Germans fear Trump more than coronavirus, survey shows

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germans are more afraid of the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump than of the coronavirus which has wreaked havoc on Europe’s biggest economy, an annual survey of German attitudes showed on Thursday.

Fears that Trump’s policies would make the world a more dangerous place eclipsed economic worries, with 53% of those asked putting him top of their list, according to the survey conducted in June and July for the R+V Insurance Group.

Rising living costs, the economic situation and the cost to taxpayers of European Union debt came second, third and fourth for traditionally cautious Germans.

The coronavirus took 17th spot and only around a third of those asked said they were concerned that they or someone they knew well would get COVID-19.

Germany has kept the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths relatively low compared with some of its European neighbors, but new infections are rising again.

The survey did not give details on which aspects of Trump’s policies worried Germans but R+V quoted political scientist Manfred Schmidt of the Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg as blaming his foreign policy.

“Particularly notable are the trade-war-like conflicts with China and trade and security policy attacks against allies, including Germany. In addition, the withdrawal of the United States from international cooperation and the confrontation with Iran,” said Schmidt who advises R+V on the annual survey.

Some 2,400 people were questioned for the “Fears of Germans” survey, which has been conducted since 1992.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers, editing by Emma Thomasson and Catherine Evans)

Exclusive: Vaccine group says 76 rich countries now committed to ‘COVAX’ access plan

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Seventy-six wealthy nations are now committed to joining a global COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) that aims to help buy and fairly distribute the shots, the project’s co-lead said on Wednesday.

Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI vaccines alliance, said the plan, known as COVAX, now has Japan, Germany, Norway and more than 70 other nations signed up, agreeing in principle to procure COVID-19 vaccines through the facility for their populations.

“We have, as of right now, 76 upper middle income and high income countries that have submitted confirmations of intent to participate – and we expect that number to go up,” Berkley told Reuters in an interview.

“This is good news. It shows that the COVAX facility is open for business and is attracting the type of interest across the world we had hoped it would.”. COVAX coordinators are in talks with China about whether it might also join, Berkley said.

“We had a discussion yesterday with the (Chinese) government. We don’t have any signed agreement with them yet,” but Beijing had given “a positive signal”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a briefing on Wednesday that China “supports COVAX and has been in communication with WHO and other parties” about it.

COVAX is co-led by GAVI, the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). It is designed to discourage national governments from hoarding COVID-19 vaccines and to focus on first vaccinating the most high-risk people in every country.

Its backers say this strategy should lead to lower vaccine costs for everyone and a swifter end to the pandemic that has claimed some 860,000 lives globally.

Wealthy countries that join COVAX will finance the vaccine purchases from their national budgets, and will partner with 92 poorer nations supported through voluntary donations to the plan to ensure vaccines are delivered equitably, Berkley said.

Participating wealthy countries are also free to procure vaccines through bilateral deals and other plans.

The United States said on Tuesday it would not join COVAX due to the Trump administration’s objection to WHO involvement, a move described by some critics as “disappointing.” Berkley said he was not surprised by the U.S. decision, but would seek to continue talks with Washington.

In what appeared to be a change of position on Wednesday, the European Union said its member states could buy potential COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX.

COVAX coordinators sought to add flexibility to joining agreements to encourage greater participation, Berkley said.

The WHO describes COVAX as an “invaluable insurance policy” for all countries to secure access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines when they are developed and approved. The plan’s coordinators have set a deadline of Sept. 18 for countries signing up to make binding commitments.

Asked to comment on the U.S. decision not to join COVAX, and on talks with China, a WHO spokesperson said: “Countries have until Sept. 18 to sign binding agreements…, so we’ll have more to say on countries that have joined then.”

COVAX’s objective is to procure and deliver 2 billion doses of approved vaccines by the end of 2021. It currently has nine COVID-19 vaccine candidates in its portfolio employing a range of different technologies and scientific approaches.

A handful are already in late-stage clinical trials and could have data available by year end.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Mark Heinrich)

Kremlin tells West not to rush to judge it on Navalny as sanctions talk starts

By Andrew Osborn and Madeline Chambers

MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday the West should not rush to judge it over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and that there were no grounds to accuse it of the crime, as talk in the West of punishing Moscow intensified.

The Kremlin was speaking a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Navalny had been poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to murder him and that she would consult NATO allies about how to respond.

Navalny, 44, is an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has specialized in high-impact investigations into official corruption. He was airlifted to Germany last month after collapsing on a domestic Russian flight after drinking a cup of tea that his allies said was poisoned.

Berlin’s Charite hospital, which is treating Navalny, has said he remains in a serious condition in an intensive care unit connected to an artificial lung ventilator even though some of his symptoms are receding.

Novichok is the same substance that Britain said was used against a Russian double agent and his daughter in an attack in England in 2018. The deadly group of nerve agents was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow rejected any suggestion that Russia had been behind the attack on Navalny and warned other countries against jumping to conclusions without knowing the full facts.

“There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect,” Peskov told reporters.

“Of course we would not want our partners in Germany and other European countries to hurry with their assessments.”

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, said Moscow could not rule out Western intelligence agencies had orchestrated the poisoning to stir up trouble, the RIA news agency reported.

Russian prosecutors have said they see no reason to launch a criminal investigation because they say they have found no sign a crime was committed, though pre-investigation checks are continuing.

Peskov said Russia was eager to know what had happened to Navalny, but couldn’t do so without receiving information from Germany about the tests that had led to Berlin’s conclusions about Novichok.

SANCTIONS PRESSURE

OPCW, the global chemical weapons agency, said the poisoning of any individual with a toxic nerve agent would be considered use of a banned chemical weapon.

The European Commission said the bloc could only slap new sanctions on Russia after an investigation revealed who was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning. Lithuania said it would ask EU leaders to discuss the poisoning at their next summit.

Merkel said that any German or European response would depend on whether Russia helped clear up the case.

After her strong statement on Wednesday, she is under pressure at home to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take gas from Russia to Germany.

“We must pursue hard politics, we must respond with the only language (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands – that is gas sales,” Norbert Roettgen, head of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told German radio.

“If the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed now, it would be the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue this kind of politics,” Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives, told German television separately.

Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany. Led by Russian company Gazprom with Western partners, the project is more than 90% finished and due to operate from early 2021. This may complicate efforts to stop it.

It is fiercely opposed by Washington and has divided the European Union, with some countries warning it will undermine the traditional gas transit state, Ukraine, and increase the bloc’s reliance on Russia.

Peskov said the Kremlin regarded talk of trying to thwart Nord Stream 2 as being based on emotions. He said the project was a commercial one which benefited Russia, Germany and Europe.

“We don’t understand what the reason for any sanctions could be,” said Peskov.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and by Thomas Seythal and Vera Eckert in Berlin and by Gabriela Baczynska, John Chalmers, and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by William Maclean)

It’s not for me: speed of COVID-19 vaccine race raises safety concerns

By Francesco Guarascio and Josephine Mason

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) – The frenetic race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine has intensified safety concerns about an inoculation, prompting governments and drugmakers to raise awareness to ensure their efforts to beat the coronavirus aren’t derailed by public distrust.

There are more than 200 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in development globally, including more than 20 in human clinical trials. U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to have a shot ready before year’s end, although they typically take 10 years or longer to develop and test for safety and effectiveness.

In the drive to find a potential COVID-19 vaccine “fast is good for politicians,” said Heidi Larson, who leads the Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP), a global surveillance program on vaccine trust. “But from the public perspective, the general sentiment is: ‘too fast can’t be safe'”, she told Reuters.

Regulators around the world have repeatedly said speed will not compromise safety, as quicker results would stem from conducting in parallel trials that are usually done in sequence.

However, these reassurances have failed to convince many, including in Western countries where skepticism about vaccinations was already growing before the pandemic.

Preliminary results of a survey conducted over the last three months in 19 countries showed that only about 70% of British and U.S. respondents would take a COVID-19 vaccine if available, Scott Ratzan, co-leader of ‘Business Partners to CONVINCE’, told Reuters.

Business Partners to CONVINCE, a U.S./UK initiative that is partly government funded, conducted the survey jointly with VCP and the results were broadly in line with a Reuters/Ipsos poll of the U.S. public in May.

“We just see this distrust growing against science and government,” said Ratzan.

“We need to address legitimate concerns about the rapid pace of development, political over-promises and the risks of vaccination.”

The VCP/Business Partners’ survey, expected to be published in a few weeks, will also show that Chinese participants were the most trusting of vaccines, while Russians were the least so, Ratzan said.

Drugmakers and governments had hoped the scale of the COVID-19 crisis would allay concerns about vaccines, which they see as crucial to defeating the pandemic and enabling economies to fully recover from its impact.

Vaccine hesitancy – or the reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated – is also known as “anti-vax,” a term that is sometimes associated with conspiracy theories when often it simply reflects many people’s concerns about side-effects or industry ethics.

In January 2019 the World Health Organisation named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global health threats for that year.

TAILORED MESSAGES

In Europe, skepticism among the public was high before the pandemic due to a range of factors including negative coverage of pharmaceutical companies as well as false theories including suggested links between childhood immunizations and autism.

Only 70% of French people considered vaccines safe in a 2018 survey commissioned by the European Union executive. The EU average was 82%, but trust fell to 68% for the shot against seasonal flu.

The VCP project on vaccine trust, funded by the European Commission and pharmaceutical companies among others, aims to identify early signs and causes of public mistrust and tackle them with information campaigns before it is too late.

Larson said headlines referring to Warp Speed – the name of the U.S. operation aimed at delivering a COVID-19 vaccine to the U.S. population by next year – could increase vaccine hesitancy even more than perceptions that the disease could become less lethal.

“One of the most frequent things that comes up in people’s conversations is concerns about how quick it is. If I have to pick one theme that is more recurrent than others it is this one,” Larson said.

Data collected by VCP from social media show that by the end of June about 40% of Britons’ posts concerning a COVID-19 vaccine, for example, were negative, with many distrusting any coronavirus vaccine and the medical establishment.

Announcements about fast progress in COVID vaccines in Russia and China in particular could also contribute to rising skepticism. “We don’t have transparency and don’t know how accurate or valid their data are,” Ratzan said, adding that errors there could boost skepticism elsewhere.

Key for any information campaign to be successful is to tailor it to different audiences as there is no uniform profile of anti-vaxxers, said Kate Elder of Doctors Without Borders, a non-governmental organisation.

“They go from the highly educated to those who don’t believe in science,” she said, urging politicians to be more careful in their messages on vaccines and to better explain the reasons behind potentially fast results against COVID-19.

“We are exploring the idea of a chatbot that will speak in different languages,” said Ratzan, adding it could be something similar to Smokey Bear, the U.S. Forest Service’s campaign to educate about preventing wildfires.

“Different parts of the world will require different strategies. We know we need to tailor it and to be specific,” he said.

Risks are high if hesitancy is not addressed quickly.

During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, growing skepticism about the vaccine led to a failure of the vaccination campaign in France, where only 8% of the population got a shot against the virus which is estimated to have killed around 280,000 people across the world.

A study published in May in the Lancet by a group of French scientists warned of similar risks now in the country where vaccine hesitancy went up from 18% in mid-March when a lockdown was imposed on the French to 26% by the end of that month.

“Distrust is likely to become an issue when the vaccine will be made available,” the scientists concluded.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio in Brussels and Josephine Mason in London; Editing by Susan Fenton)

Pound slips below $1.25 on disappointing growth data

By Maiya Keidan

LONDON (Reuters) – Sterling fell below $1.25 on Tuesday for the first time in a week and reached a 14-day low against the euro after data showed Britain’s economy was recovering more slowly than forecast.

Gross domestic product rose by 1.8% in May after falling by a record 20.8% in April, the Office for National Statistics said, well below forecasts in a Reuters poll.

“You saw sterling moving lower almost immediately after the announcement and it was a big disappointment and I think that it’s also the realization that maybe the V-shaped recovery doesn’t apply to the UK to the same extent,” said Morten Lund, an analyst at Nordea.

Adding to fears was a warning from authorities that another, more deadly COVID-19 wave could kill up to 120,000 Britons over the winter.

The pound touched a low of $1.2485, down 0.5% on the day. It slipped 0.7% to the euro at 91.03 pence.

Broad dollar weakness has allowed sterling to gain around 0.7% versus the greenback this month but against the euro it has lost 0.5% since the start of July.

Consumer data also indicated a tentative recovery. The British Retail Consortium said retail sales values rose by 3.4% in annual terms in June, and Barclaycard said overall consumer spending fell 14.5% in annual terms in June, the smallest decline since lockdown began.

Money markets price in the Bank of England’s cutting rates below 0% only next March. But government two-year bond yields plumbed a record low around minus 0.16% and 10-year yields slipped 2.5 basis points to 0.14%.

FTSE mid-cap shares, which tend to be mostly domestically oriented, fell 1.6% versus a 0.6% decline for the exporter-laden FTSE100.

Investors are also waiting for more news on Britain’s negotiations with the European Union on concluding a trade deal for the post-Brexit period. Britain left the bloc on Jan. 31, with a one-year transition period to iron out a future relationship.

“My feeling is the market is not fully pricing in the likelihood of a hard Brexit,” said Colin Asher at Mizuho.

“There has been very little progress on negotiations and even if there is a deal, there’s not much time to put a lot in it.”

(Reporting by Maiya Keidan, editing by Larry King and Ed Osmond)

Iran lauds arms supply to Palestinians against ‘tumor’ Israel

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader on Friday denounced Israel as a “tumor” to be removed and hailed Tehran’s supply of arms to Palestinians, drawing swift condemnation from the United States, European Union and Israel.

Opposition to Israel is a core belief for Shi’ite Muslim-led Iran. The Islamic Republic supports Palestinian and Lebanese armed groups opposed to peace with Israel, which Tehran refuses to recognize.

“The Zionist regime (Israel) is a deadly, cancerous tumor in the region. It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an online speech.

The United States and European Union rejected the comments.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter dismissed them as “disgusting and hateful anti-Semitic remarks” that did not represent the tradition of tolerance of ordinary Iranians.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said they were “totally unacceptable and represent a deep source of concern”.

Although leaders of Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have frequently praised Iran’s financial and military support, Khamenei had not himself previously given public confirmation of Tehran’s weapons supply.

“Iran realized Palestinian fighters’ only problem was lack of access to weapons. With divine guidance and assistance, we planned, and the balance of power has been transformed in Palestine, and today the Gaza Strip can stand against the aggression of the Zionist enemy and defeat it,” he said.

Israeli Defence Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said: “The State of Israel has great challenges in a variety of arenas. Khamenei’s statement that Israel is a ‘cancerous tumor’ illustrates this more than anything.”

He said on Facebook: “I do not suggest anyone to test us …We will be prepared for all threats, and by any means.”

In a statement described as a response to Khamenei, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Those that invoke the threat of destruction against Israel put themselves in similar danger.”

RALLIES CANCELLED

Zeyad al-Nakhala, chief of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has publicly admitted getting Iranian arms and funds, praised Khamenei’s comments. “We are ready for a long jihad and victory is granted,” he said in remarks distributed by the group.

Iranian officials have repeatedly called for an end to Israel, including by a referendum that would exclude most of its Jews while including Palestinians in the region and abroad.

Khamenei suggested global attention on the coronavirus crisis had helped obscure wrongs done to Palestinians. “The long-lasting virus of Zionists will be eliminated,” he added.

Khamenei was speaking on Iran’s annual Quds Day, which uses the Arabic name for Jerusalem, held on the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Iran cancelled nationwide Quds Day rallies due to coronavirus. Iran is one of the most affected countries in the region with 7,300 deaths and a total of 131,652 infections.

Khamenei also denounced what he called treason by “political and cultural mercenaries in Muslim countries” helping Zionists to downplay the Palestine issue, an apparent reference to some Arab states including Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Tel Aviv, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean/Mark Heinrich)

EU pledges aid to Greece as migrants mass on border with Turkey

By Lefteris Papadimas and Alkis Konstantinidis

KASTANIES/LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – European Union officials on Tuesday promised more cash for Greece during a visit to its border with Turkey which tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have been trying for days to breach.

The officials urged Turkey to abide by a 2016 deal which requires it to keep the migrants on its soil in return for EU aid. After an upsurge in fighting in Syria last week, Ankara says it will no longer stop migrants who want to reach Europe.

Greek riot police have used tear gas against the migrants at its Kastanies border post, while the coastguard has tried to stop boats transporting migrants to Greece’s Aegean islands. A Syrian boy died on Monday after his boat capsized in the area.

“The situation at our border is not only an issue for Greece to manage, it is the responsibility of Europe as a whole,” the head of the EU’s executive Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told a news conference at Kastanies.

“We will hold the line and our unity will prevail,” she said after touring the area with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the heads of the European Council and Parliament.

Von der Leyen announced additional aid of 700 million euros to help Greece deal with the migrant crisis.

Migrants walk next to the Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece’s Kastanies, near Edirne, Turkey, March 3, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Brussels is desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2015-16 crisis, when more than a million migrants entered the EU from Turkey via the Balkans, straining European security and welfare systems and boosting support for far-right parties.

Greek troops and riot police remained on high alert along the Turkish border on Tuesday, though there were no reports of significant new clashes with the migrants.

“There were only a few attempts today (to cross the border). Let’s hope they get the message,” a machine gun-toting army officer told Reuters at the Kastanies border post.

Army jeeps patrolled the area and roads leading to the Evros river which marks the Greek-Turkish border remained shut.

GREECE, TURKEY AT LOGGERHEADS

The crisis has badly strained ties, never good, between Ankara and Athens.

Mitsotakis accused Ankara of deliberately encouraging migrants to head to the border in order to “promote its geopolitical agenda and divert attention from the situation in Syria”.

He also said these migrants were not fleeing the latest flareup of fighting in Syria’s Idlib province but were people “who have been living safely in Turkey for a long period of time”. Many speak fluent Turkish, he added.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also accused Turkey on Tuesday of using the refugees to “blackmail” Europe.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan infuriated Mitsotakis on Monday by accusing Greek border guards of killing two migrants and wounding a third, a claim denied by Athens.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Greek forces were shooting migrants “in the back as they are running away”, but he provided no evidence.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria’s civil war and faces another possible big influx as the fighting drags on there, says it cannot take in any more.

Human Rights Watch said it had received multiple reports that Greek border guards were pushing people back into Turkey, which could violate the right to claim asylum as well as a ban on returning people to where they would be unsafe, both of which are enshrined in international law.

The mood toward migrants on Greek islands such as Lesbos – once relatively welcoming – has soured since the 2015-16 crisis amid a sense that the Athens government and the EU are not providing sufficient support.

“It used to be the island of solidarity but it seems like the locals are exhausted,” said Charlie Meyers, a U.S. aid worker on Lesbos.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas in Kastanies, Alkis Konstantinidis on Lesbos, George Georgioupoulos and Foo Yun Chee in Athens: Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Geert de Clercq in Paris; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Concern over coronavirus spread as cases jump in South Korea, Italy and Iran

By Jane Chung and Emily Chow

SEOUL/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – International concern about the spread of coronavirus outside China grew on Sunday with sharp rises in infections in South Korea, Italy and Iran.

The government in Seoul put the country on high alert after the number of infections surged over 600 with six deaths. A focal point was a church in the southeastern city of Daegu, where a 61-year-old member of the congregation with no recent record of overseas travel tested positive for the virus.

In Italy, officials said a third person infected with the flu-like virus had died, while the number of cases jumped to above 150 from just three before Friday.

Authorities sealed off the worst affected towns and banned public gatherings in much of the north, including halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases, to try to contain the biggest outbreak in Europe.

“I was surprised by this explosion of cases,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told state broadcaster RAI, warning that the numbers would likely rise in the coming days. “We will do everything we can to contain the contagion.”

Italian health authorities were struggling to find out how the virus started. “If we cannot find ‘patient zero’ then it means the virus is even more ubiquitous than we thought,” said Luca Zaia, the regional governor of the wealthy Veneto region.

Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto with a combined population of some 50,000 have effectively been placed under quarantine.

The European Union said it had confidence in the Italian authorities. “We share concern for possible contagion (but) there is no need to panic,” the bloc’s Economic Affairs Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni told reporters.

Iran, which announced its first two cases on Wednesday, said it had confirmed 43 cases and eight deaths, with most of the infections in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan imposed travel and immigration restrictions on the Islamic Republic.

The virus has killed 2,442 people in China, which has reported 76,936 cases, and has slammed the brakes on the world’s second largest economy. It has spread to some 28 other countries and territories, with a death toll of around two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

“Despite the continuing decline in reported cases from China, the last two days have seen extremely concerning developments elsewhere in the world,” said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Saturday it was worried by the detection of infections without a clear link to China.

‘SEVERE AND COMPLEX’

China, which has seen the vast majority of cases, reported 648 new infections. But only 18 were outside of Hubei province, the lowest number outside the epicenter since authorities began publishing data a month ago and locked down large parts of the country.

An Iraqi medical staff member checks a passenger’s temperature, amid the new coronavirus outbreak, upon his arrival to Shalamcha Border Crossing between Iraq and Iran, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

“At present, the epidemic situation is still severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage,” President Xi Jinping said.

State run television urged people to avoid complacency, drawing attention to people gathering in public areas and tourist spots without wearing masks.

In South Korea, Catholic churches in Daegu and Gwangju have suspended services and other gatherings, while churches elsewhere saw declines in attendance on Sunday, especially among the elderly.

“If the situation gets worse, I think we’ll need to take more measures,” said Song Gi-young, 53, wearing a face mask at church.

South Korea’s president said raising the disease alert to the highest level, allowing authorities to send extra resources to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, which were designated “special care zones” on Friday.

Health officials reported 169 new infections, bringing the total to 602.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

The potential economic impact of the disease was prominent at a meeting of G20 finance ministers in Riyadh.

The International Monetary Fund’s chief said China’s 2020 growth would likely be lower at 5.6%, down 0.4 percentage points from its January outlook, with 0.1 percentage points shaved from global growth.

Xi highlighted the importance of fighting the epidemic in the capital Beijing, which has recently required people arriving from elsewhere in China to be quarantined at home for 14 days.

He said it would have a relatively big, but short-term impact on the economy and that Beijing would step up policy adjustments to help cushion the blow.

In Japan, where the government is facing growing questions about whether it is doing enough to counter the virus, authorities had confirmed 773 cases by early Sunday evening.

Most of them were from a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo, the Diamond Princess. A third passenger, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday.

British authorities said four people evacuated from the ship had tested positive for the virus after being flown to Britain.

(Reporting by Emily Chow in Shanghai and Jane Chung in Seoul; Additional reporting by Lushu Zhang in Beijing, Kevin Buckland in Tokyo, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Crispian Balmer in Rome and Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Martin Petty, Philippa Fletcher and Alex Richardson; Editing by Kim Coghill and Frances Kerry)

Europe to Britain: So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu

ATHENS/MADRID (Reuters) – With sorrow, some support for Brexit and even hope of a return, Europeans from across the EU’s 27 remaining members bade farewell to the United Kingdom on the eve of its historic departure.

The United Kingdom leaves the European Union an hour before midnight on Friday, casting off into an uncertain future that also challenges Europe’s post-World War Two project of forging unity from the ruins of conflict.

“Farewell, bye bye my love!” said Rudolf Stockey, speaking to Reuters in German.

From across Europe, EU citizens wished the United Kingdom the best after 47 years of membership. Some expressed hopes that the British might one day return to the European fold.

“Come back. I have no idea. We are not so different,” said Madrid resident Marcos Leon.

Some expressed concern that one of Europe’s biggest powers was leaving the club.

“I am very sorry that the United Kingdom is exiting. I think it is a very, very bad thing for Europe, for the United Kingdom, for everything,” said Sara Invitto, from Milan. “Goodbye!”

“I think it’s a great waste,” said Belgian Francois Heimans, who expressed worry over populism.

But some in Greece and Poland said the British were doing the right thing.

“Have a good Brexit guys,” said Petros Papakyriakos from Greece. “They are doing what is right for their economy, and I think a lot of countries will follow their lead.”

Gdansk resident Henryk Kulesza said: “It’s good that Great Britain is leaving the European Union. It’s about time. I think that Poland should do the same thing.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Reporting across Europe by Antonio Denti, Emily Roe, Christian Levaux, Ciara Luxton, Deborah Kyvrikosaios, Vassilis Triandafyllou, Lewis Macdonald, Dominik Starosz, Polly Rider, Ben Dadswel; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Britain speeds towards Brexit as Johnson wins large majority in election

By Guy Faulconbridge and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a resounding election victory on Friday that will allow him to end three years of political paralysis and take Britain out of the European Union by Jan. 31.

Brexit represents the country’s biggest political and economic gamble since World War Two, cutting the world’s fifth largest economy adrift from the vast trading bloc and threatening the integrity of the United Kingdom.

For Johnson, who campaigned on a vow to “Get Brexit Done”, victory was a vindication after anti-Brexit opponents tried one maneuver after another to thwart him during his first chaotic months in office.

“We will get Brexit done on time by the 31st of January, no ifs, no buts, no maybes,” a triumphant Johnson told supporters at a rally in London.

“Leaving the European Union as one United Kingdom, taking back control of our laws, borders, money, our trade, immigration system, delivering on the democratic mandate of the people,” he said, reprising the refrains of his successful Brexit referendum campaign of 2016.

Sterling soared, on course for one of its biggest one-day gains in the past two decades

Nearly half a century after Britain joined the EU, Johnson must now strike new international trade deals, preserving London’s position as a top global financial capital and keeping the United Kingdom together.

That last goal looks more challenging, with Scotland voting for a nationalist party that wants an independence referendum, and Irish nationalists performing strongly in Northern Ireland.

“Boris Johnson may have a mandate to take England out of the European Union. He emphatically does not have a mandate to take Scotland out of the European Union,” said Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Her Scottish National Party (SNP) won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the national parliament.

RED WALL CRUMBLES

In England, the Conservatives won large numbers of seats in the opposition Labour Party’s so-called Red Wall, declining industrial heartlands once hostile to Johnson’s party.

Brexit, which has shattered old party loyalties and divided Britain along new fault lines, was the cause of the shift. In the Red Wall, a majority of voters favored leaving the European Union and rejected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguous stance on the issue.

In a symbolic win, the Conservatives took Sedgefield, once held by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Labour’s most successful leader.

Educated at Eton, the country’s most elite private school, and known for his bombastic rhetoric, Johnson seemed to critics to be an unlikely candidate to win over working class communities, but Brexit helped him redraw the electoral map.

In his victory speech, he struck a rare note of humility as he addressed voters who had deserted Labour in his favor.

“Your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box, and you may hope to return to Labour next time round, and if that is the case, I am humbled that you have put your trust in me,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump was quick to congratulate Johnson.

“Britain and the United States will now be free to strike a massive new Trade Deal after BREXIT. This deal has the potential to be far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the E.U.,” Trump wrote on Twitter “Celebrate Boris!”

European politicians were less enthusiastic.

German lawmaker Norbert Roettgen of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party said “the British people have decided and we have to accept their choice. With Johnson’s victory Brexit has become inevitable”.

NO MORE DELAYS

Johnson, 55, will now be able to lead Britain out of the EU by Jan. 31, 10 months after the original deadline of March 29, which was repeatedly pushed back as a gridlocked parliament failed to take any clear decisions on Brexit.

However, with the complex task of negotiating his country’s future relationship with the bloc still ahead of him, he may struggle to reunite a divided nation.

Many voters regard him as a populist charlatan who played fast and loose with the facts and made unrealistic promises.

But his landslide win marks the ultimate failure of the anti-Brexit camp, who tried to thwart the 2016 referendum vote through complex legislative maneuvers and could not convert huge anti-Brexit street protests into a coherent political strategy.

With Labour split and unclear on Brexit, the strongly anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats had hoped to do well but they won only 11 seats, a crushing result. Party leader Jo Swinson lost her seat in Scotland to the SNP and resigned.

With results in from all but one of the 650 parliamentary seats, the Conservatives had won 364, their biggest election win since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 triumph.

Labour, led since 2015 by the veteran socialist Corbyn, had won just 203 seats, the party’s worst result since 1935.

Corbyn’s offer of nationalizations and big state spending failed to win over voters, while his equivocal position on Brexit left many angry and confused, especially in Red Wall areas where large majorities had voted for Brexit in 2016.

Corbyn said he would quit as Labour leader after a “process of reflection”.

The party now faces a brutal battle between Corbyn’s socialist followers and his centrist critics.

A SOFTER BREXIT?

After Jan. 31, Britain will enter a transition period during which it will negotiate a new relationship with the EU.

This can run until the end of 2022, but the Conservatives have pledged not to extend the transition beyond 2020.

A big majority may allow Johnson to extend trade talks beyond 2020 because he could overrule the Brexit hardline European Research Group (ERG) faction in the party.

“The bigger the Tory majority of course the less influence over this the ERG and Eurosceptics will have,” said hardline Brexiteer Nigel Farage, whose anti-EU campaigning played a major part in persuading former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to call the 2016 referendum.

“It will be called Brexit but it won’t really be,” Farage said.

Johnson was helped by Farage’s Brexit Party, which stood down hundreds of candidates to prevent the pro-Brexit vote from being split. The insurgent party poached a significant number of voters from Labour.

In his victory speech, Johnson gave no details of how he would handle Brexit after Jan. 31. Instead, he made a typically light-hearted offer to his supporters.

“Let’s get Brexit done but first, my friends, let’s get breakfast done.”

 

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Elizabeth Piper, David Milliken, Kate Holton, Kylie MacLellan, Andy Bruce, Paul Sandle, William James, Michael Urquhart, Tommy Reggiori Wilkes, Costas Pitas and Andy MacAskill in London and Michel Rose in Brussels; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, Michael Holden and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)