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Germany says China sought to encourage positive Covid-19 comments

BERLIN (REUTERS) – Chinese diplomats approached German government officials in an attempt to encourage them to make positive statements on how Beijing is handling the coronavirus pandemic, the German interior ministry said in a letter this month.
“The German government is aware of individual contacts made by Chinese diplomats with the aim of effecting positive public statements on the coronavirus management by the People’s Republic of China,” said the letter, seen by Reuters on Sunday (April 26).
“The federal government has not complied with these requests.”

The letter was dated April 22 and was sent to Green Party member of parliament Margarete Bause in response to her question on whether Chinese diplomats had contacted German officials with the goal of encouraging them to make positive remarks.
The comments were first reported by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. The paper cited the Chinese embassy in Berlin as rejecting the report as untrue and irresponsible.
The embassy could not immediately be reached for comment on Sunday and the Chinese foreign ministry did also not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

In the letter, the interior ministry said the government had acknowledged China’s efforts to contain the pandemic, particularly since Jan 23, even without being asked to do so by Beijing.
It went on to say that Berlin had told the Chinese government that it believed that transparency was important for combating the pandemic, without saying whether it believed the Chinese government had been transparent or not.
The ministry did not give a time frame for the contacts.

On Friday, Reuters reported that China sought to block a European Union report alleging that Beijing was spreading disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak, according to four sources and diplomatic correspondence.
The issue has also been a flashpoint between the United States and China – with officials on both sides trading allegations of hiding information.

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Mink found to have coronavirus on two Dutch farms

AMSTERDAM (REUTERS) – Two mink farms in the Netherlands have been put into quarantine after animals were found to be infected with the new coronavirus, the agriculture ministry said on Sunday (April 26), urging people to report any other likely cases in the animals.
The mink, which were tested after showing signs of having trouble breathing, were believed to have been infected by employees who had the virus, the ministry said in a statement.
The possibility that they could further spread the virus to humans or other animals on the farms was “minimal”, the ministry said, citing advice from national health authorities.

However movement of the ferret-like mammals and their manure was banned and the ministry said it was studying the outbreak carefully, including testing the air and soil. People were advised not to travel within 400 metres of the farms.
They were the first reported cases in animals in the Netherlands of the disease, which has been found in some pets and zoo animals around the world after spreading among people.
The towns where the farms are located, Germert-Bakel and Laarbeek, are both in the southern Noord Brabant province of the Netherlands which has seen the country’s worst coronavirus outbreak.

The mink are bred for their fur, which is sold in China, Korea, Greece and Turkey. After pressure from animal rights activists, the Dutch government banned new mink farms in 2013 and said existing ones would have to close by 2024.
The World Health Organisation has said bats in China, where the new coronavirus emerged last year, were a likely reservoir of Covid-19 and that an intermediate animal host that is yet to be identified had then infected humans.

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Coronavirus: Italy to reopen some businesses as early as this week

MILAN (REUTERS) – Italy, the first European country to be hard-hit by the coronavirus, will allow some businesses to reopen as soon as this week while aiming to reopen manufacturing and construction from May 4, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said.
Mr Conte gave the most detailed outline yet of plans to reopen the economy, in a newspaper interview published on Sunday (April 26) ahead of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, which he said would be released no later than early this week.
Italy, hit hard by the virus weeks before other major Western countries, has been forced to serve as a model for how to fight it.

It is being closely watched around the world as it takes its early steps to chart a path out of a strict lockdown it imposed in early March.
Mr Conte described a phased process that would see much of manufacturing restarted in early May, although businesses frequented by the general public such as bars and restaurants would have to wait a bit longer. Schools would remain shut until September.
“We are working in these hours to allow the reopening of a good part of businesses from manufacturing to construction for May 4,” Mr Conte told Italian daily La Repubblica.

Some businesses deemed “strategic”, including activity that was mainly export-oriented, could reopen this week providing they get the go ahead from local prefects.
Exporting companies need to resume activity sooner to reduce the risk of being cut out of the production chain and losing business, he said.
“We can’t prolong any further this lockdown… we would risk seriously undermining the socio-economic fabric of the country,” Mr Conte said.

Mr Conte reiterated that any restart would have to be gradual, and said companies would have to introduce strict health safety measures before opening their doors.
Newspapers have said industries where the contagion risk is low, such as manufacturing and wholesale businesses, would be allowed to open on May 4. Retailers could then reopen on May 11 and bars and restaurants on May 18, under tough conditions.
The lockdown has put a strain on the euro zone’s third largest economy and Italian business leaders have called for the restrictions to be eased to head off economic catastrophe.
Rome has introduced a series of measures including state-backed loans to help businesses stay afloat. But some businessmen have complained about delays in implementing them.
Mr Conte said the government was monitoring banks to make sure state-guaranteed liquidity arrived to companies in need.
He also said the government was working on a series of measures to help industry by cutting bureaucratic red tape.
Asked about schools, Mr Conte said the plan was to reopen them in September. But he added studies showed the risk of contagion was very high. Teaching remotely is working well, he said.

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Britain at 'dangerous' stage, no coronavirus lockdown exit strategy in sight

LONDON (REUTERS) – Britain’s stand-in leader resisted pressure on Sunday (April 26) to explain how the government plans to ease a coronavirus lockdown that has been in place for a month, warning that hasty action could result in a second peak of infections.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from Covid-19, said the government was working privately on how to move out of the lockdown but it would be irresponsible to speculate in public.
“We are at a delicate and dangerous stage and we need to make sure that the next steps are sure-footed,” Mr Raab said during an interview on Sky News, urging the public to keep focusing on the current guidance to stay at home.

“We are proceeding very cautiously and we are sticking to the medical advice, the scientific advice, with the social distancing measures at this time, while doing all the homework to make sure that we’re prepared in due course for the next phase.”
The number of deaths related to Covid-19 in hospitals across Britain has risen above 20,000, the latest data showed on Saturday, with the overall figure likely to be significantly higher once deaths in care homes and hospices are tallied.
The economic news has been equally dire. Data released last week showed demand had slumped to an all-time low, retail sales had plunged by the most on record and government debt was surging.

With a Bank of England interest rate-setter warning that the economic contraction could be the worst in centuries, the data added to pressure on the government to give some indication of when and how people and businesses would be able to get to work.
‘Not credible’
Mr Johnson, who spent a week in hospital in early April including three nights in intensive care, will return to work full-time on Monday and is “raring to go”, Mr Raab said.
On his desk, Mr Johnson will find an open letter from opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arguing that the British government was falling behind the rest of the world in refusing to open up about how it would ease the lockdown.
“Simply acting as if this discussion is not happening is not credible,” Mr Starmer wrote in the letter, which he posted on Twitter on Sunday.
He said he believed the government had been too slow to impose the lockdown, to increase the uptake of testing and to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospital and care home staff.

“We need to see a significant step-change in the government’s response to this pandemic. Decisions need to be taken quicker and communication with the public needs to be clearer,” he said.
On the issue of testing, the government has set itself a target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April. Fewer than 29,000 tests were carried out on April 24, the most recent available data shows.
Mr Raab said capacity now stood at 51,000 a day and he expected a surge in actual tests being carried out in the coming week.
“You always get the exponential increase in a project like this in the last week as the capacity comes on tap,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a big surge in the last week, and we’re on track to hit that target.”

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Germany flips on smartphone contact tracing, backs Apple and Google

BERLIN (REUTERS) – Germany changed course on Sunday (April 26) over which type of smartphone technology it wanted to use to trace coronavirus infections, backing an approach supported by Apple and Google along with a growing number of other European countries.
Chancellery Minister Helge Braun and Health Minister Jens Spahn told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that Berlin would adopt a ‘decentralised’ approach to digital contact tracing, in so doing abandoning a home-grown alternative.
Nations are rushing to develop apps to assess at scale the risk of catching Covid-19, where the chain of infection is proving hard to break because the flu-like disease can be spread by those showing no symptoms.

In Europe, most countries have chosen short-range Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ between devices as the best approach, but have differed over whether to log such contacts on a central server or on individual devices.
Germany as recently as Friday backed an initiative called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), whose centralised approach was criticised by hundreds of scientists in an open letter last Monday as opening the way to state surveillance.
“We will back a decentralised architecture that will only store contacts on devices. That is good for trust,” Ms Braun told ARD public television in an interview.

Although Bluetooth-based smartphone contact tracing is an untested technology and early results in countries like Singapore are modest, its development is already redefining the relationship between the state and individual.
It would work by assessing the closeness and length of contact between people and, should a person test positive for Covid-19, tell recent contacts to call a doctor, get tested or self-isolate.
One of the members of PEPP-PT, Germany’s Fraunhofer HHI research institute, was told on Saturday that it was being taken off the project, correspondence seen by Reuters showed.
“The project will be handed over and others will be able to make use of the results we have achieved so far to build a decentralised solution,” Fraunhofer HHI head Thomas Wiegand said in a message to colleagues.

Germany’s change of tack would bring its approach into line with that taken by Apple and Alphabet’s Google , which said this month they would develop new tools to support decentralised contact tracing.
Importantly, Apple’s iPhone would under the proposed setup only work properly with decentralised protocols such as DP-3T, which has been developed by a Swiss-led team and has been backed by Switzerland, Austria and Estonia.
Health authorities are keen to get insights into the spread of infection and make use of digital contact tracing to support existing teams that work phones and knock on doors to warn those at risk.
Backers of DP-3T, short for Decentralised Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, say it is still possible for users to opt in to sharing their phone number to aid contact tracing – but this would be part of an app, not of the system architecture.
And although using Bluetooth means the location of an infection event cannot be known to the authorities, it would still be possible for users, by opting in, to share epidemiologically useful data under a decentralised approach.
DP-3T said in a statement that it is was “very happy to see that Germany is adopting a decentralised approach to contact tracing and we look forward to its next steps implementing such a technique in a privacy-preserving manner.” PEPP-PT said it planned to issue a statement in due course.
The Fraunhofer HHI institute did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The Rhine, Germany's most important river, is drying out

FRANKFURT (BLOOMBERG) – Germany’s spring showers haven’t materialised this year, and that’s drying out Germany’s most important river, prompting concerns that key industrial goods might have trouble making it to their destination.
Typically one of the wettest months, Europe’s biggest economy has received just 5 per cent of its normal April rainfall so far, according to Germany’s federal weather service. It’s on course to be the driest month since records began in 1881.
In addition to yellowing vegetation that’s usually a lush green in this season, the dry spell has depressed water levels on the Rhine River, a conduit for barges delivering everything from steel to oil and coal to Germany’s factories.

The river is now at its lowest level for April since 2011. “If we don’t get more normal rain in May, then we’re looking at another year of serious drought conditions,” said Andreas Friedrich of Germany’s DWD federal weather service.
With its source high in the Swiss Alps, the Rhine snakes more than 1,300km and carries cargo barges through some of Europe’s most important industrial zones before greeting the North Sea at Rotterdam. A mix of glacial run-off and rain feeds the river, but contribution from glaciers has dwindled in recent years as summer melting out paces ice formation in winter.
October 2018 saw rivers fall to just a few centimetres at a chokepoint near the village of Kaub, disrupting flows of fuels and goods to and from Germany’s advanced manufacturing heartlands in the south. The impasse was severe enough to dent German economic growth and underline how even advanced economies are feeling the impact of climate change. Waters at the Kaub bottleneck have fallen to 1m 15cm, less than half the average water levels for this time of year.

Officials at Switzerland’s federal weather service said heatwaves in summer 2019 – where temperatures rose over 25 deg C in mountainous zones will further have destroyed glaciers, meaning they can’t be counted on to offset rain.
While scientists are confident that glacial shrinkage stems from global warming, they don’t yet link an intensifying rising trend of less rainfall in April to climate change, according to Germany’s federal weather service.
However, it is possible to suggest that the temperatures experienced across Europe this April have been enhanced due to global warming, and as warmer air can hold more moisture, that the evaporation rates have been increased, according to Simon Lee, climatologist at the University of Reading.

“We more commonly associate that effect with summertime heatwaves,” he said. “But the mechanism is the same, and as the growing season expands due to a warming climate, the impacts of these early-season warm spells may become more significant.”

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Yemen separatists declare self-governance of south

DUBAI (AFP) – Yemen separatists on Sunday (April 26) declared self-governance of the country’s south, as a peace deal with the government crumbled, complicating its long conflict with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control much of the north.
The Southern Transitional Council accused the government of failing to perform its duties and of “conspiring” against the southern cause, and said self-governance had begun at midnight.
The breakdown between the one-time allies comes as the Saudi-led coalition, which backs the internationally recognised government in its battle against the Houthis, has extended a unilateral ceasefire aimed at fending off the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the olive branch, which the Houthis rejected, fighting persists in the war-torn country, which is already facing what the United Nations has termed the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Yemen’s southern separatists – who have long agitated for independence – signed a power-sharing deal in Riyadh last November that quelled a battle for the south which had seen them seize control of the second city of Aden.
However, the pact quickly became defunct, failing to meet deadlines for key measures including the formation of a new cabinet with equal representation for southerners, and the reorganisation of military forces.

“The STC declares self-governance in the south starting midnight on Saturday April 25th, 2020, and a self governing committee will start its work according to a list of tasks assigned by the council’s presidency,” the separatists said in a statement.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed over the past five years in the war between the government and the Houthi rebels.
Earlier this month, Yemen reported its first case of coronavirus in Hadramawt, a southern government-controlled province, raising fears of an outbreak.

Compounding the country’s troubles, at least 21 people were killed in flash flooding this month, with Aden’s streets submerged and homes destroyed.

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Amid the coronavirus crisis, heart and stroke patients go missing

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Bishnu Virachan was a bicycle deliveryman for a grocery store in Queens. With New York City locked down, he was busier than ever.
But in early April, as he was watching television, he felt “a pain in my heart”.
It frightened him, but he did not go to the emergency room. Virachan, 43, was even more afraid of that.

“What can I do? What can I do?” he asked. “Everywhere, the coronavirus.”
After a few days, pain overrode fear and he went to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. Doctors discovered a nearly complete blockage of his left main coronary artery.
A surgeon opened the artery, but Virachan was left with a weakened heart. Had he waited much longer, doctors said, he would have died.

Fear of the coronavirus is leading people with life-threatening emergencies, like a heart attack or stroke, to stay home when ordinarily they would have rushed to the emergency room, preliminary research suggests. Without prompt treatment, some patients, like Virachan, have suffered permanent damage or have died.
Emergency rooms have about half the normal number of patients, and heart and stroke units are nearly empty, according to doctors at many urban medical centers. Some medical experts fear more people are dying from untreated emergencies than from the coronavirus.
A recent paper by cardiologists at nine large medical centers estimated a 38 per cent reduction since March 1 in the number of patients with serious heart attacks coming in to have urgently needed procedures to open their arteries.
On a recent day at the Cleveland Clinic, there were only seven patients in the 24-bed coronary care unit. Usually the unit is full.

“Where are the patients?” asked Dr.Steven Nissen, a cardiologist there. “That can’t be normal.”

One of the few was a man who lives in Cleveland. According to Nissen, the man felt chest pain while doing push-ups but feared going to the hospital because there might be coronavirus patients there. He stayed home for a week, growing weaker – out of breath with the slightest exertion, his legs swelling. Finally, on April 16, he went to the Cleveland Clinic.
What should have been an easily treated heart attack had progressed to a life-threatening disaster. He survived after a dicey operation and spent nearly a week in intensive care, including several days on a ventilator, Nissen said.
The inpatient stroke unit at Stanford University Medical Center in California usually has 12 to 15 patients, said its director, Dr Gregory Albers. On one recent day in April, there were none at all, something that had never happened.
“It’s frightening,” Albers said.
Yet few Covid-19 patients have been admitted to the hospital, and people needing emergency treatment have little to fear.
“We prepared for an onslaught, but it has not arrived,” Albers said.
According to Dr Samin Sharma, who heads the cardiac catheterisation lab at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, the number of heart attack patients fell from seven in February to three in March. So far in April there have been only two.
It’s not just the United States. Dr Valentin Fuster, editor of the Journal of American College of Cardiology, said he is getting so many papers from around the world on the steep decline in heart attack patients in hospitals that he simply cannot publish them all.

A hospital in Jaipur, India, for example, that Sharma owns, treated 45 heart attack patients in January, he said. In February, there were 32, and in March, 12. In April, so far the number is just six.
Researchers in Austria estimated that in March 110 citizens died from untreated heart attacks, compared with 86 who died of Covid-19. They based their calculations on a precipitous decline in patients going to hospitals, the expected number of heart attacks in Austria and the mortality rates of untreated heart attacks.
“I am very very worried that we are creating a problem that will have long-term consequences for the health of the community,” said Dr Richard A. Chazal, medical director of the Heart and Vascular Institute at Lee Health in Fort Myers, Florida, and a past president of the American College of Cardiology.
Could it be that there actually are fewer medical emergencies now? Fuster speculated that perhaps people are healthier because they are eating better, exercising more and under less stress now that so many are working from home. And, of course, the air is cleaner in urban areas.
Other experts doubt that better health habits could have such dramatic and immediate effects. Far from eating better, Nissen said, many patients tell him they are overeating comfort food. There is no evidence that people are exercising more, and people are hardly under less stress.
“They are scared to death,” Nissen said.

And, he said, even if some people changed their habits, studies have failed to find any immediate effects of short-term lifestyle changes on heart attack rates.
At the moment, it is nearly impossible to know who is not showing up in emergency rooms, and why, said Dr Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist at Yale University.
“You can’t find the dog that doesn’t bark,” he said.

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Britain sends out mobile units to boost coronavirus testing

LONDON (REUTERS) – Eight mobile coronavirus testing units staffed by the army are starting to travel around Britain, with dozens more to follow, to help the government approach its target of 100,000 tests a day for the new coronavirus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has promised that number of daily tests by April 30, but by Friday (April 24) only 28,760 had been achieved.
Refitted vehicles will collect throat swabs, which will be sent to laboratories for processing, the Department of Health said in a statement on Sunday (April 26).

A further 96 of the units will start operating during May.
The units can be set up in under 20 minutes and will carry out tests on essential staff such as those who work in care homes, the police and prisons, and have found it difficult to travel to fixed, drive-through test centres.
There are concerns that a lack of testing could slow Britain’s gradual exit from lockdown and delay the revival of its economy, the world’s fifth-largest.

The mobile units carried out a trial run last week in Salisbury, Southport and Teesside. In Northern Ireland, the units will be staffed by contractors, not the army, the statement said.

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Coronavirus: World's biggest central banks meet as pressure mounts to do more

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) – Global central banks remain under pressure to do more to support their economies through the coronavirus recession even after driving interest rates to record lows and pledging to spend trillions of dollars on asset purchases.
The US Federal Reserve, Bank of Japan and European Central Bank, which together cover almost half of global output, will all convene meetings of policy makers this week after the pandemic-driven freezing of economies and turmoil in financial markets propelled them into action.
With governments this week set to confirm multi-year expansions ended in the US and euro area in the first quarter, monetary policy makers might have to do more to limit the recession and speed the recovery. Among the options: extending the quantitative easing, helping ease credit to troubled businesses and committing to rock-bottom rates for longer.

“The extremity of the virus crisis is forcing central banks to push the limits of the possible,” said Tom Orlik, chief economist at Bloomberg Economics. “We expect the ECB to expand its fire fighting Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme and the Bank of Japan to roll out more support for corporates. Ahead of the game in terms of the size and scope of stimulus, the Fed won’t add additional support, but will confirm it has space to do more.”
The Federal Reserve’s April 28-29 policy meeting will be the first scheduled gathering since January, but officials have met multiple times since then.
They have cut rates to virtually zero and rolled out a series of emergency and unorthodox lending facilities designed to backstop markets and keep credit flowing to businesses. The Fed’s balance sheet has already reached $6.57 trillion (S$9.34 trillion).

Economists in a Bloomberg survey have limited expectations for any substantial changes at this week’s meeting. Large majorities, 90 per cent and 87 per cent, said they didn’t expect policy makers to offer any additional guidance on how long they intend to keep rates near zero, or on the future pace of large-scale asset purchases.
But investors will be looking for any indications from Chairman Jerome Powell on how deep the Fed fears the recession will go and its outlook for recovery.
The central bankers are also still being lobbied to do more as they try to get their Main Street lending program up and running. There are calls from some lawmakers to allow more cities and small counties to borrow from it.

The European Central Bank sets policy on Thursday (April 30) with a heavy weight on its shoulders as governments argue over joint fiscal action.

After President Christine Lagarde told leaders last week that they might have done too little, too late, and warning that the euro-area economy could shrink as much as 15 per cent this year, they still failed to agree on how to structure a recovery fund.
Most economists expect the central bank will keep monetary policy on hold this week. It only recently pledged to bump up its asset purchases by more than a trillion euros (S$1.54 trillion) this year, and made it easier for banks to finance their loans to companies.
But one in four respondents to a Bloomberg survey said the ECB could still boost the size of its pandemic purchase program from 750 billion euros as early as Thursday. Most see it happening by September.
Having agreed last week to accept junk bonds as collateral for bank loans, there is also speculation is will add sub-investment grade assets to its purchase plan list.
After stepping up its buying of exchange-traded funds and corporate bonds, the Bank of Japan will on Monday (April 27) discuss allowing unlimited government bond purchases, replacing their current 80 trillion yen (S$1.05 trillion) target, the Nikkei reported last Thursday (April 23).

Governor Haruhiko Kuroda and fellow policy makers will likely take further steps to get credit to businesses hit by the pandemic, according to a Bloomberg survey of economists.
Some 83 per cent of 40 analysts forecast the BOJ will introduce new tools to support bank lending for businesses at a meeting now shortened to one day.
Options include increasing purchase targets for commercial paper and corporate bonds or widening a new lending operation so smaller firms can benefit via smaller banks.

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