Venezuela's Maduro says he will visit Iran soon, sign agreements

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday said he would visit Iran shortly to sign cooperation agreements in energy and other sectors, after Iran sent five fuel tankers to the gasoline-starved South American country.

“I am obliged to go to personally thank the people,” Maduro said in a state television address, without providing a date for the visit.

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Coronavirus: Face masks and social distancing do work, but are not foolproof says study

Social distancing can limit the chance of catching coronavirus to under 3%, according to the most comprehensive study so far.

Keeping one metre apart reduces the risk of transmission to 2.6%, while a two-metre gap decreases the chance of infection by a further 50%.

The international report, published in The Lancet, analysed data from 172 studies in 16 countries.

It found that by wearing a face mask there’s just a 3% chance of catching Covid-19.

Eye protection lowers the risk to 5.5%.

Although some of the evidence is considered “low certainty”, the study provides the clearest picture yet that social distancing measures and face coverings will be key in slowing the spread of the virus and allowing lockdown restrictions to be eased safely.

The report warns that even combining and properly using face masks, goggles and social distancing doesn’t provide complete protection.

The authors suggest that healthcare workers should wear respirators rather than surgical masks for “greater protection”.

Governments across the world have taken different approaches to safety measures, including social distancing and the compulsory wearing of face masks, in part due to conflicting scientific opinions.

In France, China and Hong Kong parts of the hospitality sector have reopened with a one-metre rule in place, while Spain has far stricter mandatory face mask rules than most other countries in Europe.

The aim of the report is to combine studies from around the globe and analyse all of the science available, to help answer which measures might reduce transmission.

However the report also says that a surge in demand for face masks could “divert supplies from health-care workers and other caregivers at highest risk for infection” and that governments need to “quickly address access issues for face masks to ensure that they are equally available for all”.

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Michael Bloomberg donates £1m to fund online UK summer schools

Michael Bloomberg, the US billionaire, is to donate more than £1m to fund a replacement for residential university summer schools for British disadvantaged pupils, the Sutton Trust has announced.

Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York and presidential candidate, said the new online platform to be called Sutton Trust is intended to help the sixth-formers who would have been eligible for a place on the trust’s face-to-face programmes cancelled because of coronavirus.

“The coronavirus crisis has presented a whole new set of challenges for students from low-income families, interrupting the school year and cutting off access to resources that help students stay on track – like university application guidance,” Bloomberg said.

Oxford Brookes doing worse than University of Oxford on state school admissions

“Bloomberg Philanthropies has helped more than 70,000 talented low and middle-income students apply to and enrol in top colleges in the US through our virtual advising programme, and we’re glad to support the work that Sutton Trust online is leading in the UK.

“A parent’s income should never determine a child’s likelihood of going to university – and with the coronavirus taking a devastating financial toll on families, and casting so much uncertainty into young people’s lives, this work is more important and more urgent than ever before.”

The trust said the funding would create online content for students, and a platform for the sixth-formers to receive advice and teaching from the programme’s higher education partners, including Imperial College London and the University of St Andrews.

The trust said its residential and face-to-face summer programmes can only reach about 2,000 students each year, while around 6,000 eligible sixth-formers apply. “The new platform and the Bloomberg funding over three years means the 4,000 who currently don’t get any provision will now get support,” a spokesperson for the trust said.

The students come from across the UK and have met social mobility criteria, such as eligibility for free school meals or were attending a school with a low progression rate to higher education.

Sir Peter Lampl, the trust’s chair and founder, said he was confident that the new platform will be a good substitute for its traditional summer schools.

“Our research has shown that the coronavirus has had a major impact on young people and will have a profound effect on their futures. High quality support is needed more than ever. But with face-to-face programmes unable to go ahead, there is a serious gap,” Lampl said.

The new platform will include features of the trust’s summer schools, including academic content, guidance on applications and student finance, as well as an insight into university life.

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Amid protests, Colorado lawmakers float bill to counter police brutality – The Denver Post

Colorado lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday, walking past spray-painted messages like “good cop = dead cop,” mere hours after the building’s grounds were covered with a massive crowd of protesters and tear gas filled the air.

For portions of the day, a spectator inside the building would have had no reason to think that anything has changed recently even as as outside protesters trickled onto the Capitol lawn for a fifth day of unrest over George Floyd’s death. In the Senate, lawmakers debated a bill concerning union powers. The House took up a slew of bills, including one proposing to change standards for how egg-laying hens are housed.

But some lawmakers, already swamped by a myriad of coronavirus-related challenges — among other tasks, they’re trying to quickly pass a budget with about $3 billion in cuts — say that the message of the protests is not lost on them, and that they intend to take action.

Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who has joined protesters downtown during the day, is planning to introduce a bill as soon as Tuesday that she said is aimed at addressing police brutality and accountability in Colorado by removing the shield of immunity for prosecution from law enforcement officers found to have acted unlawfully. It would allow them to be sued in their individual capacities; currently attorney fees and settlements are paid out by cities and counties at taxpayer expense.

The news organization Denverite, reporting a snapshot of an eight-month period, found in 2017 that $2.78 million in taxpayer money had gone to eight Denver Police Department settlements.

“I believe law enforcement should be held to a standard of integrity, respect and responsibility and the bill will reflect that,” Herod told The Denver Post on Monday. “We need to ensure that law enforcement officers who act outside of their authority, who harm and murder people, especially people of color, unlawfully, are held accountable.”

Herod said a Denver Post investigation into police shootings across the state sparked conversations about the issue at the beginning of the session, and since the killing of George Floyd, lawmakers have brought those conversations back. She also said she’s working with the black and Latinx caucuses, and that Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, is working with her on the bill. That his name will be attached is an indication not only of where he stands on the bill but of the odds that it gets passed; a member of leadership generally has power to ensure their bill gets a serious hearing in a way other members may not.

Garcia’s remarks about police violence and public trust in law enforcement have been significantly more pointed than those from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. Jared Polis.

“This isn’t just about what’s going on in other states,” Garcia said. “This is about what’s happening in our own backyards. And sadly, we shouldn’t need body cams and people using their cell phones to catch the lack of integrity. We must address the issues that are associated with police brutality and this bias or it’s going to erode the profession.”

Garcia said law enforcement agencies in Colorado do a good job when first hiring officers to ensure they meet standards, but they need to continue to monitor them.

He said he believes most cops are heroes but added in an interview Monday: “We have officers who lack integrity and violate the law, every day, that they’re sworn to uphold. We should care about that as elected officials.”

Other lawmakers spoke publicly Monday on the protests, including Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat who from the House floor called for holding “law enforcement officers who abuse their privilege accountable,” and who condemned rioting but said he supports the right to protest.

“I’ve had to talk to my son,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who sits on the Black Caucus with Coleman. “We have to teach our young men how to behave when you get pulled over by the police, because if you don’t, you might end up not being about to breathe.”

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Coronavirus: China would welcome ‘international review’ into COVID-19 pandemic, says ambassador to UK

China would welcome an “international review” into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing’s ambassador to the UK has told Sky News.

Speaking on Monday’s edition of After The Pandemic, a Sky News series of special programmes looking at what life will be like after COVID-19, Liu Xiaoming said the purpose of such an investigation should not be to “label any country”.

“This review should be independent, free from politicisation, it should be based on science, the scientists should take the lead,” he said.

“The WHO [World Health Organisation] should lead this independent review.

Mr Liu rejected criticism of China’s response to the virus, claiming Beijing had “wasted no time in sharing information” with the international community.

“China’s record is clean [and] it can stand the test of time and history,” he declared.

However, a YouGov poll for Sky News found that 76% of respondents thought the outbreak had damaged China’s global standing.

A total of 68% thought the same of the United States, while 43% also thought the UK’s global standing had been hit.

Mr Liu also claimed that the pandemic will “make the world more united” and countries who had “rejected World Heath Organisation advice have paid a high price”.

The COVID-19 outbreak began in the city of Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province.

It has since spread around the world.

According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 6.2 million cases of the coronavirus around the globe, with more than 370,000 deaths recorded.

Ambassador Liu was joined on Monday’s programme by David Miliband, former foreign secretary and now chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, historian Niall Ferguson and Mary Robinson, former UN human rights commissioner and former president of Ireland.

Ahead of the start of After The Pandemic, Sky News commissioned polling on the post-COVID-19 world.

One of the question asked was what the biggest issue facing the world will be.

Top of the pile was climate change (33%), followed by future pandemics (15%), poverty (14%), China (11%) and terrorism (3%).

Ms Robinson said nations around the world needed to emerge from the pandemic with a clear and unified plan to tackle climate change, but added she was “distressed” by what she was hearing at the moment.

She said a number of lessons could be gleaned from the “sudden, dramatic downturn”, including that government matters.

Ms Robinson noted that a number of countries with female leaders have fared particularly well, citing the likes of New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, Iceland and Finland.

Mr Miliband said the coronavirus outbreak was “not a short term crisis, it’s a medium to long-term change in the way we run the planet” that shows “our connected world suffers from disconnected government”.

Dermot Murnaghan will be hosting “After the Pandemic: Our New World” every night until Thursday. It’s a series of special live programmes about what our world will be like once the pandemic is over.

Tuesday’s theme is Economy and Work. He’ll be joined by the Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Stephanie Kelton, whose forthcoming book explores how best to deal with issues ranging from poverty to building resilient infrastructure. Alongside them both is Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP. Plus Senior economic adviser to Donald Trump Stephen Moore.

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Protests elevate Bottoms and Demings as possible Biden running mates

(Reuters) – Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and U.S. Representative Val Demings of Florida have risen in prominence amid protests against police brutality as Joe Biden weighs whether to choose a black woman as his Democratic running mate for November’s presidential election.

Activists say such a pick would excite disenchanted African-American voters and demonstrate to a crucial part of the Democratic base that Biden is committed to criminal justice reform following the death of George Floyd, who was black, in Minneapolis last week at the hands of a white police officer.

Biden has said Demings, 63, a former police chief of Orlando, is on his short list. On Monday, he praised the leadership of Bottoms, 50, during the unrest that has swept her Georgia city and the country at large. Both women are from politically important states.

“I’ve watched you like millions and millions of Americans have on television of late. Your passion, your composure, your balance, has been really incredible,” Biden said during a roundtable with mayors, including Bottoms.

Bottoms fired two officers over the weekend for excessive use of force on protesters in Atlanta. She has criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s response to the violence, saying his comments only make the situation worse.

She also urged protesters to go home and not tear apart the city where she was born, saying the “chaos” was not in the spirit of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and was obscuring the message of peaceful protesters.

“You are disgracing our city. You are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country,” she said during a Friday briefing widely viewed around the country.

Bottoms is one of Biden’s strongest backers in Georgia, having endorsed the former vice president in June 2019, early in the Democratic primary. She was a lawyer and judge before becoming mayor in 2017.

In an NPR interview in April, she said she would welcome a place on the Democratic ticket.

“I want Vice President Biden to choose the person who he thinks will help him best beat Donald Trump in November, and so if it’s me, I would be honored,” she said. “But if it’s a green Martian that helps him get over the finish line, then I think that’s who he needs to go with.”

Demings, elected in 2016 as a congresswoman in Florida, has been touted high on the short list despite having only endorsed Biden in March.

She was one of the managers of the House of Representatives impeachment proceedings against Trump but has had a lower profile among voters nationally.

In an interview with Reuters on Sunday, Demings called Trump “incapable of rising to an occasion like this.”

“He’s always looking for something else or somebody else to blame,” she said, echoing sentiments she made in national television appearances in recent days. “He is just not capable of unifying us, bringing us together.”

Demings previously served as the first female police chief in Orlando, during which time the department faced criticism for excessive use of force.

On Friday, as protests over police tactics toward African Americans flared across the country, Demings questioned the actions of her “brothers and sisters in blue” in an editorial in the Washington Post and called for “full and swift accountability”.

“As law enforcement officers, we took an oath to protect and serve,” she wrote. “And those who forgot — or who never understood that oath in the first place — must go.”

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U.S. companies issue shares at fastest rate ever, selling the rally

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. public companies sold more than $60 billion in shares in May, the biggest monthly haul ever, as they capitalized on a stock market rally fueled by hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic is subsiding.

The benchmark S&P 500 Index .SPX has risen around 40% off of recent lows, hit in late-March at the height of market panic during the coronavirus outbreak, and is now roughly 10% shy of all-time highs hit in February.

The whipsawing markets stunted companies’ ability to issue new shares and raise cash, with just $4.8 billion sold in March, the lowest monthly total since December 2018, Refinitiv data showed.

The market has rocketed back with $22.3 billion sold in April and $65.3 billion in May, the highest on record.

(GRAPHIC – U.S. public companies sell the rally: here)

The likes of Southwest Airlines Co (LUV.N) and cruise operator Carnival Corp (CCL.N) have issued new stock to raise money. Major shareholders in companies such as BlackRock Inc (BLK.N) and U.S. drugmaker Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc (REGN.O) have cashed out their stock, with the market rebound far from certain to last.

“We’re talking to a lot of companies around the fact that the market is here, you don’t know what lies in the economy to come,” said Ryan Parrish, head of Americas equity capital markets syndicate at Bank of America (BAC.N). “If you even remotely have a need you should get it done now.”

The share sales echo a similar trend in U.S. debt markets, where companies have raised more than $1 trillion so far in 2020.

As in debt markets, the balance of companies selling new shares has shifted from those facing an imminent cash crunch to those stocking up on rainy day funds.

“There are a whole host of companies that have been hugely impacted by COVID-19 and have had to recapitalize,” said Santosh Sreenivasan, head of equity-linked capital markets for the Americas at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

“Issuers that have seen their stock prices recover are now also taking the perspective that they don’t want to miss this window in case this rebound is short-lived,” Sreenivasan said.

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UK PM plans Brexit talks with EU's von der Leyen, warned to reach deal pre-autumn: FT

(Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning to hold Brexit talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in June, with UK officials warning Johnson that an agreement was needed before autumn, the Financial Times newspaper reported.

“We need a broad agreement in place by the summer,” an unnamed UK official was quoted as saying by the newspaper on Monday. “We can’t still be having this conversation in September or October”, the official added.

Downing Street said that the European Union’s plan for a common regulatory framework was “novel and unbalanced”, the report added.

“As soon as the EU accepts we will not conclude an agreement on that basis, we will be able to make progress,” Johnson’s spokesman said in a statement cited by the Financial Times.

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U.S. manufacturing activity crawls off 11-year low

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. manufacturing activity eased off an 11-year low in May, the strongest sign yet that the worst of the economic downturn was behind as businesses reopen, though the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis could take years because of high unemployment.

The promising signs of stabilization in manufacturing reported by the Institute for Supply Management on Monday are a welcome respite as the country braces for data on Friday expected to show the worst unemployment rate since World War Two. Rampant joblessness will lead to tepid demand and economic growth.

“Today’s report on the manufacturing sector represents good news that hints the economy is turning the corner as the states reopened in May,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “It will not be a quick recovery for sure, but at least the worst is over.”

The ISM said its index of national factory activity rose to a reading of 43.1 last month from 41.5 in April, which was the lowest level since April 2009. A reading below 50 indicates contraction in manufacturing, which accounts for 11% of the U.S. economy. May marked the third straight monthly contraction.

Still, the first increase in the ISM index since January mirrored improvements in regional manufacturing surveys in May and suggested April was the nadir for economic activity. A survey on Monday from data firm IHS Markit also showed stabilization in manufacturing conditions in May.

The ISM also viewed May as the “transition month,” but cautioned that “demand remains uncertain.”

The improvement was not uniform. Disruptions to the supply chain and social distancing are limiting transportation equipment manufacturers’ ability to restart production. Food, beverage and tobacco industries were overwhelmed, nothing that increased demand “stressed our production capabilities.”

The ISM’s forward-looking new orders sub-index rose to a reading of 31.8 in May from 27.1 in April, which was the lowest since December 2008. Despite the slight improvement last month, new orders at current levels suggest business investment could continue to shrink. The COVID-19 crisis has undercut corporate profits, which declined in the first quarter at rates last seen during the 2007-09 Great Recession. Business investment has contracted for four straight quarters.

Stocks on Wall Street were higher, though caution reigned amid country-wide protests over race relations and a flare-up in tensions between Washington and Beijing. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices slipped.

BOTTOM REACHED

The economy contracted at a 5% annualized rate in the first quarter, the worst performance since the 2007-09 recession. Gross domestic product is expected to decline at a rate as sharp as 40% in the second quarter, which would be the biggest contraction in output since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The ISM’s measure of factory employment advanced to a reading of 32.1 in May after plunging to 27.5 in the prior month, which was the lowest since February 1949.

About 21.4 million jobs were lost in March and April. The Labor Department is expected to report on Friday that at least another 8 million were lost in May, with the unemployment rate rocketing to 19.7%, according to a Reuters survey of economists. That would be the highest since the government started tracking the series in 1948, and up from 14.7% in April.

“Manufacturers are being squeezed by both a collapse in demand and disrupted supply chains,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at ING in New York. “With profitability under immense pressure firms are increasingly looking to cut costs, which will limit the ability of the U.S. economy to rebound quickly.”

A separate report from the Commerce Department on Monday showed construction spending dropped 2.9% in April, the largest decrease since October 2018, after being unchanged in March.

Economists had forecast construction spending declining 6.5% in April. The construction sector has fared better than other segments of the economy as some large projects were likely put in place months before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, many states regarded the industry as essential business, when restaurants and other social gathering venues were shuttered in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The industry is also being supported by near record low interest rates. In April, spending on private sector construction projects dropped 3.0%. Outlays on homebuilding tumbled 4.5%. Spending on nonresidential structures, which include manufacturing plant and mining exploration, shafts and wells, decreased 1.3%. Investment in public construction projects fell 2.5% in April.

“Construction spending can be a somewhat lagging indicator, as outlays each month in part reflect projects started in prior months,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, a senior U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.

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Congo hit by a second, simultaneous Ebola outbreak

KINSHASA (Reuters) – Authorities in Congo announced a new Ebola outbreak in the western city of Mbandaka on Monday, adding to another epidemic of the virus that has raged in the east since 2018.

Six cases have been detected, four of which have died in the city, a trading hub of 1.5 million people on the Congo River with regular transport links to the capital Kinshasa.

Mbandaka is 1,000 km (620 miles) from an ongoing outbreak that has killed over 2,200 people in North Kivu province by the Uganda border, where containment efforts have been hampered by armed conflict.

The new outbreak is Congo’s eleventh since the virus was discovered near the Ebola River in 1976.

“We have a new Ebola epidemic in Mbandaka,” health minister Eteni Longondo told reporters. “We are going to very quickly send them the vaccine and medicine.”

The Ebola virus causes hemorrhagic fever and is spread through direct contact with body fluids from an infected person, who suffers severe vomiting and diarrhoea.

The discovery is a major blow for Democratic Republic of Congo, which has suffered three Ebola outbreaks since 2017. It is also combating a measles epidemic that has killed over 6,000 and COVID-19, which has infected over 3,000 and killed 71.

“This outbreak is a reminder that #COVID19 is not the only health threat people face,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted.

The health ministry was two days away from declaring the end of the eastern North Kivu outbreak in April when a new chain of infection was confirmed. No new cases have been detected there in over 30 days.

Ebola was detected in Mbandaka in 2018, leading to fears it could spread fast there, or reach Kinshasa, which is home to 10 million people.

However, the use of a vaccine and swift containment efforts including mobile handwashing stations and a door-to-door education campaign kept it at bay.

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