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European nations plan cautious easing of lockdowns for Christmas



For the second time this year, policymakers from Dublin to Rome are preparing to relax Covid-19 lockdowns — and “save Christmas” for the family reunions of 500m Europeans. Except this time they avoid calling it a reopening.

The restrictions implemented at the end of October throughout Europe are starting to yield results, with a slowdown in new infections recorded in most countries according to data tracked by the Financial Times. This is fuelling calls from retailers to end the mandatory closures of shops deemed non-essential during the most lucrative trading month of the year. But unlike in the summer, European governments warn there will be no full-scale relaxation of the restrictions.

The UK, France and Ireland are among the countries where lockdowns are due to expire in early December. They have signalled they will ease restrictions only gradually after being too lax the first time around. 

The first wave had taught EU countries the cost of a “hasty” lifting of social restrictions, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said last week.

“This time expectations have to be managed,” she said, adding that the commission will outline a “gradual and co-ordinated approach” to lifting containment measures to avoid the “risk of yet another wave”.

Charts showing that new Covid-19 cases are slowing down in Europe after the second reimposition of lockdowns. First chart shows new cases, the second new deaths for the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany between September and November, seven-day rolling average.

This time in Paris, French ministers are avoiding the term “de-confinement” for the three-step easing plan. First, stores deemed non-essential will be allowed to reopen with stringent health protocols around December 1. Then measures — possibly on travels — will be relaxed before the Christmas holidays, then again in January, based on the evolution of Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations.

“Let’s be clear: the lockdown will continue and the limitations on people’s movements will as well,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal told the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday. President Emmanuel Macron is due to address the nation on Tuesday to set the tone.

So will UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday, when he is expected to outline his plan for what happens after England’s nationwide lockdown expires on December 2. Mass testing is expected to play a big role to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic.

One member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the FT that modelling suggested a return to completely uncontrolled mixing over the festive period would take the R value — which measures the reproduction rate of the disease — from its current level of about 1 to between 2 and 3 — which would mean another exponential increase in infections.

In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is considering letting shops reopen in low-infection areas for 10 days before Christmas while limiting the size of family gatherings — with under-secretary of health Sandra Zampa suggesting only “first-degree family” will be able to meet.

“This Christmas we must all make the effort to be really as few as possible,” Ms Zampa said on television over the weekend.

Shoppers in Dusseldorf’s city centres. Coronavirus cases remain relatively high despite the ‘lockdown-lite’ measures © Marcel Kusch/dpa
Christmas tree outside the UK’s houses of parliament. England’s nationwide lockdown expires on December 2 © Roger Harris/UK Parliament/AP

Even in Germany, which excelled in handling the first wave by responding quickly to early warning signs, coronavirus cases remain relatively high despite the “lockdown-lite” measures imposed at the start of November.

Markus Söder, the prime minister of Bavaria, told Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday that the restrictions may need to be extended for two to three weeks. “For us to have a nice Christmas we need to extend the lockdown and tighten it too,” he said, noting that even though the shutdown had led to a stabilisation in new infections, German intensive care wards were filling up and the number of deaths from Covid-19 was rising.

If Germany’s shutdown were to be relaxed in time for Christmas, New Year’s Eve festivities would have to be drastically curtailed, he said, also calling for a ban on alcohol and fireworks in public places on December 31 and warning against winter skiing holidays. 

Martin Blachier, an epidemiologist at Public Health Expertise in Paris, believed it was unlikely the food and drink outlets would reopen before January in France, given that indoor meetings in restaurants, bars and homes were big spreading factors.

“We know that if we’re not cautious enough, we’re going to have a third wave,” he said. “It’s (unacceptable) to have the pandemic back again in France, so they will probably lift restrictions very slowly.”

European countries have adopted different strategies at different times and been affected by the virus in different ways — the per capita infection rate in Luxembourg, the worst hit of 31 countries, is currently 22 times that in Finland, the least affected — but few regions have escaped unscathed. 

Sweden, which was the only EU country not to have a formal lockdown during the first wave, recently unveiled what its prime minister called the most invasive measures in modern times, but which turned out to be limited restrictions on certain public gatherings. It is now the most restrictive Nordic country, according to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker.

The deployment of antigenic tests that give a result in 15 minutes and tell people whether they need to self-isolate has given Europe a new weapon to keep the pandemic under control in the months ahead — it is cited as one reason for Madrid’s recent dramatic turnround and the easing of pressure on its hospitals — but citizens across the continent are still likely to face months of a limited social life until mass vaccination. 

William Dab, a professor of hygiene and safety at the French National Institute for Science, Technology and Management (CNAM), said the rapid antigenic tests could help avoid “a third lockdown, which would be a real catastrophe”.

But it would need to be accompanied by a well thought out strategy and prudent forecasting before the vaccines arrived, he said. “The management of an epidemic like this depends on the isolation of contagious people.” 

Additional reporting: Arthur Beesley in Dublin, Miles Johnson in Rome, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Richard Milne in Oslo, Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud in Paris

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German regulator steps in as Greensill warns of threat to 50,000 jobs




Germany’s financial watchdog has taken direct oversight of day-to-day operations at Greensill Bank, as the lender’s ailing parent company warned that its loss of $4.6bn of credit insurance could cause a wave of defaults and 50,000 job losses.

BaFin appointed a special representative to oversee Greensill Bank’s activities in recent weeks, according to three people familiar with the matter, as concern mounted about the state of the lender’s balance sheet.

The German-based lender is one part of a group — advised by former UK prime minister David Cameron and backed by SoftBank — that extends from Australia to the UK and is now fighting for its survival.

On Monday night Greensill was denied an injunction by an Australian court after the finance group tried to prevent its insurers pulling coverage.

Greensill’s lawyers said that if the policies covering loans to 40 companies were not renewed, Greensill Bank would be “unable to provide further funding for working capital of Greensill’s clients”, some of whom were “likely to become insolvent, defaulting on their existing facilities”.

In turn that may “trigger further adverse consequences”, putting over 50,000 jobs around the world at risk, including more than 7,000 in Australia, the company’s lawyers told the court.

A judge ruled Greensill had delayed its application “despite the fact that the underwriters’ position was made clear eight months ago” and denied the injunction.

Greensill Capital is locked in talks with Apollo about a potential rescue deal, involving the sale of certain assets and operations. It has also sought protection from Australia’s insolvency regime.

Greensill was dealt a severe blow on Monday when Credit Suisse suspended $10bn of funds linked to the supply-chain finance firm, citing “considerable uncertainties” about the valuation of the funds’ assets. A second Swiss fund manager, GAM, also severed ties on Tuesday. Credit Suisse’s decision came after credit insurance expired, according to people familiar with the matter.

While the bulk of Greensill’s business is based in London, its parent company is registered in the Australian city of Bundaberg, the hometown of its founder Lex Greensill.

In Germany, where Greensill has owned a bank since 2014, BaFin, the financial watchdog, is drawing on a section of the German banking act that entitles the regulator to parachute in a special representative entrusted “with the performance of activities at an institution and assign [them] the requisite powers”.

The regulator has been conducting a special audit of Greensill Bank for the past six months and may soon impose a moratorium on the lender’s operations, these people said.

Concern is growing among regulators about the quality of some of the receivables that Greensill Bank is holding on its balance sheet, two people said. Regulators are also scrutinising the insurance that the lender has said is in place for its receivables.

Greensill Bank has provided much of the funding to GFG Alliance, a sprawling empire controlled by industrialist Sanjeev Gupta.

“There has been an ongoing regulatory audit of the bank since autumn,” said a spokesman for Greensill. “This regulatory audit report has specifically not revealed any malfeasance at the bank. We have constructive ongoing dialogue with all regulators in all jurisdictions where we operate.”

The spokesman added that all of the banks assets are “unequivocally” covered by insurance.

Greensill, a 44-year-old former investment banker, has said that the idea for his company was shaped by his experiences growing up on a watermelon farm in Bundaberg, where his family endured financial hardships when large corporations delayed payments.

Greensill Capital’s main financial product — supply-chain finance — is controversial, however, as critics have said it can be used to disguise mounting corporate borrowings.

Even if an agreement is struck with Apollo, it could still effectively wipe out shareholders such as SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which poured $1.5bn into the firm in 2019. SoftBank’s $100bn technology fund has already substantially written down the value of its stake.

Gupta, a British industrialist who is one of Greensill’s main clients, separately saw an attempt to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from Canadian asset manager Brookfield collapse.

Executives at Credit Suisse are particularly nervous about the supply-chain finance funds’ exposure to Gupta’s opaque web of ageing industrial assets, said people familiar with the matter.

The FT reported earlier on Tuesday that Credit Suisse has larger and broader exposure to Greensill Capital than previously known, with a $160m loan, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Additional reporting by Laurence Fletcher and Kaye Wiggins in London

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FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies




The latest annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth. Explore the 2021 list here — the full report including in-depth analysis and case studies will be published on March 22

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EU plans digital vaccine passports to boost travel




Brussels is to propose a personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificate in an effort to boost travel around the EU once the bloc’s sluggish immunisation drive gathers pace.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday the planned “Digital Green Pass” would provide proof of inoculation, test results of those not yet jabbed, and information on the holder’s recovery if they had previously had the disease.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” von der Leyen wrote in a tweet on Monday. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The plan, expected to be outlined this month, is a response to a push by Greece and some other EU member states to introduce EU “vaccination passports” to help revive the region’s devastated travel industry and wider economy. 

But the commission’s proposed measures will be closely scrutinised over concerns including privacy, the chance that even inoculated people can spread Covid-19, and possible discrimination against those who have not had the opportunity to be immunised.

In an immediate sign of potential opposition, Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s foreign minister, raised concerns about the plan. She said that while the idea of a standardised European digital document to gather the details outlined by von der Leyen was a good one, the decision to style it a “pass” was “confusing”. 

“For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe,” Wilmès wrote in a tweet. “Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The travel sector tentatively welcomed the news of Europe-wide vaccine certification as a way to rebuild confidence ahead of the crucial summer season, but warned that regular and rapid testing was a more efficient and immediate way to allow the industry to restart.

Fritz Joussen, chief executive of Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said “with a uniform EU certificate, politicians can now create an important basis for summer travel”. But he added that testing remained “the second important building block for safe holidays” while large numbers of Europeans awaited a jab.

Marco Corradino, chief executive of online travel agent, said he feared the infrastructure needed would not be ready in time for the summer season: “It will not work . . . at EU level because it is too complicated and would not be in place by June.”

He suggested that bilateral deals, such as the one agreed between Greece and Israel in February to allow vaccinated citizens to travel without the need to show a negative test result, had more potential.

Vaccine passport sceptics argue it would be unfair to restrict people’s travel rights simply because they are still waiting for their turn to be jabbed. 

Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said it was important not to discriminate against less advanced countries and younger travellers, or those who simply cannot or choose not to be vaccinated. “Future travel is about a combination of measures such as comprehensive testing, mask-wearing, enhanced health and hygiene protocols as well as digital passes for specific journeys,” she added.

A European Commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the bloc’s 446m residents by September means many people are likely to go through summer unimmunised.

While some countries around the world have long required visitors to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as yellow fever, a crucial difference with coronavirus is that those inoculations are available to travellers on demand. 

Questions also remain about the risk of people who have already been vaccinated passing on coronavirus if they contract the disease.


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