UK overtakes Italy with Europe's highest official coronavirus death toll

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom has overtaken Italy to report the highest official death toll from coronavirus in Europe, figures released on Tuesday showed, increasing pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his response to the crisis.

Weekly figures from Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) added more than 7,000 deaths in England and Wales, raising the total for the United Kingdom to 32,313 as of late April.

Only the United States has suffered more deaths than Britain, according to the data so far.

Tuesday’s figures are based on death certificate mentions of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including suspected cases.

While different ways of counting make comparisons with other countries difficult, the figure confirmed Britain was among those hit worst by a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 worldwide.

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“The UK has been hit very hard in this wave of COVID-19 and each death will (have) brought sadness to families,” said Professor James Naismith of Oxford University, who is director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute of medical research.

Opposition politicians said the figures proved the government was too slow to provide enough protective equipment to hospitals and introduce mass testing.

“I’d be amazed, if when we look back, we don’t think: yep we could have done something differently there,” the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in response to lawmakers’ questions on testing.

Britain’s health ministry said the ONS data should be handled with care.

“We caution against extrapolating or estimating figures based on historic data as it risks being extremely misleading,” it said on Twitter.

Ministers dislike comparisons of the headline death toll, saying that excess mortality – the number of deaths from all causes that exceed the average for the time of year – is more meaningful because it is internationally comparable.

EXCESS DEATH

But early evidence for excess mortality suggests Britain will be one of the hardest-hit on this measure, too.

ONS statistician Nick Stripe said excess deaths for the United Kingdom were running about 42,000 higher than average at this point in the year.

Only about 80% of these excess deaths have been linked specifically with COVID-19, however.

The weekly ONS data also showed the peak in COVID-19 deaths has likely passed, although the week to April 24 was still the second-deadliest since comparable records began in 1993.

The overall decline also masked a worsening picture in care homes.

The ONS said 7,911 deaths from all causes were registered in care homes in the week ending April 24, three times higher than a month previously.

“These figures show that talk of being ‘past the peak’ of this awful virus simply does not hold true for social care,” said Labour opposition lawmaker Liz Kendall.

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U.S. Senate panel to question Trump's pick to oversee coronavirus bailout money

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Tuesday will start scrutinizing the lawyer tapped by President Donald Trump to oversee a $500 billion fund to rescue larger businesses hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with Democrats worried he is too close to the White House to be independent.

The Senate Banking Committee said it would hold its first hearing since the Republican-controlled chamber returned from more than a month’s recess and as Democrats and Republicans spar over whether to add to the almost $3 trillion in spending they have authorized to ease the virus’ heavy economic toll.

Brian Miller currently serves as special assistant to the president in the Office of White House Counsel and is up for the role of special inspector general for pandemic recovery.

Democrats have raised doubts about the nomination, with the party’s leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, saying he is “dubious” Miller can really be independent because he is a White House attorney, who participated in Trump’s impeachment defense.

“There’s reason to be skeptical that he will be an independent watchdog on behalf of the American people, but we should allow the process to play itself out before the Senate,” U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said on Monday.

Miller has previous experience as an inspector general. Before joining the White House legal team in December 2018, he served for nearly a decade as inspector general for the General Services Administration, which performs much of the administrative work for the federal government. He also worked in the Justice Department as special counsel on healthcare fraud.

“If confirmed, I will conduct every audit and investigation with fairness and impartiality,” Miller said in a statement submitted before his testimony. “I pledge to seek the truth in all matters that come before me and to use my authority and resources to uncover fraud, waste, and abuse.”

The special inspector general for pandemic recovery will have subpoena power.

The aid the watchdog will scrutinize includes $25 billion for airlines and $17 billion for companies important to national security. Aircraft maker Boeing Co opted last week not to take the latter aid after it raised $25 billion in a bond offering.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will begin hearings on Trump’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence, Republican U.S. Representative John Ratcliffe, who served as one of Trump’s most aggressive defenders during impeachment hearings early this year.

He would replace acting Director Richard Grenell.

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Palestinians extend coronavirus state of emergency to June 5

RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has extended to June 5 a state of emergency declared in areas under his administration in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in response to the coronavirus crisis, the official news agency Wafa said on Tuesday.

First announced two months ago, the state of emergency heralded a full lockdown that confined Palestinians to their homes, except for essential travel. Border crossings with Israel and Jordan were closed.

But conditions were eased last month, with some businesses allowed to open in the hope of reviving the paralysed Palestinian economy. On Sunday, Abbas’s administration allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians labourers to resume jobs in Israel.

Mosques and educational institutions remain closed and Palestinian authorities are still banning public congregations.

The Palestinians have reported 345 coronavirus cases and two deaths in the West Bank, where some 3 million Palestinians live.

In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory under the control of Abbas’s Islamist Hamas rivals, 17 cases have been reported among a population of some 2 million. Hamas has shuttered Gaza’s mosques and schools and restricted large gatherings, but said a full lockdown was not necessary.

The West Bank and Gaza are 40 km (25 miles) apart and separated by Israel.

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Air France says passengers must wear masks from May 11

PARIS (Reuters) – French carrier Air France is to require all passengers on board its flights to wear masks from May 11 to comply with French government guidelines on COVID-19 protection measures.

The company said in a statement that passengers would have to supply the masks themselves, and would be expected to keep them on for the duration of their flight.

Major airlines, among them Lufthansa, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, have already mandated face masks for all passengers.

Airlines globally have taken a severe financial hit from the COVID-10 pandemic and resulting slowdown in air travel, and are now seeking to reassure customers it is safe to fly.

Some though have resisted proposals to reduce passenger numbers on each flight to ensure social distancing, saying that would be uneconomic.

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Coronavirus: 22 patients in ICU, hospitals have nearly 150 vacant ICU beds and can add another 450 by mid-May

SINGAPORE – The number of isolation beds has increased from around 550 in January to close to 1,500 as of May to ensure hospitals have enough capacity to care for coronavirus patients, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Monday (May 4).

The National Centre for Infectious Diseases has also increased its capacity from around 100 negative pressure isolation beds to more than 500 such beds in the same period.

Mr Gan added that Singapore has almost 150 vacant intensive care beds, and can quickly bring another 300 on board.

At present, only 22 of the more than 18,000 Covid-19 patients are in intensive care.

“But we are not taking any chances as we must preserve our buffer capacity,” Mr Gan said.

Public hospitals have put in place plans to ensure that their infrastructure, equipment, medications and manpower are in place to add another 450 intensive care unit beds by the middle of this month, if it is necessary.

Singapore has also ensured that it has enough ventilators and other medical equipment to support the care of such patients, he said.

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Pandemic slams global factories, activity sinks to new lows

LONDON/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Factory activity was ravaged across the world in April, business surveys showed, and the outlook looked bleak as government lockdowns to contain the new coronavirus pandemic froze global production and slashed demand.

The coronavirus has infected more than 3.5 million people globally and killed around 247,000. With the public told to stay home in numerous countries, the global economy is expected to suffer its steepest contraction on record this year as supply chains have been massively disrupted.

In a bid to combat the impact of the lockdowns, central banks and governments have unleashed unprecedented levels of fiscal and monetary policy, suggesting that without this conditions could have been even worse.

Still, a series of Purchasing Managers’ Indexes (PMIs) from IHS Markit across Europe and Asia fell deeper into contraction last month, with many diving to all-time lows and others hitting levels last not seen since the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

A gauge from the United States published on Friday showed manufacturing activity plunged to an 11-year low in April as the coronavirus wreaked havoc, suggesting the world’s largest economy was sinking deeper into recession.

On Monday, IHS Markit’s final manufacturing PMI for the euro zone sank to 33.4, its lowest since the survey began in mid-1997 and far beneath the 50-point line dividing growth from contraction.

With shops closed and consumers concerned about their health and employment prospects, demand sank in the bloc to by far the lowest in the survey’s history, giving scant hope for an imminent turnaround.

It was a similar story from Britain on Friday when its PMI showed manufacturers there suffered their biggest fall in output and orders for at least three decades.

“This past week saw the amazing coincidence of the publication of the deepest quarterly economic decline in the Western world in almost 100 years and the conclusion to the strongest monthly equity rally in more than 30 years,” said Erik Nielsen, chief economist at UniCredit.

But European stock markets and oil prices fell on Monday as a spat between top U.S. officials and China over the origin of the coronavirus fuelled fears of a renewed trade war that might derail or delay a swift rebound.

Asian PMIs also suffered, with South Korea, the continent’s fourth-largest economy and a global manufacturing powerhouse, skidding last month to its lowest reading since January 2009. Japan’s PMI released last week similarly fell to an 11-year low.

“Regional PMI manufacturing data kicked off the data dump on Monday, with economies registering deep contractions with most countries employing some form of lockdown,” said Prakash Sakpal, Asia Economist at ING.

“Economic data should remind investors of the bleak economic situation ahead even as governments from previous hotspots ready the gradual reopening of their economies.”

Last week, China’s official PMI showed factory activity still growing in April, albeit more slowly than March, while the private-sector Caixin PMI showed a dip into contraction, although at a much gentler pace than the rest of the world. Significantly, exporters in both surveys were jolted by steep falls in orders.

While China appears to be ahead of others in emerging from the economic paralysis inflicted by the pandemic, any recovery is expected to be gradual and unlikely to fire up an immediate resurgence in global demand.

The PMI for Taiwan, a major producer of high-end technology components, fell to 42.2, its lowest since 2009 and down from an expansionary 50.4 in March.

The declines in South Korea’s and Taiwan’s PMIs showed the contractions were less severe than those in other economies in the region, with indicators in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam all reporting plunges to record lows.

Capital Economics said while South Korea and Taiwan held up better than their Southeast Asian counterparts, thanks mostly to effective government policies to contain the virus, conditions have nonetheless worsened.

Official data released last week showed the coronavirus sent South Korean exports plunging in April at their sharpest pace since the global financial crisis.

South Korean tech giant Samsung Electronics Co Ltd last week said it expected profits to decline in the current quarter due to a slump in sales.

It said while work-from-home orders and growth in online learning would underpin demand for memory chips, the outlook for smartphones and TVs was bleak as consumers put off discretionary spending.

The production slump is of particular concern to policymakers, who are worried about the socially destabilising effects of massive unemployment as firms in both factory and service sectors slash headcount.

A private-sector survey in Australia on Monday showed job advertisements plunging a record 53.1% in April, a decline almost five times larger than the previous record of 11.3% in January 2009.

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New Zealand's Ardern asks citizens to follow virus-linked curbs even as no new cases reported

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asked citizens to stay the course on social restrictions still in place to contain the coronavirus, and said no decision had been taken yet on whether the measures would be further eased.

New Zealand on Monday reported no new cases of COVID-19 for the first time since March 16.

Ardern also said she has accepted an invitation from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to attend Australia’s emergency coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday, where she would discuss creation of a “travel bubble” between the two countries.

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Coronavirus: European virus hotspots see record lows in numbers of new cases

Some countries are preparing to ease coronavirus restrictions after record lows in the numbers of new cases.

France, Italy and Spain have registered the lowest daily death tolls for weeks: France reported 135 deaths; Spain’s 164 was the lowest figure since mid-March; and Italy’s 174 was the lowest in two months.

In Italy, which had some of the world’s most severe restrictions, one of the first steps towards normal life comes today, with the reopening of parks and public gardens.

More businesses have been allowed to resume trading and people are allowed more freedom to move around their towns and cities.

Italy has been in lockdown since 10 March and, with 28,884 deaths, it is still the worst-hit in Europe, although the UK is rapidly approaching that point.

More than 210,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

In Spain, social distancing rules remain in place but many people have been able to venture outside for the first time since lockdown began there on 14 March.

Masks will become compulsory on public transport from today.

Spain has lost 25,264 people to the virus.

France, with 24,864 deaths, will gradually lift lockdown measures from 11 May and is preparing to bring in compulsory quarantine for travellers who arrive from outside Britain or Europe’s Schengen open-border area.

The two-week requirement will apply to all arrivals, whether they are French or foreign, as part of a bill which extends the country’s state of emergency until 24 July.

French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said on Sunday that a list of “countries at risk” would soon be issued, without giving details.

In New Zealand, there were zero new cases recorded in a 24-hour period for the first time in weeks, with the number of confirmed cases remaining at 1,137. Twenty people have died.

The country began its lockdown on 16 March with the ambitious goal of eliminating the virus and, while several social restrictions remain in place with most people still working and studying from home, some economic activity has resumed.

Consideration is being given to a trans-Tasman “bubble” which would allow movement of people between New Zealand and Australia, which has had about 6,800 infections and 95 deaths.

Around the world:

  • Eurostar says all its passengers must wear face masks from today at both its trains and its stations. Passengers without a mask could be refused travel
  • Belgium is starting the first phase of ending the lockdown there
  • In Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, a third of 500 people randomly tested were shown to have the virus
  • India’s lockdown has been extended to 17 May but some relaxations apply from today. Most travel remains banned and schools, hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping malls, cinemas and places of worship are closed
  • Russia has almost 135,000 confirmed cases, with a death toll of 1,280, as concern grows that hospitals in Moscow could be overwhelmed
  • Japan, with around 15,000 infections and more than 500 deaths, is expected to extend its state of emergency this week, although some restrictions on economic activity could be relaxed and parks reopened
  • The number of confirmed cases worldwide has passed 3.5 million, with almost 250,000 deaths

This week Kay Burley will be hosting a live Q&A with Health Secretary Matt Hancock. You can put your questions to Mr Hancock about the coronavirus and its impact on your life live on Sky News.

Email us your questions – or you can record a video clip of your question on your phone – and send it to [email protected]

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Global coronavirus cases surpass 3.5 million, although rate slowing

SYDNEY (REUTERS) – Global coronavirus cases surpassed 3.5 million on Monday (May 4), with deaths nearing a quarter of a million, although the rate of fatalities and new cases has slowed from peaks reached last month, a Reuters tally shows.

North America and European countries accounted for most of the new cases reported in recent days, but numbers were rising from smaller bases in Latin America, Africa and Russia.

Globally, there were 84,004 new cases over the past 24 hours, according to the Reuters tally that is based on official government data, taking total cases to just over 3.5 million.

That compares with around 3 million to 5 million cases of severe illness caused annually by seasonal influenza, according to the World Health Organidation (WHO).

Still, while experts say actual coronavirus cases are likely higher than current reports, the trajectory falls far short of the Spanish flu, which began in 1918 and infected an estimated 500 million people.

Deaths related to Covid-19, the disease caused by the new virus, stood at 245,992. The first death was reported on Jan 10 in Wuhan, China, after the virus emerged there in December.

The daily rate of new cases worldwide has been sitting in a 2 per – 3 per cent range over the past week, versus a peak of around 13 per cent in mid-March, prompting many countries to begin easing lockdown measures that have upended businesses and crippled the global economy.

The loosening of restrictions has proved controversial, as experts debate the best strategy to ensure there is no large “second wave” outbreak.

Health officials have also expressed concern about the rising case numbers in countries where there is a shortage of testing and a lack of medical facilities.

While the number of new cases has come off a peak of 104,495 reported in a single day last week, it is still at around 80,000 to 90,000 cases per day globally.

LIFTING LOCKDOWN?

In the United States, around half the country’s state governors partially reopened their economies over the weekend, while others, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, declared the move was premature.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who battled COVID-19 last month, said on Sunday the country was over the peak but it was still too early to relax lockdown measures.

Even in countries where the suppression of the disease has been considered successful, such as Australia and New Zealand which have recorded daily rates of new infections in the low single digits for weeks, officials have been cautious.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has predicated a full lifting of curbs on widespread public adoption of a mobile phone tracing app and increased testing levels.

Experts caution that both cases and deaths from Covid-19 are almost certainly underreported. Cases may cause only mild symptoms and not everyone with symptoms is tested, while most countries only record hospital deaths, meaning deaths in private homes and nursing homes have not yet been included.

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