World

Journalists in China face ‘nightmare’ worthy of Mao era, press freedom group says

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Journalists in China face ‘nightmare’ worthy of Mao era, press freedom group says” was written by Helen Davidson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th December 2021 06.48 UTC

Xi Jinping has created a “nightmare” of media oppression worthy of the Mao era, and Hong Kong’s journalism is in “freefall”, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

In a major report released on Wednesday, the journalism advocacy group detailed the worsening treatment of journalists and tightening of control over information in China, adding to an environment in which “freely accessing information has become a crime and to provide information an even greater crime”.

“No matter the topic, those who refuse to comply with the official narrative are accused of harming national unity.”

In the report’s forward, RSF’s secretary general, Christophe Deloire, said before Xi came to power in 2013, there was an emerging trend of improvements in press freedom, but he had “put a brutal end to this partial opening and restored a media culture worthy of the Maoist era”.

“This ‘great leap backwards’ of journalism in China is all the more terrifying given that the regime has immense financial and technological resources to achieve its goals,” Deloire said.

The report listed a growing number of “obstacles” to journalism, including online censorship and surveillance, paid amateur propagandists known as the “50 cent army”, increasing use of detention without trial, Hong Kong’s national security law, forced televised confessions, daily instructions from the Communist party to newsrooms and other platforms, use of allegations ranging from “picking quarrels” to espionage to silence journalists, and the weaponising of exit bans.

As well as advances in surveillance and technology, the report also described a ruling introduced in October 2019 that all Chinese journalists must use a smartphone app called “Study Xi, Strengthen the Country”, which cybersecurity experts had found could enable collection of personal data and remote access to the device’s microphone.

Harassment and intimidation of reporters both local and foreign has markedly increased, according to RSF and the Beijing Foreign Correspondents Club, in particular during coverage of the Henan flood disaster earlier this year. The Henan provincial government put out a tender for a journalist-specific surveillance system after the flooding.

In 2020 at least 18 foreign correspondents from US outlets were expelled, while others were forced to flee, including the BBC’s John Sudworth and Australian reporters Bill Birtles and Mike Smith, who had been investigating the national security arrest of Australian CGTN anchor Cheng Lei. Several citizen journalists were arrested for attempting to report from the Wuhan lockdown, while others have been targeted for their work on #MeToo cases.

Until crackdowns in 2020 and 2021, Hong Kong’s media had been considered free and separate to the mainland’s controls, however RSF said that was no longer the case, and the sector was in “in freefall”.

The report cited the arrest and jailing of journalists and media proprietors such as Apple Daily’s Jimmy Lai, the raiding of newsrooms, wholesale changes at public broadcaster RTHK, and lack of consequences for police violence against reporters.

“The repression no longer spares Hong Kong, once a champion of press freedom, where a growing number of arrests are now conducted in the name of national security,” said Deloire.

The report made several recommendations and appeals to authorities to improve the situation, but also listed detailed advice for journalists to protect themselves and their sources from technological surveillance and intimidation.

It called on global democracies to “identify all appropriate strategies to dissuade the Beijing regime from pursuing its repressive policies and to support all Chinese citizens who love their country and want to defend the right to information”.

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Olaf Scholz to be voted in as German chancellor as Merkel era ends

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Olaf Scholz to be voted in as German chancellor as Merkel era ends” was written by Jennifer Rankin and agencies, for The Guardian on Wednesday 8th December 2021 05.00 UTC

Olaf Scholz is to be voted in as chancellor by the Bundestag on Wednesday, opening a new chapter in German and European politics as the Merkel era comes to an end.

Scholz, the outgoing deputy chancellor and finance minister, will lead a government composed of his Social Democrat party, the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens, a coalition of parties never tried before at the federal level in Germany.

The alliance brings to a close 16 years of rule by Angela Merkel, who chose not to run again. During her turbulent time in office, spanning eurozone crises, more than a million refugee arrivals and Brexit, there have been four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian premiers.

The 177-page coalition agreement, entitled Dare More Progress, was signed by the party leaders at a ceremony at Berlin’s Futurium Museum on Tuesday. It was “the moment the post-Merkel era begins for real”, tweeted the political editor of Deutsche Welle’s international channel, Michaela Kuefner.

The agreement had already received strong backing from the three parties, clearing the way for Scholz to be voted in by Germany’s lower house on Wednesday.

Chancellor: Olaf Scholz (SPD)

The 63-year old former mayor of the northern port city of Hamburg served as finance minister under Angela Merkel as part of the “grand coalition” between his SPD and her conservatives.

He engineered a multibillion-euro rescue package for the economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

He said his first foreign trip as chancellor would be to France, a nod to the importance of a functioning Franco-German alliance to reforming the eurozone and strengthening the European Union.

Vice-chancellor and minister for economy, climate protection, digital transformation and energy transition: Robert Habeck (Greens)

The 52-year-old environmental party co-leader will head a beefed-up ministry that has overseen both the distribution of financial lifelines to businesses affected by lockdown and implementing a strategy to develop large-scale green hydrogen. In future, it will also have responsibility for the climate issues that are the Greens’ raison d’etre.

Finance: Christian Lindner (FDP)

The 42-year-old leader of the liberal and fiscally conservative FDP has said he will keep in place strict limits on new public borrowing and not raise taxes to finance ambitious investments to wean the economy off fossil fuels and upgrade Germany’s infrastructure for the digital age.

His championing of austerity and strict budget rules in the eurozone could set him on a collision course with counterparts in southern EU states such as Italy and Spain.

Foreign affairs: Annalena Baerbock (Greens)

Baerbock, 40, will be Germany’s first female foreign minister. The Greens’ co-leader will have to balance her party’s demands for a tougher line on human rights in Russia and China against Scholz’s likely preference not to risk a confrontation with the two countries over issues such as Taiwan and Ukraine.

Defence: Christine Lambrecht (SPD)

Lambrecht, 56, who currently serves as justice minister, will become the third successive female defence minister after the current minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and Ursula von der Leyen, now president of the European Commission.

Lambrecht, who has been outspoken against rightwing extremism, would be in charge of the German army, which has been plagued by a series of reports in recent years about radical elements within its ranks.

Health: Karl Lauterbach (SPD)

The 58-year-old, trained as a doctor, has been an outspoken proponent of tougher coronavirus restrictions throughout the pandemic, and will become the next health minister.

Lauterbach, who studied epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, has advocated for mandatory vaccinations, stricter restrictions on the unvaccinated and the closure of all bars and clubs until the fourth wave of infections is over. Reuters

 

The new government has a full in-tray, from Germany’s spiralling number of coronavirus cases to Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border, on top of its priorities to overhaul the German economy by modernising creaking infrastructure and sharply reducing fossil fuels.

Scholz said any moves by Russia to cross the Ukrainian border would be unacceptable. “It is very, very important that no one rolls through the history books to draw new borders,” Scholz told reporters after signing the coalition agreement.

He was less firm when asked about China, skirting questions on whether Germany would join a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The new chancellor, an architect of the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund, said his first trip outside Germany would be to Paris and Brussels, as he seeks to ensure that “Europe is secure and sovereign”.

Scholz’s approach to EU discussions will differ from that of Merkel, who grew up in East Germany. The outgoing chancellor was credited with a special understanding of EU members from the former Communist bloc, but also criticised for failing to tackle the threat to democratic values in Hungary and Poland.

Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who quit Merkel’s centre-right European People’s party grouping, said when Merkel leaves office “a piece of the life of the central Europeans will go with her”. In an article to mark her departure, he criticised Merkel’s decision to open Germany to Syrian refugees in 2015, while revealing his suspicion of what he called “the new, leftwing German government’s pro-immigration, pro-gender, federalist, pro-German Europe agenda”.

“One thing is for sure: the era of ambiguity, stealth politics and drifting has ended with Merkel. We now prepare for battle with our eyes wide open.”

Germany’s incoming government has agreed that EU authorities should act more urgently to defend the rule of law, including withholding EU funds if necessary.

The unity of the coalition could be tested by the Nord Stream II pipeline, which is to transport gas from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. The incoming vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, a co-leader of the Greens, which campaigned to abolish the project, said the pipeline had not received approval and political discussion would continue.

Habeck, a former translator of British poet Ted Hughes, also said it would take two to three years to see the result of investment in renewable energy.

By 2030 the new government wants to have phased out coal and have 15 million electric cars on the roads.

Christian Lindner, the Free Democrats’ leader and next finance minister, said: “We have no illusions we face great challenges.”

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Corona Virus, Health

Covid live news: South Korea surge sparks hospital alarm; ‘stealth’ Omicron variant found

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Covid live news: South Korea surge sparks hospital alarm; ‘stealth’ Omicron variant found” was written by Martin Farrer, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th December 2021 03.30 UTC

Financial markets appear to have shrugged off concerns about Omicron with stocks rallying all over the world in the past 24 hours.

Shares in Asia have made a strong start to Wednesday’s session as with Japan’s Nikkei up 1.3%, the ASX200 in Sydney up 1.2%, the Korean Kospi up 0.8%, and Shanghai has risen 0.8%. The only laggard is Hong Kong, down slightly, thanks to concerns about US regulations on tech stocks.

Stefan Hofer, chief investment strategist for private bank LGT in Asia Pacific, said: “Markets are very sensitive to any slight new item relating to Omicron, and the absence of bad news is being taken very positively by equity markets, though – and I’m not a scientist – it seems too early to signal an all clear.

“With each new variant, we go through a period of waiting for some signal from the scientific community, which is difficult for markets, but that’s what we got yesterday.”

Omicron ‘like’ variant detected in Australia

Officials in Queensland, Australia have detected what they described as an Omicron-like variant in a person who arrived from South Africa.

The state also recorded a case of the original Omicron strain in a passenger from Nigeria.

The state’s health minister, Yvette D’Ath, said on Wednesday that scientists in Australia had helped to reclassify Omicron “into two lineages”.

Following on, there are also a couple of reports that there may be different “types” of Omicron.

Our science editor, Ian Sample, reported earlier that scientists have identified a “stealth” version of Omicron that cannot be distinguished from other variants using the PCR tests typically used to get a snapshot of cases.

The stealth variant has many mutations in common with standard Omicron, but it lacks a particular genetic change that allows lab-based PCR tests to be used as a rough and ready means of flagging up probable cases.

The variant is still detected as coronavirus by all the usual tests, and can be identified as the Omicron variant through genomic testing, but probable cases are not flagged up by routine PCR tests that give quicker results.

Read the full report here:

A lot of new information has emerged about the new Omicron variant in the past 24 hours concerning such critical issues as whether it will evade vaccines, how transmissible it is and possible new types of the strain.

While the WHO says the variant will not dodge the existing vaccines (see previous post), Reuters has reported that early data from South Africa shows some evidence that the Omicron variant can partially evade protection from the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine.

Researchers found there was about a 40-fold reduction in vaccine-induced antibodies that could neutralise Omicron relative to an earlier strain.

Alex Sigal, a professor at the Africa Health Research Institute, said on Twitter there was “a very large drop” in neutralization of the Omicron variant relative to an earlier strain of COVID-19.

The lab tested blood from 12 people who had been vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, according to a manuscript posted on the website for his lab. The preliminary data in the manuscript has not yet been peer reviewed.

Blood from five out of six people who had been vaccinated as well as previously infected with COVID-19 still neutralized the Omicron variant, the manuscript said.

“These results are better than I expected. The more antibodies you got, the more chance you’ll be protected from Omicron,” Sigal said on Twitter.

He said the lab had not tested the variant against blood from people who had received a booster dose, because they are not available in South Africa yet.

Top WHO official says Omicron ‘highly unlikely’ to evade vaccines

A leading World Health Organization official says that Omicron does not appear to cause more severe disease than previous Covid variants, and is “highly unlikely” to fully dodge vaccine protections.

WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said that while a lot remained to be learned about the new, heavily mutated variant of Covid-19, preliminary data indicated it did not make people sicker than Delta and other strains.

“The preliminary data doesn’t indicate that this is more severe. In fact, if anything, the direction is towards less severity,” Ryan said in an interview with Agence France-Presse, insisting though that more research was needed.

“It’s very early days, we have to be very careful how we interpret that signal.”

A sign outside a vaccine clinic in New York.
A sign outside a vaccine clinic in New York. Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

At the same time, he said there was no sign that Omicron could fully sidestep protections provided by existing Covid vaccines.

“We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation,” the 56-year-old epidemiologist and former trauma surgeon said.

“There’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so” for Omicron, he said, pointing to early data from South Africa where the variant was first detected that “suggest the vaccine at least is holding up in protection terms”.

The Romanian government will ease some Covid restrictions on Wednesday, including scrapping a night curfew and an obligation to wear face masks outdoors ahead of winter holidays.

Romania reported 1,421 new daily cases and 107 deaths on Tuesday, far off record highs reported in October and early November during its deadliest wave of the pandemic.

A Christmas tree made of empty Covid vaccine containers at a vaccination center in Bucharest, Romania.
A Christmas tree made of empty Covid vaccine containers at a vaccination center in Bucharest, Romania. Photograph: Andreea Alexandru/AP

Shops and restaurants will be able close at 10pm from Wednesday night., one hour later than at present. Entry to most non-essential public venues will be allowed not only for those who have been vaccinated or who have recovered from the virus, but also for those who can present a negative COVID-19 test.

Wearing facemasks will continue to be mandatory in public transport and indoor public spaces, but will no longer be required outside except in crowded areas such as markets.

Romania has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the EU, with only 39% of the population having taken it up.

South Korea scrambles to shore up hospitals amid Covid surge

South Korea’s government is scrambling to bolster the country’s health system amid a surge in Covid cases that has seen the daily tally rise past 7,000 for the time since the pandemic began almost two years ago.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 7,175 new coronavirus cases and 63 deaths for Tuesday, and hospitals are treating a record 840 critical and serious cases.

The prime minister, Kim Boo-kyum, said on Wednesday that hospital capacity was under strain and that he was mobilising additional personnel to oversee coronavirus patients treating themselves at home, and to improve the emergency transfer system to hospitals for those who develop severe symptoms.

Kim Boo-kyum at a meeting of the Covid response meeting on Wednesday in Suwon.
Kim Boo-kyum at a meeting of the Covid response meeting on Wednesday in Suwon. Photograph: YONHAP/EPA

Private clinics will also treat COVID-19 patients in addition to large hospitals.

Infections in South Korea have skyrocketed this month after the government began to ease restrictions under a so-called “living with COVID-19 scheme in November.

Kim urged the elderly to get booster shots as over 35% of infections were found in people aged 60 and above, who account for 84% of severe cases. He also urged adolescents to get vaccinated.

South Korea has so far confirmed 38 cases of the Omicron variant. With 80% of cases in greater Seoul, authorities have struggled to secure enough beds for hospitalised patients in the area.

Morning/afternoon/evening wherever you are, and welcome to the new blog covering the latest developments in the pandemic across the world:

Here is a roundup of what’s been happening so far:

  • Daily cases in South Korea have surpassed 7,000 for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the prime minister Kim Boo-kyum said on Wednesday morning, putting hospital capacity under strain as deaths and severe cases rise.
  • Scientists have identified a “stealth” version of Omicron variant which cannot be detected with the routine tests that public health officials are using to track its spread around the world. The stealth variant has many mutations in common with standard Omicron, but researchers say it is genetically distinct and so may well behave differently.
  • A new Omicron variant, known as Omicron “like”, has been identified in an overseas arrival to Queensland from South Africa, the health minister of the Australian state said on Wednesday morning.
  • UK prime minister Boris Johnson is facing accusations of lying after senior No 10 officials were filmed joking about a staff Christmas party last year that would have contravened strict Covid regulations in place at the time. Johnson and his aides have repeatedly denied that the event broke Covid rules or took place at all.
  • The Omicron variant can partially evade protection from the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, according to early data from South Africa. Researchers found there was about a 40-fold reduction in vaccine-induced antibodies that could neutralise Omicron relative to an earlier strain.
  • The African Union has called for an urgent end to travel restrictions imposed on some of its member states, arguing that the measures effectively penalise governments for timely data sharing in line with international health regulations.
  • US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said preliminary evidence indicates that the Omicron variant likely has a higher degree of transmissibility but causes less severe illness, warning it will take a few weeks to reach any definitive conclusions.
  • Millions of people in England will be able to book their Covid booster vaccine on Wednesday as the NHS cuts the qualifying time from six months after a second dose to three.
  • No more than 10 visitors will be allowed in private homes in Norway, and people must keep a distance of at least one metre from anyone outside of their household in new restrictions introduced by the government today.
  • Swedes will face new measures to curb rising Covid infections from Wednesday, including renewed social distancing, home-working and the use of face masks on public transport.
  • EU health agencies say vaccines should be mixed and matched for both initial courses and booster doses. Evidence suggests that the combination of viral vector vaccines and mRNA vaccines produces good levels of antibodies against the coronavirus, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a joint statement.

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World

The Guardian view on Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi is now one of many

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Guardian view on Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi is now one of many” was written by Editorial, for The Guardian on Tuesday 7th December 2021 18.41 UTC

The prosecution and inevitable conviction of Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, its former president, are a show of strength by the military that only emphasises its failures. These two are “hostages, not criminals”, observed Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. The generals’ attempt to launder the detention through closed court proceedings fooled no one. The repression has only grown in the 10 months since the junta seized power, because it knows repression is all it has.

The military chief Min Aung Hlaing made a serious miscalculation when he launched the coup, overturning the arrangements that allowed the army to maintain a high degree of power despite the National League for Democracy’s electoral triumphs. He assumed the military could return to the old ways, beating down political opposition and keeping the 76-year-old safely locked away. Perhaps he hoped that international reaction might be muted by the Nobel peace prize laureate’s tarnished reputation, after she personally defended Myanmar in the international court of justice genocide case over the treatment of Rohingya Muslims. (Rohingya survivors this week announced that they are suing Facebook for £150bn over hate speech on the social media platform.)

But everyone knows she was seized and sentenced for representing democracy. This is not about one individual, but 54 million. The effects of the coup were devastatingly broad, plunging the country into economic despair; three-quarters of households have lost income since February, compounding the pandemic’s effects, and health and education systems have collapsed. The opposition to it was equally wide-ranging. Tens of thousands joined a civil disobedience movement.

The military assumed its brutal tactics would swiftly quell opposition once more. The regime is believed to have killed 1,250 people – including young children – and arrested 10,000; detainees have been raped and tortured. But the resistance has been extraordinary. Ordinary families have boycotted military-linked companies; some opponents have taken up arms, launching attacks on army convoys, local administrators and similar targets in the country’s heart, in an unprecedented development. Some have forged links with ethnic armed groups that have long battled the centre. The military has retaliated by pummelling civilian areas with heavy weaponry. In September, the national unity government – the shadow government of elected but now exiled politicians – called for a “people’s defensive war”. Army morale has plunged, producing a steady trickle of defectors.

Though the military says there will be elections in 2023, it launched its coup in part because it finally realised that it could not win over the public. Its actions convinced many that the generals must be removed from power entirely – which will, of course, entrench their determination to crush opposition. No one expects them to go anywhere any time soon.

The UK has steadily if slowly ramped up sanctions, but others could do much more: notably, the EU and the US should levy sanctions on oil and gas. A UN committee last week deferred the junta’s application for a new representative; the generals must not be afforded respectability. Finally, with no swift or easy resolutions to this crisis in sight, all who support democracy should diplomatically and financially back the UN’s independent investigation mechanism for Myanmar’s attempts to bring justice to victims of human rights abuses in the long term.

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Economy Finances

World stock markets rally as Omicron fears ease – business live

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “World stock markets rally as Omicron fears ease – business live” was written by Graeme Wearden, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th December 2021 16.55 UTC

European stock markets best day in a year

Stock markets across Europe have racked up their best day in over a year.

Optimism that the Omicron variant will be less severe than initially feared drove up markets across the region, with the pan-European Stoxx 600 closing 2.5% higher.

That’s its best day since 9th November 2020, when Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their coronavirus vaccine was 90% effective in trials.

Germany and France both saw strong gains, up around 2.9%, while the Amsterdam index surged by 3.5%.

Mining stocks, tech companies, and consumer-focused firms all had a strong day.

European stock markets, December 07 2021
European stock markets, December 07 2021 Photograph: Refinitiv

David Madden, market analyst at Equiti Capital, says:

Traders continue to be bullish as the fear surrounding the omicron variant of the coronavirus continue to fall, and that has pushed up equity markets

Commodities are in high demand today as the overall risk-on sentiment is boosting oil as well as industrial metals such as silver, platinum, and copper. Gold is up today too, and it is remarkable the yellow metal is rising in the face of a firmer US dollar as well as bullish stock markets.

Britain’s FTSE 100 index has clawed back all its omicron losses.

The blue-chip index closed 107.6 points higher tonight at 7340 points, a three-week high.

In another development, scientists have identified a “stealth” version of the Omicron variant which cannot be detected with the routine tests that public health officials are using to track its spread around the world.

The stealth variant has many mutations in common with standard Omicron, but it lacks a particular genetic change that allows lab-based PCR tests to be used as a rough and ready means of flagging up probable cases.

Here’s the details:

Risk appetite is improving as evidence incrementally supports the case that the omicron variant will be less damaging to the economy than feared at the end of November, says Neil Wilson of Markets.com.

Although bad news about Omicron could still emerge, and restrictions could hit growth, investors are more confident the new variant won’t be as bad as first feared.

Fears about America’s central bank wrapping up its stimulus programme more quickly have also eased. Wilson writes:

Even though the Federal Reserve is in a very different place to this time last year, there is enough strength and depth and liquidity at the moment to absorb 5-7% drawdowns without too much fuss.

And whilst omicron news is risk-on right now – risk-on from oversold levels that is – we shouldn’t ignore the impact of a central bank.

Yesterday’s decision by the People’s Bank of China to cut the reserve requirement ratio by 50 basis points amounted to no small amount of easing, and clearly boosted risk appetite across the piece.

That’s helped the FTSE 100 back to its pre-Omicron levels this afternoon, as this chart shows:

The FTSE 100 index
The FTSE 100 index Photograph: Markets.com

World stock markets rally as Omicron fears ease

World stock markets are rallying as concerns about the potential severity of the Omicron variant ease.

In New York, the Dow Jones industrial average has jumped by 521 points, or 1.5%, in early trading back to 35,748 points. That’s close to its levels before Thanksgiving, just before the emergence of Omicron spooked markets.

The broader S&P 500 index has gained 1.7%, with technology stocks, travel companies and oil producers all higher.

European markets are pushing higher too, with Germany’s DAX and France’s CAC up around 2.5%. That follows gains in Asia-Pacific markets earlier, where Japan’s Nikkei gained 1.9%, with strong Chinese import figures also lifting the mood.

The FTSE 100 index of blue-chip shares in London now up 98 points at 7331, recovering all its losses after the discovery of the omicron variant rocked markets in late November.

The FTSE 100 this year
The FTSE 100 this year Photograph: Refinitiv

Mining companies lead the FTSE 100 risers, benefitting from optimism about the global recovery. China’s moves to boost its slowing economy, and to pump 1.2 trillion yuan ($188 billion) into the economy by letting banks hold less capital, is also lifting stocks.

Commodities giant Anglo American has jumped 6.5%, with BHP Group gaining 5.6%. Conference organiser Informa, which would be disrupted by lockdowns and travel restrictions, has risen 4%.

UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, told ministers today the early indications are that the Omicron variant appears to be more transmissible than Delta. But, early hospital data from South Africa suggest it could result in less severe illness than previous waves.

The Financial Times explains:

Early data from the Steve Biko and Tshwane District Hospital Complex in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, which is at the centre of the outbreak, showed that on December 2 only nine of the 42 patients on the Covid-19 ward, all of whom were unvaccinated, were being treated for the virus and were in need of oxygen.

The remainder of the patients had tested positive but were asymptomatic and being treated for other conditions.

Oil is continuing to strengthen too, with Brent crude up 2.5% today at almost $75 per barrel.

Brad Bechtel of investment bank Jefferies says anxiety over the latest variant is dropping:

Its still a little early to fully shrug off Omicron fully, which is why governments and markets are tip toeing, not running, towards this conclusion, but it is starting to feel a little more constructive again for global growth.

We probably won’t know for sure about Omicron until after the holidays so jumping on now is definitely early to the theme, but the theme is gaining some momentum in the past 48hrs.

British drugmaker GSK also reassured investors, reporting today that its antibody-based COVID-19 therapy with US partner Vir Biotechnology is effective against all mutations of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, citing new data from early-stage studies.

It looks like investors have made up their minds about Omicron, says Fawad Razaqzada, analyst at Think Markets.

After careful consideration, they think it is probably no more dangerous than the Delta variant of coronavirus and that preventative lockdowns and restrictions that we have seen will soon ease. Another major economic shock will thus be avoided….

Investors have been relieved to find out that Omicron hasn’t yet prompted a big rise in hospitalisations and deaths, while some pharmaceuticals (e.g., GSK) have revealed they have come up with treatment against the new strain.

So, there’s hope – hope that at worst, Omicron may be just as transmissible as the common cold, but no more dangerous than some of the other variants of Covid and that current vaccinations are effective against it.

US trade deficit narrows in October as exports rebound

America’s trade deficit has narrowed to a six-month low, thanks to a rebound in exports.

The US trade gap fell to $67.1bn, from September’s record high of $81.4bn, driven by a rise in shipments to the rest of the world.

In October, exports rose 8.1% to $223.6bn while imports were up a much smaller 0.9% to $290.7bn.

Another encouraging sign for the global economy, after this morning’s jump in China’s imports.

Andrew Hunter, senior US economist at Capital Economics, says the data suggest supply chain problems are improving.

The 8.1% m/m surge in exports in October means that net trade is on course to add about 1% point to fourth-quarter GDP growth, which we think will be 6.5% annualised, and provides more evidence that global supply chain bottlenecks are easing.

Earlier hurricane-related disruption also unwound, with oil exports rebounding by more than 20% month-on-month.

Car exports also rose strongly as the easing global chip shortage allowed plants to reopen across North America, he adds.

European gas prices jump as US weighs more sanctions on Russia

European gas prices have jumped today, ahead of a crunch virtual summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

The US president will warn his Russian counterpart to expect severe economic penalties, including banking sanctions, should he invade Ukraine.

Biden has a wide range of punitive measures at his disposal, including a range of tough economic measures such as sanctions on Russian corporations and banks, or oligarchs and their families. A Ukraine invasion could also lead to the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Benchmark Dutch front-month gas jumped as much as 7.6%, on concerns of disruption to Russian gas supplies to Europe.

The British wholesale gas price for Q1 2022 rose by 6.4%, while day ahead prices are up 8%, close to their highest level in two months.

Goldman Sachs CEO expects higher inflation

Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon has predicted that inflation will be higher for a period of time, but doesn’t expect a repeat of the cost rises seen in the 1970s.

In an interview with CNBC, Solomon says people have lost the historical perspective of how markets look, and what is normal, after living with inflation below trend for a long time.

That could change, he says:

“There’s a reasonable chance that we’re going to have inflation above trend for a period of time but that doesn’t mean it has to be like the 1970s. It could be, [but] doesn’t have to be.

Inflation hurts asset prices, and it slows down your ability to make money with almost any asset, Solomon added, citing the 1970s as a tough time to make money in the markets.

“You’ve got to be cautious and manage your risk appropriately.”

Solomon also told CNBC that he doesn’t own bitcoin or ethereum himself, but is “a big believer” in the digitisation and disruption in the financial services space.

I think bitcoin is really not the key thing.

The key thing is how can blockchain, and other technologies that are not developed yet, accelerate the pace of the digitisation of the way financial services are delivered.”

The UAE’s economy will get a ‘massive boost’ from its move to a four-and-a-half day week, and a Saturday-Sunday weekend, says Nigel Green, the CEO of Dubai-headquartered deVere Group.

He reckons it’ll encourage businesses to relocate to the emirates.

“The UAE, and in particular Dubai and Abu Dhabi are already recognised as two of the most powerful business and financial hubs in the world by international investors who are lured by the incredible possibilities offered in terms of finance, trade and commerce, plus the famous ‘can do’ attitude and the low tax environment in these destinations.

“The transition to a four and a half day working week which now aligns with most major economies around the world will prove to be another significant ‘pull’ for international corporations that are currently based elsewhere.”

In the energy sector, US activist investor Elliott Management has ratcheted up the pressure on UK firm SSE, with a public attack on the company’s energy transition strategy and a call for two new independent directors.

Iin a letter addressed to the SSE chairman, Sir John Manzoni, Elliott said the firm’s investment strategy lacked ambition and called on the company to provide a detailed and credible plan “to address investor concerns around SSE’s corporate governance, its ability to fund its growth in the long term, and its persistent undervaluation”.

The hedge fund attacked the underperformance of the company and its share price during the eight years it has been run by Alistair Phillips-Davies as chief executive, in its latest campaign for change at a UK-listed company.

The FTSE 100 company has rejected the idea from the New York-based hedge fund – which has built a stake in SSE in recent months – that it should spin off its renewables arm. On Tuesday, it issued a further swift rebuff of Elliott’s demands.

Here’s the full story:

The logos of French utility groups Veolia Environnement and Suez.
The logos of French utility groups Veolia Environnement and Suez. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

UK councils and taxpayers could face higher prices and lower service quality if the €13bn (£11.1bn) merger between French waste and water management giants Veolia and Suez goes through, Britain’s competition watchdog fears.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said the tie-up, which was announced earlier this year, could lead to a loss of competition in the supply of key waste and recycling services.

Chief executive Andrea Coscelli explained:

“Councils spend hundreds of millions of pounds on waste management services.

“Any loss of competition in this market could lead to higher prices for local authorities, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill, and reduced innovation to achieve net-zero targets.

“Everyone in the UK uses waste and recycling services in some way; it is therefore vital that this deal is subject to more detailed scrutiny if our concerns aren’t addressed.”

Veolia and Suez are two of the biggest suppliers of waste management services to councils and businesses in the UK, including waste collection, composting services, incineration and landfill sites.

The CMA said it will refer the deal for an in-depth probe if Veolia and Suez do not put forward suitable proposals to address its concerns within five working days.

UEA to embrace 4.5 day working week, in weekend shift

Dubai, United Arab Emirates,
Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates Photograph: Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant/REX/Shutterstock

The United Arab Emirates government is bringing in a four-and-a-half day working week, as part of a shift of the national weekend.

The UAE’s working week currently runs from Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday set as the national weekend. Under the new plan, the weekend for government bodies will move to Saturday and Sunday, in line with Western schedules, and begin at noon on Fridays.

The move, announced by state news agency WAM on Tuesday, will come into effect on January 1, 2022, and could be followed by educational establishments and private sector firms.

The Abu Dhabi government media office said the transition is:

“in line with the UAE’s vision to enhance its global competitiveness across economic and business sectors, and to keep pace with global developments.”

Under the new model, employees will have to complete an eight-hour workday from Monday to Thursday but are only expected to work only for 4.5 hours on Friday.

Government employees will also be allowed to choose “flexible work or work-from-home options” on Fridays. Friday sermons and prayers will be held at 1:15pm, according to news service Al Jazeera.

Updated

Wall Street is on track to open higher, after a strong day yesterday as concerns about the Omicron variant eased.

The tech-focused Nasdaq is up around 1.8% in the futures market, with chipmakers and big tech firms set to rally.

Reuters has more details:

Some high-flying technology shares have been battered in recent days as investors priced in an aggressive tightening of U.S. monetary policy despite concerns about the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Tesla Inc rose 3.3% in premarket trading after dropping into bear market territory on an intraday basis on Monday, falling more than 20% from its record high close hit on November 4th.

Intel Corp surged 8.1% after revealing plans to take Mobileye public in the United States in mid-2022, a deal which could value the Israeli unit at more than $50 billion, according to a source.

South Africa’s economy contracted 1.5% in the last quarter, as the pandemic, supply chain problems, and July’s riots all hit growth.

Agriculture, construction, mining, transport and communications, manufacturing and trade all shrank in the July-September quarter.

The economy was disrupted by rioting and looting by supporters of Jacob Zuma, after the former president handed himself in to serve a 15-month jail term (he was then released in September due to ill health).

The civil disorder claimed 337 lives, the government said in July, with hundreds of shops looted, factories destroyed, warehouses razed, clinics vandalised and ports disabled.

German investor confidence has been hit by the rise in Covid-19 cases this autumn, and the supply chain bottlenecks that have hit the economy this year.

The ZEW economic research institute’s economic sentiment index has fallen to 29.9 this month, from 31.7 points in November, showing investors are less upbeat about future prospects.

ZEW’s index for current conditions dropped into negative territory for the first time since June, falling to -7.4 from 12.5, as the surge in infections and the lockdown on unvaccinated citizens hits the economy.

ZEW President Achim Wambach said.

The German economy is suffering noticeably from the latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Persisting supply bottlenecks are weighing on production and retail trade. The decline in economic expectations shows that hopes for much stronger growth in the next six months are fading. Especially the earnings expectations of export-oriented and consumer-related industries are assessed more negatively.

Today’s jump in industrial production could have lifted spirits, except German factories reported a drop in new orders yesterday….

German industrial production has returned to growth, despite supply-chain bottlenecks hampering output.

Total industrial output, covering manufacturing, energy and construction, jumped by 2.8% during October, faster than expected, after a 0.5% drop in September.

Encouragingly, manufacturing output grew by 3.2%, including a 12.6% jump in the production of motor vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers, where semiconductor shortages have hampered factories for months.

Updated

UK grocery inflation at 17-month high as shoppers snap up Christmas food

Friends enjoying a Christmas dinner together

Inflation is pushing up the cost of some Christmas dinner staples, but that isn’t deterring shoppers from filling their baskets with festive fare.

UK grocery prices rose by 3.2% in the latest four weeks, market researcher Kantar reports, which is the highest rate of inflation since June 2020.

The average cost of a meal for four is now £27.48, which is an increase of 3.4% compared with last year, driven by pricier turkeys, sprouts and parsnips.

Kantar’s calculation of the cost of Christmas dinner
Kantar’s calculation of the cost of Christmas dinner Photograph: Kantar

Despite the rise in prices, UK grocery sales are staying strong, Kantar reports.

Grocery spending in the last 12 weeks was 7% than in 2019 (although 3.8% lower than last year, when England was in its second pandemic lockdown in November).

But, the emergence of the Omicron variant could change shopping patterns, says Fraser McKevitt, Kantar’s head of retail and consumer insight:

Recent concerns over the next stage of the pandemic may see consumers change the way they shop in the next few weeks. Our excitement about Christmas this year has been slightly tempered as news of the Omicron COVID-19 variant has emerged.

Online grocery sales fell by 12.5% in the four weeks to late November, as we compare against more orders last year during the second lockdown. As concerns grow over rising case numbers, we expect some people will prefer to shop online again to limit their visits to stores.

Full story: UK house prices rise at fastest pace in 15 years

UK house prices grew at the fastest pace in 15 years over the past three months, with the average home valued at £20,000 more than this time last year, according to Halifax.

Prices rose by 3.4% in the quarter to the end of November, which is the highest quarterly rate since late 2006 and brought the average price of a home to a record of £272,992. A shortage of properties on the market, a strong jobs market and competitive mortgage rates were all propping up prices, the lender said.

House prices rose for a fifth month by 1% in November and were 8.2% higher than the same time last year, when the average property cost 252,235. Both the monthly gain and the annual growth rate were the same increases as in October.

Wales remained the UK nation with the fastest house price growth, with annual inflation of 14.8% taking the average price of a home to more than £200,000 for the first time. Northern Ireland also continued to record double-digit annual growth, of 10%, and a typical property cost £169,348. In Scotland, the average price of £191,140 is the most expensive on record, as values rose 8.5% year on year.

European electricity prices are surging again today, with strong demand from chilly homes and offices.

Low wind speeds are forcing energy providers to burn more fossil fuels, points out Bloomberg’s Javier Blas:

Oil higher as omicron worries subside

The oil price has jumped this morning too, with Brent crude up almost 2% at $74.50 per barrel.

That’s its highest point in a week, as traders anticipate that Omicron will not have a severe impact on energy demand.

Brent crude oil price
Brent crude oil price Photograph: Refinitiv

Opec+’s decision last week to keep adding more oil to the market suggests it remains confident about demand, as Naeem Aslam of Think Markets explains:

Oil prices have also started to return to their upward trajectory as concerns regarding the Omicron variant subside. Because cases from the new strain seem to be mild, the likelihood of stricter controls and the execution of lockdowns seem to be minimal. Because of this, the future outlook for oil demand has returned to being positive while oil supply remains tight as economies recuperate from the rock bottom situation witnessed in 2020. The argument for a strong future outlook for oil demand is supported by Saudi Arabia’s, the biggest exporter of crude oil, decision to raise prices for crude oil and OPEC+’s judgment to stick to its plan of pumping 400,000 barrels a day into the markets in January as well.

Meanwhile, negotiations between the US and Iran have stalled once more, implying that markets should not expect Iran to pump any more oil anytime soon. Hence, in the short term, investors should very likely expect oil prices to keep on rising unless we see a sudden uptick in coronavirus cases.

The pan-European Stoxx 600 index has hit its highest level since the Omicron tumble over a week ago, up 1.4%.

Technology shares are leading the rally, with the sector up 3.1%. Miners are being lifted by hopes for China’s economy after the People’s Bank of China eased monetary policy yesterday, and firms imported more coal and metal last month.

Updated

Markets shake off Omicron worries

European stock markets have opened higher, as investor’s anxiety over the Omicron variant fades.

The jump in China’s imports in November has also eased concerns about the global economy, lifting stocks.

Britain’s FTSE 100 has jumped by 73 points, or 1%, to 7305 points, only slightly below its levels before Omicron sent markets plunging on 26th November.

The FTSE 100 over the last three months
The FTSE 100 over the last three months Photograph: Refinitiv

Plumbing and heating group Ferguson are leading the risers, up almost 5%, after telling that City that its expectations for this financial year have increased, after a strong performance.

Mining giants – a good gauge of economic optimism – are also rallying, with Anglo American up 3% and Rio Tinto up 2.7%.

Mark Haefele, Chief Investment Officer at UBS Global Wealth Management, says:

“Our base case is that the market focus will shift back toward the positive outlook for economic growth and earnings.

So we think investors should consider whether now is a good opportunity to add some of the winners from global growth that have been most negatively affected in recent days – including the Eurozone, Japan, energy, and financials.”

Updated

Omicron could pull house price inflation down next year.

Uncertainty over the Omicron variant could also cool UK house price inflation, if people become nervous about making major financial decisions.

Graham Cox, founder of the Bristol-based Self-Employed Mortgage Hub, suspects house price rises may reverse very soon.

For starters, the Bank of England meets on December 16th and could well raise interest rates to put a lid on soaring inflation. Throw in the uncertainty around Omicron and there’s every chance of a severe hit to consumer confidence. The property market of 2022 could be the polar opposite of 2021.”

Victoria Scholar, head of investment at interactive investor, also warns that the market could start to lose steam.

The housing market is no stranger to the inflationary pressures facing the UK economy with prices up more than £20,000 versus the same period last year. Despite concerns about a softening housing market after the stamp duty holiday ended, house prices have held up, underpinned by rock-bottom interest rates and a shortage of supply.

However, with a potential rise in interest rates and slowdown in economic activity, the housing market could start to cool with growth rates levelling off, particularly if Omicron or other COVID-19 variants weigh on economic output.”

The 1% jump in house prices in November suggests the market shrugged off the end of the stamp duty holiday in September.

But a rise in borrowing costs, perhaps this month or in February 2022, could cool demand.

Rob Peters, director of Altrincham-based Simple Fast Mortgage says the BoE interest rate decision on December 16th will set the tone for next year.

“First-time buyers looking to access the property market may get their Christmas wish early as the ridiculous rise in house prices finally starts to fade. We have already seen buyers’ interest tailing off now that thoughts are moving to festivities and plans for 2022, although the sparse availability of stock continues to support prices.

The proof will be in the December pudding when the Bank of England meets to decide whether to increase interest rates or not. With widespread predictions of an imminent increase to curb rising inflation, December will set the tone for how the property market enters 2022.”

UK house prices
UK house prices Photograph: Halifax

Wales has seen the fastest house price growth of any UK nation or region. Prices jumped 14.8% in the last year, taking the average price through the £200,000 barrier for the first time to £204,148.

Northern Ireland, South West England and North West England all recorded double-digit annual growth.

In London, though, annual inflation was just 1.1%, as the pandemic and the move to homeworking encouraged some people to move out of the capital.

UK house prices by region

UK housing market faces ‘greater uncertainty’

Halifax’s Russell Galley add that price inflation for flats (10.8%) outpaced detached properties (6.6%) in the last year, suggesting demand for larger, less central housing was fading.

This could suggest the ‘race for space’ is becoming less prominent than it was earlier in the pandemic, with industry data also showing the overall number of completed transactions has fallen back since the end of the Stamp Duty holiday.

But, Halifax doesn’t expect house prices to keep rising so fast, given the squeeze on households and possible increases in UK interest rates in the coming months.

Galley says:

Economic confidence may be also be dented by the emergence of the new Omicron virus variant, though it remains far too early to speculate on any long-term impact, given insufficient data at this stage, not to mention the resilience the housing market has already shown in challenging circumstances.

“Leaving aside the direct impact of a possible resurgence in the pandemic for now, we would not expect the current level of house price growth to be sustained next year given that house price to income ratios are already historically high, and household budgets are only likely to come under greater pressure in the coming months.”

Updated

UK house prices grow at fastest in 15 years in last quarter

British house prices grew at the fastest pace in 15 years over the past three months, as the property boom continues to run.

Mortgage lender Halifax has reported that prices rose by 3.4% in the last quarter, which is the highest quarterly rate seen since late 2006.

Prices jumped by 1% in November, which left house price 8.2% higher than a year ago — at a new record high of £272,992.

The average house price has now risen by over £20,000 since this time last year, according to Halifax’s data.

UK house price index

A shortage of properties, and the ‘race for space’ earlier in the pandemic have helped push up house prices since the first lockdowns lifted, with low mortgage rates also helping.

Russell Galley, managing director at Halifax, explains:

This is the fifth straight month that average house prices have risen, with typical values up by almost £13,000 since June, and more than £20,000 since this time last year.

On a rolling quarterly basis the uptick in house prices was 3.4%, the strongest gain since the end of 2006, bringing the new average property price up to a record high of £272,992. Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, and the UK first entering lockdown, house prices have risen by £33,816, which equates to £1,691 per month.

The performance of the market continues to be underpinned by a shortage of available properties, a strong labour market and keen competition amongst mortgage providers keeping rates close to historic lows. Those taking their first step onto the property ladder are also playing an important role in driving activity, with annual house price inflation for first-time buyers at 9.1% compared to 8.8% for homemovers.

Updated

China’s policy makers moved to expand support for the nation’s economy today, as a property-market downturn threatens to hamper growth into next year.

My colleague Martin Farrer explains:

China’s politburo has signalled measures to kickstart the faltering economy as the crisis gripping the country’s debt-laden property sector continued to blight prospects for growth.

President Xi Jinping’s senior leadership committee rubber-stamped a plan from the central bank on Monday for more targeted lending to businesses and outlined support for the housing market.

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) said it would cut the reserves most banks must hold by 0.5 percentage points, releasing another 1.2tn yuan ($188bn) into the economy, the central bank said in a statement.

Leaders had also agreed to “promote the construction of affordable housing, support the commercial housing market and better meet the reasonable housing needs of buyers”, Xinhua state news agency said.

Introduction: China’s import surge cheers markets

Good morning, and welcome to our rolling coverage of the world economy, the financial markets, the eurozone and business.

There’s a risk-on mood in the markets today, after China’s exports and imports grew faster than expected in November.

China’s imports unexpectedly surged almost 32% year-on-year to about $254bn, as firms scrambled to restock depleted commodities like coal ahead of the holidays at the turn of the year.

Exports growth slowed, but was also stronger than forecast – up 22% to almost $326bn.

The data suggest that external demand surged ahead of the year-end holidays, and that domestic production picked up as China’s power crunch eased — just as the Evergrande crisis casts a shadow over the slowing property sector.

Adam Cole of RBC Capital Markets says the strong import growth is “a positive sign on the strength of domestic demand.”

Michelle Lam, greater China economist at Societe Generale SA in Hong Kong, says local stimulus measures also helped.

“Exports picked up in line with seasonality in November and suggest still pretty solid momentum in external demand.

“The surprise in import growth was driven by a rebound in commodity volume, probably reflecting improving infrastructure capex demand as local governments stepped up stimulus toward the turn of the year.”

Imports of metal and energy both soared, with coal imports at their highest level this year, natural gas imports the strongest since January, and crude purchases at a three-month high. Back in October, Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, called for “all-out” efforts to keep people warm this winter, in the global scramble for energy.

The news helped to boost stocks. Japan’s Nikkei is up 1.9%, while MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan has jumped 1.4%. It’s on track for its biggest jump in two months, after dropping to a one–year low on Monday.

European markets are set to open higher today, after a rally yesterday which saw the FTSE 100 gain 1.5%.

We also get new trade data from the US, and German factory output and investor confidence data.

The agenda

  • Today: Eurozone finance ministers hold an Ecofin meeting
  • 7am GMT: Halifax house price index for November
  • 7am GMT: German industrial output for October
  • 10am GMT: ZEW index of German economic sentiment
  • 1.30pm GMT: US trade balance for October

Updated

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US NEWS, World

Biden to hold call with Putin amid fears of Ukraine invasion – live

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Biden to hold call with Putin amid fears of Ukraine invasion – live” was written by Joan E Greve in Washington, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th December 2021 15.24 UTC

Meadows will stop cooperating with Capitol attack committee – reports

Mark Meadows, the former chief of staff to Donald Trump, reportedly plans to stop cooperating with the House select committee investigating the Capitol insurrection.

Meadows’ attorney, George Terwilliger, told Fox News, “We have made efforts over many weeks to reach an accommodation with the committee.”

Terwilliger claimed that Meadows was willing to appear before the committee and discuss matter that are not protected by executive privilege.

However, the panel’s leaders have indicated they wished to discuss issues where Donald Trump has attempted to claim executive privilege, after the lawmakers dismissed the legitimacy of the former president’s claims.

Meadows is expected to appear on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show tonight to discuss his decision.

Updated

The Biden administration is reportedly preparing for a potential evacuation of US citizens from Ukraine if Russia invades the country.

CNN reports:

The contingency planning is being led by the Pentagon, [half a dozen] sources said, and comes as the administration briefs Congress on how the US is preparing. In a ‘gloomy’ briefing to senators by senior State Department official Victoria Nuland on Monday night, Nuland outlined the tough sanctions package being prepared by the administration in response to a potential Russian attack, but acknowledged that the US’ options to deter an invasion are fairly limited, a person familiar with the briefing said.

It is still unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade, US officials stressed. But he has amassed enough forces, equipment and supplies near Ukraine’s borders that he could move to attack on very short notice.

Biden and Putin are scheduled to hold a virtual call starting in about five minutes, and that conversation may inform the Pentagon’s preparations for a potential evacuation. Stay tuned.

Before his virtual summit with Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden made a trip this morning to the World War II Memorial in Washington.

The president and his wife, Dr Jill Biden, laid a wreath at the memorial to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Joe Biden and Jill Biden visit the World War II Memorial on 80th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
Joe Biden and Jill Biden visit the World War II Memorial on 80th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/UPI/REX/Shutterstock

A swift reprisal package against Russia – including US troops and Patriot missiles stationed in the Baltics, the cutting off of Russia from the Swift banking payments system and reinstated sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – must be prepared now in case it invades Ukraine, the Latvian foreign minister has said.

The warning from Edgars Rinkēvičs comes as Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin prepare to hold talks about the growing tensions.

The US has said it would send reinforcements to Nato’s eastern flank in the event of an invasion, as well as imposing severe new economic measures against Russia.

With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops already gathered within striking distance of the borders, the situation is the worst it’s been since 2015, when Moscow staged a large-scale incursion into Ukraine, clandestinely sending tanks and artillery to encircle Ukrainian troops and compelling Kyiv to sign a peace agreement in Minsk that has since come close to collapse.

Biden to speak with Putin amid fears of Ukraine invasion

Greetings from Washington, live blog readers.

Joe Biden will hold a virtual call with Vladimir Putin today, amid intensifying concerns about the increased Russian troop presence along the country’s border with Ukraine.

The Guardian’s Julian Borger reports:

Biden goes into Tuesday’s virtual summit with Vladimir Putin, after days of close consultation with European allies on a joint response to an invasion of Ukraine, armed with a wide range of punitive measures at his disposal.

There would be increased military support for Kyiv and a bolstering of Nato’s eastern flank, but the primary focus would be on sanctions. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said they would include ‘high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from taking in the past’.

‘I think Biden will lay out in considerable detail what sanctions the US will undertake,’ said Anders Åslund, adjunct professor at the center for Eurasian, Russian and east European studies at Georgetown University. ‘There are very many tools that they have available.’

Previewing the summit yesterday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “It is an opportunity for the president to underscore, of course, US concerns with Russian military activities on the border with Ukraine and reaffirm the United States support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

The summit is set to get underway in the next hour. Stay tuned.

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Economy Finances, States, Telangana

After bifurcation Telangana is witnessing all round development, thanks to the visionary policies of Chief Minister KCR: Mohammed Mahmood Ali, Home Minister

Press Note 

Hyderabad:

 

Telangana  Home Minister Mohammed Mahmood Ali and  Rana Daggubati, film star and brand ambassador of Radha Smelters launched Radha TMT 550D LRF TMT Bars in a specially organized function held at HICC on Monday night.

Radha TMT 550D LRF is a unique brand.

Before bifurcation, Telangana state witnessed poor growth due to poor infrastructure.  Now it is witnessing all-round growth, thanks to the visionary development policies of Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, Mr. Mohammed Mahmood Ali said.

“The state laid down a red corporate welcome to all the industries, he added. The future for the real estate industry in the state is very bright,” he added.

“Change is common. There is so much change happening around us. But, my association with Radha Smelters is very long. It is my longest ever endorsement with it since the year 2017. It is a passionately driven company by a very progressive and committed family, said Rana Daggubati.

The new product range of 550D LRF (Ladle Refining Furnace) TMT (Thermo Mechanically Treated) Bars is produced through LRF Route. It is the first of its kind product produced by any steel company in South India.  The product has higher ductility and tensile strength ideal for critical infrastructure projects and high-rise buildings.

With this new product launch and manufacturing capabilities, Radha TMT joins an elite group of large steel-producing companies like SAIL, JSPL, JSW, and TATA.

Hyderabad soon is going to be the city of skyscrapers. Forty to 50 new sky-scraper projects/apartments of 30 to 40 floors were announced in the last six months by several builders. This augurs well for the newly launched product besides many irrigation, infrastructure projects coming up in the state, stated Akshat Saraf, Director of Radha Smelters.

Radha Smelters is a Hyderabad-based leading brand in South India in TMT bars. It has 60 years of legacy in producing high-quality steel bars. A family-run business, it is being run by the third generation.

The company aims to enhance its capacity from the current 0.4mn tonnes per annum to 1 mn tonnes by the year 2025. It plans to invest Rs 75 to 100 crore in building additional capacity.

Higher ductility and tensile strength is the hallmark of this new range. The new range bars are considered ideal for critical infrastructure projects and high-rise buildings.

There are many grades in steel bars, 550D is a superior grade steel bar with high ductility. It is a special grade bar that only a handful of companies in India are able to manufacture. This grade is used for high rises and for bridges, dams, ports, flyovers, bridges, wind turbine foundations, and other structures that require a high load-bearing capacity.

550D grade TMT bars are preferred for some specific properties that are resistant to earthquakes. These bars are resistant to earthquakes due to their soft pearlite core and can bear seismic and dynamic loading.

The company aims at a sales of 1,500 crores in the FY 22-23.

The turnover of the company for FY 2020-21 was Rs. 530 crores and for FY 2021-22 will be Rs. 1000 crores.

 

Media Contact: Solus Media, D. Ramchandram, Mobile: 9848042020

 

 

 

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US NEWS, World

China attacks US diplomatic boycott of Winter Games as ‘travesty’ of Olympic spirit

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “China attacks US diplomatic boycott of Winter Games as ‘travesty’ of Olympic spirit” was written by Helen Davidson, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th December 2021 02.49 UTC

China has reacted angrily to the US government’s diplomatic boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics, as more countries said they would consider joining the protest over Beijing’s human rights record and New Zealand announced it would not send representatives to the Games.

Chinese officials dismissed Washington’s boycott as a “posturing and political manipulation” and tried to discredit the decision by claiming that US diplomats had not even been invited to Beijing in the first place.

The White House confirmed on Monday that it would not send any official or diplomatic representatives to the Winter Games and Paralympics in February, “given the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses”.

“The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “We will be behind them 100% as we cheer them on from home. We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games.”

On Tuesday, New Zealand’s deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, confirmed the country would not send diplomatic representatives at a ministerial level. Robertson cited Covid-19 as the primary reason “but we’ve made clear to China on numerous occasions our concerns about human rights issues”, he said.

The UK, Canada, and Australia have said they were considering their positions. Last week, Lithuania, which is facing trade and diplomatic hostilities from China over its growing relationship with Taiwan, announced neither its president nor ministers would attend the Games.

Chinese officials responded to the US announcement with outrage and also pre-emptive dismissal. Liu Xiaoming, the former Chinese ambassador to the UK, said the Olympics were “not a stage for political posturing and manipulation”.

“US politicians keep hyping a ‘diplomatic boycott’ without even being invited to the Games. This wishful thinking and pure grandstanding is aimed at political manipulation,” he said.

“It is a grave travesty of the spirit of the Olympic Charter, a blatant political provocation and a serious affront to the 1.4 billion Chinese people. It will only make the Chinese people and the world see clearly US politicians’ anti-China nature and hypocrisy.”

Liu’s tweets mirrored the language of several other Chinese officials before and after the announcement.

China’s embassy in Washington dismissed the boycott as “a pretentious act” and a “political manipulation”.

Earlier on Monday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, accused Washington of “hyping a ‘diplomatic boycott’ without even being invited to the Games”, and threatened unspecified “resolute countermeasures” if a boycott was announced.

A US boycott had the support of senior legislators including Republican Mitt Romney and the Democrat Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

Boycott calls have intensified in recent months, as dozens of world governments mull how to respond to Beijing’s continued crackdown on ethnic minorities in China, its intervention on Hong Kong, and other human rights issues. Demands have further escalated over the case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who was not seen for almost three weeks after posting to social media an accusation of sexual assault against Chinese former vice-premier. She was later shown on state media to be in Beijing, but there remain widespread concerns about her wellbeing and level of freedom.

Rights groups welcomed the US announcement and called for other governments to follow suit.

Mark Clifford, the president of the UK-based advocacy group Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, said global leaders had been “shown the way” by the US.

“Work with the US and Lithuania and take up the only morally justifiable course of action by implementing diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing – or accept that you are endorsing some of the most horrific abuses inflicted upon a population by their own government in modern times,” he said.

The last time the US staged an Olympics boycott was the 1980 Moscow games, alongside 64 other countries and territories in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.

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Corona Virus, Health

Covid news live: Omicron likely to become dominant variant, Harvard researcher says; France to close nightclubs

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Covid news live: Omicron likely to become dominant variant, Harvard researcher says; France to close nightclubs” was written by Samantha Lock, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th December 2021 04.39 UTC

Los Angeles county is reporting a third case of the Omicron variant.

The individual is believed to have recently travelled from West Africa and is fully vaccinated, according to a statement from Los Angeles County Health.

The individual had mild symptoms and is self-isolating. Known close contacts are fully vaccinated and have tested negative.

“This latest case of the Omicron variant in Los Angeles County underscores how critical safety measures are while traveling,” said Dr Barbara Ferrer, Director of Public Health. “These requirements include a negative test before boarding your flight, wearing a mask, and not traveling while you are sick. Residents should also consider delaying travel until their and all of their traveling companions are fully vaccinated.”

A man walks past a drive-through Covid-19 testing centre on 6 December in Los Angeles, California.
A man walks past a drive-through Covid-19 testing centre on 6 December in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Updated

India has just released a Covid update with the latest numbers from the past 24 hours.

Another 6,822 new coronavirus cases have been recorded, the lowest figures in 558 days.

India’s active caseload currently stands at 95,014 and is the lowest in 554 days, according to a statement from the ministry of health.

Thailand hopes for sustainable post-Covid comeback

Thailand is hoping to make its idyllic Phi Phi islands a more sustainable model of tourism as the country reopens to visitors, Agence France-Presse reports.

Before the pandemic, Phi Phi National Marine Park attracted more than two million visitors a year and Maya Bay drew up to 6,000 people a day.

Tourists and noisy, polluting motorboats have had a huge impact on the area’s delicate ecology.

“The coral cover has decreased by more than 60% in just over 10 years,” says Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

Since the pandemic hit and visitor numbers dwindled to virtually nil, the entire archipelago was forced into convalescence and dozens of blacktip sharks, green turtles and hawksbill turtles have returned.

The government now says it wants to move on from Thailand’s history of hedonistic mass tourism, with Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn saying the focus would be on “high-end travellers, rather than a large number of visitors”.

Phi Phi national park chief Pramote Kaewnam says boats will no longer be allowed to moor near the beach and will instead drop tourists off at a jetty away from the cove. Tours will be limited to one hour, with a maximum of 300 people per tour.

“Maya Bay used to bring in up to $60,000 a day, but this huge income cannot be compared to the natural resources we have lost,” Pramote said.

Longtail boats wait at the pier on East Railay Beach in Krabi as the country prepares to welcome back visitors.
Longtail boats wait at the pier on East Railay Beach in Krabi as the country prepares to welcome back visitors. Photograph: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Updated

New York City mandates Covid vaccine for children

New York City has expanded its array of Covid-19 mandates on Monday, setting vaccine requirements for children as young as 5 years old. This is on top of the mandates required for all private employees we previously reported.

The most-populous US city set a 27 December as the deadline for all 184,000 businesses within its limits to make their employees show proof they have been vaccinated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

In addition, children 5 to 11 years old must get at least one dose by 14 December and those 12 and older need to be fully vaccinated by 27 December to enter restaurants and participate in extracurricular school activities, such as sports, band and dances, Reuters reports.

“Vaccination is the way out of this pandemic, and these are bold, first-in-the-nation measures to encourage New Yorkers to keep themselves and their communities safe,” de Blasio, who leaves office next month, said in a statement.

New York City has expanded its array of Covid-19 mandates on Monday, setting vaccine requirements for children as young as 5 years old.
New York City has expanded its array of Covid-19 mandates on Monday, setting vaccine requirements for children as young as 5 years old. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

China has reported 94 new confirmed coronavirus cases for 6 December, up from 61 a day earlier, its health authority confirmed on Tuesday.

Of the new infections, 60 were locally transmitted, according to a statement by the National Health Commission as seen by Reuters, compared with 38 a day earlier.

The new local cases were reported by local authorities in Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Yunnan and Zhejiang.

China reported 14 new asymptomatic cases, which it classifies separately from confirmed cases, compared with 44 a day earlier.

There were no new deaths, leaving the death toll at 4,636. Mainland China has had 99,297 confirmed cases.

We have some more information on the new Covid restrictions taking effect in France.

A combination of vaccination booster shots and more rigorous social distancing is hoped to avoid renewed lockdowns or curfews, prime minister Jean Castex said on Monday.

From Friday, nightclubs will be shut for four weeks and citizens will be asked to voluntarily limit private and professional gatherings.

Requirements for mask-wearing in schools will also be tightened.

From 15 December, children aged five to 11 who are overweight or who have a serious health condition will be offered access to vaccination. Children over the age of 12 can already be inoculated.

“Vaccination will be open to 5-11 year olds overweight or suffering from a risk pathology from December 15,” a statement from the ministry of health reads.

Health minister Olivier Veran reiterated vaccination for “the most fragile children” will begin next week and vaccination to all children on 20 December 20.

Dutch hospitals welcome military support

The Netherlands is drafting in soldiers to support hospitals as Covid cases surge, Agence France-Presse reports.

The UMC Utrecht hospital has opened a second care unit which can take patients with Covid-19 from across the region and is being helped by 50 members of the military with medical backgrounds.

“What we are try to do here is to increase the amount of nursing beds that we have for Covid patients,” Martin van Dijk, a Dutch military aid coordinator, told AFP.

“By that, the military tries to support the Dutch hospitals to make sure that no hospital has to say no to a patient, basically.”

This is the second time that the military has been sent in to help at the hospital in the city in the central Netherlands, with the first time being from October 2020 to June this year.

Covid cases in the nation have soared to record levels of more than 20,000 a day in the country of 17 million people.

The Dutch government has warned that hospitals are overstretched, with 2,143 Covid patients in hospital, including 611 in intensive care, accounting for 59% of all ICU beds, according to the latest figures.

Nurses treat a Covid patient at the Van Weel-Bethesda Hospital in the Netherlands as the country welcomes soldiers from the Dutch military.
Nurses treat a Covid patient at the Van Weel-Bethesda Hospital in the Netherlands as the country welcomes soldiers from the Dutch military. Photograph: Robin Utrecht/REX/Shutterstock

Updated

France to shut nightclubs over Covid surge

Nightclubs in France will be ordered to close for four weeks from Friday to counter a Covid surge that has put hospitals under strain, the prime minister said on Monday.

“We will close the nightclubs for the next four weeks. This measure will apply from next Friday until the beginning of January,” Jean Castex, who emerged from quarantine last week after contracting the virus, said.

“We have all had a tendency to lower our guard” in recent weeks, he added.

“The situation demands an individual as well as a collective effort,” Castex said in a televised address.

A raft of new measures will be coming into force according to a statement from the ministry of health.

France has confirmed only 25 cases of the new Omicron variant but officials say the number could jump significantly in the coming weeks.

On Sunday, the health ministry reported more than 42,000 cases in the previous 24 hours, and more than 11,000 patients in hospital – the highest number since August – with 2,000 in intensive care.

Nightclubs in France will be ordered to close for four weeks from Friday to counter a Covid surge.
Nightclubs in France will be ordered to close for four weeks from Friday to counter a Covid surge. Photograph: Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

Hello and welcome back to our coronavirus live blog.

I’m Samantha Lock and I’ll be taking you through all the latest Covid developments as they happen.

A leading infectious diseases specialist who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School believes the world is seeing “what appears to be a signal of exponential increase of Omicron over Delta.”

“It’s still early days, but increasingly, data is starting to trickle in, suggesting that Omicron is likely to outcompete Delta in many, if not all, places,” Dr Jacob Lemieux said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Others say it’s too soon to know how likely it is that Omicron will spread more efficiently than Delta, or, if it does, how fast it might take over.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty … but when you put the early data together, you start to see a consistent picture emerge: that Omicron is already here, and based on what we’ve observed in South Africa, it’s likely to become the dominant strain in the coming weeks and months and will likely cause a surge in case numbers,” Lemieux added.

Meanwhile, nightclubs in France will be ordered to close for four weeks from Friday to counter a Covid surge that has put hospitals under strain.

Here’s everything you might have missed over the past few hours:

  • New Covid restrictions are to be introduced in Norway after a recent increase in infections.
  • Britain’s health minister said there is now community transmission of the Omicron variant across regions of England.
  • The Czech government will order Covid-19 vaccinations for people working in hospitals and nursing homes as well as police officers, soldiers and some other professions and all citizens aged 60 and older.
  • A new range of pandemic restrictions will be imposed in Poland this week.
  • Italy tightened restrictions on people still not vaccinated, limiting their access to an array of places and services.
  • Children in the Philippines’ capital Manila returned to school after a near two-year suspension.
  • India’s cases of the Omicron variant rose to 21 over the weekend, officials said, while Nepal and Thailand detected their first cases.
  • South Africa is preparing hospitals for more admissions, as the Omicron variant pushes the country into a fourth wave of infections.
  • Austria’s general lockdown will end on 11 December for those who have been vaccinated.
  • All private employers in New York City will have to mandate Covid-19 vaccinations for their workers.

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