UK COVID-19 cases hit record high for second day

By Paul Sandle and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) -New cases of COVID-19 in Britain hit a record high for the second day running on Thursday, as England’s Chief Medical Officer warned daily hospital admissions could also hit new peaks due to the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant.

Britain reported 88,376 new infections, the highest since the start of the pandemic and up around 10,000 since the previous record set on Wednesday.

The surge in cases was piling pressure on a health service struggling with staff sickness, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said on Thursday.

Omicron is so transmissible that even if it proves to be milder than other variants, it could still cause a surge in hospital admissions, Whitty told lawmakers.

The record for the number of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 is 4,583 set in January.

“It is possible, because this is going to be very concentrated over a short period of time, even if it’s milder, you could end up with a higher number than that going into hospital on a single day,” he said.

However, he said vaccinations could cut the numbers admitted to intensive care and shorten the time spent in hospital. On Thursday there were 849 admissions.

Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, said there were 15 proven cases of Omicron in hospitals, but that the number was likely to be much higher.

Although new cases were at a record high according to official data, Britain did not have mass testing capacity in March 2020 when the pandemic first hit the country, and so the scale of infections at that point is unknown.

A senior emergency doctor said hospitals, particularly in London, were struggling to maintain staffing levels due to the number who are having to isolate with COVID-19.

“Even if we are not seeing a big rise in hospitalizations yet, we are already seeing the effect on not having the staff to run shifts properly and safely,” Katherine Henderson, an emergency consultant in London and president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told BBC Radio.

“So we are worried about patient harm coming about because we just don’t have the staff.”

The education minister also warned of problems with staff shortages, and said his department would work with ex teachers who wanted to return to the profession to help.

Britain is betting that vaccine boosters will prevent serious illness from Omicron.

The government has also advised people to work from home, mandated mask wearing in public places and has introduced COVID-19 passes to enter some venues and events in England, but has stopped short of previous lockdown measures.

“If it looked as if the vaccines were less effective than we were expecting, that for example would be a material change to how ministers viewed the risks going forward,” Whitty said.

(Additinoal reporting by William James, Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Gareth Jones and Alison Williams)

Russian regions extend workplace shutdown, Moscow to lift curbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Four Russian regions said on Wednesday they would extend a one-week workplace shutdown that took effect nationwide on Oct. 30 in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases, as the death toll from the country’s epidemic hit a record high.

President Vladimir Putin ordered the shutdown last month, giving regional authorities the option of extending it.

Authorities in the Kursk and Bryansk regions, which border Ukraine, the Chelyabinsk region near the Ural mountains and Tomsk in Siberia said their shutdowns would be prolonged.

“The tense epidemiological situation forces us to extend the period of non-working days by another week,” Tomsk governor Sergei Zhvachkin said in a statement. “One non-working week is not enough to stop the chain of infection.”

Russia’s daily COVID-19 death toll rose to a record 1,189 on Wednesday as the government coronavirus task force also reported 40,443 new infections in the last 24 hours.

Moscow authorities, meanwhile, said businesses there would reopen on Monday.

“The spread of the disease has stabilized in terms of its detection and its severe forms requiring hospitalization,” RIA news agency quoted the capital’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, as saying.

Other measures, including a requirement that companies have at least 30% of their staff work from home, would remain in place, Sobyanin said.

The health consumer watchdog in Moscow said it had recorded violations of COVID-19 regulations at more than a quarter of the businesses it inspected last week.

The Moscow region, which includes the small cities and towns surrounding the city, also said it would not prolong the shutdown.

The Novgorod region announced on Monday it was extending its shutdown by a week.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Gleb Stolyarov; editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S. Feb. budget deficit hits record $311 billion as COVID-19 costs, revenues rise

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government posted a budget deficit of $311 billion in February, a record high for the month and up $76 billion from the same month last year, as outlays to fight the coronavirus pandemic remained high, the Treasury said on Wednesday.

Receipts for February rose 32% from the year-earlier period to $248 billion, a phenomenon due largely to a $45 billion reduction in tax refunds issued during the month because the 2021 tax filing season started about two weeks later than in 2020.

Individual and withheld income tax receipts also rose by $9 billion, which a Treasury official said was due to tax withholding on increased unemployment benefits, along with increased hours worked at higher wage rates as lower-wage earnings languished.

February outlays also grew 32% to $559 billion, with the biggest increases for unemployment benefit-related costs and health expenditures. Both receipts and outlays were record highs for February.

For the first five months of the 2021 fiscal year, the deficit rose 68% to a record $1.047 trillion for the period, beating the previous record deficit of $652 billion in October-February of fiscal 2010.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

S&P 500 hits all-time high on trade optimism

FILE PHOTO: Traders work on the main trading floor after the opening bell at New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S. June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Amy Caren Daniel and Shreyashi Sanyal

(Reuters) – The S&P 500 touched a record high for the second straight session on Friday as hopes of trade talks between Washington and Beijing were lifted by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to defer a planned speech on China policy.

The decision was taken amid “positive signs” that trade talks with China could be back on track, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing a senior administration official.

The benchmark S&P 500 index hit an intraday high of 2,964.15 on Friday, but retreated into a tight range as rising tensions between the United States and Iran kept investors on edge.

The United States and China have said they would restart their trade talks after a lull at the Group of 20 summit in Japan next week.

“Investors are cautiously optimistic about the G20 summit. If they make progress then markets will celebrate that,” said Michael Antonelli, market strategist at Robert W. Baird in Milwaukee.

Stocks are now set to log their third straight week of gains, after posting their worst monthly performance this year in May on fears the prolonged trade war would hit global economic growth.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he aborted a military strike on Iran in response to Teheran downing a U.S. drone, but the possibility of a U.S. retaliation pushed crude prices higher and helped lift the energy sector by 0.49%. [O/R]

Traders also pointed to higher volatility during Friday’s session on account of “quadruple witching,” as investors unwind interests in futures and options contracts prior to expiration.

At 13:09 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 45.72 points, or 0.17%, at 26,798.89 and the S&P 500 was down 0.53 points, or 0.02%, at 2,953.65.

The Nasdaq Composite was down 7.13 points, or 0.09%, at 8,044.21.

The tech-heavy index was weighed down by a 2.02% fall in PayPal Holdings Inc after the digital payments company said its chief operating officer Bill Ready would step down.

CarMax Inc rose as much as 6% to a record high after the used-vehicles retailer posted quarterly results above analysts’ expectations.

Carnival Corp fell for the second day, down 4.53%, and among the biggest decliners. Several brokerages trimmed their price targets after the cruise operator cut its 2019 profit forecast.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers for a 1.47-to-1 ratio on the NYSE and for a 1.71-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.

The S&P index recorded 33 new 52-week highs and two new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 42 new highs and 49 new lows.

(Reporting by Amy Caren Daniel and Shreyashi Sanyal in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)

Dow hits record high as financial stocks rise

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S.,

By Tanya Agrawal

(Reuters) – The Dow Jones Industrial average opened at a record high on Monday, driven by financial stocks, after the index capped off its best week since 2011 following Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the U.S. presidential election.

Since Trump’s triumph last Tuesday, investors have been betting on his campaign promises to simplify regulation in the health and financial sectors and boost spending on infrastructure.

The financial index rose 2.18 percent to its highest level since 2008. Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan provided the biggest boost to both the S&P 500 and the Dow.

The Nasdaq Composite was little changed, weighed down by tech giants Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

Stock markets around the world were affected by a continued selloff in the global bond market as investors looked for more clarity regarding Trump’s policies.

The risk of faster domestic inflation and wider budget deficits if Trump goes on a spending binge sent yields on U.S. Treasury and other benchmark global bonds higher. The dollar index surged to an 11-month high.

Yields on the U.S. 10-year Treasury notes climbed to their highest since January on Monday at 2.30 percent, while 30-year paper shot above 3 percent.

“The bond market could subject the Trump rally to a halt,” said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at First Standard Financial in New York.

“The prospect of higher inflation due to higher fiscal spending under the Trump administration has caused bonds to sell off and while higher inflation is good for the U.S. economy in the long run, it is seen as a negative factor in the short term because this market is used to near zero interest rates.”

At 9:45 a.m. EDT the Dow Jones industrial average was up 44.14 points, or 0.23 percent, at 18,891.8.

The S&P 500 was up 2.23 points, or 0.1 percent, at 2,166.68.

The Nasdaq Composite was down 0.67 points, or 0.01 percent, at 5,236.44.

Six of the 11 major S&P sectors were lower, with the utilities index’s 0.93 percent fall leading the decliners.

A host of U.S. Federal Reserve officials are scheduled to make appearances on Monday, including Dallas Fed President Rob Kaplan, Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker and San Francisco Fed President John Williams.

The central bank is widely expected to raise interest rates at its December meeting, with traders pricing in an 81 percent chance, according to CME Group’s FedWatch tool.

Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer said on Friday economic growth prospects appear strong enough for a gradual hike in interest rates.

Oil prices were at around three-month lows as the prospect of another year of oversupply and weak prices overshadowed chances that OPEC would reach a deal to cut output. [O/R]

Harman International rose 25.5 percent to $109.99 after Samsung Electronics announced an $8 billion deal to buy the company.

Mentor Graphics surged as much as 18.9 percent to a record high of $36.50 after Siemens agreed to buy the company in a $4.5 billion deal.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 1,503 to 1,281. On the Nasdaq, 1,654 issues rose and 822 fell.

The S&P 500 index showed 65 new 52-week highs and two new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 291 new highs and 10 new lows.

(Reporting by Tanya Agrawal; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)