Swiss double size of coronavirus company loan scheme to $41 billion

ZURICH (Reuters) – The Swiss government said on Friday it was doubling the size of its coronavirus emergency loan scheme to 40 billion Swiss francs ($41 billion) after being flooded with requests for help from businesses.

The government said it would expanded state guarantees after banks extended more than 76,000 loans worth 14.3 billion francs in the first few days of the programme.

The total aid package, which has now reached 62 billion francs, represents a major departure for the normally hands-off Swiss government. Equivalent to nearly 9% of economic output, it is the biggest of its kind in Swiss history.

Small businesses have been particularly hard hit by the virus outbreak and need urgent help, said Finance Minister Ueli Maurer.

“Since last Thursday, every four seconds a loan guarantee has been agreed somewhere in Switzerland,” Maurer told a news conference in Bern.

The government could suffer losses on the loans if the crisis continued for more than three months, Maurer said. If 10% of the loans defaulted that would mean writing off 800 million francs a year for five years, he added.

Health Minister Alain Berset said Switzerand was in a delicate but stable condition as the death toll from the new coronavirus rose to 484 and positive tests topped 19,000.

“Hospitalisations continue to go up but not all beds are taken,” Berset told reporters.

“We have not yet reached the peak for infections or for hospitalisations. Now more than ever we have to continue this marathon.”

Berset said it was still far too early to say if emergency measures – including shutting schools and businesses and banning gatherings of more than five people – needed to be extended beyond April 19.

Businesses have been clamouring for the loans to stay afloat as customers stay away or supply chain problems emerge.

Under the emergency liquidity scheme administered by hundreds of banks including heavyweights UBS and Credit Suisse, loans of up to 500,000 francs are fully secured by the government. Credits of up to 20 million are 85% secured.

Maurer said the focus was on helping small and mid-sized companies rather than big ones such as airline Swiss, a Lufthansa unit, whose situation he called “complicated”.

The government has also adopted powers to force companies to make vital medical supplies such as protective gear and drugs, while easing rules governing unapproved medicines under study against COVID-19 so they can be deployed quickly.

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Weekend weather: Is it safe to go out in the warm weather amid COVID-19 crisis?

Coronavirus has now killed 3,605 people in Britain marking the largest increase so far with the previous day recording 569 more deaths. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is still suffering from a high temperature and has therefore extended his self isolation after testing positive for coronavirus. The PM and the daily news conference urged Britons to stay at home ahead of the weekend, but is it safe to go outside in the warm weather this weekend?

In the last 24 hours, two nurses and two healthcare assistants lost their lives after fighting as part of the frontline against coronavirus.

As of Friday morning, 173,784 people have been tested for the deadly virus.

Speaking from Downing Street on Friday, Matt Hancock urged people to remain at home despite warm weather forecast for the weekend.

He said the UK “absolutely cannot afford to relax social distancing measures”, adding: “If we do people will die.”

He said: “I end with the advice we all know. This advice is not a request, it is an instruction.

“Stay at home, protect lives and then you will be doing your part.”

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  • UK weather: Britain to bake in temperatures hotter than Greece

On Friday evening and overnight, the Met Office forecasts odd light showers to fade across many areas, with clear spells and patchy frost appearing after.

Southern areas of England may also see some areas of fog later and northern parts of the UK cloudier with some rain and hill snow pushing northwards.

On Saturday any fog in the south clearing then many southern areas turning sunnier and quite warm and further north, rather cloudy with odd light showers, rain slow to clear the far north.

The weather will be bright, warm but breezy for many on Sunday according to the forecaster.

In his latest message published on Friday, Mr Johnson warned people to remain in their homes despite the warm weather forecast for the weekend.

In a video he said: “I just urge you not to do that.

“Please, please stick with the guidance.

“This country has made a huge effort, a huge sacrifice, done absolutely brilliantly well in delaying the spread of the virus. Let’s stick with it now.”

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Is it safe to go outside this weekend?

The UK is still under lockdown which means ypeople are urged to remain at home except to undertake the following:

  • Essential shopping such as medicine and food
  • One form of exercise per day
  • Medical need or to provide care for a vulnerable person
  • Travel to and from work, if you canot work from home.

Temperatures are likely to reach 20C in some parts of the UK on Saturday.

Deputy chief medical officer for England Professor Jonathan Van-Tamp said: “Whatever the weather, we all have a shared responsibility to protect those around us, and the single most important action we can all take in fighting coronavirus is to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives.”

Police forces across the country were assessing intelligence and briefing officers on patrol about making sure there was no slippage in the lockdown at the weekend.

When Mr Johnson implemented the lockdown, police officers and other authorities have been endowed with the power to disperse gatherings and impose fines starting at £30.

These fines will increase for repeat offenders.

This week a woman in Newcastle was fined £660 after refusined to give police officers her name, address or reason for travel when she was stopped by police.

Speaking on whether it was safe to go outside over the weekend, Mr Hancock said: “It is incredibly important that people follow the guidelines and I know that it is going to be sunny and it may be tempting.

“But it is staying at home that saves lives and I think we should be absolutely crystal clear about that.

“The guidelines have been set out in terms of people going out for exercise reasons either on their own or with people in their household, people need to stick to those guidelines and we are going to stick with those guidelines.”

Could coronavirus be stopped by warm weather?

Not enough is known about the deadly infection to know whether warmer weather will have a large impact on how prolific the virus is.

Evidence from similar viruses suggests that the virus may transmit less efficiently in the spring and summer months. 

Alongside the temperature, it is thought humidity, differences in human behaviour and the strength of one’s immune system play a role in this pattern.

Scientists believe COVID-19 may find it harder to transmit during the summer months, but not all researchers are in agreement with this and still advise people to continue with the Government’s advice to save lives.

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Corona beer production halts due to coronavirus pandemic

The novel coronavirus pandemic has temporarily killed all production of Corona beer — but not because of the fake rumours or jokes linking it to the disease.

Grupo Modelo, the company that brews Corona beer in Mexico, has been forced to temporarily suspend production under the country’s lockdown measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Mexico declared a health emergency this week and ordered all non-essential services to suspend operations amid the crisis, which has resulted in more than 1,000 infections to date.

Grupo Modelo’s 11 breweries fell under Mexico’s definition of a non-essential business, leaving the company with no choice but to shutter its operations and suspend Corona exports to 180 countries worldwide.

The brewer says it’s already scaling back production and will suspend operations on Sunday. But all is not lost, Corona lovers: the company will leave the breweries set up so it can quickly crank out more beer if the situation improves.

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“If the federal government considers it appropriate to issue some clarification confirming beer as an agro-industrial product, at Grupo Modelo we are ready to execute a plan with more than 75 per cent of our staff working from home and at the same time guaranteeing the supply of beer,” the company said in a statement.

Corona beer became a target for viral memes in the early days of the novel coronavirus crisis before the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic.

There were also rumours that people were shunning the beer amid fears of the virus, although those were based on a dubious and since-debunked PR survey.

There is no link between the beer and the virus. Obviously.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

With files from Reuters

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Ukraine tightens restrictions to fight coronavirus spread

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s government on Friday imposed a series of new restrictions designed to prevent the coronavirus outbreak spreading widely but said it hoped to soften the measures again in late April.

Ukraine reported 138 new cases of the coronavirus over the past day, taking the total number of infected people to 942 with 23 deaths.

“The coronavirus infection continues to spread in Ukraine. The only way to break the chain of infection and save lives is to strengthen quarantine measures,” Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said in a televised statement.

Last month, the government imposed an emergency regime across the country with the new measures from April 6 additionally prohibiting visits to parks and sports fields, banning gatherings of more than two people, and obliging everyone to wear masks and carry ID cards when outside their homes.

Educational institutions, restaurants, cafes, entertainment and fitness centres remain closed, the government said.

Regional authorities must establish border points with mandatory inspections of passing vehicles, and all arrivals must spend a mandatory 14-days in quarantine.

But Shmygal said that the government could soften the restrictions later this month, starting with the resumption of public transport and allowing people to go to work.

“This will allow us to restart the economy from the beginning of May,” Shmygal said.

Earlier on Friday the government said it had sharply revised Ukraine’s economic outlook, expecting the economy to shrink by 4.8% in 2020 due to the restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the virus.

It had forecast that the economy would grow by 3.7%. The government also expects inflation will speed up to 11.6% from an earlier estimate of 5.5%.

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Russian ventilators shipped to U.S. made by firm under U.S. sanctions: RBC

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Ventilators delivered by Russia to the United States to help treat patients of the new coronavirus were manufactured by a Russian company that is under U.S. sanctions, Russia’s RBC business daily reported on Friday.

A Russian military plane carrying the ventilators landed in New York on Wednesday after U.S. President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone.

Russian state television footage of the plane’s unloading showed boxes of “Aventa-M” ventilators, which are produced by the Ural Instrument Engineering Plant (UPZ) in the city of Chelyabinsk, 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Moscow, RBC reported.

UPZ is part of a holding company called Concern Radio-Electronic Technologies (KRET), which itself is a unit of Russian state conglomerate Rostec.

KRET has been under U.S. sanctions since July 2014, with U.S. firms and nationals barred from doing business with it.

In a statement on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said the United States had agreed to purchase medical supplies from Russia, but it made no mention of any company nor regarding sanctions.

“Both countries have provided humanitarian assistance to each other in times of crisis in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future. This is a time to work together to overcome a common enemy that threatens the lives of all of us,” said the statement, issued by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

U.S. officials in Washington could not immediately be reached for further comment on Friday. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it had nothing to add beyond what Ortagus had already said.

The United States initially began imposing economic sanctions on Russia in 2014 to punish it for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Additional rounds of sanctions have since been imposed on Moscow in response to its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and alleged involvement in the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018. Moscow denies both allegations.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova expressed surprise and disappointment that anyone was questioning what Moscow has cast as a sincere goodwill gesture meant to help the United States at a time of crisis.

“Aren’t ventilators needed in the United States?,” she said, saying Russia could take them back if they were not wanted.

Trump on Thursday described the Russian shipment as containing “a lot of medical, high-quality stuff” which could save a lot of lives and said he’d “take it every day” if he had the opportunity.

Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which said it had paid for half the shipment of medical equipment to the United States, was also added to U.S. sectoral sanctions in 2015.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow had paid half the cost with the other half picked up by Washington, though a Trump administration official later said the United States had picked up the whole tab.

RDIF declined to comment.

Rostec, the state conglomerate which ultimately owns the Russian ventilator plant, told Reuters that its units were producing ventilators for the domestic market as part of the Russian government’s measures to fight the virus.

The decision to ship its products internationally was the prerogative of the Russian president and government, it said.

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Pope health fears: Coronavirus outbreak erupts in Vatican as cases surge

Vatican City, the sovereign state in the middle of Rome that has a population of about 618 people, has seen a surge in the number of coronavirus cases in recent days. On Thursday the city’s seventh case was confirmed, which is significant considering the city comprises just 110 acres (44 hectares). The news has prompted fears Pope Francis, aged 83, could be at risk of contracting the virus.

The Vatican has announced its seventh case of coronavirus, after an employee of the Holy See, the office of the Pope, tested positive for COVID-19.

The employee, who has not been named, was already self-isolating after his wife, who works in an Italian hospital, tested positive for the virus.

Matteo Bruni, a spokesman for the Vatican, said in a statement: “To the six cases communicated previously, there is a new case of a Holy See employee, already in isolation since mid-March because of his wife, who had tested positive for COVID-19 after serving in the Italian hospital where she works.”

In response, the Holy See press office has said they, and the Vatican City State, are adhering to strict measures in order to safeguard its staff.

A spokesman for the Holy See said: “The various bodies and departments of the Holy See and the Vatican City State continue only in essential, mandatory and unavoidable activities, clearly adopting, to the maximum extent possible, the appropriate measures already communicated, which include remote work and rostering criteria, in order to safeguard the health of staff.”

Last week it was reported a a clergyman who lives in the same residence as the Pope was hospitalised after testing positive for the virus

The news prompted the head of the Catholic Church to be tested, along with other Vatican residents, local media report.

But the Pope, and other officials who had been swabbed, all tested negative for COVID-19, according to the La Stampa and Il Messagro newspapers.

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After the clergyman was taken ill, Saint Martha’s guest house, where the Pope lives, is being deep cleaned.

A Vatican spokesman said he could neither confirm nor deny the reports.

The Pope is also understood to take his meals in his private quarters and uses hand sanitiser before and after meeting any guests.

The pontiff, who was elected as head of the Catholic Church in 2013, is understood to be in good health.

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He suffers from sciatica, a nerve condition that causes hip pain and also had part of his lung removed when he was younger.

On Monday Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte met with the Pope at the Vatican to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the world.

The meeting was described as a private session by the Vatican, who released an official photo of the pair.

Neither the Vatican or the Italian Government have disclosed any details on what was discussed.

Italy has the world’s biggest coronavirus death toll, at 13,915 and over 115,000 confirmed cases.

The epicentre of the virus originated in the north of the country, in the Lombardy region, but has since spread to the south.

It is hoped the country has already reached its peak, and will soon see a decrease in the number of cases.

Additional reporting by Maria Ortega

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Coronavirus: My 11 days in a Milan hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19

Renato Coen, the foreign news editor at Sky News’ Italian sister station Sky TG24, has been diagnosed with coronavirus.

Here, he explains what it was like to learn about his diagnosis, be treated at the Sacco hospital in Milan, one of the main hospitals in Italy dealing with the pandemic, and coping with the illness. He has since recovered.

On the evening of 10 March, Sacco hospital seemed to me an endless maze.

I’m 46 years old with a fever, walking around the empty streets in a daze between the hospital pavilions in search of a building that I can’t find. The fever and cough certainly don’t help my lucidity.

Entering the emergency room, I am made to sit down immediately. A sample of my blood is taken and someone puts a swab in my nose. Then I am taken to have an X-ray of my lungs. The symptoms are alarming.

“Tonight you’ll be staying here,” they tell me.

“What? I was told that I would wait for the results at home.”

“Forget about it, you have a high fever. If all goes well you can go home tomorrow morning,” they insisted.

Anxiety sets in. Positive would mean quarantine. My wife and daughter left for Rome a few days ago.

Sky TG24, where I work, is ready to close down at a moment’s notice, triggering an emergency plan into action which would allow it to be on the air in all events.

After an hour a nurse arrives: “I have the results of the X-rays: good news, your lungs are fine!”

“Great, thanks!”

“On the other hand the blood tests…”

“Well, on the other hand…?”

“We’ll bring you upstairs among those who are doing well, and wait for the result of the swab tests that will arrive tomorrow morning.”

Having been moved upstairs I begin to understand what isolation means.

They put me in a room on my own, point to gloves and a mask, telling me to put them on when a health worker enters the room. They bring me food in a plastic bag, but not into the room – they leave it outside and tell me from beyond the door to open it and take it in as soon as they have left

“Good morning. You’ve tested positive”

6.30 am. I don’t know why but I’m already awake. Today something will happen. It has to. I can’t just lie around, half-dressed on a bed in an unnamed first aid room forever.

I still feel feverish and slightly short of breath. I turn on the phone which, after a few moments, starts vibrating with the arrival of a message. It’s the doctor who took my test.

“Good morning, you’ve tested positive.”

I am determined to share the news as soon as possible. I call the bosses and my friends at Sky. “Good luck guys!” I think. They try to calm me down and help and comfort me. I feel confused and need to speak to my wife.

Morning comes early in the hospital. More of my blood is taken.

Then they bring me tea. And there would have been nothing wrong with it if it weren’t just a drop of liquid in the bottom of paper plate…

Who cares anyway. In fact, I have so much more I should be worrying about.

For example, I should worry that my fever shows no sign of going down, or that the instrument to measure my blood saturation indicates too low an oxygen level. Ten minutes later I have oxygen cannulas in my nose.

Pavilion 56

At about 2pm, after a short ambulance ride, I was greeted with courtesy and smiles on the second floor of Pavilion 56. They put me in a bed in a double room and run all the necessary tests.

There is a doctor who is very reassuring. She says that I don’t have pneumonia for now, but I do have a high fever.

She takes away the oxygen and then adds: “From this evening on we will start an antiviral treatment; it will be a little heavy going but we have seen that it is quite effective”.

I turn to my roommate, who says to me: “Hell man, those pills are bombs, they destroyed me. But now I’m fine and I’m being dismissed.”

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Iraq denies coronavirus news report; suspends Reuters' licence

Iraq condemns UK-based news agency’s story that claimed number of new infections much higher than official figures.

Iraq has revoked Reuters news agency’s reporting licence for three months after it reported the number of new coronavirus cases in the country was in the thousands, much higher than official figures.

Iraq’s Communications and Media Commission (CMC) condemned the reporting, calling it “astonishing” in a statement on Thursday.

Reuters quoted three unnamed doctors along with anonymous health ministry and senior government officials as saying that thousands of people in Iraq had contracted COVID-19.

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The news report also said the number of deaths was much higher than publicly reported, and that Baghdad was concealing data from the public – allegations strongly rejected by Iraq’s health ministry.

“It’s incorrect information,” said Saif al-Badr, the health ministry spokesman, in a text message sent to Reuters without elaborating.

The official death toll in Iraq from COVID-19 is 54, while the number of coronavirus cases totals 772.

In addition to temporarily revoking Reuter’s licence, Iraq said it would impose a fine of about $21,000.

It also asked Reuters to issue an apology over the report that “put social security at risk”. There was no immediate response from the news agency.

Expected spike

The World Health Organization (WHO) in Iraq said on Wednesday the number of COVID-19 cases in the country would rise sharply over the next 10 days as testing becomes more rigorous.

The figures in Iraq are “still moderate so far but expect a spike in the coming weeks” because of the increase in testing, said WHO’s representative in Iraq, Adham Ismail, in an interview with Al-Ayyam TV, an Iraqi satellite channel.

“Three laboratories became operational for COVID-19 testing in Najaf, Basra and Baghdad Medical City in Baghdad,” Ismail said.

“This has increased the numbers of tested cases to more than 4,500 tests a day, compared to a maximum of 100 a day a few weeks ago,” he added.

Iraq introduced a curfew on March 17 and restrictions on travel as part of measures to contain the infections. It has since extended the nationwide curfew twice.

The country shares an extensive border with Iran, which has the highest number of cases in the Middle East. Iraq also suffers from an overstretched healthcare system after years of sanctions, war and neglect.

After first appearing in Wuhan, China in late December, the virus has spread to at least 181 countries and regions.

Data compiled by US-based Johns Hopkins University shows worldwide infections surpassed one million with more than 52,800 deaths. About 208,900 victims have recovered.


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Italy's civil protection chief sees lockdown continuing beyond May 1

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s national lockdown to try to contain the spread of coronavirus will probably continue beyond the start of May, Angelo Borrelli, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, said on Friday.

This week the government extended the lockdown — which imposes severe restrictions on movement and shutters all services and firms not deemed essential Italy’s supply chain — until April 13.

In a radio interview with state broadcaster RAI, Borrelli was asked whether the measures would need to remain in place many more weeks.

“Unfortunately they will,” he replied. “I don’t believe this situation … will have passed by May 1, we have to be extremely rigorous.”

Up to Thursday Italy had officially registered 13,915 deaths from the highly infections virus, considerably more than any other country in the world.

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Coronavirus outbreak to delay Romania's June election: PM

BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romania’s centrist minority government will almost certainly postpone a June local election as the coronavirus outbreak ruled out the best conditions for such an exercise, Prime Minister Ludovic Orban said late on Thursday.

The European Union state, which has suffered 2,738 virus infections and 115 deaths, declared a state of emergency on March 16 and enforced a lockdown last week.

It is due to hold a local election in late June and a parliamentary election in November.

“Most opinions converge over a peak of the outbreak at some time between April 20 and May 1, with lower spreading risks after that,” Orban told private news television station Digi24.

“It is almost certain that a local election can no longer be held on June 28. After consulting the other parties, we will decide a date at which the election can be organised under the best conditions based on the outbreak’s development.”

Also on Thursday, Health Minister Nelu Tataru said movement curbs could gradually be lifted from mid-May.

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