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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B.C. businesses ‘in need of life support’ due to coronavirus fallout

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate businesses across B.C.

A recent poll found that in the last two weeks alone, approximately half of the 1,900 employers surveyed saw revenue decreases of 75 per cent or more, while two-thirds recorded declines of 50 per cent or more.

“There’s no doubt governments want to find the right solution for businesses, but our members are saying, ‘time is of the essence,’” said Val Litwin, CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce, which, along with BC Business Council and the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, commissioned what is to be a series of bi-weekly “pulse checks” on the business community.

Nearly one-third of businesses are planning to cancel contracts, or have had contracts or tenders cancelled, the survey found.

“Each passing day represents a critical juncture for many employers, as they are making difficult decisions and waiting for government support to arrive,” Greater Vancouver Board of Trade CEO Bridgitte Anderson said.

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“We need a bridge to the other side of this crisis that will help to hasten the economic recovery when the public health emergency subsides.”

More than 50 per cent of the survey respondents said they’re worried they won’t be able to pay off debts or that they won’t financially be able to restart once the pandemic ends.

About a quarter of respondents said they’re looking at shifting to online, digital, or e-commerce options, or have moved there already.

In releasing the survey results, the business advocacy groups listed their top recommendations to government, including providing direct payments to affected businesses; an immediate reduction in rates for employment insurance, company taxes, personal tax, GST, other government imposed levies or charges; and a further reduction of tax rates and defer payments for both B.C. businesses and homes.

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Britain's FCA proposes temporary financial relief for customers

LONDON, April 2 (Reuters) – The Financial Conduct Authority on Thursday proposed a range of new measures to support households facing sudden financial hardship as result of the coronavirus, including three-month payment freezes on loans and credit card debt.

The package, intended to complement relief already announced by government to support mortgage holders, furloughed staff, renters and the self-employed, also includes pledges to slash interest rates on arranged overdrafts up to 500 pounds to zero, for up to three months.

The FCA, which supervises banks and credit providers across Britain also said consumers using any of these temporary measures should not see their credit rating affected.

It also said it would ensure all overdraft customers were no worse off on price when compared to prices they were charged before recent overdraft changes came into force. (Reporting By Sinead Cruise, editing by Huw Jones)

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COVID-19: BC Hydro customers to get three months of bill relief

The B.C. government is offering bill relief for residential BC Hydro customers affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Qualifying households will receive a credit of three times their average monthly bill over the past year to help cover their electricity costs. The credit does not have to be repaid.

“We are facing unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19. People are out of work, and businesses are facing tough choices about whether they can stay open,” Premier John Horgan said.

“Giving people relief on their power bills lets them focus on the essentials, while helping businesses and encouraging critical industry to keep operating.”

Small businesses forced to close under the pandemic will have their bills forgiven for three months: April, May and June.

Major industries, like pulp mills and mines, will be able to defer 50 per cent of their bill payments for three months.

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The average residential customer’s bill is $159 per month, so the average credit provided will be $477. Some customers will also be eligible for BC Hydro’s existing Customer Crisis Fund, which provides access to grants of up to $600 to pay their bills.

The utility reminded the public on Wednesday about a one-per-cent rate cut for all customers, following interim approval by the BC Utilities Commission.

That’s an average savings of $16 a year for residential users, $715 for commercial customers, and $230,000 for industrial users.

BC Hydro has seen an uptick in residential power use over the past few weeks, as more people shift to working from home to prevent the spread of the virus.

The residential electricity load in the last two weeks of March was up about nine per cent, compared to the same period last year.

Staff have seen evidence of power use peaking later in the morning, likely due to some residents not having to wake up as early, or at all, for school or work, as well as an earlier evening peak, possibly because of people cooking dinner earlier because they do not have to commute home.

The Crown corporation also updated its projected rate changes for the next three years. For now, it’s forecasting a 2.7-per-cent increase in April 2021, a 0.3-per-cent decrease in 2022, and a three-per-cent increase in 2023.

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EU exec considering 100 bln euros for short-time work scheme

BRUSSELS, April 1 (Reuters) – The European Commission is considering 100 billion euros to fund a short-term work scheme, modelled on the German Kurzarbeit plan, that could be borrowed by the EU executive on the market against guarantees from EU governments, an EU official said.

The official cautioned, however, that the final size of the programme, the details of which the Commission is to present on Thursday, could still change. Also, EU countries would still need to agree to grant such guarantees.

“The EU would borrow against guarantees given by member states. It is about ensuring that all EU countries can have it and ease pressure on workers,” the official said. (Reporting by Jan Strupczewski)

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UK minister: not all chemicals needed for coronavirus test have been available

LONDON, April 1 (Reuters) – Not all of the chemicals needed to produce coronavirus tests have always been available in great enough quantities in Britain, housing minister Robert Jenrick said on Wednesday.

Jenrick was asked on BBC television about an apparent discrepancy between comments from senior minister Michael Gove that there was a problem sourcing chemicals for testing kits and a statement from the chemicals industry saying there was supply of what is needed being delivered to the health service.

“The chemicals industry have rightly said that in the UK we produce a number of the ingredients to produce the tests that we need,” Jenrick responded.

“But to produce a reliable test you need to have a range of ingredients and not all of them, as I understand it, have always been available in the UK in the quantities that we need.” (Reporting by Alistair Smout and Paul Sandle, Writing by Kylie MacLellan; editing by Sarah Young)

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Calgary’s Heritage Park lays off staff to reduce costs during COVID-19 outbreak

One of Calgary’s most popular tourist attractions has announced staff layoffs related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Heritage Park said on Monday that management had come up with a plan to reduce costs, which includes temporarily laying off employees and mandated vacation time.

A spokesperson said minimal staff are working every day to ensure the animals, exhibits and artifacts are looked after and protected.

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“Our goal is to be open and welcoming guests back as soon as circumstances allow,” said Scott Matheson, director of marketing and communications at Heritage Park.

Heritage Park remains closed to the public, and the cancellation of private and ticketed events will continue until further notice.

Matheson said Heritage Park has a core staff of about 200 year-round employees working in a variety of part-time and full-time roles. Additional staff are hired during the Christmas season, and there are more than 500 seasonal employees during the summer to support the historical living village.

The attraction announced its decision to temporarily close on March 16.

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Short-term relief funding created for Calgary art sector amid COVID-19 pandemic

The Calgary Arts Development has announced $1.15 million in short-term relief funding for those impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The funding will help provide immediate relief to arts organizations and workers in the city.

During a virtual town hall meeting last week, Calgary Arts Development’s president and CEO, Patti Pon, announced the funding.

“We know COVID-19 has impacted everybody — individuals and organizations alike,” Pon said during the town hall.

“We see that there’s a spectrum of urgency and need, and we’ll be using this $1.1 million to address those most urgent needs that are being shared with us.”

The organization re-directed money from existing grant envelopes to make this short-term funding possible.

Pon said the idea was quickly developed following a survey that assessed needs, and severity of the impact COVID-19 has had on the industry so far.

The survey was completed by industry workers and organizations during the week of March 16.

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“We’re using that data to help us understand where that need is right across the spectrum,” she said.

“The funds have been approved and we are going to move ahead as quickly as we can.”

The funding will be divided two ways: between organizations and individuals, including artists and cultural workers.

Of the $1.15 million, $950,000 will be allocated to supporting organizations.

The remaining $200,000 will go towards helping individuals cover lost revenue and expenses, Pon said.

“For those who are individual arts workers, document your losses. I cannot stress that enough.”

“That includes the cancelled plane tickets for events that got cancelled and the contracts that you didn’t get fulfilled.”

Pon said this funding will be used to fulfill urgent needs and help create more stable footing for the arts industry to continue on in the future.

“The short term funding will be used to bridge until we’re able to solidify a clear picture of that medium and long-term recovery,” she said.

More information on the funding, and how to apply, will be updated through the Calgary Arts Development website this week.

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Colorado Bankers Association to consumers: Don’t hoard your cash

Coloradans have stocked up on food and toilet paper as they hunker down to avoid the novel coronavirus, but they shouldn’t do the same with cash, the Colorado Bankers Association is urging.

“When a crisis occurs, every consumer should know their bank is prepared, their deposits are safe and they will have continued access to their funds,” said CBA president Jennifer Waller, in a media advisory on Wednesday. “Banks have more than enough resources to go around.”

Colorado consumers aren’t draining banks and ATMs of cash, said CBA spokeswoman Amanda Averch.But last week, some New York City banks were nearly drained of $100 bills, although not smaller denominations. The CBA is trying to get ahead of what may become a stronger urge to build up cash in hand as the stock market craters and movements become more restricted by asking people now to avoid making any large and unnecessary withdrawals.

“As the nation’s central bank, a part of the Federal Reserve’s normal operating procedures is to have adequate reserves of currency on hand to meet the needs of financial institutions. This is an important way that we continue support both local communities and the national economy,” said Nick Sly, Denver Branch Executive for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

The FDIC also weighed in on Wednesday, reminding bank customers that no insured account has lost money since it was created in response to the devastating bank runs that took place during the Great Depression.

“Since 1933, no depositor has ever lost a penny of FDIC-insured funds. Today, the FDIC insures up to $250,000 per depositor per FDIC-insured bank. An FDIC-insured account is the safest place for consumers to keep their money,” the FDIC said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.

Ahead of what many feared would be a Y2K meltdown that crashed the banking system, consumers stockpiled cash in late 1999 and the Federal Reserve Bank established large currency depots to replenish the system just in case. Some people also pulled out cash following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and during the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, when the whole financial system was teetering.

But there’s a problem with holding extra cash this time around that didn’t exist in those other crises. Currency and coins could bring the cornavirus right into wallets, purses and hands of people stockpiling. A single dollar bill can be home to as many as 3,000 different pathogens and may have changed hands upward of thousands of times, the CBA warned.

Nick Maynard, analyst at Juniper Research, told ATM Marketplace that in China and South Korea consumers were trying to disinfect their money, and some even ended up burning bills in an attempt to avoid the virus.

Banks and credit unions struggle with the notion that they may be contributing to the spread of the virus and are urging consumers to use credit and debit cards, which the CBA said can be “easily sanitized using alcohol-based antibacterial wipes or a wet, soapy cloth.”

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PM Johnson fully able to run coronavirus response despite positive test – spokesman

LONDON, March 30 (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been able to do everything required to coordinate the government’s response to coronavirus after he tested positive for the virus last week, his spokesman said on Monday.

“He’s been able to do everything that he needs to do to lead the coronavirus response,” the spokesman said.

“Number 10 and across government, (we have) put in place contingency plans to ensure that we can carry on working throughout this outbreak, and that we have all the capacity we need to lead the nationwide response.” (Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, writing by William James, editing by Alistair Smout)

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