italy, there has been increasing discussion about eventually rolling back a lockdown that has closed most businesses and slammed the brakes on an already fragile economy.

With the government looking at ways to protect the economy, a senior official said it planned to extend its powers to protect key companies from foreign takeover.

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Mexican tequila makers, unlike brewers, plan to keep up production, exports

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican tequila makers have sought to dispel concerns that their exports to the United States will dry up, after two large brewers in the country suspended production to comply with government rules put in place due to the new coronavirus.

“Neither in the United States nor in Canada are there restrictions on manufacturing and selling alcoholic beverages,” the president of the Mexican tequila chamber, Rodolfo Gonzalez, said in an interview.

This week, Heineken and Grupo Modelo both said they would halt production in Mexico after the government declared a health emergency and ordered suspension of non-essential economic activity.

It caused a storm on social media and large lines in some local supermarkets as Mexicans sought to stock up on beer.

Mexican tequila makers, however, interpret the newly imposed rules differently.

Gonzalez said the sector was still expecting growth rates of between 4% and 5% for this year – even as the new coronavirus is denting sales to bars, restaurants and hotels worldwide.

The United States and Canada are the largest export markets for the emblematic Mexican alcoholic beverage, with the chamber reporting about $2 billion in sales revenues across 118 countries every year.

Gonzalez said the labor-intensive harvest of the prized agave plant would continue because agricultural production is considered an essential economic activity, even if the production of alcoholic beverages is not.

Gonzalez said stopping crop production would have severe consequences for tequila makers.

“We have to finish planting all the agave for the 2020 cycle by next month,” Gonzalez added. “If we were to suspend our activities it would cause irreversible damage.”

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Britain secures 300 new ventilators from China

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain took delivery of 300 ventilators from China on Saturday and more will start being produced soon by a consortium of aerospace, engineering and Formula One teams, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said.

“We’ve been buying invasive ventilators from partners abroad, including Germany and Switzerland, and today 300 new ventilators arrived from China, I’d like to thank the Chinese government,” he told a news conference.

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Ukrainian doctors fly to Italy to help combat coronavirus

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine, which expects a sharp rise of coronavirus cases in the coming weeks, sent doctors to disease-hit Italy on Saturday to assist their Italian colleagues and to gain field experience.

A team of 20 doctors, including surgeons, neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses, will be deployed to the region of Marche in central Italy for two weeks, Italian ambassador to Ukraine, Davide La Cecilia told Reuters.

“The national health service in our country is very stressed. So we badly need medical personnel and are very happy that Ukraine is sending this humanitarian aid,” said La Cecilia at Kiev’s airport, before the medical mission’s departure.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who accompanied the ambassador, said Kiev would send more medical aid and disinfectant to Italy in the coming days.

“It is an honour for us to help Italy during such tough times. We know that many Ukrainians live and work in Italy. By helping Italy, we are helping our citizens,” said Avakov.

Ukraine’s health ministry has reported 1,096 cases, including 28 deaths since March 3, when the first case was recorded. But as thousands of Ukrainians have recently returned home from abroad, the ministry expects a much bigger outbreak ahead. The daily tally of new cases increased to 154 on Saturday from 138 on Friday, up from 62 last Monday.

The head of the Ukrainian medical mission, neurosurgeon Andriy Miroshnichenko, said that all the team members volunteered to work in Italy.

“After they come back home, they will be able to treat patients and work having practical experience and knowledge about the disease,” said Miroshnichenko.

Asked whether the Ukrainian doctors were not afraid to catch the virus themselves Glib Bidyukov, a nurse, said it was “a consciously made choice”.

“When you choose healthcare, you understand that you put yourself in some danger… Each of us made a choice a long time ago,” Bidyukov said.

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Economy

UPDATE 4-Five Canadian banks cut credit card interest rates to ease coronavirus impact

(Adds details of Scotiabank rate reduction)

TORONTO, April 4 (Reuters) – Bank of Nova Scotia, Toronto-Dominion Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, National Bank of Canada and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce said on Friday they are cutting interest rates on credit cards to provide relief to customers affected by COVID-19 pandemic.

Late on Friday, Scotiabank said it would reduce credit card interest rates to 10.99% for personal and small business clients who have been approved for, or seek, payment deferrals.

Earlier, in separate statements, TD Bank said it will cut credit card interest rates by 50% for customers experiencing hardship, and Royal Bank said it will reduce the charges by the same extent for clients receiving minimum payment deferrals.

National Bank will allow credit card customers to defer minimum payments for up to 90 days and reduce annual interest rates to 10.9% for these clients, it said.

CIBC too will reduce interest rates to 10.99% on personal credit cards for users who request to skip a payment, Canada’s fifth-largest lender said. (reut.rs/3aHZM9Q)

Most Royal Bank, TAD, Scotiabank and CIBC credit cards charge 19.99% interest on purchases. Most National Bank cards charge 20.99%.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government had urged banks to help alleviate the burden credit card interest rates placed on Canadians. Friday’s moves are the latest in a raft of measures announced by the banks to ease the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on customers.

Canada’s six biggest banks unveiled a mortgage-relief plan two weeks ago to allow homeowners to defer or skip mortgage payments for up to six months as businesses come to a grinding halt due to the pandemic.

National Bank said it will refund additional interest accrued on the deferred mortgage payments. The lender will also waive fees for transfers and stop payments on checks and pre-authorized debts, and will not charge overdraft fees on checking and high-interest savings accounts, it said.

Since the mortgage-relief plan was announced, the banks have received nearly half a million requests that have been completed or were being processed. (Reporting by Bharath Manjesh in Bengaluru and Nichola Saminather in Toronto Editing by Matthew Lewis, Cynthia Osterman, Sandra Maler and Diane Craft)

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Iran escaped prisoners back in jail amid coronavirus epidemic

DUBAI (Reuters) – Most of the 70 inmates who escaped from a prison in western Iran last month are now back in jail, Iranian authorities said on Saturday, even though about 100,000 prisoners have been granted temporary release due to the coronavirus epidemic.

Iranian media have reported unrest in several prisons in the country, including the March 27 mass escape from the facility in Kurdistan province.

The judiciary’s Mizanoline website said some of the inmates had been captured by security forces, while others returned on their own to the prison in the city of Saqqez.

United Nations human rights spokesman Rupert Colville on Friday voiced concern over a possible coronavirus outbreak in prisons in Iran and other countries.

Iran – the Middle East country worst-hit by the epidemic – has already granted temporary release to about 100,000 inmates to curb prison overcrowding and ease fears of the virus’ spread.

The Health Ministry said on Saturday 158 more coronavirus patients had died in the past 24 hours, bringing the total death toll to 3,452. The total number of cases reached 55,743.

In a rare comment in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Tehran Mayor Pirouz Hanachi said U.S. sanctions were crippling Iran’s fight against the coronavirus.

“As a result (of sanctions), the ability of my colleagues and I to provide the health, logistical and other essential infrastructure necessary to combat the disease has been drastically reduced. We experience this loss every day, and it can be counted in people that would not have died,” Hanachi said.

Separately, the foreign ministry accused U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of “medical-terrorism” through the sanctions, which have hit vital sectors such as oil and banking.

“Undisputed fact: US ‘diplomats’ have long been in the business of coups, arming terrorists,” ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Twitter on Saturday. “But @SecPompeo … and his masters have taken the ‘job’ to a whole new level: #Medical_terrorism.”

Pompeo and other U.S. officials have stressed that humanitarian supplies are exempt from sanctions Washington reimposed on Tehran after President Donald Trump abandoned Iran’s 2015 multilateral deal to limit its nuclear program.

However, broader U.S. sanctions deter many U.S. and global firms from humanitarian trade with Iran.

Meanwhile state media quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying that state support for businesses hit by the coronavirus outbreak would be restricted to enterprises that give assurances not to lay off workers.

Rouhani has said 75% of a total budget allocation of about 1,000 trillion rials to address the pandemic would include grants and low-interest loans to enterprises affected by COVID-19.

The total allocated amount is worth some $6 billion at the rial’s free market exchange rate of about 166,000 rials per dollar. But the government may decide to allocate some of the funds at the official rate of 42,000 which is used to subsidize food and medicine.

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Confirmed coronavirus deaths in Netherlands rise by 164 to 1,651

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The confirmed death toll from the coronavirus in the Netherlands has risen by 164 to 1,651, health authorities said on Saturday.

The National Institute for Health (RIVM) said the total number of infections had increased by 6% to 16,627 over the past 24 hours.

The actual number of deaths and infections is higher than the official figure due to a lack of widespread testing for the coronavirus, the RIVM has said.

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Economy

UPDATE 1-Hungary prepares $30 billion package to jump-start economy

* PM Orban to announce big package on Monday

* Central bank to unveil more substantial steps

* Separate fund to handle virus crisis

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST, April 4 (Reuters) – Hungary is preparing to announce a roughly $30 billion package of measures to help jump-start the economy amid the coronavirus outbreak, a top government official said on Saturday.

Parliament, where the ruling Fidesz party has a strong majority, has granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree to fight the coronavirus, ignoring calls by opponents and rights groups to put a timeframe on the extra powers.

Orban, who has been in power for a decade, has flagged the biggest economic package of the country’s history to offset the economic impacts of the pandemic, which has already led to tens of thousands of job losses.

The premier is expected to unveil the measures on Monday, after the government approves them, his chief of staff Gergely Gulyas told a news conference. The National Bank of Hungary will announce steps after its policy-making Monetary Council meets on Tuesday.

Gulyas said the total package would amount to 18-22% of Hungary’s GDP, which amounts to about $30 billion. It was not immediately clear where the cash would be targeted, though some steps have already been taken.

The government has imposed a blanket moratorium on all repayments on corporate and household loans this year, and the central bank has launched a series of steps to provide liquidity for banks.

It has also created a $2 billion special fund to aid the fight against the novel coronavirus, which will include contributions from banks and foreign retailers.

Domestic banks will be expected to pay 55 billion forints ($163 million) into the fund this year, with multinational retailers adding 36 billion forints.

Another $4 billion fund was created to aid economic and employment efforts.

Hungary’s economy grew by 4.9% last year but several analysts now expect a recession this year, as big carmakers have already announced temporary shutdowns lasting for weeks, and sectors like tourism have collapsed. (Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Pravin Char)

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Britain faces spiralling coronavirus crisis as bleak stats overtake Italy and China

Meanwhile London is likewise now recording more deaths per day than Wuhan, where COVID-19 first emerged, at a comparable stage, separate figures have shown. In total, 684 people in the UK died yesterday according the the Department for health, the worst tally so far, more than 100 up on previous day’s figure of 569. The analysis, put together by the Financial Times based on data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Worldometers and original research, suggests the daily death rates in both the UK and the USA are also poised to overtake Spain and Italy, Europe’s worst hit countries.

Unlike Spain and Italy, where the total death tallies are 14,681 and 11,198 respectively, there is no sign yet of the UK death rate slowing down.

A separate analysis also shows London is now witnessing more daily deaths than Wuhan, the Chinese city where the global pandemic first began, at the same stage of its outbreak, with an uptick in recent days.

DfH figures reveal London as the nation’s COVID-19 epicentre, with 100 people in the capital yesterday, representing almost 15 percent of the overall total.

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Yesterday, two NHS nurses, Aimee O’Rourke, 38, and 36-year-old Areema Nasreen were among those to die in the UK.

Overall, the UK’s death toll so far, 3,611, out of 38,697 confirmed cases, is higher than than of China (3,330 deaths out of 82,526), according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

Google data has suggested people living in the UK and US are leaving their homes more frequently than those in France, Italy and Spain.

JUST IN: ‘Sounds like Social Darwinism’ Fury as adviser urges END to lockdown

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 today, Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, said while the epidemic was expected to plateau in the next week to 10 days, people’s behaviour was critical in determining what happens next.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday told people resist the temptation to enjoy the weekend’s sunny weather in order to slow the spread of the disease.

Asked what would happen if people ignored social distancing rules, he said: “That moves us to a slightly more pessimistic scenario.

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We want to move to a situation where at least by the end of May that we’re able to substitute some less intensive measures, more based on technology and testing, for the complete lockdown we have now

Professor Neil Ferguson

“We still think things will plateau but we’ll be at quite high levels of infection for weeks and weeks rather than seeing quite a rapid decline as the type seen in China.”

Prof Ferguson said he was “hopeful” that some of the intense social distancing measures could be substituted with rapid access to testing and contact tracing in a few weeks’ time – once case numbers are lower.

He added: “We want to move to a situation where at least by the end of May that we’re able to substitute some less intensive measures, more based on technology and testing, for the complete lockdown we have now.

Mr Hancock, speaking after ending his period of self-isolation after contracting the illness, committed to raising testing numbers to 100,000 a day by the end of April.

However, health specialists said they were currently “testing to the limit of our materials”.

He added that they were ready to increase capacity, but only if given a “reliable supply” of equipment to do so.

A spokesman for the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS) said: “The UK has numerous high-quality accredited laboratories with suitable equipment, with the capability to process over 100,000 tests per day, set up and ready to meet testing targets.

“Staffing levels are currently adequate to expand Covid-19 testing.

“Biomedical scientists across the UK have already been re-trained to carry out testing or free up virology-trained staff to focus on testing.”

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Polish president says postal voting possible for May election: media

WARSAW (Reuters) – Postal voting could allow Poland’s presidential elections to be held in May despite the coronavirus, President Andrzej Duda said in an interview published on Saturday, amid signs the governing coalition could split over the issue.

The nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party wants to hold elections on May 10 despite the pandemic, and has proposed legislation to introduce postal ballots to replace physical voting.

A more liberal junior coalition partner, Accord, said it was unrealistic for the election to proceed and proposed a postponement of two years.

“This solution (postal voting) was used a few days ago in Bavaria,” Duda told the Catholic daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik.

“We can also introduce this idea here … Postal voting would be something new in Poland, but the situation is unusual.”

Asked when elections should take place if not on May 10, Duda said the vote should be held when it is safe to do so.

In a sign of the party’s determination to implement postal voting, PiS on Friday replaced the head of the post office with Tomasz Zdzikot, who will leave his post as a Deputy Defense Minister.

Polish daily Rzeczpospolita quoted a source with knowledge of the matter as saying PiS wanted a trusted official as head of the post office at such a critical time.

Poland has imposed sweeping restrictions on public life to stop the spread of the virus, including closing schools, parks, forests and hotels and banning gatherings outside of more than two people, excluding families.

As of Saturday, it had reported 3,503 cases of the coronavirus and 73 deaths.

Duda criticized the European Commission in the interview for a lack of support over the pandemic.

“As a country we have not received any extra financial help from Brussels,” he said.

“You can’t see any great engagement from European institutions…concerning the activity of the European Commission, I must say it looks pretty poor,” he said.

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